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May 30, 2012

Measuring Nations in Kardashian Units

Ethan Zuckerman, who runs the Center for Civic Media at MIT, developed a rather ingenius unit of media measurement - the "Kardashian" - which, as Zuckerman explains, is "the amount of global attention Kim Kardashian commands across all media over the space of a day," and approximated by using Google Insight to measure how many people are searching for her.

So, with a hat-tip to Kevin Mack, I thought we could apply this measurement to see how some newsworthy countries stack up against Ms. Kardashian. The results are below.

As you can see, they hardly hold a candle. Only Egypt gets kind of close. Make of this what you will.

Obama's Kill List Includes 'Smart Power'


Michael Hirsh documents how the Obama administration is going to position the president during the campaign:

In a powerful one-two punch, The New York Times and Newsweek have just come out with extensively reported articles demonstrating how personally and deeply involved Obama is with killing terrorists--a lot of terrorists. Even to the point of occasionally taking out innocents. (Both stories are very detailed followups to an article National Journal/Atlantic published a year ago.)

The question is, now that the image of Obama-as-hard-power-president seems to be settling in as conventional wisdom, how will that play at the polls? Recent results, for example the NYT/CBS poll in April, suggest that Obama and Romney are evenly matched when it comes to commander-in-chief credentials. That's actually pretty good for a Democrat, indicating that at worst Obama may have successfully neutralized what has traditionally been a GOP strong point.

Expect a lot more of this hard-power-sell from Obamaland in the months ahead. As we reported some months ago, the Obama camp is gearing up to present the president as the toughest Dem on national security since JFK -- throwing off, at long last, the Vietnam albatross that has weighed the party down since LBJ split the Dems over that unpopular war and Ronald Reagan took up the banner of strong-on-defense. No surprise: both the NYT and Newsweek pieces (the latter is excerpted from a book) indicate that the administration was quite cooperative on the reporting.

Many progressives have desperately wished for this outcome - that a Democrat could finally "own" the issue of national security - but I can't imagine they're happy with how President Obama has done it. In fact, far from developing a new doctrine, or proving the efficacy of diplomacy or demonstrating the saliency of "smart power" - President Obama is simply trotting out a pile of corpses as his national security bona fides.

Politically, one can sympathize with the idea that a president who has liquidated the U.S. commitment in Iraq and is attempting to draw down in Afghanistan and cut U.S. military spending would seek some "hawkish" policy as political cover. But whatever else one can say about it, it's far cry from refashioning the national security debate in the U.S. And it goes a long way to explaining why Governor Romney is choosing to attack President Obama from the hawkish/interventionist side. There appears to be no political downside to interventionism - despite the fact that the U.S. is deeply in debt or that 'victories' like the one in Libya are dubious achievements at best.

(AP Photo)

May 29, 2012

Syria War


Jennifer Rubin is unhappy that the Obama administration has refrained from more fully intervening in Syria's insurgency:

The inaction of this administration is a disgrace. It may have no domestic political repercussions (foreign policy is not uppermost in voters’ minds), but it has horrendous ramifications for the Syrian people. And someday, a future president will perhaps go to the U.S. Holocaust museum to decry how “this evil was allowed to happen.” The answer: The United States had a president who couldn’t be bothered to do more than make self-serving speeches.

It's odd that U.S. presidents are expected to apologize and feel ashamed for the massacres they had somehow failed to prevent, yet apologizing for bona-fide instances of U.S. atrocities (or U.S.-assisted massacres) is a disgrace.

As for the matter at hand: Turning Syria into a proxy-war theater between the U.S. and Iran would also have horrendous ramifications for the Syrian people. So would a drawn-out civil or sectarian war. You could understand someone coming to the conclusion that aiding Syria's rebels would avoid the worst of these outcomes or that such bloodshed is the price to pay to hem in Iran if they would honestly grapple with these possibilities, but Rubin blithely ignores them altogether. Instead, the only route to salvation for the Syrian people is a period of intense civil war that topples the government, followed by the installation - as if by magic - of a new, more enlightened regime. Easy!

What certainly won't happen, in Rubin's mind, is a replay of Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya, where the U.S. toppled a regime only to watch insurgency, civil war or institutional disarray take hold. I wish I were so optimistic.

(AP Photo)

May 23, 2012

Gone Fishing


The Compass will be taking a short break. Blogging will resume on Tuesday.

(Photo: National Media Museum)

Greece Has 46 Hours to Leave the Eurozone

If you want to get a sense of just how serious - and seriously crazy - things could potentially get in Greece, you could do worse than watch this video.

A Turning Point for GM Crops in the EU?


It's not a big secret that many Europeans are afraid of new, cutting-edge technologies. Microbiologist Dr. Anne Glover, the very first EU Science Adviser, affirmed this - although she expressed it in a rather more diplomatic way in an interview with the journal Science. However, there is reason for hope that things are about to change.

On Monday, the European Food Safety Authority struck down a French ban on a strain of genetically modified corn produced by Monsanto. Their reason? "There is no specific scientific evidence, in terms of risk to human and animal health or the environment" to support a ban.

This is a really big step forward for a continent that, as of 2011, only had approved two genetically modified crops. (Compare that to 90 crops in the U.S. and 28 in Brazil.)

The molecular biology community welcomes Europe to the 21st Century.

(This entry is cross-posted on the RealClearScience Newton Blog.)

(Photo: Greenpeace)

May 22, 2012

Syria's Jihadis

Aaron Zelin documents the rise of jihadis in Syria:

Whether or not JN was involved in the Damascus attack, the organization has become a real force in recent weeks -- and one that threatens to undermine the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the loose network of defectors and local militia fighting the government. Its main goals are to awaken Muslims to the atrocities of the Assad regime, and eventually take control of the state and implement its narrow and puritanical interpretation of Islamic law. To that end, in the past month alone, JN has perpetrated a series of suicide bombings and IED strikes -- and the pace of attacks seems to be growing.

JN originally announced its existence on Jan. 23 in a video released to global jihadi forums, featuring the group's spokesperson, al-Fatih ("The Conqueror") Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. In addition to repeating the usual jihadi platitudes, Jawlani accused the United States, the Arab League, Turkey, Iran, and the West in general for collaborating with the Assad regime against (Sunni) Muslims. The video shows tens of individuals training with AK-47s in unknown desert and wooded locations and posing with large flags similar to the banners used by Sunni fundamentalists across the Middle East, featuring the shahadah (the Muslim testament of faith).

While JN's attacks might pack punch, they represent a miniscule portion of the Syrian rebellion and have no known association to the FSA. But members of al Qaeda's premier online forums have been elated over the creation of a new jihadist organization in Syria. In addition to its online grassroots supporters, JN has gained the stamp of approval from key jihadi ideologues, including Shaykh Abu Sa'd al-‘Amili (a prominent online essayist), Shaykh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti (one of the most influential ideologues worldwide), Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi (a prominent Jordanian Salafi), and Shaykh Abu al-Zahra' al-Zubaydi (a popular Lebanese jihadi). All have called on Muslims to support JN's cause by aiding them financially or joining them on the battlefield.

This level of excitement, which has not been seen in jihadi circles since the height of the Iraq war, can partly be attributed to the sectarian nature of the struggle: Jihadis do not see the Assads as true Muslims because they are Alawites -- members of a heterodox version of Shiism. As such, jihadis view their role in repressing a Sunni Muslim majority as particularly reprehensible. "Oh Allah made it possible for our brothers in Jabhat al-Nusrah, and bless them and make the hearts of the people join them," one online jihadi enthused.

Sounds like just the place to pour a ton of weaponry into.

'How Easy It Has Become to Kill Someone'

White House counterterror chief John Brennan has seized the lead in choosing which terrorists will be targeted for drone attacks or raids, establishing a new procedure for both military and CIA targets.

The effort concentrates power over the use of lethal U.S. force outside war zones within one small team at the White House....

Some of the officials carrying out the policy are equally leery of "how easy it has become to kill someone," one said. The U.S. is targeting al-Qaida operatives for reasons such as being heard in an intercepted conversation plotting to attack a U.S. ambassador overseas, the official said. - AP

Surely no government would ever abuse such a power.

May 21, 2012

Obama's Fuzzy Afghan Math

At the Monday meetings, leaders will also discuss the expense of continued support for Afghanistan’s security forces after 2014.

The United States spent $12 billion last year, 95 percent of the total cost, to train and equip an Afghan army and police force that is expected to total 352,000 by this fall. With a gross domestic product of about $17 billion, Afghanistan is incapable of funding a force that size.

As it looks for a way to cut future costs and assumes an eventual political solution to the war among the Afghans themselves, the administration has projected that Afghanistan’s security needs could be met even if the force were cut by up to one-third. It estimates the cost of sustaining the reduced force at about $4.1 billion a year, half of which the United States would provide. Afghanistan would pay about $500,000. [Emphasis mine] - Washington Post

I think these numbers tell the story of Afghanistan. First, we just spent $12 billion to bring Afghan security forces to a level that is patently unsustainable - and so the Afghan Army is going to shrink back to a more manageable size. We literally spent billions and put U.S. trainers at risk to develop an army that's going to shrink away in two years. How is that not an egregious waste?

Moreover, even the $4 billion-a-year seems fanciful. First, it's grounded on the assumption of a political settlement. Is that likely? What if there isn't one? And what if Europe decides to pass on "investing" anymore of their increasingly scarce resources in Afghanistan? I don't know how much aid the Taliban is receiving from Pakistan or Persian Gulf donors, but I'm willing to bet it's nothing remotely close to $4 billion, and they're fighting just fine. What the Afghans are missing isn't shiny uniforms or training in how to kill one another, but institutions worth fighting for. The U.S. has not developed those institutions after 10 years and it's impossible to imagine those institutions developing as the aid begins to dry up and the Afghans are left to "take the lead."

May 17, 2012

The Most Popular Country in the World

According to a new poll, it's Japan, which overtook Germany:

The poll also finds that views of China have improved significantly over the last year, in both the developing and industrialized world, and that the country has now overtaken both the EU and the US. Views of the US overall remained similar to 2011 despite large shifts in some regions.

The 2012 Country Ratings Poll, conducted by GlobeScan/PIPA among 24,090 people around the world, asks respondents to rate whether the influence of each of 16 countries and the EU is "mostly positive" or "mostly negative."

While in past years the EU has generally received quite positive ratings, this year positive views of the EU have dropped eight points on average, from 56 to 48 per cent, across the countries polled in 2011 and 2012. Ratings of other European nations dropped as well, with the UK down six points and France down four.

Germany, the most positively regarded nation last year, has seen its positive ratings drop from 60 to 56 per cent. This puts Germany in second place behind Japan, which is now rated most positively--by 58 per cent on average, up two points from last year. Canada (rated positively by 53%) and the UK (by 51%) are the third and fourth most positively viewed countries.

Positive views of China rose from 46 to 50 per cent on average. They jumped particularly sharply in the UK (up 19 points), as well as in Australia, Canada, and Germany (all up 18 points). These gains follow modest rises between 2010 and 2011. On average, views of the US have hardly changed, with 47 per cent expressing positive views and 33 per cent negative, compared to 48 and 31 per cent in 2010.

The most negatively rated countries were, as in previous years, Iran (55% negative), Pakistan (51% negative), and Israel and North Korea (both 50% negative).

Click on the link and you'll get some good graphics showing just how dramatically views of the EU have fallen.

U.S. Troops on the Ground in Yemen

According to the LA Times, U.S. special forces are operating in Yemen as spotters for air strikes:

In an escalation of America’s clandestine war in Yemen, a small contingent of U.S. troops is providing targeting data for Yemeni airstrikes as government forces battle to dislodge Al Qaeda militants and other insurgents in the country’s restive south, U.S. and Yemeni officials said.

Operating from a Yemeni base, at least 20 U.S. special operations troops have used satellite imagery, drone video, eavesdropping systems and other technical means to help pinpoint targets for an offensive that intensified this week, said U.S. and Yemeni officials who asked not to be identified talking about the sensitive operation.

The U.S. forces also advised Yemeni military commanders on where and when to deploy their troops, two senior Obama administration officials said. The U.S. contingent is expected to grow, a senior military official said.

May 16, 2012

South China Sea: A Big Deal

On Monday I linked to a Brendan Taylor analysis that argued that the South China Sea wasn't much of a flashpoint. Kirk Spitzer reports on an opposing view:

A shooting war with China may not be inevitable, but a dangerous arms escalation seems a dead certainty. That’s the take from a rare public discussion here this week among naval experts from Japan, the U.S. and China.

“Eighty percent of the population wants us to use the military,” says Yang Yi, former director of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Beijing. “They’re asking, ‘Why are we so weak? Why are we wasting money on our Navy if we are not going to use it?’ Outsiders really do not appreciate what is going on inside China.”

Feng seconds Yang's impression of Chinese public opinion on the matter.

It's ironic that one potential bulwark against Chinese escalation in the South China Sea is the fact that its government is not accountable to the will of its people. Of course, democracies are no stranger to ignoring their own citizen's desires, but Yang's account should give us pause the next time someone claims that the only way the U.S. can live peacefully with China is if it democratizes.

Putting a Price Tag on the Afghan War

Anthony Cordesman tries (pdf):

The fact remains, however, that if the CRS and OMB figures for FY2001-FY2013 that follow are totaled for all direct spending on the war, they reach $641.7 billion, of which $198.2 billion – or over 30% – will be spent in FY2012 and FY2013. This is an incredible amount of money to have spent with so few controls, so few plans, so little auditing, and almost no credible measures of effectiveness

As Cordesman also notes, it's laid the foundation for a tremendous amount of Afghan corruption and created a state so precarious it could easily collapse as the funding is withdrawn - as it must be, over time.

It will be interesting to see if the self-styled stewards of America's fiscal responsibility will have anything to say about this. Just today, National Review published a piece lambasting the (admittedly poor) investment in GM which soaked tax payers to the tune of about $66 billion. I wonder what they'd make of the hundreds of billions invested in Afghanistan - a growing share of which is being spent on President Obama's watch.

Syria: Plunging Ahead

What could go wrong:

Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States, according to opposition activists and U.S. and foreign officials.

Obama administration officials emphasized that the United States is neither supplying nor funding the lethal material, which includes antitank weaponry. Instead, they said, the administration has expanded contacts with opposition military forces to provide the gulf nations with assessments of rebel credibility and command-and-control infrastructure.

“We are increasing our nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, and we continue to coordinate our efforts with friends and allies in the region and beyond in order to have the biggest impact on what we are collectively doing,” said a senior State Department official, one of several U.S. and foreign government officials who discussed the evolving effort on the condition of anonymity.

Ultimately, regional states are going to make their own decisions to arm whatever groups they want, independent of what Washington wants. But the idea that Washington is going to scurry around and "coordinate" an effective end to the Assad regime and be able to contain the aftermath seems to fly in the face of recent experience in both Iraq and Libya.

Russia & NATO's Missile Defense

Last week, Kennette Benedict argued that NATO's contentious missile defense shield was actually a dud that didn't work. The gist:

Independent scientists and engineers in the United States and Russia have consistently judged past efforts to be failures, and they have written detailed reviews showing why the plans for such missile defenses are not technically feasible. Yet, in spite of these technical critiques and negative results, the US government has persisted in its claims of success. Until now.

A little-noticed report released in September 2011 by the Defense Science Board, an independent advisory committee to the US Defense Department, found three major problems with the Early Intercept Ballistic Missile Defense now being developed. Apparently, (1) none of the necessary radars in the European Phased Adaptive Approach defense system are powerful enough to work, (2) none of the existing missile defense sensors can reliably distinguish among warheads, decoys, and other debris, and (3) US intelligence already has observed foreign ballistic missile launches that can deploy decoys and other countermeasures. So, after 27 years of development and $150 billion spent, there still is no effective missile shield -- it is still a dream.

I'm not well versed enough in the relevant studies to pass judgment here, but one thing that came to mind when reading the piece was - if the missile shield doesn't actually work, and if everyone knows it doesn't work, why is Russia freaking out? Now Benedict is back with a piece laying out Russia's objections in greater detail:

NATO says its missile defense system is flexible and adaptive and deployments would correspond to the ballistic missile threat from the south. (Because of Turkish sensitivity, NATO cannot explicitly label Iran as the threat.) It is this adaptive uncertainty, not today's capabilities, that most concerns Russia. US radars and satellites could be upgraded and integrated to work jointly with additional ally and partner sensors to seriously "beef up" the system's efficiency, Deputy Chief of General Staff Colonel-General Vladimir Gerasimov said PPT. Colonel Evgeny Ilyin added that the mobility of sea-based assets, the numbers of deployed interceptors, and their velocities were among the other factors that, if enhanced, could pose a threat to Russia. Moscow is unsure about the NATO system's parameters but knows what they should not be.

It's worth reading in full to get the full sense of Russia's concerns.

May 15, 2012

Francois Hollande Inaugurated, Struck by Lightning


Francois Hollande was inaugurated today as the new president of France. He immediately boarded a plane to Germany to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. En route to Berlin, his plane was hit by lightning. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

However, one wonders if Mother Nature is sending an omen about the future of the Eurozone.

More from the AFP.

(AP Photo)

Poll: U.S. Public Favors Steep Defense Cuts


While politicians, insiders and experts may be divided over how much the government should spend on the nation’s defense, there’s a surprising consensus among the public about what should be done: They want to cut spending far more deeply than either the Obama administration or the Republicans.

That’s according to the results of an innovative, new, nationwide survey by three nonprofit groups, the Center for Public Integrity, the Program for Public Consultation and the Stimson Center. Not only does the public want deep cuts, it wants those cuts to encompass spending in virtually every military domain — air power, sea power, ground forces, nuclear weapons, and missile defenses.

According to the survey, in which respondents were told about the size of the budget as well as shown expert arguments for and against spending cuts, two-thirds of Republicans and nine in 10 Democrats supported making immediate cuts — a position at odds with the leaderships of both political parties.

The average total cut was around $103 billion, a substantial portion of the current $562 billion base defense budget, while the majority supported cutting it at least $83 billion. These amounts both exceed a threatened cut of $55 billion at the end of this year under so-called “sequestration” legislation passed in 2011, which Pentagon officials and lawmakers alike have claimed would be devastating.

I think this is another clear example where "public opinion" is really irrelevant in the shaping of public policy. (Via David Axe)

May 14, 2012


David Sanger had a piece over the weekend wherein many of Governor Romney's foreign policy advisers griped about being ignored by their candidate:

But what has struck both his advisers and outside Republicans is that in his effort to secure the nomination, Mr. Romney’s public comments have usually rejected mainstream Republican orthodoxy. They sound more like the talking points of the neoconservatives — the “Bolton faction,” as insiders call the group led by John Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations.

I hate to break it to Sanger but the "talking points of the neoconservatives" are the Republican orthodoxy. Consider Sanger's example of what constitutes as a more "nuanced" critique of the Obama administration:

So far Mr. Romney’s most nuanced line of attack was laid out in the introduction to a campaign white paper last fall written by Eliot Cohen, a historian and security expert who worked for Condoleezza Rice in the State Department, that the “high council of the Obama administration” views the “United States as a power in decline,” a “condition that can and should be managed for the global good rather than reversed.” It also alleged a “torrent of criticism, unprecedented for an American president, that Barack Obama has directed at his own country.”

The first quote is completely unsubstantiated in the white paper and is also false. But it is a staple of ... neoconservative criticism of the Obama administration.

The second critique is silly - Obama hurt America's feelings! But guess what - it's another neocon talking point.

(To be fair, the entire white paper is better than these quotes would indicate.)

And regardless of what talking points he prefers, it's really pointless to go searching for a Romney doctrine at this point. I suspect Romney leans toward the "Bolton faction" because it produces the best soundbites and the most scathing attacks against President Obama. Whether a President Romney would govern according to the councils of the "Bolton faction" would really depend on factors no one can accurately anticipate today.

South China Sea: No Big Deal?

Brendan Taylor thinks that, contrary to the emerging conventional wisdom, the South China Sea isn't all that important:

I should start by saying that my scepticism regarding the strategic significance of the South China Sea is largely a reaction to the flurry of recent op-eds and essays identifying this area as a potential trigger for great power conflict. I doubt that such a trigger really exists, certainly not one with the potential to impact upon Asia's larger strategic order.

The reasons for my scepticism become clear when we compare the South China Sea with Asia's two most widely accepted flashpoints, Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula. Richard Bush and Michael O'Hanlon have argued that the problem of Taiwan could spark a nuclear war involving 1.5 billion people and produce a fundamental change in the international order. Similar estimates suggest that a Korean conflict would cost somewhere in the vicinity of US$ 1trillion and 500,000 lives during its first 90 days.

It's difficult to envisage a scenario where a skirmish in the South China Sea could erupt into a conflict of that magnitude. For this reason, I just don't think it's a real flashpoint.

May 10, 2012

Magic Democracy

Patrick Clawson wants regime change in Iran:

Whether or not diplomacy results in an agreement, the sanctions have already fulfilled the core objective of the Obama administration -- namely, kick-starting negotiations. But that is not the right goal. Given Iran’s poor track record of honoring agreements, negotiations remain a gamble because they may never lead to an agreement, let alone one that can be sustained. Rather than focus on talks that may not produce a deal, then, the United States should place far more emphasis on supporting democracy and human rights in Iran. A democratic Iran would likely drop state support for terrorism and end its interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries such as Iraq and Lebanon, improving stability in the Middle East. And although Iran’s strongly nationalist democrats are proud of the country’s nuclear progress, their priority is to rejoin the community of nations, so they will likely agree to peaceful nuclearization in exchange for an end to their country’s isolation. [Emphasis mine.]

Follow the logic: a nuclear-armed, democratic U.S. must interfere in Iran's internal affairs to bring about a democratic revolution in Iran so that once Iran becomes a democracy, it will no longer want nuclear weapons or interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. Because it's a democracy.

Makes sense.

What Can't Putin Do?


To celebrate his inauguration, newly installed Russian President Vladimir Putin took to the ice rink. Amazingly, his ragtag group of amateurs defeated a professional hockey team, with Mr. Putin himself scoring the game-winning goal. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, accompanied by a "blond female translator," was there to cheer him on.

The Telegraph goes on to report:

Within minutes of his first appearance, the legends' defence seemed to magically vanish into thin air, allowing Mr Putin through to deftly slot the puck into the back of the net and equalise.


The referee then decreed that the match be decided by penalties and Mr Putin had the decisive shot, flicked the puck past the mountainous goaltender - who somehow avoided getting in the way of the softly-struck shot - and his team had won.

Mr. Putin's list of achievements is indeed quite long. Not only is he a skilled hockey player, but he is also an F1 race car driver, an archaeologist, and a rugged survivalist who can brave the Siberian wilderness without a shirt. And as a 2009 ABC News report stated, he is also adept at "volleyball, skiing, blacksmithing. He rides in submarines and fighter jets. He bowls. He tranquilizes tigers."

Is there anything this man can't do?

Well, there is one thing: Term limits. He definitely can't do those.

(AP Photo)

May 8, 2012

No U.S. President Can Be a Dove

Via Andrew Sullivan, Conor Friedersdorf laments some mislabeling:

In summary, President Obama escalated a major war and sent tens of thousands more troops to fight it, even as he joined in regime change in a different country, ordered drone strikes in at least three others, and sent commandos into Pakistan, a list of aggressive actions that isn't even exhaustive.

It's perverse for that record to be rendered, in America's newspaper of record, as Obama "straddling the precarious line between hawk and dove." In fact, he is a hawk. Republicans are misrepresenting his record and positions and some progressives are doing the same, because they are rightly embarrassed by the gulf between his campaign promises and the record he's amassed.

I think what Friedersdorf has identified is the bankruptcy of the hawk/dove label. In reality, no post-Cold War U.S. president could accurately be called a "dove." Every Democratic president since Roosevelt has either initiated large wars, escalated those wars, ramped up military spending or used military force in some capacity. Any contemporary president inherits a foreign policy apparatus that is weighted heavily toward the military (with its global footprint and immense budget) and a bureaucracy that perceives itself as stewards of the global order. Throw in the war on terror, with its open-ended mandate for interventionism, and it's silly on its face to call any president a "dove."

What's always interested me is why Republicans have chosen to ignore the tradition of Eisenhower and Nixon (presidents who stepped in to end the failed or stalemated wars initiated by their Democratic predecessors) and instead run as the amplified id of America's quasi-imperial foreign policy. Rather than step back and question some basic premises of America's global footprint or set of "interests" in need of a global nanny state funded by U.S. taxpayers, most Republicans run on a platform of global activism and big government.

May 7, 2012

The Long Term

I happened to listen to this TED talk over the weekend by Paul Gilding dubbed "The Earth Is Full." The short version is: we, as a species, are doomed! Gilding claims that we're outgrowing our environment and will enter an era of "peak everything" with some pretty grim consequences.

Then this morning I read Daniel Bier, who, while not responding directly to Gilding, rebuts his central thesis thusly:

Growth is only limited by our ability to innovate and solve problems, and that is only limited by our access to innovators and problem solvers.

The quixotic effort to quantify the exact amount of resources on earth and calculate when we will “run out” is doomed to fail because people are constantly inventing new ideas and discovering new uses for things. Nothing is a resource until someone discovers an application for it.

These two lines of thought are not actually mutually exclusive. One can believe that we're poised to exhaust economically viable energy sources and modes of agriculture yet still believe that we'll merrily skip along via some technological breakthrough to other modes of energy or agriculture that we can't think of yet. In fact, to have Bier's growth-oriented optimism, you essentially accept Gilding's case that existing resources are eventually going to run dry. One school of thought is worried about that outcome, the other is not.

Still, this and the recent European elections did get me thinking about a curious ideological disconnect. On the one hand, the left (in general) favors Keynesian solutions to economic crises on the basis that sacrificing growth today for balanced budgets in the future is a dangerous trade-off. "In the long term, we're all dead," as Keynes famously quipped. Conservatives, by contrast, are generally willing to embrace austerity and negative growth in the short term for fiscal balance over the long term.

Yet when it comes to the environment, it's the reverse: liberals are more willing to sacrifice short-term economic growth for long-term gain, while conservatives are more concerned with near-term growth than with long-term balance.

May 4, 2012

UK Voters Punish Conservative-Led Coalition


The UK's Conservative-led coalition government headed by Prime Minister David Cameron took a beating in local elections, losing some 400 seats. The junior partner of the coalition, the Liberal Democrats, lost 336 seats.

The election did not affect the membership of Parliament, but it did send a loud, clear message of voter dissatisfaction, perhaps driven by the country's poor economic performance. Last week, it was reported that the UK has officially entered a double-dip recession.

More from the Associated Press.

(AP Photo)

May 3, 2012

Time Well Spent

Powell and Musharraf on Tuesday both emphasized a role for moderate Taliban elements in a future government, although the Northern Alliance immediately rejected any Taliban presence in a future political arrangement. - Time, 2001
In coordination with the Afghan government, my Administration has been in direct discussions with the Taliban. We have made it clear that they can be a part of this future if they break with al Qaeda, renounce violence, and abide by Afghan laws. Many members of the Taliban - from foot soldiers to leaders - have indicated an interest in reconciliation. A path to peace is now set before them. Those who refuse to walk it will face strong Afghan Security Forces, backed by the United States and our allies. - President Obama, 2012

Rather than find some kind of ad-hoc, messy and compromising ending to the Afghan war in 2001, Washington decided to spend hundreds of lives and billions of dollars to find an ad-hoc, messy and compromising ending to the Afghan war in 2012 (or 2014 or whenever). Brilliant.

Obama Has Started New Wars

If anything, the beginning of the end in Afghanistan will help Obama build his “leadership” case against Mitt Romney. With the killing of bin Laden, the intervention in Libya, and the gradual end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has the resume he needs to present himself as a strong and competent manager of the country’s foreign affairs, which in turn, might improve perceptions of his economic management. What’s more, this provides a clear contrast with Romney, who at varying times in the last three years, has opposed each of these moves. At the end of the day, Obama will be able to pose a simple question to the American public—“Do you want a president who has brought peace, security, and good relations with our allies, or do you want a president who has called for extending our wars, and starting new ones?" [Emphasis mine - GS.] - James Bouie

Right. So President Obama will hail the success of the new war he started in Libya while castigating Romney for wanting to start a new war. I suspect we'll see this kind of cognitive dissonance emerge frequently during the campaign.

The 'Core' of Realism Is Betrayal?

Michael Rubin claims that the 'core' of realism is the betrayal of dissidents:

But the betrayal of dissidents is simply the bread-and-butter both of realists and the UN’s breed of internationalists, both philosophies to which Obama aspires... Realists will always find an excuse to ignore dissidents and dismiss their fight for freedom and liberty. Unfortunately, what these realists see as sophistication not only is amoral, but actively undercuts long-term U.S. security.

It's true that realists are reluctant to take up the cause of dissidents in other countries and that this does not always redound to American glory. But this is because realists recognize that the world is not an ideal place and that the concerns of dissidents, however legitimate, always have to be weighed against U.S. interests and America's capability to actually effect the change these dissidents want to see. If all that was required to change China's human rights record was more U.S. hectoring and lecturing, it would have happened already.

Do realists always strike the right balance? Of course not. But Rubin's formulation elevates the unfortunate trade-off that can result from a realist approach as somehow the central, animating principle. In fact, it would be like saying that mass civilian death, torture and population displacements are the "core" of neoconservatism since that is what their policy produced in Iraq and would likely produce if U.S. "leadership" were exercised in places like Syria. But I wouldn't argue that such maladies are neoconservatism's "core" - since I don't believe neoconservatives are bloodthirsty sadists. Though, if I were a neoconservative, I certainly would be careful about throwing charges of "amorality" around.

May 2, 2012

Al-Qaeda Using Porn to Pass Secrets

Who knew:

The German newspaper Die Zeit and CNN reported this week that a Pakistani Al Qaeda operative was caught by German security officials with a memory disk that contained a pornographic video. Embedded inside the video was a file called “Sexy Tanja” with more than 100 documents outlining plans for terror attacks throughout Europe.

Why a porno?

“The video would be easier to ship and distribute,” said Kenneth James Ryan, professor of criminology at California State University, Fresno, and a counter-terrorism expert. “Whoever has ability to decrypt the code would be the intended audience.”

The next time an Indian lawmaker gets caught watching porn on his phone, he can now claim to be searching for hidden terror messages.

Is Obama's Counter-Terrorism Czar Telling the Truth?

John Brennan, President Obama's chief counter-terrorism adviser once insisted that drone strikes in Pakistan produced no collateral damage - something that was patently untrue. Now, James Joyner highlights another instance where Brennan's assertions run contrary to published reports:

Brennan was at pains to insist that the Obama administration’s targeting policy is judicious enough to pass Rumsfeld’s test. Each and every targeted strike against a militant, he assured the audience, undergoes “a careful review and, as appropriate, will be evaluated by the very most senior officials in our government for decision.” As part of that process, “we ask ourselves whether that individual’s activities rise to a certain threshold for action, and whether taking action will, in fact, enhance our security.” He insisted that there is a “high bar” for action, that strikes are not carried out based on “some hypothetical threat—the mere possibility that a member of al Qaeda might try to attack us at some point in the future. A significant threat might be posed by an individual who is an operational leader of al Qaeda or one of its associated forces.”

But these assertions are contrary to recent news reports that Obama has quietly loosened rules for targeting suspected terrorists with drone strikes. The Washington Post reports that the new policy “allows the CIA and the military to fire even when the identity of those who could be killed is not known” and “marks a significant expansion of the clandestine drone war against an al Qaeda affiliate that has seized large ­pieces of territory in Yemen and is linked to a series of terrorist plots against the United States.”

Before the Post story, the Wall Street Journal also had a detailed report on how targets are chosen for drone strikes - and, contrary to Brennan's assertion, the Journal reported that people are targeted even if their "identities aren't always known." Now, there are one of two possibilities: the newspapers got it wrong, or Brennan isn't telling the truth. Which is it?

May 6: Europe's Point of No Return?


For the past few years, the world has watched with bated breath as Europe has suffered from the slings and arrows of the ongoing Eurozone crisis. Anxious markets caused borrowing costs to soar in debt-stricken countries and austerity measures caused riots - but, so far, imminent catastrophe has always been staved off by last-minute deals.

But, as Time reports, the EU must now face its biggest obstacle: democracy.

On May 6, Greek and French voters will go to the polls. Because of France's central role in European policymaking, the French election may be of greater consequence. French voters will be forced to choose between the embattled incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy and challenger Francois Hollande. Currently, Mr. Hollande (of the center-left Socialist Party) leads Mr. Sarkozy (of the center-right UMP Party) by around six to 10 points.

That might not be good news for the Eurozone. Michael Sivy in Time writes:

Hollande is not opposed to the euro in principle. But he rejects austerity policies and calls for a greater emphasis on growth. Further, to the extent he has to reduce the budget deficit, he favors tax increases over spending cuts. In short, Hollande’s efforts to save the euro will probably be halfhearted. Sarkozy’s replacement by Hollande would therefore likely weaken the German-French axis, undermining confidence in European financial markets and leading to a general loss of direction in the euro zone.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel - who obstinately insists on budget discipline - has already publicly clashed with Mr. Hollande over a recent fiscal compact agreed to by most members of the EU. While Mr. Hollande raises a good point about implementing more pro-growth policies, publicly clashing with Ms. Merkel portends a rocky future for the EU.

Still, fiscal discipline is important, but it does not appear to rank high on Mr. Hollande's domestic wish-list. Instead, Mr. Hollande has threatened to implement a marginal income tax rate of 75 percent - potentially scaring away wealthy citizens - and he wants to roll back Sarkozy's pension reform which raised the retirement age from 60 to 62.

Recently, The Economist warned in an editorial titled "The Rather Dangerous Monsieur Hollande" that he would be "bad for his country and Europe." It went on:

[I]f we had a vote on May 6th, we would give it to Mr Sarkozy—but not on his merits, so much as to keep out Mr Hollande.

But, Patrick Smith, writing in the Fiscal Times, applauds Mr. Hollande's rejection of austerity. Instead, he believes that, "Europe has needed this kind of debate from the first."

The French decision on May 6 will have repercussions far beyond their own borders. Let us hope they make a wise one.

(AP Photo. Mr. Sarkozy (left) faces off against Mr. Hollande (right) on May 6.)

May 1, 2012

Leaving Egypt to the Egyptians

It’s been five weeks since the Obama administration granted Egypt its full $1.3 billion in annual military aid despite its government’s failure to meet conditions set by Congress for advancing democracy. In granting a waiver on national security grounds, administration officials argued that continuing the funding was more likely to encourage cooperation with the United States and progress on human rights than a cutoff would.

As it turns out, the administration was wrong. In a number of tangible ways, U.S.-Egyptian relations and the military’s treatment of civil society have deteriorated since the waiver was issued March 23. The threat to nongovernmental organizations, whose prosecution triggered the threat of an aid suspension, has worsened. Conditions for U.S.-backed pro-democracy groups elsewhere in the Middle East have deteriorated as other governments have observed Egypt’s ability to crack down with impunity. - Washington Post

Clearly the Obama administration thinks it's preserving an ally in the Egyptian military, but the Post is right to note the cynicism. This isn't being done for the sake of Egyptian democracy and it's fair to point that out (it's also an egregious waste of U.S. resources at a time of soaring debts) . Yet the Post would have the U.S. wade into Egypt's domestic affairs even more forcefully so that the country comports itself according to our standards. That's equally counter-productive. The U.S. can only do so much to influence events in Egypt, and I'm willing to bet that what effort it does make is far more likely to backfire than to work effectively.

Not 14 days before Mubarak was run out of office, Secretary Clinton was claiming that the leadership was "stable." This kind of breath-taking affirmation of American ignorance about the state of Egyptian affairs should have given both the Obama administration and the Post pause before declaring that they know just the right levers to press to engineer just the right outcome inside Egypt.

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