« March 2009 | Blog Home Page | May 2009 »

April 30, 2009

Massacre in Baku, Azerbaijan

During early morning on Thursday, April 30, an assailant opened fire in one of the buildings of the Azerbaijan Oil Academy, located in Baku. According to local news, it all began with a dispute that broke out between students at the building: one of the participants in the debate took out a pistol and began firing at opponents, and then ran into the Academy and continued shooting at the students inside. As a result, 12 people were killed, including the assailant, and another 10 wounded.

Azerbaijan Ministry of Health has published a complete list of those killed at the Academy. According to this document, the attacker killed 12 people. All of them were citizens of Azerbaijan, the eldest of whom was born in 1940, the youngest - in 1990.

According to the Azerbaijan authorities, the assailant was a citizen of Georgia, Mr. Gadirov Ferdi Asad oglu, born in 1980. Previously, the media have repeatedly reported that the killer could be an Azerbaijani with Georgian citizenship. Ministry of Internal Affairs of Azerbaijan has confirmed the information that the killer committed suicide. The authorities are saying that revenge against the school was the likely motive for the killings - the victims include several professors and Vice-Rector of the Academy.

Recession Not Hurting Global Connectivity

A new report (pdf) from the research firm Telegeography notes that despite the downturn, global bandwidth is enjoying a boom:

International bandwidth demand growth has actually accelerated over the past two years, reaching 65 percent in 2007 and 64 percent in 2008. Demand growth has been strongest on links to African, Asian, Latin American, and Middle Eastern countries, which experienced compound annual growth rates in excess of 69 percent between 2002 and 2008.

They go on to note that 41 submarine cables to carry voice, Internet and private network data across oceans will be built between now and 2011, more than was built during the dot-com era bubble.


Photo credit: AP Photo

April 29, 2009

How Important is Af-Pak?

The Center for Strategic & International Studies' Anthony Cordesman has a new report out arguing that the Obama administration has to keep the Af-Pak conflict in proper perspective:

...US strategy must accept the fact that this is a limited war fought for limited objectives where the cost can exceed its value. The US cannot afford to become overcommitted to either Afghanistan or Pakistan. Its strategy must consider options that limit future US commitments and that focus on containment – undesirable as those options may seem. The US may well be able to win – particularly if the Afghan and Pakistani governments become more effective partners – but it cannot let a limited war fought for limited purposes become the central focus of its strategy and actions – even at the regional level.

Part of the problem with the whole "central front in the war on terror" language - which both Republicans and Democrats indulged in - is that it created the expectation that we'd fight a set piece battle with radicalism, and then move on. Unfortunately, it's not going to work that way. Instead, it's turned into a question of how much we care to invest in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq and to what degree this investment is going to stem the broader tide of radicalism.
An Afghan police man stands guard as his colleague, rear, guides vehicles at a police check post on 17th anniversary of guerrilla fighters over the Soviet-backed Communist regime in Kabul, Afghanistan on Tuesday, April 28, 2009. Photo credit: AP Photo.

The Alluring, Enduring Myth of Energy Independence


One of the more frustrating things about the discussion of energy consumption in the U.S. is the persistent myth that we can leverage technology to achieve self-sufficiency. If only we invested more at home, the thinking goes, we could be done with the world and its nasty dictators. It's a useful fiction but it is a fiction, as nicely demonstrated by this NewsHour report on Bolivia's lithium reserves.

According to the report, Bolivia has 70 to 80 percent of the world's lithium reserves. Lithium is a crucial raw material for long-life batteries - not just for gadgets like cell phones or digital cameras, but for the many electric cars we're promising to make (or buy) to free us from our dependency on oil. In this idealized future, we'd swap dependence on Saudi Arabia, Russia and Venezuela for... dependence on Bolivia. Not necessarily a bad trade, in my book, but not exactly liberating.

If we're about to enter a boom era for electric cars, than Bolivia's international clout will grow considerably. And, of course, Bolivia is run by Evo Morales who's tendency to nationalize industry and buddy up with Hugo Chavez hasn't won him many fans in Washington.

The point isn't that we shouldn't use lithium batteries, but that self-sufficiency is a mirage. In fact, according to the author Robert Bryce, the U.S. is 100 percent dependent on 18 strategic minerals (bauxite, manganese, alumina, etc.).

Hat tip: Boing Boing.

Bolivia's President Evo Morales, right, shakes hands with his Vice President Alvaro Garcial Linera as Morales holds up a law approved by Congress in La Paz, Tuesday, April 14, 2009. Credit: AP Photo

Tracking Global Generosity

The Hudson Institute has published its annual Index of Global Philanthropy:

This year's Index shows that philanthropy from all developed to developing countries increased to $49 billion in 2007 (latest available data). Despite the loss of assets in 2008, giving abroad by foundations, corporations, charities, churches, and individuals is not expected to take a sharp downward turn in 2009, according to Index analysis. Remittances—money sent from migrants living in developed countries back to their families and towns in the developing world—may be the most recession- resilient means to help alleviate poverty in underdeveloped countries. This $145 billion sent back home exceeds government aid from developed countries, which totals $103.5 billion. Even with the economic downturn, remittances grew 9 percent in 2008 and are expected to decline by less than 10 percent in 2009.

...U.S. private philanthropy, larger than ever, totaled $36.9 billion, over one and one-half times larger than official aid for this same period. When remittances are added to private philanthropy, the combined total—$115.9 billion—is more than five times official aid of $21.8 billion.

Here's a snapshot of the data:


April 28, 2009

Russia Scores Two, But Not Hugo

Russian defense exports have recently scored two major deals, further advancing Russian military technology around the world in new and familiar markets. Turkey has recently decided to purchase Russia's latest and most advanced air defense system, the S-400. Anatoly Aksyonov, the official representative of the "Rosoboronexport," Russia's official arms export agency, confirmed Turkey's intention during the ongoing international military exhibition in Istanbul: "Turkey has expressed strong desire to acquire the S-400 missile systems from Russia, and this issue was discussed during the talks with Murat Bayarom, Minister of National Defense of Turkey." Russia has so far beaten the competition from the US, China and Israel, which offered, respectively, Patriot, HQ-9 (FD-2000) and Arrow defense systems. The estimated cost of Turkey's purchase of such defense systems ranges from $1 to $4 billion.

Russia's "Rosoboronexport" also recently announced that it will be building six "Kilo" diesel-electric submarines for the Vietnamese Navy, to the tune of approximately $1.8 billion. The official negotiations between Moscow and Ho Chi Min City started a year ago. Vietnam has already purchased various weapons from Russia - in 2001-2002, Russian defense enterprises received orders to build eight gunboats, two frigates, and onshore anti-missile system for the Vietnamese military. "Kilo" submarine - or "Project 636" - is one of the quietest submarines in the world. It is designed to perform a wide range of tasks, including the destruction of enemy submarines and surface ships, protection of naval bases and communications, and gathering intelligence.

Until recently it was thought that the most likely buyer of these Russian "Kilo" submarines would be Venezuela, whose negotiations with the "Rosoboronexport" started in 2007. Back then, Venezuelan Navy announced that the country needed Russian subs to control its off-shore oil production regions. But gradually, talks with Venezuela got nowhere - the original order went form nine submarines to just six to just three or four. Yet the final nail in the coffin of this deal was hammered by none other but Hugo Chavez himself, who offered to shake US President Obama's hand at the April summit of the Organization of American States. Russians must have construed Chavez's behavior as reneging on his earlier pledges to arm his country against "American aggression" and the submarine contract with Venezuela was canceled in favor of Vietnam.

Bolivia: Evo, the Marxist-Leninist


Evo Morales has declared himself a Marxist-Leninist, during an interview with Argentinian daily Clarín saying that that is no reason for a country to be expelled from the Organization of American States, as Cuba was:

“No se puede entender que por motivos ideológicos alguien sea expulsado de la OEA. Yo también soy marxista-leninista ¿y qué, me van a expulsar?”, subrayó Morales al diario Clarín, de Buenos Aires.
(my translation:) "One can not understand that anyone would be expelled from the OAS for ideological reasons. I am a Marxist-Leninist, too, so what? Are they going to expel me?"
Cuba was suspended from participation in the OAS in 1962. Through the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, the OAS has repeatedly condemned the human rights situation in Cuba, urging the release of political prisoners.

Speaking of Iran...

As readers of this blog may have noticed, I tend to go on a bit about the Islamic Republic of Iran. The country -- its internal political makeup, its asymmetric scheming throughout the region, as well as its wonderful and rich culture -- has become an intellectual passion of mine.

That's why I was pleased today to discover the American Enterprise Institute's new IranTracker. The site has several useful tools, and is a good resource for experts and novices alike. They offer backgrounders on Iran's history, government and military.

For the more advanced Iranophiles, they have focused essays and analysis on an array of different topics concerning the country.

Check it out.

Russian Military Reforms Axe Generals and Colonels

Russian military reforms, launched by the new Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdykov, continue to rock the entrenched Russian military establishment. As a result of recent surprise appraisals conducted in the Armed Forces, 50 generals and colonels will be dismissed form active duty. All together, 249 senior military officers were subjected to such appraisals. According to the decision of the Central Evaluation Commission, only 66 of them will remain at their current posts, with 133 people to be transferred to other posts or to similar positions in other regions. The rest are awaiting their dismissal.

To date, 85% of officers and 79% of warrant officers have undergone similar "unplanned" appraisals, with complete results of the testing to be released later. The current military reforms in the Russian military include a reduction of approximately 250,000 officers from active-duty ranks. Following the reforms, many military positions will be taken up by civilian specialists. The total number of the Russian armed forces will be reduced from 1.2 to 1 million people.

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan?

I believe Arnaud de Borchgrave is stretching things a bit to make an Iran-Pakistan parallel fit. Apparently, both countries have Muslim majorities, and both have sub-sections in their respective states that bear grievances and radical intentions.

This isn't much to work with.

The topic makes for an interesting research paper, but strikes me as a little tough to pull off in one op-ed. In short, Iran's problems came in large part from a state that tried to repress, censor and isolate the religious fervor sweeping the nation. Ayatollah Khomeini did most of his preaching in exile, while his recordings became the equivalent of underground mix tapes throughout Iran. Much of Tehran and the other urban centers were suffering, so it's said, from "Westoxification"; an influx of American products, pop culture and citizens.

Religious persecution doesn't seem to be fueling the chaos in Pakistan, as far as I can tell. The government has seemingly accepted the fact that parts of the country will remain autonomous, and more specifically, Islamic. Iran certainly has its own semi-autonomous regions, but not to the extent we've seen in Pakistan.

The nuclear question of course looms over Pakistan's stability, making this topic all the more intriguing. I think one could argue on behalf of an Iran model in Pakistan: a mostly cohesive and contained state with ambitions to be a regional and global player. This certainly isn't ideal, but it's definitely preferable to a failed state with nuclear weapons.

Saberi and Strategy

Over at Commentary Magazine's Contentions Blog, Jennifer Rubin writes:

To repeat, Saberi is an American citizen. While “engaging” Iran and glad-handing Hugo Chavez the president would do well to keep in mind Saberi and non-Americans in similar situations whose courage demands our respect and support.

I'm not really sure what Hugo Chavez has to do with the troubling imprisonment of Roxana Saberi, nor do I fully understand Ms. Rubin's conclusion. The administration has repeatedly called for Saberi's release, and the Swiss have served as our intermediary on the matter.

What more should be done? Would it be good policy for the United States to completely alter a regional strategy over one political prisoner? Our allies the Israelis certainly don't believe so, as they made sure to publicly protest the Swiss-Iranian meeting regarding Saberi. They acted consistently with their own Iran policy, as should we.

Removing Pakistan's Nukes

Over the course of an interesting post explaining why Pakistan is not on the cusp of a Taliban takeover, Juan Cole starts speculating:

What I see is a Washington that is uncomfortable with anything like democracy and civilian rule in Pakistan; which seems not to realize that the Pakistani Taliban are a small, poorly armed fringe of Pushtuns, who are a minority; and I suspect US policy-makers of secretly desiring to find some pretext for removing Pakistan's nuclear capacity.

I don't think it's much of a secret that many in Washington wish Pakistan didn't have nukes. But I find it difficult to believe they'd view the collapse of Pakistan into total anarchy as a pretext for anything other than a collective freak out.

April 27, 2009

American Promises


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took questions in a town hall style meeting in Iraq this weekend. Full transcript here.

This exchange was notable:

QUESTION: William Worda (ph), activist in media and human rights. Following the situation in United State, we know that the new Administration in – of USA now engaged in the internal issues, especially economy. And it’s – looks like to us that the situation of Iraq is not so important or it’s not in the same level of importance for the new Administration.

I would like to ask whether this policy is a kind of reprieve or a kind of making another policy different for Iraq?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Let me assure you and repeat what President Obama said. We are committed to Iraq. We want to see a stable, sovereign, self-reliant Iraq. But we know we’re coming into office when there is a transition underway. The prior administration agreed to withdraw our troops and we support that. We want to do it in a responsible and careful way. And we also want to expand our work with the people and Government of Iraq in other areas of concern to help the government, to help the rule of law, to help the civil society. And so we are very committed, but the nature of our commitment may look somewhat different because we’re going to be withdrawing our combat troops over the next few years.

It seems to me that this position is only tenable insofar as the security situation in Iraq does not deteriorate substantially. What happens if, after the Iraqi elections are held and the U.S. begins to make good on withdrawal pledges, the security situation inside Iraq worsens?

The Obama administration has promised the American people that it will draw down U.S. combat troops from Iraq. They have, in the person of Secretary Clinton, just promised the Iraqis that we are committed to a "stable, sovereign, self-reliant" Iraq. These two promises can only be fulfilled if no large scale or sustained outbreaks of violence occur.

It's possible that the administration can keep both those promises. It's also possible that the time will come when they'll have to break faith with one of them. In such an instance, it would be useful to know which they value more: withdrawing troops or maintaining a stable Iraq.

State Department photo: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a Town Hall meeting in Baghdad, Iraq.

April 26, 2009

Paraguay's Prolific Padre

The Latin American front page story on the international media last week? Fernando Lugo's paternity suits.

Every news outlet, from Le Monde to O Globo carried the story: Lugo publicly asked for forgiveness in having sired a child with Viviana Carrillo, age 26. The child is now nearly two years old. Following her suit, Lugo accepted paternity and the child now bears his last name.

According to court records, the affair with Carrillo started when she was sixteen years old and he was bishop of San Pedro while he sometimes stayed at the home of her godmother, where she lived. Bishop Ignacio Gogorza of Encarnación revealed that Lugo had administered the sacrament of Confirmation to Carrillo. The court papers state their relationship was already in progress.

In his apology, Lugo stated (my translation),

"I am a human being, and therefore nothing human is alien to me."
Whether Lugo was trying to be erudite or inadvertently humorous I am not sure, since it is almost a direct quote from Terence (ca. 190-160 BC),
Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.
Humorous because in Spanish a puto can mean a very promiscuous man. He probably doesn't expect that many would be in on the pun, after all, how many people can recognize a quote in Latin, aside from high-level Catholic clergy, and those, as Hans Gruber said, with the benefits of a Classical education?

Promiscuous? That appears to be the case with Lugo, who until last year was still subject to a vow of chastity, which he clearly ignored.

Lugo resigned from the priesthood in 2006, but the Catholic Church did not release him from his vows until July 2008.

Even now Lugo is not above using religious imagery, wearing to his apology a suit that looks a lot like a cassock along with a white clerical collar, as you can see here:


While Lugo referred to the Carrillo paternity case, he did not mention two other women who have come forward claiming that Lugo is the father of their children. Damiana Moran Amarilla, age 39, came forward this week and said that Lugo is her "ideal man" and that he's the father of her sixteen-month old son Juan Pablo, named after Pope John Paul II. Moran says she will not ask for child support. She also alleged he had fathered at least six children in total with other women.

However, Benigna Leguizamón, now age 27, has sued Lugo for paternity of her son, now age six. Benigna Leguizamón, a poor indigenous woman who started to work for Lugo as his cleaning lady when she was in her teens, stated in a televised interview that Lugo, once her son was born and he was about to baptize the baby, refused to give her money to purchase a Christening outfit, saying "I have no money for that." Lugo said he's willing to provide a DNA sample to a private laboratory but Leguizamón insists that the testing be done through the courts.

At least that's a sign that Lugo does not control the Paraguayan judiciary.

The president's office apparently has also established a special team to deal with the legal cases (in plural) that might emerge around this subject. The Paraguayan Minister for Children, Liz Torres, and the Minister for Women, Gloria Rubin, denied the existence of a joint commission for aiding the women who may have paternity claims against Lugo, all the while saying that he's a great guy.

How many paternity claims? That's a good question. Bishop Rogelio Livieres stated on Tuesday that the Church knew of two paternity claims from letters by two women who wrote before Lugo's 2004 resignation as Bishop:

Bishop Livieres said the church allowed Mr. Lugo to resign without making the complaints public, easing his bid for the presidency. The Paraguayan bishops’ conference wrote in a statement that it had never received “formal written complaints” from women about Mr. Lugo, and that it rejected the claim that the church covered up immoral conduct.
Livieres said that back then Lugo admitted that it was "possible" the children were his.

To add to the scandal, Lugo's brother Pompeyo, in another interview denied rumors that Lugo had consorted with an Argentinian chorus girl while on a flight between the two countries. Instead, Pompeyo Lugo said that "all that happened was that the cabin depressurized and he [Fernando] needed oxygen." Political satirist Jaime Bayly played Pompeyo's soundbite in his April 21 show, which you can listen (in Spanish) here.

Lugo says he will not resign. The Paraguayan government has stated that personal issues are not cause for an indictment trial. Reading from his written statement on Friday, Lugo said,

"When the truth will accompany us in full, you will see this president as a father willing to multiply affection and cares."
At least there were no puns in Latin - to the best of my knowledge - on that sentence.

Lugo's political opposition regrets that Paraguay is in the hands of not only a man of dubious morals (at best), but a leftist with no concrete ideas on how to run the country and who came to power under the mirage that he was a man of noble ideas who had moved politically to the center.

In the meantime, the media's having a field day with gossip, songs, and sight gags like this one, where the row of babies looks up at "Our Father."


Chinese Sphere: Jackie Chan and Freedom

Jackie Chan speaks at the "Creative Asia" panel discussion in the Boao Forum (Source: Xinhua)

Action movie star Jackie Chan caused a stir in the Chinese-speaking world with his remarks at the China-hosted Boao Forum last week. During the “Creative Asia” panel discussion, Chan was asked a question related to the Chinese government’s restrictions on filmmaking. He responded with the following (a video of a portion of his remarks can be found here):

Recently I’ve felt that in these 10 years since Hong Kong returned [to China] – I grew up in Hong Kong, and from its return until today, I’ve slowly come to see – I don’t know whether it is good to have freedom, or is it good to not have freedom? I am really confused now. Too much freedom will create a situation like the way Hong Kong is today – very chaotic. Furthermore, it will create a situation like Taiwan – also very chaotic. I’ve slowly come to realize that we Chinese need to be controlled after all. [laughter and applause from the audience] Once control is gone and there is an opening up, we will end up doing whatever we want without restraint.

The foreign media has focused on the outrage sparked by Chan’s remarks in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Although the public mood in Hong Kong and Taiwan generally seems to be one of resentment and anger, there are also voices that are more sympathetic towards the actor. The nature of responses in the Chinese-language media seems to track how favorable an outlet is towards a greater Chinese identity in general and the Beijing government in particular.

For example, an editorial in the Wen Wei Po, a Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing newspaper, states:

It has become plain to everyone that Hong Kong’s Legislative Council has become increasingly “chaotic.” The latest poll from the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program reveals that 40% of the people are dissatisfied with councilors’ performance, a four-year high. What does this show? Shouldn’t this cause some self-reflection on the part of councilors who wear the halo of direct councilor elections and always talk about democracy and freedom?

An editorial in Ming Pao, one of the most respected newspapers in Hong Kong, takes the other position:

Jackie Chan actually has his own standard in mind when he equates Hong Kong and Taiwan’s freedom with chaos. He compares the situation in Hong Kong and Taiwan to mainland China. In his view, he definitely sees today’s mainland China as not chaotic and the ideal as Hong Kong and Taiwan being controlled in the same fashion as the mainland. Nevertheless, how many people’s basic rights have been eroded to bring about this semblance of order on the mainland? Is there true stability in a society that is controlled by the state machine? Or is there a ticking time bomb that lies beneath? Time will tell.

This has not been the first time Chan’s words have infuriated people in Taiwan. In 2004, after Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) incumbent Chen Shui-bian was re-elected to the presidency, Chan called the election “the biggest joke in the world.” (Chan has written a blog entry about his comments here.)

Regarding Chan’s most recent comments, the pro-Taiwan independence Liberty Times, one of the island’s leading papers, writes:

Taiwanese do not need to be controlled. For the past 400 years, no matter what people immigrated here for, in the end it was to leave behind poverty and authoritarianism and to become citizens of a free and prosperous nation. Chan’s utterances are like a millionaire asking whether having money is good, or not having money is good? What angers people is that he simply regards others as dregs of society. Beside his acting skills, Chan’s political views are not worthy of notice. However, the attention he is able to attract is far too much. Furthermore, the Boao Forum is a stage set up by China. His words must be very useful to Zhongnanhai [the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) headquarters]. Wasn’t that his intention?

Taiwan-based China Times, a pro-China newspaper, on the other hand, agrees with Chan:

Jackie Chan criticized Taiwan as “too free, so it’s very chaotic.” Blue and green legislators have joined together against a common enemy and held press conferences to retaliate. Regretfully, right after this rebuke of Chan, a few days later [KMT legislator] Lee Ching-hua scolded [DPP legislator] Chiu Yi-ying for being a “shrew” and not having a “proper upbringing.” Chiu responded by slapping Lee on the ear. Through broadcast television the images have been transmitted around the world, and they just happen to prove correct Chan’s criticism of Taiwan as “chaotic.”

In the Southern Metropolis Daily, one of China’s leading commercial newspapers, Nanjing University Chinese literature professor Jing Kaixuan writes:

Some people argue that the costs of a free society are too high in order to oppose freedom. Let us examine this argument for a moment. After 30 years of reform, there are still many problems in Chinese society, but it is clear to all that people’s lives have improved greatly. In comparison to political movements of the past few decades, the progress that has been made during the past 30 years has not come about due to less freedom, has it? Farmers are no longer bound to their land and can work in the cities; urban residents no longer are bound to their parents’ line of work and are able to freely choose their own profession. Civic awareness is increasing and people are more enthusiastic about protecting their rights. Although there is still risk in citizens criticizing the government, there are the beginnings of government officials who have publicly expressed gratitude to netizens who expose corruption and supervise those in power. Consequently, freedom does not necessarily bring about social harmony, but without freedom there definitely will be no social harmony.

Singapore also did not escape Chan’s pontifications:

I used to wonder when I went to Singapore why I wasn’t allowed to chew gum. Afterwards I realized that this policy was correct. If I let you chew gum, some people will stick that gum to tables chairs – they have absolutely no self-respect! Many people are unlike those in America or Japan where they naturally have self-respect. If you don’t have self-respect, the government will control you.

An article in the Shin Min Daily, Singapore’s second-largest Chinese newspaper, states:

Many people here are not pleased with Jackie Chan’s “chewing gum” remarks and they hope that he can respect our nation’s rule of law. The people feel that Chan does not have a deep understanding of our culture or rule of law, and so he should not exceed his boundaries and make baseless remarks.

Chan has insisted that his remarks were taken out of context. Some think that with his latest movie, Shinjuku Incident, being banned in China for its violence, Chan’s remarks were an attempt to ingratiate himself with the authorities. Regardless of his intended meaning or motivation, the tremendous backlash sparked by his words reveals significant opposition to the CCP preference for paternalistic authoritarian rule.

Russia: Georgia and Its 'Potato President'

Russian media is continuing to actively cover anti-government protests taking place in neighboring Georgia. The opposition is currently picketing all across Tbilisi, the country's capital, with many people camping out on the streets in spite of government pleas. Moreover, many opposition groups have erected make-shift "jail cells", with people staying "behind bars" as a protest against government policies that they see as repressive.

On Thursday, several women from pro-Saaksashvili's "National Movement" party forced their way onto the opposition and cut the plastic covering such makeshift "jail cells" with large kitchen knives. According to the daily "Izvestia", the opposition did not resist such action from the "attackers"- who included Georgian refugees from Abkhazia in their ranks. The newspaper reported of the possibility of a real and serious clash between pro- and anti-government forces - "on the streets surrounding the central square, there stood a groups of intimidating looking men. Pro-Saakashvili's knife-wielding women - who receive unrecorded salaries for their work - were more than defiant. One of them even sought to clear the central Rustaveli Avenue of this "rural population, these cells and debris." Others called for new opposition arrivals from the provinces to return home, telling them not to pollute Tbilisi but to plow and sow in their villages. As always, the police did not intervene in the proceedings. Pro-Saaksahvili's people left as soon as the opposition leaders appeared on the square."

This stand-off shows no signs of abating. "Ivestia" further reports that "People no longer have fear in them - they do not pay attention to any restrictions, nor to the the machinations of the Tbilisi City Hall. And the City hall is trying to complicate the picketer's life to the maximum - there is no garbage collection, and there are no biotoilets available. However, opposition returns the favor - on Thursday, they cleaned "their part" of Rustaveli Avenue, Liberty Square, the Presidential Residence and the government areas, and brought all refuse and garbage to the main entrance of City Hall."

Meanwhile, President Mikhail Saakashvili is trying to show that there is nothing happening in the country. He recently held a meeting of government to discuss potato harvest, thus earning yet another nickname form the opposition - "Potato President." His "right hand", the Speaker of Parliament David Bakradze, stated that the issue of early presidential and parliamentary elections was not even considered.

The situation in Georgia is getting worse, though the government is seeking to maintain some form of dialogue with the opposition. Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze confirmed that the President of Georgia is not going to resign: "This is wrong and unrealistic." Baramidze further stated that since the war with Russia is still in progress, it is inadequate and unduly under such conditions to demand the resignation of the president. Moreover, according to the Deputy Prime Minister, "if the country's internal political situation will worsen, Russia will send its troops to protect the population."

According to the local Georgian media, Saakashvili himself, in anticipation of Russian tanks, planes and soldiers, is still preparing to leave the country. Local correspondent of the newspaper "Alia" witnessed the setting out to sea two ships from the port of Batumi, with locals saying that Georgian President's personal belongings are loaded on these ships, along with the property of his family.

Russian military, meanwhile, is still reviewing its action against Georgia in August 2008, seeking to draw lessons for future applications. According to Valdimir Babak - Chief Designer of the "Sukhoi Aircraft Design Bureau", the maker of Russia's mainstay Sukhoi line of fighter-bombers- one of the main successes was the action by Su-25SM fighter-bomber against Georgain targets. The aircraft itself was developed during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, in order to target hard-to-reach and easy-to-hide mountain targets. Babak clarifies: "Russian Air Force had to counter a very serious, well prepared, organized and skilled opponent. Georgia has established a very modern and updated air defense system, incorporating almost the entire range of available Soviet systems of the late 1980s, with high-tech "brains" from the United States, Israel and Ukraine. As a result, our aircraft opposed powerful land-based groups that operated well, smoothly and skillfully. Our action in Georgia was baptism by fire for the Su-25 SM attack plane. It had a better sight-navigation system, and in carrying out battlefield sorties, these machines led other, non-modernized Su-25 planes into battle, accomplishing all the tasks in their air assault against the opponent." Babak's general conclusion was that for future action against targets in the mountaneous areas, no aircraft system can perform better than Su-25 variant. In an ironic twist of fate, in Soviet times, many Su-25 fighter-bombers were produced in Georgia. After the break-up of the USSR, Georgia tried to compete with Russia in aircraft export by offering its version of the same Su-25 aircraft, fitted with Israeli avionics, calling it "Scorpion." There is some evidence that these "twin" Russian and Georgian aircraft battled against each other last August, but Georgia chose not to field large numbers of their planes against Russian opponents.

Meanwhile, Russians are convinced that most people around the world consider their country a "force of good." International polling company GlobeScan shows that in the opinion of 82% of all Russians, Moscow has a positive impact on the world. Russian people therefore are convinced that their country's image around the world was unaffected by its gas conflict with Ukraine, the threat of deployment of missile systems in Kaliningrad, and even the invasion of Russian troops on Georgian territory and the war in South Ossetia. Only 28% of Russians believe that Russia's image was hurt by the war with Georgia, and only 24% thought that their country's image was influenced by a conflict with Ukraine. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov chose to comment on these results: "The fact that two-thirds of Russians appreciated the role of our country in the international arena shows that the foreign policy of Russia has broad consensus in society, and confirms the correctness of the chosen independent foreign policy by the government."

However, another poll by GlobeScan shows how mistaken Russians can be about their country - 42% of residents of 20 countries felt that Russia has negative impact internationally, with only 30% of respondents having the opposite opinion. According to this poll, US, UK, Canada, France, Japan, Brazil, India, South Africa and China all have a better global image than Russia.

Mexico: National Security and Human Rights

In a week that has been dominated in the United States by talk of CIA interrogations and declassified photos of torture, much of the same conversations have been circulating in Mexico (that is, until the outbreak of swine flu in Mexico City in the last couple of days which now is the leading story). Except in Mexico, the debate has been focused on the military which is increasingly being used to try bring security back to Mexico.

A report issued in March by Mexico’s National Audit Office declared that more than half of Mexico’s municipal police officers are not qualified to effectively carry out their duties. Furthermore, the police are seen by the general public as highly corrupt in contrast to the more respected military. As a result, President Calderon’s fight against the drug cartels has been led by the military, which are deployed in various hot spots around Mexico.

One of these hot spots is Ciudad Juarez. The location of Ciudad Juarez near the United States ensures that ninety percent of cocaine entering the United States passes through this city. This has made Ciudad Juarez a battleground for drug gangs in the past few years. In March, President Calderon ordered the military to take over Ciudad Juarez. The police department is being run by a retired general. The citizens of Ciudad Juarez now see soldiers just about everywhere they go.

The results of the crackdown have been amazing. In the first two months of 2009, there were 434 murders in Ciudad Juarez. In March, when the military took over, there were 51. In April so far, there has been 22 murders. Jorge Alberto Berecochea, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel now running one of the police districts, says, “Ciudad Juarez, right now, I’d say it’s the safest city in Mexico.”

However, with an increased military presence often comes increased complaints of human rights violations. Last week a 21-year old man, Javier Eduardo Rosales, was found beaten to death on a motorcycle trail outside of the city. Rosales and another man were (according to the other man) allegedly detained by the military and taken to an undisclosed location where they were beaten. Rosales was allegedly beaten more extensively because he had serpent tatoos which led the military to believe that he was a member of Los Aztecas, an enforcer group for the Juarez cartel.

Mauricio Ibarra of the National Human Rights Commission has noted that human rights complaints have increased since Mr. Calderon has militarized the drug war. Among the complaints against the military, which Mr. Ibarra says have been corroborated through the comparison of medical exams, are the use of electrical shocks, detaining suspects for longer than 12 hours without charging them, beating suspects wrapped in blankets so that bruises do not show, and putting splinters underneath the toenails of suspects.

Human rights groups are most upset with President Calderon’s proposal to modify the Law of National Security. Mr. Calderon is seeking tougher sanctions on violent crimes. He wants stiffer penalties for military deserters and an enhanced security role for Mexico’s domestic intelligence agency. Under Mr. Calderon’s proposal, groups of suspects would be charged individually for weapons found in a vehicle or house that all of the suspects occupied. There would also be special punishments for possession of more than 50 rounds of ammunition or for altered guns. Human rights groups say that some of Mr. Calderon’s proposals violate international law because they contradict agreements Mexico has made in the past. They also say that his proposals will further lead to impunity for soldiers conducting anti-narcotics operations.

The debate in Mexico over national security and human rights will more than likely continue in the near future. For Americans, this debate should sound familiar.

April 24, 2009

Values vs. Interests

If you haven't done so already, read former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's speech leading the home page. It is well worth it.

This is worth considering though:

The statesmanship that went before regarded politics as a Bismarck or Machiavelli regarded it. It's all a power play; a matter, not of right or wrong, but of who's on our side, and our side defined by our interests, not our values. The notion of humanitarian intervention was the meddling of the unwise, untutored and inexperienced.

But was it practical to let Pakistan develop as it did in the last thirty years, without asking what effect the madrassas would have on a generation educated in them? Or wise to employ the Taliban to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan? Or to ask Saddam to halt Iran? Was it really experienced statesmanship that let thousands upon thousands die in Bosnia before we intervened or turned our face from the genocide of Rwanda?

Here are some additional questions: what if the U.S. had asked about the effect of these madrassas in Pakistan, determined them to be harmful, and wanted to do something about it. What then? How exactly was the U.S. going to reform the Pakistani school system? How many other school curricula would we need to monitor and reform?

And when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and we decided that the locals were just a tad too Islamic for our liking, what then? Find other proxies? Insert our own forces? Be content to let the Soviets suppress the local insurgency and retain their puppet government?

The problem with making values the guiding light of your policy and not interests is that values create an almost limitless mandate for action. The world is such that there will always be outrages against Western values. In a world of limited resources, the state can't simply pick up and move whenever that happens. There has to be a way to discipline the government - which, by extension, keeps it limited. That's not to say every action undertaken in defense of a more narrow set of interests is necessarily the right one. But a narrow set of interests is actually the one thing that ensures that our values remain secure at home.

Human Rights

Jennifer Rubin, reading Daniel Henniger, concludes that "we've had a total role-reversal on the subject of human rights."

Henniger writes:

In New York this week, I asked a former Eastern European dissident who spent time in prison under the Communists: "If you were sitting in a cell in Cuba, Iran or Syria and saw this photo of a smiling American president shaking hands with a smiling Hugo Chávez, what would you think?"

He said: "I would think that I was losing ground."

To which Alex Maisse responds:

Fair enough. Hugo Chavez isn't my cup of tea either. But it's hardly that unusual for American presidents to be photographed with autocrats and dictators. More importantly, however, if I were to ask a former Soviet dissident: "If you learned that the American government was waterboarding prisoners and using other techniques favoured by despotic regimes and that this policy was enthusiastically embraced by a hefty plurality of the American people and a majority of conservative pundits, what would you think?"

He might think: "I am losing ground and so is America".

It is, to say the least, mildly dissonant to hear some people proclaiming dramatic set backs for freedom and liberty over Obama's handshake with Hugo Chavez, while simultaneously demanding we use Communist-favored "interrogation" methods on prisoners in our charge.

Banging the Embargo Drums

The public relations campaign towards easing the Cuban embargo continues to build up.

We've had the Lugar report, the Congressional Black Caucus trip to Cuba and their adorational attitude towards Fidel Castro, and an endless number of polls.

Here's the latest:
Americans Steady in Backing Friendlier U.S.-Cuba Relations

Overall, Gallup Polls regarding U.S. relations with Cuba find Americans generally accepting of the U.S. taking a friendlier stance toward the island nation, as has been true over the past decade. However, Americans do distinguish between different specific policies toward Cuba. The fact that a solid majority support re-establishing U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba -- and have consistently done so for the past decade -- suggests that Obama's first step in this direction was likely well-received by the American public. Moves toward making it easier for all Americans to travel to Cuba will likely find majority support among the American public as well. Ending the trade embargo will be a tougher sell and likely a partisan battle.
And let's not forget emotional pleas from the Kennedys: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of Robert Kennedy, came out today with My Father's Stand on Cuba Travel
My father's principal argument for lifting the ban was simply that restricting Americans' right to travel went against the freedoms that he had sworn to protect as attorney general. Lifting the ban, he argued, would be "more consistent with our views as a free society and would contrast with such things as the Berlin Wall and Communist controls on such travel."
Here's my prediction: the Obama administration will continue to water down the embargo as to rendering it meaningless by year's end.

April 23, 2009

Dept. of Low Expectations

In the course of an otherwise interesting op-ed, Victor Davis Hanson writes:

When our president references the 19th and 20th centuries, he apologizes for American sins but stays silent about the United States defeating Nazis, fascists, Japanese militarists and Soviet communists. The world hears contrition about Americans dropping the bomb to end World War II but never remorse from those responsible for Darfur, Grozny or Tibet.

Right. That's because we hold ourselves to higher standards than the regimes in Sudan, Russia and China. Is this really a problem?

Georgian Gov't Officials Joining Opposition

According to the "News of Georgia" press agency, a group of ruling party officials said on Thursday's anti-government rally in Tbilisi that they are joining the opposition to demand the resignation of President Saakashvili.

Twelve government activists from the Nadzaladevsky region, headed by the chair of the ruling party branch, joined the opposition demonstrators. Opposition leaders consider this move as an "encouraging signal": "This is a big step for these people. The first step is very difficult," - said Giorgi Khaindrava. one of the leaders of the United Opposition. Ex-Speaker of the Georgian Parliament Nino Burjanadze expressed her belief that "others will join these individuals," and urged members of the ruling party to join the people "before it's too late."

What's in a Handshake

Reason's Michael Moynihan has a sharp take on the Obama-Chavez glad-handing:

For those paid to pontificate—myself included—there is a great desire to read deeply into photo-ops and extemporaneous comments that that are of minor significance. The 24-hour newscycle demands it. So the Obama-Chavez handshake becomes a sign of desperation, a desire to be loved, a warm gesture to a brutal autocrat. The mere willingness to talk to blustering fools like Chavez is a "hard-headed formula for advancing U.S. interests" and shows that, at long last, there is an adult in charge of American foreign policy. Both ideas are nonsense.

April 22, 2009

India Hearts Mein Kampf

The Daily Telegraph reports that Indian business students are snapping up copies of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf for its - wait for it - "self-improvement and management strategy."


"Students are increasingly coming in asking for it and we're happy to sell it to them," said Sohin Lakhani, owner of Mumbai-based Embassy books who reprints Mein Kampf every quarter and shrugs off any moral issues in publishing the book.

"They see it as a kind of success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan on how to implement it and then successfully complete it".

Yes indeed. It all turned out all right for Hitler in the end there, didn't it?

Hat tip: Annie Lowrey.

Photo via Wiki Commons.

Hugo Persecutes the Opposition


As I have mentioned before, Hugo Chávez is consolidating power around himself. He is now persecuting the opposition.

Manuel Rosales, mayor of Maracaibo - an elected position - is seeking political asylum in Peru. Rosales, the best-known opposition leader in the country, is a member of the 'Un Nuevo Tiempo' (A New Time) Party and was governor of the state of Zulia prior to his election as mayor of Maracaibo. He is accused of illicit enrichment. As the Washington Post reminds us, last October Chávez stated "I have decided to make Manuel Rosales a prisoner," after which the investigations against Rosales started. Chávez has sworn, "I will crush him."

Why did Rosales have to leave the country? The Washington Post, again,

Asdrúbal Quintero, a legal adviser to Rosales, said by telephone from Maracaibo that Rosales had considered showing up at a pretrial hearing Monday to argue that the money in question was earned legally through his agricultural business.

But Quintero said the opposition leader decided to flee after Ismael García, an anti-Chávez lawmaker in the National Assembly, announced that he had obtained a draft of a sentencing document against him. The document, García said, showed that Rosales was to be sentenced to a 30-year prison term.

Venezuelan bloggers speculate whether Rosales's exile means the end of his political career.

Rosales is not alone.

Retired General Raúl Baduel, who brought Chávez to power following the 2002 attempted coup and later was instrumental in defeating Chávez's constitutional referendum in 2007, was arrested at gunpoint on April 7, pending corruption charges. He issued from prison a plea for Venezuelans “to save democracy,” which was recorded by his son, Raúl Emilio Baduel, with his cell phone. You can watch the video (in Spanish) here.

Raúl Emilio Baduel was detained in Trinidad and later released, "because of information they had received about him" by unnamed sources. Upon returning to Venezuela, Raúl Emilio was strip-searched at Maiquetía airport. Authorities also went through his laptop.

Henrique Capriles Radonski, governor of the state of Miranda, is also prosecuted after government legislator and Chávez supporter Darío Vivas called for him to be investigated on corruption charges. Capriles has been opposed to the new Capital District Law enacted by Chávez last month.

Henrique Salas Feo, governor of the state of Carabobo, is being investigated for "promoting secession" after speaking of organizing a movement to defend regional autonomy.

César Pérez Vivas, governor of the state of Táchira, may have his victory annulled and a new election might be held.

All these governors have opposed the takeover of the transportation hubs.

Meanwhile, in Caracas, Mayor Antonio Ledezma has been ousted from his office by squatters and Chávez has created a "vice president for Caracas." Chávez created a new Capital District, effectively removing the city’s most populous borough from Ledezma’s jurisdiction. Former Minister for the Environment and staunch Chavista Jacqueline Faría, upon accepting the post, stated that Caracas is the seat of public powers and that it would be "uncomfortable" for the head of state to be surrounded by governors who oppose him. Daniel Duquenal quotes Faría describing her job as,

will have to care and supervise all services so that the capital inhabitants have a better quality of life, the new socialist life.
This Washington Post editorial points out that government-controlled councils are set up to undermine trade unions, and a new law will block foreign funding of human rights groups.

Journalist and author Teodoro Petkoff, former Communist and ex-guerilla, who is the editor of newspaper Tal Cual, is also under investigation for allegedly failing to report taxes on his mother's estate in 1974.

The list keeps growing.

Russia: You Know There's a Crisis, If ...

More and more indicators are pointing to the seriousness of the financial and economic crisis across Russia. They are similar to those that popped up across the West as well, though few Russians are finding solace in the fact their country's misfortune is not that unique after all.

Recently, it's not just the legal guest workers - Russians who came to Moscow for work - who are leaving the capital. The number of illegal guest workers from the former Soviet republics has decreased almost by half, according to the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. According to Fedor Karpovets, Head of the Office of Federal Migration Service, "in January, 70,000 migrant workers arrived per week, but in April, only 40,000. Many do not stay long here, and go to nearby towns where there may be work. Some of them even go to Siberia and the Far East: There, foreign labor force is needed, and life is cheaper than in the capital. It is quite understandable - in the capital, life is no longer sweet. There is less work - many construction sites are frozen." Moreover, with the advent of the crisis, residents of the capital are taking up jobs that previously were considered solely for the guest workers: "There are many more Muscovites who are willing to work as taxi drivers, " according to Oleg Neterebsky, Head of the Department of Labor and Employment in Moscow. "People are actively looking for work and are learning new professions."

Even car thieves are now adjusting - there are more and more old Soviet and Russian-made sedans stolen on the streets than ever before. According to official statistic, the total number of auto thefts has dropped by 20 percent. Because of the crisis, the criminals are now preferring domestic "Lada," produced by the Zhiguli car company, as the most popular brand (23% of all car theft), followed by Toyota, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Audi. This year, more than twice as many older Russian cars were stolen in Moscow - 507 in all - than Toyotas (193 cars) or Hondas (179 cars). As the sign of the times, criminals stopped stealing super-luxury Maybachs and Bentleys, which in 2007 were stolen every month - because of the crisis, it's almost impossible to find a buyer willing to pay money for such expensive cars.

But, crisis or not, Russia's super-wealthy individuals are still at the top of their game, although with less actual money. The total monetary wealth of Russia's richest people has been more than halved from $380 billion to $142 billion. Russia now has only 32 billionaires - in 2008, there were 110. Mikhail Prokhorov (metals, gold, financial sector) heads the list of Russia's super-rich with $9.5 billion dollars, followed by Roman Abramovich (famous for owning Britain's Chelsea soccer club) with $8.5 billion. Former leader of the billionaire list Oleg Deripaska (aluminum and finances) now dropped to 10th place - he went from having $28.6 billion to only $3.5 billion. One thing is certain- this bunch will surely not trade their cars for Russian-made Ladas. But the year is not over, right?

April 21, 2009

What May Eventually End 'Big Three' Dominance

This slide show has the ominous feel to it - the pictures are form the recent auto show in Shanghai. China's domestic car makers were in full force, showcasing their latest models - from compact to small-sized sedans to luxury brands. Looking at the pictures, the apparent similarity of Chinese models to Toyota, Honda - even Bentley - is all too clear.

Bottom line is that these cars were made at a fraction of the cost of their American competitors. And they look just like what the market demands - small, sleek, compact sedans and cross-overs. The big question is when these cars are going to be sold in the United States. Once that happens, the car market here is going to go from cut-throat to down-right thermonuclear. The American consumer would win, of course, but at what price? That remains to be seen.

Obama Among the Loudmouths

Mitt Romney is apparently not a fan of Obama's "wasn't me" doctrine:

At last week’s Summit of the Americas, President Obama acquiesced to a 50-minute attack on America as terroristic, expansionist, and interventionist from Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega. His response to Ortega’s denunciation of our effort to free Cuba from Castro’s dictatorship was that he shouldn’t be blamed “for things that happened when I was three months old.” Blamed? Hundreds of men, including Americans, bravely fought and died for Cuba’s freedom, heeding the call from newly elected president John F. Kennedy. But last week, even as American soldiers sacrificed blood in Afghanistan and Iraq to defend liberty, President Obama shrank from defending liberty here in the Americas.

Let's imagine you're Alex Rodriquez stuck at a wedding party with some overweight, drunken loudmouth who berates you about how you're a lousy baseball player because you struck out a few times in the clutch. Now, you could stand up and knock the guy out, cause a huge scene, alienate the guests and get sued. You could argue with the guy that you're in fact a great baseball player and a few strike outs can't outweigh that fact (he'll argue back, of course, and it will devolve into a shouting match). Or you can smile and nod and let the blowhard run his mouth and continue making millions of dollars and living the life that everyone envies.

All three scenarios end with A-Rod being a great baseball player. One ends with him in some hot water and some legal bills, one ends with his reputation slightly diminished, the other is forgotten ten minutes after it happens.

And just to bring this back to some policy grounds. President Bush spoke frequently about freedom (it's being on the march, it being the mission of the U.S. to spread). In his tenure, according to Freedom House, the number of nations classified as free rose from 85 to 89. During the tenure of President Clinton, whom, I will assume, Mitt Romney does not consider a paragon of foreign policy leadership, the number of nations classified as free rose from 75 to 85.

So there is little correlation in the data between a willingness to talk a great game and the ability to birth new democracies.

The "Wasn't Me" Doctrine

James Joyner writes:

There's good reason to be skeptical of the degree to which Obama's foreign policy is actually new, much less a doctrine. Barnett and Drezner rightly note that changes in both tactics and optics are welcome given the point of departure. At some point, however, the time for apologies and mea culpas and pushing reset buttons must come to an end and actual leadership must begin. Given the magnitude of the challenges on the docket, it can't come soon enough.

Obama has been in office only three months, so demanding a fully formed Doctrine worthy of the history books at this stage is asking too much. But it's reasonable to expect substance at this point.

I think Joyner is mostly right here. I take Greg's point about not getting caught up in the cosmetic stuff (I myself was irritated by the faux-kerfuffle over Obama's bow to King Abdullah), but at a certain point, you have to own up to what American policy is and simply captain the ship.

On domestic policy, President Obama has been very good at embracing America's history in order to sell his own candidacy and administration. When he talks economics at home he talks about those "hard working" Americans. Yet when he goes abroad he seems to wash his hands of them and their history. When, at the recent Summit of the Americas, Nicaraguan Kleptocrat Danny Ortega went on a 50-minute diatribe against American interventionism, Obama simply excused himself from the history. He didn't defend it, nor did he attempt to explain it. He could have simply ignored Ortega, instead opting to embrace Chavez and the other regional leaders. This alone - refusing to let Ortega near the cool kids table - may have had a dramatic effect. He did none of this, and instead pandered to Ortega's hectoring.

Obama made sure to defend his own record on American imperialism - hey, he was only three months old. That's all well and good for this President, but let's hope the "wasn't me" doctrine doesn't become standard procedure for all American presidents abroad.

April 20, 2009

Japan's Nuclear Option

Former Japanese finance minister Shoichi Nakagawa (last seen nodding off in what many suspected was a drunken stupor during the G7 conference in Feb.) suggested in a speech today that the country should acquire nuclear weapons: "It is common sense worldwide that in pure military terms, nuclear counters nuclear."

While this would certainly run afoul of President Obama's disarmament aspirations, I can see a number of upsides. A nuclear-armed Japan would further tilt the balance of power in Asia in our favor. It would serve as a useful deterrent to both China and North Korea. And I doubt that the Japanese would constitute a major proliferation threat.

That's not to say it's all upside. Naturally, it's not. But kick-starting a debate about whether Japan should acquire a nuclear deterrent would be useful for the U.S. as well as Japan. For decades, we've treated the country as a U.S. protectorate. There were good reasons for doing so in the immediate aftermath of World War II and during the Cold War, but there's much less reason to do so now.

Do we trust the Japanese to strengthen their military without going off on another imperial bender? Wouldn't having stronger allies in Asia ultimately redound to our benefit?

Obama's Apologies

This is a pretty striking analysis from AP's Steven Hurst on Barack Obama:

While historic analogies are never perfect, Obama's stark efforts to change the U.S. image abroad are reminiscent of the stunning realignments sought by former Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev. During his short — by Soviet standards — tenure, he scrambled incessantly to shed the ideological entanglements that were leading the communist empire toward ruin.

But Obama is outpacing even Gorbachev. After just three months in power, the new American leader has, among many other things:

_ Admitted to Europeans that America deserves at least part of the blame for the world's financial crisis because it did not regulate high-flying and greedy Wall Street gamblers.

_ Told the Russians he wants to reset relations that fell to Cold War-style levels under his predecessor, George W. Bush.

_ Asked NATO for more help in the fight in Afghanistan, and, not getting much, did not castigate alliance partners.

_ Lifted some restrictions on Cuban Americans' travel to their communist homeland and eased rules on sending wages back to families there.

_ Shook hands with, more than once, and accepted a book from Hugo Chavez, the virulently anti-American leader of oil-rich Venezuela.

_ Said America's appetite for illegal drugs and its lax control of the flow of guns and cash to Mexico were partly to blame for the drug-lord-inspired violence that is rattling the southern U.S. neighbor.

_ Said that "if our only interaction with many of these countries is drug interdiction, if our only interaction is military, then we may not be developing the connections that can, over time, increase our influence" — neglecting to mention U.S. health care, education and humanitarian relief efforts in Latin America.

Leave aside the absurd moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and the U.S. - I take Hurst to mean that both Obama and Gorbachev inherited countries that were on unsustainable trajectories and sought to right the balance. But notice what's missing from his list? Actual policy changes. There is one, and a relatively minor one at that. The rest is a change in rhetoric.

Perhaps this rhetoric is a down payment on more substantive policy changes to come. But it's important not to lose sight of fundamentals here.

UPDATE: Daniel Drezner has more:

Looking at what Obama has done to date, I'd suggest that his foreign policy doctrine comes by way of Charles de Montesquieu -- crudely put, useless conflicts weaken necessary conflicts.

To elaborate: the United States suffers from an overextension of its foreign policy obligations. With a weakened economy and a drop in U.S. standing, it is both costly and fruitless for the administration to continue policy conflicts that yield little beyond pleasing those invested in the policy status quo.

It looks like Obama and his foreign policy team have prioritized what issues they think are important -- righting the global economic ship, China, Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, nuclear nonproliferation come to mind. Those are the issues where the United States will stick to its preferred policy positions and be willing to accept no deal rather than a bad deal.

One other issues -- Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq, trade policy, human rights, democratization, missile defense -- Obama's team sees little to be gained from continuing past policies that have borne little fruit. Furthermore, by adjusting U.S. policy on these issues, the administration conserves resources, goodwill and focus for the first list of issues.

I think this is right and it explains one of the reasons that many conservatives are so aghast at the rhetoric. It's less specific Obama policies they object to (although there are obviously a number of legitimate policy objections) but to the very notion of priority-setting. Obama is repudiating the uni-polar moment crowd and so they're naturally unhappy.

Sometimes I Don't Get the Israelis

So Israel has publicly denounced the Swiss for their weekend meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. From the AP:

Israel on Monday summoned the head of Switzerland's diplomatic mission to Israel, Monika Schmutz-Kirgoz, for an "urgent discussion" to convey Israel's deep displeasure with the meeting Sunday between Ahmadinejad and Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz.

"The meeting between the president of a democratic country with an infamous Holocaust-denier such as the president of Iran, who calls for Israel's destruction, does not mesh with the values that Switzerland represents and that are supposed to be represented at the UN conference on racism," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Israel objected to the meeting, despite being plainly obvious to most everyone else in the world that this meeting was a back channel effort by the United States to pressure Tehran over the questionable prosecution of American journalist Roxana Saberi.

The Swiss have played this intermediary role, essentially, since the revolution. This is widely understood. They have traditionally served as our go-between on Iranian matters, and in this instance, their efforts appear to be working.

So why do this now? Ahmadinejad is clearly a detestable figure, but why protest him now, when all it seems to demonstrate is an utter disinterest in American interests?

It's very likely that Saberi will be used as "good faith" leverage, and that Ahmadinejad is playing the good cop to secure her freedom and win some points. That said, her freedom is the objective, and achieving this at such little cost would be a good thing.

April 19, 2009

The Festivus Summit of the Americas


Viewers familiar with Seinfeld remember Festivus, the ceremonial airing of grievances. Wikipedia reminds us,

The holiday includes novel practices such as the "Airing of Grievances", in which each person tells everyone else all the ways they have disappointed him or her over the past year. Also, after the Festivus meal, the "Feats of Strength" are performed, involving wrestling the head of the household to the floor, with the holiday ending only if the head of the household is actually pinned.
Those of us watching the news from the Summit of the Americas have been regaled with news story after news story on the weekend Festivus.

Preliminary to this year's Festivus was President Obama's brief stop in Mexico. Pres. Obama carefully avoided pointing out that Mexico's decades, perhaps centuries' long corruption and disregard for the rule of law had much to do with the thriving drug cartels, and his administration stands by the "90% fallacy," which FactCheck.org and others have looked into and found lacking. There is consistent evidence that the drug cartels are purchasing weapons and military-grade armaments from Central America and the international weapons trade; ignoring this will not improve the drug wars. Additionally, the US has served as the pressure valve for Mexico, since millions of Mexicans who want to live and work in peace move here. Little, if any, credit was given to the US for that during Pres. Obama's visit.

The Festivus, however, didn't get rolling until Pres. Obama arrived in Trinidad. There was a slight difference from the classical Festivus: the airing of grievances went only in one direction.

First Pres. Obama walked across a hotel meeting room to meet Hugo Chavez, who just last month was calling the US a "genocidal, murderous empire" and was telling Obama to go wash his rear end. Chavez, who is cracking down on his political opposition at home and callls for the end of the American "empire" abroad every chance he gets, told Pres. Obama, "I want to be your friend," while government-owned Venezuelan media immediately spread the photos of the handshake.

The Festivus airing of grievances continued with Daniel Ortega's fifty-minute long inflammatory diatribe where Ortega complained about the US's "terroristic aggression in Central America." In the spirit of Festivus, Obama joked,

"I'm very grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was 3 months old."
No Festivus is complete without a gift, and what better gift than the old classic, Las venas abiertas de América Latina, by Uruguayan Marxist writer Eduardo Galeano, which blames everything that has gone wrong in Latin America for the past 500 years on Europe, and - you guessed it - the United States. Chavez presented the gift to Obama, unwrapped and in the Spanish edition, since after all, what better way to make the point of how Qué ignorante eres, than to give the book in the original language.

Having pinned the head of state to the ground, the rest of the Summit coasted right along. Indeed, a Festivus festivity like no other.

Chavez, upon returning from the Summit of the Americas, reviewed Venezuela’s new anti-aerial weaponry received from Russia, and declared the Summit “one of Venezuela’s greatest victories” (Video 2) , all to the Cuban Communist salute, “Homeland, socialism or death, we shall win!”

Mexico: Reactions from Obama's Visit

Cautious optimism describes the Mexican reaction to President Obama’s first official visit to Mexico on Thursday. The U.S. president met with his counterpart, Felipe Calderon, to discuss how each country could solve shared problems in a new era of a growing partnership. Of course, at the top of the agenda is the drug war that has claimed more than 10,000 lives since Mr. Calderon took office in 2006.

The differences in the two leaders' approaches have to do less with substance and more with time. Mr. Calderon needs for the United States to take concrete steps to lower American demand for drugs and to limit the flow of guns into Mexico. Furthermore, he needs this to happen now. His PAN party faces congressional elections in June. If Mr. Calderon cannot convince Mexico that his tactics for fighting the drug cartels are working, then his party will lose its majority in both houses of Congress and Mr. Calderon will find it ever the more difficult to execute his policies.

On the other hand, Mr. Obama must lower expectations. Former Ambassador to Mexico, Jeffery Davidlow, explains that President Obama is a pragmatist and that he will not promise anything to Mexico unless he is sure that it can be accomplished politically. For example, this past week Mr. Obama rebuffed the Mexican request for the United States to pass a renewal on a ban on assault weapons that Mr. Bush had allowed to expire during his term. Mr. Obama stated that while he thought a renewal is a good idea, he proposed instead to encourage the U.S. Congress to ratify an arms trafficking treaty President Bill Clinton signed in 1997. The treaty calls for countries to crack down on the illegal export of weapons, share gun-tracing information and extradite gun-smuggling suspects to other countries.

What criticisms have been levied at Mr. Obama this past week have usually come in the form of accusing the President of not providing enough plans for action. Hillary Clinton’s acceptance of co-responsibility for the drug problem a couple of weeks ago was a home run diplomatically. Now, Mexican leaders and journalists want to know how the United States is going to take responsibility for arms trafficking and drug consumption. An editorial in the left-leaning La Jornada sounded a pessimistic note at the promises that Mr. Obama has made. It stated that Mr. Obama’s promises have not been signed into law and that American foreign policy is still as “neo-colonial, predatory, and unilateral as it always has been.”

Nevertheless, most thinkers in Mexico are cautiously optimistic. They understand fully the severe obstacles that must be overcome, yet they are confident that both the United States and Mexico will work as partners in the future. A columnist for Excelsior observes that promises made in the past at meetings between Mexico and the United States have failed. Yet this meeting was different because of the shared nature of drug violence. He continues:

Everyone knows that the violence that lives in Mexico derives from narcotrafficking and insecurity, but much less is said of the kidnappings that occur in Phoenix and Houston, of the bodies, including decapitated bodies, that appear also on the other side of the border, or of the criminal networks that begin in South America and have a powerful presence in Mexico, but grow and develop in San Diego, Seattle, or New York. (My translation)

His point is very poignant. Mexico and the United States need each other and it seems that President Obama understands this.

Chinese Sphere: China’s Human Rights Action Plan

Last Monday, the Information Office of the State Council released the Chinese government’s first-ever human rights action plan. The introduction to the document stated that it was developed in response to a “United Nations' call for establishing a national human rights action plan.” This most likely refers to the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action that was adopted during the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights. The declaration “recommends that each State consider the desirability of drawing up a national action plan identifying steps whereby that State would improve the promotion and protection of human rights.”

Specific human rights are divided into three broad categories: 1. Economic, social, and cultural rights, 2. Civil and political rights, and 3. Ethnic minority and disadvantaged groups’ rights. This categorization follows three of the UN’s core human rights treaties: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and various conventions on the rights of ethnic minorities, women, children, and the disabled. China has signed and ratified the Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights treaty. China has also signed the Civil and Political Rights treaty, but not ratified it, most likely due to provisions it makes for, among other things, periodic elections and universal suffrage.

An editorial published in the 21st Century Business Herald, one of China’s largest business newspapers, sees the publication of this report as beneficial for the advancement of human rights:

Since 1991 when the concept of human rights started to be formally used in white papers, the Chinese government has issued 40 human rights-related documents. The “Action Plan” differs from past reports which have typically described the work that China has already done. This is the first time that specific goals and timeframe have been set for the development of the nation’s human rights…From this day forward this report can serve as a yardstick to measure the Chinese government’s progress or regression in the development of human rights. It also enables individual citizens and local governments to see a clearer long-term direction.

In an editorial in Lianhe Zaobao, the largest newspaper in Singapore, sees this plan as having the potential to fundamentally change China:

With regards to the phenomenon where people from different provinces make their way to Beijing to present petitions, this action plan commits to opening up various channels such as the Green Post, dedicated phone lines, websites, and e-mail accounts that would make it convenient for the people to present their petitions. The government would also set up a nationwide complaint information system and a state-level office to deal with these complaints.

Under a broad concept of human rights, these commitments made by the Chinese government cannot be said to encompass the full meaning of human rights. However, what cannot be denied is that these specific proposals are very relevant to China’s current situation. It can be said that abuse of the law and the lack of citizen recourse is one of China’s most widespread social problems. Of course, it is worthy to pursue the ideal where the people have the right to choose their own leaders, but at this current stage, if China is able to solve these various abuses of power, that would be a large step forward of historical significance.

While the plan does not address certain rights that democracies would consider fundamental such as free press, free speech, and open elections, the document does seem to be trying to define a more prominent role for individual citizens within the strictures of China’s constitution and laws. For example, under the “right to oversee,” the plan states that “the state will guarantee citizens' rights to criticize, give advice to, complain of, and accuse state organs and civil servants, and give full play to the role of mass organizations, social organizations and the news media in supervising state organs and civil servants.” While this right may have already been a part of Chinese law, it has never been enforced. However, now that this document is out there, citizens, NGOs, and other social groups may have more leverage in claiming their rights and opposing abuses of power at the local level. Perhaps this is the CCP leadership’s way of bringing about the political reform that is needed to make citizens happy and uphold the legitimacy of CCP rule.

April 18, 2009

Poll: Public Views on Mexico's Drug Violence

Via Rasmussen:

Just 30% of U.S. voters say drug users in the United States are more to blame for growing drug violence in Mexico than the drug producers themselves.

Fifty-six percent (56%) say the Mexican drug producers are more to blame for the tide of violence that threatens to cross into the United States, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey.

Seventy percent (70%) of voters say restricting gun sales in the United States will not reduce drug-related violence in Mexico, but 20% take the opposite view...

One-third of voters (33%) describe Mexico as an ally of the United States, while just eight percent (8%) view the southern neighbor as an enemy. Fifty-six percent (56%) say Mexico is somewhere in between an ally and an enemy.

April 17, 2009

Getting Real on North Korea

Joshua Stanton has an interesting piece in the New Ledger that touches on North Korea and the failures of diplomacy. He writes:

Disbelieve Democrats who claim to have done better. The best they can say is that Bill Clinton’s Agreed Framework I was a partial and temporary success at containing the plutonium portion of North Korea’s nuclear program, even as North Korea cheated by pursuing a parallel, undeclared uranium enrichment program.

Admittedly, redirecting the North's efforts from plutonium to uranium isn't the ideal outcome, but it's not bad either. As Brookings' Michael O'Hanlon has noted, this diversion to a "basement bomb program" slowed the North's nuclear program considerably. In the eight years that the Bush administration had the North Korean portfolio, they ramped up weapons production and succeeded in detonating a nuclear device. So the proof is in the pudding.

The problem with the debate over North Korea is that it's frequently conducted as if there are a host of realistic options and that it's only political cowardice that prevents the U.S. from "solving" the problem. That strikes me as implausible.

The U.S. holds little leverage over North Korea. We're not going to bomb them or blockade them and put the civilian populations of South Korea and Japan at risk. As stringent as sanctions get, the Chinese and South Koreans will continue to prop up the North because they fear instability and refugee flows more than a nuclear armed Kim Jong-Il. No amount of UN Resolution waving, suave diplomacy or militaristic bravado seems to alter the perceived interests of the Chinese and South Koreans.

Which leaves us with two unpleasant options. The first is to walk away altogether and watch as the North ramps up their weapons programs and proliferation activities in an effort to frighten us back to the table. The second is to consent to their extortion and hope that diplomacy can slow down their weapons programs and proliferation activities.

American Power

E.J. Dionne says he's discerned an Obama Doctrine already:

The truth is that the president is moving American foreign policy in a new direction, and conservatives dislike what is becoming the Obama Doctrine.

Obama's doctrine departs from the previous administration's approach by embracing a longer tradition of American foreign policy. Obama insists that the United States can't achieve great objectives on its own, even though it is "always harder to forge true partnerships and sturdy alliances than to act alone," as he put it this month in Strasbourg, France...

The Obama Doctrine is a form of realism unafraid to deploy American power but mindful that its use must be tempered by practical limits and a dose of self-awareness. Those are the limits that defenders of the recent past have trouble accepting.

I don't think we can draw any conclusions yet about an Obama Doctrine, much less whether someone committed to nation building in Afghanistan and Pakistan can really be said to be "tempered by practical limits."

What's interesting, however, is that Dionne focuses on power and not interests. And not even the fundamentals of power, but the rhetoric of power. The same rhetoric that conservatives implausibly claim is hastening the end of American civilization is also being held up by liberals as the dawn of a glorious new era of global strength.

Rhetoric and power are of course important but they're ultimately a means to an end. We ultimately won't know if Obama is charting a new course for America until we get a sense for how he defines America's vital interests and whether those interests diverge in any meaningful sense from his predecessor's.

April 16, 2009

Obama in Mexico, and on to the Summit

Amid heavy security, President Obama arrived in Mexico where he will hold a press conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderón; then head to Trinidad and the Summit of the Americas. This will be Obama's first trip ever to Latin America.

Andrea Mitchell interviewed Calderón:

During the Mitchell interview, Calderón again talked about American blame for drug trafficking. Let's hope that during this afternoon's visit, Calderón, who wants more American money and resources to combat the drug cartels, understands that America did not cause Mexico's decades-long problems of corruption and disrespect for the rule of law which fostered the present situation.

MSNBC speculates on the trip:

As for the rest of the trip after today -- the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad -- look for three story lines to emerge: One is Cuba. Just how hard will the other Latin American leaders criticize the president for what they believe is not much change in Washington's Cuba stance?

Second is anti-Americanism. Many of the emerging political leaders in the region attained power by bashing the U.S. Will the President confront this issue like he did in Europe? Anti-Americanism has always been stronger in Latin America than anywhere else.

And thirdly, there's Hugo Chavez.

Here's what I expect:

Obama will ease further restrictions on Cuba. How far will he go on this trip remains to be seen, but I fully expect that he will effectively end the embargo by year's end with the help of Congress.

When it comes to anti-Americanism, he will embark on the Apology Tour Version 2.0, in very much the same vein as he did in Europe. I agree with Ray Walser that the President must make clear that

the US remains committed to the tenets of liberal democracy, competitive markets, free trade, and the rule of law.
However, judging from the less challenging European trip and from the president's own rhetoric, I have no reason to believe that Obama will take any route other than that of an apologetic listening tour. Let's hope I am wrong.

As for Chavez, Obama will avoid photo ops of any sort where Obama is not the center of attention; Chavez or anyone else included.

It will be an interesting trip, for sure.

Mutual Respect

A reminder of what Iran's "mutual respect" tends to look like.

State Department vs. Pirates

Secretary Clinton announced a four part anti-piracy plan yesterday. To summarize, it includes:

1. Sending an envoy to the international Somali peacekeeping and development meeting in Brussels. Said Clinton, "Our envoy will work with other partners to help the Somalis assist us in cracking down on pirate bases and in decreasing incentives for young Somali men to engage in piracy."

2. A meeting with the International Contact Group on Piracy to develop an expanded multinational response including possibly tracking and freezing pirate assets.

3. A diplomatic team will engage with Somali Government officials from the Transitional Federal Government as well as regional leaders in Puntland to eject pirates from their bases.

4.Outreach to the shipping and insurance industry to improve their capacity for self-defense.

Laura Rozen has the memo. Here's a video of Clinton announcing the moves:

Engaging Cuba

World Public Opinion offers some poll data to buttress the Obama administration's decision to ease some restrictions targeted at Cuba:

One of the core arguments in Cuba policy is whether increasing all kinds of contact between the US and Cuba - travel, trade, diplomacy - will strengthen the Castro regime or will have a liberalizing effect on the system.

Americans feel, by wide margins, that increasing travel and trade between Cuba and the United States is more likely to have the effect of leading "Cuba in a more open and democratic direction" (71%) than to "strengthen the Communist regime in Cuba" (26%). Clear majorities of Democrats (80%), independents (69%) as well as Republicans (59%) share this view.

If this is indeed an accurate gauge of the public's mood, it could have policy implications beyond Cuba. You can imagine the case being made that the best way to undermine the Mullah's grip on Iran's society is to open up the country to international trade.

Still, I think the prospect of economic engagement leading to political liberalization is the wrong way to look at the benefits of engagement. As we see with China, economic liberalization hasn't made the regime significantly less authoritarian, at least to date. (Although as Leslie Gelb noted in his interview with RCW, economic change works over a long time horizon.) But it has made China prosperous, which has in turn produced a number of stakeholders vested in maintaining the peaceful status quo.

Cuba isn't a top tier threat to U.S. security, so this dynamic isn't really as important. But with a country like Iran or China, creating groups of powerful interests vested in the revenue generated from international trade can serve to put the brakes on more hostile factions. Engagement also carries serious risks too. Economic growth can help a state modernize its military. But at the end of the day, we have ample evidence that sanctions rarely topple regimes (Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-Il, Robert Mugabe, and Castro are proof) so exploring alternative means of changing state behavior is probably the smart thing to do.

UPDATE: PostGlobal has an interesting discussion of the issue of Cuba and engagement.

April 15, 2009

Poll: Public Supports Pirate Killing

I guess the "pro pirate culture" hasn't enfeebled us after all:

Seventy-two percent (72%) of U.S. voters say the United States should take more military action to prevent further piracy against American and other ships off Africa’s east coast.

Twelve percent (12%) are opposed to any further U.S. military action against the pirates, and 16% are not sure, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey.

There is very little partisan disagreement on this question. Seventy-seven percent (77%) of both Republicans and voters not affiliated with either major party support more military action against the pirates, as do 63% of Democrats.

It's Britney, Comrade

With all the talk in Washington, DC lately over the need to renew the application of America's soft power - diplomacy, economy, cultural and social attractiveness - nothing spreads American culture better than music. The entire world is already listening to U.S. pop music - rap, R&B, hard rock and other styles, and more and more groups and musicians are aspiring to be as cool and popular as American singers of various genres.

So it comes as no surprise that Russians decided to clone Britney Spears - her music, her style, her moves- and apply it to their own cultural benefit. In 2007, a new group called "Serebro" (Silver) won third place at Eurovision - a prestigious European annual song contest. "Serebro"s English-language entry - "Song #1"- was well received:

The similarities with our own Ms. Spears are all too apparent. The three female soloists do a great job singing in that all-too-familiar Britney style. And half-way through the song, the girls and their dancers break into a Michael Jackson-style medley.

So while the American audiences may be cooling towards their once-idols, the rest of the world still longs for the pop-culture that seems to define what is - or is not - cool. And isn't that the definition of soft power?

Foreign Policy Dominates the News


Pew Research reports on the top news stories for last week. Interesting to see foreign policy issues capturing the public's imagination. At least, until they see this.

April 14, 2009

The Unilateralist Double Standard

I'm sympathetic to Michael Rubin's point here:

Bush-administration detractors lambasted the administration both for unilateralism and for failing to utilize diplomacy. The fact of the matter, however, is that the Bush administration—while schizophrenic—in went to the United Nations and won unilateral and near-unilateral sanctions demanding Iran suspend nuclear enrichment. This came after the IAEA had found Iran in noncompliance with its safeguards agreement. By agreeing to negotiate without enrichment suspension, the Obama administration is casting aside unilaterally these U.N. Security Council resolutions. Rather than facilitate diplomacy, such a move hampers it in the long-term because it signals to Tehran that it need not take U.N. Security Council Resolutions seriously. We can never use threat of U.N. sanctions again to coerce Iran.

I'd say it's a little late to mourn the efficacy of the Security Council (see Iraq War, 2003).

That said, I think Rubin is on to something about the double standard of unilateralism here. Pundits and policy wonks wait and cheer for a "Nixon Goes to China" moment on Iran, yet they disregard the fact that such a move would undermine the international community's position as collective police officer when it comes to nuclear nonproliferation.

Wanting the U.S. at the table makes sense for the Iranians - America is really the only true guarantor of the regime's security. Dancing around the EU and the UN is a logical policy for Tehran; until they can get the "big guns" to the table, that is.

But catering unflinchingly to this waltz does seem a tad bit strange from an American perspective. Roger Cohen wants to move mountains for the Iranians, while asking for very little in return. President Obama should let them join the WTO immediately, but we apparently mustn't expect Tehran to reciprocate by respecting the decisions of other international institutions. (I happen to agree with most of what Cohen proposes, but it would be nice to see the Islamic Republic return the favor.)

We need to negotiate directly with the Iranians, and this is where Mr. Rubin and I likely part ways. But doing so without any immediate consequence for Iran seems to cheapen U.S. diplomacy, in my view. We may soon miss those heady days when simply getting the Americans to the negotiating table was considered to be an Iranian gain in and of itself.

UPDATE: Rubin responds with some fair points.

Holism and Pirates

Our friend and frequent RCW contributor Joel Weickgenant writes:

I think a great amount of perspective is being lost amid the roundabout cheerleading we’re seeing after the recent rescue of a merchant ship captain from pirates off Somalia’s coast. It’s easy to assume a bellicose stance, talk about arming merchant ships (”Kill the Pirates?” Are you serious, Fred?), taking out the bandits of the high seas. We discuss the plague of piracy, and rightly express joyrelief when the bandits’ aims are thwarted and innocents survive. But the only solutions we talk about involve as usual the threat of retaliatory violence. We don’t consider the people behind the plague - why they do what they do - and how far desperation pushes their willingness.


It’s okay to be happy that the SEALs did their job, and President Obama may deserve credit for deftly handling an international crisis. But the crisis won’t abate just because it turns out that members of the special forces have good aim. And pirate crews are unlikely to be discouraged by armed merchant crews. They’ll simply be ready for more violence

I think the problem here with Joel's diagnosis is the prescription. Somalia has been a failing state for years now. We certainly do need to do more than cheer, but I don't know that a large scale nation-building project in Somalia is truly the best method for addressing piracy.

And that's the problem. Nobody really knows what the problem is, so the solution eludes us. Matt Yglesias, unsurprisingly, blames the United States (via Ethiopia). Or perhaps the problem is ill-defined waterways and abusive fishing? Maybe it's terrorism? Desertification? Toxic dumping???

I suppose it could be all of those things, but there are only so many nation-building adventures that the West can and should engage in at one time. I don't mean to be so flip, and there certainly are more things the international community could be doing (addressing the exploitative fishing and the coast's legality is among them).

But sometimes there's a strong case to be made for compulsion. Joel's aversion to this is well-taken, but "kill the pirates" just may be the most convincing sell the West has to make on the issue. After all, there are countless issues around the world where one could say "If only X country were stable and prosperous, we could then prevent Y from happening."

I think it may be a little too late for holistic measures in Somalia. This doesn't mean Somalia should be ignored, but using piracy as the catalyst to do more may not be the best idea at this time.

Adding Context to Piracy Debate

In most of the current debate about piracy, there's been one thing missing: any serious context. To wit: how many pirate attacks happen per year? How much money is extorted? What are the trend lines? (See here, to start.) Why are shipping companies still traversing the Gulf of Aden instead of exploring alternative shipping routes, where possible? Is it, as CATO's Peter Van Doren suggests, merely a "nuisance tax" on shipping? Is it a second order-distraction to the more important items on the U.S. agenda, as Stephen Walt argues? Or is it an intolerable threat to the global commons that demands shelling Somalia's coastline, as hinted at by Tom Mahnken?

Despite the mythologizing of the U.S. response to Barbary piracy, the U.S. paid off the Barbary Coast pirates under two U.S. administrations until the cost/benefit analysis finally tipped in favor of attacking them. We may well be at the point where it's wiser to bomb pirate hideaways on land than to employ other measures. Unlike jihadists, who can't be deterred, military action might raise the costs enough to make pirates think twice. But let's at least have a full accounting of the costs and benefits before the shelling begins.

Photo of the Bombardment of Algiers via Wiki Commons.

Piracy: It's America's Fault

That's the message, albeit it comes from two ideologically distinct corners.

In one corner, Matthew Yglesias arguing that America's disastrous interventions in Somalia help lay the groundwork for that country's further collapse into poverty and chaos, which in turned has fueled piracy.

In the other, Jonah Goldberg blaming a "pro piracy" culture for enabling the rise of piracy. This was echoed by his Corner colleague Victor Davis Hanson, who wondered whether fashionable academic theories on piracy (including their status as "sexually ambiguous, cross-dressing, transgendered libertines") had filtered into the State Department, thus paralyzing America's response.

So, piracy: the result of American meddling or American passivity born of post-modernist theorizing and Disney movies? I say none of the above (at least, not exclusively).

UPDATE: Hoover's Ron Radosh thinks blaming America is wholly symptomatic of the left. Clearly that's not the case. The left is certainly more inclined to put more weight into such factors as the distribution of American military support and military interventions inside Somalia as causal factors. The right is more inclined to blame Disney movies, theories promoted by college professors and lawyers.

But at the end of the day, they're both blaming America.

China's Military Prowess Making Russia Nervous

There is an old Russian proverb - "Vsyo volka ne kormi, a on na les smotrit"- "No matter how much you would feed the wolf, he still looks at the forest." This applies to the existing and evolving Russian relationship with China - no matter how many public statements are made about the strength and mutual benefit of a Moscow-Beijing alliance, China is inching further and further ahead of Russia on all criteria that signify a great power - economy, high-tech development, international reputation. And military strength.

The last item already makes Moscow nervous, even if outwardly it shows no signs of concerns. This entry at a popular daily online magazine Lenta.ru discusses China's recent development of a ballistic missile, based on its Dong-Feng 21 rocket (possibly nuclear-tipped) that can sink a large moving target (presumably a US aircraft carrier): "It is easy to assume against whom, and for what purpose, this new Chinese weapon is fielded. First, the modern aircraft carrier is the only target that a given country would not mind using a nuclear weapon on. ... Secondly, only the U.S. military fleet has so many aircraft carriers that justify a creation of new types of ballistic missiles. And third, the American ships of this class are a deterrent to China, a country that does not conceal its aggressive intentions against, for example, neighboring Taiwan."

The analysis further brings up evidence that USSR has been developing a similar missile in the 1960s and 1970s - whose purpose was to presumably sink American carriers - but ended up not fielding the actual missile due to a variety of domestic and international factors. "In any case, Russia has abandoned the development of such weapons for the last several decades, and the U.S. did not seriously expect that ballistic missiles capable of striking major moving maritime targets may be fielded by a likely opponent. In short, while the two superpowers were flexing their muscles, a third power - while only gaining momentum - was looking far into the future."

Russia sold China mass amounts of modern military technology in the 1990s and even recently - everything from small arms to the modern Su-27 jet fighter to submarines and naval vessels. Given China's determination to develop and field its own modern military, these purchases from Russia went into further developing and modernizing one of the largest militaries in the world.

Given Russia's emphasis on its nuclear deterrent, Moscow so far avoided a "What If?" discussion about the time when China's military could eventually surpass its Russian counterpart. However, a sobering and realistic assessment is already necessary: "We cannot say with confidence if this weapon (anti-ship ballistic missile) was indigenously developed in China. Most likely Beijing has once again carried out a competent and quiet "information leak" with the purpose of demonstrating the potential of China's military power and its future development. But if this Chinese rocket is not pure propaganda, then it's not just the United States that would soon have to develop technology that can neutralize such a weapon."

April 13, 2009

Real Men Invade Somalia

It seems that with the successful rescue of Captain Phillips from Somali pirates, the line from the Obama administration's critics like Commentary's Jennifer Rubin is that, yeah, that's fine, but he really needs to invade Somalia:

The task now is to re-establish peace and security on the seas and go about the task of recovering, if possible, over 250 hostages held by the pirates. Thomas Jefferson understood you can not defeat pirates by chasing them one by one around a vast sea. We must either in concert with our allies or unilaterally, if need be, devise a strategy to take the fight to the pirates and re-establish some semblance of order.

Agreed. So what's the plan for establishing some semblance of order inside Somalia?

UPDATE: John Boonstra at UN Dispatch demurs:

Well, I don't think looking to a 200-year dead president for advice on combating modern piracy and statelessness is the best idea, but I also don't think Rubin is necessarily prescribing invasion here. She's right that "eradicating safe havens" will be an important step, though I'd rather eradicate the problem of piracy than the entire city of Eyl, say. For that matter, what Rubin suggests -- going ashore to pursue the pirates, which has become a pretty trendy policy recommendation -- has already been permitted by a Security Council resolution. This is definitely a helpful tool, and the fact that such a provocative step has a UN seal of legitimacy is significant. But navies would still be wise to use this authorization carefully, as precipitous excursions could have a strong likelihood of destabilizing Somalia further and galvanizing all sorts of landlubbing "pirates," which nobody wants.

I think treating pirates as "criminals" -- and in fact taking seriously the grievances of at least the original fishermen-cum-vigilante-pirates (namely, the illegal fishing and toxic dumping that engendered the whole viable life-as-pirate thing) -- is in fact the appropriate thing to do....This is something that affects every country that sends a ship through or around the Gulf of Aden. It only makes sense to pool these countries' collective resources and wisdom and address the problem together.

That's fair enough, but none of it addresses the fact that what's required inside Somalia is nation building on a fairly robust scale to shore up the poverty and lawlessness that is enabling piracy. Nothing I've read to date offers up anything like a plausible explanation of how that's accomplished (although I've by no means canvassed everything written on the subject).

UN Security Council resolutions notwithstanding, I suspect that none of the nations currently patrolling the Indian Ocean have much interest in going ashore to root out the pirates, much less dumping soldiers in to police the country. Advocates of bombing Somalia don't really have a well thought out response to what happens if piracy continues despite the bombings. After all, as we learned during the 1990s inside Afghanistan, dropping some bombs on an already impoverished country doesn't exactly dry up international threats.

April 12, 2009

Cuba: U.S. Embargo to End?

The Fifth Summit of the Americas is coming up next week, on April 17-19 in Trinidad-Tobago. The Summit's theme is “Securing Our Citizens’ Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Security and Environmental Sustainability.” It will be interesting to watch what the Obama administration has planned for the Summit regarding Cuba.

As readers may recall, last February the Lugar Report concluded that "progress could be attained by replacing conditionality with sequenced engagement, beginning with narrow areas of consensus that develop trust," and recommended changing US policy towards Cuba. Following the report, in March the omnibus spending bill changed travel restrictions on American citizens with family in Cuba to once a year, and last week the Wall Street Journal reported that President Obama plans to lift U.S. restrictions on Cuba, allowing Cuban-Americans to visit families there as often as they like and to send them unlimited funds.


This week the Congressional Black Caucus visited Cuba and reportedly met with Raul and Fidel Castro, who they lavishly praised. As with the Lugar delegation, members of the CBC did not meet any dissidents or any members of Cuba's pro-democracy movement. However, CBC recommended that the embargo be lifted.

Following the CBC's return, CNN released poll results stating that two-thirds of Americans surveyed think the U.S. should lift its travel ban and 71 percent of those polled said that the U.S. should reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba.

On Thursday the Cuban American National Foundation released a report advocating change in the US's relations with Cuba, a drastic change from their prior hardline stance. The

Since the end of the Cold War our policy toward Cuba has remained static, reactive and focused on responding to developments following the demise of Fidel Castro. That policy, in our opinion, does not advance or promote the best interests of the United States or of the Cuban people; it relegates the U.S.’s role to that of passive observer rather than active supporter of the process of democratization for one of our closest hemispheric neighbors.

The recommendations listed herein chart a new direction for U.S.-Cuba policy, one that is guided by a deep understanding of the Cuban people, the impact of five decades of totalitarian rule, and a firm belief that the tides of change are swept in by the grass roots efforts of common people who have acquired confidence in their abilities and feel empowered in their responsibilities. Our recommendations are a break from the past because they seek to adapt to the realities of the present, which require a measured and incremental path that allows for adjustments along the way based on empirical evidence and evolving dynamics on the ground in Cuba.

The report also stresses the input of the Cuban people and the fostering of a Cuban civic society towards the aim of a successful transition to democracy.

Clearly, American attitudes towards relations with Cuba have changed.

In the island, however, the European Union's decision last year to lift sanctions against Cuba,

Cuban dissidents also vehemently opposed the lifting of the sanctions, believing that this action would “punish” the Cuban people and allow Havana to continue violating human rights. According to the leaders of the dissident group Agenda for Transition, any action taken by the EU to normalize relations with Cuba would be understood by Cuban authorities as affording legitimacy to the government’s recent actions and would “[punish] those who fight for democracy.”
What is in store for the Summit of the Americas? Jeffrey Davidow, the U.S. official heading preparations, stressed that Pres. Obama seeks a "new beginning" with Latin American countries, focusing on the economic crisis, energy, and security threats during the Summit.

While stating that it would be counterproductive for the summit to focus on Cuba, Davidow said that Obama may announce the easing of travel restrictions and remittances. How will that be different from the April 4 announcement remains to be seen.

Mexico: Drug Armies vs. Calderon's Army

When Felipe Calderon became President in December 2006, he immediately declared war on the drug lords. He has staked his presidency (as well as the congressional elections coming up in June) on the government’s ability to return a sense of security to Mexico. Presently, there are over 45,000 troops and 5,000 federal police deployed to hot spots around Mexico. This past week Calderon’s army was hard at work, taking down some tough characters.

The problem is that Calderon is not the only commander-in-chief of an army in Mexico. All of the major drug trafficking organizations have at their disposal sicarios, or enforcers. This trend started when Osiel Cardenas, the former head of the Gulf cartel (presently sitting in a Houston prison), convinced several members of Mexico’s special forces to quit the army and help the Gulf cartel solidify territory. When Cardenas was arrested and subsequently extradited to the United States in 2007, the Zetas started flying solo. Their expertise of special operations has made them a formidable foe of the Army regulars.

This past week the military was able to kill a Zeta boss in Zacatecas. Israel Nava Cortes was responsible for establishing Zeta control in several states in Central Mexico. It was rumored that Nava Cortes was Guatemalan. However, representatives from the federal police dispelled this rumor, stating that Nava Cortes was Mexican.

The confusion over Nava Cortes’ nationality comes after reports suggest that the Zetas have been working closely with the Guatemalan special forces (known as kaibiles). The reports suggest that the Zetas, as well as the Sinaloa cartel, have been trying to establish alternate routes from Colombia through Central America. Mexican and U.S. maritime operations have put intense pressure on the drug cartels at Mexico’s coasts.

The Zetas are not the only sicarios in Mexico. This past week also saw the arrest of 21 enforcers for drug trafficker “El Teo” Garcia. They were arrested while trying to pull off murders of two federal police agents in Baja California. Reports indicate that the weapons confiscated during the arrest had been used in no less than eight other homicides in Mexico.

Garcia used to be a lieutenant in the Tijuana cartel. However, in early 2008 he had a falling out with one of the heads of the Tijuana cartel, Fernando Sanchez Arellano (“the Engineer”). Sanchez believed that Garcia had caused too much attention to be drawn to the Tijuana cartel due to Garcia’s penchant for kidnapping physicians. Garcia supposedly fled the city in April, but is rumored to have returned in August, since the high violence levels have returned this fall. He is now unofficially aligned with the Sinaloa cartel in an effort to destroy his former comrades.

Despite the successes in Baja California, the bloodshed continued in Chihuahua. There was at least eight “narco-executions” this past week. The tortured body of a man was found in a center for drug rehabilitation in Ciudad Juarez. There was also between 15 and 20 federal agents that were accused of abuse of power and complicity in the drug trade. Chihuahua continues to lead the country in drug deaths with 590 in 2009 alone.

Meanwhile, in Congress the Chamber of Deputies will begin discussion Monday on whether to decriminalize small time marijuana use. The forum will bring together experts from around the government and private sector. The forum is being called mainly because of the belief of many experts in Mexico that the prohibitionist policies have not produced the desired effects.

Russia: Unrest in the Periphery - And at Home

Russia's periphery is once again rife with unrest and dissatisfaction, but the Russian government tried to keep stability at home by reporting to the State Duma on its progress in 2008. This past Monday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin spoke before the full parliamentary session. Putin assured the deputies that "Russia will overcome the crisis," and characterized an anti-crisis program recently given to Duma for discussion as "the light at the end of the tunnel." Regarding the scope of growing difficulties in the country and the need to invest in numerous social programs, Putin assured the parliamentarians that "Many out there are simply jealous of Russia! I know what I am talking about!", hinting that the situation in other countries is more dire.

However, just a few days after Putin's address to the Parliament and his assurances that the government is handling the crisis, nearly 300 officer reservists held a protest on Saturday, April 11 in Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East region. The officers, belonging to the "Union of Officers of Vladivostok", protested against the recently launched military reforms. Demonstrators asked to repeal the Government's plan for the implementation of military reform, which, in their view, means "the deprivation of the defense capacity of the country through the dismissal and breach of the social guarantees of servicemen." Participants were asking for the salary and pension increase of military personnel to the level of civil servants, to provide apartments to the discharged officers in places of their own choosing, to pay the debt owed to military retirees, as well as to raise pensions to widows of dead officers. This action took place under the banner "People and army are one! Save the army - save Russia!", with participation from the Communist Party and local citizen's organizations. Last October, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdykov announced plans for major reform in the Russian military, and his actions immediately started running into serious opposition from the military's rank and file.

On April 10, Moldovan authorities reported that they have captured the main organizer of mass anti-government protests that swept the capital Chisinau this past week. The Prosecutor General's office announced that they have in custody Mr. N. Iordan, a Romanian citizen. When authorities searched him, they discovered in his possession maps of Chisinau, photos of administrative buildings and several bottles with "flammable liquids." Mass riots and clashes with police took place in Chisinau on April 7th, 2009 during the opposition protests, whose members were dissatisfied with the results of the April 5 parliamentary elections. The demonstrators stormed the parliament building and the Administration of the President of Moldova, and smashed, looted and set fire to the buildings. Shortly after the riots subsided, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin, leader of the governing Communist Party, said that neighboring Romania was to blame for the unrest. The Ambassador of Romania was quickly expelled from Chisinau. On April 9, the Moldovan Parliament deputies stated that the leadership of the country has evidence that Romanian citizens have participated in the "pogroms," and could be seen on the security videos. The government did not specify how it was able to find out the nationality of rioting persons just by looking at their faces. Meanwhile, Bucharest officially rejected Moldovan claims and stated that it had nothing to do with recent mass protests.

Russian government has so far supported President Voronin's rule in Moldova, as a "guarantor" of sorts against the West's advancing interest in Eastern Europe. Certain Russian commentators are calling for a sobering look at such a political entanglement. Sergey Kolerov, Chief Editor of the "Regnum" Information Agency, argues that when it comes to the question of getting rid of Voronin and Communists in Moldova , Russia and the West are in fact "situational allies": "The problem is that this matter is taking place without the participation of Russia, and since Moscow refuses to intervene in the current situation, it therefore cannot utilize the results of what is taking place in Chisinau. ... There is no doubt that once the opposition leaders take control of the situation in the country, they will then forget about so-called "unity" with their patrons in Romania."[ In late 1980s and early 1990s' Moldova experienced unrest and civil war after the majority of the people called for an actual union with neighboring Romania. A pro-Russian area called Transdniester Republic broke off from Moldova and remains an independent entity to this day.] Kolerov further argues: "The authorities in Russia should remember that by supporting Voronin - the "guarantor of democracy," who uses the Moldovan Constitution as he pleases - Moscow is in fact acting against the will of the overwhelming majority of the citizens of Moldova. If people follow through with the portrait of Voronin - which was thrown out of the windows of government buildings - by tossing the living Voronin out the window, the calls for "cleaning the asphalt of Chisinau with Russian blood" will ring again, just as in the early 1990's. If this is a reflection of public opinion in Moldavia, then this should not surprise Moscow - Russian diplomacy (but not Russia and its citizens!) deserves such an attitude."

Picking up where Moldovan actions left off, mass anti-government protest is taking place in Georgia's capital Tbilisi. "We will do everything to disrupt the work schedule of President[Saakashvili] and his entourage," - promised Levan Gachechiladze, the opposition leader. Gachechiladze was of the opinion that similar actions may soon begin across Georgia. On April 9, the leading opposition parties of Georgia began to protest, demanding the resignation of President Mikhail Saakashvili. Some carried slogans that said: "We will not disperse till the usurper will retire!" and "Misha, don't bite out neckties!"(in reference to this infamous video of stressed-out Saakashvili during last August's armed conflict with Russia.) Others openly shouted "We are so tired of Misha! Why do Americans love him so much?" The protesters gave the president till 4:00pm on April 10 to comply with their demands. Saakashvili did not accept the ultimatum, and expressed his willingness to "dialogue with the opposition", while confirming that he did not intend to leave his post before the expiration of his official duties.

Opponents of the president blame him for drawing Georgia into armed conflict with Russia last August, as well as the for the loss of break-away provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The April 9 rally drew, according to various sources, anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 people, and was peaceful. The participants have dispersed by Thursday evening. Next day, on April 10, a crowd of approximately 20,000-25,000 people gathered in the center of Tbilisi, to continue the protest. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev earlier remarked that he refused to talk to President Saakashvili, and will start dialogue with his eventual replacement.

The echoes of the Russian-Georgian war last year are still felt in Moscow. This time, the Russian Military has recognized one successful item fielded by the Georgians - their use of Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles against advanced Russian army. On April 7, 2009, "Kommersant" newspaper reported that Russia will purchase 3 types of Israeli UAV's to the tune of $50 million, with half the amount already been transferred to the supplier. The selection of foreign UAV's is explained by the fact that Russian developers have not been able to offer Moscow a competitive alternative. Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin explained this decision at the April 10 press conference - Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles will be used to develop principles for the application of such technology, and not for actual military combat. At the same time, Russian military intends to boost the development of domestically-produced unmanned aerial systems. In late February 2009, a senior source in the Defense Ministry announced that by early summer of this year, Russia should develop a new unmanned aerial vehicle for tactical intelligence purposes.

Western Europe: From Mahmoud to Downing Street

Let's start this week's round-up off with a bang: German newspaper Der Spiegel published an interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Saturday. In it, Ahmadinejad speaks at length about George W. Bush, American policy towards Iran, and his view on Barack Obama and the future of Iranian-American relations. Unlike what one would have expected, Der Spiegel did not treat the president with kid gloves. The interview grants the American reader a great glance into the European psyche: on the one hand, Europeans distrust Ahmadinejad and believe diplomacy will most likely be useless; on the other hand, they encourage exactly that - more diplomacy - nonetheless.

Ahmed Marcouch, a Dutchman of Moroccan heritage, made the news this week for taking a rather confrontational approach to make his ethnic minority neighborhood more tolerant towards homosexuals. Muslim immigrants are infamous for their lack of tolerance towards gays and lesbians. Hate-caused violence against them has increased significantly in recent years. Marcouch tries to do something about this growing problem by, among others, opening a gay bar and organizing a soccer match between Moroccan and gay teams.

After tough negotiations, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen was accepted as the new secretary general of NATO. Although most member states had no problem with Rasmussen, Turkey had serious reservations. The prime minister was, Ankara said, outspokenly anti-Turk, anti-Islam, and allowed a pro-PKK network to operate freely in his country. In the end, Rasmussen agreed to do something about the network and he offered his 'political apology' for the infamous Mohammed cartoons that caused major riots in the Muslim world a few years ago. The somewhat hidden apology received much attention in Europe, with many conservatives denouncing Rasmussen for being a 'sellout' and opportunist.

Local Dutch councils that register the ethnic origins of young trouble makers and other at-risk youngsters have been ordered to stop it immediately by the privacy watchdog CBP. "There is no legal foundation for processing ethnic details," the CBP said in a statement on its website. "This means that the use of these particular personal details ... is illegal and should be stopped immediately." The news is a terrific blow to the councils and, of course, to right-wing politicians like Geert Wilders who want to engage in more ethnic profiling rather than in less.

Lastly, trouble in Britain: last week, stories broke saying that senior aides to Prime Minister Gordon Brown had sent slanderous emails about Tory and opposition leader David Cameron to a host of people. Saturday, aide Damian McBride was forced to resign. In his emails, McBride spread rumors (to other Laborites) about the private lives of Cameron and his fellow Tory leaders. Even though the aide from hell was fired, the Tories are slammed Downing Street No. 10 nonetheless: Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling said: "If this is symptomatic of the culture of Downing Street under Gordon Brown's leadership it is a disgrace. What on earth are Gordon Brown's team doing indulging in the politics of the gutter when they should be sorting out the very real problems of the country."

The above should be comforting to Americans who can now realize that American politicians are not the only ones who love to play it dirty.

The writer is editor of PoliGazette.com.

China: Healthcare Reform

The big news in China last week was the unveiling of the government's healthcare reform plan that would seek to provide "safe, effective, convenient, and affordable" health services to the entire population by 2020. The government is planning to spend 850 billion yuan (US$124 billion) towards building new rural hospitals and clinics and will regulate the prices of "essential" medicines. Different tiers of health insurance will be set up to cover citizens according to their employment status and whether they are urban or rural.

This is significant because affordable healthcare is not in the reach of the vast majority of Chinese citizens. As a result, families tend to save more in case a health emergency should occur. American economists who complain about Chinese currency manipulation have long called for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government to implement measures to lower the national savings rate and stimulate domestic consumption (see this Senate hearing testimony from the Peterson Institute for Intenational Economics for an example). This healthcare reform plan seems to be an answer to their wishes.

In the Southern Metropolis Daily, one of China's leading commercial newspapers, Beijing-based economist Chen Qinglan writes that this plan is a step in the wrong direction:

True healthcare reform must have a clear direction, and that should be to stimulate the supply of healthcare services and products. This is the path towards truly solving the healthcare system's problems. Specifically, we should: 1. Cancel restrictions on the inflow of private and foreign capital and open up the market. Encourage private capital to purchase stock and buy up public hospitals. Completely open up the healthcare market no matter whether it is for non-profit or for-profit hospitals. Allow private capital and public interest organizations to freely participate; 2. Cancel regulation of drug prices and let the market determine the prices of medicine and healthcare services. This would rationalize the allocation of healthcare resources; 3. Break the monpolistic and privileged position of public hospitals. The tasks of managing and supervising public hospitals by government health departments should be separated; 4. Open up the health insurance market; 5. Open up the establishment of privately-run medical schools and training organizations to stimulate the cultivation and supply of healthcare professionals.

By marching out under the banner of "public interest" and denying marketization, the government is comprehensively intervening in public healthcare services and returning to the planned model of the past. We will definitely be beset by inadequate supply of healthcare services, subpar service quality, non-proactive doctors, slowdown of technical innovation, and other old problems, once again falling into a vicious cycle. Once this model fails, it will be the people who pick up the bill.

Chen's criticism is timely in light of the fact that last month, Chang Gung, a hospital group founded by late-Taiwanese entrepreneur Wang Yung-ching, was forced to scale back its plans to expand into two more Chinese cities because its flagship hospital in Xiamen was having trouble hiring sufficient doctors and nurses and running at a profit. The Chinese government does not allow Chang Gung to register as a non-profit entity, so it does not enjoy the tax breaks and subsidies that are available to local public hospitals. The CCP's healthcare reform proposal does not seem to address this problem.

April 10, 2009

Jonah Goldberg's Realist Straw Man

I'm not sure why Jonah Goldberg decided to conflate realists with liberals in this column of his, but needless to say that the two are not the same.

Goldberg does go on to say "that it is impossible to keep our values out of foreign policy, and it would be dangerous to try."

This is a frequent jab leveled at realists, that they're somehow "amoral." And yet, I read a lot of realists and I don't see much in the way of amorality or some kind of disdain for American values. What I do find is a reluctance to see American leaders engage in moral preening, which sadly passes for "values" in much of the contemporary discourse on foreign policy these days. (Just look at the rather bizarre over-reaction to Obama's mild apologies overseas.)

UPDATE: Daniel Larison has more:

The way to tell an ideologue from a realist, and the reason realists are not simply ideologues posing as something else, is that the ideologue will persist in a course of action long after it has failed and long after everyone knows it has failed because he thinks that his “values” demand it. Instead of “let justice be done, though the heavens fall,” the ideologue says, “I am right, and the world can go to hell if it doesn’t agree.” The ideologue is terrified of having to make adjustments and adapt to the world as it really is, because these adjustments reveal to the ideologue just how far removed from that reality he has become. The ideologue keeps redefining the justification for the policy, he keeps rewriting history to suit his own purposes, and he never accepts responsibility for the failure of his ideas, because he believes they have never been faithfully followed. For the realist, cutting one’s losses and reassessing the merits of a policy are always supposed to be possibilities, but for the ideologue the former is equivalent to surrender and the latter is inconceivable. In his greatest confusion of all, Goldberg manages to mix up realists with their opposites.
Well said.

What a More Humble America Can't Do

While I don't share Charles Krauthammer's outrage over the tepid mea culpas offered up by President Obama during his overseas trip, I will agree on one point: they're not going to accomplish much.

Substituting rhetoric for policy is a bi-partisan problem. Conservatives apparently believe that the only proper rhetorical posture for a U.S. President abroad is self-righteousness. Liberals want a more humble tone. Neither, however, is actually interested in changing the equation that motivates Europeans to take a blase attitude toward American requests.

A U.S. that withdrew from NATO (as suggested by Andrew Bacevich) and began dismantling its German military bases would, I think, sharpen some minds.

Hitching Our Wagon to Saakashvili

The massive protests in Georgia should serve as a fairly good reminder that the West should be far more parsimonious with its security blanket.

During the Russian-Georgian war, we were frequently told that Georgia deserved our support because she was a democracy. Yet according to Gallop, many Georgians are disaffected with their democratic institutions:


None of this means that Georgia should therefore become a Russian satellite state. But just how much U.S. credibility and prestige should we be putting on the line?

April 9, 2009

Gates' Military Transformation


CATO's Benjamin Friedman makes a good observation:

The current American love affair with counterinsurgency has resulted in a gradual shift of dollars from the conventional budget to the unconventional one. We are reversing the old idea that the American way of war is to replace labor with capital, or manpower with technology. We are becoming a land power first.

All of this mostly because of the supposed lessons of the Iraq war. What's ironic is that, had the Bush administration listened to Obama's advice in 2003 and not invaded Iraq, there's a good bet we wouldn't even be having this debate over counter-insurgency. I still don't understand why someone who ostensibly opposed the Iraq war would want his defense secretary to configure a military to fight future wars of this kind.

Photo via jamesdeal10 under a CC License.

April 8, 2009

Moldovan Protesters Twitter Away

According to Russian daily "Izvestia," Molodvan protesters in Chisinau decided to take a more high-tech approach to challenge the government: "It is no longer enough or even modern to take over mail or telegraph stations. Young people prefer to use "modern toys." Organizers of the Chisinau disorder, and their "supporters," coordinated their actions through the Twitter social network. ... The user of this social network can easily find any information by "tagging it." Such tags were used for the communication actors in Chisinau, mobilizing those wishing to join in the protest."

Izvestia further reports that after the first night of protests it became clear that if the government is indeed resolved to disperse protesters, its police batons and water cannons are not enough - Moldovan President Voronin's police and army force is too small (it numbers only 6,000 people). Izvestia further reports that President's HQ was ready to start shooting at protesters Wednesday afternoon. According to Mark Tkachuk, Voronin's Head of the Election Headquarters: "What our political opponents did last night during the first night of protests is forcing them either to move forward to the end, or to surrender. ... For them, surrender is psychologically difficult, while it's also not possible to go to the probable conclusion of their actions."

Tkachuk further stated: "President Voronin made it clear that the government's refusal yesterday to use force was unprecedented, since we saw that children - school children and adolescents - were used as human shields by the putschists. Already yesterday, the government had every reason to use firearms. But today, we decided: there will be no mercy! If today's actions should worsen, will speak the language of military methods."

Obama's Grand Strategy In Focus?


David Sanger makes a go at discerning one, with the caveat that it's still way too early to determine any. One interesting section of Sanger's piece had to do with nuclear disarmament:

It was when Mr. Obama turned to his vision of a nuclear-weapons-free future, during a speech in Prague, that strategic vision began to trump symbolism.

It is a strategy based on a bet: That if the world’s first nuclear-armed state demonstrated a willingness to sharply reduce its atomic arsenal, ban nuclear testing and cut off the worldwide production of more bomb-grade material, its reluctant allies and partners around the world would be far more likely to rewrite nuclear treaties and enforce sanctions against North Korea and Iran.

Part of me wonders whether the Obama administration really is as naive as its conservative critics charge, or whether something else is at work. Ultimately, Obama, like his predecessor, is not going to launch wars against either country to disarm them (unless they do something incredibly rash, which can't be ruled out). But he has to do something. So why not this? It's not as if these efforts are in place of economic sanctions.

Nor is there any material harm done by it. The U.S. will retain enough nuclear capability to kill large numbers of people no matter what arms control agreements or international proliferation regimes we sign onto.

Peru's Fujimori: Guilty


Former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori has been found guilty of ordering killings and kidnappings during the war with "Shinning Path" Maoist guerrillas, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Fujimori is the first democratically-elected Latin American president to be found guilty of human rights crimes in his own country.

Fujimori was tried for ordering the 1991 killings at the Barrios Altos area of Lima, where 15 people died, and the killings at La Cantuta University in 1992, along with the kidnappings of journalist Gustavo Gorriti, a correspondent for Spanish daily El País, and businessman Samuel Dyer, who were abducted to the basement of the army's Intelligence Service.

Perú21.pe (h/t A Colombo-Americana) has a video of the judge reading the verdict while Fujimori takes notes. The judge stated that all charges were proved beyond reasonable doubt.

The Perú21 website's article states that Fujimori's sentence was read at 9 a.m. amid intense security. The prior night there were vigils and demonstrations by both Fujimori supporters and the families of the victims. Two thousand policemen were on duty in the area of the Diroes (Dirección de Operaciones Especiales, or Special Opreration Director) building.

The trial lasted 16 months. He had fled to Japan in 2000 while he was still president when his administration collapsed from corruption charges, and went to Chile in 2005, where he was arrested by Chilean police and extradited to Peru in 2007.

Fujimori was in power from 1990 to 2000. He dissolved congress in 1992 and reinstated it in 1995, winning re-election in 1995 and 2000. During his presidency

He cut the inflation rate from 7,650 percent in 1990 to 3.5 percent in 1999, according to Peru’s National Statistics Institute, by eliminating subsidies and price controls, floating the currency and selling off money-losing state companies in the early 1990s
In December 1996 fourteen MRTA terrorists (Emerretistas) seized the Japanese ambassador's residence and held 400 guests hostage. After releasing all but 72, they remained in a standoff until April 22, 1997, when military commandos raided the building and freed the hostages. Fujimori crushed the Shinning Path terrorists, which had killed an estimated 69,000 Peruvians. Fujimorismo remains a popular political movement.

Fujimori, whose daughter is a member of Peru's congress, announced he will appeal the sentence.

How To Win Friends and Influence Foreign Policy

Thinking a little bit more about Newt Gingrich's appearance on Fox News, it strikes me as almost sad, in a way. Perhaps President Obama mishandled the North Korean missile launch. Here are Gingrich's alternatives:

1. "bribe someone to blow it up"
2. "send a small team in"
3. "use lasers or another kind of device" to blow it up

The unifying theme here is that these are not serious answers. They're simply meant to make President Obama look feckless.

Ultimately, though, I wonder if people come away from the interview thinking that Gingrich is fundamentally not a serious person when it comes to foreign policy, or do they come away thinking that Obama is weak for not sending in a "small team" to infiltrate North Korea and blow up the missile on the launch pad?

UPDATE: For an example of a serious objection and counter proposal, see this piece by Joshua Stanton in the New Ledger.

April 7, 2009

A Nuclear Hedge Against Aliens


Thomas P.M. Barnett is not keen on nuclear abolition:

Abolition is a bad idea. Keeping our nukes up to date is a very good idea.

The system is nowhere near prepared or integrated enough to abolish nuclear weapons, and even if it was, I'd keep them on the sheer assumption that not everybody and everything I might meet in space someday is going to like me.

Aliens aside, I don't understand why Obama would waste any political capital on nuclear abolition. It will never happen. That ship sailed decades ago. Nor should it happen. The U.S. could definitely stand to trim her supply of nukes, but should always keep a sufficient number on hand to credibly threaten any nuclear adversary.

Photo via jurvetson under a CC License.

April 6, 2009

Dept. of Helpful Suggestions: North Korean Edition

Newt Gingrich offers some:

I leave it to you to decide whether Gingrich was really being serious.

America Leads, Who Follows?

Peter Feaver at Foreign Policy has an excellent post on the dynamic between the U.S. and Europe:

But the truth is, the issues that bedevil Obama are the very same ones that bedeviled President Bush, and having a more popular leader at the top may not do much to change the underlying conflicts of interest.

On many issues, our European partners are more like "in-laws" than "allies." In-laws are people who share a common identity, even a shared long-term and enduring covenant, and this common identity is strong enough (usually) to outlast many frequent (and sometimes stormy) conflicts of interest. Allies submerge their conflicts of interests in order to accomplish an overriding goal, typically victory against a common enemy.

I think one of the big conceptual challenges in American foreign policy in the post Cold War era is internalizing the fact that without the Soviet Union to focus the mind, most countries aren't interested in subsuming their interests to Washington's decrees (this is now doubly true on economic policy, where Washington's credibility is at its nadir). We see this most clearly with Iran and North Korea, where other nations are putting their own interests (trade and regional stability) ahead of America's disarmament goals.

In an ideal situation, the U.S. would accommodate this divergence of interests by ceding security responsibility for nations like Iran and North Korea to the regional powers most directly at risk. If these powers still value trade with Iran or stability in North Korea over disarmament, then so be it. It's their neighborhood.

April 5, 2009

Europe: All Summit, All the Time

Here are a few reactions to the last few days' G20 events in London, Strasbourg and Prague. All translations are mine.

“Que Vive le G20!” hailed French daily Le Monde in an editorial on Friday. Stopping short of declaring a "new world order," the paper does proclaim that

London just killed the G8. It’s this annual summit, between the Americans, Japanese and Europeans, that made a claim to manage somewhat the affairs of the planet, despite being wholly unrepresentative of today’s world. The G20 properly reflects the division of economic power at the beginning of the 21st century: gaining in power, everyday more evident, are giants of the “global south” including China, India and Brazil. Even while excluding Africa, the G20 is more representative than the UN Security Council, the composition of which reflects the balance of power that issued from World War II.”

The left-leaning daily lays the blame for the economic crisis squarely at the feet of the United States, and talks about how U.S. President Obama deals with that perception, using Obama’s maneuverings between the Chinese and the French on the topic of tax havens as an example.

“The episode illustrates the approach Obama employed throughout his first international summit: in the background, almost withdrawn, minding to not focus attention on the American position, even knowing that is the object of scrutiny, above all because the United States is the author of the crisis. The G20 members had enough tact not to make him acknowledge that too much, he said, even if there were smatterings of remarks about “Wall Street” or “this or that bank.”

Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad this morning noted one example of the process and cost of Obama’s negotiating method. Obama spoke with Turkish President Abdullah Gul, seeking to bring Turkey into the fold after the controversial appointment of Danish Premier Anders Fogh Rasmussen as NATO’s Secretary General.

The American President Obama spoke with his Turkish colleague Gul (Saturday) morning and guaranteed that the new secretary general would appoint a Turk as one of his undersecretaries-general, said Premier Erdogan, from Ankara. Turkey would also receive more high-level positions at NATO military headquarters.

The Netherlands’ other paper of record, Volkskrant, issued its own note of approval on Rasmussen:

... Rasmussen ... is above all pragmatic. He is intelligent, socially capable, and has an aversion to big theories and intellectual debates: characteristics that make him well-suited to lead an organization like NATO, with its diverse membership.

Italian journalist Enrico Franceschini, writing in his blog on La Repubblica, has a long list of “consequences” of the summit. Among them:

... Multilateralism is back, after eight years during which Bush’s America strove to do everything by itself (with visible military, political and economic results). Not only is a problem that once would have been handled by the G8 now entrusted to some twenty countries and institutions, but the IMF and the World Bank are again in the foreground as agents of any solution ...
... The “ultra-liberal” market is no longer dogma ...
... “Old Europe,” as American Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld used to dismiss it in the early days of the Iraq war, is not in decline, is still there and continues to matter, with France and Germany as its guiding axis, and everyone acknowledges its weight ...
... China made its debut as a 21st-century power on a world stage. President Hu Jintao dusted off Teddy Roosevelt’s old motto, “Speak softly and carry a big stick;” which in their case is 1.2 billion Chinese and the “hottest” economy on the planet ...

It was a rough weekend for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Or was it? The media mogul-turned-perennial-leader blamed his succession of gaffes over the weekend on ... the Italian media; which he accused of calumny, and wished out loud - very loud - that some form of action could be taken.

“I don’t want to go so far as to talk about direct and harsh actions against certain newspapers and certain protagonists of the press - he told journalists - but I’m tempted to, because this is no way to behave.” To the journalist who asked him what kind of actions could be taken, the premier answered: “Do you think if I tell Italians to no longer watch one channel or another, no-one will listen?”

In his Geopolitique blog, Le Figaro journalist Pierre Rousselin claims that in the space of a few days, Obama will have launched the auspices for a changed transatlantic relationship.

That paper’s reporting, on the other hand, emphasizes, as Le Monde’s, the display of strength by the Franco-German alliance:

“On the political front, the prize of the summit goes, without contest, to the Franco-German leadership, able as it was to impose its will on the final communique: pushing for regulation as precise as possible on financial markets, including international regulation. “It’s beyond what we could have hoped for!” exclaimed Nicolas Sarkozy.

Over in Spain, in the meantime, El Pais previews President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s upcoming encounter with Obama, comparing the meeting to the relationship between former Presidents Bush and Aznar, in order to highlight the very different circumstances between now and six years ago:

Zapatero will never be invited to Obama’s ranch as Bush invited Aznar in February 2003. Because Obama has no ranch, because Zapatero is not his friend, and because the friendship between Bush and Aznar solidified around Bush’s disagreements with the most important European leaders of the era, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroder, on the invasion of Iraq. Finally, because Zapatero is not willing to break with Sarkozy and Merkel to draw closer to the White House ...

... The Spanish stimulus package amounts to 3.5 percent of GDP, leading its EU counterparts. There were reasons to side with Obama in demanding more effort from the former. Zapatero preferred to side with France and Germany’s position that the effects of current stimulus efforts should bear themselves out before more are attempted.

Another reason Zapatero isn’t leaping to the American position, of course, is the strain put on the relationship between the two countries during the Bush years: just one of many tears that must be mended. They get their first chance at 3 p.m. today. Zapatero presented today the EU’s foreign policy priorities to Obama during the pair’s first formal meeting.

Joel Weickgenant is a freelance journalist, photographer and blogger. His work can be read and viewed at http://weickgenant.com.

Surprising Poll Result of the Day: Bombing North Korea


Apropos today's launch, Rasmussen Reports says the American public is ready to go to blows with Kim Jong-Il:

If North Korea launches a long-range missile, should the United States take military action to eliminate North Korea’s ability to launch missiles?

57% Yes
15% No
28% Not sure

Now, perhaps people interpreted this question as North Korea launching a long-range missile at us vs. just launching it up into space. Still, that number is much higher than I would have guessed.

Photo via jurveston under a CC License.

Russia: Medvedev Speaks Frankly on G20

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was generally satisfied with his meetings at the G20 Summit in London, having covered a wide range of issues - from the economy to global security to relations with America and with Russian neighbors.

At a press conference after the summit, President Medvedev called the forum a major step forward compared to the previous one. "If the first summit in Washington was somewhat introductory - some of the things that we discussed were very general in nature - now, it is very different," said the Russian leader. According to him, the joint declaration that has just been adopted contains a very specific set of topics and decisions on overcoming the global financial and economic crisis. "In this sense, I believe that the work which was carried out, culminated in the proper result. This is a step forward, a step in the right direction," said Medvedev, admitting also that the attending parties have not been able to resolve all issues.

Medvedev also stressed that G20 members will get back to discussing the idea of a "supranational currency," which has been suggested by the Russian side: "No one expected that today we are going to take a decision on this subject. The challenge now is for our national currencies to feel normal, but that does not mean that we are satisfied with the overall situation of national reserve currencies," explained the President. Medvedev also remained positive on his meeting with the US President Barack Obama, calling him a "constructive man" who gave very specific answers to the questions raised: "I am glad that I got acquainted with the President of the United States. It was a good meeting. It seemed to me that we have been able to establish contact. There are many topics on which he and I see eye-to-eye - that I can say with absolute precision," said Medvedev, stating that there were still differences with the American side on many issues.

One common area with the US is the issue of financial bonuses at companies that are receiving government assistance. According to Medvedev, heads and CEOs of companies that get such assistance must "behave decently" and limit the size of their bonuses: "It is up to the companies whether to pay bonuses or not. But if a company is public or a company is owned by the state in whole or in substantial part, I believe that our dear managers, directors of the companies must practice self-restraint, even if they already have agreed to pay a high compensation," said Russian President.

At the summit, President Medvedev also spoke with the students at the London School of Economics, answering questions on Russia's relationship with the West and NATO. He briefly touched on the subject of protests in London, which led to some unrest in the city, saying that people should have the right to protest, but that he gets tense when talking about it: "I grew up in a country where there have been many revolutions, and I am always careful when referring to such popular expressions of discontent," joked Medvedev.

Russian president called on NATO to be more responsible when making decisions, not to create problems for themselves and not to exacerbate relations with its neighbors, including with Moscow: "NATO needs to think about that, to preserve the unity and not to create problems with its neighbors. Before you decide to increase the size of the alliance, think about the consequences," stressed Medvedev, adding that "... frankly I told all this to my new comrade Barack Obama." According to the Russian President, NATO should be responsible for making these kind of decisions and act on the principle of "do no harm": "You need to think about what would be the relations within the alliance, because the admission of new members brings new responsibilities and new challenges," said Medvedev, noting that "it's not easy to talk to all NATO members," although he declined to mention specific countries.

Turning to the issue of missile defense in Europe, Russian President once again called the possible placement of such a system an "error on the conscience" of the previous U.S. administration: "I think that all sorts of protective measures, such as missile defense - namely, a means of protection, including from threats that come from nations with unstable regimes - these kind of protective measures should be implemented together", said Medvedev, adding that many of his European colleagues share this stance. However, he encouraged those present at the London School of Economics briefing that "there is every chance that Russia would not need to deploy its Iskander missile systems in the Kaliningrad region in response to the deployment of U.S. missile defense system in Europe: "We had a conversation on this subject with the President of the United States. At least I can say that today, there is a desire from the United States to listen to our arguments. They do not try to cut us off and say that this issue is resolved."

Responding to the question from a Georgian student, Dmitry Medvedev stated that he does not want to have any relations with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, or to communicate with him: "Everything that happened during last summer in the Caucasus is on the conscience of the Georgian leadership. This is my official stance. If the power ... changes [in Georgia], I am ready to discuss any topic. Russia wanted to have kind and good relations with Georgia."

Meanwhile, Georgia would like to continue its security relationship with the United States, and recently offered to send its troops to Afghanistan. President Saakashvili announced this initiative at a briefing with the Deputy Chairman of the Joint Staff of the US Armed Forces General James Cartwright. However, experts are certain that Georgians will not receive special dividends even if a limited contingent of Georgian troops will get to Afghanistan. An example of such reasoning is the fact that no meeting recently took place between US Vice President Biden and the Speaker of Georgian Parliament David Bakradze. At the briefing with Saakashvili, when General Cartwright unexpectedly advised Georgia to maintain peaceful relations with its neighbors, the pro-government TV company "Rustavi-2" quickly interrupted a live broadcast.

Mexico: Time for a Plan B

Mexico has longed complained about the ease with which drug lords can obtain high-powered weapons from the United States. Understanding the domestic political restraints to stricter gun control laws in the United States (Mexico’s gun laws are much stricter), Mexican and American officials seem to be opting for plan B: better monitoring at the border.

Following a high-profile visit from Hillary Clinton last week, Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano both went to Mexico to meet with their counterparts and to discuss arms control and anti-narcotics cooperation. Sec. Napolitano announced plans to spend more than $400 million to enhance surveillance equipment and entry ports along the border. Mexico, for its part, will expand a pilot program launched in Matamoros that calls for greater inspections for trucks entering into Mexico. Sec. Holder tried to assure his Mexican counterparts that the loose American gun laws would not impede the United States from attacking the illegal trafficking of arms.

Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said that Mexico and the United States have decided to share information and to work together to investigate and fight arms smuggling. However, President Felipe Calderon, from the G-20 summit in London, emphatically rejected the possibility of any joint military operations with the United States. Mexicans remain highly suspicious of the American military, a view that goes back to the Mexican-American war from 1846-48.

Secs. Holder and Napolitano were greeted in Mexico on Thursday with the news that Mexican authorities had captured one of the top drug lords for the Juarez Cartel. Vicente Carrillo Leyva, 32, was captured while exercising in a park near his home in Mexico City. He is the son of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the former leader of the Juarez Cartel who died in 1997 during plastic surgery. Despite the success of Carrillo’s capture, Mexico’s message remains the same. If the United States continues to arm drug traffickers, then Mexico’s efforts will be in vain.

Ecuador Backs U.S. Dollar

Bloomberg's headline, Correa Threatens Jail for Spreading Rumors on Ecuador Currency, points to the story-behind-the-story:

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said that people spreading rumors about the introduction of a new currency instead of the U.S. Dollar will be jailed.

Rumors of a new currency threaten to destabilize the economy, Correa told reporters today at the presidential palace in Quito. In December, he denied rumors of a forced closure of banks.

“This president guarantees to you that there is no plan whatsoever to exit dollarization,” he said. “It’s another vile calumny by eternal opponents who hope to win a few votes in the next elections.”

When you click on the link to "vile calumny" it takes you to an article Ecuadorian journalist Rómulo López Sabando wrote last week.

April 4, 2009

Al Qaeda vs. the Soviet Union

Peter Robinson interviews retired General Jack Keane:

Even though Keane entered the armed forces at the height of the cold war, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union both bristled with nuclear weapons, he believes the country is in greater danger today. Since the Soviet Union "did not want its own country destroyed," Keane argued, "mutual assured destruction made sense to both of us." Now, however, we are "dealing with radicals ... [who] want to use weapons of mass destruction against the people of the United States."

In the face of such dangers, Keane insisted, our armed forces are simply inadequate.

This is a fairly striking claim. Leave aside the nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union had a massive conventional army, huge industrial base, a demonstrated willingness to coerce and overthrow governments around the world, and in the early days of the Cold War, a large number of sympathizers (and spies) in the West.

Al Qaeda - though very dangerous - has none of that.

U.S to Lift Some Cuba Travel Curbs

Following up on the Lugar Report recommendations,

Today the Wall Street Journal reports that President Obama plans to lift U.S. restrictions on Cuba, allowing Cuban-Americans to visit families there as often as they like and to send them unlimited funds.

The $410 billion omnibus spending bill that Congress approved last month changed travel restrictions to once a year. That bill was followed by a controversial letter from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to Sens. Menendez, Nelson and Martinez involving agricultural travel restrictions.

Aside from saying in today's announcement that President Obama "plans to lift restrictions" to allow Cuban-Americans to visit families there as often as they like, the timing is interesting, too:

The timing of the announcement is unclear, but several Cuba experts have speculated that it could come ahead of this month's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.
The announcement did not specify whether the President would issue a signing statement or executive order. The embargo is law and as such would have to be lifted by an act of Congress.

I was talking to Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) last Wednesday. He specified the conditions for lifting the embargo: I quote his words directly,

“If the Cuban government were to release all political prisoners, allow freedom of expression, and allow a true electoral process, then we could see lifting the embargo.”
Last month the Cuban government ruled out any preconditions on improving relations.

On the island, the news of the easing of travel restrictions to Cuba by Americans has been greeted warmly. The Cuban media, however, remained silent.

The Point Often Missed

Laura Secor nails it on Iranian behavior:

For too long in this country, our debate has turned on the simplistic question of whether the Iranian regime is pragmatic or ideological in its foreign policy, and therefore whether we should talk to it or threaten it. In my view, it is pragmatic, and we should talk to it. But to say that the Iranian regime is pragmatic is to say that it pursues its interests, rather than acting on ideological conviction at all costs. It does not tell us what the Iranian regime's interests are.

There can be no more urgent interest than the regime's own survival, which is threatened by internal pressure for democratization. The anti-American and anti-Israeli stances bind the hardliners to their small but loyal and heavily armed constituency, and they furnish a pretext for domestic repression, as members of the opposition are jailed and tarred with accusations of participating in American or Zionist plots to overthrow the government. To give up this trump card--the non-relationship with the United States, the easy evocation of an external bogeyman--would be costly for the Iranian leadership. It would be a Gorbachevian signal that the revolution is entering a dramatically new phase--one Iran's leaders cannot be certain of surviving in power.

Read the rest at TNR.

April 3, 2009



I must admit, I really don't get the conservative hysteria over President Obama's apparent bow to King Abdullah. I find this kind of petty nitpicking - like harping over whether or not the First Lady should have hugged Queen Elizabeth- to be rather pedantic and wasteful.

This is precisely the kind of sniping that would drive conservatives crazy when it was President Bush in office. Rather than transcending this sort of stuff, they instead choose to embrace it. Scott Johnson of Power Line writes:

What's wrong with this picture? Americans do not bow to royalty. In my view, when the royal is the ruling tyrant of a despotic regime, the wrong is compounded. Putting aside the breach of American protocol, it is akin to Jimmy Carter succumbing to Brezhnev's infamous kiss at the signing of the arms accord in Vienna in 1979. It is a disgrace. As in Carter's case, Obama's supplicant attitude signifies his spirit. In this respect I distinguish it from George Bush's otherwise embarrasing handholding with the the king.

This is the part where I'm supposed to go dig up pictures of President Bush holding hands with that very same monarch, or maybe unearth a picture of Don Rumsfeld embracing a tyrant.

But I'm not going to do that, because this stuff is ridiculous. Google works just fine, so readers can have at it if they'd like. What I'd like to do instead is participate in debates and discussions on policy, rather than arguing over these cosmetic issues. President Bush never bowed to the Saudi royalty; he merely enabled their oppressive and radical regime for nearly eight years.

If President Obama can redirect American policy towards the Saudis I can deal with a few perfunctory gestures now and then.

April 2, 2009

The Afghan "Rape" Law

The American commitment to state building in Afghanistan makes us a party to stuff like this:

A new Afghan law makes it legal for men to rape their wives, human rights groups and some Afghan lawmakers said Thursday, accusing President Hamid Karzai of signing the legislation to bolster his re-election prospects. Critics worry the legislation undermines hard-won rights for women enacted after the fall of the Taliban's strict Islamist regime.

The law — which some lawmakers say was never debated in parliament — is intended to regulate family life inside Afghanistan's Shiite community, which makes up about 20 percent of this country of 30 million people. The law does not affect Afghan Sunnis.

Ultimately the U.S. can't legislate Afghan family life for the Afghans, regardless of how barbaric it is. But we should take a long hard look at just how much we want to invest in state building in the country if this is how they use their new found democratic institutions.

April 1, 2009

President Obama: 'Spasibo!'

At his meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, President Obama spoke his first official Russian word. At the end, he said "Spasibo!" (Thank you!) to a surprised audience. Obama continued: "I am also learning the Russian language, but President Medvedev knows English better than I know Russian."

He also tried to joke about his upcoming July visit to Moscow: "It will be warmer in July than in January." For those who did not catch up right away, he explained that the relations between Russia and the U.S. will be warmer as well.

For his part, President Medvedev said that he and Obama even had time to talk about their respective legal education.

Iraqi History Repeats Itself

Before the Iraq war, liberals tended to argue against the invasion on the grounds that it would result in a quagmire, a humanitarian catastrophe and potentially a regional meltdown. Conservatives said the invasion would be a cakewalk and that we'd be greeted as liberators. Both turned out to be right.

Conservatives were right that deposing Saddam was, by historical standards, a swift operation with minimal casualties. Many Iraqis did welcome American troops as liberators. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, conservatives claimed vindication.

But then liberals turned out to be correct about the longer-term prospects - U.S. forces became bogged down in an insurgency and sectarian civil war. Refugees poured from the country. Civilian deaths soared.

History appears to be repeating itself with respect to the surge. Many conservatives said additional forces were needed to quell the insurgency while liberals said it would be insufficient to forge the political accommodations necessary to ensure long-term peace and stability. And, lo and behold, violence is down and conservatives are proclaiming victory on the basis of several months of calm.

Now, the New York Times and Time are reporting that elements of al Qaeda in Iraq are infiltrating many of the Sunni militia groups the U.S. had managed to flip. Alissa Rubin in the Times reports that the hard core remnants of the Baath party are partnered up with al Qaeda and still represent a potentially potent source of violence as the U.S. begins to depart.

Does this mean that liberals will ultimately be vindicated again? I hope not. We will know more about the durability of the current calm in Iraq as the U.S. begins to withdraw. But it's not simply partisan peevishness that makes some people reluctant to declare victory.

Doha Brief: Chávez Invites Bashir to Venezuela


Hugo Chávez is visiting Doha, along with 11 other South American leaders, who, and 22 leaders of the Arab League seek to find common ground ahead of the G20 summit that starts on Thursday. While the Doha meeting is held in Qatar, Saudi Arabia is the only Arab League country that will be present at the G20.

As he has previously stated, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is pushing for the reform of international organizations. Chile's Michelle Bachelet called for the Arab and South American nations to show that "we are walking together." Hugo Chávez called for "the final fall of the American empire," as he usually does.

Chávez joined the Arab League in rejecting the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court on Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for alleged war crimes in Darfur. Even though Venezuela is a signatory to the ICC since 1998, Chávez insists that the ICC “has no power to make a decision against a sitting president, but does so because it is an African country, the third world.”

Not one to demure, Chávez then went further, and invited al-Bashir to Caracas (my translation):

"Today I talked to al-Bashir and I asked him what risks does he run when he travels around here. I invited him to Caracas but told him, 'I hope you don't have any problems over there'."

His speech, which was the only speech applauded before it started, also called for the ICC to prosecute former U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli President Shimon Peres.


I played the audio of Chávez speech in Spanish and translated it to English during my morning podcast. You can listen to it here.

« March 2009 | Blog Home Page | May 2009 »