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May 31, 2009

Egypt Frees Detained Russian Students

According to Russian Information Agency RIA-Novosti, Egyptian authorities on Saturday released eight Russian students. The agency referenced the representatives of the consular department of the Russian Embassy in Cairo. 34 Russian students at Al-Azhar University in Cairo were arrested on the night of May 27. Egyptian authorities have not yet announced the cause of detention of students - mostly from the North Caucasus republics of the Russian Federation.

Four Russian nationals were released immediately after verification of documents, as confirmed by representatives of the consular department of the Russian Embassy. Eight Russians were released on Saturday, May 30. Another 22 people remain in detention.

In addition to students from Russia, several dozen citizens of other states, including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, as well as France and Great Britain, were arrested on the night of May 27. Earlier on Saturday, two Tajik students and five citizens of Kazakhstan were also released. Russian diplomats sent an official note to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Egypt, demanding an explanation. Embassy staff will seek a meeting with the detained Russians to guarantee their legitimate rights.

Russia: Some Confidence Amid Economic Warnings

Russian political establishment is brimming with rumors over possible "retirement" or "alternate promotion" for Anatoly Srdyukov, the country's Defense Minister. Currently, he took two weeks off for vacation, which he will spend in Russia. As reported by the daily "Izvestia", "according to experts, there are many formal reasons for the departure of Defense Minister Serdyukov. The main reason is the reversal of military reforms that he championed for a long time In fact, recently, Defense Minister admitted that the country will have to wait with the formation of the "new" Armed Forces. Even the redesign of the military uniform itself has been canceled - the army has no money. The ongoing reduction of all troops from 1.2 million to 1 million active personnel has not gone well - officers complained about lack of severance payments and lack of promised housing."

There are even predictions of possible successors to Serdykov - all of them with actual military experience and credentials. However, Kremlin officially refutes Serdyukov's possible resignation. "There is no reason for this - this is nothing more than unfounded rumors," a high-ranking source told "Izvestia." The paper notes that at a recent military panel, President Dmitry Medvedev publicly and fully supported Serdyukov's military reforms.

While Russian economists and politicians are battling the ever growing economic downturn across the country, Russian defense exporters are preparing for a brighter outlook for domestic military hardware. Russian helicopter industry is gearing up for the global growth in civilian, military and dual-use rotocraft. In order to gauge the global demand, Moscow launched in 2008 an exposition called "HeliRussia", in which domestic and international companies exhibit their products for an international audience. According to Andrei Reus, Chairman of "Oboronprom" Defense holding - which includes domestic helicopter producers - Russia is steadily gaining momentum in rotocraft production. This year alone, the holding company plans to produce 200 new helicopters, and by 2015 - to take 15% of the world rotorcraft market.

Heli Russia took place in Moscow for the second time, aiming to demonstrate the achievements in the design, construction and maintenance of helicopters. Chairman Reus is optimistic: the portfolio of orders for the helicopters produced in Russia is 400 units for the next few years. Oboronprom's ultimate aim - to bring sale profits to 400 billion rubles($13 billion). Given such a huge number, is such a prognosis realistic, with intense competition from American and European firms in the global rotocraft industry?

It appears Russian helicopter companies are not just banking on the new orders, but on the long-term maintenance of existing machines all over the world. This year, domestic designers have something to be proud of - they started serial production of two combat helicopter models - Mi-28N and Ka-52. There is also ongoing work on the new transport helicopter Mi-38, which will soon be presented to the international as well as the domestic market. The situation for the domestic helicopter industry is so optimistic that for the first time in many years, Russian engineers started talking about launching work on a fundamentally new class of high-speed next-generation helicopters. This project will be the joint work of "Kamov" and "Mil" companies, which are designing Ka-92 and M-X1 models. Both are still in the mock-up stage - however, according to the chief designer of "Kamov Helicopters" Sergey Mikheev, designers in both firms are actively working on the concepts. Both firms are trying to catch up and compete with American "Sikorsky" company, which is developing X1 and X2 high speed helicopters with reconnaissance and intelligence applications. However, even with the new and advanced machines up win the air, the world will still fly on older Mi-8 Soviet-made models for the next 40 years, according to designer Mikheev. Mi-8 helicopter was put in serial production in late 1960s, and is the most massively produced rotocraft in the world.

This past week, Prague hosted a forum titled "Dialogue of Civilizations", which brought together Russian ad European economists and policymakers to discuss current problems, such as economy and social development. The forum's president, Vladimir Yakunin, spoke at length about what awaits Russia and Europe in the next decade. According to Yakunin, "the wild disparity between the value of the real economy and paper money has long been clear. Once again, humanity - and Russia in particular - had received confirmation of the biblical commandment "do not make idols unto yourself to worship." First, there was an idol in the form of socialist theory, which, perhaps, remains the most advanced theory. Then we announced on the ruins of the socialist system that socialism is completely discredited - which is only partly true. And then we got caught hold of the neo-liberalism - the theory of post-modern or, as it is called, the information world."

Yakunin further explains: "The current crisis has proved that there is no absolute truth. And when we unquestionably accepted certain designs, which originated from seemingly safe sources - the United States or Great Britain - the negative result was predictable and straightforward. When we choose shrubs for the summer planting area, we are looking for plants that are adapted to the environment in which we grow them. If such plants are not adaptable, then we keep them at home in pots. Its the same with the economy - we can't blindly take anything and try to forcibly introduce into another society. This, I believe, is a very serious, cruel lesson - and not only for Russia."

Yakunin further echoed the growing sentiment in Russia, which advocates for the country's unique approaches to economic, social and internal problems: "During the conference, we devoted a lot of time understanding what is a natural process of interaction, and what is standardization and unification of norms. We are opposed to standardization. Even if there is a universally recognized human value, we must understand that what is "value" for Europeans, may not be the same for the Arab or African society." On the ongoing crisis, Yakunin was pessimistic: "Our Center for Problem Analysis and Public Management makes a pessimistic forecast, assuming that the crisis may come in waves and new wave could bring down the global economy in 2017. We are not able to predict the level of such a future crisis, but it is possible to reduce the the level of risk by making conservative decisions - because the errors associated with risk taking often manifest themselves over decades."

When asked to what extent Russia can consider itself to be a European country, Yakunin answered: "Europe - its not just about geography - its culture, religion, history, tradition. From this point of view, Russian people and people from Poland or Germany have much less in common, than we have with our neighbors from Kazakhstan, although they are not European. With Kazakhs, we share a common culture,common history, we have a large common ideology... When we talk about how Russia relates to Europe, we are primarily talking about the economic system. However, Russia has not yet determined who she is - Asian or European? My personal feeling is that I am a citizen of Russia, I am Russian - and that is enough for me."

Venezuela: Chávez's Persecution, and No Debate

Jorge Castañeda, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Enrique Krauze at the Cedice symposium.

Simon Romero of the NYT reports on Raul Baduel's arrest, Chávez Seeks Tighter Grip on Military, the purpose being

Since February, Mr. Chávez has moved against a wide range of domestic critics, and his efforts in recent weeks to strengthen his grip on the armed forces have led to high-profile arrests and a wave of reassignments.

These are seen here as part of a larger effort by Mr. Chávez to cement loyalty in the military, where some officers are growing resentful at what they see as his micromanagement and politicizing of a proud and relatively independent institution.

Romero's article names former members of the military Raúl Baduel, Carlos Millán, Wilfredo Barroso and Otto Gebauer, all who have been arrested. Jaime Requena, biology professor at the Foundation Institute of Advanced Studies of Venezuela, was fired from his job after criticizing science funding under Chávez.

But Requena, Baduel, and the others are not alone.

Readers of this blog remember that Chávez is actively persecuting the opposition: Manuel Rosales obtained political asylum in Peru after finding out that he had been sentenced to a 30-year jail term without a trial. The governors of the states of Miranda, Carabobo and Táchira, states that Chávez does not control, are under pressure. The mayor of Caracas had the most populous borough removed from his authority and placed under a Chávez appointee. Vehement Chávez critic and journalist Teodoro Petkoff is under investigation.

In the middle of this oppression, Cedice (Centro de Divulgación del Conocimiento Económico), a Venezuelan pro-free trade think tank, is holding a very high-profile symposium. The national guard, an education ministry official and state TV interrupted the seminar, in an effort to shut it down. But there was more to come.

This week Chávez demanded that Globovisión, the last remaining independent TV station in the country, be punished, i.e., closed. A property of station president Gillermo Zuloaga was raided last week and now Zuloaga is charged with the "illegal storage" of Toyota pick-up trucks.

Globovisión has not demurred; to the contrary. Globovisión broadcasted the attempts to shut down the Cedice seminar. Additionally, when writers Álvaro Vargas Llosa and his father Mario Vargas Llosa were detained upon arrival at Caracas airport, the station broadcast live Álvaro's call from the airport and later interviewed him live as soon as he was released on Wednesday.

The news of the Vargas Llosas' detentions rippled through Latin America: a committee of the Brazilian senate was to ask the Venezuelan government for an explanation for the "humiliating act."

Both writers, along with Mexican historian Enrique Krauze, former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda and Colombian writer Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza are featured speakers at a conference on freedom and democracy at Cedice, a Venezuelan think tank. During a TV interview, Álvaro Vargas Llosa explained that,

“We have come to share the idea that political freedom is fundamental for Latin American civilization. The ideas that economic freedom and respect to private property are basic ingredients for prosperity.”
Chávez is in the middle of a four-day-long cadena, celebrating the 10th anniversary of his TV program Aló Presidente, which all licensed TV and radio stations in the country have to broadcast live. During yesterday's rambling monologue he invited the conference speakers to debate him live at 11AM Saturday morning. Mario Vargas Llosa agreed almost immediately after Chávez issued the invitation, on the condition that it would be a debate with Chávez himself. Enrique Krauze also agreed, requesting that there be clear rules for a debate so it wouldn't become a [Chávez] monologue, saying
"It would be a splendid opportunity for the Venezuelan TV audience, who for ten years have watched president Hugo Chávez daily for four or five hours, in an almost total monologue."
Jorge Castañeda also agreed under the same conditions.

I have met Mario Vargas Llosa and he is a brilliant speaker, a most erudite and knowledgeable man with a first-rate mind. I have also met Enrique Krauze, who is equally impressive. You better have all your ducks in a row if you're going to debate any of the two, much more so if you are going to debate the two together.

Chávez must have recognized that; he backtracked.

At first Chávez refused to debate Mario Vargas Llosa, stating "In order for me to debate Vargas Llosa, he would have to be president of Peru," but later on he stated he would moderate the debate between the Cedice participants and his - unnamed - supporters,

"I can help as moderate the debate, but the debate is among intellectuals, and I am simply a president, a soldier."
Of course, Mario Vargas Llosa, upon hearing that, deplored that Chávez is not a man of his word and denounced that Chávez wasnot interested in a dialogue, since "autocrats do not know how to dialogue."

Chávez canceled today's TV show with no explanation.

Mexico: Electoral Purity

What do you do if you are a Mexican politician wanting to get your message out to the public? Well if you are Demetrio Sodi, a PAN candidate for one of the 16 jefes delegacionales that make up Mexico City, you sneak an interview during the semifinals match between two of Mexico’s most popular soccer teams. Of course, Sodi’s interview has not been without a great deal of controversy.

Sodi’s main opponent, Ana Gabriela Guevara (PRD), a retired track star, is claiming that Sodi violated election rules by spending more money than is allowed for the interview. Sodi says that he just happened to be at the game and so the commentators asked him a few questions. He denies paying Televisa (the company broadcasting the game) anything. Guevara and the PRD claim that no broadcasting company gives out free interviews during such an important soccer game and so Sodi must be cheating.

Guevara and Sodi are running for the delegation of Miguel Hidalgo, one of the most important jefes delegacionales in Mexico City. Some of the ritzy neighborhoods and famous landmarks of Mexico City lie in Miguel Hidalgo. Furthermore, Miguel Hidalgo is the only jefe delegacional that is currently controlled by the PAN. The importance of the race means that the IEDF (Electoral Institute of the Federal District) has had to intervene. It will be until at least October before the IEDF reaches a decision on the case.

The IFE (the federal version of the IEDF) has also been busy with complaints about other illegal political practices. The General Counsel of the IFE has recently agreed to more than double a fine against the PAN for distributing ads with the headline, “PRImitivo.” This is a word that combines the PRI party with the Spanish word for primitive. The PAN were originally fined 465,800 pesos on the 20th of April. This past week, the IFE unanimously agreed to increase the fine to 931,600 pesos. On the other hand, the IFE refused this week to stop pro-Pan advertisements by a wrestler, Místico, and a taekwondo medalist, Iridia Salazar. The report by the IFE determined that “the promotional statements are not susceptible to producing irreparable damage to the complaining party, neither does it violate the governing rules of the electoral process, and so it does not encompass a constitutional violation (my translation).”

This has all occurred in a week when government officials have been forced to deny claims that a recent crackdown on mayors in the state of Michoacán was politically motivated. The government believes that the mayors and local officials that were arrested all had ties with La Familia, a drug organization that operates in Michoacán. La Familia has recently been designated by Mexico’s Attorney General as being the most dangerous gang in Mexico because of its ability to influence politicians through bribes and intimidation. The debate over the purity of the government’s motives will more than likely continue for the coming weeks while the mayors are tried in court.

May 28, 2009

Don't Just Do Something, Stand There

It seems that the Obama administration is trying to ratchet down the rhetoric regarding North Korea. National Security Advisor General Jones, speaking at the Atlantic Council, downplayed the North's nuclear antics, saying the missile launches and nuclear detonation "are not an imminent threat."

Secretary Gates followed this up today by noting that we're not experiencing a "crisis."

This seems perfectly sensible. As Cato's Doug Bandow and Havard's Stephen Walt have both argued, there is nothing fundamentally new here except the slow, steady march of technology. Of course, we're all shocked, shocked! that North Korea flouts international law, but that too shall pass.

More broadly, we're operating in an environment where we have very little information. Even the experts on North Korea don't know exactly what's going on inside the country. Presumably our intelligence services are only moderately more clued in. In such an environment, acting rashly - by, say, dumping the Six Party talks or trying to coerce China to take a harder line - doesn't seem wise.

Photo credit: AP Photo

What's a Reputation Worth?

Given all the talk of North Korea "testing" Obama and a potential "loss of face" for the U.S. as Kim Jong Il flagrantly flouts international law, Daniel Drezner rounds up the literature on how (and whether) reputation matters in international relations.

North Korea & the Relevance of Missile Defense


One of the cries that has gone up alongside the underground mushroom cloud in North Korea is that the U.S. should be expanding its missile defense, particularly to Japan and South Korea. Former Defense Secretary William Cohen, who served under President Clinton, just decried President Obama's proposed cuts to the system.

While such a system might be useful for the continental U.S. and Japan, it wouldn't be much use for our ally South Korea. The North has thousands of artillery pieces dug into the mountains, giving it the capability to shell Seoul, the densely populated capital of South Korea. Missile defense, such as it is, wouldn't prevent an artillery fusillade which would kill thousands of South Koreans.

More broadly, what would it do? If the North Koreans want to fire a single missile at Japan or South Korea, why not ten? Why not 50? (The North doesn't exactly want for missiles.) What has stopped the North from embarking on such a path - and what will prevent them in the future - is deterrence. If the North is determined to fire away, any missile defense system would likely be overwhelmed.

Photo credit: AP Photo

May 27, 2009

What Norway & Chile Can Teach America

Earlier this month, the New York Times profiled how Norway took the proceeds from its oil business and plowed it into savings. As the global economy contracted last year, Norway enjoyed economic growth of just under 3 percent. This year, they're running an 11 percent budget surplus and have one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world.

Today, the Wall Street Journal takes note of how Chile did much the same thing with their copper wealth. Holding out against intense protests, Chile's finance minister Andrés Velasco built a multi-billion dollar "rainy day fund" which has been used to stabilize the Chilean economy during the downturn.

The contrast with the U.S. is stark. In 2000, we were running a surplus. Today, after a bi-partisan binge, we're extraordinarily deep in the red. Such fiscal irresponsibility has eroded the fundamental basis of American power: the economy. Nor have we helped matters by engaging in two open-ended, extremely costly, nation building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the examples of Chile and Norway prove - this wasn't inevitable. In both instances, democratically elected leadership held out against the natural tide of public opinion (which is to demand money be spent) and positioned their nations to better weather the economic storm now raging.

In Praise of Bad Policy

Commentary's Abe Greenwald suggests that erratic decision-making is the hallmark of a good foreign policy:

However, there is something missing from most discussions of Bush’s and Obama’s foreign policies: the element of unpredictability. Because Bush launched two invasions in his first term, America’s enemies were never sure that his willingness to engage in foreign adventures was depleted. Such uncertainty was reinforced by Bush’s determination to see the Iraq War through its season of catastrophe. Who could ultimately say if the guy who decided to topple Saddam and rebuild Iraq (and who followed through!) would shy away from a bombing campaign on Iran or even North Korea?

Indeed. And if you're Iran and North Korea, and you're unsure if you're about to be bombed or invaded, the natural reaction is to forswear nuclear weapons and long-range missile technology that would be useful in deterring the erratic and unpredictable American threat.

The French in the Gulf


France has officially opened its first overseas military base in the Persian Gulf:

“The permanent French military installation in Abu Dhabi shows the responsibility that France, as a global power, agrees to assume with its closest partners, in a region that is a fault line for the whole world,” Mr. Sarkozy said in the text of a speech delivered in the Emirate.

The new military presence comprises a French facility at the Emirate’s Al Dhafra air base, which can accommodate Mirage and Rafale jets; a naval base of eight hectares, or about 20 acres, at the port of Mina Zayed, which can handle any French naval vessels except aircraft carriers, though these can berth in a nearby port; and an army camp at Zayed, specializing in urban combat training. There are also intelligence-gathering facilities.

Eventually, about 500 French military personnel will be permanently stationed at the sites.

This is a good step, in my view. If the Gulf needs policing, best to share the burden with allied nations.

Photo credit: AP Photos

May 26, 2009

Israel: Venezuela and Bolivia Providing Iran with Uranium


Last December Italian daily La Stampa reported that Iran is using Venezuela do duck UN sanctions by using aircraft from Venezuelan airline Conviasa to transport computers and engine components to Syria for use in missiles.

Today an official report from the Israeli Foreign Ministry further details Venezuela's extensive ties with Iran, including providing Iran with uranium for its nuclear program. YNet has a copy of the report, which was prepared in advance of Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon visit to South America this week. The information is based on intelligence gathered by Israeli and international agencies.

The Associated Press also has a copy of the report, which states that Bolivia is also providing Iran with uranium,

Bolivia has uranium deposits. Venezuela is not currently mining its own estimated 50,000 tons of untapped uranium reserves, according to an analysis published in December by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The Carnegie report said, however, that recent collaboration with Iran in strategic minerals has generated speculation that Venezuela could mine uranium for Iran.
Iran's largest embassy in our hemisphere is located in La Paz. Iran is increasing its presence in Latin America.

The report also describes the presence of Hezbollah cells in Latin America. Just last month a raid by Dutch authorities rounded up a cocaine gang with Hezbollah ties engaged in the drug and weapons trade and money laundering.

For background reading on Hezbollah's presence in Latin America, please read this 2004 report on Terrorist and Organized Crime Groups in the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of South America.

May 25, 2009

Russians Mulling Investment in Facebook

Yes, apparently these business rumors may indeed be true - a Russian Internet group, Digital Sky Technologies, has offered to invest $200 million in Facebook in a deal that would value the social networking site at $10 billion, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

Digital Sky Technologies, which owns a stake in Russia's Mail.ru Web site, offered an investment of $200 million in the company's preferred stock, which would value it at $10 billion, and an additional $100 million to $150 million investment in the company's common stock, which would value it at $6.5 billion, the report said.

Acording to the Yahoo Finance article, Facebook last got funding from Microsoft Corp in 2007, when the software company paid $240 million for a 1.6 percent stake in the company. Facebook has more than 200 million active users. The company also ranks as one of the top photo-sharing websites, with more than 15 billion pictures uploaded onto its service.

Moer on the Digital Sky Technologies - its English-language website states that "DST was founded in 2005 when Yuri Milner and Gregory Finger pooled together their individual interests in Mail.ru and funded the first investments in young market leaders in the nascent Russian Internet sector. DST is controlled by its Founding Partners. DST is a leading global Internet holding company that originated in the Russian speaking world. We estimate that our companies comprise well over 70% of all pageviews in the Russian speaking Internet, targeting a potential audience of over 300 million people. Our companies hold the #1 and often also the #2 and #3 positions in all CIS states, including Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Armenia."

More on their international operations: "Between 2005 and 2009 DST raised and invested more than $1 billion in over 30 companies and gained support from Russian and Western funds. In 2008, Alexander Tamas joined DST from Goldman Sachs and established a presence in London to spearhead further international efforts. In recent years DST also expanded into the Baltic region and, through its portfolio companies, also into Eastern and Western Europe, and China."

So, comrades, this is the globalization at its best.

Obama Statement on North Korea Nuke Test

President Obama's statement on North Korea's Nuclear test:

Today, North Korea said that it has conducted a nuclear test in violation of international law. It appears to also have attempted a short range missile launch. These actions, while not a surprise given its statements and actions to date, are a matter of grave concern to all nations. North Korea's attempts to develop nuclear weapons, as well as its ballistic missile program, constitute a threat to international peace and security.

By acting in blatant defiance of the United Nations Security Council, North Korea is directly and recklessly challenging the international community. North Korea's behavior increases tensions and undermines stability in Northeast Asia. Such provocations will only serve to deepen North Korea's isolation. It will not find international acceptance unless it abandons its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.

The danger posed by North Korea's threatening activities warrants action by the international community. We have been and will continue working with our allies and partners in the Six-Party Talks as well as other members of the U.N. Security Council in the days ahead.

May 24, 2009

Fall of America: A View from 2089

We have heard plenty of doom and gloom prognostications of the decline of the United States - and have seen just as many articles and analyses that point to the longevity and resilience of American society and economy in the coming decades. These predictions range from a complete collapse of the United States into 6 or 7 independent states by 2012, to an optimistic overview of US economy still going strong well into the 21st century. If future is indeed a mystery, and correct historical predictions are a tough gamble, then this reading from the New York Times can be filed under "Run for the f*&^%ing hills, for the end is near!!!" Whether it was intended as a cynical overview of what is currently taking place in our country, or as a warning, of sorts, the article by Ben Stein, written as an entry in a 2089 Chinese history textbook, is one heck of an eye catcher. Some highlights:

A spectacular constriction of credit, despite the flooding of the economy with dollars, following the advent of the financial crisis in 2008;

Prolonged slowdown of the economy;

The confidence that American lenders had in the rule of law, probably one of the main pillars of the economy, was demolished by government actions that invalidated some lenders’ long-held legal rights in favor of ad hoc attempts to please various political constituencies.

Unopposed secession of Texas and Alaska from the nation;

... and more. Its a shot article, but an interesting - if scary- read.

Russia: Medvedev Says Summit Going Well

According to President Medvedev, the ongoing Russia-EU summit in Khabarovsk is going well. This time, the meeting took place in Russia's remote corner of the Far East, a great distance from Western Europe and its EU member states. "I hope we will continue to have such meetings at various locations in my state. Russia is a large country, with lots of remote and unexplored corners," said Medvedev at a press conference."We talked about current issues of our time such as the financial crisis, the measures being undertaken in our countries to combat this problem, and concluded that the end of the crisis is not yet near, and no one has any idea when we will reach that stage. A similar incident took place in Januray. Perhaps this is a subject that is worthy of the highest attention," said Medvedev.

He noted that at the summit, participants discussed energy security. Medvedev believes that the leadership of the European Union has shown interest in the initiative of the Russian Federation to establish a new legal framework for international cooperation in the energy sector: "It seemed to me that our European partners showed an interest in this idea," as Medvedev expressed hope that the discussion of the Russian initiative will continue, stressing that its implementation is "manifestly in the interest" of European partners.

"At the summit there was also talk of a strategic dialogue. We returned to the subject of a new basic agreement," explained the Russian President. "We are satisfied with the pace of these discussions. The very conversation on this dialogue indicates the similarity of our positions. Hopefully, further harmonization of conditions will take place without undue delay," said the president. He noted that during the summit, the sides exchanged views on the unsettled situations in Europe, such as Cyprus and Kosovo, discussed the security situation in the Caucasus, and the conflict between Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. "We have talked about the situation in Moldova, discussed the Middle East problem, discussed the Iranian nuclear program, discussed the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan," said the president. "It was a constructive, candid conversation, which is very gratifying, since such candor is important to dealing with situations in different places," said Medvedev. "I am pleased with the outcome of our joint work," summed up the Russian president.

Meanwhile, official indicators painted a worrying picture for foreign direct investment in Russia - it fell by at least 30% in the first quarter of 2009, while direct investment has fallen by 43%. Foreign investors view Russia as unattractive because of the debt burden of companies and frequent intervention by the authorities. However, experts note that they expected greater drop in FDI in Russia. Now, given the devaluation of the ruble, investors are interested in import-substituting industries. The statistic notes that most of the money that came from abroad is of Russian origin.

According to Rosstat - Russian Statistics official agency - in the first quarter of 2009, foreign investments in the Russian economy fell by 30% to 12 billion dollars. At the same time, the number of direct investment fell to 3.182 billion dollars, which is 43% lower than in 2008. The most active investors in the Russian economy are companies from the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Greece, Great Britain, the United States and France. The share of these countries accounted for 76.2% of all foreign money poured into the Russian economy. One financial analyst who asked to remain anonymous noted that the list of these investment leaders are headed by Netherlands and Cyprus - countries with lots of offshore companies, so often what should be "foreign" investment actually turns out to be money previously withdrawn from the country by the Russian entrepreneurs.

The newest and most expensive US fighter planes - the F-22 Raptors - are getting their official workout. On May 21, they were scrambled to intercept two Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers off the coast of Alaska. The contact with American planes was confirmed by Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Drik, Assistant to the Chief of Russian Air Force. Tu-95MS aircraft performed air patrols over neutral waters of the Arctic Ocean and in the vicinity of the Aleutian Islands. The Russian crews were practicing their skills in flights over unmarked terrain. It should be noted that the Russian strategic aviation has begun to regularly carry out training flights of patrolling the neutral territory. Russian military insists that its aircraft are not violating the borders of other states, although NATO fighters often are scrambled to escort Russian Air Force bombers in flight. A similar incident took place in January of this year, when four American F-15 fighter plane escorted two Tu-95 bombers off the coast of Alaska.

The Trial Chamber of the Berlin Court ordered the German newspaper Bild to publish a retraction of the fact that Yuriy Lutsenko, the Head of Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs, and his son Alexander, staged a drunken brawl at the Frankfurt airport, according to the Ukrainian agency UNIAN, with reference to the Ukrainian Minister's lawyer Genadi Lewinsky. "The court rendered a decision in relation to the Internet edition of Bild, which obliges it to publish a retraction," said Lewinsky. The German newspaper Bild reported that on May 4, German police detained Lutsenko together with his son after a supposed run-in with local law enforcement. According to the newspaper, the Minister and his 19-year-old son were under "severe influence" of alcohol and because of their "inappropriate" behavior, they were not allowed to board their flight to Seoul.

Mexico: Dirty Politics

The head of the left-wing PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution), Jesús Ortega Martínez, has asked the heads of the other two major political parties (PRI and PAN) in Mexico to refrain from a “campaign of disqualifications” that have caused political apathy among Mexicans. Ortega noted that this “politics of the alleyway” only hurts democracy in Mexico. Ortega cited three recent instances that have contributed to the perception among Mexicans that politicians are self-serving and corrupt.

First, two books released this year have cited alleged corruption with previous presidents. Carlos Ahumada, a businessman convicted of corruption related crimes in Mexico City in 2004, has released Derecho De Replica (Right of Reply) which tells a story of a corrupt former PRI President Carlos Salinas. Starting in 2004, Ahumada had videotaped himself (his face covered) offering bribes to different associates of Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, the PRD candidate running for president. Salinas then orchestrated the release of the videos in an effort to discredit Lopez Obrador. He also used the videos to negotiate with PAN president Vicente Fox for the release of his brother, Raul Salinas, who had been convicted of homicide charges. Ahumada’s book made public suspicions that had already existed among many Mexicans; that Salinas contributed to Lopez Obrador’s .56% marginal defeat in 2006.

The other book released this year that has caused a political stir was former PRI presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo’s book, El Despojo (The Plundering). Madrazo has accused former presidents Ernesto Zedillo and Vicente Fox of protecting certain drug cartels. He also accused President Calderon’s administration of being the head of a system that is opposed to true democratization.

The second reference that Ortega made was to the brutal fight between PRD Senator Ricardo Monreal of Zacatecas and Zacatecas Governor Amalia Garcia. This past week, allegations were made that 14 and ½ tons of marijuana were found at a chili-drying facility owned by Monreal’s brother, Cándido Monreal. Ricardo Monreal has stated that the marijuana was planted at Cándido’s property by the Monreal family’s rivals, Zacatecas Governor Amalia Garcia and her daughter, Senator Claudia Corichi. The Monreal and Garcia families are competing for Mexico’s fractured leftist party in Zacatecas. The allegations have caused Senator Monreal to take a leave of absence from his Senate seat until the allegations are cleared up. For Garcia, she has been forced to deal with a 53 man prison break in Zacatecas which included known members of the Zetas.

Lastly, Ortega made reference to former PRI President Miguel de la Madrid’s comments concerning his hand-picked successor, Carlos Salinas. De la Madrid stated that he regretted choosing Salinas as his successor because he thought that Salinas was corrupt and that his brother, Raul, was involved in the drug trade. In 1995, Raul was sent to prison on homicide charges. The charges were dropped a decade later, possibly because of the influence of Ahumada’s videotapes. A few hours after de la Madrid made the comments, he renounced them stating that he had misspoken because he was old and infirm. Nevertheless, Raul has become of symbol of the corruption that existed within the PRI party when they dominated Mexican politics for 71 years (until President Fox and the PAN came to power in 2000).

Politics in Mexico has always been rough. With congressional elections due in July, one can expect that it will only get rougher.

May 23, 2009

Big Aid vs. Dead Aid

CATO's Doug Bandow highlights a report in the Financial Times describing how a coalition of foreign aid groups are mobilizing to attack Dambisa Moyo, author of the book Dead Aid:

A swell of opposition is building in the aid world to a new protagonist who has thrown down a strident challenge to the rock stars and liberal economists who have long dominated debate over foreign assistance to developing countries.

Galled by the ease with which Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian economist and former investment banker, has risen to prominence this year, activists are circulating detailed critiques of her ideas and mass mailing African non-government organisations to mobilise support against her.

Read Heather Wilhelm's review of Dead Aid for RCW here.

May 22, 2009


Judah Grunstein notes that there are an estimated 300 al Qaeda terrorists ensconced in Pakistan :

Now, those 300 people, given the latitude, could do quite a bit of damage. [But] one of the by-products of the lazy use of labels -- whereby all attacks in Iraq from 2004-2007 were the work of terrorists, and the Taliban and al-Qaida have been lumped together into the same category of threat -- is that we've conceptually inflated the size and strength of the group that was interested in attacking us.

We've now got upwards of 40,000 troops in Afghanistan, with the ostensible mission to eliminate the threat posed by 300 guys. In Pakistan. Think about that.

Not only that, but in the midst of the worst economic crisis in generations, at a time when the U.S. is driving itself further and further into debt, we're about to pour billions of additional dollars into Pakistan and Afghanistan to shore up both states.

It's worth remembering that 9/11 reportedly cost about $500,000 to pull off. Between the Department of Homeland Security, the two wars, significant increases in defense and intelligence spending, etc., the U.S. is well over the trillion dollar mark, and counting. And yet five motivated terrorists could still arm themselves, stroll into a shopping mall and murder scores of people.

The War on Terror Lives?

During his speech yesterday, President Obama said that we are at "war with al Qaeda."

What happened to overseas contingency operations?

Third Terms: No in Brazil, Maybe in Colombia


Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva announced today that he has no intention of running for a third term in next year's election.

Brazil's Constitution states that presidents can only hold office for two consecutive terms, but Lula's popularity, and the health of his chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff had generated speculation. Rousseff, the most likely candidate for Lula's Worker's Party, is currently undergoing chemotherapy at Sao Paolo's Syrian-Lebanese hospital for lymphoma.

Lula, who is visiting Turkey, expressed confidence in Rousseff's recovery and encouraged her to not stop working.


In Colombia, however, this week the Colombian Senate approved a referendum that would amend the Constitution to allow president Álvaro Uribe to run for a third term. Like Brazil, Colombia's constitution limits presidential terms to two consecutive terms. The 62-to-5 vote was missing 26 opposition senators who walked out in protest.

Supporters of a third term collected 5 million signatures last year, and the lower house approved a measure that would require Uribe to sit out a term before being able to run again in 2014; the uppor house measure approved yesterday would allow him to run again next year. The constitutional change would require a minimum turnout of at least 70 percent of Colombia's eligible voters, but first both measures would have to be reconciled, and then approved by the Constitutional Court before there is any referendum. Even with a 70% turnout, Uribe would need "50% plus one" votes.

While Uribe is very popular and is credited for defeating the narco-terrorists, there are many arguments against his running for a third term, particularly since he would be perceived as yet another democratically-elected Latin American head of state who stayed on to undermine the country's institutions.

Adding to the controversy, one of the sponsors of the signature drive was David Murcia Guzmán, allegedly a mafia money launderer, who is currently in jail.

Uribe has not announced publicly whether he would run again. Will he? Time will tell.

Moscow Losing Ambitious Projects

This was bound to happen - with an ailing economy, lack of investors, diminishing confidence and a grim economic outlook for the next few years, Russia's most expensive construction projects are now on the chopping block. Naturally, all of them are in Moscow - Russia's mots developed and most Westernized city. Russia's Construction Portal website recounts the projects that are being stopped, delayed or cancelled alltogether:

"Moscow may be forced to shelve several of its megalomaniac projects which were planned during the period of high oil prices. The 612-meter (2000 feet) high Russia Tower in the Moscow City was intended to be the highest building in Europe, wrote Vedomosti Newspaper. However, the project is now not likely to see the light of day due to financial problems suffered by its developer, an entity controlled by local businessman Shalva Chigirinsky. Initially, the plan was scaled down and a 200-meter(about 650 feet) tower was mooted, however, the city council is now believed to be considering replacing the tower project with additional parking facilities for Moscow City visitors. Construction of the largest aquarium park in Europe on Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow has been postponed until 2011, although city authorities insist that the project will go ahead. The reality, however, is that the project is still in the pre-planning stage. The largest European TV centre project is also struggling to attract investors. In addition, the chances of the largest aviation and space museum eventually appearing on Khodynskoye field are also rather low. Experts have claimed that these projects were unrealistic from the very beginning."

RealClearWorld wrote earlier on this blog about Moscow's problems with its constriction projects once the economic and financial crisis hit Russia. For now, the replacement parking project at least makes sense - Moscow sorely lacks parking - above and below ground - for its ever increasing fleets of passenger cars. As far as ambitious high-rises and skyscrapers - most of them are now been built in a country that, despite the global economic malaise, still has a sound economy, and backed by a government that is forging ahead towards great-power stardom - China.

May 21, 2009

Obama vs. Cheney

RCP has the speeches. Obama. Cheney. Let's get ready to rumble.

The Roger Cohen Fan Club

I think Michael Totten and Jeffrey Goldberg have started it.

Sad News

Ilan Goldenberg will be leaving the must-read Democracy Arsenal blog for a life of public service.

Good news for the public, bad news for us readers. Good luck, Ilan.

Summer Internship

Looking for a creative outlet this summer?

RealClearWorld is now accepting applications for summer interns. Our new media internship is a great opportunity for college students and recent graduates looking for some experience in online media and publishing.

Interns will assist in the day-to-day operations of the site, and help us enhance all of the great features we offer. Interested in writing and blogging? Interns who demonstrate a solid, self-starter work ethic can earn the chance to get published on the site.

The new media internship is an unpaid, remote position. Please email your resume and a cover letter if interested.

May 20, 2009

Scapegoating Rummy


David Frum suggests that conservatives must have a reckoning with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's record if they're to credibly make the case for their political future:

Conservatives should be focused instead on a very different question – an unpleasant one, but one absolutely essential to our indispensable, inevitable but still postponed reckoning with the legacy of the Bush administration. The question is: Why did Iraq go so very badly wrong – and why, having gone wrong, did it take so ruinously wrong for the administration to shift to a more successful course? Conservatives rightly take pride and comfort in the achievements of the surge. But the surge does not banish all the antecedent questions about Iraq. The surge may have rescued the American position in Iraq from total disaster, but nobody would describe the present situation in Iraq as anything like satisfactory.
Indeed. But in such a reckoning, I'd argue that Rumsfeld is actually a bit player.

Let's rewind the tape and replay an alternate history of the run-up to the Iraq war. In our new reality, Rumsfeld bows to the wishes of General Shinsheki and 300,000 U.S. troops pour into Baghdad. Are they enough? Not if RAND's population security figures are correct - we'd still be about 200,000 short of the 500,000 we would need to adequately police Iraq.

A few years ago, I asked John Pike, the military analyst who runs Global Security.org, what would happen if the Bush administration had heeded RAND's advice. Here's what he told me: "If they had put 500,000 troops in Iraq in 2003, they would have all gone home with no replacements by early 2004, just before the insurgency really took off. The question is not how many to put in initially, but rather how many can be sustained. The current number is sustainable indefinitely. A larger number would have required a larger Army."

And Army we didn't have - and still don't. And what of the Army we did have when contemplating the invasion of Iraq? Did they know Iraq's culture? No. Did they speak Arabic? No. Were they Muslim? No. Were they skilled and trained at population security? No. Did they obviate the need for Paul Bremer to head the Coalition Provisional Authority? No. So the two major policy decisions that spur the insurgency - the demobilization of the Iraqi Army and de-Baathification - happen anyway.

The fundamental problem with the Iraq war was the decision to go to war with Iraq. It was a strategic failure. It was an ideological failure. A "reckoning" with Rumsfeld's bureaucratic domineering and obduracy is, at best, a sideshow.

Photo Credit: DefenseLink.mil

Did Bibi Roll Obama?

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk thinks so:

Whatever else happened in the private Netanyahu-Obama meeting, this Israeli prime minister certainly didn’t sound like he was willing to take any risks for peace. Reflecting his fear of antagonizing his right-wing supporters, Netanyahu avoided publicly committing himself to accepting an independent Palestinian state as the outcome of peace negotiations. Instead, he spoke of “self-government” for the Palestinians and laid down what sounded like a new precondition: The Palestinians would have to “allow Israel the means to defend itself.”

What Netanyahu apparently means by that is a Palestinian state minus the means to defend itself, or to control its airspace, or its international passageways. Not unreasonable concerns given Israel’s experience with Gaza, but to put forward such requirements at the outset looks more like a well-practiced Netanyahu negotiating tactic: Raise the bar as high as possible and require the United States to lift the Palestinians over it before he has to make any concessions.

Photo credit: AP Photo

The Politics of National Security, Con't

Matthew Yglesias passes on some polling data from Democracy Corps (a democratic polling group):

For the first time in our research, Democrats are at full parity on perceptions of which party would best manage national security, while they have moved far ahead of the GOP on specific challenges such as Afghanistan, Iraq, working with our allies, and improving America’s image abroad.

Nearly two-thirds of likely voters - 64 percent - approve of the job Obama is doing on national security. That is 6 points higher than his already strong overall job approval rating (at 58 percent, the highest we have yet recorded). On other aspects of national security - from Iraq, to Afghanistan, to terrorism, to the president’s foreign diplomacy - the same is true: higher job approval ratings than on the President’s overall job approval.

I'm still very skeptical that President Obama is going to turn the tables on this issue, but we'll see.

The National Interest

Daniel Drezner had a good piece in the National Interest last week on the difficulties the GOP will have in formulating a foreign policy alternative to the Obama administration. In it, Drezner writes:

The concept of a “loyal opposition” is a difficult one to straddle. On the one hand, it is vital for Americans to be exposed to contrasting takes on the best way to advance American interests. Opposition forces the current leadership to defend and articulate their preferred course of action. On the other hand, opposition based on the principles of Joe the Plumber is simply not an opposition that can be taken seriously. [emphasis mine]

Here's the thing - why don't we have contrasting takes on what American interests are? There are a lot of debatable assumptions about the role of the U.S. military abroad, the present alliance structure, defense obligations, etc., that get quietly tucked under the rubric of interests when they really need to be examined in broad daylight. As I wrote during the campaign, this dynamic implicitly hurts the Democrats (and moderate Republicans):

Any debate about national security is rooted in a perception of American interests. Yet the Obama campaign has not focused much attention on defining what America’s fundamental security interests are – but on how best to manage them. On issues such as Iran and North Korea, the signature difference between the two parties is not over the extent to which these nations represent uniquely American problems (as opposed to regional ones), but the tools with which they propose to “solve” them.

Indeed, the approach advocated by Obama and the Democrats – cast aside multilateral diplomacy in favor of direct negotiations – reinforces the presumption that no other country has as much at stake in a nuclear Iran or North Korea than the U.S. But that is absurd. Just look at a map.

By conceding the premise of American security interests, it’s easy to see why Democrats keep losing the politics. If America is to be the world’s policeman, who is the more credible figure: the state trooper ready to club the bad guys, or the security guard at the mall, brandishing a walk-talkie?

At a very basic level, everyone agrees on the overriding American interest: we want an international environment conducive to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness at home. But after that, it's really up for grabs.

Preparing Next Generation of Russian Officers

Russian military academies are busy preparing the next generation of gentlemen and officers, all the economic problems in their country notwithstanding. Russian daily "Izvestia" paid a visit to the most famous and elite academy - Suvorov Military School in Moscow (Moscokskoye Suvorovskoye Voennoye Uchlische), named after legendary 18th Century General Alexander Suvorov. There are now many Suvorov Military schools across the country, The first such academy was formed in Nizhniy Novgorod during WW2. During the war, many Soviet children were orphaned and left without parents, and the state assumed care of their future, establishing military-style schools for their education. In 1943-1944, seventeen Suvorov academies opened across the USSR. Since then, there have been more than 35 Soviet and Russian generals amongst the Suvorov graduates, together with numerous officers and high-ranking officials.

"Izvestia" talked with Major-General Andrei Nechaev, Head of Moscow Suvorov Military School, about his students' education. According to the general, "When the state created Suvorov schools in 1943, it had a major goal - to get children off the streets, to help the orphans. Today, the Suvorov schools have the following goal - to prepare an all-rounded graduate who is developed spiritually and physically, so that he could benefit the Russian state not only as a good soldier, but also by becoming a good teacher, engineer, biologist. We place an emphasis for our graduate on knowing two foreign languages, to be good in sports, so that you can speak with this young man on any topic, so that he could cite Pushkin's poetry or dance a waltz."

General Nechaev further told the newspaper: "We must be sure that our graduates are self-sufficient, so that they can get into any higher education institution without problems. Some people think that Suvorov school is only a military organization. But our students are studying 10 hours a day!. If a student does not learn his lesson, he automatically gets a bad grade. Afterwards, we are also punishing those officers who were supposed to oversee the students lessons."

Soon, Moscow Suvorov School will be admitting girls for the first time: "This year, we ordered a trial run to recruit girls to 8th grade, two platoons of 20 students in each. We are preparing a separate building for these 40 recruits. They will study together with the boys, and will only sleep in separate quarters. Some would say: "Why admit girls?" I say - so what? No problem, I do not see anything wrong with it! Our boys will do better as a result. When our female teachers go to school's sporting events - we have a lot of young teachers - the guys are always trying to show off in order to get the best result. And our boys will behave differently, too."

More info on the school - and its sister academies - can be found on this Russian-language site.

May 19, 2009

Defining Peace in Palestine

Jim Arkedis is frustrated with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu:

How do you define peace? My hunch is that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu defines it quite differently from President Obama.

When multiple parties are trying to solve a problem, it’s perhaps common to talk about examining differing means to achieve the singular end. Netanyahu’s visit to the White House yesterday (transcript here) was a study in the exact opposite: using the same means to achieve quite different ends.

Netanyahu talks of peace; he says he doesn’t want to “govern the Palestinians”; he says he wants to “resume negotiations”. This is what he’s supposed to say, words that play well on cable news and convey a sense of “common goals” with the American administration. But they mask the fact that Netanyahu has very little intent - if any - of granting the Palestinians a state of their own.


A sovereign state is never absent any power. A sovereign Palestinian state can do as they please - raise an army, ally, trade, and and negotiate as they see fit. Which of these (or other) powers would Netanyahu like to withhold from the Palestinians? Netanyahu’s version of living “side by side in dignity” is far different from granting a sovereign state.

I'd prefer to give Bibi the benefit of the doubt, and hope he has enough sense to realize that his country faces an untenable demographic imbalance that will only weaken the Israeli state if left unaddressed.

On Arkedis' first point: I think this is an interesting question, and it makes sense to sort out what does or does not constitute a 'peace' in the region. I'm not sure how statehood = peace in this equation, as there are obviously failed and failing states all over the globe at war with external and internal enemies.

Israel, I think quite understandably, prefers to reach agreement on identity and understanding before agreeing on land. These identity concessions preceded territorial concessions in Israel's peace treaty with Egypt, for example.

Withdrawal to pre-1967 borders will be an expensive and sticky endeavor. Many of these people are Israeli citizens who filled out all of the appropriate paperwork and did everything their government seemingly asked of them. Relocating these settlers will require compensation packages, and could be political suicide in Jerusalem. Doing this before the Palestinians have a unified, coherent government, or before they even have any semblance of an economy, could prove disastrous.

Around 8,000 settlers were removed from Gaza in 2005; there are roughly 250,000 settlers currently in the West Bank. There is no Israeli precedent for such an operation, making Israeli hesitance to such a plan - minus certain security and stability guarantees - somewhat understandable.

Goldfarb's Google Gotcha on Richard Haass

Michael Goldfarb, on CFR President Richard N. Haass' "vociferous" opposition to the Iraq war:

It's amazing what Google turns up these days. Here is Haass on the Charlie Rose show in September 2003, two months after he left the administration to become president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Presumably free to speak his mind, and at a time when the war in Iraq was already going badly, Haass somehow does not take the opportunity to explain how he had opposed the war.


But ask him now and he'll tell you he "believed in diplomacy, I believe in multilateralism, I believe in institutions...I did not believe in the Iraq war." It's amazing what six years and a shift in elite opinion can do to a man's memory.

This strikes me as a somewhat peculiar gripe. Haass has never publicly claimed to have been a "vociferous" war critic, as Goldfarb argues. Haass has written - and repeated in recent interviews - that his war stance was a modest 60/40 opposition based off of logistical policy concerns. These policy concerns are a documented matter of record.

It's certainly true that Haass could have, and perhaps should have resigned in protest if he felt so professional isolated at State, but he has explained his thinking on the matter at that time:

RCW: Why didn’t you resign?

HAASS: I was only 60/40 against the war. I believed Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons. Never once, in all my years in government, did some analyst take me aside and say otherwise.

I thought the war was a mistake, but you can’t fall on your sword every time you oppose a certain decision. Had I known then that there were no WMD’s I probably would have resigned. I eventually did leave because – aside from the lure of my current job with the Council on Foreign Relations – Iraq wasn’t an isolated incident.

I argued for a new Iran policy and lost. I argued for a diplomatic approach to North Korea and lost. I argued for a serious approach to the Palestinian issue and lost. I wanted to deal with Syria, and I lost on that. I also didn’t understand the allergy to international institutions. At some point, you run out of fingers to add up your disagreements.

I wasn’t having meaningful influence, and due to the NSC system, rarely got to make the argument for alternative policies. So when another opportunity to leave presented itself, I took it.

Viceroy Khalilzad?

I'm not entirely sure how to feel about this:

Zalmay Khalilzad, who was President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Afghanistan, could assume a powerful, unelected position inside the Afghan government under a plan he is discussing with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, according to senior American and Afghan officials.

Mr. Khalilzad, an American citizen who was born in Afghanistan, had considered challenging Mr. Karzai for the presidency in elections scheduled for this summer.

But Mr. Khalilzad missed the May 8 filing deadline, and the American and Afghan officials say that he has been talking with Mr. Karzai for several weeks about taking on a job that the two have described as the chief executive officer of Afghanistan.

Such an alliance would benefit Mr. Karzai by co-opting a potential rival. For its part, the White House has made no secret of its growing disenchantment with Mr. Karzai, and some Afghanistan experts said that enlisting Mr. Khalilzad would have the virtue of bringing a strong, competent leader into an increasingly dysfunctional Afghan government.

The position would allow Mr. Khalilzad to serve as “a prime minister, except not prime minister because he wouldn’t be responsible to a parliamentary system,” a senior Obama administration official said. Taking the unelected position would also allow Mr. Khalilzad to keep his American citizenship.

Administration officials insisted that the United States was not behind the idea of enlisting Mr. Khalilzad to serve in the Afghan government, and they gave no further details on what his duties might be.

Steve Clemons is "intrigued and cautiously optimistic." Count me as a little more incredulous. I can see the utility in appointing a competent and experienced policy hand to clean the Afghan house, but this only furthers the notion that the United States is a heavy-handed occupier in the region. If the Obama administration is comfortable with this, and has no trouble dropping the purple-fingered pretense, then I suppose this could work.

Perhaps this is one of several first steps toward defining 'success' down in Afghanistan, but it's a little disappointing nonetheless. It's clear that President Bush failed, as CFR President Richard Haass puts it, to properly "resource the rhetoric" in Afghanistan. Still, it's difficult not to feel a little disappointed in where we have gone in such short time.

I also have some trouble digesting the West's 'disenchantment' with Hamid Karzai. The Afghan President has taken heat for his regime's alleged corruption, as well as his inability to stifle the country's drug trafficking.

Yes, it certainly is good that Western democracies are immune to such problems.


Josh Foust minces fewer words:

Zalmay Khalilzad is an absolute snake, totally untrustworthy, and poisonous to President Obama’s otherwise good intentions for Afghanistan.

U.S.-Russia Joint Threat Assessment on Iran

The EastWest Institute (EWI) released today a U.S.-Russia joint threat assessment on Iran’s nuclear and missile potential. More than a year in the making, the report was produced by a team of Russian and American scientists and experts brought together by EWI. “The EastWest Institute is proud to have facilitated such an unprecedented effort,” said John Edwin Mroz, President and CEO of the EastWest Institute. “We hope that this joint threat assessment by Russians and Americans will serve to inform a more collaborative and robust response to the Iranian program.”

The report finds that Iran could produce a simple nuclear device within one to three years. It could develop a nuclear warhead for ballistic missiles in six to eight years. It further finds that Iran will not be able, for at least 10 to 15 years, to independently master the technologies necessary for advanced intermediate-range ballistic missiles or intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Those timetables could be accelerated, the report notes, if Iran were to receive substantial outside help. While stressing that they do not know Iran’s political intentions, the report’s authors call on the U.S. and Russia to explore cooperative responses if Iran should try to “break out” as a nuclear power.

“It wasn't easy to produce a report both sides could agree on,” said Grigory Chernyavsky, Chairman of the Committee of Scientists for Global Security and Arms Control and one of the Russian contributors to the report. “But the final result provides a solid technical base for decision-making.”

The full report is available on EWI website.

Can Realism Save the GOP?

Fresh from offering some clarifying testimony on Bush administration interrogation tactics, Philip Zelikow says that anyone urging the GOP to turn to "realism" to revive their political fortunes is selling snake oil:

For at least the last hundred years, most full-throated critiques of how America should approach the world regard their views as realistic, whatever their argument. They all regard their foes as naïve or venal, people who either bury their heads in the sand or exaggerate threats to chase imaginary monsters. Arthur Link wrote quite thoughtfully of the "higher realism" of Woodrow Wilson.

So as Republicans wonder where they will find a foreign policy, please don't think the problem will be solved if only Republicans will be "realists" once more. On the other hand, there is a certain nostalgia in recalling a team that took so much pride in professional competence ...

Fair point. I would suggest that the GOP mine this 2008 survey [pdf] from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs for some insights.

Either way, if the take-away from the George W. Bush years is that "incompetence" did them in, then the GOP will be setting themselves up for future problems. To take one example at random: the Iraq war. How would a competent administration have made Iraq's Sunnis and Baathists more receptive to U.S. military occupation? How would they have sealed the enormous borders with Iran and Syria to prevent the flow of arms and fighters? How would they have found enough troops to staff the occupation year-in and year-out? How would they have better understood the tribal and cultural dynamics of Iraq? Was there any government official - prior to 2003 - who had experience as an American viceroy in the Arab world?

I'm all for competence. But ideas matter too.

May 18, 2009

The Good Pakistan's Nukes Could Do

We're used to viewing the Pakistani nuclear program with something approaching hair-pulling horror, but CATO's Ben Friedman looks on the bright side:

Lots of people point out that Pakistan’s big problem is India — that its preoccupation with its largely indefensible Indian border prevents it from devoting sufficient resources to pacifying its restive Pashtuns and encourages it to employ high-risk strategies like using extremists to tie down Indian forces in Kashmir.

What you don’t hear much is that nuclear weapons, and particularly the secure second strike capability that Pakistan is likely pursuing, is a potential solution to this problem. Nuclear weapons are a cheap form of defense. In theory, the security that they provide against Indian attack would allow Pakistan to limit its militarization, stop bankrolling extremists, and focus on securing its own territory as opposed to its border. (Note: I’m not arguing that that’s necessarily right, I’m arguing that if you think vulnerability to India is what creates danger for us in Pakistan, you should consider the utility of nuclear weapons in solving this problem).

I don't know enough about Pakistan's military doctrine to pass any kind of judgment on this, but it's worth pondering.

May 17, 2009

The Politics of National Security - Cheney Edition


Cheney biographer Steven Hayes argues in the Weekly Standard that Cheney "is not only changing the debate about U.S. national security policy, he's winning it."

Perhaps. But this from Rasmussen Reports doesn't seem to suggest that:

Just 38% of U.S. voters agree with former Vice President Dick Cheney that America is less safe now because of changes President Obama has made in national security.

Fifty-one percent (51%) disagree with Cheney, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey.

Photo credit: AP Photo

Russia: Decoding Georgia and Economy

Russian media is trying to figure out where the political opposition in Georgia is heading - and whether their present course of action is beneficial for Georgia and future Russia-Georgia relations. As reported by the daily "Izvestia," "any agreement between current belligerents that leaves in power the leader of the "Rose Revolution" is akin to political suicide for the opponents of the president. The resignation of Saakashvili, by contrast, guarantees them a long and comfortable existence. The dilemma stems from the social order - according to the opposition leaders, "we did not bring people to the streets, they brought us out. ...""

The Russian paper analyzes further: "Saakashvili himself is resented by most of the population. A month ago, his approval rating did not exceed 11%. It is said that now, it's even lower. We can argue for a long time why Georgians together traditionally choose a national leader, and then just as traditionally band together for his overthrow. But the situation with Saakashvili is a unique one. Giorgiy Gachechiladze, host of a live reality show "Camera Number 5," reads a long list of sins of the President under the title why he should go. The list is bloody, and not just because of the war in South Ossetia. The Rose Revolution of 2003 - with all its democratic trappings - in fact turned out to be "a revolution against the handkerchief." But Saakashvili-liberal was in the process transformed into Saakshvili-bolshevik, whose aim was to create a new type of Georgian citizen. Ideally, the result of this experiment should have been a satisfied, obedient, confident and selfish man. Looking at some of the government authorities, we are convinced that the president has succeeded in his aims on a certain level. But then the process stalled - either the Georgians did not want to give up their personal advantages and disadvantages, or they refused to give up their identity, history, culture - and freedom. That sounds, perhaps, a bit stilted, but this is indeed the case."

Citing past support from the West, Izvestia notes that "at this time the Americans are perceived to hold neutrality in Georgia. It is said that Washington banned the President of Georgia from using force against the demonstrators. Nevertheless, the level of anti-Americanism in the ranks of protesters is considerably high. Especially after the comments of Matthew Bryza,representative of State Department, and U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John Tefta. The protesters are chanting: "Bush is gone - they [diplomats] remained." And most of the protesters are just laughing at the Europeans, since a prominent British political figure blamed the Georgian opposition by saying that "... in the UK, such issues are dealt with in Parliament." Izvestia notes that today, the Georgian parliament consists of only two real opposition figures, a dozen representatives of the "so-called opposition" and some one hundred supporters of President Saakashvili.

For its part, the Georgian opposition is ratcheting up pressure on the current administration - starting May 14, a new wave of protest commenced in Tbilisi, calling for the resignation of President Mikhail Saakashvili. The new protests should conclude with a mass popular demonstration on May 26, Georgia's Independence Day. If that actually takes place, the Georgian leader, known for his passion for pompous activities, may "lose" the traditional yearly military parade on Rustaveli Avenue in the center of the city. Therefore, the authorities are trying to divide the ranks of the opposition. The opposition maintains that its main requirement is holding of early presidential and parliamentary elections.

Meanwhile, Sergei Bagapsh, President of Abkhazia (a Georgian break-away province), was recently asked by a journalist whether, in the near future, Abkhazia will turn to Moscow with a request to join the Russian Federation. Bagapsh retorted back: "How can we contact Russia on this matter in the near future, if Russia has recently recognized us as an independent state?" Russia has recently officially recognized Abkhazian and South Ossetian borders as official borders of independent countries. Georgia, United States, European Union and a host of other countries maintain the territorial integrity of Georgia that includes these two breakaway regions.

Russia is seriously banking on the emergence of Asia as a counter-weight to the United States in global affairs, and is making necessary preparations for such a reorientation. Daily "Izvestia" comments on this emerging trend: "Asia seems tired of looking U.S. "in the mouth", putting its well-being at the mercy of the world's largest economy. It is the Asian countries that are most interested in changing the existing world order. What was the situation like before? China was producing consumer goods, selling them mostly in the United States, lending America huge sums of money to stir up consumer mindset. China itself was running up huge dollar reserves. This might as well have continued, if not for the crisis."

The paper further reports that in early May, China, Japan, South Korea and ASEAN countries (Singapore, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and others) have agreed on the establishment of a regional foreign exchange reserve of $120 billion that would be allocating funds in the form of loans to countries - members of the pool- during financial crisis. "This is not just some Asian fund of Mutual Assistance - this smells like an alternative International Monetary Fund. In the near future, according to the experts, the Chinese yuan could be the leading currency for settlements in the Asian region. Then, given the enormous industrial and consumer turnover of Asian countries, they no longer will need to accumulate huge dollar reserves."

The argument for Russian role in this emerging economic reality is broken down accordingly: "So whats for Russia in all of this? At present, we stand on the sidelines of the revolutionary transformation of the economic world order. We pray for high oil prices. Why? So that once again we can accumulate dollar reserves and invest in the United States? What for? At the same time, Russia does not belong to any serious economic bloc."

"The world will be divided into three main regions: the Americas, Europe and the East, warn the economists. United States will lose some of its power, the leadership will shift towards Asia. That is why America is in a hurry to make friends with China, in order to prevent the creation of a powerful Asian bloc. Where is Russia in the new structure of the world? The East, of course, is closer to us. Already, 96% of Russia's far eastern exports are geared for consumption by the neighboring Asian countries. We need to unite with them - especially in an era of globalization."

Mexico: Looking to 2012 Election

Marcelo Ebrard has announced his intention to run for president in 2012. Ebrard is a member of the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) and is currently the Head of Government of the Federal District (sometimes referred to as the mayor of Mexico City). His presidential aspirations have not been without some controversy.

First, there is the matter of PRD unity. Ebrard, for the most part, got his start by aligning himself with Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the unsuccessful candidate for president in 2006. Lopez Obrador made Ebrard the chief of police in Mexico City while Lopez Obrador served as the mayor of Mexico City. Lopez Obrador and Ebrard had worked together to implement recommendations by Rudy Giuliani, when he came to Mexico City in 2003 to look for ways to improve security. When President Fox directly fired Ebrard in 2004 after an angry mob lynched some undercover cops, Lopez Obrador later reinstated Ebrard as Secretary of Social Development. Lopez Obrador lost a very close presidential election (an election that he still believes was rigged) in 2006 to President Calderon. Now, Ebrard’s emergence is creating a rift within the PRD that may have already existed for sometime.

Jesus Ortega Martinez, the leader of the PRD, has made it clear that Ebrard has every right to position himself for the presidency. While he rejected that Ebrard’s declaration closes the path of Lopez Obrador to become the nominee of the party, he admitted that any candidate within the party wishing to run for president lacks a lot time. Ebrard has already gained the support of many of the left-wing groups that encompass the PRD. The Izquierda Democratica Nacional has declared that it would support Ebrard. Jesus Zambrano, head of the Nueva Izquierda (the New Left) stated that he applauds Ebrard’s entrance into the race, but he also cautioned that this does not mean that the PRD already has a candidate.

If the Ebrard-Lopez Obrador split has the potential of breaking apart the PRD, then one would not know from watching the responses from the PAN (President Calderon’s party). At the very least, the PAN is not taking a chance that the PRD will be irrelevant in future elections. This past week the head of the PAN, Cesar Nava, stated that while it is okay that Ebrard has presidential aspirations, it is not okay for him to use public resources as the mayor of Mexico City to build on those aspirations. Nava’s comments are more than likely an indication of how political opponents of Ebrard will criticize him in the future.

Meanwhile the coalition that President Calderon built in order to come to power in 2006 has been slowly crumbling in the past year. This past week, Elba Esther Gordillo, a former member of the PRI party and the current head of Mexico’s largest teacher's union, emphasized the costs that Calderon’s war against crime has created. Her comments were made in front of the president, when the two were celebrating the Day of the Teacher. Elba is arguably the most powerful woman in Mexico and her support in 2006 was essential for Calderon to sneak by Lopez Obrador. In Mexico, presidents serve only one term and it is not yet certain who will emerge to run in President Calderon’s party.

May 16, 2009

On Political Paradoxes

CATO's Christopher Preble makes a sage observation regarding how we talk about foreign policy:

Few people in Washington rise through the ranks by talking about what we can’t or shouldn’t do, which partly explains why the voices of restraint are almost always drowned out by the vocal few calling for action.

This is true, but it's also curious. Because on the domestic side of the fence, there are numerous high-level Washington voices urging government restraint (at least today). They're called Republicans. Yet this sentiment somehow vanishes at the water's edge. The same party that thinks the federal government can't adequately administer health care or set education standards nevertheless thinks that same government should be the vehicle for policing Asia, the Middle East and Europe and spreading freedom throughout the world. All of which requires, ahem, a very big government.

It's just a strange state of affairs.

May 15, 2009

The Limits of Bush Bashing

The Obama administration and its defenders have dined for quite a while on blaming the Bush administration for the sundry problems plaguing the U.S. and the world. This is not the place to parse each criticism, but I do think things like this report from the National Security Network need better context. They write:

During the eight years of the Bush administration, unnecessary saber-rattling, coupled with a refusal to talk to Iran, did nothing to make America more secure. Indeed, Iran made enormous advances both in nuclear technology and regional prestige.

It's important to recognize that there is very little chance the Obama administration is going to have any more success at convincing the Iranians to give up their nuclear program than the Bush administration did. That's not because they're not approaching the problem more constructively, but because the nature of the problem is such that it may not be amenable to "solving" at a cost that would be acceptable to most Americans.

And the irony here is that by relentlessly criticizing the Bush administration for "failing" to stop Iran's decades-old pursuit of a nuclear capability, they're just setting the Obama administration up for failure. Because what happens if the administration's diplomatic outreach fails, as it likely will given the importance the Iranian regime places in its nuclear program? Then the administration will be forced to either stand down or take military action - an outcome few of the president's backers would likely support.

It's not wise for President Obama to concede a nuclear Iran while there is still time for further diplomacy. But if the president's supporters want to change the "politics of national security" it seems to me that it would be far more productive to take this bit of advice from Richard Haass and start "defining success down." Barring some dramatic breakthrough or a military strike from Israel, Iran is going to become a nuclear power. If the administration's supporters believe containment is preferable to war, they should start saying so now.

Photo Credit: AP Photo

May 14, 2009

New Russian Star Rises in ...Golf

There is a brand new player in a game traditionally dominated by American and Western European players. Maria Verchenova has risen in rankings in the Womens Golf division. Like many of her fellow countrywomen, she brings talent, determination, stamina, and - yes, great looks to the game. Let these pictures speak for themselves- Maria has a website devoted to her game. Enjoy!

May 13, 2009

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Drunk, Scuffles With Cops

From the NY Times:

Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko resigned Tuesday after being accused of drunken behavior last week at an airport in Germany. He denied that he had been intoxicated, and said in a statement that he was the victim of a “dirty campaign” to discredit him and his ministry.

A Lufthansa plane crew in Frankfurt had refused to allow Mr. Lutsenko and his 19-year-old son to board a flight to Seoul because they were drunk and disorderly, the German police said. Mr. Lutsenko was accused of physically attacking and insulting police officers.

The Moscow Times has more details.

Lukashenko: "Where Is My Union?"

This comes across as though it were published in the 1990s - Aleksandr Lukashenko, President of Belarus, is blaming Russia for the inability to create a unified Russian-Belarus state. Lukashenko spoke during his country's celebration of the May 9 victory over Nazi Germany in WW2:

"Today, we have friends everywhere: in Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. That's because Belarus conducts diverse foreign policy of peace." According to him, "we have a special relationship that has historically associated us with our brotherly Russia and Russian people."

According to the Belorussian President, the delays in implementing this federated state are not irreversible:

"We are working with the Russian side. There is an understanding - we will overcome the difficulties, now matter how hard they may be. We are being blamed now that we are drifting towards the West. None of what we do means we are leaning that way. We just want to have good partner relations with the West. I am confident that we will normalize these relations, despite those who do not want it."

However, Lukashenko criticized Russian counterparts for the fact that the 1996 Joint Agreement between his country and Russia is still not a reality:

"The fact that we have not progressed in constructing a federal partnership is not our fault. It is their (Russia) fault...Who does not fulfill the contract on the construction of the Unified State? We had to hold a joint referendum on that. Why didn't we? Because the Russians did not want to," - said Lukashenko, advising Moscow to "look at the internal causes of turmoil in our relationship."

Lukashenko made his latest appeal to Moscow because he thinks that Russians are put off by his initiative to organize in Belarus a meeting between the world leaders of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The original agreement calling for a unified state was signed during 1996-1997 between Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Aleksandr Lukashenko. It called for the eventual federated union that would encompass the territories of Belarus and the Russian Federation, with one government responsible for the foreign, economic and military policies. Lukashenko was a big proponent of such a Union, since he would naturally be first in line to become its leader if Yeltsin would cede power due to his health and age. Unfortunately, with Yeltsin's pick of young and energetic Vladimir Putin to the post of the Russian President in late 1999, Lukashenko's hopes of succession were dashed. Putin resisted the actual implementation of the Union for various reasons, not the least of which was the fact that Russia already controlled Belarus' subsidized command economy through lower energy costs on oil and natural gas. This unrealized Union is still popular amongst Russian nationalists and communists, who seek to re-establish the Soviet Union in one form or another.

The Strange Case of Rodrigo Rosenberg

On Sunday, May 10, Rodrigo Rosenberg set out to ride his bicycle in Guatemala City and was shot and killed by unknown gunmen.


He was scheduled to be the guest of journalist Mario David García's radio show, Hablando Claro, on Monday to talk about the murder of Rosenberg's clients Khalil Musa and his daughter Marjorie.

Musa, a prominent businessman, and his daughter were killed last March. No one has been charged on those two murders.

Rodrigo Rosenberg claimed that Musa, his client, had been murdered because he had refused to participate in corrupt business deals at Banrural, one of Guatemala's largest banks, after Musa had been named to the bank's board by Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom.

During Rosenberg's funeral, the media received a statement - first as an audio, later a video - where Rosenberg blames Colom, Colom's wife Sandra, Colom's private secretary Gustavo Alejos, and businessman Gregorio Valdez for his own murder. The Wall Street Journal has the part of the video with subtitles, which starts with Rodrigo Rosenberg saying,

"If you are hearing or seeing this message it's because I was assassinated by President Álvaro Colom, with the help of Mr. Gustavo Alejos and Mr. Gregorio Valdez."

Along with the video, a letter allegedly signed by Rosenberg lists the accusations against Colom.

Mario David García says he filmed the video with Rosenberg, and said he is now worried about his own life.

So far there is no evidence to support Rosenberg's allegations.

President Colom has vehemently denied any links to the murder. While there are calls for his resignation, Colom will not step down, and stated he has requested the help of the FBI and UN agency International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG, Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala). The CICIG was created in 2007 to fight widespread corruption in the country.

Cheney on Iran


The Politico's Ben Smith reports that former Vice President Cheney surfaced in New York to warn about a conspiracy to impede American efforts to disarm Iran:

The former Vice President characterized the Iranian goal in negotiations on ending that country's nuclear program as mere stalling for time, and the Europeans as trying to "restrain the U.S." from military action.

"Everybody's in a giant conspiracy to achieve a different objective than the one we want to achieve," Cheney said.

The negotiations are "bound to fail unless we are perceived as very credible" in threatening military action against Iran, he said.

"Most of the other nations out there are willing to live with a nuclear-armed Iran" he said, citing France, Germany and the United Kingdom in particular.

I think the term "conspiracy" is a tad strong here, but I suspect the former VP is correct in assuming that at the end of the day, most of America's allies would rather see Iran go nuclear if the only alternative left is to wage war against Iran. I also suspect that the same holds true for the current administration and perhaps a majority of the American people. At the end of the day, containing a nuclear Iran will likely be viewed as the lesser of two evils when stacked up with the prospect of launching a second war in the Persian Gulf.

Photo credit: AP Photo

Why America Does So Much


Stephen Walt wonders why the U.S. has such an activist foreign policy:

In short, what I'm suggesting here is that America's role in the world today is shaped by two imbalances of power, not just one. The first is the gap between U.S. capabilities and everyone else's, a situation that has some desirable features (especially for us) but one that also encourages the United States to do too much and allows others to do either too little or too many of the wrong things. The second imbalance is between organized interests whose core mission is constantly pushing the U.S. government to do more and in more places, and the far-weaker groups who think we might be better off showing a bit more restraint.

Let me add a third to this list and that is the imbalance between incumbency and change. Overseas military installations, for instance, are quite expensive to build and maintain. Once they're up, it's very difficult to just walk away from them. So apart from the ideological or institutional support for America's international activism, there is the sheer weight of the status quo.

This is why talk of "change" in foreign policy has to be taken with a grain of salt. Most of the time this change occurs within the broad framework of the existing status quo - it rarely proposes an alternative framework. It's easier to swim with the tide than against it.

Photo credit: AP Photo

Going to War in Pakistan

Dov Zakheim makes a suggestion for the Obama administration:

Instead of trying to play politics in Islamabad, the United States should employ its forces to support those of Pakistan's military. Only in this manner can there be some assurance that Pakistani morale will not collapse, and that the Taliban insurrection can be crushed. The Pakistani military can be ruthless, and nothing else will do in dealing with the Taliban. American tactics and firepower can back up that ruthlessness.

Is there any indication at all that Pakistan would welcome such an overt role for the U.S. military in their country?

UPDATE: The LA Times reports:

The U.S. military has launched a program of armed Predator drone missions against militants in Pakistan that for the first time gives Pakistani officers significant control over routes, targets and decisions to fire weapons, U.S. officials said.

The joint effort is aimed at getting the government in Islamabad, which has bitterly protested Predator strikes, more directly engaged in one of the most successful elements of the battle against Islamist insurgents....

Under the new partnership, a separate fleet of U.S. drones operated by the Defense Department will be free for the first time to venture beyond the Afghan border under the direction of Pakistani military officials, who are working alongside American counterparts at a command center in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

"This is about building trust," said a senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the program has not been publicly acknowledged. "This is about giving them capabilities they do not currently have to help them defeat this radical extreme element that is in their country."

May 12, 2009

A Supreme Endorsement?

Nader Uskowi believes Khamenei is close to an Ahmadinejad endorsement:

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei today came close to endorsing Ahmadinejad in the 12 June presidential elections. Speaking in Kurdistan province, Khamenei spoke in coded language, implicit in support for Ahmadinejad.

“The nation knows and has witnessed the fact that if it’s elected president is full of energy and has the determination; he can instigate great service [to the nation].”
[IRNA, in Persian, 12 May 2009]

Khamenei also spoke against lavish lifestyle and corruption widely associated with Mehdi Karrubi, one of Ahmadinejad’s main rivals; calling on people to elect a simple man.

“Elect someone who feels the pain of the nation, feels the pain of the people, comes from and is close to the [ordinary] people, has a simple life, and he and his family and close relatives are free of corruption and lavish lifestyle.”

Miliband & New Media

FYI, Steve Clemons of The Washington Note will be live-streaming a new media roundtable with UK Foreign Minister David Miliband at 11 am EST.

Should be interesting, check it out.

Generation Tehran

This is an interesting mini-doc on the youth of Tehran. Mostly an assortment of testimonials, I think it offers a good look at the complexities and the diversity within urban Iranian culture.

It's often noted that the bulk of Iran's population is under 30. The leadership of the country has mostly failed to tap into this energy, with the most recent and relevant example perhaps being the presidential campaign(s) of Mohammad Khatami. A decade of inaction, alienation, and worse yet, declining economy, have led to apathy and consumption for many of the nation's young.

May 11, 2009

Resetting With Russia


The Heritage Foundation's Sally McNamara argues that the U.S. should "reset" relations with Russia only insofar as Russia makes all the concessions:

President Obama must also make clear that the United States will not bargain away U.S. support for NATO enlargement to include Georgia and Ukraine, or missile defenses in Europe in exchange for Russian cooperation on other issues, such as its negotiations to stop Iran's nuclear program.

This position doesn't seem quite tenable to me, it treats U.S. interests as an undifferentiated bloc that can't be prioritized. But isn't disarming Iran of greater interest to the U.S. than putting blood and treasure on the line to defend Georgia?

Writing in the American Interest (sub required), Michael Mandelbaum has a persuasive take on U.S.-Russian relations, acknowledging where our interests diverge, where we need to hold firm and which issues we need to be ready to concede - specifically, missile defense and NATO expansion.

Photo credit: AP Photo

A 57 State Solution

Jordan's King Abdullah says big things are afoot in the peace process business:

Jordan's King Abdullah has said the US is preparing an ambitious Middle East peace plan between Israel, the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon in return for diplomatic recognition of Israel from the world's Muslim nations.

Abdullah told the Times that on offer for Israel was a "57-state solution" in which the entire Arab and Muslim world would recognise its existence.

"We are offering a third of the world to meet them with open arms," he said.

"The future is not the Jordan river or the Golan Heights or the Sinai, the future is Morocco in the Atlantic and Indonesia in the Pacific. That is the prize."

We'll see.

Photo credit: AP Photo

Here There Be Drunks


Via Andrew Sullivan.

May 10, 2009

Taiwan: Controversy over Chinese University Enrollment

Police officers tackle a group of five college students protesting against the opening up of Taiwanese universities to Chinese students at a temple ceremony where President Ma Ying-jeou was speaking on May 3rd. (Source: Liberty Times, Tsai Wen-chu)

One of the main ideas of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s rapprochement strategy towards the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is that increasing civilian exchanges between the two sides will promote greater understanding, build trust, and decrease the likelihood of armed conflict. In the past, Ma has often advocated the idea of allowing Chinese students to enroll in Taiwanese universities. Last week, his administration attempted to take a step closer towards making this a reality, but the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) - which has a small minority in the Legislature - resorted to obstructive tactics to keep this from happening.

Opponents of this policy fear that the Chinese government would exploit this to extend their influence in Taiwan. Some students in Taiwan also fear that they would face almost impossible competition for both university admission and jobs after graduation. An editorial in the Liberty Times, one of Taiwan’s leading newspapers, expresses a common fear amongst Taiwan independence supporters:

[Chinese students] will occupy educational resources for local students, or some among them may have political directives to supervise the speech of professors or develop spy networks. What is even more worthy of concern is that these Chinese students who are close to the marrying age and have lived in Taiwan for an extended period of time would engage in close relations with local students. This would greatly increase the probability of marriage and accomplish President Ma’s plan: to quickly allow young people between the two sides to become friends. At that time, the presence of this increasing number of Chinese spouses in Taiwan will complicate the existing problems of residence and employment for this group.

Supporters of the policy to allow students from China to study in Taiwan feel that this would alleviate the problem of a domestic over-supply of college and university seats. An editorial in the China Times, a pro-unification newspaper in Taiwan, puts forth the argument for engagement:

If Taiwan is scared of anything, it’s China. There is only one term that can be used to describe this fear: meaningless. Taiwan has always sought to learn from the United States. Why can’t it learn from America’s foreign student policy? After opening its arms to the world, people who go to the U.S. to study and stay behind to work end up serving America. This is very good. Those who return to their home countries become a pro-U.S. force. Even better. Human talent has always been an extension of a nation’s borders and influence. Taiwan does not need to block its sons and daughters from going to school on the mainland in the same way that no one thinks that there is anything wrong with studying abroad in the United States, England, or Japan. Taiwan also does not need to block mainland youth from coming to Taiwan to study. As long as they have an interest, they should be welcomed. Starting from the youth, cross-strait academic exchanges will promote greater mutual understanding and friendliness. Human talent is not like agricultural products which need to be protected. What it needs, instead, is competition. There is no way to stop the greater trend towards cross-strait exchanges. A fear of mainland educational credentials will only stunt Taiwan’s competitiveness.

In the end, there is merit to both sides of the debate. While the Liberty Times editorial takes on a shrill nativist tone, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does, indeed, have an entire government agency called the United Front Work Department that is devoted to extending China’s influence throughout Taiwan’s political, business, civilian, and academic sectors of society. These “united front tactics,” as they are known, have already been successful at exerting leverage over Taiwanese businessmen operating in China, as well as engaging their one-time Nationalist (KMT) rivals in undermining the previous DPP administration. No matter how warm relations between the two sides become, the ultimate goal of the CCP government remains to subsume Taiwan’s sovereignty under the PRC.

A true resolution of the cross-strait stand-off can only occur when either side changes their fundamental view of their concept of national sovereignty. Now with this opening up in cross-strait exchanges, will Taiwan be able to change China? Or will it be China that changes Taiwan? The Ma administration is purportedly betting on the former, but so far events appear to pointing towards the latter.

Russia: Mr. Lavrov Goes to Washington

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov paid a high-profile visit to Washington, DC, where he met with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. According to the daily "Izvestia," Lavrov went to the shores of the Potomac not at the very best moment for bilateral relations, given the commencement of NATO exercises in Georgia, and the controversy around two Russian representatives to NATO. Russia's permanent representative in the alliance Dmitry Rogozin earlier said that the Russian side will not participate in the ministerial meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, which is scheduled to be held in Brussels on May 18-19. Yet it seemed that the Russian side achieved its planned objectives - following his meeting with Secretary Clinton, Lavrov told the journalists: "We hope that soon all possible obstacles to the resumption of the NATO-Russia Council will be completely eliminated- and these constraints are entirely artificial in nature."

As before, the Russian political establishment is trying to determine if the current administration will be more pragmatic on the missile defense issue. To that end, Lavrov said: "Our American partners have confirmed that they are studying Russian-proposed revisions on that issue." According to Lavrov, last year's crisis in the Caucasus and the current global financial and economic crisis sums up the 20-year period after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union. Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, the Russian Foreign Minister said that these events "set the limits of what is possible for inertial policy pursued all these years, including the political and psychological inertia of Russia's containment policy. Now we know what can happen if the notorious triumfalizm and faith in the victory of the Western world revolution are pursued to their conclusion."

Lavrov stated that the Soviet and American models of social and economic development - socialism and liberal capitalism, developed to their pure and often absurd form - each in its time, proved to be a failure. "It is now clear that we need a middle ground, something balanced, something not so categorical and uncompromising," said Lavrov. In his own words, the current economic development is undergoing "a paradigm shift - back to a socially oriented economy and sustainable development, requiring a greater role for nation -states." All this, according to Lavrov, creates a "brilliant set of conditions" to "draw the last line for the period of the Cold War and the subsequent misunderstanding between United States and Russia. To miss such an opportunity would be very unfortunate."

May 9 marks the 64th anniversary of Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two. From 1945 till the end of the USSR in 1991, Soviet Union marked that date with massive military parades across the entire country. Following the collapse of the state and until the election of Vladimir Putin as President in 2000, the celebrations were more muted, with less emphasis on the showcase of Soviet past and present military strength. After 2000, the military parades were once again in vogue, eagerly embraced by all generations of Russian citizens. More than nine thousand troops, 100 military vehicles and 69 helicopters and planes took part in the Saturday march on Red Square, the main Victory parade in the country. This was largest show of force since the Soviet times, and became a kind of a rehearsal before the V-day festivities in 2010. Similar parades and marches were held in all major cities and most countries of the former USSR.

Opening the parade on Red Square, the President and Commander-in-Chief Dmitry Medvedev, stressed that the lessons of the Great Victory over fascism are relevant today, when once again there are those who "engage in military adventurism." The head of state assured that any aggression against the citizens of Russia will get a decent response, and that the future of Russia is a peaceful, successful and happy. Addressing the veterans, the President stressed that one of the major concerns of the state is to ensure their welfare: "The power of spirit and devotion to the homeland have helped you, dear soldiers, to overcome the difficult and long road to victory. You turned the course of world history. You gave life and liberty to the future generations, to all of us. That is why none of the current problems will prevent us from fulfilling our moral obligations to you." He added that WW2 has taught people to fight until ultimate victory, to be strong in the face of difficulties: "Protecting the homeland is our sacred duty, it is a moral basis for all generations. And today, the heirs of the heroes of that war are keeping and enhancing victorious traditions. Among them are those who in real battle have proven high fighting efficiency of modern Russian army."

Russian military showcased its latest tactical and conventional weapons on parade, such as GAZ-233014 "Tiger" armored car (Russian answer to American Hummer), BTR-80 and BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles, T-90 main battle tanks, anti-tank missile system "Sprut", self-propelled artillery howitzers "Msta-M", tactical missile systems "Iskander-M", portable air defense systems "Buk", anti-aircraft missile systems S-300 "Favorit" and S-400 "Triumph", as well as mobile ground missile complex "Topol." Moldova, Ukraine, Turkmenistan and Belarus also celebrated May 9 victory with parades, attended by the heads of state and Presidents Voronin, Yushchenko, Berdimuhammedov and Lukashenko, respectively.

May 9, 2009

Preventing the Next 9/11

Traveling in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested the U.S. learn from history:

After the Soviets were expelled from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, Gates said, the United States and the international community “basically turned our backs” on Afghanistan. Four years later, in 1993, al-Qaida launched made its first attack on the World Trade Center in New York. A car bomb failed to bring the building down, but it killed six people. Undeterred, and operating with impunity in Afghanistan, al-Qaida hatched the plan that killed thousands on Sept. 11, 2001.

As I understand it, al Qaeda was not operating out of Afghanistan in 1993 but Sudan. But more important, what was the "not turning our back" option in the 1980s when the Soviets retreated?

Turning back the clock, what exactly should the U.S. have done differently? And how could those policies have deterred or prevented bin Laden from waging a holy war against the West?


Photo Credit: AP Photo

May 8, 2009

Measuring Civilian Deaths in Pakistan

In a new report, Anthony Cordesman argues that we shouldn't necessarily trust the numbers we're hearing from David Kilcullen on the number of Pakistani civilians killed by U.S. drone attacks:

Both casualty estimates and day-to-day new reports are also affected by the fact that casualty impact of air operations is systematically being exaggerated by Taliban and jihadist claims that fighters are innocent civilians, growing Taliban and Jihadist use of exaggerated casualty estimates as propaganda weapons, manipulation of bodies and grave sites (some of which may be empty), and the growing use of civilians as human shields. Bodies are buried almost immediately, fighters and other dead can be called casualties, after-action investigations are often impossible in insecure areas, and truth that comes too late is truth unheard. There often is no practical way to establish the facts, and a very real inability to distinguish who really is a fighter and who is not.

He then goes on to argue that regardless, airstrikes have a limited utility in the kind of war raging in Pakistan:

...no limits to the use of air power or improvements in its use can make up for a lack of the resources needed to win, inadequate ground troops, and for creating secure areas and winning the support of the local population. U.S. and NATO/ISAF commanders have repeatedly warned that there is no military path to victory in Afghanistan, and it is clear from the conduct of Pakistani force to date, that this is equally true in Pakistan.

Moreover, the same public opinion polls in Afghanistan that show such growing anger against air strikes in general reveal a pattern that has been clear in Iraq and virtually every counterinsurgency conflict where the insurgents have been defeated. Civilians see a very different reality when tactical clashes defeat the insurgents and are followed by forces that stay, bring lasting security, and which then are followed by a civil presence that brings government services and some degree of economic security.

If this is indeed true, and it's certainly the prevailing conventional wisdom, then it just underscores how little the U.S. can do in Pakistan without the full scale cooperation of the Pakistani government. They'll be the ones clearing, holding and building. Even with significant American assistance, if the Pakistanis have no will, there doesn't seem to be a way.


Photo Credit: AP Photo

Old School Deterrence


The Rev. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson has an article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists describing the U.S. Evangelical movement's push to eliminate nuclear weapons from the world. It's worth reading, but this part jumped out at me:

The shift in nuclear paradigms from the Cold War to the post-9/11 era will of course be well-known to Bulletin readers. The new view, articulated in varied ways by the Shultz foursome and the Global Zero coalition--and, most recently/significantly by presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev--recognizes that traditional deterrence is obsolete in the age of asymmetric warfare, that nonproliferation is no longer credible unless yoked with a serious commitment to disarmament, and that the alternative to a nonproliferation-disarmament agenda is eventual proliferation leading someday to the use of a nuclear weapon, whether by accident or design. [emphasis mine]

The problem here is that we're not living in an age of asymmertric warfare, at least, not exclusively. We also live in an age of rising nuclear powers and all of those powers will most definitely be susceptible to "traditional deterrence." It's hard to see how, in the years ahead, nuclear weapons won't continue to play a vital role in ensuring that those powers do not wage war on one another, or us.

That's not to say that these arsenals can't be pared back. But presuming that old school deterrence is dead strikes me as very misguided. I suspect it has a very large role to play vis-a-vis Iran in the coming years.

Photo Credit: AP Photos

May 6, 2009

Drone Death Tolls & Double Standards

Speaking before Congress, David Kilcullen said that U.S. Predator drone strikes in Pakistan had killed 14 al Qaeda leaders and 700 Pakistani civilians. "The drone strikes are highly unpopular," he said. "They are deeply aggravating to the population. And they've given rise to a feeling of anger that coalesces the population around the extremists and leads to spikes of extremism. ... The current path that we are on is leading us to loss of Pakistani government control over its own population."

This led Commentary's Noah Pollack to observe:

...imagine that Israel had been conducting a Predator drone war over the past few years that had killed 14 Hezbollah leaders and 700 Lebanese civilians. Is there any chance that this would not be a constant source of global hysteria?

And so, as far as the U.S.’s drone war is concerned, I have a few questions: Where are the shrill denunciations of disproportionate force and extrajudicial killings? Where are the UN investigations? Where are the condemnations from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the UN Human Rights Council? Where are the front-page New York Times exposes of American war crimes? Where are the indictments of U.S. officials by European judges? Why hasn’t Pat Buchanan compared the United States to the Nazis?...Why isn’t anybody detailing the outrageously disproportionate force the Army is employing against a group of rural tribesmen armed only with RPG’s and rifles?

That seems like a fair point to me.

Of course, it doesn't answer the central question: is the U.S. doing more damage to itself and the Pakistani government by killing this many civilians to reach al Qaeda leaders or not?

Venezuela Offers Sanctuary to FARC


According to this report at Spanish daily El País, Venezuela is now serving as sanctuary for the FARC's top leaders.

The article states that the Colombian Minister of Defense has pointed out that the top FARC leaders are not in Colombia, which makes their arrest difficult. The Colombian MoD did not speculate further as to their whereabouts.

However, El País does speculate that FARC Secratariat members 'Iván Márquez', 'Timochenko' and 'Joaquín Gómez', plus 'Grannobles', another FARC leader, are hiding in Venezuela (my translation, bold print from original article):

With nearly 200,000 kilometers of common border, most of it jungle or wilderness, it is nearly impossible to combat the guerrilla without joint action from both armies. But there is not only ideological affinity between the [Venezuelan] Bolivarians and the FARCs: there's rampant corruption. The Venezuelan military and police gave into the temptation of enriching themselves with narcotraffic money. Narcos and the FARC buy their wills in order to cover up their cocaine exports. It's no wonder that Venezuela has become a key stopover for the Colombian drug on its way to the United States and Europe.
The article quotes military analyst Alfredo Rangel, who stated that following the release of the information gathered from the FARC computers found last year, while Chavez has distanced himself from the FARC and is not providing as much money and weapons and does not give the FARC the diplomatic cover he used to, he continues to passively support them.

The article from El País came up after Colombian president Alvaro Uribe urged Chavez to help destroy the FARC. Chavez flat-out refused, saying that it's not his war.

Just last Thursday the Venezuelan Foreign Minister had vowed to collaborate with Colombian authorities in the search for members of the FARC that killed eight Colombian soldiers and then allegedly fled to Venezuela last week.

Earlier this week Chavez had blamed Colombia for a helicopter crash that killed 18 members of the Venezuelan army. During his 'Alo Presidente TV program Chavez accused both Colombia and the US for the accident:

"¿Cuántas vidas nos ha costado patrullar la frontera? Vean ustedes lo que nos cuesta el conflicto interno de Colombia, que es alimentado, y hay que decirlo, por las corrientes guerreristas de EEUU, por los perros de la guerra que andan inventando guerras y conflictos para vender armas, alimentado por el narcotráfico."

(my translation:)
"How many lives will patrolling the border cost us? See for yourselves what Colombia's internal conflict is costing us, which is fed, it must be said, by the US warmongering, by the dogs of war that go around inventing wars and conflicts in order to sell weapons, fed by the drug traffic."
How's that "mending fences with Chavez" going, folks?

"Countries of Particular Concern" on Freedom of Religion

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has issued a list of of "countries of particular concern" for "for egregious violations of religious freedom." The top 13 countries are

1. Burma
2. North Korea
3. Eritrea
4. Iran
5. Iraq
6. Nigeria
7. Pakistan
8. People Republic's of China
9. Saudi Arabia
10. Sudan
11. Turkmenistan
12. Uzbekistan
13. Vietnam

Not surprisingly, six of those countries (Burma, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, China, Turkmenistan) also made it to the list of 10 Worst Countries to be a Blogger that Greg posted yesterday.

North Korea, Burma, Turkmenistan and Iran are also among the bottom 12 countries in the Index of Economic Freedoms.

All freedoms go hand-in-hand.

If Ralph Peters Had His Way

Writing in the New York Post, Ralph Peters offers some guidance on how to handle the situation in Pakistan:

A better strategy's obvious. But Washington has trouble with the obvious. At our pathetic State Department, habit trumps innovation every time. And the Pentagon can't seem to see beyond the immediate battlefield.

What should we do? Dump Pakistan. Back India.

Let's see if I follow this: influential portions of Pakistan's military and intelligence service nurture Islamic terrorists because they need a low cost way to attack India; these same forces worry even now that the U.S. is conspiring with India to splinter Pakistan; ergo openly backing India will make Pakistan turn on its jihadist allies, leaving them with no allies. Openly allying with India would also make Pakistan more willing to share information with the U.S. regarding the location and security of their nuclear weapons.

That doesn't sound plausible.

Granted, the status quo is lousy, but cornering Pakistan would likely make things worse. And things could still be worse.

May 5, 2009

Power Over Pakistan


Tony Blankley wonders:

How did it come to be that the government of the most powerful nation in the history of humanity (population 300 million plus, with a gross domestic product of $14 trillion, larger than next three economies - Japan, China and Germany - combined) confesses that its options are limited on a "mortal threat" to our nation?

I suspect this is on a lot of people's minds lately. How can the world's foremost power stand powerless before Pakistan. It's a great question - one that Leslie Gelb happens to answer directly in his book Power Rules (see our review here and our interview with Gelb here). The short version is that what Blankley wants here is untenable - the U.S. cannot impose its will on Pakistan short of near genocidal warfare. Instead we have to work within confines imposed by resources and morality.

Looking at the problem more broadly, one of the oft-repeated and clearly dangerous elements of the situation in Pakistan is the prospect of the Taliban getting their hands on a nuclear weapon. Obviously simply getting a weapon and successfully transporting it and detonating it are two very different things, but nevertheless, it would still be immensely dangerous. But I'm not aware of too many scenarios wherein the U.S. can play a decisive role in preventing this. Can we track every last weapon and move quickly enough to prevent a theft or transfer? That doesn't sound too plausible to me.

Update: The New York Times rounds up some experts on just what the U.S. should be doing re: Pakistan's nukes.
Photo Credit: AP Photo

In Pakistan, First Do No Harm


National Journal canvases expert opinion on the increasingly unnerving situation in Pakistan. The only firm area of consensus seems to be that the situation is immensely problematic. At the newly launched American Enterprise Institute blog, Danielle Plekta notes the widespread confusion over how to handle the situation. And yet, there seems to be a pervasive sense that the administration must act now to avert a catastrophe.

While understandable, this may be a time to reach for the famous mantra: "don't just do something, stand there." If there is universal confusion over what to in Pakistan, plunging ahead blindly just to show the world or the American people that you're "doing something" doesn't seem to make much sense.

Photo credit: AP Photo

Ahmadinejad Cancels Trip to Brazil


On Monday JTA and Terra reported that Iranian news agency IRNA announced that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had canceled his upcoming state visit to Brazil, which was scheduled for May 6 at President Lula’s invitation.

Bloomberg News also reported that Iran’s Ahmadinejad Postpones Latin American Trip Indefinitely.

Terra's article stated that following up on the IRNA announcement, Terra contacted the Brazilian President's office, the Foreign Minister and the Iranian Embassy, all of which did not know of the cancellation. Indeed, by mid-afternoon O Globo quoted Ambassador Roberto Jaguaribe: "We continue to prepare normally for the visit." O Globo also reports that Hassan Qashqavi, spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, confirmed the visit and added, "we seek active cultural, economic and political relationships with Latin American countries."

However, by late afternoon O Globo's top headline was that Brazil's Foreign Office confirmed that Ahmadinejad's visit scheduled for this week had indeed been canceled, and that Ahmadinejad had requested that it be postponed until after the Iranian elections in June. No reason was given for the cancellation.

Ahmadinejad was scheduled to be traveling with 110 representatives from 65 Iranian companies.

On Sunday thousands of demonstrators in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo from Jewish, Christian, human rights, gay, and women's organizations protested Lula's invitation to Ahmadinejad.

The photo above was taken by Brazilian blogger David Bor during yesterday's demonstration in Rio. The large banners read, "Mr. President, explain your invitation," while the smaller ones denounce Iran's homophobia, lack of freedom of the press, women's oppression and racism.

May 4, 2009

10 Worst Countries to be a Blogger

The Committee to Protect Journalists has the list:

1. Burma
2. Iran
3. Syria
4. Cuba
5. Saudi Arabia
6. Vietnam
7. Tunisia
8. China
9. Turkmenistan
10. Egypt

Hit the link for all the unsavory details and the Committee's methodology.

May 3, 2009

The Battle for the Soul of U.S. Foreign Policy

There has been a lot of back and forth in the press about American exceptionalism and the potential (or reality) of American decline. I think the key to understanding these various debates isn't the relative merits of the specific arguments but how they fit into the larger debate about the role America should play internationally. Those who are chaffing against arguments that America is declining do so not because they disagree that China's economy may eventually eclipse ours or that there will be more nuclear weapons states in 10 years, but because they view such an assessment as an implicit threat to interventionism. If American power is on the wane, it would appear reckless to employ it in all but the most dire emergencies.

Likewise, the umbrage that's been taken at President Obama's apologies and recognition of past misdeeds is less about historical validity than about what this recognition would mean for the cause of global hegemony. It's much more difficult to play the global supercop if there are repeated challenges to your moral authority.

The same dynamic works in reverse, as those who hold up America's decline tend to do so because they want to restrain Washington's adventurism abroad. They emphasize America's sins not because they believe we are uniquely evil in the world, but because they want to pop the bubble of sanctimony that sustains the interventionists.

Chinese Sphere: Obama's First 100 Days

Views of President Obama’s first 100 days in office have been positive overall in the Chinese-language media. The Global Times, a subsidiary of the Chinese government’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, published the comments below from Wu Xinbo, Associate Dean of Fudan University’s International Relations and Public Affairs Institute:

Upon Obama’s assumption of office, Sino-U.S. relations underwent a stable transition and embarked on a new development track. This never happened in the past. At the outset of the Clinton and Bush presidencies, Sino-U.S. relations experienced great turmoil. However, it is different with Obama. This is primarily because the Obama administration sees China as part of the solution to the problem rather than as part of the problem itself. This is a positive sign.

An editorial in the Sing Tao Daily, Hong Kong’s second largest newspaper, has this to say about Obama’s foreign policy:

Obama’s “smart power” diplomacy has shattered Bush’s militaristic unilateralism. This has been regarded favorably worldwide. He laid out a clear timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq and even drew a clear line between himself and some of the Bush administration’s policies that violated human rights and ethics. This included closing down the Guantanamo detention center in Cuba and publicizing information about prisoner abuse.”

Singapore’s largest Chinese-language newspaper, Lianhe Zaobao, feels that Obama’s “rock-star quality” is a valuable political resource for the U.S.:

Wherever he goes he is like a rock star: people go crazy and the media swoon for him. … For Obama, no matter how opposing one’s ideological stance may be, people generally admit that he is a sincere person. This kind of packaging practically speaking is a very valuable political resource. No matter whether domestic or international, the public feels that he is a rare leader and is willing to give him a chance. Especially in light of the mess that Bush left behind, people are even more willing to sympathize with the new president.

Russia: Economy and Near Abroad

This past Friday, President Dmitry Medvedev held a meeting on budget preparation prior to his upcoming address to the nation. He said that by 2011, new anti-crisis measures adopted will incorporate the strengthening of social assistance. In particular, the President requested that the budget take into account the allocation of funds for pensions, benefits and pursuing an active policy of employment creation. Medvedev also stressed that recklessly spend money on assistance programs during a crisis is not allowed, as he called on the officials to be "very judicious" with the use of the treasury. The President also stressed that certain budget expenditures are being increased in order to deal with more pressing problems of regular citizens: "It is necessary to deal with the modernization of social networks, services, transport, communications, energy and financial infrastructure," said Medvedev.

In a parallel development, Russia may return to the practice of borrowing large loans from the World Bank, said Russian Minister of Finance Alexei Kudrin on his recent visit to Washington. The Russian budget deficit would be such that a number of large projects could come under the threat of failure. In order to continue such projects, the Russian government is willing to take multi-billion dollar loans from the World Bank. If the crisis continues across the Russian Federation, such borrowing abroad will increase. According to Kudrin, "World Bank's lending tools are long-term in scope and are relatively cheap. They focus on infrastructure projects, which coincides with the objectives of the Russian budget." Kudrin further said that the WB's share in financing a project to reform the housing sector could increase. A 15-year, $200 million loan for such a project was already approved in February 2007.

Several years ago, Kudrin was stressing that Russia does not need IMF credit, which provides funding to countries experiencing problems with the financing of the budget deficit or balance of payments. But experts agree that today, Russia has no choice but to again borrow money. According to financial analytical group "Sovlinka", "the likelihood that Russia once again get in debts is there. According to the forecasts of Kudrin himself, the Russian Reserve Fund (money set aside from once-high oil and gas revenues) will be enough only until the end of 2010. If the economic crisis continues and the budget will be executed with a deficit, it is clear that the government will use various methods of financing, including the placement of Eurobonds, the increase in domestic debt, reducing inefficient budget expenditure - and external loans."

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko - a power rival to President Yuschenko and a possible candidate to her country's highest political post in the upcoming elections - visited her Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow over the past week. This high profile visit was postponed several times before, and both sides pinned a lot of hopes on this face-to-face meeting between such key countries. Timoshenko announced that after meeting her counterpart, Russia will take part in the modernization of the Ukrainian gas pipeline grid, providing basic maintenance and spare parts, without taking any share or control of such system that is vital to Ukrainian energy policy: "Russian Prime Minister stressed that his country does not seek to manage Ukraine's gas transportation system."

Commenting on the Tymoshenko's visit to Moscow, Ukrainian experts say: "... this is the final casting call, a showcasing of Tymoshenko in the Kremlin before the start of the Ukrainian presidential election campaign." The experts did not rule out that Moscow may soon be visited by Viktor Yanukovych, the leader of the Party of Regions, who was once a strong Kremlin ally and whose refusal to cede power was the catalyst for 2004 Ukrainian Orange Revolution. "Yanukovych will follow Tymoshenko as another "candidate of the Kremlin," so that the major presidential candidates will compete not for the protection of Ukrainian national interests, but for greater or lesser commitment to the Kremlin's policies."

At the meeting, Russia and Ukraine have exchanged their draft intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in gas sphere. Russia hopes to sign an intergovernmental agreement with Ukraine as soon as possible in order to avoid another round of gas price wars. "I think that our meeting was effective, which gives every reason to assert that Ukraine and Russia are partners, good neighbors and states which base their relations on the basis of equality of national interests," summarized Tymoshenko at the end of the summit.

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin stated that Moldova would seek the signing of an Association Agreement with the European Union: "We are interested in the fact that this would be an agreement that involves a free trade regime with the EU and free movement of citizens of the Republic of Moldova to the European Union," - said Voronin on Thursday at a meeting of the National Commission for European Integration. Moldova recently was hit by mass protests by opponents of recent elections, which brought to power Voronin's Communist allies, and which were considered fraudulent across Europe. The president's press service commented that "In the near term, the Moldovan authorities should focus on negotiations on the cooperation with the European Union."

May 2, 2009

World Leaders on Facebook

This from the Atlantic's Sage Stossel is definitely amusing.

Via: Andrew Sullivan.

Realism and Moral Authority

Writing in Commentary, Emanuele Ottolenghi notes that the Iranians have violated international law by executing Delara Darabi, who was 17 when convicted of a murder she claims she did not commit.

Ottolenghi then goes on to write:

Now, “realists” will argue that though a terrible thing, there are tyrants everywhere and we must realize we can’t impose democracy and human rights all over the place. It’s an attitude that one could come to terms with and understand — sort of — if it came from people who did not get so offended by water-boarding and other such practices. But this convenient contradiction should not be allowed to overshadow a central tenet of what a U.S. president recently called “the false choice between our security and our ideals.”

Why can't realists "realists" make this argument? It seems perfectly non-contradictory to me. Iran shouldn't execute little girls. America shouldn't torture people. What's the problem here?

May 1, 2009

Under the Nuclear Umbrella

In the forthcoming CFR report on nuclear weapons policy, there's a mention of the U.S. nuclear umbrella:

The United States has the responsibility to assure allies through extended deterrence commitments. This assurance helps convince many of these allies to not acquire their own nuclear weapons, thereby improving the nonproliferation system.

To date, these "extended deterrent" commitments extend to Asian and European allies. During the CFR media call, I asked Charles Ferguson and Brent Scowcroft whether they believed the U.S. should offer such a commitment to the Gulf states in the event that Iran acquires a nuclear weapon. Scowcroft noted that any first step would have to focus on persuading the Iranians that acquiring a nuclear weapon "was not in their own interests" before discussions turned to our nuclear umbrella. Although, he said, "that would certainly have to be considered" if Iran went nuclear.

Ferguson added that America's ability to reassure and support allies went beyond nuclear deterrence and included "political and conventional military support" as well.

The bottom line seemed to be that no one wants to concede a nuclear Iran just yet.

Scowcroft On Nukes & No Nukes


Former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and the Council on Foreign Relation's Senior Fellow for Science and Technology Charles Ferguson held a media conference call on a forthcoming report on U.S. nuclear weapons policy.

The report does not weigh in on whether the U.S. can or should achieve President Obama's stated goal of global disarmament (there were a range of views on the subject), but does ask what interim steps would be needed to reach such a goal. "Reducing nuclear weapons is not just numbers," Scowcroft said, "but about how we make the nuclear arsenals that exist more stable, less conducive to escalation in a crisis."

To that end, Scowcroft and Ferguson made a few key points:

* The U.S. must reinforce the taboo around nuclear weapon use.

* America must commit itself to transparency with regards to our nuclear weapons policy and posture.

* The U.S. should push for a tri-lateral ban with China and Russia on anti-satellite weapons testing.

* The arms control process with Russia should be re-energized and centered on the creation of legal, binding commitments. The U.S. should also embark on a strategic defense dialogue with China, but not engage in high level arms control talks, in part because of the disparity of forces and because the relationship is not as mature as it is with the U.S. and Russia.

The most politically contentious point broached was the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) which failed to pass the Senate in 1999. President Obama has pledged to submit it to the Senate for ratification. Both Ferguson and Scowcroft urged its passage, while acknowledging that getting it past the Senate will be challenging. " I am cautiously optimistic that if the administration makes a good clear case for it, than it has a chance," Scowcroft said.

Photo credit: AP Photo

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