« January 2013 | Blog Home Page | March 2013 »

February 28, 2013

Are U.S. Senators Tying America's Hands on Iran?


Senators Lindsey Graham and Bob Menendez are circulating a joint resolution that would, among other things, obligate the United States to assist Israel if it choose to start a war with Iran:

Urges that, if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in self-defense, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.

Hayes Brown clarifies what the bill would and would not mean:

The joint resolution is non-binding and would serve as neither a declaration of war nor an Authorization of the Use of Military Force like the near carte-blanche approval granted to President George W Bush at the onset of the Iraq War. It would, though, serve as an official announcement of U.S. policy to support any Israeli strike, whether the Obama administration had been previously consulted or not.

There are two big questions around the wording here. First, what amounts to "military" assistance? Does it obligate the United States to join Israel in an attack -- in effect, obligating the U.S. to go to war with Iran -- or resupply Israel after the fact?

The second question: what constitutes "self defense"?

In most plausible readings of how an Israeli strike would play it out, it wouldn't happen because Iran was about to launch an imminent nuclear attack but because Israel would feel, on balance, safer if Iran's nuclear facilities were destroyed. It would be a preventative war, self defense broadly defined, foreclosing the possibility that Israel could contain the threat from a nuclear Iran with deterrence.

These seem like a rather important ambiguities that should be resolved before the resolution moves forward.

(AP Photo)

Majority of Americans Want Equal Treatment for Israel, Palestinians but Sympathize More with Israel


A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asked Americans for their thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (page 20). While 31 percent responded that the U.S. should favor Israel over the Palestinians, 55 percent said that the U.S. should "treat both the same." Only four percent wanted to favor the Palestinians over the Israelis.

A related question asked which nation Americans sympathized with: 45 percent said Israel, 13 percent said the Palestinians and 19 percent said neither. Sympathy for Israel stood at 48 percent in 2002 and climbed to 61 percent in 2010, according to the survey.

(AP Photo)

Will Argentina Default (Again)?


Argentina is no stranger to defaulting on its international debt, having defaulted or restructured its loans four times since the 1980s. Today, though, it's at risk of default not because it's unable to pay its creditors but because, as Felix Salmon explains, it's unwilling to pay one in particular:

Argentina has both the willingness and the ability to pay its performing debt. It’s adamant, however, that it’s not going to pay $1.4 billion to Elliott Associates, a hedge fund which has been prosecuting a highly-aggressive litigation strategy against the country, based on the fact that it holds defaulted debt and refused to exchange that debt for performing bonds. Depending on where you sit, Argentina’s refusal to pay off Elliott is either noble or foolish. But after two and a half hours of highly contentious oral testimony in federal appeals court today, it’s pretty clear that the US courts aren’t going to allow Argentina to stay current on its performing debt — not unless the country also writes a ten-figure check to Elliott. Which means that we’re headed straight for default, with almost no realistic chance of avoiding it.

The case is being watched closely as it could have a significant impact on global debt markets.

(AP Photo)

Hollande Least Popular French President in a Generation


Bad news for France's socialist President Francois Hollande: he's wracked up the lowest approval rating of any president since 1981, according to a poll published by Le Figaro.

Hollande's support has been on the decline as France's economic woes have risen. Unemployment in France is at a 15-year high and its service sector is shrinking rapidly. Financial analysts are increasingly alarmed about the sharp divergence between the French and German economies.

The thus-far successful war in Mali has not provided any political lift to Hollande, proving that "it's the economy, stupid" is a trans-Atlantic truism.

(AP Photo)

February 27, 2013

Japanese Minister Knows One Thing: Japan Will Never Stop Eating Whales


For the last several years, Japan's whaling industry has come under increasingly intense international criticism from countries like Australia. Japanese whalers are also engaged in a quasi-war with a group called the Sea Shepherds -- a self-styled conservation group that has been attacking Japanese whaling boats in an effort to end the practice (just this week a U.S. court labelled the group as pirates for their aggressive tactics).

Yoshimasa Hayashi, Japan's newly appointed fisheries minister, will brook no criticism of the country's whaling practices. He told the AFP that criticism of whaling amounted to "prejudice against Japanese culture.... In some countries they eat dogs, like Korea. In Australia they eat kangaroos. We don't eat those animals, but we don't stop them from doing that because we understand that's their culture."

He also vowed that Japanese will never stop eating whale meat. But just how much whale meat do the Japanese eat? Australia's ABC estimates that only five percent of the population regularly consumes the stuff. There is reportedly 5,000 tons worth of whale meat simply lying around in cold storage.

Meanwhile, the whaling industry itself is struggling to stay profitable, relying on costly injections of government subsidies to stay afloat (if you will).

(AP Photo)

Australian Muslim Activists Were Writing Hate Mail to Dead Soldier's Families


An Australian court yesterday rejected a case of two Muslim activists who claimed they had a right to send "offensive letters" to families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan. The letters in question apparently criticized Australia's involvement in the war and condemned the fallen soldiers.

According to the AP, Australia doesn't have an equivalent to the First Amendment, which may have protected such letters on the grounds that they were political speech, but Australian courts have held for decades that the country's "constitution contains an implied right to free speech because such political communication is essential to democracy."

Australia does have a law about using the postal service "to communicate a message that 'reasonable persons would regard as being, in all the circumstances, menacing, harassing or offensive.'"

Still, as offensive as these letters undoubtedly are, should Australia really punish the senders? The two men face a maximum of 26 and 16 years in prison, respectively.

(Photo: AAP)

Three Reasons Not to Arm Syria's Rebels


The Washington Post reports today that the Obama administration is moving to equip rebel factions inside Syria with body armor, armored vehicles, military training and medical aid. While Obama has not moved as swiftly as many would like, his administration is moving America deeper and deeper into Syria's civil war. The next, logical step in the administration's incremental intervention is passing arms to the rebels. Here are three reasons why it's a mistake:

1. The U.S. cannot contain the aftermath. The struggle for a post-Assad Syria does not end with the dictator's downfall -- it begins. Simply arming various rebel factions does nothing to stabilize or secure a post-war Syria, nor ensure that any of the governing institutions these factions would control are up to the task of bringing order to the entire country. The U.S. struggled with over 100,000 troops in Iraq to restore order and bring some semblance of governance to the country. It would likely fare no better in Syria.

2. Weapons are fungible. The notion that the U.S. can simply provide weapons only to the 'good guys' in the Syrian war is a fantasy. Weapons, like cash, are a fungible commodity. There is nothing to stop those weapons from moving between groups once they are inside the country. The upshot is that any weapons the U.S. provides could end up in the hands of jihadists bent on future attacks against U.S. and Western interests.

3. It opens the door to deeper involvement. Even though President Obama has been reluctant to throw the full weight of the U.S. behind the effort to unseat the Assad regime, Washington's involvement in the civil war has crept steadily forward -- egged on by a cohort of analysts and politicians whose advice on the Iraq war proved disastrous for the United States. As the U.S. takes additional steps to involve itself in Syria's civil war, the logic and momentum of even deeper intervention will take hold.

(AP Photo)

February 26, 2013

China's Officials Are Killing Themselves -- And the Chinese Are Laughing About It


According to the Economic Observer, in the past two months three local Communist officials have killed themselves, joining a "growing number of high-ranking officials" who have committed suicide.

Published reports in China's state-run media typically attributed the deaths to depression but the public's reaction has been anything but sympathetic. The Observer noted that Internet users have taken to ridiculing the dead in part because the official reaction to these suicides has been so ham-fisted, with vague and elusive statements regarding the cause of death.

In some cases, such statements are clearly untenable. In 2011, Xie Yexin, an anti-corruption official, was found dead in his office with eleven stab wounds. After a "meticulous investigation," the authorities declared that Xie killed himself.

(AP Photo)

Meno Male Che Silvio C'è

Francesco Giumelli and Davide Maneschi explain why Italians keep voting for Silvio Berlusconi:

Italian voters have always been attracted by the uomo forte, the strong man, a charismatic leader who is capable of singlehandedly solving the country’s problems.

This happened with Mussolini in the 1920s, but the popularity of other figures such as the late Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, the late Communist leader Enrico Berlinguer and more recently the comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo can to a certain extent be explained by Italy’s fascination with the charismatic figure who makes promises of progress and prosperity. Italians find these strong men attractive even when they cut corners in the democratic process.

With his ever-young look, elegant attire and almost shameless show of wealth, Berlusconi effortlessly fits the image of the uomo forte.

The unintentionally hysterical pro-Berlusconi party video/musical number above is brought to us by the very talented Joel Weckgenant. Follow him on Twitter for the latest -- and some of the smartest -- analysis on the Italian election.

Why America's Military Will Shrink


Voters want it to:

As the clock ticks down on any possibility of averting the sequester’s across-the-board spending cuts, a solid 58 percent of respondents in The Hill Poll prioritized cutting America’s debt over maintaining current spending levels on domestic and military programs. This figure is almost double the share of voters, 28 percent, who believed the opposite....

Forty-nine percent of respondents said they would support cutting military spending, while just 23 percent said they would support slashing Social Security and Medicare. An overwhelming majority, 69 percent, said they would oppose cuts to social programs.

The Army, for one, is preparing for a leaner future. According to Sydney Freedberg, the service is looking to slim down below 32 combat brigades and 490,00 personnel.

(AP Photo)

Top House Democrat Wants to Arm Syrian Rebels

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) thinks it's a good idea to dump weapons into Syria. Engel evidently believes the U.S. has a "choice" between brokering a peace deal with Russia and Assad, or precipitating the Assad regime's violent collapse.

Engel does not offer any evidence to support the proposition that arming the rebels will produce an outcome amenable to American interests -- this is now apparently simply assumed on faith.

In other Syrian news, the Saudis are reportedly funneling infantry weapons from Croatia into Syria. Not to worry though: they're only giving those weapons to "secular" and "nationalists" groups -- and not jihadists. According to an unnamed CIA official, the rebellion against Assad remains "fragmented" and "operationally incoherent."

Maybe someone should tell Rep. Engel.

This May Be the First Instagram Image from North Korea


The Associated Press's Jean Lee has taken what is believed to be the first Instagram photo from inside North Korea. The country's telecom operator Koryolink recently allowed foreigners to access mobile data services.

According to Jon Russell, North Korea has recently relaxed some rules regarding foreigners and technology following a visit from Google's Chairmen Eric Schmidt.

(Photo: Jean Lee/Jon Russell)

February 25, 2013

Boris Johnson Proves He Is the Master of Jelly-Based Insults

London's voluble Mayor Boris Johnson made a bit of scene yesterday in an appearance before the London Assembly. After the assembly voted not to debate his budget amendment and requested that Johnson leave the hearing, he berated them as "great supine, protoplasmic invertebrate jellies."

This was the second time in a week that Johnson hurled a gelatinous insult at an opponent. At a campaign stop last week, Johnson branded the Liberal Democrats as "great big wobbling jellies."

Iran's Middle Class Feels the Pinch: Are Sanctions Working or Failing?


Hason Rezain reports from Iran that international sanctions are hitting the Iranian middle class, who are beginning to complain loudly about the collapse of the Iranian currency. The middle class is feeling the pinch in part because the Iranian regime is targeting the poor for subsidies and cash payments as the economy craters.

Thus far, the hit to the middle class seems to come in the form of foreign luxury goods -- cell phones, tablets, cosmetics, etc. Iranians are also less able to travel abroad, proof that sanctions are, if nothing else, beginning to isolate Iranians from the outside world.

The big question is where blame for this deprivation will fall. If more Iranians end up blaming the U.S. and Western powers for their hardships, the sanctions regime could backfire (especially if it fails to actually stop Iran from obtaining some nuclear weapons capability). If the current regime takes the blame, it could catalyze a revolt -- which is clearly the hope of the world powers currently arrayed against Iran.

Gallup data from earlier this month showed that the vast majority of Iranians blamed the U.S. for the sanctions targeting their country (47 percent). Only 10 percent blamed their own government.

According to a new report from the International Crisis Group, Iranian leaders are likely to respond to sanctions not by modifying their nuclear program but by modifying their domestic economy to adapt. As they do so, the report warns, the current regime could become more entrenched as it becomes the key economic player determining who gets what inside Iran.

The report is not completely hostile to sanctions, however. It notes that sanctions can be an effective means in getting Iran to the table and that absent the sanctions regime, Iran may have made even more progress on its nuclear program than it has to date.

(AP Photo)

Norway's "Cushy" Prisons May Actually Work


When Norway's Ander Breivek went on his horrendous killing spree, many Americans were surprised to discover that Norway's criminal justice system was, by U.S. standards, remarkably soft. There are no life sentences, no death penalty and a prisoner can serve a maximum of 21 years in prison (a sentence that can be re-upped if the prisoner's release is deemed a threat to the community).

Conditions inside some of Norway's prisons are equally liberal. One such prison on the island of Bastoy offers cells with TVs, computers and showers. Inmates can hike, swim and fish on the island. The inmates, murderers among them, work outdoors, often wielding knives, chainsaws and axes -- but never turn those weapons on each other.

Yet, as Erwin James writes, Norway's rate of recidivism is the lowest in Europe. Indeed, according to European researchers, while Europe as a whole has recidivism rates of 70 to 75 percent, prisoners who serve time in Bastoy have a re-offending rate of just 16 percent.

This seems to run contrary to public wisdom about prisons, which is that they should be so awful that no prisoner wants to return.

Among the reasons cited for Bastoy's success was the fact that all prisoners have to work and are treated humanely. "'Bastoy takes the opposite approach to a conventional prison where prisoners are given no responsibility, locked up, fed and treated like animals and eventually end up behaving like animals," Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, the prison's governor, told the Daily Mail. "Here you are given personal responsibility and a job and asked to deal with all the challenges that entails. It is an arena in which the mind can heal, allowing prisoners to gain self-confidence, establish respect for themselves and in so doing respect for others too."

(Photo: Astrid Westvang/Flickr)

Americans Think the World Thinks Better of Them


Americans are increasingly satisfied with how their country is viewed in the world, according to Gallup's U.S. Global Status Index.

The country's satisfaction with its global status is the highest it's been since 2006, but the index itself (which is based on three questions pertaining to America's global status) shows key variations. While Americans are happier with their country's perception in the world, they have consistently lost faith in the proposition that other leaders respect President Obama -- although the current president still rates significantly higher on this score than his predecessor during the depths of the Iraq war.

Americans on the whole are also still largely unsatisfied with their position in the world. What's a superpower to do?


(AP Photo)

How Israel Survives in a Tough Neighborhood

A new film documenting the careers of six directors of Shin Bet, Israel's internal security force, is making waves (although it didn't win an Oscar). Dubbed the Gatekeepers, it was created by the Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh and features extensive interviews with six ex-directors of Israel's famed security service. It details some of the service's most sensitive episodes, such as the assassination of a Hamas leader with an exploding cell phone. It also chronicles the men's frustration with Israeli politicians and their sense that the occupation has left Israel strategically adrift.

One thing that's immediately clear from early reviews of the film is that none of the leaders of Shin Bet could ever be a U.S. defense secretary. Here, for instance, is Avraham Shalom, a Shin Bet director who, among other things, captured Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, discussing Israel:

"We've become cruel. To ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupied population." Our army has become "a brutal occupation force, similar to the Germans in World War II. Similar, not identical."

Shalom was referring to Nazi persecution of non-Jewish minorities but it's still a shocking quote, considering the source. Indeed, Asawin Suebsaeng collects several more examples that would immediately land a U.S. politician in hot water.

Beyond the controversial rhetoric, Moreh is being widely praised for bringing an extremely secretive side of Israel's fight for survival to light. At least in the U.S. In Israel, the film has received a more muted reaction.

February 23, 2013

Understanding the Sources of Japan-China Tensions

Watch China Looms as Main Concern in Obama and Abe Meeting on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Mike Mochizuki, associate dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, was on the NewsHour yesterday and gave an interesting overview of the rising tensions between China and Japan.

February 22, 2013

Can the U.S. Bring Order to an Unruly World?


Patrick Doherty is worried about the current trajectory of global politics:

Abroad, Washington's post-Cold War pattern of episodic adventurism and incremental crisis management only creates further uncertainty, and rising powers will not lead. Other major economies have little appetite for altering the global order and hence are doubling down on the old system, exacerbating trade imbalances and driving record resource extraction. As commodity prices rise, global powers are hedging ever more aggressively -- stockpiling resources and increasingly becoming entangled in conflicts in resource-rich areas. As the global economy falters, unrest rises and the great unresolved conflicts of the 20th century -- the Middle East, South Asia, North Korea, Taiwan -- grow increasingly enmeshed in the power dynamics of this new era.

Simply put, the current U.S. and international order is unsustainable, and myriad disruptions signal that it is now in a process of collapse. Until the United States implements a new grand strategy, the country will face even more rapid degradation of domestic and global conditions.

Doherty goes on to outline his view of what a workable U.S. strategy should be and I encourage you to read it in full. But here I just want to put in a kind word for "incremental crisis management."

It's very popular in foreign policy punditry circles to call for a grand strategy, or complain that a given administration lacks one (or lacks a good one). I've done it myself. But there is also something to be said for "incremental crisis management," particularly when the alternative is untenable, as I suspect Doherty's might be.

Any global strategy advanced by Washington is going to encounter hundreds, if not thousands, of variables that cannot be predicted or adequately controlled for. A year before 9/11, almost no serious "grand strategist" would have argued for the complete realignment of the U.S. national security bureaucracy to chase some guys in a cave in Afghanistan. (The Bush administration spurned the poor guy who proposed a more vigorous effort against al-Qaeda in the pre-9/11 months.)

In other words, efforts at concocting a very elaborate grand strategy are one unexpected crisis away from being rendered laughably obsolete.

But incremental crisis management has something going for it, particularly in the world that Doherty describes. Translated from bureaucratic speak, it simply means responding to events as they occur in a manner that may not "solve" a problem, but does enough to mitigate the worst harm to the United States. In other words, it's about being flexible and not having a rigid template. In a world that is being beset by a series of challenges -- some envisioned, others not -- with the global distribution of power and influence in flux, it's not a bad idea. In such an instance, a new global order will emerge on an ad-hoc basis -- which it is likely to do anyway, no matter what strategy Washington pursues.

(AP Photo)

U.S. Defense Cuts Will Hit Israel, Too


As the U.S. Congress wrangles over spending, many in Israel's defense establishment are beginning to tally up the potential costs if the sequester goes through:

The pending US budget sequester on March 1, 2013, is liable to reduce military aid to Israel by over $700 million in the 2013 fiscal year, pro-Israeli sources in Washington told "Globes". The cut includes a $250 million reduction in current aid, which is due to total $3.15 billion, and the possible loss of all financial aid for joint US-Israeli missile defense programs, amounting to $479 million, for a total of $729 million in reduced aid. In the best case, if the aid for anti-missile programs is only reduced, rather than eliminated, Israel will lose $300 million in aid.

(AP Photo)

February 21, 2013

The 22 Ways al-Qaeda Dodges Drones


As al-Qaeda-linked militants fled the French assault in Mali, they left behind a trove of documents. The AP got their hands on some and discovered a list of tips that al-Qaeda circulated to its fighters on how to avoid being vaporized by drones.

So, what's their advice? Here it is in full:

1 – It is possible to know the intention and the mission of the drone by using the Russianmade “sky grabber” device to infiltrate the drone’s waves and the frequencies. The device
is available in the market for $2,595 and the one who operates it should be a computerknow-how.
2 – Using devices that broadcast frequencies or pack of frequencies to disconnect the
contacts and confuse the frequencies used to control the drone. The Mujahideen have had
successful experiments using the Russian-made “Racal.”
3 – Spreading the reflective pieces of glass on a car or on the roof of the building.
4 – Placing a group of skilled snipers to hunt the drone, especially the reconnaissance
ones because they fly low, about six kilometers or less.
5 – Jamming of and confusing of electronic communication using the ordinary water-lifting
dynamo fitted with a 30-meter copper pole.
6 – Jamming of and confusing of electronic communication using old equipment and
keeping them 24-hour running because of their strong frequencies and it is possible using
simple ideas of deception of equipment to attract the electronic waves devices similar to
that used by the Yugoslav army when they used the microwave (oven) in attracting and
confusing the NATO missiles fitted with electromagnetic searching devices.
7 – Using general confusion methods and not to use permanent headquarters.
8 – Discovering the presence of a drone through well-placed reconnaissance networks and
to warn all the formations to halt any movement in the area.
9 – To hide from being directly or indirectly spotted, especially at night.
10 – To hide under thick trees because they are the best cover against the planes.
11 – To stay in places unlit by the sun such as the shadows of the buildings or the trees.
12 – Maintain complete silence of all wireless contacts.
13 – Disembark of vehicles and keep away from them especially when being chased or
during combat.
14 – To deceive the drone by entering places of multiple entrances and exits.
15 – Using underground shelters because the missiles fired by these planes are usually of
the fragmented anti-personnel and not anti-buildings type.
16 – To avoid gathering in open areas and in urgent cases, use building of multiple doors
or exits.
17 – Forming anti-spies groups to look for spies and agents.
18 – Formation of fake gatherings such as using dolls and statutes to be placed outside
false ditches to mislead the enemy.
19 – When discovering that a drone is after a car, leave the car immediately and everyone
should go in different direction because the planes are unable to get after everyone.
20 – Using natural barricades like forests and caves when there is an urgent need for
training or gathering.
21 – In frequently targeted areas, use smoke as cover by burning tires.
22 – As for the leaders or those sought after, they should not use communications
equipment because the enemy usually keeps a voice tag through which they can identify
the speaking person and then locate him.

(AP Photo)

France Embraces the Rumsfeld Doctrine


French defense analyst Murielle Delaporte writes that France took an almost Rumsfeldian approach to the war in Mali:

The French approach is very much about how to intervene and to trigger coalition operations in order to stabilize the situation with regional partners, rather than to simply stay in place for a long time.

It is "shock and awe" to deter the enemy and to trigger space for coalition success, not "shock and awe" for the sake of staying.

France has obviously learned the lessons of both Afghanistan and Iraq, which is that foreign "stabilization" forces (particularly from the country responsible for initiating hostilities) end up getting bogged down in costly insurgencies.

The current French approach won't necessarily lead to a Mali that is unified and stable, but given a choice between a chaotic Mali with hundreds of dead militants and no French occupation force and a Mali with an on-the-march Islamist movement steadily making gains, it's a pretty clear choice. The trick, of course, is in the getting out. France currently has its full contingent (roughly 4,000 troops) in the country -- and they're still battling Islamist rebels.

(AP Photo)

How Syria's Rebels Resupply Themselves

Al Jazeera's Casey Kauffman reports from rebel-controlled Syria on how smuggling lines in the mountains are keeping the rebellion against Assad alive.

Russia's "Culture of Mistrust"


Leonid Bershidsky argues that the recent meteor that exploded over Russia has revealed the country's "culture of mistrust." Shortly after the explosion, Bershidsky writes, Russians across the political spectrum began voicing conspiracy theories about the true nature of the blast. Some speculated it was an American weapon, others, a Russian. The widespread use of dashboard cameras that recorded the epic explosion are another testament to Russia's mistrust, he added. Russian citizens use these cameras because they cannot trust the police or other eyewitnesses during car accidents.

Bershidsky doesn't highlight why Russians may be particularly prone to distrusting their officials, but does offer some additional evidence about the lack of trust:

Why the trust deficit? Sociologist Lev Gudkov cited research showing that in 2008, only 27 percent of Russians agreed that people were generally to be trusted, while 68 percent were in favor of caution. In the U.S., 42 percent trusted their fellow citizens, and 57 percent believed them relatively untrustworthy.

Whatever the reason, it goes well beyond astronomical phenomena. Just today, Russia's central bank governor, Sergei Ignatiev, complained that $49 billion, or 2.5 percent of the country's economic output, had left the country illegally in 2012. Ignatiev speculated to a Russian newspaper that the money could have been used to pay for drugs, bribes or simply to avoid taxes.

(AP Photo)

February 20, 2013

How China Killed One Billion Japanese Last Year


They've done it at the movies:

Nearly one billion Japanese soldiers or enemies were killed off in TV productions filmed last year at Hengdian World Studios, the studio facilities known as the Hollywood of China, the Guangdong-based Yangcheng Evening News reports, suggesting that Chinese TV audiences like to achieve some degree of catharsis for their anti-Japanese sentiment with a high body count of enemy combatants in historical dramas.

As this figure breaks down as 2.7 million deaths per day for 365 days — a rate of over 30 per second — it seems reasonable to assume that most of these "deaths" occurred off-screen — or that this represents the cumulative total of every death in every series broadcast on myriad domestic networks. Put it this way: somewhere on Chinese television right now, Japanese people are being killed. And probably in large numbers.

In 2012, out of the more than 200 TV series broadcast on national networks, more than 70 of them had a wartime or anti-Japanese theme, more than any other "genre." The trend is definitely set to continue this year, said the newspaper.

The Yangcheng Evening News looks a bit like China's equivalent of the UK's Sun paper, so we shouldn't take these figures as authoritative.

(Photo: Reuters)

U.S. CEO Blasts French Work Ethic


Maurice Taylor is the CEO of Titan International, a tire dealership (he also ran for President of the United States in 1996). Mr. Taylor had evidently been in talks with the French about taking over a Goodyear plant there. It seems Mr. Taylor was none too impressed with the French work ethic, according to a letter he wrote to a French minister which has since become public:

I have visited the factory a couple of times. The French workforce gets paid high wages but works only three hours. They get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three, and work for three. I told this to the French union workers to their faces. They told me that's the French way!

The Chinese are shipping tires into France – really all over Europe – and yet you do nothing. In five years, Michelin won't be able to produce tire in France. France will lose its industrial business because government is more government.

Sir, your letter states you want Titan to start a discussion. How stupid do you think we are? Titan is the one with money and talent to produce tires. What does the crazy union have? It has the French government.

Not very diplomatic, is he?

(Photo: Titan)

Americans Don't Want Their Government Spreading Democracy (But Do Want it Fighting Terrorism)


What do Americans want their government to be doing abroad? According to a new survey from Gallup, the answer is resoundingly "preventing future acts of international terrorism." What ranked as the least important priority (from the choices given)? "Helping other countries build democracies."

Here's the full list:


Gallup has polled these priorities five times since 2001 and found only a slight variation in Americans' stated preferences. The issue of securing of energy supplies has shifted steadily up the priority scale since 2003.

(AP Photo)

Why a Nuclear Iran Won't Trigger a Regional Arms Race


Perhaps the biggest potential danger of a nuclear-armed Iran is the prospect of other states in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, seek their own weapons. Even those prone to avoid hysterical fear-mongering over Iran, like Henry Kissinger, worry about the potential for a rash of proliferation following Iran's nuclear breakout.

The Center for a New American Security is out with a report this week (PDF) arguing that if Iran does manage to build a nuclear weapon, it won't catalyze a wave of nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East. The report centers specifically on Saudi Arabia, arguing that the conventional wisdom surrounding the country's incentives to seek nukes is "probably wrong," as "significant disincentives would weigh against a mad rush by Riyadh to develop nuclear weapons."

The report's authors argue that there are considerable technological, legal and political hurdles that stand between Saudi Arabia and a bomb. Instead, Riyadh would run to Washington for help deterring Iran, relying on the U.S. nuclear umbrella and additional assurances (such as the basing of additional "trip wire" forces in the region) instead.

The authors also pour cold water over the idea that Pakistan would simply sell nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia, writing that Pakistan views its nuclear arsenal solely through the lens of deterring India. Pan-Islamic solidarity isn't a big enough motivator to run the risks involved in selling those weapons to another state, they write. There is some small possibility that Pakistan would extend a "nuclear umbrella" to Saudi Arabia, but even that prospect was deemed highly unlikely by CNAS given the costs and difficulties it would entail.

Earlier this week, Peter Jones, a professor at the University of Ottawa and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, made a similar argument, claiming that expectations of rapid nuclear proliferation in the Middle East are belied by the actual history of how states behave in the nuclear age. Granted, the nuclear age isn't all that long and taking an overly deterministic view of how the Middle East would react could be equally blinkered. But it's still worth noting that most of the potential candidates for acquiring a nuclear weapon are either close U.S. allies (Jordan, Saudi Arabia) or too dysfunctional (Egypt) to manage it.

Yet, as the CNAS authors make clear, the policy most likely to avert nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is the extension of U.S. security guarantees and the positioning of more forward-deployed military assets. That's also problematic, given how such deployments provoke anti-Americanism, waste American tax dollars and draw Washington's strategic focus from Asia. Maybe some clever strategist could devise a way to make this China's problem, given the fact that they are far more reliant on Middle Eastern oil than the U.S. is.

(AP Photo)

February 19, 2013

The Silent Weapon in the War Against the Taliban: Viagra


Counterinsurgency, we're frequently told, is a battle for "hearts and minds." In Afghanistan, British and American forces have evidently concluded that one way to win a man's heart is through his pants.

Writing in Newsweek, Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai detail how one British Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand embarked on a campaign to win over local mullahs by plying them with clothing, food and medicine. As "Operation Mullah" unfolded and the Brits began to earn the trust of local clerics, they received additional requests:

It was not long before some imams even began to take team members into their confidence and to disclose their most personal complaints, such as their sexual debilities. The answer to the imams’ pleas: Viagra. “We hesitantly gave Viagra to a few mullahs,” says the adviser. “And after a few months they were all demanding the drug, so we began ordering and distributing large quantities.”
This story, alas, does not have a happy ending, at least for the British. After taking these Viagra-popping imams on a tour of the UK (to show how Muslims live and worship freely in the West) they were reportedly dismayed to hear the clerics refer to the British and Americans as "invaders" who would soon be driven out of Afghanistan.

This isn't the first time Viagra has been used in an attempt to win Afghans over to their Western occupiers. The CIA reportedly plied friendly warlords with the drug as payback for tips on the Taliban's whereabouts. Viagra was preferred to cash because, as one CIA operator told the Washington Post, a warlord's sudden extravagance would be noticeable and instantly suspect. His prowess and nocturnal stamina, less so (unless he suffered one of the dreaded side effects).

Not surprisingly, the Taliban are less enthusiastic about the stuff. Just last week, the Pakistani Taliban warned shopkeepers in the Khyber region to stop selling Viagra and "obscene films."

(Photo: Pfizer)

Can a Facebook Game End the Global Sex Slave Trade?

The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof and author Shery WuDunn are attempting to raise awareness of the global trade in sex slaves through an unorthodox method: they've created a Facebook game about it.

Dubbed Half the Sky, the game is backed by an A-list of corporate sponsors and philanthropic interests like the Ford Foundation and Zynga (the creators of Farmville). The more you play, the more charitable donations you unlock.

Why Hagel Is Generating Such Sound and Fury


Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan make the case that one reason Hagel's nomination has become such a hot potato is because he symbolizes the Obama administration's pivot away from the Middle East. Here's how Marshall puts it:

Let’s start with what we might incompletely call the Bush/neoconservative approach. It is a belligerent unilateralism, a vision based on an abundantly powerful and yet deeply endangered America, and — very significantly — one that sees almost all the big issues and future security of the country emanating out of the zone of conflict stretching from North Africa into Pakistan. In other words, it’s about oil, Islam, the Middle East and Israel.

The people around Obama have a different take on goals, threats and tactics. It’s not just that we can’t continue — either in security or fiscal terms — with open-ended occupations of Middle Eastern countries or hapless efforts to ‘transform the region’. It’s that the Middle East is fundamentally more yesterday’s news than tomorrow’s and that we need to be in the business of making it more yesterday rather than less.

There are multiple lines of attack against Hagel, so I don't know if there's really one meta answer for why his nomination has generated such controversy. Still, Marshall makes an interesting point.

(AP Photo)

February 18, 2013

Global Arms Firms See Sales Decline


The global arms industry saw its dollar sales decline in 2011, down five percent from 2010, according to new data from the Stockholm Institute (China is excluded from Stockholm's research due to a lack of available data). It's the first such drop since 1994.

The Institute has created a "top 100" in the global arms and military services industry. Of those, there are 44 American firms responsible for 60 percent of total arms sales. There are 30 Western European companies which account for 29 percent of all sales.

In total, the top 100 firms generated $410 billion in sales in 2011.

So why did arms sales dip? Stockholm cited the impact of austerity budgets in Europe and the draw downs in both Iraq and Afghanistan as driving factors.

The world is not engaging in a rush of disarmament, however. Since 2002, Stockholm notes that arms sales by its top 100 firms grew 51 percent. A five percent year-over-year declines seems rather modest in comparison.

(AP Photo)

Five Things Americans Fear the Most


What do Americans fear most? When it comes to America's international security interests, the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs are deemed most threatening, according to a new survey from Gallup. Americans were giving a list of nine developments and asked to rank them from more to less critical. Here are the top five threats Americans say are most critical:

1. The nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea (tied for first)
2. International terrorism
3. Islamic fundamentalism
4. The economic power of China
5. The military power of China

The poll was conducted before North Korea's most recent nuclear test.

Other issues that had previously ranked higher -- such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and tensions between India-Pakistan -- have declined.

Here's a look at the full list of Gallup's results:


(AP Photo)

Cleric in Britain Lives on Benefits, or "Jihad Seeker's Allowance"


Firebrand preacher Anjem Choudary was secretly filmed by the UK paper The Sun, urging his followers to get on Britain's welfare system or, as he dubbed it, claim their "jihad seeker's allowance."

As the Daily Telegraph noted, Choudary receives 25,000 pounds a year from the British government. But he's not grateful for the help:

Choudary, who has been banned twice from running organisations under the Terrorism Act, told an audience at a community centre in Bethnal Green, East London, that David Cameron, Barack Obama and the leaders of Pakistan and Egypt were the devil (shaitan) and should be killed.

“What ultimately do we want to happen to them?” asked Choudary. “Maybe I’m the only one who wants the shaitan to be killed. The shaitan should be finished. There should be no shaitan.

“Democracy, freedom, secularism, the parliament, all the MPs and the Presidents, all the kuffar’s ideas, everything the people worship, we have to believe that they are bad and we have got to reject them.”

He later insisted that he never urged anyone to kill people.

(AP Photo)

Why Elderly South Koreans Are Killing Themselves


South Korea's 65-plus population has seen a nearly fourfold increase in suicides in recent years, according to the New York Times. In 2000, 1,161 elderly Koreans committed suicide. In 2010, that number surged to 4,378 -- one of the highest elderly suicide rates in the develop world.

According to the Times' Choe Sang-hun, one reason for the desperation of South Korea's elderly is the fraying of a "Confucian social contract" where parents depleted their savings in an effort to propel their children into the world only to rely on those same children for care in their later years:

But as South Korea’s hard-charging younger generations joined an exodus from farms to cities in recent decades, or simply found themselves working harder in the hypercompetitive environment that helped drive the nation’s economic miracle, their parents were often left behind. Many elderly people now live out their final years poor, in rural areas with the melancholy feel of ghost towns.

Such social shifts are not uncommon in the industrialized world. But the sudden change has proved especially wrenching in South Korea, where parents view their sacrifices as the equivalent of a pension plan and where those who are suffering are falling victim to changes they themselves helped unleash as they rebuilt the economy from the devastation of the Korean War.

(AP Photo)

February 15, 2013

Corruption in India Has Reached Shocking Levels

India is widely praised in the U.S. as being a model democracy. But an eye-opening investigation by the BBC reveals a darker underside -- a country where corruption and criminality are pervasive among the country's political elite.

How bad is it? According to the BBC, almost one third of India's elected politicians are under investigation for criminal charges. Some of those charges include rape and murder. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, that figure climbs to 50 percent of politicians.

These are absolutely staggering figures.

India ranks 94th out of 176 nations in Transparency International's corruption perceptions survey.

Are U.S. Bases in Saudi Arabia No Longer Inflammatory?


Last week, both the New York Times and Washington Post revealed the existence of a secret U.S. drone base operating inside Saudi Arabia. The news raised eyebrows because it was the existence of U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia during the 1990s that figured so prominently in Osama bin Laden's jihad against the United States. That the Obama administration would blithely drop another U.S. base into the country without regard for the potentially negative symbolism could, as Tom Engelhardt argues, be a sign of sheer stupidity. Max Fischer, however, isn't so sure, noting that since the revelation, reaction has been rather tame:

It is difficult to draw many conclusions from this one incident, but it does suggest several interesting possibilities. Perhaps, for example, there is something categorically different, for Saudi citizens, between a large number of U.S. troops and a relatively small drone base, which makes the latter less significantly offensive than the former. Maybe there have been so many hints and suggestions of such a base that people had time to get used to the idea.

Or maybe something about Saudi Arabia has changed during the past 20 years, such that what might have once caused wide public outrage no longer does. It is still an austere, deeply conservative and politically oppressive country, but it has not been totally immune from the Middle East’s two turbulent and ideologically charged decades.

It's obviously too soon to draw a firm conclusion, but it points to the underlying and probably unanswerable issue with the drone war: is it radicalizing more people than it is killing? Everything we know about the Obama administration's counter-terrorism policy suggests that they prioritize taking immediate action at the risk of long-term damage vs. enduring heightened risk in the short-term with the promise (hope) of mitigating the danger of jihadism over the long term.

It's hard to blame them for this approach -- there is no incentive for politicians to take the long view on this (or any) issue. Only time will tell if it was the right approach.

(Satellite photos of possible U.S. drone base in Saudi Arabia, via Wired)

Is China Cooking the Books?


Outside observers have long complained about the quality of official economic statistics from China but according to Asia Sentinel, the disconnect between what multinational corporations are reporting from China and what the Communist party is touting is growing sharper:

The assembled date, Walker says, indicate that 2012 was significantly weaker than either 2008 or 2009, even though the official GDP numbers show only a marginal tapering off.

"Demand in the real economy was as weak as the picture painted by our PMI and electricity production indicators," Walker writes. "Tax receipts and corporate earnings, not to mention what we know of cash flows in the first half of last year, also indicate the slowest economy in the last half decade, and not by a marginal amount."

Most of these figures show that the boom most China Bulls discovered in the second half of 2012, and the fourth quarter in particular, isn't there.

The Walker quoted above is Dr. John Walker of Asianomics. He has pegged China's real growth rate for 2013 at between zero and four percent. Official Chinese estimates are closer to eight percent.

(AP Photo)

Watch a Meteorite Explode over Russia

Over 500 people in Russia have been injured by an exploding meteorite that exploded over the skies of western Siberia this morning. Most of the wounded appear to be hurt by breaking glass. The story is still fluid, but the video above gives you a sense of what it looked like from the ground.

February 14, 2013

The Next Thing to Worry About: Drug-resistant Tuberculosis Plague


There's no shortage of things to get your stomach in knots over, but just in case you were casting about in search of something fresh, researchers have found a "totally drug-resistant" strain of tuberculosis in South Africa that could kill an unspecified (but potentially large) number of people if it spreads unchecked. One virulent strain of TB broke out in New York in the 1980s and killed 90 percent of the people who contracted it. It's not clear if this current strain packs a similar punch, but researchers are reportedly working over time to study and contain it.

Besides from the obvious public health consequences, a recent report in Reuters noted that a global pandemic would cost the global economy billions. China took a $14.8 billion hit from the SARS virus, which also reduced global GDP by $33 billion, according to the World Bank. Let's hope it doesn't come to that...

(AP Photo)

Has Obama Lost Pakistan?


In his State of the Union address earlier this week, President Barack Obama had this to say about U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the (mostly) Muslim world:

Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. Different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.

As we do, we must enlist our values in the fight. That is why my Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.

One place left unmentioned in the president's address was Pakistan, where a recent Gallup poll indicates that disapproval of U.S. leadership is at an all-time high:

With President Barack Obama's first term characterized by strained relations between Pakistan and the U.S., more than nine in 10 Pakistanis (92%) disapprove of U.S. leadership and 4% approve, the lowest approval rating Pakistanis have ever given.
Pakistanis now more than at any other time in the past three years feel threatened by interaction with the West, according to a May 12-June 6, 2012, survey. A majority (55%) say interaction between Muslim and Western societies is "more of a threat," up significantly from 39% in 2011. This sharp increase is observed at a time of heightened Pakistani concerns regarding U.S. encroachment on Pakistani sovereignty, including an intensified number of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, as well as the aforementioned May 2011 killing of bin Laden by the United States military.

Enlisting "values" in the fight against terrorism is all well and good, but values projection isn't a direct marketing campaign. American values are understood abroad not through rhetoric, but through policy. While drones are certainly a more cost efficient, and less invasive, form of interventionism, they are a form of intervention nonetheless. The president came into office hoping for a reset with the Muslim world, but the "Muslim world" isn't a place; it's a concept comprised of many different sects, regions, languages, nationalities and interests. As it turns out, matters of sovereignty, national identity, regional supremacy and patriotism matter to Muslims, too. (Shocking, I know!)

Over 10 percent of the world's Muslim population resides in restive, nuclear-armed Pakistan. There's certainly no panacea for fighting fringe organizations like al-Qaeda, but if President Obama is so concerned about Muslim extremism, then he might want to stop alienating the places where most of the world's Muslims happen to live.

Now South Korea Is Talking About Getting Nukes


Following North Korea's successful nuclear test, South Korean politicians are openly mooting the idea of acquiring their own nuclear deterrent, according to a report in the Korea Times.

One such politican, Won Yoo-chul, suggested that the country develop nuclear weapons on the condition "that we immediately scrap them if the North gives up its nuclear program." Another conservative lawmaker described the current state of South Korean defenses as trying to defend your home with a pebble against a gangster with a machine gun.

Other lawmakers prefer to remain under the U.S. nuclear umbrella (the U.S. stopped basing nuclear weapons in Korea in 1991 as efforts to "denuclearize" the Korean Peninsula began). And there are several legal obstacles in front of South Korea: they would have to pull out of the Non Proliferation Treaty and a bilateral nuclear accord with the U.S. before it could obtain nuclear weapons.

Still, one can see the logic of South Korea's nuclear threats: they may just be enough to goad China into taking a tougher line against Pyongyong.

(AP Photo)

Iceland Is Trying to Ban Porn on the Internet


Iceland was hailed as something of a model country by liberals for their tough approach on their banks and politicians following the financial crisis. Now, though, the country is considering using Chinese-style web filters to censor porn:

The unprecedented censorship is justified by fears about damaging effects of the internet on children and women.

Ogmundur Jonasson, Iceland's interior minister, is drafting legislation to stop the access of online pornographic images and videos by young people through computers, games consoles and smartphones.

"We have to be able to discuss a ban on violent pornography, which we all agree has a very harmful effects on young people and can have a clear link to incidences of violent crime," he said.

Methods under consideration include blocking access to pornographic website addresses and making it illegal to use Icelandic credit cards to access pay-per-view pornography.

It is already illegal to print and distribute pornography in Iceland, so this is more of an extension of existing law rather than a brand new assault against salacious material. Still, the country would be the first Western nation to ban web porn.

Iceland is currently exploring the technical ins-and-outs (if you will) of implementing the ban, but a government adviser sounded hopeful, saying, "if we can send a man to the moon, we must be able to tackle porn on the internet."

(AP Photo)

The Problem with Communicating "Strength" to Iran


Walter Russell Mead claims that President Obama is signalling "weakness" to Iran, making a war more likely:

But over time the conviction seems to be growing in Tehran that President Obama is unwilling to take Iran on, and the fact that the President didn’t make the confrontation with Iran a centerpiece of his State of the Union message will be read in Iran as yet another signal. Their nuclear program isn’t a high enough priority for this President to lead to war.

We aren’t saying the Iranians are right about President Obama. Kaiser Wilhelm once thought that Woodrow Wilson was so determined to stay out of war that he didn’t have to worry about U.S. intervention in Europe. After Wilson ran for re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” Germany tended to discount Wilson’s threats.

But while Germany misread Wilson, that misreading made war more likely. In the same way, if President Obama is serious about opposing an Iranian nuclear bomb with force if necessary (and we both hope and believe he is serious), then the signals the White House is sending to Iran are unintentionally making war more likely, not less. Right now, the administration is heading pretty rapidly to a point at which it will either suffer one of the greatest humiliations in the history of American foreign policy as Iran achieves a nuclear capability in defiance of years of American warnings, or it will face another armed conflict in the Middle East. If the President wants to avoid this choice, he needs to start sending signals that convince even the hardest-line mullahs that he really does mean it.

So what will instill fear in Iran, you might ask? Mead lists several Obama administration policies that he claims Iran finds heartening, so presumably reversing those would be a first step (though he doesn't state this outright). So, to make Iran fear America, Obama would have to: not withdraw from Afghanistan, not remove a second aircraft carrier from the Persian Gulf and scuttle the nomination of Chuck Hagel. The one concrete policy proposal Mead offers is for Hagel (if he can survive the nomination process) to give a "hard line" speech about Syria.

That will show 'em.

Arguments about cowing Iran with awesome displays of American resolve that are, upon closer inspection, not all that awesome, are pretty common among Iran war hawks and we're probably going to hear versions of this argument again and again until either there is a war or Iran goes nuclear.

But it's important to point out how utterly unserious this is.

What would convince Iran that the U.S. was serious about war was for the U.S. to actually get serious about a war -- the administration would have to mobilize public and Congressional support for a conflict, begin to position combat troops and material in and around Iran, go to the UN Security Council, rally allies in NATO and the Gulf and issue clear threats to the Iranian regime. It would have to sharpen the confrontation to the point where war really was inevitable unless Iran knuckled under completely. That's obviously a bridge too far for the Obama administration at this point (and for allies in NATO and the UN), but that is what real military pressure would look like, not "hard line" speeches from Chuck Hagel.

(AP Photo)

February 13, 2013

Canadian Exceptionalism


Is there room enough on one continent for two "exceptional" nations?

A recent survey from Angus-Reid found that nine out of every 10 Americans and nine out of every 10 Canadians view their country as exceptional. The British, on the other hand, have a more modest view of themselves, with only half of respondents telling Angus-Reid that they're the best country in the world.

Canadians are also more optimistic about the future than their neighbors to the south: 42 percent believe their best days are ahead of them vs. 36 percent of Americans who believe the same. It's much gloomier in Britain: 58 percent said the country's best days were behind it.

Canada's GDP is expected to grow a modest 1.8 percent in 2013, whereas analysts see the U.S. clocking in at 2 percent. The UK is expected to see just .9 percent GDP growth. In other words, by the end of the year, both the U.S. and Canada should still be happy with themselves, while the British less so.

(AP Photo)

How Will Obama's Nuclear Cuts Play in Asia?

During his State of the Union address, President Obama pledged to further cut America's nuclear arsenal. The exact figure wasn't specified, but it's been reported that the goal is to reduce the force from the current 1,700 "deployed weapons" down to 1,000, provided some kind of deal can be reached with Russia.

While China's nuclear arsenal is tiny in comparison, it has been undergoing a process of modernization and C. Raja Mohan argues that China will continue to stand aloft from any disarmament talks for the time being:

This approach leaves Beijing much leeway in responding to Obama's latest nuclear initiative. It allows Beijing to hold the high diplomatic ground on supporting the long-term goal of global zero, promising to join multilateral talks on nuclear reductions when it is convenient, and leaving room for its nuclear weapon modernisation in the interim.

Mohan argues that while most of America's close allies in Asia may be worried that America's "extended deterrence" would be weaker with a smaller arsenal, one major player is likely to be heartened by Obama's reductions:

In contrast to some in East Asia, India has every reason to welcome Obama's plans to negotiate deeper nuclear cuts with Russia. Like China, India has seen deep cuts in the US and Russian arsenals as an important first step on the road towards nuclear disarmament.

Germany's Complicated Relationship with Islam


Writing in Die Welt, Ulrike Hummel says there is widespread distrust of Islam in Germany. He cites a survey conducted by the University of Bielefeld which found that just 19 percent of Germans believe that "Islam is compatible with German culture." It is, according to an expert quoted by Hummel, the lowest such finding in Europe.

The Bielefeld study also found that 46 percent of Germans felt there are "too many Muslims in Germany" and 30 percent were concerned with Islamic terrorism.

Another survey, published late last year by the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research found similar attitudes among the German public. Over half of the German population saw Islam as prone to violence (64 percent) and hostile to women's rights (80 percent). By contrast, 13 percent of Germans associated Islam with "love for neighbors." Forty four percent of those surveyed believed a "serious conflict" between Islam and Western Christian culture would occur in the future, while 25 percent said the conflict was already ongoing.

Germany is home to an estimated four million Muslims.

(AP Photo)

Restrainers vs. Shapers in U.S. Foreign Policy


Thomas Wright argues that the "new debate" among Democrats in foreign policy is a divide between "shapers" who want America to play an activist role abroad and "restrainers" who don't. Wright sees a short-term win for the restrainers, with a caveat:

Restraint is an idea that seems to fit the moment. Americans are tired of war and feel more constrained after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. However, over time, the realization will set in that staying out also shapes the world -- and probably in a way that is detrimental to America's interests. It creates a vacuum filled by others. It fuels uncertainty. And it exacerbates crises.

Larison isn't buying it:

Armed foreign intervention, providing military supplies to one side in a conflict, and imposing sanctions on another country create their own kinds of uncertainty and exacerbate the crises they are meant to address, and they do so in ways that directly involve the U.S. and impose longer-term obligations on it. Toppling regimes creates vacuums that are filled by others, and that has been true even when the U.S. has had over a hundred thousand soldiers occupying another country. The reason that restraint often makes more sense than interference is that it is quite unusual to find cases where interfering would benefit the U.S. and the country in question more than it costs both. The impulse to “shape” events in other countries is misguided in principle and frequently destructive in practice. Put bluntly, the “shapers” in both parties have had their turn for the last twelve years, and they aren’t likely to get another one for a while.

The frustrating thing about Wright's overview of the debate is that it's focused solely on military questions, as if that is the only way in which the United States can or should exercise "influence" in the world. I think it's true that there is a constituency, in both parties, that wants to see the U.S. less militarily engaged around the world, but that is manifestly not the same thing as being "restrained" when it comes to economic engagement or traditional diplomacy.

(AP Photo)

February 12, 2013

The Iranian Election Is Getting Interesting


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad isn't going quietly. From Thomas Erdbrink:

The [Iranian parliament] speaker, Ali Larijani, is a leading member of Iran’s most famous political family. He had been scheduled to speak at the golden-domed shrine of Fatima Masoumeh, the daughter of a Shiite saint, to commemorate the 34th anniversary of the Islamic revolution.

The shrine is in the city of Qom, Mr. Larijani’s home district, where most of his political supporters among Iran’s traditional clergy hold offices.

But when he was preparing to deliver his speech, a group of around 100 protesters, described by the news agency as “Ahmadinejad fans,” started throwing shoes and small stones used by Shiite worshipers when they pray, actions that are regarded as gravely insulting. When the protesters pressed toward the stage, Mr. Larijani’s bodyguards took him away.

The episode occurred less than a week after a high-profile clash between Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Larijani in which the president released a video of what he said were secret business dealings involving Mr. Larijani’s younger brother Fazel.

Read Tom's entire story here, and also check out this Shaul Bakhash backgrounder on the Ahmadinejad camp's strategy in the upcoming June presidential election.

(AP Photo)

America's Persian Capital


Robert Tollast makes a good point:

Just as sanctions are now thought to be strengthening IRGC control, Saddam’s regime in Baghdad clung to power seemingly impervious to rising public anger, periodic bombing and the collapse of revenues. Fanar Haddad has argued that if anything, sanctions made Saddam’s patronage more valuable and command greater loyalty, an effect opponents of sanctions have frequently highlighted. In today’s Iran, regime elements have become masters of smuggling and the black market, rather like Saddam and his elite in the 1990s.

And there is a further price. The devastating loss of human capital could make it far harder to construct a legitimate post-regime government or even one accommodating to the west. Consider the results of last year’s Gallup poll in Iran on nuclear military power. Results show the danger of educated Iranians leaving Iran or being silenced by the regime as it gains greater legitimacy for resisting the West, Israel and sanctions

And news this morning that Iran may, in a possible effort to allay Western concerns, convert some of its uranium into reactor fuel couldn't come a moment too soon, as a more recent Gallup poll indicating souring Iranian attitudes toward the United States should raise a red flag for policymakers concerned about America's long-term interests in the Islamic Republic.

Washington has no mil-to-mil ties to leverage in Iran -- much like it did in Egypt two years ago -- and economic cooperation between the two countries is accidental at best. America's one card to play in Iran, conventional wisdom so often held, was a sympathetic and silently pro-American Iranian public. That now appears to be a less reliable assumption than in recent years.

That, among other reasons, is why the U.S.-Iran status quo is no longer sustainable. If present U.S. policy is designed -- much like in the case of North Korea -- to "sharpen" Tehran's choices, then it's time to put that policy to the test and make a comprehensive offer, either publicly or quietly, in order to settle old scores and end the U.S.-Iran cold war.

(AP photo)

Egypt Is Flooding Hamas' Tunnels


Egypt has been flooding Palestinian smuggling tunnels in Gaza and Sinai, according to a report in Haaretz. Flooding is seen as a low cost way of destroying the tunnels.

The Egyptian army has also been reinforcing its troop presence on the border with the Gaza Strip.

In August of last year, 16 Egyptian border police were killed in a cross-border attack.

While Egyptian-Israeli ties have been shaky since the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, it appears there is still a willingness on Egypt's part to maintain calm.

(AP Photo)

Why the Kind of Bomb North Korea Tested Matters


The Center for Strategic and International Studies' Victor Cha and Ellen Kim explain why it matters whether North Korea tested a uranium-based weapon or a plutonium bomb:

A uranium-fueled test would suggest several disturbing new problems in the effort to denuclearize North Korea. First, it would mean that the DPRK has not one, but two ways to make a bomb which doubles the problem. Second, highly-enriched uranium is much easier to hide than plutonium. It can be made in from centrifuges operating in buildings the size of a warehouse unlike the big and easily identifiable footprint of a plutonium nuclear plant facility. Third, the North can potentially produce a lot more uranium than it can plutonium and proliferate horizontally to others (like Iran) who may not need to test a device and feel confident that it has acquired a working device. Moreover, if this is proven to be a test of a miniaturized device as the North claims, then they will have crossed another technological threshold in mating a nuclear warhead with a long-range ballistic missile that could threaten U.S. security and that of its allies. Basically, none of this is good at all.

(AP Photo)

'Fatty Kim the Third' or How China's Web Users Are Reacting to North Korea's Nuclear 'Earthquake'


China has long propped up the North Korean regime as a buffer state between it and U.S. ally South Korea. But China's patience with North Korea is reportedly running thin and this latest nuclear test may be the atom that broke the camel's back, at least if China's web users had their say (which, of course, they don't).

Liz Carter of Tea Leaf Nation took the pulse of Weibo (China's version of Twitter) and found the response decidedly hostile to North Korea. One commentator described China's policy of propping up the Hermit Kingdom as "raising a mad dog to protect your house."

Josh Kim is also surveying China's online reaction, where several commentators have had harsh words for "Fatty Kim the Third." Lian Peng, anewspaper columnist, complained that the "bitterest loser" of North Korea's antics is China. Another, Yao Bo, argued that if "China continues to tolerate this thug nation, we will lose big."

The official Chinese reaction is more restrained, with the Foreign Ministry claiming to be "strongly opposed" to North Korea's nuclear experimentation.

(AP Photo)

More Evidence Americans Support the Drone War


Pew Research is out with a study showing that a majority of Americans support the drone war. According to Pew, 56 percent of Americans support drone strikes. Drones enjoy bi-partisan support, with 68 percent of Republicans and 58 percent of Democrats approving their use.

While there is bipartisan agreement, there is a sharp gender gap: 68 percent of men approve of them while only 44 percent of women feel the same.

As far as the potential impact of drone strikes, Americans are most concerned with civilian casualties (53 percent said they were "very" concerned) and less concerned about blow back (32 percent), the legality of strikes (31 percent) and the impact drones are having on America's international reputation (26 percent).


Another recent study from a Fairleigh Dickinson University showed that Americans supported drone strikes against foreigners, but not against U.S. citizens.

(AP Photo)

February 11, 2013

Obama's Syria Call


During testimony last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs indicated that they had agreed with a State Department and CIA proposal to arm factions of the Syrian rebellion. This advice was rejected by the Obama White House after a CIA analysis showed that the light weapons under consideration would not have shifted the balance. The idea of providing heavier weapons, like shoulder-fired missiles, was apparently not considered.

Naturally, this is being seized on by proponents of arming the rebels, such as Sen. John McCain, as proof of the president's shortsightedness. Instead, it seems like a prudent call.

All the arguments for providing Syria's rebels with heavy, "game changing" weapons hinge on the outcome of a post-war Syria, and that is an area where Senator McCain and others have been awfully vague. Merely toppling the Assad regime does nothing for America. The resulting chaos could be worse for U.S. interests if al-Qaeda cells flourish and begin attacking regional and international targets, or if another anti-American regime takes hold. If the U.S. can't make the situation better, it's wise not to make it worse.

(AP Photo)

Russia Is Buying Up Gold


According to Bloomberg, Russia has become the world's largest buyer of gold. The Russian central bank has added 570 metric tons of the stuff to its reserves, mostly to defend against the collapse of the dollar or euro, which their buying habit suggests is a real possibility.

Not everyone's buying, though:

While Putin is leading the gold rush in emerging markets, developed nations are liquidating. Switzerland unloaded the most in the past decade, 877 tons, an amount now worth about $48 billion, according to International Monetary Fund data through November. France was second with 589 tons, while Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal each sold more than 200 tons.

Even after Putin’s binge, though, Russia’s total cache of about 958 tons is only the eighth largest, the World Gold Council said in a Feb. 8 report. The U.S. is No. 1 with about 8,134 tons, followed by Germany with 3,391 tons and the Washington-based IMF with 2,814 tons. Italy, France, China and Switzerland are fourth through seventh. While gold accounts for 9.5 percent of Russia’s total reserves, it accounts for more than 70 percent in the U.S., Germany, Italy and France.

(AP Photo)

Vatican: The Pope Took Us By Surprise

The Pope's abrupt resignation took the Vatican "by surprise" according to Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, during a hastily arranged press conference.

You can read the full text of Pope Benedict's resignation here.

In Australia, Renewable Energy Is Cheaper than Fossil Fuels


According to a report from Bloomberg energy research, unsubsidized renewal energy is cheaper than coal and gas electrical generation in Australia:

Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s research on Australia shows that since 2011, the cost of wind generation has fallen by 10% and the cost of solar photovoltaics by 29%. In contrast, the cost of energy from new fossil-fuelled plants is high and rising. New coal is made expensive by high financing costs. The study surveyed Australia’s four largest banks and found that lenders are unlikely to finance new coal without a substantial risk premium due to the reputational damage of emissions-intensive investments – if they are to finance coal at all. New gas-fired generation is expensive as the massive expansion of Australia’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) export market forces local prices upwards. The carbon price adds further costs to new coal- and gas-fired plant and is forecast to increase substantially over the lifetime of a new facility.

Australia levies a carbon tax on its energy providers, but even without that tax, Bloomberg found that "wind energy is 14% cheaper than new coal and 18% cheaper than new gas."

Globally, wind power capacity grew 20 percent in 2012.

Hat tip: Jeff Spross.

(AP Photo)

Germany Wants to Get Women Working ... in Brothels


German unemployment stands at an almost two-decade low of 6.8 percent. Germany's government-run job centers frequently help place the unemployed in new positions where their skills match up but sometimes, things can go awry: like when a 19-year old girl from southern Germany got this offer from one job center:

According to a report in the local Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper, the woman received a letter from the job center on Saturday suggesting she apply for a service staff position at an establishment called the Colosseum. The precondition for working there is an "appropriate appearance," the letter said, and she would serve drinks for 42 hours each week, primarily at night and on weekends.

There's just one problem: A web search for the Colosseum revealed the company's true nature. It's a brothel, a "nudist club" where one can "sex & relax (sic) on over 2,500 square meters" and encounter "girls with mega service and more." The brothel also offers a whirlpool bath and a bar -- just in case customers get thirsty.

While it sounds like a gag, the incident highlights a serious issue in German policy. Prostitution has been legal in Germany since 2002 and according to Der Spiegel, job agencies could broker jobs in prostitution to German citizens. What's more, unemployment reforms designed to push Germans into work can strip away benefits from those who decline job offers from government job centers. In 2004, these job centers voluntarily declared that women who preferred not to prostitute themselves would not have their benefits cut. Nevertheless. as Der Spiegel notes, there have been "repeated incidents" where women have "felt pressured" to take up work in the world's oldest profession.

(AP Photo)

February 9, 2013

Obama vs. His Cabinet on Arming Syrian Rebels

Watch White House, Cabinet Split on Civil War in Syria on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Reports surfaced this week that the Obama White House rejected the advice of the CIA, State Department and Defense Department to arm the Syrian rebels. The NewsHour explores the internal debate.

February 8, 2013

"Everyone Is Happy with the Status Quo on Iran"


After committing himself to Iran blogging autopilot, Drezner argues that the status quo will endure because most of the major players, with the exception of Israel, are happy with it:

The U.S. is delighted to keep Iran contained. The Iranian leadership is content to blame the U.S. for all of its woes and possess a nuclear breakout capacity, without actually having nuclear weapons. Iran's economic elites are delighted to engage in sanctions-busting -- more profit for them. And Iran's neighbors are happy to see Iran contained and not actually develop a nuclear weapon. I think even Israel would be copacetic with the current arrangement if they knew that the Iranian regime had no intention of crafting an actual weapon unless it felt an existential threat.

I don't think this status quo is sustainable at all and the U.S. may not be all that happy with it if they thought through the implications. Put simply, the U.S. is on a similar course with Iran as it was with Iraq in the 1990s. That containment regime took a brutal toll on innocent Iraqis and helped fuel terrorism against the United States. It then culminated in a costly war because many people became convinced that the status quo was intolerably threatening.

Iran is on the same trajectory, only it may not take a decade to crumble, given Israel's repeated warnings about taking preemptive action. U.S. sanctions may or may not dissuade the ruling elite to permanently forswear nuclear weapons, but it will eventually devastate life for ordinary Iranians. Worse, the U.S. is empowering Sunni Gulf allies who are in turn helping to "contain" Iran by whipping up Sunni jihadist forces around the region. These forces pose a much more direct threat than Iran since, by their very nature, they cannot be contained and have a proven capacity to do large scale damage inside America. They are instruments of instability and they're already at work in Syria, right next door to Iran.

I think in the short-term, the rinse/repeat quality of the Iranian containment regime justifies autopilot, but I think it's likely to unravel much sooner than we think.

(AP Photo)

Brazil Wants to Count Every Tree in the Amazon


Brazil is going to undertake a massive inventory of the Amazon in an effort to monitor and protect it, according to the AFP. How long does it take to count every tree in the world's largest tropical forest? Brazil estimates that it will take about four years. As Michael Coren notes, Brazil is now a conservation rock star:

Brazil, once one of the world’s largest deforesters, is now among conservation’s greatest turnaround stories. Last year, Brazil reported the lowest level of deforestation in decades: 1,797 square miles of Amazon. That’s almost 80 percent lower than in 2004, reports Mongabay.

And the government plans to go lower still. The country has publicly committed to reducing deforestation by 80 percent below 2004 levels by 2020. It’s well on its way: the environment ministry said deforestation was down 76.27 percent compared to its baseline, well ahead of schedule.

(AP Photo)

How Iranians Feel About U.S. Sanctions

Gallup has done some polling on Iranian views on sanctions. While a 56 percent majority say they have hurt "a great deal," they have not changed Iranian views on nuclear power.


It's not clear though, how Iranians feel about nuclear weapons and whether they should endure sanctions for the sake of them.

In any event, Iranians overwhelmingly blame the U.S. for the pain caused by sanctions. Only 10 percent blame the Iranian government itself:


Gallup's Mohamed Younis offers his analysis on the numbers:

Iranians report feeling the effect of sanctions, but still support their country's efforts to increase its nuclear capabilities. This may indicate that sanctions alone are not having the intended effect of persuading Iranian residents and country leaders to change their stance on the level of international oversight of their nuclear program. Iran, as one of the most populous nations in a region undergoing monumental shifts, will remain a key country in the balance of power for the Middle East. Thus, the United States', Russia's, and Europe's relationship with the Iranian people remains a matter of strategic interest. The effect of sanctions on Iranians' livelihoods and the blame they place on the U.S. will continue to be a major challenge for the U.S. in Iran and in neighboring countries such as Iraq. Recent reports that Tehran and Washington might enter into direct talks were short-lived when Iran's supreme leader made a statement strongly rejecting them. With Iran preparing for elections later this year, a turning point is needed to get leaders on both sides out of the current stalemate on the country's nuclear program.

This Is Iran's Internet

The Iranian Internet – An Infographic by Maral Pourkazemi from Gestalten on Vimeo.

Iran is no North Korea, hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. But since the 2009 protests, the Iranian regime has been systematically censoring and spying on web users. There are now plans to create a distinct internet (dubbed "Halal web") where Iranians can browse in a regime-approved walled garden (the elite, of course, will suffer no such restrictions).

Maral Pourkazemi created the above video to highlight the plight of the Iranian internet.

(Via: Charles Pulliam-Moore)

Why Neoconservatives Get Their Way (On Many Things)


Daniel Larison thinks Robert Kagan is wrong to suggest that Senator Rand Paul is not a "true" foreign policy dissenter because then he "would have the temerity to declare that a nuclear Iran, although unfortunate, is nevertheless tolerable and that the military option ought not to be on the table." According to Larison, that's not the way politics works:

Kagan knows very well why Sen. Paul doesn’t take a more unconventional line on Iran policy. We have seen it on display for the last seven weeks in the panic over Hagel’s nomination and we have seen it over the last six years as Sen. Paul’s father has been written off as a “fringe” figure because he takes exactly the position on Iran that Kagan describes. Obviously, Kagan isn’t interested in having a “true dissenter” in the debate, and he hates them when they appear.

While I think Larison is right about the practical results, I wonder if Kagan doesn't have a point. It all goes back to the Overton window. For the uninitiated, here's the theory:

The Overton window is a means of visualizing which ideas define that range of acceptance by where they fall in it. Proponents of policies outside the window seek to persuade or educate the public so that the window either “moves” or expands to encompass them. Opponents of current policies, or similar ones currently within the window, likewise seek to convince people that these should be considered unacceptable.

Kagan and his fellow advocates both within government and in think tanks and journalistic institutions have had a fair degree of success in moving this window in their direction. Whenever a civil war breaks out in countries within or adjacent to regional interests of the United States, there is an implicit expectation that Washington "do something." By defining America's sphere of interest so broadly (Kagan, remember, believes the U.S. should exercise hegemony over the very Earth itself) they have succeeded in moving the policy debate onto grounds that are already favorable, even if they don't get every war or intervention they desire.

The problem is that the Overton window does not move back in a direction of less intervention through nuanced critiques of the most extreme position. Believe me, I wish it did. Instead, it needs to move using the same kind of stridency and demagoguery that pushed it in its original direction. So while I personally wouldn't agree with categorically ruling out the use of force against Iran no matter what, opponents of preventative war are going to have to make some politically risky declarations if they expect the consensus to start to move in their direction.

(AP Photo)

All Dogs in England to Be Fitted with Microchips by 2016


While it may be a conspiratorial fever dream among some in the U.S., "microchipping" is coming to the UK:

Come 2016, English and Welsh authorities will require all of the country's pups to have embedded microchips, so they can be returned to their owners if ever they run astray. The United Kingdom's Environment Department says some 60 percent of the country's 8 million dogs already have the tags, but beginning in three years, owners who don't spring for the device could be forced to pay fines of up to £500 (about $780). Cat microchipping will remain optional, since felines are less likely to wander outdoors.

Frankly, if the Internet has taught us anything it's that cats are the real menace here. Do we really want them running wild and untraceable?

(AP Photo)

February 7, 2013

American Support Drone Strikes on Foreigners, Not Americans


Americans overwhelmingly support the use of drones on terrorism suspects, but a majority also believe it is illegal for drones to assassinate Americans, according to a poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Almost 75 percent of Americans polled said they supported drone strikes vs. 13 percent who opposed them. When it comes to killing American citizens, however, 48 percent oppose while 24 percent support it.

Interestingly, there was greater support for letting the military carry out drone attacks instead of the CIA.

(AP Photo)

Americans, You're More "Morally Conservative" than Canadians, Brits


A new survey from Angus Reid shows that Americans find hot-button issues like divorce and contraception less "morally acceptable" than their peers in the UK or Canada. From contraception, divorce and prostitution to pornography, the U.S. is consistently less accepting than either state, but when it comes to gambling, the death penalty, medical testing on animals and wearing fur, it's the Brits who exhibit greater moral outrage.

Where opinions seem to most closely converge is on animal cloning, illegal drug use, polygamy, human cloning and pedophilia, where almost no one approves.

You can see the full results here. (PDF)

(AP Photo)

The Arc of the Moral Universe and Russia


Following the passage in recent days of two bills embracing full marriage equality in Britain and France, Andrew Sullivan reflects on the remarkable progress he has witnessed on gay rights in Great Britain:

In the crazed frenzy of this week’s transition, I realized last night that something truly profound had just happened. The country I grew up in – where I never heard the word homosexuality in my home and barely in the culture, except in hushes and shudders – is now on the brink of bringing actual equality and dignity to all its gay citizens. I remember touring Britain with “Virtually Normal” almost two decades ago and finding both Tories and lefties uncomprehending, if not actively hostile. The culture has changed beyond recognition. And undoutbtedly, clearly, unequivocally, for the better. And the argument was made even stronger by the fact that there are over a dozen openly gay Conservative members of parliament – an indication of how conservatism as a governing philosophy can and must include everyone in its ranks, or die a deserved and bigoted death.

Indeed, Andrew believes these recent steps may in fact signal a certain kind of inevitability in the Western world on marriage equality and gay rights. One problem: Russia:

Russia's State Duma is preparing a bill that will ban "homosexual propaganda," which even supporters admit will effectively criminalize almost any overt public expression of gay sexual identity.

The public battle over the draft law has highlighted two different visions of Russian "democracy" and pitted them against each other.

Supporters of the bill, which is strongly backed by the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, argue that Russia is a non-Western and "conservative" democracy that defends traditional values and shields the feelings of the majority from the aggressive encroachments of pushy minorities. They say they're not out to persecute gay people, but that they must not be allowed to bring their sexual orientation into the open, where it may influence the attitudes of minors and offend the beliefs of most Russians.

Russian political scientist Sergei Markov, a proponent of LGBT "private zones" in the country, reveals the Kremlin's thinking on this:

The idea that Russia is somehow more backward than the West is a typical error based on the linear understanding of progress that dominated in the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, that notion also served as the basis for the initial, fairly primitive concepts of modernization and democratization in the West. According to this concept of linear progress, all countries are on the same path, and Russia is several decades behind Europe and the U.S. Russia's legislation on LGBT propaganda only reinforce that gap. But modern humanitarian science sees society as multifaceted and allows for different approaches to a single problem. Only time will tell which solution to the issue of minority and majority rights is more effective and humane: Russia's or the West's.

Much like everything else, the Kremlin appears to be looking at this, er, "problem" through a geopolitical lens.

(Photo courtesy of Wiki by way of Sully. Key is here ... notice the big gray blotch east of Europe.)

China Will Also Focus on "Nation Building at Home"


It's a favorite saying of the Obama administration, but it's equally valid for China's rulers, according to a new report from the Lowy Institute's Linda Jakobson. Where many in the U.S. and the world see a rising China, most of China's elite (from businessmen to politicians) are instead "deeply worried" about the trajectory of their country and whether China can overcome "daunting" domestic problems, Jakobson writes.

The upshot is that foreign policy won't be a top priority for China's leaders and their policy will continue to be "reactive," Jakobson notes. Nevertheless, the contours of future trouble are evident in Jakobson's report. Among China's key foreign policy aims, she writes, the top priority is the stability of the regime -- a stability which could be endangered if China is seen as being humiliated by foreigners in China's growing web of territorial disputes.

The potential for conflict with Washington is also prevalent. The biggest flash point, according to Jakobson, is U.S. intelligence gathering in China's "exclusive economic zone." The U.S. believes UN laws permit such activity, while China disputes that and both have military assets in the zone to monitor and (in China's case) intercept reconnaissance flights.

(AP Photo)

Afghans Paid More in Bribes in 2012

Corruption cost Afghans $3.9 billion last year, according to a new report from the UN. That's a 40 percent increase from last year and is double what the Afghan government takes in in revenue.

Interestingly, the number of Afghans who say they have paid bribes is down nine percent since 2009 (to 50 percent); yet a full 68 percent of Afghans surveyed said it was just fine if lower public officials supplemented their incomes with bribery.

(AP Photo)

February 6, 2013

In India, a Rash of Unscrupulous Womb Removal Surgeries


The BBC's Jill McGivering found a village in India where an unusually high number of women were having their wombs removed:

When other local women crowded round, I asked how many of them had undergone hysterectomies. More than half raised their hands at once. Village leaders said about 90% of the village women have had the operation, including many in their 20s and 30s.

The doctors generally charge around $200 for the operation, which often means the families have to sell cattle and other assets to raise the money.

(AP Photo)

The Sources of China's Naval Conduct

Tensions have been steadily rising in the Pacific as China and her neighbors butt heads over disputed territories in the South and East China Sea. While the U.S. has tried to dampen tensions, Captain James Fanell, a top intelligence adviser to the U.S. Pacific Fleet, used what the Lowry Institute's Sam Roggeveen described as "bracing" language when describing China's naval ambitions at a recent conference. According to Fanell:

"...China is knowingly, operationally and incrementally seizing maritime rights of its neighbours under the rubric of a maritime history that is not only contested in the international community but has largely been fabricated by Chinese government propaganda bureaus in order to 'educate' the populous about China's rich maritime history, clearly as a tool to sustain the Party's control."

James Goldrick, a retired Rear Admiral in the Royal Australian Navy explains China's approach:

The danger is that a combination of China's self-image as the Middle Kingdom and continentalist ideas of strategy may manifest themselves in efforts to create what can only be described as an ever extending 'Great Wall over the Sea'. This is why the territorial concepts which are sometimes mentioned in relation to the South China Sea (in particular the 'nine dashed line') should be of such concern, as should some of the recent ideas about the way in which offshore oil platforms might be employed as instruments of sovereignty.

Basically, Goldrick argues that China views the seas as "blue territory" and not a "commons" accessible to all.

Rand Paul Foreign Policy Speech

U.S. Senator Rand Paul is scheduled to outline a "constitutionally conservative" foreign policy in a speech at the Heritage Foundation this morning. For a preview of the speech, be sure to check out Daniel Larison's recent interview with the senator.

You can watch the speech here, below the jump, at 11 a.m. ET.

Watch live streaming video from thfallison at livestream.com

February 5, 2013

McCain, Monkeys and Ahmadinejad

Sen. John McCain apparently found himself in some hot water this week over a Tweet comparing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a monkey:

The Tweet raised more than a few eyebrows, and sparked this exchange with Republican Rep. Justin Amash, a Palestinian-American:

Jonathan Tobin isn't buying it:

Americans have always laughed at their enemies. It is a healthy reaction and speaks of our self-confidence as well as our justified contempt for those who despise our democracy and threaten the peace of the world. The only questions about Ahmadinejad’s humanity stem from the hate that he spews, not a silly jest. Amash’s faux outrage about the insult directed at the Iranian president tells us more about his priorities than it does about those of McCain.

Future U.S. Bases in Asia Will Be at Sea


As the U.S. turns its strategic eye toward the Pacific, it's facing a new set of defense challenges. One of the major ones, according to Marine Lt. General Terry Robling in an interview with AOL Defense, is sustaining a "persistent presence" despite the massive distances involved yet without the traditional land bases that could alienate key allies:

Many of our partners in the region do not want us to be the Uncle that visited and never returned home. They want us engaged and present but not permanently based in their countries. This means that seabasing and its augmentation is a fundamental requirement.

Another way the U.S. will resolve this potential tension is to simply not call bases "bases," as C. Raja Mohan explains:

Washington is fully aware that full fledged military bases of the traditional kind generate intense political opposition in host countries and is not worth the unending political headache.

The strategy, instead, is to seek ‘places’ through which the US could move its forces on a regular basis, preposition some equipment, and have pre-negotiated arrangements for relief and resupply.

The US is not the only one looking for such ‘places’ to sustain its forward military presence around the world. China, whose economic and political interests in the Indian Ocean are growing, is said to be considering similar arrangements.

Other major powers like Russia, France and Japan have established such facilities in the Indian Ocean littoral.

Elsewhere in the AOL piece, author Robin Laird inadvertently highlights one of the fundamental tensions with U.S. strategy in the Pacific. First, Laird identifies that strategy as "constraining Chinese engagement in the Pacific." Naturally, the Chinese aren't going to appreciate this, so then there's the threat:

We need a strategy to prevail against what the Chinese are doing and likely to do. And the we need to be much clearer about the threat: it is about missiles, their evolution, and the need to combine defense with offense in dealing with these evolving missile threats.

One of the reasons China is working on missile technology is to prevent America's ability to "constrain their engagement" in the Pacific. There's no simple way to work around this tension, which is one reason most realists remain convinced that the security competition between China and the U.S. will only grow more intense with time.

(AP Photo)

Three Ways Iran Embarrassed Itself (Recently)

1. They paraded around a supposedly "indigenously built" stealth fighter that defense analyst Dave Majumdar said appeared to have no room for fuel, radar and weapons, after calling it a "joke" and a "GI Joe toy."


2. They boasted loudly about launching a monkey into space and returning him alive, until some analysts pointed out that the "before" and "after" monkeys looked completely different. There was also no independent verification of the rocket launch, further raising suspicions about whether the launch even occurred.


3. Their global retaliation efforts against the U.S. and Israel have largely been bungled, lead by "low-rent, kooky terrorists" who spend time at brothels and carry incriminating documents and cellphones.


(AP Photo)

North Korean Propaganda Video Shows an Attack on New York

This video above was distributed by North Korea's state-run media. It depicts a man dreaming of a rocket attack on New York -- to the tune of "We are the World."

The captions inform us that “[s]omewhere in the United States, black clouds of smoke are billowing. It seems that the nest of wickedness is ablaze with the fire started by itself.” And “[d]espite all kinds of attempts by imperialists to isolate and crush us … never will anyone be able to stop the people marching toward a final victory.”

What Does "Taking Iran at Its Word" Mean?


Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Douglas Murray urges the world to take Iran's leaders seriously when they say they are going to "wipe Israel off the map." We must do so, Murray argues, because of Iran's history:

Another point made frequently by Tehran's defenders, apologists and denialists is that the regime has never acted in a hostile manner against any other neighbors. But the merest of glances across history belies this.

So, more importantly, do recent events. Iran's arming and funding of terrorist proxies, including Hamas and Hezbollah, are not the inventions of right-wing warmongers. They are facts, and ones that the people of Lebanon and Syria are having to live and die with.

This is the first time I've heard the claim that Iranian funding of Hamas and Hezbollah are inventions of "right-wing warmongers." I don't think anyone seriously disputes the fact that Iran provides that support to these groups, nor would anyone really characterize Iranian intentions vis-a-vis their neighbors as benign (the reverse, however, is also true). But there is a rather enormous gap between these realities and the prospect for a nuclear war between Israel and Iran, which is what Murray is implying but is apparently unwilling to state forthrightly.

Beyond that, Murray is making a very strained comparison. Funding terrorist groups is not the same thing as starting a conventional war against another state. Iran does the former, but has not done the later (at least in the era of the Islamic Republic). This suggests that Iranian leaders understand the imbalance of power between them and their adversaries and the costs that such hostilities would bring.

Second, and related, there is nothing in Iran's history that suggests that country's leaders are suicidal, which is what they would have to be to start a nuclear war with Israel.

(AP Photo)

February 4, 2013

These Are the Most Expensive Cities in the World to Live In


The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) is out with their annual Worldwide Cost of Living Survey (registration required) and Asia and Europe top the list with the world's most expensive cities to live in. The top five most expensive cities are (from most to least):

1. Tokyo, Japan
2. Osaka, Japan
3. Sydney, Australia
4. Oslo, Norway
5. Melbourne, Australia

While Europe is well represented in the top ten, the EIU notes that Asia is gaining fast. Ten years ago, they note, there were no Australian cities in the top 50, let alone the top five. North America, by contrast, fails to crack the top 20.

South Asian states, particularly India, have some of the least expensive cities to live in. But who earns the bottom spot as the least expensive city in the world to live in? Tehran, Iran. Karachi, Pakistan and Mumbai, India.

You can purchase the full report here.

(Image: HyperLemon)

(An earlier version of this post referred to Tehran as the least expensive city: it is the eighth least expensive, according to the EIU.)

Women Can Now Legally Wear Pants in Paris


France has officially overturned a 200 year old law prohibiting women from wearing pants in Paris. Devorah Lauter explains:

The law required women to ask police for special permission to "dress as men" in Paris, or risk being taken into custody.

In 1892 and 1909 the rule was amended to allow women to wear trousers, "if the woman is holding a bicycle handlebar or the reins of a horse."

The law was kept in place until now, despite repeated attempts to repeal it, in part because officials said the unenforced rule was not a priority, and part of French "legal archaeology."

A small win for legal sanity.

(AP Photo)

Designing a 'Drone Proof' City


While the U.S. has pioneered the use of armed drones in warfare, other states are scrambling to catch up. A world of proliferating drones has security experts and civil libertarians grappling for ways to cope.

One novel idea, courtesy of Asher Kohn, is to design a "drone-proof" city. This high-tech concept features buildings with no consistent external layout, so as to render mapping difficult. It uses "smart windows" with multicolor glass to make seeing inside buildings considerably harder. The entire city would have a roof and thus a uniform temperature, making personal heat signatures harder to trace and on-the-ground visibility impossible.

You can get a more detailed description of Kohn's 'Shura City' here. The name, Kohn said, was inspired by the Quetta Shura -- the organization run by Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Reading through Kohn's architectural musings, I have to imagine that Omar and others on the receiving end of drone strikes can't be that heartened by it, as none of this is remotely easy to build.

(Image: Asher Kohn)

The Case for Maintaining U.S. Aid to Egypt


Ken Sofer argues that cutting U.S. aid to Egypt now would be too harsh:

While Egypt’s progress under President Muhammad Morsi towards an open, democratic state has been frustrating and often ineptly managed, the United States needs to remain engaged in efforts to influence the political and economic transition in Egypt, as well as bolster security in one of our most important allies. Both actions will require continued support for a full range of U.S. policy tools — including the annual security and economic assistance the U.S. has delivered since 1979 — and a more robust diplomatic engagement with the multiple centers of power that have emerged in Egypt during the past two years.

U.S. assistance and support for Egypt must be reformed in the long run to reflect new realities, but ending aid to Egypt is a blunt tool that should be reserved for red lines in the relationship, such as a coup d’état, a sharp authoritarian turn, or Egypt reneging on its treaty obligations with Israel. As incoming Secretary of State John Kerry recently stressed, now is not the time to rashly cut off support to Egypt. Clearly, Egypt’s people and leaders will determine its trajectory, but the United States can play a positive role in shaping outcomes.

Can the U.S. really play a positive role? Presumably Sofer means that we can continue to identify and work with liberal factions inside Egypt to bolster their capacity to peacefully organize while exerting pressure on the Brotherhood to adhere to the peace treaty with Israel and govern according to Egypt's constitution. None of these things are necessarily bad ideas, but are they sufficient? And if they fail, what will the U.S. have gained? Having meddled in Egypt's political transition and failed to secure our preferred outcome, we will simply have made more enemies, wasted billions of dollars and provided significant weaponry to a hostile force.

Events across the entire are very fluid right now. I think the notion that Washington can harness these turbulent forces to "shape outcomes" to its liking is, at best, optimistic.

(AP Photo)

Hagel's Retreat Exposes Myth of "Bipartisan Consensus" on U.S. Foreign Policy

The one criticism that seems to have stuck on Chuck Hagel is the charge that his views were outside the "mainstream" consensus arrived at by that bastion of foreign policy understanding, the U.S. Congress.

This consensus is treated as if it simply reflects a self-evident reality about U.S. interests, or portrayed as the result of careful, bipartisan deliberation. The Hagel hearings exploded that myth.

Instead, we saw first hand that the bipartisan consensus is sustained because policymakers with career ambitions can't really afford to deviate from it without risk to their career. It's an incentive structure that selects for conformity. Hagel's "safe" approach to the hearing, where he choose to mostly elide (or bumble) tough questions rather than address his critics head on, will only entrench this dynamic. Even if he survives the confirmation process, any current or future foreign policy wonk with high career ambitions who watched the Hagel hearings must have absorbed the message: much better to play it safe.

Update: Larison adds more:

One thing I would add to this is that the conformity that is being demanded of politicians and officials doesn’t have much of anything to do with an informed understanding of the relevant issues. As Scott pointed out in his post last week, adhering to the consensus view seems to require flat-out rejection of weighing different policy options. It doesn’t seem to matter whether a person has reached the “right” conclusion at the end of his deliberation. Evidently, the process of reaching that conclusion must not involve entertaining or considering anything besides the “right” answer, and if it has that becomes grounds for suspicion. It’s not just that the consensus view isn’t the product of careful deliberation, but that careful deliberation itself is taken as a sign of possibly unacceptable deviationism.

February 2, 2013

Are Settlements a Threat to Israel's Existence?

Intelligence Squared recently hosted a debate in London on the question of Israel's settlements. As you'd expect, it gets rather heated.

February 1, 2013

Can Graphene Power a European Recovery?

The British government is investing $40 million in it. The European Union has pledged one billion euros over ten years to research it, calling it the "wonder material" of the 21st century. The "it" in question is graphene, a nanotechnology that uses carbon atoms to create immensely strong structures:

Unlike its carbon cousin graphite, which is dull as pencil lead, or diamonds, which are pretty but of limited uses, graphene has become the sexiest thing in materials science since it was first isolated in 2004. A sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb pattern a single atom thick, graphene is stronger than steel, lighter than aluminum, more flexible than rubber and a better conductor than copper. It is also an excellent semiconductor; electrons can travel through it faster and with fewer collisions than they do in silicon. Excitable EU officials talk of a European “Graphene Valley” to compete with the better-known Bay Area basin.

Potential—there’s that word again—applications include use in computer chips, light sensors, wearable electronics, batteries, healthcare, LEDs, ceramics, airplanes, sportsgear and everything else besides.

Physicists believe that graphene is a technology capable of making the space elevator a real possibility. Clearly, any nation that constructs a space elevator is going to have tremendous geopolitical (and geospatial!) advantage, so it's no surprise that Europe is making this investment. They're not alone. China actually holds the most graphene-related patents. The race is on.

(Image: Quirky Science)

« January 2013 | Blog Home Page | March 2013 »