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January 31, 2013

Why Is the U.S. "Leading from Behind?"


Victor Davis Hanson offers up every possible explanation but the right one:

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, both Democratic and Republican administrations ensured the free commerce, travel, and communications essential for the globalization boom.

Such peacekeeping assumed that there would always pop up a Manuel Noriega, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, or Osama bin Laden who would threaten the regional or international order. In response, the United States — often clumsily, with mixed results, and to international criticism — would either contain or eliminate the threat. Names changed, but evil remained — and as a result of U.S. vigilance the world largely prospered.

This bipartisan activist policy is coming to a close with the new “lead from behind” policy of the Obama administration. Perhaps America now believes that the United Nations has a better record of preventing or stopping wars — or that the history of the United States suggests we have more often caused rather than solved problems, or that with pressing social needs at home we can no longer afford an activist profile abroad at a time of near financial insolvency.

How about a more plausible explanation: that the U.S. is slowly coming around to the idea that it has to set priorities about when and where it intervenes and that regional powers are more than capable of handling these policing duties? (And, to the extent they're not, it's because life under the U.S. defense umbrella has hollowed out their military capacity -- a dynamic that can only be reversed if it's clear the U.S. taxpayer won't be continually on the hook for their defense.)

And isn't it ironic that at a time of "near fiscal insolvency" the supposedly "conservative" position is to retain an "activist profile abroad" at all costs? Slash big government at home to sustain big government abroad. No cognitive dissonance there!

(AP Photo)

The 10 Worst Places in the World to Be a Journalist


Reporters Without Borders has released its annual press freedom index and some not-so-surprising names grace the "worst of the worst" column for 2013. Here's the "bottom 10" of the list, starting at the very worst:

1. Eritrea
2. North Korea
3. Turkmenistan
4. Syria
5. Somalia
6. Iran
7. China
8. Vietnam
9. Cuba
10. Sudan

Europe, particularly the Nordic countries, continued to score well with Finland, the Netherlands and Norway rounding out the top three. The U.S. placed 32nd.

The emerging powers of Brazil, Turkey, Russia, China, India and South Africa were "found wanting" and lost ground in this year's ranking. Some well-established democracies also struggled. Italy, Hungry and particularly Greece and Japan were singled out for criticism for laws that restrict journalism.

(Image: Reporters Without Borders)

Cyrus in the States


The ancient Cyrus Cylinder -- often hailed as the first recorded charter on human rights, though that has been disputed -- is finally making its debut in the United States in 2013. Get the full tour schedule here.

Back in 2011, Director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor gave an interesting TED talk on the history of the cylinder, and how it has, for centuries now, played a small role in Mideast politics:

January 30, 2013

Wall Street Capitalists Love Hugo Chavez's Socialism


Venezuela's economy has not exactly flowered under the "Bolivarian socialism" of Hugo Chavez, but there are some investors who have made out quite well:

Since taking office in 1999, Hugo Chavez has spread his socialist revolution in Venezuela by seizing more than 1,000 companies. For bondholders that stuck by him, he’s also delivered returns that are double the emerging- market average.

The 681 percent advance, equal to 14.7 percent annually, has enriched investors from OppenheimerFunds Inc. to Goldman Sachs Asset Management LP that counted on Chavez’s willingness to siphon the country’s oil wealth to pay its creditors in the face of start-stop growth and falling reserves. While his policies drove away enough investors to keep Venezuela’s borrowing costs over 12 percent on average during his tenure, or 4 percentage points higher than those of developing nations, he’s never missed a bond payment.

“This is a really great high-income and high-total-return investment for your portfolio,” said Sara Zervos, an emerging- market debt manager at New York-based OppenheimerFunds, which oversees $176 billion in assets and has invested in Venezuelan notes for more than a decade. “Chavez hasn’t done a lot of good for his country, but he has the objective to service the bonds. Our interests are aligned.”


Will a Global Recovery Eat Itself?


While the fourth quarter U.S. GDP numbers were soft, the global economy, anchored by the U.S. and China is still expected to grow in 2013. That is, if triple digit oil prices don't get in the way:

U.S. benchmark crude oil prices are expected to resume their march towards triple digits as stock markets respond to improved economic data in the U.S. and China, according to CNBC's latest oil market sentiment survey....

But if prices do rise and stay elevated above triple digits, some fear this may disrupt the economic recovery and hit sentiment on the equity markets. Higher oil prices would constitute an "added tax on consumers," Michael Gayed, chief investment strategist and co-portfolio manager at Pension Partners, LLC.

This dynamic -- economic growth leading to high oil prices leading to an economic downturn leading to lower oil consumption and lower oil prices -- is why some advocates of "peak oil" like Chris Skrebowski argue that is more of an economic phenomena than a geological one.

(AP Photo)

Gandhi's First Video Interview Now on YouTube

The Internets have brought forth an interesting historical moment: Mahatma Gandhi's first appearance on film. It occurred in 1931.

Via: Motherboard

Update: To honor the 85th anniversary of his death, The Hindu has republished their editorial on Gandhi's assassination:

The death of Mahatma Gandhi last evening at New Delhi at the hands of an insensate assassin in circumstances too tragic for reiteration has cast a deep gloom over the country from the effects of which it will not be easy for it to recover. For, as the Prime Minister of India has suggested in his broadcast, at no time in the long and chequered history of this great country were Gandhiji’s wise counsel, courageous guidance, unexcelled foresight and imperturbable patience in the face of events the most calamitous more necessary than to-day. It will be universally accepted that but for his steadying direction, unerring judgment, and a determination which accepted no defeat, the turmoil which befell us in the wake of the partition of the country would have continued to menace us in an ever-increasing measure.

Can Europe's "Robin Hood Tax" Really Work?

Eleven European countries have agreed to levy taxes on financial transactions (a 0.1% tax on securities trades and a .01% tax on derivatives trades). The goal is to rake in some badly needed revenue and to discourage financial speculation.

Felix Salmon thinks the so-called "Robin Hood tax" will deliver on the revenues, but won't stop speculation:

I doubt that speculators will find this tax particularly off-putting. Europe doesn’t suffer from the high-frequency trading that has overtaken the U.S. stock market, and these taxes are low enough that any remotely sensible financial transaction will remain sensible on a post-tax basis. It’s possible that total trading volume might decline a little bit in some markets, and that would be fine: no one thinks it’s too low at the moment, and in the derivatives markets especially, increase in volumes generally just translates into increased rents being paid to big sell-side banks. But I’m not someone who believes that speculators are causing a noticeable amount of harm in European markets: as far as they’re concerned, the financial transactions tax is likely to make very little difference to a group of people who are not much of a problem in the first place.
Salmon also doubts the tax will do much harm to the European financial industry, as it's lower than London's more expensive "Stamp Duty" on financial transactions -- a duty which hasn't harmed the City's standing as a leading financial hub.

Iran's Bungling Its Global Terror War


Though it grabbed headlines for its brazenness, the 2011 Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in a DC restaurant was equal parts absurd. The accused assassin was a failed used car salesman who was duped by a DEA agent pretending to be a member of a Mexican drug gang. That such a high profile mission on U.S. soil by what is generally considered to be the world's elite militant group would be entrusted to such an individual raised serious questions about Iran's capabilities.

In a new report (PDF), the Washington Institute's Matthew Levitt illustrates that such bumbling has been the rule, not the exception, in Iran's recent attempts at international terrorism.

Under pressure from a campaign of sabotage and assassination, Iran and Hezbollah have joined forces to seek revenge against Israeli and American interests through a coordinated campaign of attacks in places such as India, Kenya, Georgia and Thailand, Levitt notes. Unfortunately for them (but fortunately for us), most of these have been abject failures, undermined by sloppy trade craft. Operatives took minimal efforts to cover their tracks, re-used phones and SIM cards, carried Iranian currency abroad and partied with prostitutes.

"It's as if there's a systematic policy of Iran recruiting low-rent, downright kooky terrorists," remarks one unnamed analyst in Levitt's report.

"Instead of restoring Iran's damaged prestige, the attacks only further underscored Iran's operational limitations," Levitt writes. Still, Iran has had some success (a strike on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria is one recent example) and the concern is that Hezbollah and Iran "shake off the operational cobwebs" and perfect their technique.

(AP Photo)

January 29, 2013

Woman in China Dies, Wakes Up in Coffin


A 101-year old woman in China "woke up" after being declared dead and being unconscious for 16 hours. The best part: she was already in the funeral home, in a shroud and was being laid in the coffin when she opened her eyes and protested that she wasn't dead. No word on how rattled the funeral home workers were...

The woman was, according to reports, in "very good spirits." The assembled mourners than pivoted to party mode.

(AP Photo)

How India Will Battle Rape: With Apps

India was recently shaken by the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman from New Delhi. Now, R. Jai Krishna reports that the country's tech sector is at work trying to engineer solutions to India's rape crisis:

Nasscom, a trade group that represents Indian technology companies, Thursday announced a contest to develop such applications, saying it aims to get companies to focus on areas such as safety for women.

This came just a day after a government-appointed panel recommended the development of downloadable mobile phone applications that can help women in trouble, such as a one-touch function which can send a distress signal and the location of the phone to the police.

There is currently an app marketed by the Indian tech firm CanvasM dubbed "FightBack" that uses a panic button to send a caller's location data and a pre-set message to a number of contacts stored in the phone.

(AP Photo)

The World's Leading Wind Power Generators


According to a recent survey from the World Wide Wind Energy Association, China is the world's leading producing of wind power. They boast a total of 67.8 gigawatts of wind power capacity. The U.S. is a fairly close second, with 60 gigawatts of wind power generation. Germany, Spain and India round out the top five.

Personally, I think the U.S. could probably vault to the top spot if it harnessed the abundant flow of hot air emanating from its capital.

(AP Photo)

Eric Schmidt: Stealth Cartographer?


Possibly, says Patrick Clark:

Shortly after Google Chairman Eric Schmidt returned from his much-ballyhooed trip to North Korea, his daughter and traveling companion Sophie published an extended diary of the adventure, revealing, among other things, that her father’s response to staying in a bugged hotel room was simply to leave his door opened wide.

At the time, that sounded like so much useless indignation, but—ho ho!—may actually have represented an effective bit of trade craft.

For while Mr. Schmidt was touring the country’s universities, delivering stern warnings on the danger of North Korea’s virtual isolation and providing a platform for former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s perpetual cravat, Google’s engineers were apparently working on a little Pyongyang surprise.

Not two weeks after Mr. Schmidt and entourage returned home from North Korea, Google unveiled a highly detailed map of the isolated nation, labeling everything from “Pyongyang’s subway stops to the country’s several city-sized gulags, as well as its monuments, hotels, hospitals and department stores.”

(AP Photo)

America's Egypt Problem


Ever since the revolt against Hosni Mubarak, the Obama administration has been groping for a strategy to cope with Egypt. A pliable dictator gone, the administration has been cultivating the Muslim Brotherhood, most recently agreeing to sell Egypt F-16s and Abrams tanks despite mounting evidence (as if any were needed) of the Brotherhood's illiberalism.

Eric Trager writes that the Obama administration ultimately cannot trust the Brotherhood:

It would be naive, therefore, to believe that Morsi won't turn on Washington when he feels the time is right. After all, the Brotherhood is already signaling that it intends to reassess the peace treaty with Israel, which comprises a core American interest: The Brotherhood's political party has recently drafted legislation to unilaterally amend the treaty, and a top Brotherhood foreign policy official recently told a closed salon that Morsi "is cancelling normalization with the Zionist entity gradually." Yet the Brotherhood is unlikely to pursue its anti-Western ambitions until after it finishes consolidating its power at home. As deputy supreme guide Khairat al-Shater explained during the April 2011 unveiling of the "Renaissance Project," the Brotherhood must first build an "Islamic government" before establishing "the global Islamic state."

For this reason, the Obama administration should work to prevent the Brotherhood from consolidating its control of Egypt through a pro-democratic policy. Specifically, Washington should withhold its support for the $4.8 billion loan that Egypt is seeking until the Brotherhood takes demonstrable steps towards more inclusive rule, which should include ending the prosecution of the Brotherhood's political opponents and media critics.

The real question is whether U.S. policy toward Egypt should be centered on efforts to micromanage their domestic politics to engineer a government that will reaffirm the peace treaty with Israel. That seems deeply misguided to me. First, it's probably not going to work. If Trager is to be believed, a more pluralistic Egypt is likely to be more sympathetic to Israel. But where's the evidence for that? Even if the U.S. were able to push the Brotherhood, grudgingly, toward a truly democratic system, there's no guarantee that Egypt writ-large will be any more amenable toward Israel.

The other alternative, backing a military coup, is equally absurd. It's likely to ignite another revolt, deepen anti-Americanism and generate more recruits for al-Qaeda. There are times when the U.S. must work with dictators, but actively consigning millions of people to live under a dictatorship to further a peripheral U.S. interest is simply counter-productive.

I don't think Trager's wrong to suggest that Egypt is veering off on a potentially dangerous trajectory and that the U.S. could take some steps to at least not make things worse. A good place to start would be to not sell Egypt weapons that could be used against Israel or provide economic relief as the Brotherhood runs the Egyptian economy off the rails. A policy of disengagement may not make Egypt embrace Israel, but it will at least not strengthen the Brotherhood. It will also signal to the Egyptian people that their destiny is in their own hands.

The Egyptian army is probably smart enough to understand that they will lose a war with Israel and have shown no interest to date in having another go at it. The ultimate guarantor of Egypt-Israeli peace is not the government in Cairo but the large imbalance in military power between the two countries, something the U.S. has contributed to in no small measure.

(AP Photo)

January 28, 2013

United Nations v. @PaulKagame


Last month, a blog post by writer Georgianne Nienaber written in defense of Rwandan President Paul Kagame was published on the The Huffington Post. The author -- who went to great lengths in her post to defend the Rwandan government against UN accusations of meddling in the Democratic Republic of Congo, even comparing the charges against Kagame to the Salem witch trials -- went mostly unnoticed despite her efforts, earning a modest number of Facebook "likes" and Tweets.

Unnoticed by most, but not Paul Kagame:

This wasn't Kagame's first time dabbling in 140-character punditry. In 2011, the Rwandan president took to the platform in order to dispute charges of human rights abuses levied against his government by Guardian columnist Ian Birrell. Taking stock of the candid and unusual exchange, Birrell offered this takeaway at the time:

Several observers criticised Kagame's Twitter tantrum as exhibiting a lack of dignity. I disagree. It is admirable to see a leader engaging so personally with new means of communication – although it is telling there is no one he thinks worth following. And there is something rather splendid about a president so passionate about his country he confronts foreign critics in this manner.

The exchanges underlined the revolutionary nature of what is fast becoming the most important journalistic tool around. On Monday the Sky reporter Mark Stone blogged from Tripoli about his amazing use of Twitter to find a Dutch engineer and prove a bombed Nato target was a military bunker. In this new world, I was able to draw attention to Kagame's original statement, he was able to respond and we could debate in real-time watched by thousands of people worldwide, scores joining in with links, opinions and comments.

Maybe so, but Kagame's own sophisticated use of social media technology only serves to complicate an already complicated regime and region. The Rwandan government has been accused by the UN and other Africa watchers of fueling the bloody rebellion in eastern Congo -- accusations repeatedly denied by Kigali. A signing ceremony intended to end the ongoing unrest, originally scheduled for Monday, was unceremoniously cancelled.

Kagame, once a darling of the West, has come under pressure as of late. His Twitter page has gone silent in recent weeks, but it's probably a safe bet that Kagame will take to the Twittersphere once more to defend his presidency (scheduled, constitutionally anyway, to end in 2017) and regional behavior.

(AP Photo)

Man Executed for Cannibalism in North Korea


There's rarely a shortage of awful news emanating from North Korea, but the most recent is particularly gruesome. The Times (paywall) is reporting that North Korea has executed a father for allegedly killing his two children and eating them during a famine last year that may have killed as many as 10,000 people.

RCW contributor Todd Crowell wrote about this latest man-made famine last week:

The Hwangwhe provinces, north and south, lie just south of the capital, between Pyongyang and the South Korean border. They are often said to be the “breadbasket” of North Korea, supplying food to both key elements of North Korea’s social order: The million-man army, many of them deployed along their southern border facing South Korea; and the capital, Pyongyang.

For the past year, however, these provinces have not been able to feed themselves, due in part to the demands of these two powerful groups. In particular the capital has required considerably more of the provincial agriculture output to feed the thousands of workers who were imported to work on the major construction projects underway for the past three to four years.

So to the familiar list of culprits of food shortages -- floods followed by severe drought -- can be added a political, and completely man-made, dimension that has not been seen as much in the previous food shortages that have plagued North Korea for the better part of the last decade.

(AP Photo)

Obama's Promise: A "Surgical Strike" Against Iran

In an interview with the Daily Beast, Israel's outgoing defense minister Ehud Barak said the Obama administration presented Israel with "quite sophisticated" plans for a "surgical" operation against Iran's nuclear program.

One question that arises is whether the Obama administration went through this exercise as a means of mollifying Netanyahu to delay a strike, without any real intention of following through, or whether the administration made more concrete assurances to buy more time for sanctions and negotiations. Either way, as Barak states at the end of the interview, the U.S. has put its credibility on the line with the Iranian nuclear program.

Still, the idea that any strike against Iran would be "surgical" is a misnomer, one designed to soften the public's expectations for what a military campaign against Iran would entail. Such a mission may be conceived of as a limited and targeted strike, but if Iran were to retaliate, all bets would be off and things could get messy very quickly.

How the U.S. Navy Will Look After Spending Cuts (According to the U.S. Navy)


The U.S. Navy has laid out in detail the consequences of looming defense cuts and, as you'd expect from any government agency with its budget on the chopping block, the impact is portrayed in stark terms:

A drastic cutback in the number of strike group deployments. Aircraft flying hours in the Middle East cut by more than half. Naval operations stopped around Latin America and reduced in the Pacific. Four of the fleet’s nine air wings shut down starting in March. Two carrier strike group deployments “extended indefinitely.” Only partial training for two more strike groups.

The Navy's total budget for 2013 is $170 billion. The "sequestration cuts" -- should those materialize -- will entail cutting $4 billion from that total in one year. The Navy may lose an additional $4 billion in planned funding if Congress cannot pass a budget by March 31.

(AP Photo)

Why the U.S. Indifference to Mexico?


Washington's foreign policy loves nothing more than to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, but as Stephen Walt points out, they really don't need to travel all that far:

[T]he drug war in Mexico was never mentioned during the presidential debates, even though over 60,000 Mexicans have been murdered over the past six years and even though this violence has killed several hundred Americans in recent years too. Prominent senators like John McCain keep harping about violence in Syria and the need for greater U.S. involvement; why doesn't violence that is closer to home and that affects Americans more directly get equal or greater attention? To say nothing of the effects that Mexican meth and other drugs have on the United States itself.

It's a serious question: why do some fairly distant and minor threats get lots of play in our discourse and command big-ticket policy responses, while more imminent threats get downplayed?

Walt offers up several plausible explanations in his post but it is a very curious thing.

(AP Photo)

January 25, 2013

Al-Qaeda Waging a 'Dirty War' in Yemen


While the world is focused on the menace of al-Qaeda-linked terrorists in North Africa, Daniel Green says that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has rebounded from a series of conventional military defeats and is fighting a "dirty war" against the Yemeni government:

Having been temporarily defeated using conventional military methods, AQAP has shifted tactics. Over the past several months, the group has undertaken a concerted murder and intimidation campaign targeting security, military, and intelligence officials working against it, not just in the south, but also in the capital. The most notable victim thus far was General Qatan, the southern commander who was killed by a suicide attacker in mid-June. By one count, at least fifty-five officials, many of whom worked on counterterrorism, have been assassinated by suicide attacks, improvised explosive devices, or small-arms fire.

AQAP's ability to conduct such strikes in the capital shows that its reach has grown significantly. It also suggests possible collusion with government security forces in Sana, some of whom may be allied with former president Saleh.

Green suggests that Washington expand military training for the Yemeni armed forces, focus on tribal committees to try and run al-Qaeda out at the grass-roots and bolstering U.S. intelligence to better anticipate assassination attempts.

The U.S. has had some recent counter-terrorism success in Yemen. The "number 2" of AQAP recently died from wounds sustained in a drone strike. The U.S. drone war in Yemen has also sharply escalated, with four drone strikes in the last five days. According to Ken Dilanian, the U.S. carried out 10 drone strikes in 2011 and 42 last year. It would surprise no one if we surpassed that figure in 2013.

(AP Photo)

The Underside of China's Economic Miracle: Child Labor


Last year, Apple came into some fierce criticism for poor conditions at its suppliers' factories in China. Today, Apple gave the boot to a supplier for using child labor:

Apple has terminated a contract with Chinese circuit board manufacturer PZ after discovering 74 under-age workers were working there.

The workers, who were all under 16, had been supplied by a regional recruitment company who gave them fake identity papers, the tech giant said.

They have since been returned to their families.

Why are Chinese factories turning to underage labor? The New York Times reports today that many college graduates are shunning factory jobs. There is a huge mismatch in the types of jobs China is producing and the kind of work its college educated young are hoping to do.

In the short term, this mismatch is going to do damage to China's attractiveness as a destination for low-cost manufacturing, but longer-term it's going to put immense strain on white collar work around the world. Consider what happened to U.S. manufacturing as rural Chinese flooded into urban factories over the past three decades. Now imagine what happens to higher-skilled work as the children of those factory workers graduate from college with advanced degrees and compete on a globalized market. Those jobs may not be as susceptible to out-sourcing as factory jobs were (although that's a point of debate), but it would be naive not to think the ramifications are potentially just as significant.

(AP Photo)

January 24, 2013

Rand Paul Is Not a Conspiracy Theorist

Hayes Brown thinks Senator Rand Paul is indulging in conspiracy theory mongering because he asked Secretary Clinton about the possibility that the U.S. used its consulate in Libya to funnel weapons into Turkey and eventually Syria:

Paul’s inquiry about Turkey seems less odd if you’re familiar with Glenn Beck-inspired conspiracy theories that have been circulating among right-wing websites since the attacks in Libya.

The theory goes that Ambassador Chris Stevens — who was killed during the attack — was deeply involved in the CIA project of gathering loose arms in Libya in the aftermath of Moammar Qaddafi’s downfall. Stevens then facilitated the movement of those arms from Libya to Turkey, where they then went on to Syria. The secrecy involved in moving those weapons under the table is part of why the Obama administration covered up the truth of the attack, according to the theory, which even Fox News has helped spread.

The Obama administration has repeatedly said that it will not be providing arms to the rebels in Syria, which this theory claims to counter. While the CIA was involved with helping round up the loose arms that were rampant in Libya, there is no evidence that Stevens or the State Department was involved in the operation, nor that the arms were then shipped to Syria.

Look, I do not traffic in "Glenn Beck-inspired conspiracy theories" but this dismissal is just a wee bit threadbare. Is it a self-evidently crackpot idea that the U.S. government would secretly funnel weapons to insurgents in other parts of the world? Um, no. It was a fairly standard American practice throughout the Cold War. In fact, the Obama administration is arming multiple "allies" in both Africa and the Middle East as we speak. It is "coordinating" with Gulf state allies to provide arms to Syria's rebels in their quest to overthrow the Assad regime. Is it really that much of a stretch to think that the U.S. is quietly getting arms to the Syrian rebels directly as well?

The only evidence Hayes musters to dispute the theory is that the Obama administration said it isn't. And we all know that no U.S. administration would lie about this kind of thing.

Seriously, I have no idea what happened in Benghazi any more than Hayes does. I'm not very interested in what the administration's talking points were, or should have been. But if the U.S. was using Libya to smuggle weapons into Syria, it's something the American people should know about.

UN: The World Is Eating More Food Than It Is Growing


Asia Sentinel reports that global food reserves are dropping:

The US, which experienced record heat waves and droughts in 2012, now holds in reserve a historically low 6.5 percent of corn (maize) stocks, the FAO warned, with prices rising to record levels during the crop failure. The US is the world's largest exporter.

Overall, food consumption has exceeded the amounts grown during six of the past 11 years, officials say, as the world has teetered on the edge of crisis only to recover somewhat. Countries have run down reserves from an average of 107 days of consumption in 2002 years ago to under 74 days recently.

While analysts don't believe rising prices will trigger the kind of crises seen in 2008 and 2011, when the world faced structural deficits in wheat and rice, they are concerned that high prices are driving the world's poorest people out of their ability to feed themselves.

Rising prices are also sparking geopolitical competition as countries race to secure resources. A recent report from Chatham House argued that "resource insecurity has come back with a vengeance."

(Graphic: Chatham House)

Did Israel's Air Force Pilots Vote Against a War with Iran?


Aluf Benn thinks it's possible:

It is hard to know what the combat pilots think about the prime minister and attacking Iran, but the outcome of the election reveals an interesting clue. In the five family residential quarters on air force bases where polling stations were opened, Yesh Atid won big over Likud-Beiteinu. This was the case at Tel Nof, Hatzerim, Nevatim, Ovda and Ramon. Only at the Hatzor base were more ballots with the Likud letters “mem-het-lamed” cast than with the Yesh Atid letters “peh-heh.” The voter turnout rate in the air force was identical to the national average 67.7 percent and of the 681 eligible voters, 32.2 percent supported Yair Lapid and 20 percent supported Benjamin Netanyahu.

The conclusion is obvious. In the pilots’ neighborhoods, people preferred Lapid and were not impressed by Netanyahu’s gestures, attention or generous budgets.

I'm in no position to say if Benn's read on this is correct, but it wouldn't be surprising. In the U.S., anti-interventionists like Ron Paul often enjoy strong support from military service members.

(AP Photo)

January 23, 2013

Crime and Punishment and Sanctions


The indispensable Thomas Erdbrink describes the scene at a public hanging in Tehran:

An eerie silence filled the air as a crowd of around 300 gathered Sunday just before sunrise in a Tehran park. They awaited the arrival of two young men who were about to die.

The condemned stood shoulder to shoulder, motionless, in front of two police trucks with two nooses hanging from extendable cranes, about 15 feet high. Black-clad executioners were inspecting the remote controls they would use to hang the men, both in their early 20s, who were convicted of stabbing a man in November and stealing his bag and the equivalent of $20.

From behind a makeshift barrier of scaffolding, the crowd jostled for position. “Let’s move to the other side,” one spectator whispered to his wife, pointing to the spot where Iranian state television cameras had been set up. “I think we will have a better view from there.”

Capital punishment is certainly not unique to Iran, but it's the nature of the crime -- and the government's response -- that makes this story so gripping:

Many in Tehran applauded the harsh sentence for Mr. Mafiha and Mr. Sarvari, saying they hoped that it would make criminals think twice about attacking people. But others doubted that would happen.

“The number of quarrels, suicide, murder and crime are all up,” Amanollah Qaraei Moghadam, a sociologist, recently wrote on Mellat Online, an Internet news site. “It is 100 percent clear the situation will not change unless the economy improves.”

Brendan Daly provides some broader context:

This time last year, it was still very rare to hear the word “tahrim” (sanctions) on the streets of Iranian cities. Now you hear it every day. Not to mention the latest anecdotes of the dollar-rial exchange rates.

At the height of the currency crisis in October, when the rial had dropped to 20 percent of its value compared to last year, a convenience store in downtown Tehran rather humorously put up a sign saying “No discussion of the dollar rate!” As I presented my wares and the shopkeeper saw my Western face, he asked me if I could pay in dollars.

Street crime in Tehran has, by all accounts, risen exponentially over the past few years. I am told that ten years ago such occurrences as this brutal mugging – as well as the increasingly popular act of pretending to be a taxi driver in order to rob passengers at knife-point – were very rare.

More surprisngly perhaps, from around 10:30pm on most nights, on the major boulevard nearest to my apartment, young girls can be seen openly soliciting. To the uninitiated, they are simply well-dressed girls waiting to be picked up by friends. But there is a very specific, very subtle dress code – and if you stay around to observe, you will see them negotiating with men through their car windows. Again, I am told that this was unheard of only five or six years ago.

I've defended sanctions against Iran in the past, but at some point the U.S. must distinguish between tactic and strategy in its handling of the Islamic Republic. As the West continues to pile on sanctions, it's the Iranian people who continue to suffer.

The Iranian government of course bears most of the blame in all of this. The theocratic junta in Tehran has politically, psychologically and -- and times -- violently repressed its own people so much, and for so long, that Iranian drug abuse is reportedly at an all-time high. Creativity, individuality, curiosity -- such traits are deemed, at best, as out of step with societal mores, and at worst seditious. Economic transition, coupled with economic incompetence, has only exacerbated the problem, as Iranians suffering through one long crisis are now faced with a slew of more pressing crises brought on by sanctions, mismanagement and isolation.

Perhaps this is all just collateral damage in the ongoing cold war between Iran and the United States, but, at some point, the West may have to reckon with its own role in bringing the Iranian people to their knees.

(AP Photo: Alireza Mafiha, second left, leans his head on the shoulder of a security officer moments before his execution along with Mohammad Ali Sarvari, second right, in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013. Iran executed two men on Sunday publicly, after posting a video on YouTube in December 2012 showing them robbing and assaulting a man with a machete on a street in Tehran.)

NASA's Climate Data Condensed

NASA has compiled a short graphic with their climate change data dating back to 1950. It speaks for itself.

What "Regional Security Interests" Are Met by Selling F-16s to Egypt?


The U.S. is going ahead with the sale of several F-16 fighter jets to Egypt. According to a document obtained by the Free Beacon, the State Department is defending the sale on the grounds that it promotes U.S. "regional security interests."

U.S. interests in the Middle East essentially boil down to the free passage of oil into the Gulf and it's not clear how Egypt's newly bolstered air force is supposed to contribute to that. Indeed, the language the State Department uses to defend the sale doesn't actually address anything particularly relevant to U.S. security, but instead notes how the aircraft will help solidify ties with Egypt and help their armed forces protect their border -- from what, we're not told:

“Delaying or cancelling deliveries of the F-16 aircraft would undermine our efforts to address our regional security interests through a more capable Egyptian military and send a damaging and lasting signal to Egypt’s civilian and military leadership as we work toward a democratic transition in the key Middle Eastern State,” the State Department said.

"Egypt is a strategic partner with whom we have a long history of close political-military relations that have benefited U.S. interest,” said the letter, which was authored by assistant secretary for legislative affairs David Adams. “For the past 30 years the F-16 aircraft has been a key component of the relationship between the United States military and the Egyptian Armed Forces.”

It's clear what's going on here: the administration is desperately seeking some form of leverage with Egypt and thinks these jets will provide it. Of course, the U.S. showered the Shah of Iran with weapons and that didn't prevent an anti-American revolution.

(AP Photo)

Pushing Back on the Mali Blowback Meme


Anthropologist Bruce Whitehouse dismisses the idea that the overthrow of Gaddafi or U.S. military training led to the chaos in Mali:

This would make sense if most of the US-trained officers in Mali’s armed forces had defected to the rebels. But that’s not the case: Pentagon-sponsored training was provided to a broad cross-section of officers and NCOs in the Malian military, of which the defectors (most of them Tuareg) made up a minority. US-trained personnel fought on both sides of the conflict: at best the effects of their training were canceled out, at worst they were negligible. The problem with the US military’s training program wasn’t that it benefited the wrong people, it’s that it didn’t work. Following exercises in 2009, detailed in Wikileaks, even one of the Malian army’s most elite units got poor evaluations despite lengthy collaboration with US trainers. Whatever “advantage” such collaboration may have provided, it was the last thing the Tuareg — experienced desert fighters — needed to defeat Malian government forces.

Whitehouse also clarifies the nature of the conflict:

Moreover, I’m not sure how accurate it is to call the forces fighting against the French “Malian rebels” or to describe the conflict as a “civil war“–the command structures of AQIM and MOJWA in particular are dominated by Algerians and Mauritanians. Malians widely perceive these groups as foreign invaders, motivated by racism and greed as well as a perverted, even ignorant view of their faith.

We cannot say that the war in Mali is primarily about natural resources, Western meddling, or religion. We can say, however, that it is a direct consequence of state failure, which as I have argued elsewhere came about largely due to factors internal to Mali.

Via: Sullivan.

(AP Photo)

January 22, 2013

Professor of Population Studies: We Need Less People


Paul Ehrlich, of Population Bomb fame, is out with a new paper arguing again that the world needs fewer people:

“Overall, careful analysis of the prospects does not provide much confidence that technology will save us or that gross domestic product can be disengaged from resource use,” the paper continued. The way to stop this is to “stop treating population growth as a ‘given’ and consider the nutritional, health and social benefits of humanely ending growth well below nine billion and starting a slow decline. This would be a monumental task, considering the momentum of population growth. Monumental, but not impossible if the political will could be generated globally to give full rights, education and opportunities to women, and provide all sexually active human beings with modern contraception and backup abortion.”

You would think Ehrlich is on the hyperbolic edge of this argument, but he's not:

David Attenborough has described humans as a "plague on Earth" that need to slow down breeding to stop the world's population being reduced by more brutal means.

Hyperbole shouldn't distract from the recent -- and largely bad -- climate news that has many analysts looking at the ramifications of resource use and the impact that a rising global middle class is having on the environment. The agricultural demands alone are immense -- agriculture is the leading source of carbon emissions, yet to feed the estimated 9 billion people that are expected inhabit Earth in the 21st century, food production will have to increase by 30 percent or more.

On the flip side, Daniel Bier argues that actually what the world needs is more people:

The reason why our intuition about the “limits to growth” is so wrong is that it fails to comprehend the role of human ingenuity in shaping and harnessing the environment. More people in a global market economy means more minds working to solving problems, more people producing things for each other, and more knowledge and ideas available to everyone.

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.

I'm certainly not in the Ehlrich camp on this, but Bier sounds a bit too glib to me. Some resources are finite, and while we shouldn't underestimate human ingenuity, we shouldn't overlook some other human traits (hubris, for instance) that could blind us to coming dangers.

(AP Photo)

Is China Blowing Another Huge Bubble?


Bubble, bubble:

China’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China, just okayed 3 trillion yuan ($482.6 billion) in new lending for 2013. It’s not much more than what it allowed in 2012—but still a considerable sum for a country struggling with overcapacity.

That’s merely worrisome though. What is actually stomach-churning, though, is the 679% year-on-year increase in “trust loans” disbursed in December, hitting 264 billion yuan. And, yes, that’s 679%, not a typo. (We recently explained in detail why these super-shady investment vehicles—which allow banks to finance off-the-books loans to companies and local governments by offering them to their retail customers as investments—should unnerve everyone, but the key words here are “Ponzi” and “scheme.”) The central bank also noted today that it expects a 16% year-on-year increase in “total social financing,” a hefty portion of which is trust loans.

Meanwhile, Kate Mackenzie worries that this is proof that China has failed to "rebalance" its economy away from state investment and toward a consumption based economy. Matthew Yglesias is less concerned:

To MacKenzie (or her headline writer) that means China "still has the same old problems." I would say the other way to look at that is that China still doesn't have the same old problem of having settled into a slow-growth, low-resources-utilization equilibrium that we see in much of the developed world.

One thing we learned from the U.S. financial crisis is that there's no gentle unwinding of bad debt when it's this pervasive. China, fortunately, is not as intertwined into the global financial machinery as U.S. and European banks are, but we'd be fooling ourselves to think that a financial crisis leading to a recession or sharply curtailed growth in China wouldn't have ripple effects on the global economy.

Still, before that financial Armageddon arrives we'll be able to enjoy an influx of Chinese gadgets:

China's industry ministry Tuesday set an aggressive goal of forging global giants in the electronics sector within the next two years through mergers and alliances and reiterated a long-standing push for Chinese companies to explore overseas acquisitions.

(AP Photo)

Why Europe Fears a Currency War

The head of Germany's Bundesbank, Jens Weidmann, warned yesterday that the world could be nearing a currency war. Felix Salmon explains why he's right to be worried:

It’s easy to see what Weidmann is worried about here: according to UniCredit economist Marco Valli, a 10% rise in the euro’s value will reduce eurozone GDP growth by 0.8%.

Needless to say, the Eurozone has no such wiggle room. But Salmon offers a caveat:

Firstly the euro is still much more competitive, against the yen, than it was before the crisis. Here’s the five-year chart, which shows that if there’s any competitive devaluing going on, then Europe did it first.

January 21, 2013

How Bad Is China's Air Pollution?

So bad that a factory fire raged for three hours before anyone noticed it through the smog.

Neoconservatism as a Communist Show Trial

Daniel Larison catches Jennifer Rubin demanding re-education for Chuck Hagel:

The language of inquisitors crops up throughout the post. Rubin describes recent reports about Hagel’s views in terms of his supposed “serial recantation,” she insists that he must “renounce” his past views, and later implies that he must express remorse for them. Hagel is supposed to prove the sincerity of his “conversion,” and he must prove that he has “the emotional commitment to these views” that the hard-liners require. At one point, she states that this is necessary because “we expect the defendant to recognize and accept full responsibility for his misdeeds.” In this case, Hagel’s “misdeeds” amount to questioning hard-line policies and nothing more. Applying such absolutist, religious terms to policy differences is twisted, and it is proof of the fanaticism of Hagel’s critics.

It is not enough if Hagel ceases to support a policy that Rubin considers mistaken, and it is certainly not enough that Hagel correct the distortions of his record that his critics have circulated. According to this fanatical view, he is obliged to confess his wrongdoing and beg mercy of the people hounding him.

Do Mali Terrorists Intend to Attack the United States?


The Obama administration has been slow to hop on the Mali intervention bandwagon and some reporting from the Los Angeles Times indicates why:

Militants in Mali, "if left unaddressed, ... will obtain capability to match their intent — that being to extend their reach and control and to attack American interests," Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command, said in an interview.

But many of Obama's top aides say it is unclear whether the Mali insurgents, who include members of the group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, threaten the U.S.

Those aides also worry about being drawn into a messy and possibly long-running conflict against an elusive enemy in Mali, a vast landlocked country abutting the Sahara desert, just as U.S. forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan.

"No one here is questioning the threat that AQIM poses regionally," said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing internal deliberations. "The question we all need to ask is, what threat do they pose to the U.S. homeland? The answer so far has been none."

It's hard to know just what kind of aims and "intent" AQIM has, since different leaders may have a different conception of their mission. According to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, AQIM is more of a regional outfit and to the extent that it wants to target foreign countries, France and Spain top the list. Although as this CFR backgrounder makes clear, that picture may be changing with possible links between AQIM and the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Still, the Pentagon risks setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy if it ends up quickly diving into a war in Mali. AQIM will have regional aims up until the minute U.S. bombs start falling on their heads. At that moment, they will no doubt broaden their sights.

(AP Photo)

January 20, 2013

Same as the Old Boss, Egypt Edition


From Ahram Online:

There were four times as many 'insulting the president' lawsuits during President Mohamed Morsi's first 200 days in office than during the entire 30-year reign of former president Hosni Mubarak.

This is the claim made by Gamal Eid, human rights lawyer and executive director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).

Moreover, the number of such lawsuits during the Morsi era is more than during the entire period dating back to 1909 when the law was introduced (originally for 'insulting the king'), Eid said via Twitter.

Members and sympathisers of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group from which President Morsi hails, have allegedly used the accusation to intimidate opposition figures in the media.

(AP Photo)

January 19, 2013

Understanding the Terror Threat in Africa

The NewsHour has a good primer on the brewing terrorist threat in Africa.

January 18, 2013

Mali Has Another Militant Problem


And that problem would be the military junta currently running the official government in the south. From Gallup:

Malians' confidence in their governmental institutions plummeted in late 2012, as Islamist rebels took control over much of the northern parts of the country and after a military coup in March 2012 overthrew President Amadou Toumani Toure. Malians' faith in their national government fell 22 percentage points to 49% in November 2012, from 71% in 2011. Confidence in the military dropped 25 points and support for the judiciary declined 17 points.

Nothing terribly surprising here, but public support for the military is worthy of note. Gallup data from as recently as 2009 showed Mali to be one of the most pro-American countries in the world, but much of that was likely wed to Malians' faith in their civic and military institutions. (Institutions the U.S. has heavily invested in over the course of the last decade, incidentally.)

Driving Islamist radicals out of Mali is obviously the West's priority at the moment, but it's difficult to envision a sustainable victory in Mali without a more accountable regime in Bamako.

War in Mali: The China Angle


Joe Glenton argues that Western policymakers may be crying "jihadi" in Mali, but they're secretly worried about China too:

Mali and the other former French colonies which surround it have had extensive dealings with China. The country, one of the poorest in the world, has received substantial Chinese money for development. In 2011 China made good on a package of hundreds of millions, partially as a “gift” to improve the “living standards of Malian people”.

Some argue that China will sit back and let the French do its work for it by handling the crisis and restoring some kind of stability, with China perhaps moving back in later. Contrary to that view, it is worth considering that the intervention may be at least partially informed by a need to counter the Chinese, certainly on the part of the US and also on the part of major European countries.

For what it's worth, I don't doubt that prior U.S. and Western investment in Mali and other African nations had at least half an eye on China's rising influence there (China is said to have 2,000 citizens and roughly 20 firms operating in Mali), but that would hardly be a sufficient condition to motivate such a hasty intervention.

Moreover, I honestly cannot imagine Western policymakers would be so naive -- and historically ignorant -- to believe that a military campaign would foreclose the possibility of restored Chinese influence in Mali after the war. It didn't happen in Iraq or Afghanistan, where China was able to swoop in and scoop up resource contracts when the dust had partially settled. It's more likely that the West is acting against a perceived urgent threat and that the longer-term strategic implications with respect to China are pretty far on the back-burner.

(AP Photo)

What the Hagel Debate Is Really About: The Wisdom of Preventative War


Robert Satloff identifies a real, substantive issue in the Hagel debate amid the tawdry smear campaign:

Even supporters of Hagel’s nomination must admit that it is nearly impossible to find any support in his record for the idea of “prevention” that undergirds the strategy toward Iran. This concept, which has been publicly embraced by Obama, means that the United States should deter Iran not from using a bomb but, rather, from acquiring one — preventing Tehran peacefully, if possible; through military means, if necessary.

While Hagel has not specifically repudiated prevention, he has criticized key elements of the policy. He has expressed skepticismthat the United States should threaten Iran militarily; he has suggested that U.S. muscle-flexing in the Persian Gulf sours the possibility for a negotiated settlement with Iran; and he has been critical of the military option to delay or destroy the Iranian nuclear program.

In this context, the looming fight over Hagel’s confirmation has obscured the strategic repercussion of the nomination.

As Satloff notes, it's odd for an administration that has publicly embraced the idea of the preventative war to nominate a defense secretary who has been skeptical of the idea. That is, unless President Obama isn't committed to a preventative war or Hagel is willing to swallow his reservations and salute when/if the time comes.

Unfortunately, what's not going to happen during the Hagel confirmation hearings is an actual debate about the wisdom of preventative wars and specifically the wisdom of a preventative war against Iran. Hagel will have to toe the administration's line, which is that a preventative war is fully on the table if Iran doesn't knuckle under, and whatever misgivings everyone thinks he has will have to be sacrificed on the altar of expediency.

(AP Photo)

January 17, 2013

How Does France Feel About Lance Armstrong?


Feelings are apparently mixed following the disgraced cyclist's doping confession in an interview with Oprah Winfrey:

Many French gloated over the exposure of a man who humbled Europe by crushing its greatest competitors in one of its most cherished competitions, the 110-year old bike race that captivates the nation as it winds through the French countryside and Pyrenees and concludes at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

In typical French fashion, cynicism about the fraud is not reserved for Armstrong alone.

"They have been taking drugs since 1903," said 24-years old Coline Benoist. "When I watched the tour when I was little, I used to wonder if they were human!"

(AP Photo)

Meanwhile, in Syria...

A Syrian man records this video as Syrian regime tanks fire all around him:

How to Talk About Israeli Settlers


Alan Johnson says the world should distinguish between the fundamentalist settlers and those who would be in Israel proper after any conceivable peace agreement:

Eighty percent of the settlers (excluding East Jerusalem) live in settlement blocs, represent 95 percent of the total population, and both sides understand they will be incorporated in Israel proper—Palestine being compensated by 1:1 land swaps—when the deal is done. Twenty percent of the settlers live outside the settlement blocs, mostly belonging to the national religious sector of Israeli society, part of the “Gush Emunim” (Block of the Faithful) ideological movement and are scattered over hilltops, often dotted along the central mountain ridge, Gav HaHar, on Route 60—the main road running north to south. When Israel makes the deal it is inconceivable that these hilltop settlers will be part of it....

A good start would be to talk of “bloc settlers” and “hilltop settlers” to show they understand that the 80 percent who live along the green line can be included in a deal and the 20 percent dotted about the Palestinian hilltops cannot.

(AP Photo)

France Adopts the Bush Doctrine


News is moving quickly in West Africa, making it increasingly difficult to get one's head around what's going on in Mali and the greater region.

This much appears to be true: Paris, sensing that its own military and civilian assets were at risk of becoming targets in both Mali and the surrounding region -- not to mention the potential for a terrorist attack on its own soil in Europe -- opted to forgo the multilateral case being built against the various Islamist insurgents in Northern Mali, and to instead act unilaterally. "We must stop the rebels' offensive, otherwise the whole of Mali will fall into their hands -- creating a threat for Africa and even for Europe," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius recently told reporters.

In short, France decided to take the fight to the enemy before that enemy could bring the fight to France. Sound familiar?

So it would appear that we're witnessing two competing counterterrorism doctrines at work in West and North Africa. While France has adopted some components of President George W. Bush's strategy in Iraq, we also know that there is now debate inside the Obama administration over whether or not its own reserved policy of Islamist containment in Mali -- call it "leading from behind," if you will -- was perhaps too reserved and poorly resourced.

Proponents of the Obama Doctrine both inside and outside the administration argue that the threat from Malian Islamists may well be overstated, and were the U.S. to get involved it might only agitate the situation, turning a once regional and territorial civil war into a more international conflict.

Judging from today's events in Algeria, they just might have a point.

(AP Photo)

What Do the British Have Against Horse Meat?


After traces of horse DNA were found in some British hamburgers, there's been something of an island-wide soul search going on regarding the question of why the Brits are so revolted by the idea of chowing down on horse. The BBC explores the root of the question:

There is no real logic as to why plenty of Britons are perfectly willing to eat cows, pigs, and chickens, but see horses as taboo, according to Dr Roger Mugford, an animal psychologist who runs the Animal Behaviour Centre.

"I'm a farmer and there is an irony. Why are horses different from pigs and lambs?" he says.

Part of the reason is people frequently see horses as pets, and humans tend to put "extra qualities and values" on animals they call pets, he says.

But, of course, there's more to it:

But all of the above reasons apply as much to France as they do to the UK. There must be more to it.

"It enables us to have yet another point of difference with the French," says Gray.

"Beef has long been symbolic of Englishness and therefore anything we can do or say to put British beef on a pedestal is usually done - ergo the thought that the French eat horse while we eat good beef becomes a chauvinistic way of asserting national identity," she says.

According to Susanna Forrest, horse meat is consumed by a billion people around the world in countries like China, Russia, Mexico, Belgium and Japan. Horse meat is a growth business with consumption climbing 27.6 percent since 1990, Forrest added. While it's not a big treat in the U.S., American horses are frequently shipped to Canada for processing into meat that is then shipped to Europe (although all the drugs we're pumping into the horses is apparently putting the Europeans off U.S. horse meat).

(AP Photo)

January 16, 2013

500,000 Breathing Masks Sold in China


...in two days. ABC's Kaijing Xiao has the story:

According to the figures released by Taobao and Tmall, China’s two biggest shopping websites, 500,000 masks were sold in two days. That number was three times more than the previous week.

The air quality index, or “AQI,” is how both the U.S. Embassy and Chinese government computes air quality. As set by the Environmental Protection Agency (China uses its own environmental agency) the AQI measures five different pollution components. PM2.5, or particles smaller than 2.5 microns, are considered the most harmful to your health because they get deeper into the lungs and can be absorbed directly into the bloodstream. Short-term effects of air pollution commonly include coughing, shortness of breath, eye irritation, headaches, nausea and dizziness.

It has been three days since I got back to Beijing, I haven’t seen the shape of the sun yet, and my chest has been feeling a consistent pain. Because Beijing sits in a basin, once the bad air gets in only a strong wind can push it out. Winds are expected in the coming days, and they can’t get here soon enough.

And it only appears to be getting worse, according to James Fallows:

The readings in the past few days have been in the previously unimaginable 700s-and-above range, reported as "beyond index" by @BeijingAir. The worst I have personally seen in Beijing was in the high 400s, and that day I did not understand how life could proceed any further in such circumstances. The conditions this weekend have been much worse

"Half of Europe Is in a Great Depression"

That's the conclusion of Ambrose Evans-Pritchard:

The horror before our eyes right now is social ruin. Europe’s crisis strategy is to break the back of labour resistance to pay cuts by driving unemployment through the roof. That is what `internal devaluations’ are. It stinks. And the ECB is adding to the cruelty by keeping money too tight. Mr Draghi deserves his accolades, but his job is not yet done. He has saved the rich. Now he must save the poor.

The Benefits of Globalization: Man Outsources Own Job to China

The last several presidential campaigns have seen increasing angst over the outsourcing of American jobs to lower-wage locales such as China and Southeast Asia. One enterprising software coder, however, took advantage of this new era of liberal labor rules by outsourcing his own job to China:

A security audit of a US critical infrastructure company last year revealed that its star developer had outsourced his own job to a Chinese subcontractor and was spending all his work time playing around on the internet....

After getting permission to study Bob's computer habits, Verizon investigators found that he had hired a software consultancy in Shenyang to do his programming work for him, and had FedExed them his two-factor authentication token so they could log into his account. He was paying them a fifth of his six-figure salary to do the work and spent the rest of his time on other activities.

The analysis of his workstation found hundreds of PDF invoices from the Chinese contractors and determined that Bob's typical work day consisted of:

9:00 a.m. – Arrive and surf Reddit for a couple of hours. Watch cat videos

11:30 a.m. – Take lunch

1:00 p.m. – Ebay time

2:00-ish p.m – Facebook updates, LinkedIn

4:30 p.m. – End-of-day update e-mail to management

5:00 p.m. – Go home

Not only did "Bob" outsource his own job -- he took jobs at other firms and outsourced them as well. He is now out of a job. Truly, globalization giveth and globalization taketh away.

Pakistan Foreign Minister: bin Laden Was an "Intelligence Failure"

Amidst growing international frustration with Pakistan, Hina Rabbani Khar defends her country's policies. She describes the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan as a "huge intelligence failure" and "infuriating."

At least one of those descriptions is accurate...

January 15, 2013

Morsi's Utterly Unsurprising Anti-Semitic Rant

A 2010 rant in which now Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi calls Jews the "descendants of apes and pigs" has come to light, putting Morsi in a somewhat delicate position vis-a-vis his international supporters.

That Morsi holds these foul views should come as a surprise to exactly no one. Yet is it proof, as Walter Russell Mead argues, that "[t]here are a lot of illusions out there about how the exercise of power will moderate the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups"?

I think it's far too soon to tell (and Hamas isn't a good analogy since they are internationally isolated in a way Egypt is not). Certainly, holding power in a democratic system opens the temptation for politicians to engage in more of this kind of demagogic and anti-Semitic vitriol, not less. But actions matter too, and while Morsi's Egypt isn't going to be the close partner that Mubarak's was, it may not look to provoke direct confrontation with either Israel or the U.S.

Still, there's also no reason to believe that moderation will naturally follow with governing responsibility as night follows day.

As far as the U.S. is concerned, there's not much that can be done to cure Morsi or the Brotherhood of their toxic views in the short term. There are likely to be calls to sever aid to Egypt, which may be wise. But the U.S. should resist the temptation to find other, more pliable allies inside Egypt who could seize power -- the route to moderation won't be found through more external meddling.

Is Japan Rearming?


The anchor of U.S. policy in Asia since the end of World War II has been to prevent the re-militarization of Japan. Since the end of the Cold War and the rise of China this policy has been increasingly called into question as a more powerful Japan could serve as a useful counterbalance to China and a means for the U.S. to more effectively share the burdens of regional security in Asia. Still, any moves by Japan to bolster its military power tend to make people nervous.

So it's not surprising that a recent decision by the newly installed government of Shinzo Abe to request more funds for defense after over a decade of cuts has raised eyebrows.

CFR's Scott Snyder, however, argues that it's not a sign of rising militarism:

There is a serious debate among policymakers as to whether this is actually sufficient to deal with the growing challenges Japan could face in the years ahead. Prime Minister Abe’s new government is widely seen as more hawkish, and thus the interpretation of this budget’s meaning differs widely. Martin Fackler’s NYT piece early in the week sees this as the new prime minister’s effort “to bolster Japan’s declining influence,” while a WSJ article views this week’s announcements in Tokyo as “paltry” and instead admonishes Japan’s new prime minister “to get serious about defense, and fast.” Expect this conversation to continue as the specifics of Japan’s defense policy develop.
The U.S. needs just enough Japanese rearmament to deter China and keep the U.S. tab as low as possible without stoking a confrontation. On the plus side, fears of Japanese "free-riding" may be overblown (although the $1.3 billion increase is pretty small beer as far as these things go). As Snyder notes, we won't know the full contours of Japan's defense policy and any substantive changes Abe plans to make until the government releases its National Defense Program Guidelines document, which is due at the end of 2013.

(AP Photo)

Mali Makes the Case for Non-Interventionists


There's been a lot of nonsense talk of late about a potential American "retreat" from the world -- a return to the dreaded "isolationism" of the 1930s. In reality, most of those making the case for a more restrained foreign policy don't want a worldwide "retreat" but simply less meddling in countries whose dynamics the West doesn't understand and can't direct.

Fortunately (or rather, unfortunately) the Western war in Mali is serving as Exhibit A for the non-interventionist case. First, the New York Times' Adam Nossiter explains how the Mali rebellion benefited from the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya:

Well, when Gadhafi fell, his extensive arsenals in the south of Libya were left totally unguarded, unprotected by the Western forces that brought him down. Gadhafi had fighting for him a number of ethnic nomad fighters from Mali, the Tuaregs. And so when Gadhafi fell, these Tuaregs returned to Mali, where their group had been conducting a rebellion for almost 60 years against the Malian state.

They took with them a lot of the weapons that were in Gadhafi's arsenal. So for the first time in their long history of rebellion against Mali, they were properly armed and equipped thanks to Moammar Gadhafi. And it was those weapons that allowed these nomadic rebels to crush the Malian army in January, February and March of 2012.

Al-Qaida was already installed in the desert and they made a sort of tactical alliance with these nomadic rebels. But the al-Qaida forces, being tougher, took the upper hand, and so now they're the ones in control.

Now, the rebellion in Mali had raged long before the Western intervention in Libya and even without Western help, the forces battling Gaddafi may have prevailed -- or may have provoked enough disorder and lawlessness that these weapons could have slipped from Libya into Mali. Still, the Western intervention clearly accelerated the disintegration of the Gaddafi regime and poured jet-fuel on the fires simmering in Mali. And that has now led to... another intervention.

And it gets worse:

But as insurgents swept through the desert last year, commanders of this nation’s elite army units, the fruit of years of careful American training, defected when they were needed most — taking troops, guns, trucks and their newfound skills to the enemy in the heat of battle, according to senior Malian military officials.

“It was a disaster,” said one of several senior Malian officers to confirm the defections.

Then an American-trained officer overthrew Mali’s elected government, setting the stage for more than half of the country to fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. American spy planes and surveillance drones have tried to make sense of the mess, but American officials and their allies are still scrambling even to get a detailed picture of who they are up against. [Emphasis added.]

It bears repeating that Mali's rebels would be fighting with or without American interference and the rebellion against Gaddafi may have resulted in the eventual collapse of his regime and a southern flood of weapons. But what is unmistakably clear is that American (and Western) efforts have not only failed to improve things, they've likely made the situation considerably worse. Will Congress question the Obama administration over this?

(AP Photo)

January 14, 2013

Israeli Voters: Economy Trumps Iran


A poll by the Times of Israel shows some surprising results: only 12 percent of likely voters cited Iran's nuclear program as an "urgent" issue vs. 43% who said economic problems were more pressing. Security issues in general were given short shrift next to economic and social problems.

Meir Javedanfar takes a stab at explaining why that is:

Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tries to play on the population's fears by portraying Israel as a country facing imminent demise from Iran (unless he saves it), the fact that today Israel is a regional superpower is not lost on many Israelis. This is why, unlike the first few decades after Israel’s independence, Israelis can afford to focus on domestic issues more than on Iran.

Unlike Israel's current settlement policies, when it comes to the Iranian regime’s threats, not just the US but the entire Western world stands with Israel. Even the Chinese and the Russians today are negotiating against Iran as part of the P5+1 group. Furthermore, the sanctions against Iran, together with US President Barack Obama's promise that he will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, seem to have convinced many in Israel that when it comes to the Iranian regime, Israel is not alone.

Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan calling an attack against Iran "the stupidest thing he has ever heard" is another important reason. When Israel's former master spy, who Ariel Sharon described as specializing in "detaching Arabs from their heads," says something like this, Israelis may be forgiven for thinking that that their country is not in danger of imminent destruction by Iran.

Staying in Afghanistan


There is a growing chorus of right-of-center national security analysts warning that President Obama's Afghan pullout is going to end in disaster. While I don't agree with their prescription (stationing tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan indefinitely) I do think they're right to warn about the deterioration in security that's likely to follow a U.S. withdrawal. Afghanistan may not revert completely to Taliban rule or abject disorder, but it seems foolish to blithely assume, as the Obama administration's public rhetoric suggests, that all is well on the path to a stable "transition" to Afghan control.

But this deterioration points to one of the underlying problems with stationing troops in Afghanistan forever. If ten years of U.S. and international efforts have not produced durable stability, why would ten or twenty more years do the same?

More broadly, the failure in Afghanistan points to a central issue facing U.S. and Western counter-terrorism policy in general -- how to deal with ungoverned spaces? The French intervention in Mali, the not-so-covert American campaigns in the Horn of Africa and Yemen, the drone war in Pakistan -- these are all ways of grappling with the threat without committing massive numbers of soldiers and financial resources to rebuild governing institutions. It's likely that Afghanistan will fall into this category as well after 2014. This template may not satisfy the neoconservative fantasy of Kipling 2.0, but it's hard to see a feasible alternative that won't quickly bankrupt already economically challenged governments.

(AP Photo)

January 11, 2013

Come Home America ... to Cliches

Fred Hiatt is worried that the U.S. is poised to "retreat" from the world:

Those who argue for a more vigorous international role are sometimes caricatured as war-loving and unilateralist when, in fact, an activist stance has been favored by Democrats from Harry Truman to Madeleine Albright and Republicans from Richard Nixon to Colin Powell. It would be no fairer to label them all bellicose neocons than to call Obama a pure isolationist.

So if this more "vigorous" international role isn't a constant reach for military force, what is it? Hiatt explains, kind of:

But there are risks to withdrawal as well as to engagement. Only a few years after the United States turned its back on Rwanda, our leaders felt compelled to apologize and ask themselves how they could have let genocide happen. When America last turned its back on Afghanistan, two decades ago, civil war followed, with al-Qaeda close behind. Clinton responded with cruise missile attacks, the 1990s’ equivalent of drone strikes. America learned on 9/11 how inadequate that response had been.

These are two examples (the only ones he cites) where a "vigorous" response is clearly a militarized one. So this is, in fact, exactly what critics of this style of "internationalism" are objecting too. (They should also object to self-styled "internationalists" whose preferred interaction with the world focuses almost exclusively on bombing parts of it.)

Kevin Drum also brings up a vital point: the kinds of interventions that the Hiatt's of the world are urging on the U.S. are the kind that we do badly -- not because Washington is somehow uniquely incompetent but because nation building is extremely hard and resource-intensive. Yet this never seems to figure into Hiatt's calculus.

For the record, I don't see the nomination of either Chuck Hagel or John Kerry as tipping a massive U.S. retreat from the world. I'd venture a guess that almost all U.S. military bases abroad not currently slated for closure or consolidation will still be in operation when they leave. The U.S. will still retain a wide network of ambassadors, will still participate and lead most international organizations, will continue to engage in trade negotiations and will still use lethal force against al-Qaeda in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. There may be a stronger reluctance to start large scale wars with countries absent a clear casus beli, but that's not a "retreat" in any meaningful sense of the word.

January 4, 2013

"Stirring the Pot" and American Exceptionalism

Daniel Larison highlights this passage from Danielle Pletka's overview of the GOP's foreign policy post 2012:

But there’s a deeper difference here as well. Republicans are more willing to upset the global status quo. Not always, to be sure. [bold mine-DL] President Dwight Eisenhower stood by with only murmurs of protest as the people of Hungary were trampled in 1956; President George H.W. Bush did the same decades later after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. But Reagan stirred the pot and worked with like-minded allies to oust communist dictators. Republicans today, I have little doubt, will be more supportive in the event of an Israeli military strike on Iran, more willing to heed the counsel of military commanders in Afghanistan about the timeline for victory and withdrawal, and less willing to show flexibility in the face of Russia’s slide back to authoritarianism.

In the simplest terms, values are what divide us from them and them from us. There are those who believe that American values form a moral imperative for U.S. power in the world -- that because U.S. democracy is among the world's most durable and just, the United States has an obligation (not merely the occasional inclination) to help others attain the benefits of a free society. That is what Republicans have stood for abroad and the distinction they must now again draw with their Democratic counterparts.

There are plenty, many on the left, who oppose the idea of American moral leadership. This is not because they are unpatriotic, self-hating commies (to coin a phrase). Rather, it is because they believe in neither the uniqueness of the American experience nor the superiority of the American system.

One could, I think, quite easily believe the reverse: that America's experience is unique and therefore trying to replicate it throughout the globe by force and coercion is a fool's errand. Believing that America is an exceptional country is not a mandate for a global revolution, even if the most vocal proponents of the idea believe it is.

Then there's the question of whether America's ostensibly conservative political party should endorse "stirring the pot" as a positive foreign policy objective. This kind of attitude -- a revolutionary self-confidence that Washington can work wonders beyond its shores (while, incidentally, abjectly failing at home) -- seems more reactionary than conservative. What's needed is a political party with the wisdom to discern which pots need to be stirred when.

Coming to Grips with the End of the "Two-State Solution"


A recent survey from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs is likely to pour cold water over anyone's hopes for a resumption of the peace process in 2013. It shows an Israeli public deeply skeptical about any possible deal and concerned about the repercussions of the "Arab Spring." (It also indicates that a majority would back a preemptive strike against Iran if the U.S. fails to act.) This helps to explain the right-ward tack of the Israeli electorate, which is poised to deliver as many as 14 parliamentary seats to the hawkish Habayit Hayehudi party, making it the third largest in the Knesset. Combined with Hamas' continued, violent rejectionism and the Palestinian's unilateral strong-arming at the United Nations, the prospects are grim indeed.

This puts Washington in something of a bind. It's the official position of the U.S. and the international community that the Israeli-Palestinian standoff be solved via a negotiated settlement ending in "two states for two peoples." Yet as it becomes clearer that this is not going to happen anytime soon (and certainly not at President Obama's urging), the debate should shift to more realistic questions, such as: if there will be no two state solution, what role should the U.S. play going forward?

(AP Photo)

January 3, 2013

A War in Asia Is Worse than Islamic Terrorism

Clifford May argues that Stratfor's Robert Kaplan is wrong to worry about Asia's brewing nationalism:

Similarly, in Asia, Kaplan sees China, Japan, and other nations “rediscovering nationalism,” undermining the notion that “we live in a post-national age.” He adds: “The disputes in Asia are not about ideology or any uplifting moral philosophy; they are about who gets to control space on the map.” True, but is the revival of such nationalistic sentiment really a crisis or even a major problem? Meanwhile, much more significant, Islamists are offering an alternative to both the old nationalist and the newer post-nationalist models.

It seems self-evident to me that Asia's disputes are considerably more worrisome. Islamists may be offering alternative models to discredited pan-Arab movements, but it doesn't mean the countries they lead (or could lead, if they take power) have much in the way of power or influence on a global scale. We know that when militant Islamist groups take power, the country in question tends to fail (see Afghanistan, Iran, etc.). Egypt's Brotherhood may offer an alternative to Taliban-style militancy, but then it will be stripped of the elements that make it dangerous to Western interests. Islamist governments of the kind May fears produce dysfunction, not global power.

The principle threat Islamism poses to the West is sporadic terrorism. There are some worst-case scenarios which could see sweeping upheaval across the Mideast that deposes the Saudi monarchy and plunges the global energy market into a major crisis. There's also the possibility that terror networks in Syria and Iraq could disrupt regional energy resources. That's clearly a danger, but one that carries the seeds of its own solution -- i.e., the more terrorism disrupts Middle East energy supplies, the faster the globe will transition away from Middle East energy. (A smart political class would be trying to head this off now, by reducing the use of oil -- not just producing more of it domestically -- but that's an argument for another day.)

Switching to Asia, the dynamics are just as combustible but the players far more important. It touches on two U.S. treaty allies, South Korea and Japan. It implicates three of the largest economies in the world (China, Japan, and the United States) as well as major maritime trade routes. The potential for conflict is rife, since unlike the Middle East where every country knows who owns what oil field (for the most part), Asia's untapped resources lie in contested waters. There's just as much history and bad blood among the major players in Asia as there is among the Mideast's various rivals (if not more), but unlike the Mideast, Asian states have advanced militaries.

So I think Kaplan has it right: we should be more concerned with Asia's brewing conflicts than Islamism.

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