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March 31, 2009

Afghan Mission Creep

En-route to Europe, Secretary Clinton lambasted the aid programs inside Afghanistan for the past seven years as being "heartbreaking" in their futility. To which one might reasonably ask, as compared to what?

If the purpose of the American effort inside Afghanistan is to build a better Afghanistan, then yes, that aid has been wasted. If the effort is designed to uproot the al Qaeda network, then it has evidently succeeded, as that network is now in Pakistan.

It's fairly amusing to listen to the howls of outrage in Washington about the rampant corruption inside Afghanistan. What exactly did we expect to happen when we suddenly dump billions of dollars on a subsistence-level economy? (Dump a few million in Illinois and ask me how the former Governor would have handled it.) Now, we're supposed to believe that because it's Ambassador Holbrooke and Secretary Clinton doing the dumping - and promising vague benchmarks - that somehow this corruption will vanish?

It's no knock on their evident skills or intellect to acknowledge that social engineering on this scale is extraordinarily difficult. What's more, we have put ourselves in what looks like an untenable situation. Even if we succeed in Afghanistan, al Qaeda appears capable of moving elsewhere. Then what? A similar effort in Somalia? Yemen? Sudan?

We need to think about the problem of Islamic terrorism differently, not pretend that different bureaucrats have unlocked a heretofore unknown combination of bribes and combat power to make Afghanistan whole again.

Russians Plan for Medvedev-Obama Meeting

This Monday in Moscow, Arkady Dvorkovich, the Russian President's Assistant for Economics at the G-20 Summit, presented the final program that Dmitry Medvedev will outline at the upcoming forum in London. The Russian proposal consists of the following: First, there should be a formation of a common regulatory system. Second, discussions should start on a new monetary system. And third, member countries should take firm commitment to reform the IMF and its recapitalization. "If these three components will be accepted and if there will be a promise to realize the economic incentives, we will be satisfied," declared Dvorkovich.

Moscow insisted that the additional funds be deposited to the IMF with the condition of reforming this international institution. To ensure that the IMF did not lose momentum for reform, Dvorkovich suggested the idea to provide such deposits not directly, but through the purchasing of bonds. Reform of the IMF in one form or another is supported by the UK, Germany, Indonesia, China, Canada, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.

Earlier, China and Russia had put forward the proposal to review the role of the dollar by accepting something similar to the "suprereserve" currency. But, as is acknowledged openly in Moscow and by Dvorkovich, the probability of establishing a global currency is "insignificant." "Our objective was to initiate discussion on this topic, because we understand that the current system is inadequate and contains in itself too many risks associated with the unilateral actions of a small number of countries that are responsible for the release of reserve currency," explained Dvorkovich.

Analysts and experts are alarmed at the lack of the initiative by Russians to combat protectionism. Earlier, Dvorkovich referred to the World Trade Organization, which came to the conclusion that "almost all countries over the past six months sought to implement measures that can be attributed to protectionism...But we are yet to see any serious global risks because of this," Assistant to the President added. "While many countries are insisting that the the London Declaration should include stricter rules on this subject, the debate on this issue will have to go on." Igor Nikolayev, Director of the Strategic Analysis of the Federal Budget Committee, stated: "By this statement, Moscow has demonstrated that it does not consider protectionism a threat, but rather will continue to refer to this issue. The irrationality of this is striking."

March 30, 2009

Bombing Our Way Into Their Hearts

CATO's Justin Logan flags an interesting exposition by former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams on the question of bombing Iran:

...we are not talking about the Americans killing civilians, bombing cities, destroying mosques, hospitals, schools. No, no, no – weʹre talking about nuclear facilities which most Iranians know very little about, have not seen, will not see, some quite well hidden.

So they wake up in the morning and find out that the United States is attacking those facilities and, presumably with some good messaging about why weʹre doing it and why we are not against the people of Iran.

Itʹs not clear to me that the reaction [is] letʹs go to war with the Americans, but rather, perhaps, how did we get into this mess? Why did those guys, the very unpopular ayatollahs in a country 70 percent of whose population is under the age of 30, why did those old guys get us into this mess.

I'll say this, it's not clear to me either. But intuitively, I'm thinking Abrams is wrong here for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the question of how close Iran's nuclear work is to civilian infrastructure.

But more broadly, the idea that the Iranians will react to a U.S. attack on their country by turning on their leaders strikes me as a stretch. When the Iranians attacked a Marine barracks in Lebanan through their proxies in 1983, the U.S. did not rise up in anger against President Reagan. Indeed, even today, this attack is considered proof of Iran's implacable belligerence.

What's more, we have a very recent example of Abrams' thesis being disproved in both Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza last year. Terrorist elements in both countries were bombarded from the air, yet neither have suffered dramatic swings in public support - certainly nothing decisive. Londoners didn't revolt against Churchill during the blitz, nor did the Japanese turn on the Emperor despite amazing levels of carnage.

Will Europe Pitch In?

As President Obama prepares to travel to Europe, Pew Research dusts off some findings from a 2008 survey on the President. This was particularly noticeable:

In 2008, a large majority of Turks (72%) and more than half of Germans and French (54%) favored removing U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible. The British were largely divided on the issue (43% remove troops vs. 48% keep troops).

During President Obama's speech on Friday, he said:

The world cannot afford the price that will come due if Afghanistan slides back into chaos or al Qaeda operates unchecked. We have a shared responsibility to act - not because we seek to project power for its own sake, but because our own peace and security depends upon it. And what's at stake now is not just our own security - it is the very idea that free nations can come together on behalf of our common security. That was the founding cause of NATO six decades ago. That must be our common purpose today.

Hopefully, the President will be able to overcome Euro-skepticism about the mission in Afghanistan. But would it really represent a grave blow to the idea of common security? After all, Europe is likely just as worried about Islamic radicalism as the U.S. They may simply disagree on the best methods to contain and combat it.

March 29, 2009

Mexico: U.S. and Shared Responsibility

News in Mexico this week was dominated by the arrival of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a two-day visit. With drug violence rising, Mrs. Clinton tried to dispel rumors that the Obama administration believes that Mexico is a failed state. Furthermore, Mrs. Clinton tried to make it clear that the United States shares responsibility for the violence in Mexico because of the high American demand for drugs and because of the arms that are brought into Mexico from the United States.

Mrs. Clinton noted that the United States is going to provide $80 million worth of Black Hawk helicopters to Mexico. Some of the funds used for these additional helicopters will come out of provisions of the Merida Initiative, a three-year $1.4 billion dollar security aid package for Mexico signed by President Bush last year. The Obama administration also announced that it would send additional federal agents and intelligence analysts to the border in an effort to prevent the violence from coming into the United States.

Mrs. Clinton also reassured Mexico that a current trading dispute would be resolved promptly. The Obama administration scrapped a program last week that allowed some Mexican trucks to operate within the United States. Some labor unions have argued that the Mexican trucks do not meet safety standards required in the U.S. and that many American jobs will be lost. Under NAFTA, the United States is supposed to allow Mexican trucks access to American roads. The Mexican government responded by raised tariffs on 90 U.S. products entering Mexico.

President Calderon expressed optimism with what Mexico sees as a changing attitude from Washington. He stated that while Mexico does not rely on financial support from the United States to fight drug cartels, more action is needed from the United States to curb demand in the United States and to limit the flow of arms into Mexico. Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa also commented that more was needed from the United States but that Mrs. Clinton’s comments go very much along the lines of cooperation that the Mexican government has been trying to build.

On Friday, President Calderon met with three U.S. congressmen, Silvestre Reyes, Ike Skelton, and Howard Berman and asked them to negotiate more restrictions on the sale of guns in the United States. Representative Reyes noted that while the U.S. Congress is open to discussing the issue, there is presently no plan to take legislative action for implementing gun control laws. Mr. Reyes did say that the U.S. congress would like to increase funding under the Merida Initiative to Mexico.

There was some skepticism in Mexico about President Obama’s alleged choice to be the new U.S. ambassador to Mexico. El Universal was reporting that the Obama administration has nominated Carlos Pascual, a Cuban-American, to be the new ambassador and has submitted Pascual’s name to the Mexican government. Pascual is a former ambassador to Ukraine and a fellow at the Brookings Institute. He is also an expert on failed states. Mexican leaders do not want to be lumped into the category of failed states and have wondered if the type of messenger will indicate what the message will be. Anyway, there is no word so far from the State Department or the Obama administration if Pascual is indeed the new ambassador.

Debate in Mexico has also converged on the proper role of the United States in this new era of ‘co-responsibility.’ President Calderon was quick to deny claims that he asked the Obama administration for more funds to fight narcotraffickers. He proclaimed that Mexico does not rely on the United States for financial assistance. On the other hand, La Jornada featured an interview with President Oscar Arias from Costa Rica, who argued that the United States should allocate more funds through the Merida Initiative to Mexico and Latin America if it wants to have more prosperous neighbors during this economic crisis.

Chinese Sphere: Tibetan Serfdom

Chinese President Hu Jintao visits an exhibition marking the 50th Anniversary of Democratic Reform in Tibet, at the Cultural Palace of Nationalities in Beijing. (Xinhua)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese Communist rule in the region. Throughout this month, the Chinese government has been imposing a lockdown in areas with large Tibetan populations and banning foreign journalists from those areas. Yesterday, seemingly in an attempt to negate the anniversary of the uprising and further solidify Chinese Communist party (CCP) rule over Tibet, the government designated March 28 to be Serfs’ Emancipation Day to commemorate the freeing of Tibetans from serfdom under the Dalai Lama. Here is the official view from China Daily:

More than 1 million serfs were freed in Tibet in 1959, eight years into the region's peaceful liberation and shortly after a failed uprising of its feudalistic upper class.

Earlier, about 95 percent of Tibet's 1.14 million population were serfs, owning no more than 5 percent of the social resources. The local upper class, comprising only 5 percent of the region's population, ran a brutal, theocratic rule.

In January, Tibet's 382 legislators, mostly with a serf background, unanimously endorsed a bill, declaring March 28 as Serfs' Emancipation Day during the local people's congress' annual session in Lhasa.

A People’s Daily editorial calls this a triumph of “democratic reform:”

Democratic reform is yet another great contribution that the new China has made to the work of global human rights. The darkness and cruelty of the old Tibet was heartless and ruthless towards humanity and human dignity. The carving out of eyeballs, breaking of joints, cutting off of feet, and other cruel punishments inflicted upon serfs and slaves were absolutely horrifying. Democratic reform shattered the system which divided people into castes. It abolished the old Tibet’s laws and barbaric punishments. It liberated a million serfs and slaves from inhuman oppression. Through the national constitution and laws, it provided guarantees of dignity and rights accorded to citizens. From this time forth, a people’s democratic political system was established. The shackles that obstructed the democratic political development were utterly broken.

An editorial in Sing Tao Daily, the second largest newspaper in Hong Kong, does not see any hope for any forward movement in relations between the CCP and the Dalai Lama:

Beijing and the Dalai Lama’s representatives have not been able to make progress in talks. The root problem is that though the Dalai Lama does not insist upon Tibetan independence, his proposal for a high level of autonomy for a greater Tibetan region is difficult for Beijing to accept. The Dalai was born in Qinghai, and many of his protectors who fled with him are from Tibetan regions in Sichuan. The government-in-exile cannot ignore their interests. This greater Tibetan region encompasses a quarter of China’s territory. It is impractical to demand that Beijing make such a concession.

In an op-ed in the Apple Daily, one of the largest newspapers in Taiwan, former deputy secretary-general of Taiwan’s National Security Council Antonio Chiang sees the Chinese government’s handling of Tibet as ultimately harming the national interest:

The CCP’s hostility towards the Dalai Lama has deepened. Hope for reconciliation between the two sides has shattered. The situation has deteriorated and each side has become further radicalized. This is in no way beneficial for China’s peace and stability.

There is an abundance of talent in the ranks of overseas Tibetans. Their experience in exile has trained them extremely well, especially in the areas of diplomacy, public relations, lobbying, and international organizations. They have also cultivated much talent in the political, cultural, and educational fields…

The Dalai Lama will not remain cooped up for the long-term in India’s northern mountainous regions. His habit of traveling around the world will not change. Wherever he goes, that country and China will experience very unpleasant tensions. This is an acute irony in China’s desire to cultivate the image of a great nation.

To the CCP, the Tibet issue is inextricably tied up with its notion of Chinese sovereignty. Practically speaking, if Tibetans were granted the autonomy that is called for by the Dalai Lama, how seriously would that compromise China’s national security? It is hard to imagine that India would seek to exploit Tibetan autonomy in order to advance territorial claims.

However, in the same way that the CCP has framed the issue of Taiwan and Xinjiang, they have all become part of a “national myth” of Chinese sovereignty and identity, and the CCP has staked its legitimacy upon nothing less than the maximalist goal of establishing its unchallenged rule over these areas. It is a high stakes zero-sum game, and anyone who deals with Beijing in these sensitive issues must be cognizant of this and plot his strategy accordingly.

Russia: Visa-Free Trips to America?

There is a serious buzz in the Russian establishment following the statement by US Consul General Kurt Amend that Washington is not just deliberating the introduction of visa-free regime between Russia and the United States, but rather considers such move one of its foreign policy goals. However, according to Russian experts, such policy does not seem feasible in the near future, but rather reflects the desire of the United States to use this idea as one of the trump cards in the forthcoming talks between Presidents Medvedev and Obama. "We are discussing this issue with the Government of Russia, how we can move on this matter. We believe that it is necessary to do so gradually, step by step. This process must be mutual, and is our overall goal," said the American Embassy official this past Friday to "Russian News Service" radio station. Amend also pointed out the recent trend in reduction of number of refusals in visa issuance to Russians. "In 95% of all cases, visas are issued," emphasized Consul General and stated that in 2008, the U.S. Embassy had issued 170,000 visas for Russian citizens.

In October 2008, three former Soviet republics - Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania - as well as a number of Eastern European countries, were added to the visa-free travel regime with the United States. Maxim Minayev, leading expert at the Center for Political Studies, believes that this statement by Consul General fits the general trend of Russian-American relations, which the Obama administration recently dubbed "Reset": "I do not think that the representatives of the diplomatic mission of the U.S. can afford reckless statements. Their positions in large part must conform to the general views on the development of bilateral relations that are developed in Washington."

According to Minayev, visa-free regime usually characterizes a high degree of confidence on the part of America towards its allies: "Such a declaration for the United States is a demonstration of a high degree of allied relations. Plus, it is also the desire to obtain from those allies further dividends in the bilateral relations." Minayev noted that for the Eastern European countries, visa-free regime was a cost for participation of their military contingents in Afghanistan, while recent granting of such regime to South Korea reflects a long-standing military alliance with America.

"The introduction of visa-free regime with Russia means that we are either going to be strategic allies, or Washington is waiting for us to give significant concessions in addressing key international issues. This, obviously, involves Iran and support for actions in Afghanistan, including the inducement of Moscow to agree to the emergence in Central Asia of an alternative to the Manas military base," said the expert.

Eager to offset the effects of the global financial crisis on their economy, Russians are seriously deliberating the creation of an alternative reserve currency to the US Dollar. Recent proposals by Russians to establish such currency did not receive much attention until last week, when China put its support behind this idea. At one point the idea was also picked up by the most distinguished global economists. The world is now seriously talking about the possibility of the emergence of supranational Reserve unit, based on Special Drawing Rights - quasi-currency of the International Monetary Fund.

The dollar recently suffered another blow, inflicted by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Head of the IMF, who said that discussions about new global reserve currency are legitimate and could be held in in the coming months. According to Russians, Strauss-Kahn's haste is obvious - if a new reserve currency emerges that is based on the SDR, then the International Monetary Fund will be the most powerful entity on Earth - the issuer of the world's money. This attitude suits Russia just fine - now, the prospect of creating a new, non-dollar currency becomes short-term, rather than a long-term project.

Russia responded immediately to such developments - on Thursday, March 26, First Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Denisov suggested convening an international conference with the authorized representatives of governments and financial experts to discuss the creation of a single global currency. According to the diplomat, such conference should be the next step after the upcoming G-20 London Summit and after June conference at United Nations. However, the discussions, even at the highest levels, are not enough - there should be policy decisions agreed upon by all countries. "This is an issue that must be discussed in order to develop a consensus, its not enough to solve this by a simple majority. It must be agreed by virtually all participants of the international economic and financial exchange. Only then can this idea be realized," admitted Denisov.

In the ongoing public relations battle over Soviet history in the Baltic countries, Russian "Studio Third Rome" released a film called "Baltics: This History of so-called "Occupation." The film tells about the years when the Baltic countries were part the USSR. It tries to answer questions such as why Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were considered to be "showcases of socialism," were on a special account with the Soviet leadership and were receiving large investments into their economies. The film also asks why, after the proclamation of independence and accession to the European Union, people's lives there have not become better and richer.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Baltic countries decided to "cross off" the legacy of Soviet industrial development. The film showed the destroyed sections of the industrial plants, rusting piers at Klaipeda shipworks, deserted beaches of Jurmala, the "vacation pearl" of the Baltics. The directors and producers visited the Ignalina nuclear power plant, which the EU at the request of the Lithuanian authorities will have to close next year. The film asks if destruction of the Soviet economic legacy is worth it for the Baltic states. The picture also tries to show that the current financial crisis has already confirmed the "malignancy of non-Soviet economic inheritance."

March 28, 2009

Lula's 'White People with Blue Eyes' Spices Up G20


Gordon Brown was visiting Brazil when, during a joint press conference with Lula, the Brazilian president came out and blamed "white people with blue eyes" for the world financial crisis. According to SkyNews, Downing Street says the remarks were meant for "domestic consumption", but I must respectfully disagree.

Brown was visiting Brazil in preparation for next week's G20 meeting to be held in London, which Brown will chair.

By morning, the Financial Times, The Independent and The Times are quoting Lula's words. The Times:

“This was a crisis that was fostered and boosted by the irrational behaviour of people who were white and blue-eyed, who before the crisis they looked like they knew everything about economics, but now have demonstrated they know nothing about economics,” he said, mocking the “gods of wisdom” who had had to be bailed out. “The part of humanity that is responsible should be the part that pays for the crisis,” he added.
The Independent,
“This is a crisis that was caused by people, white with blue eyes. And before the crisis they looked as if they knew everything about economics,” he said. “Once again the great part of the poor in the world that were still not yet [getting] their share of development that was caused by globalisation, they were the first ones to suffer.

“Since I am not acquainted with any black bankers, I can only say that this part of humanity that is the major victim of the world crisis, these people should pay for the crisis? I cannot accept that. If the G20 becomes a meeting just to set another meeting, we’ll be discredited and the crisis can deepen.”

Lula didn't rise from abject poverty by indulging in gaffes. Indeed, Lula's objective of Brazil becoming a world leader (not a far-fetched dream considering that Brazil is the world's ninth-largest economy, an oil producing country, a nuclear country, and the world's eighth most populous country) is first and foremost in ensuring that Brazil is, as Moisés Naím puts it,
in the debates concerning the rules governing international trade, energy, the environment, and the redesign of the international financial system.
For decades, Lula has also been driving home a message that the world's poor are victims of the rich countries' irresponsible mistakes.

Bearing in mind that the G20 is about to start next week, and Lula is pushing for the the world’s biggest economies to provide $100 billion to boost global trade, in addition to greater regulation of financial markets and an anti-protectionism message, Lula's words are not words meant exclusively for domestic consumption. Instead, they are meant to drive the message that the world's poor people should not be forced to pay for the global financial crisis. Witness his words,

His colourful language served as a reminder of the diplomatic challenge Mr Brown faces to forge agreement among the 20 largest economies. “Our meeting in London has to be spicy, it has to have a bit of heat,” said the Brazilian leader — in stark contrast to Mr Brown’s repeated claims of an emerging international consensus.
It's going to be a spicy G20, indeed.

March 27, 2009

If You Build It

Haaretz reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wooed Avigdor Lieberman with a promise to expand a controversial settlement block:

A source close to the negotiations between the pair told Army Radio that the plan had been agreed upon even though it did not appear in the official document detailing the coalition deal between Yisrael Beiteinu and Netanyahu's Likud.

The plan is for the West Bank settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim to build 3000 new housing units on the territory, which stretches between it and Jerusalem, the source was quoted as saying.

Construction in the area is particularly sensitive because it would create contiguity between the settlement and the capital, which in turn would prevent Palestinian construction between East Jerusalem and Ramallah.

This would also make it difficult to reach agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on the question of permanent borders.

If this is indeed true, it would seem to be a good test-case for the Obama administration regarding its position on Israel. If the Netanyahu government does proceed with these settlements, which the U.S. opposes, will there be meaningful consequences? Should there be?

Photo via Hoyasmeg under a CC License.

The Plan

As someone who's been critical of President Obama's approach to Afghanistan, I should say that one element of his plan, as reported by the New York Times, makes sense:

In imposing conditions on the Afghans and Pakistanis, Mr. Obama is replicating a strategy used in Iraq two years ago both to justify a deeper American commitment and prod governments in the region to take more responsibility for quelling the insurgency and building lasting political institutions...

Although the administration is still developing the specific benchmarks for Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials said they would be the most explicit demands ever presented to the governments in Kabul and Islamabad. In effect, Mr. Obama would be insisting that two fractured countries plagued by ancient tribal rivalries and modern geopolitical hostility find ways to work together and transform their societies.

At the end of the day, the U.S. cannot be more invested in the future of Afghanistan than the Afghan themselves.

UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias interprets the benchmarks as a means of getting out of Afghanistan if things go awry: "It’s important to have some policy offramps, some points at which we might conclude that we can’t achieve our biggest goals and need to radically scale back."

It's true that that's what we need, but here's the thing: what are they? This is supposed to be the centerpiece of the strategy, and it's not clear what they are. That doesn't exactly inspire a lot of confidence.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Michael Kaman helps secure an area along the Pech River during a meeting between key leaders in the Kunar province of Afghanistan on Feb. 4, 2007. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss local development projects that are a combined effort of the Coalition led Asadabad Provincial Reconstruction Team and local contractors. Kaman is attached to the 1st Battalion, 102nd Infantry Regiment, Connecticut National Guard. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Gipe, U.S. Army. (Released)

The Path of Most Resistance

The New York Times reports today on elements within Pakistan's intelligence service continuing to prop up the Taliban as it wages war in Afghanistan.

The upshot is that threats to "bomb them into the stone-age" and "bribe them into the industrial age" have not altered Pakistan's behavior toward the Taliban. Much like the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, Pakistan's support for the Taliban in Afghanistan is apparently at the level of vital interest. It's not something amenable to threats, bribes, brilliant diplomacy, etc.

The Obama administration seems to understand this. They have accepted the argument that it cannot get Pakistan to see things our way unless we change how the Pakistanis view their strategic environment. If there's less tension with India, the thinking goes, then Pakistan won't have to nurture the Taliban in Afghanistan for "strategic depth." Ergo Ambassador Holbrooke is sent to South Asia to work his magic.

The problem with this strategy is that it's extremely difficult and time consuming. Afghanistan is falling apart now. Al Qaeda is plotting attacks now. The pay-offs from any settlement with India would be years off - if at all. And the U.S. has a mixed record when it comes to successfully helping nations bury old hatchets.

Russian Investment Bank Looks at US

You know that economic news isn't all that bad when a major Russian investment bank "VTB-Capital" is contemplating entering the US market, according to the bank Chairman Yury Soloviev: "VTB-Capital is not against entering the American market, perhaps by way of purchasing a company in New York City. At the same time we are not going to buy a major asset, or even purchase a license. ..."

The bank is contemplating expanding in Asia, where it has a subsidiary in Singapore. According to Soloviev, the bank would like to stake a presence in Hong Kong. It already operates in London and Moscow. "VPB" focuses its activities on securities issues, business development, direct investment, trade in the global commodity markets, asset management, as well as providing consulting services to clients on transactions in capital markets and mergers and acquisitions in Russia and beyond.

So the news is not all that bad for the NYC professionals in the finance sector who recently lost their jobs. Just make sure that you learn to speak Russian, and an interesting job may await you.

March 26, 2009

China's Rising Car Production

If you haven't read Harold James' article on the front page - "Is China the New America?" - it's well worth your time.

Read it, then ponder this:

China in 2008 surpassed the United States to become the world’s second largest auto-making nation, and in 2009 is set to displace Japan as the planet’s largest car producer, according to iSuppli Corp.

China in 2008 manufactured 9.3 million cars, while the United States built 8.7 million. In 2009, China will build 8.7 million autos, compared to 7.6 million for Japan.

Venezuelan Military Takes Control of Transportation Hubs


In another move to further consolidate power around Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan military took control of major airport and maritime hubs and occupied facilities that were previously controlled by the states. Some of the states are governed by the opposition. The decree signed last week by Hugo Chavez also transferred control over major highways.

Late last week the government had ordered the arrest of opposition leader Manuel Rosales, mayor of Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-largest city where the largest port is located.

Rosales will be tried on charges of "illegal enrichment" in Caracas, not in his hometown, where thousands of his supporters staged a huge rally during the weekend.


Today the military presence increased at La Fría and San Antonio airports. Noticias 24 reports that when announcing the takeover, Chavez declared that "we have begun the reversal process over everything that meant the dismemberment of national unity, the territory, and sovereignty, because prior governments fractured the country into pieces." Of course he had to blame the US, "the empire's divide-and-conquer strategy, carried by the pettiyankees" (Chavez's word for Venezuelans who favor the US) "that expropriated the people" has plummeted "with this reversal, which is part of the unification process which will strengthen the nation."

Also today, Chavez ordered the creation of a state company to manage the country's seaports and another for its airports. The new companies, called the Bolivariana de Puertos and Bolivariana de Aeropuertos and which will be part of the Infrastructure and Housing Ministry, "have to work under socialist guidelines and seek the development of the regions in which their respective seaports and airports operate," as decreed by Chavez. The decrees will become law once they are published in the Official Gazette.

Critics say the move will limit the powers of state governors, who previously collected revenue from tariffs they imposed at airports and seaports under their administration.
Later in the day, while speaking to a meeting of regional officers, Chavez expressed the goal of his Bolivarian revolution achieving the same solidity as the Cuban revolution: "Our revolution must some day reach that level of maturity, of consolidation, but this requires a gigantic effort, both individually and collectively."

March 25, 2009

Who's Unserious?

As North Korea prepares to test-fire a DirecTV satellite long range missile, Abe Greenwald finds fault with American policy on North Korea:

This is not Barack Obama’s fault and it’s not exclusively George W. Bush’s fault. It’s what comes from decades of unserious negotiation with bad actors.

Couldn't it also be North Korea's fault? After all, the North Korean leadership has endured near total isolation to advance its long range missile and nuclear weapons programs. It's clear that those programs are integral to the survival of the regime.

Despite the bluster from neoconservatives on the issue, both parties, once in power, have shown very little willingness to remove Kim Jong Il from power. (Once out of power, of course, it's back to bomb's away.) Everyone is invested in the status quo - as distasteful and indeed, dangerous, as it currently is because there's an acute understanding that the alternatives could be much, much worse.

March 24, 2009

What's the Matter With Georgia?


Der Spiegel has a bombshell on a European investigation into the Russian-Georgian war:

According to information obtained by SPIEGEL, the television appearance by [Georgian] General Kurashvili plays a key role in the investigation. His remarks indicate that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was not repelling "Russian aggression," as he continues to claim to this day, but was planning a war of aggression.

This is because Kurashvili may have been quoting directly from Order No. 2 from Aug. 7, a Georgian document that could shed light on the question of who started the war. When the commission questioned the Russian deputy head of the general staff, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, in Moscow, he quoted from the very same Georgian order. According to Nogovitsyn, the document also contained the phrase "reestablishment of constitutional order." If the order, which Russian intelligence intercepted, is authentic, it would prove that Saakashvili lied.

The Georgian government still refuses to show the controversial decree to the commission. Officials in Tbilisi argue that they cannot do this because the document is a state secret.

Perhaps it's no surprise that the government of Georgia is splurging on American PR and lobbying firms.

It's also worth remembering that before the dust had even settled on this conflict, many powerful figures in Washington had already decided that this was firm evidence of Russian revanchism and (what else) a replay of the 1930s with Putin in the role of Hitler, testing the resolve of the West.
Mikheil Saakashvili, President Elect of Georgia, answers questions at a press conference at the Annual Meeting 2004 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 21, 2004. Via CC License.

A Terrorism Thought Experiment

Speaking at the Brussels Forum, Senator John McCain urged the world not to accept a "minimalist" outcome in Afghanistan. It follows an op-ed he co-authored with Senator Lieberman, arguing that the U.S. needs to wage a massive country-wide counter insurgency to shore up our interests.

It's worth stepping back and asking a fundamental question: imagine Sen. McCain gets his way. Imagine the best case scenario for both Afghanistan and Iraq. Imagine a world where those outcomes have been achieved. Then ask: could another 9/11 still happen?

March 23, 2009

The Politics of National Security


Before the election, there was a lot of debate about whether Obama could change the politics of national security - taking measures that democrats traditionally favored (foreign aid, unilateral diplomacy, etc.) and making the public realize how essential they were to advancing America's interests.

It's not clear yet whether Obama can refashion those perceptions, but Rasmussen has some interesting numbers that suggest that Obama is getting kudos for the exercise of America's military power:

Sixty-one percent (61%) of U.S. voters agree with President Obama’s decision to put more U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Twenty-five percent (25%) are opposed to putting more troops in the war-torn country, and 14% are not sure in a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey.

Republicans are more supportive of the president’s action than are members of his own party. Seventy-two percent (72%) of GOP voters support the decision to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, compared to 54% of Democrats. Sixty percent (60%) of voters not affiliated with either party agree.

What we've seen these past several weeks has belied the caricatures on the right and deflated some of the hopes on the left about how Obama would steer the ship of state. He's offered to reinvigorate diplomacy with Iran and Russia while proclaiming an end to the Iraq war, yet continues to rain Hellfire missiles down on al Qaeda in Pakistan and will surge additional forces to Afghanistan. This isn't so much redefining the politics of national security as muddying the waters.

Image under Creative Commons Attribution - ShareAlike 2.0 License

March 22, 2009

Puerto Rico: Acevedo Declared Not Guilty

Former governor of Puerto Rico Aníbal Acevedo Vilá has been declared not guilty on all nine counts of corruption after a trial where the defense did not call any witnesses and 10 people indicted with Acevedo had plead guilty before the case went to court.

Here are copies of the original indictment (PDF files) and the second indictment.

Puerto Rico Ex-Governor Is Acquitted of Graft

The former governor, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, along with 12 associates, had been charged with participating in an elaborate scheme to pay off more than $500,000 in campaign debts going back to 2000. The criminal indictment made public last March also accused Mr. Acevedo of using campaign money to pay for several family vacations and for $57,000 worth of “high end” clothing.

The trial lasted a month, and though prosecutors called about 30 witnesses and the defense called none, the jury made its decision quickly and unanimously.

Manuel Ernesto Rivera, writing for AP, reports,
Authorities last year accused Acevedo and 12 associates of participating in an illegal scheme to pay off more than $500,000 in campaign debts.

One by one the associates began to plead guilty, leaving only Acevedo and Inclan to stand trial. One co-defendant agreed to testify against Acevedo in exchange for having charges against her dropped.

Prosecutors presented some 30 witnesses, while defense attorneys surprised the courtroom earlier this week when they rested their case without calling a single person to testify. Acevedo's lawyers urged the judge to dismiss the case for lack of evidence.

In November, Acevedo lost to Fortuno in his bid for a second term. A month later, Barbadoro dismissed 15 of 24 charges against Acevedo, ruling that U.S. federal prosecutors improperly interpreted election laws.

The AP has a list of Key events in the case against Puerto Rico's ex-governor.

Acevedo, a Democrat, is the only governor to have faced federal charges since the island became a Commonwealth. He lost his bid for re-election last November in a landslide to Luis Fortuño, a Republican who was the island's Resident Commissioner in the US Congress.

Europe: Crisis Takes Center Stage

As was the case in the United States last week, the economic crisis dominated the news in Western Europe.

Shortly after the American Congress passed a law taxing AIG bonuses at a rate of 90%, a debate ignited in the Netherlands, for instance. This small European country, home to some of the world's biggest banks (like ING), has, like America, bailed out several banks and mortgage lenders in recent months. Shortly after being bailed out those companies plan to 'reward' some of their employees with massive bonuses. Left-wing parties Groenlink (the Greens) and SP (Socialist Party) were joined by the right-wing PVV party of Geert Wilders calling for a similar 90% tax rate. Dutch minister of finances Wouter Bos responded to the calls for a 'supertax' by saying that although he disapproves of bonuses for individuals responsible for the near collapse of banks, he's not yet willing to tax their bonuses at such a high rate.

Swedish conservative-liberal Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt lashed out at EU members who advocate borrowing large sums of money in order to spend their way out of the economic crisis. "A lot of E.U. member countries are now in huge deficits. That’s a problem now and will be a problem for the future," Reinfeldt said. He went on to criticize the Obama administration on the same grounds: "The huge deficits in the U.S. are a problem both for them and for the world because it’s actually taking away a lot of resources from credit markets all over the world, which creates problems for others."

The above makes Reinfeldt the first well-known European leader who publicly criticizes Washington for its handling of the economic crisis. Thus far, most Europeans have refrained from commenting on Obama's policies, even though they consider those policies unwise and counterproductive in the long run.

Turkey's economy, which was one of the fastest growing and most stable developing economies in the world, has collapsed: Its budget deficit has increased by 824%, the economy will shrink by as much as 7% this year, and unemployment has hit an all-time high.

Turkey lived above its means under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It borrowed many billions from the IMF, individuals and foreign governments. This was acceptable when the economy was thriving, but became untenable at the moment the international crisis hit.

The crisis wasn't the only thing European newspapers wrote about, however. The British Telegraph found out that the DVD box Prime Minister Gordon Brown received when he visited Washington D.C. earlier this month wasn't merely thoughtless and cheap, it was also useless. After having complained about the present for a few days, Brown decided to make the best of it and put the movie "Psycho" in his DVD player. He clicked on play, sat down and waited for the movie to start ... only to see a pop-up screen appear saying "wrong region": the DVDs can only be viewed in a Region 1 player (North America).

Lastly, French President Nicholas Sarkozy is becoming so unpopular that the French are turning his least favorite book into a national bestseller. Sarkozy has frequently expressed his disdain for "La Princesse de Cleves" (The Princess of Cleves), a novel by Madame de La Fayette, which was published in 1678 and is taught in most French classrooms. The French have now responded by making it a symbol of dissent: Sarkozy's popularity falls while sales of the book are rising.

Russia: Former Republics Revolt

Georgian President Saakashvili's government is actively hunting for Russian spies - the timing of this operation perhaps coincides with the recent Hart-Hagel Commission report that recommends putting Georgia's NATO inclusion on hold in favor of better relations with Russia proper. In the Georgian city of Zugdidi, there was a massive operation to arrest a single person. Georgian special forces arrested a citizen of Russia Vladimir Vahaniya. During the search of his home, police discovered two grenades and automatic weapons. The court sentenced Vahaniya - a businessman, doctor, author of several books, a former member of the Russian prosecutor's office and a candidate for the State Duma in 2003 - to two months preliminary detention.

As the daily "Izvestia" reports, "today Vahaniya probably curses the day when Mikhail Saakashvili gave him a second, Georgian citizenship, which is granted to citizens of other countries only by the Presidential order, and only for services to the state of Georgia. Saakashvili signed the decree 11 months before Vahaniya's arrest in Zugdidi." According to "Izvestia," Vahaniya's arrest coincided with the promotional campaign of the Georgian authorities, who claimed that the planned large-scale anti-government protests to take place in April were planned by the Russian secret services. Vahaniya therefore suits the role of an "agent" - he lived in Russia for the past 30 years, and chaired a Union of the military and law enforcement officials of Moscow region.

Georgia is not the only country actively engaged in seeking out pro-Russian elements amongst its population. Life may get more uncomfortable for the Russian citizens of Latvia, a republic with the largest post-Soviet ethnic Russian population in the Baltics. According to the daily "Gazeta," Latvian nationalists proposed to their compatriots to photograph license plates of cars from the Russian and Soviet symbols, and send pictures to the police. Such a "Rolodex," in their opinion, will help to identify "the most aggressive colonists" of their country. Of particular interest are license plates with the Russian flag, Russian national emblem, the flag of the Soviet Union - as well as the actual plate numbers of cars with such symbols.

The Club of Latvian Nationalists announced on their website that: "It seems that in recent months, people are paying attention to the fact that on our streets there are too many cars with visible Russian or Soviet flags. It is clear that in this way, the car owners have demonstrated their loyalty to the policy that is hostile to Latvia. The collected information can be useful for identifying the most aggressive colonists, which is especially important prior to May 9 (Commemoration of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany), and prior to the upcoming elections." Latvian security forces have no intention to take any action, considering such actions only as a publicity stunt by the nationalists.

In order to counter real and possible threats to his country, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that Russian army will soon be a totally new, modernized and battle-ready entity. "We have never had such favorable conditions to create a modern, efficient army," - said the President at the Annual Military Review in Russia. According to Medvedev, the country should see a "new look of our army and navy have by December 1 of this year."

Explaining the upcoming changes, Medvedev clarified that they will include "transfer of all military units to the category of permanent readiness." Such a force could have "peace-time composition" - without additional military units - and should be able to effectively counter the emerging military threat. "This is a key component of the new model, the new image of the Armed Forces," stressed Medvedev. He further pointed out that a "modern, well-trained and equipped army with the newest weapons is the best guarantee against any potential aggression or external pressure." Russian head of state further outlined specific threats that such army should confront: "The analysis of the military-political situation in the world shows that some regions retain the threat of a serious potential conflict. Such threats can spark local crises that are also exacerbated by the international terrorism. There are also continued attempts to expand NATO's military infrastructure near the borders of Russia."

China: Government Blocks Coca-Cola

Last week China’s Ministry of Commerce announced its decision to block Coca-Cola’s acquisition of Huiyuan Group, China’s largest privately-owned beverage company. The proposed buyout raised alarm that not only would Coke gain a monopolistic position in China’s beverage market, but also that a well-known domestic brand would be eliminated by a foreign company. This was the first such case that was decided according to China’s two year-old Anti-Monopoly Law.

The Commerce Ministry’s official announcement states:

Upon investigation, the Commerce Ministry has determined that this consolidation would have a negative influence on competition. The Coca-Cola Company would possibly use its dominant position in the carbonated beverage market to tie up fruit juice sales or implement other business conditions of an exclusionary nature to consolidate and limit competition in the juice beverage market. This would lead to consumers being forced to pay higher prices for fewer selections. Concurrently, due to the effect of current brands restricting market entry, it would be difficult for potential competition to eliminate these competitive restrictions. Also, consolidation would also squeeze the survival space of domestic small and medium-sized beverage companies. This would have an adverse influence on the competitive state of the Chinese juice beverage market.

In a commentary in the Southern Metropolis Daily, one of China’s leading commercial newspapers, lawyer and economist Ma Guangyuan asserts that 80% of Chinese netizens were opposed to the deal. It is unclear how he came up with that figure, but it cannot be denied that the case was controversial. As a result, the Commerce Ministry’s decision was not made solely according to the merits of the case:

In my estimation, the [reasons] provided by the Commerce Ministry lack direct evidence for how a marriage between Coca-Cola and Huiyuan would influence other people’s livelihoods. Instead, their reasoning is based on indirect judgments. This is probably the hidden danger that will cast doubt on this decision for days to come. The ministry’s official announcement revealed a detail that supports this point: the Commerce Ministry … requested that Coca-Cola provide a proposal for a possible solution, but Coca-Cola’s preliminary and revised proposals failed to obtain the ministry’s approval.

Because the announcement did not give any specifics, we do not know anything about the recommendations given by the ministry. We also do not know anything about the alternate proposals provided by Coca-Cola. However, according to external sources, the Commerce Ministry wanted Coca-Cola to give up the Huiyuan trademark after the acquisition. If that is true, than it implies that the merger would not have set up any competitive obstacles or restrictions. The problem still seems to be wrapped up with the preservation of national brands and other non-legal issues.

March 20, 2009

Multitasking Tehran

I don't quite follow Stephen Hayes' point here. He's clearly bothered by President Obama's Nowruz message to the Iranians, yet he makes no mention of Obama's hard power efforts to compliment this soft power gesture. Hayes asks "haven't Iran's leaders made that choice [between destroying or building relations]? They are supporting Hamas, Hezbollah, and yes, al Qaeda."

This argument strikes me as somewhat bizarre. Why does Hayes assume that Iran - after all of the empires and autocrats the United States has conquered and quelled - will be among the few unreasonable regimes that never bend to such overtures? Furthermore, why is it impossible for Obama to both pressure and engage the Iranians?

Countless American presidents have gone about things in this manner. The United States maintained open channels with the Soviet Union, even during the chilliest of Cold War feelings. George Bush, Sr. sternly demanded that Saddam Hussein withdraw from Iraq, yet, without much trouble, worked through the international community to pressure and leverage Hussein away from the option of conflict with the United States.

Indeed, even George W. Bush managed to label Iran as 'evil,' sanction the regime, and then simultaneously engage in Iraqi security talks with them. So why does Hayes believe that this particular president is incapable of handling such a multitask?

And Obama clearly intends to pursue every option, as his renewal of Iranian sanctions and negotiations with Moscow seem to indicate.

So why is Hayes so annoyed?


On a related note, I think Michael Crowley raises the right flags on excessively placating the Iranians:

Could this time be different? Maybe. Albright did not use words like "apologize" or "sorry" (although Kenneth Pollack, who was then working on Iran issues at the National Security Council, describes the statement as an "apology" in his book The Persian Puzzle). Nor did she mention Iran Air flight 655. Maybe a new statement from Obama, one that is more contrite and discusses the shoot-down, would move Khamenei and friends. Or maybe this is just one more Iranian stalling tactic.

In that very same book, Pollack offers up a possible solution: we both apologize. The U.S. apologizes for the coup, and Tehran apologizes for the hostage crisis.

I'm a fan of this idea, as I think it forces both sides to eat a little crow, and more importantly, it helps to calm some of the ideological differences we've had over the years. These differences, we must remember, have been formed by events. Remove those from the table and you're off to a good start.


Kirchick adds his own greeting to the Iranians.

Keeping the Peace


Guy Sorman at City Journal gives us the Navy's view on why it's necessary to patrol the Pacific:

How dangerous and unstable would Asia become without the Seventh Fleet? The Navy points to two different threats. The first is China, which has territorial claims against most of its neighbors. Taiwan comes immediately to mind, of course, but the Chinese government is also disputing ownership of the oil-rich Spratly Islands with Vietnam and the Philippines. If North Korea were to collapse, moreover, the Chinese Army could take over its territory before South Korea or the U.S. had time to intervene. China is building a very large deepwater fleet—the first in its history. (South Korea and Japan are similarly increasing their naval power.) Thus far, this Chinese fleet seldom moves far from China’s territorial waters, something that surprises the Seventh Fleet leadership. The lack of a high-seas tradition, perhaps?

The other peril comes from Islamic terrorism: a loose network of al-Qaida affiliates operating in East Java, northern Sumatra, the southern Philippines, and southern Thailand.

One of the conversations we're going to need to start having as China becomes more powerful is whether we're defending Pacific sea lanes for China or from China. Right now, it sounds like the latter. That's clearly going to become untenable as China's power grows.

Territorial disputes notwithstanding, China also benefits from global trade, and particularly trade with Japan and Taiwan. They have a strong interest in the free flow of goods through the Pacific, so the ideal situation is to have the U.S. Navy make room for a China that recognizes itself as a stakeholder in the current international system, and not as the vanguard of a new one. This would not only improve Pacific security, but defray its costs, which today are born exclusively by the U.S. taxpayer.

Of course, the Chinese may not be interested in a shared responsibility and may view Asia as an exclusive sphere. They may view U.S. policing efforts as containment measures - which will, in turn, invest their territorial disputes with new found geopolitical meaning. Then we're going to have to decide which of China's territorial claims are worth opposing with American blood and treasure.

Photo via SqueakyMarmot under a Creative Commons license.

Nicaragua to US: Gimme, Gimme


Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega is back in the news.

The first item has to do with 1,051 SA-7 air defense missiles left over from the Sandinista-Contra war of the 1980s. The National Assembly had blocked former President Enrique Bolaños from making good on his promise to destroy the missiles. Ortega insists the missiles are still fire-ready after nearly thirty years, but will reopen talks with the US to destroy 651 of them in exchange for US medical supplies, should the U.S. create the proper "conditions.'" Nicaragua will "keep 400 missiles for our aerial defense.” said Ortega.

The second item has to do with last November's municipal elections. Watchdog group Ethics and Transparency found electoral fraud and violations to 10 articles of Nicaragua's Electoral Code, while the ruling party claimed "an overwhelming victory." Riding in this dispute is $62 million in frozen U.S. development aid:

Business leaders worry that if Washington decides to permanently cut its aid under the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), other European countries and international lending institutions would follow, spelling disaster for the hemisphere's second-poorest nation behind Haiti.

The MCC, which has already contracted more than $90 million of the original $175 million compact awarded to Nicaragua in 2005, will meet in June to make its final decision on the remaining $62 million yet to be allocated for infrastructure and landtitling programs.

The Ortega government says the subject is not open to discussion, "not even with historians," insisting that Nicaraguans and the world "forget about the elections," and accuses the US of "taking bread from the poor."

The third item was clearly meant for domestic consumption but made it to the international news, via Venezuela's Noticias 24 (my translation): Ortega calls the US "cheapskate" over aid to fight drug trafficking: During a speech for 254 officers of the National Police, Ortega stated that last year the National Police had seized $370 millions' worth of drugs originating from Colombia and destined to the US, plus 12,000 weapons. Remarking that the US only provides Nicaragua with $1.4 million to fight drug traffic, Ortega requested that the US send Nicaragua half of the $370 million.

As if.

But that's not what has Nicaragua's neighbors worried: Ortega announced that the country is open to all and any tourist visitors from any country, without requiring visas. Costa Rica is concerned that international trafficking groups can now move people to other countries like Costa Rica and the US. Inside Costa Rica mentions Chinese and Russians, but readers of this blog know that Iranians are already heading to Nicaragua.

March 19, 2009

Promises, Promises


One of the sore spots in the increasingly frayed relationship between U.S. and Russia is NATO's expansion into former Warsaw Pact territory. The Russians have complained bitterly about it and have even alleged that the U.S. initially promised not to expand NATO during the dissolution of the Soviet Empire, only to go back on their word shortly after.

In the most recent Washington Quarterly, Mark Kramer says the Russian line is bunk:

The recent declassification of crucial archival materials in Germany, Russia, the United States, and numerous other European countries finally allows for clarification on the basis of contemporaneous records.

The documents from all sides...undermine the notion that the United States or otherWestern countries ever pledged not to expand NATO beyond Germany. The British, French, U.S., and West German governments did make certain commitments in 1990 about NATO’s role in eastern Germany, commitments that are all laid out in the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, but no Western leader ever offered any ‘‘pledge’’ or ‘‘commitment’’ or ‘‘categorical assurances’’ about NATO’s role vis-a`-vis the rest of the Warsaw Pact countries. Indeed, the issue never came up during the negotiations on German reunification, and Soviet leaders at the time never claimed that it did. Not until several years later, long after Germany had been reunified and the USSR had dissolved, did former Soviet officials begin insisting that the United States had made a formal commitment in 1990 not to bring any of the former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO.

None of this touches on the wisdom of NATO expansion but it does serve as a useful reminder that Russian complaints about said expansion aren't rooted in the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

A Hot New Rising Star in Russian Politics

I guess this can be presented as "Sarah Palin, watch out! - you got a young, sexy competitor in Russia!" That is at least the gist of the Yahoo Buzz post by Mike Kumboltz about Marya Sergeyeva, a 24-year-old speaker for the Russian youth movement. No need to paraphrase here - this is what the post says:

"The U.K.'s Daily Mail writes that she is the "leading propagandist" of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Critics believe she is being used by Putin to drum up support from Russia's youth. She's certainly carving out a nice career for herself. Sergeyeva is widely believed to be on her way to a government ministry position. Her ultimate ambition, apparently, is to rule Russia.

The Daily Mail goes on to explain that Sergeyeva is "a leading light of the Young Guards, a youthful and growing band of zealots dedicated to resisting any efforts to stop Putin's inexorable Russian revolution." Not exactly a nonpartisan statement, but Sergeyeva isn't exactly nonpartisan herself. The Daily Mail writes that the rising star has called for immigrants to "go home." She also blasts those who criticize Putin and believes that the United States wants Russia to be "weak." The Kyiv Post compares her to Ann Coulter.

While her statements and speeches are debatable, we've noticed that many folks are more intrigued by her looks than her remarks. Searches on her name are up 454% this week, and "maria sergeyeva pictures" are also on the march. Some have labeled her "Putin's pinup," but others believe that focusing on her looks discounts the impact she may have on the world stage.

One thing is for sure: She's an attractive and controversial political figure who sometimes poses in revealing attire. Just one of those three components is usually enough to guarantee a person some buzz. Add 'em together and the possibilities are endless ..."

Do check out the links in this article - they give the term "interesting" a new meaning.

March 18, 2009

Positive Russian Response to Hagel-Hart Paper

Russian political establishment is reviewing the Hagel-Hart initiative on Russia, outlined on March 16 in Washington, DC. "The position outlined in the report is very sound - even more robust than might be expected of any American group," Fyodor Lukyanov, chief editor of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs told Izvestia daily paper. "Here, we have the opinions of the 'realist school,' the most 'pro-Russian' part of the establishment. It's not that these people are so fond of Russia - they simply believe that America needs a pragmatic approach to all issues.

"Their view contrasts sharply with the position of the previous administration, which combined ideology and arrogance, thus disrespecting the real value of Russia in world affairs. Its very important that what is recommended is the removal from the bilateral agenda the two issues of most annoyance to Moscow - the expansion of NATO in the post-Soviet space and the deployment of missile defense elements in Eastern Europe. But this is only one approach, and it will never be taken up in its pure form."

Lukyanov further states: "The U.S. foreign policy towards any country - including Russia - is a result of many intersecting interests. And even if Obama, Hillary Clinton and other 'interested parties' agree with the truth of these expert findings, they still have to adopt them in an ideological environment that is acceptable to the public, in order to avoid the impression that the new administration has 'retreated' on a given issue. In America, there are enough politicians, especially among the Republicans, who only wait for the moment to reproach Obama that he exhibited signs of weakness."

Poll: US & the War on Terror


The prolific Rasmussen is out with new results:

Confidence in the War on Terror rose this month, with 51% of likely voters saying the U.S. and its allies are winning.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 21% think the terrorists are winning, while 22% think neither side has the advantage.

More results at the jump.

U.S. Air Force Airmen from the 506th Expeditionary Civil Engineering Squadron's explosive ordnance disposal team use C-4 plastic explosives to destroy unexploded ordnance found during weapons proficiency training Feb. 28, 2008, on Warrior Range in Kirkuk, Iraq. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel Bendet, U.S. Air Force. (www.army.mil)

1* Who is winning the War on Terrorism…the United States and its allies or the terrorists?

51% United States and its allies

21% Terrorists

22% Neither

6% Not sure

2* Over the next six months, will the situation in Iraq get better or worse?

40% Better

25% Worse

24% Stay about the same

11% Not sure

3* In the long run, will America’s mission in Iraq be judged a success or a failure?

37% Success

34% Failure

29% Not sure

4* Overall, how would you rate President Bush’s handling of the situation in Iraq…Excellent, good, fair, or poor?

20% Excellent

26% Good

32% Fair

19% Poor
3% Not sure

5* Is the United States today safer than it was before the 9/11 terrorist attacks?

49% Yes

30% No

21% Not sure

Standing Athwart History

Fareed Zakaria certainly touched a nerve over at Foreign Policy's Shadow Government blog with this assertion:

The problem with American foreign policy goes beyond George Bush. It includes a Washington establishment that has gotten comfortable with the exercise of American hegemony and treats compromise as treason and negotiations as appeasement. Other countries can have no legitimate interests of their own—Russian demands are by definition unacceptable. The only way to deal with countries is by issuing a series of maximalist demands. This is not foreign policy; it's imperial policy. And it isn't likely to work in today's world.

Peter Feaver responds here. Christain Brose argues:

The real sticking point is how a Syria or a Russia defines some of its "interests." Damascus's desire to dominate Lebanon is not an interest. Nor is Russia's attempt to create a sphere of influence in its old imperial stomping grounds and prevent sovereign nations from making free choices about their own foreign policies. Such "interests" should be, in Zakaria's words, "by definition unacceptable."

I think this only serves to confirm Zakaria's point. According to Brose, the U.S. is the arbiter of which interests are legitimate, and which are not. And the standard is not exactly uniform. The Russians can't exercise a "veto" over nations directly on their border, but when the U.S. decides it wants to travel halfway around the world and depose Saddam Hussein on the grounds that he's an intolerable threat to our interests, that's acceptable. The Russians can't have a sphere of influence immediately adjacent their national border, but the U.S. can claim the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the Western Hemisphere as arenas of its primacy and veto the foreign policy decisions of governments therein. The Russians can't corner the Central Asian energy market through cozy relationships with dictators and related thugs, but the U.S.-Saudi alliance is another matter - one born of a mutual and abiding respect for pluralism and human rights. Or something.

Zakaria is making the fairly obvious observation that global hegemony has had a toxic effect on how the U.S. defines her interests. We have conflated the maintenance of our global power with the protection of the American way of life. That connection clearly held during the Cold War, when the U.S. faced a global adversary. But it's anachronistic today and, indeed, dangerous. No great power lasts forever. It is folly to think that we have unlocked the secret to perpetual dominance.

Standing athwart history and yelling stop may be a reasonable strategy on issues of domestic culture, but it's dangerous in foreign policy. Raging against the inevitable is a strategy that will ensure America's relative decline over the next several decades is unnecessarily disruptive, costly, and perhaps even bloody. Zakaria is right to warn against it.

Poll: Pakistan's View of Terrorism

Pew Research takes the pulse of Pakistan:

Surveys by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project have found progressively lower levels of acceptance of suicide bombing as well as waning confidence in Osama bin Laden. There is only modest support among Pakistanis for al Qaeda or the Taliban. And few agree with their widely noted tactic of preventing education for girls.

Nonetheless, while the trends are positive, sizeable minorities still embrace extremism -- for instance, one-in-three continue to express confidence in bin Laden, who many intelligence analysts believe is hiding somewhere in western Pakistan. And while most Pakistanis are worried about religious extremism, polling by the International Republican Institute (IRI) suggests they are not convinced the Pakistani army should be used to fight radical groups. Instead, most would prefer making a peace deal with extremists.

To the extent that success in Afghanistan hinges on Pakistan expelling (or killing or jailing) the jihadists in their midst, it would appear we still have a ways to go.

March 17, 2009

Tehran-ology and Khatami

Last week, in response to my post on the subject, Matt Duss of Wonk Room had the following to say about my take on internal Iranian politics:

Sullivan writes that to “focus narrowly on Khamenei and the Royal [sic] Guard, would put us in the same place we were in the 1970s: out of touch with the situation on the ground, and disconnected from the concerns of ordinary Iranians. These decisions, as President Carter learned in 1979, have an impact on foreign policy.”

This is a little odd. We were out of touch with the situation on the ground in Iran in the 1970s mainly because we were the deeply committed sponsor of an oppressive Iranian regime that represented the crux of U.S. regional security strategy. That regime was overthrown, then they kicked us out. It’s a rather different situation now.

I don't wish to split too many hairs here, because it's my hunch that Duss and I are mostly in 9/10 of agreement and are merely debating the remainder. Nonetheless, I take a bit of an issue with his recollection of the Iranian policy time line.

Yes, we supported the Shah. But we supported that Shah for over two decades, and through five administrations. Some took different tracks with the Shah - Kennedy thought very little of the man, whereas Nixon and Kissinger trusted him implicitly - and applied different levels of pressure and leverage upon him to alter his policies. In truth, the United States had less control over the oil-rich Pahlavi by the 1970s than in previous years. But the primary mistake made by all of these men was to view the Iranian state in the context of one, monolithic figure. The revolution took years to brew, but ultimately, our failings in Iran were logistical. We understood very little about the country, and worse yet, knew very little about what fueled popular discontent. Because the Shah seemed mostly capable, we considered all other power centers in the country to be malleable and moot.

And this fundamental misunderstanding is as prevalent today as it was in 1979. As Ilan Goldenberg noted in his response to Duss, the system in Iran is very complex, and I'll add, overly bureaucratized and corrupt. Yes, American foreign policy must begin with the Supreme Leader, but it must also consider the president (often the public face on the regime), and while you're at it, you should probably make sure people like Mohammad Ali Jafari are in the room. These are just a handful of the powerful figures - representing entire factions - in Iran.

And that's why we must follow their presidential elections closely. Much less than the eventual outcome itself, these elections do in fact offer us insights we were sadly lacking prior to the revolution. With the departure from the race of Mohammad Khatami, we may in fact be witnessing the formation of a center-right coalition intent on ousting controversial President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This may, according to Meir Javedanfar, have been at the behest and consultation of the Supreme Leader himself. As Meir notes, Khatami is a rather divisive figure in Iran, and were he to even win, it could be difficult for the former president to actually govern once elected.

Shmuel Rosner believes Khatami's withdrawal assures re-election for Ahmadinejad in June. Perhaps. Regardless, these are matters that the Obama administration must take into consideration when debating how, where and when to engage the Iranians. Acting too soon or too overtly could strengthen the wrong candidate, which thus far Obama seems reticent to do.

March 16, 2009

Poll: U.S. Troops On Mexican Border

Apropos the Word's Most Dangerous Cities, Rasmussen has a new poll out showing strong U.S. support for deploying the military along the border with Mexico:

Seventy-nine percent (79%) of U.S. voters now say the military should be used along the border with Mexico to protect American citizens if drug-related violence continues to grow in that area.

This marks a 21-point jump in support for the use of the U.S. military along the border in just two months.

Only 10% now say the military should not be used in that fashion, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. Eleven percent (11%) are not sure.

A U.S. Army National Guard soldier, a member of an entry identification team, watches the U.S./Mexico border near Nogales, Ariz., on Jan. 17, 2007. National Guard soldiers and airmen participating in operation Jump Start are acting as the eyes and ears for the Border Patrol in securing the border. DoD photo by Sgt. Jim Greenhill, U.S. Army. (Released)

Why Khatami Withdrew

With 87 days to go before Iran's presidential elections, the air is already thick with excitement. Usually, big events happen within a month before elections. But this time, we are witnessing them almost three months prior to the big day. This is mainly due to the added importance of these elections, owing to Iran's current controversial president, and the fact that he will likely run again.

One of the first major developments was the candidacy of former President Mohammad Khatami. He kept his supporters waiting and guessing for months before he ultimately confirmed his participation.

However, after just six weeks in the race, Khatami has now decided to drop out. According to the Washington Post, the popular Iranian cleric did this "for the sake of the reformist front ... and to avoid splitting the vote."

This is a valid reason from Khatami. In 2005, the reformists and moderates competed against each other, and this only helped Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In 2009, the mission of beating Ahmadinejad is so important that egos are being set aside. Simply put, for the reformists, it is more preferable to delay political ambitions than to see Ahmadinejad win another term of office. The importance of this can not be overlooked, as in Iranian politics (like that of many other countries), many politician's egos and reputations are prioritized over the welfare of the people.

Why Back Mousavi?

According to a recent survey in the Tehran based Alef News, 22,472 people from Tehran and 32 other Iranian cities were asked questions about the upcoming presidential elections.

Amongst other questions, the participants from Iran's 32 major cities (excluding Tehran) were asked:

If the elections were held tomorrow, who would you vote for?

46.5% said Ahmadinejad
33.5% said Khatami
4.2% said Ghalibaf (current Tehran Mayor)
1.9% said Ayatollah Karoubi (former Majles speaker)
1.7% said Mousavi

The same question was asked of Tehran's citizens and the results were:

36.1% Ahmadinejad
34.7% Khatami
12.8% Ghalibaf
2.1% Mousavi
1.2% Karroubi

The results show that Khatami is 19 times more popular than Mousavi outside of Tehran, and at least 16 times more popular than him in the capital. So why is Khatami backing Mousavi, when he himself is far more popular?

The answer to this question could be related to consultations between the Supreme Leader (Khamenei) and Khatami. Most probably, Khatami realized that if he is elected, the conservatives, out of spite would not allow him to make any reforms. This is because he is a much more controversial figure. This was seen when the ultra right-wing newspaper Keyhan ran an article in which it talked about the possible assassination of Khatami.

With Iran's economy in dire straits, Khamenei does not need such a polarizing figure as Khatami. Also, the conservatives would make life impossible for him, as they tried during his presidency between 1997 – 2005. More infighting and lack of reforms to repair the damage caused to the economy could severely damage the foundation of Khamenei's rule.

Being unable to carry out important reform would also damage Khatami's credibility as well. This is most likely why Khatami decided to throw his weight behind Mir Hosein Mousavi.

Mousavi, like Khatami, is a reformist. However, there are two clear differences between them, based on their background.

One is the fact that compared to Khatami, his relationship with Khamenei is better. We should not forget that when Khamenei himself was president (1981-89), Mousavi was his Prime Minister. The two had a close eight-year working relationship. If elected, Mousavi would be able to open more doors than Khatami. The Supreme Leader will be more sympathetic to him. This would deter conservatives from creating too many challenges for him.

Secondly, those within the conservative movement who are leery of Ahmadinejad will have an easier time voting for Mousavi than for Khatami. In other words, Mousavi will be better at stealing votes from Ahmadinejad and building a viable electoral coalition.

If Mousavi is elected, what would happen to:

The Nuclear Program

The president is not in charge of the nuclear program. However, if elected, Mousavi could give the reformists a stronger lobbying position with the Supreme Leader. He could urge him to suspend uranium enrichment, or to show flexibility, if that is what he sees as critical and necessary in order to save the economy and to bring Iran out of isolation.

However, if Mousavi feels that Iran is close to the bomb, and the economic and diplomatic price is worth paying, then he may refrain from calling for more compromise.

Negotiations with the United States

It is quite likely that Mousavi would back talks with the US, as means of enabling Iran to break out of international isolation, and to help consolidate Iran's position in the Middle East.


Mousavi will be a far less controversial figure. This is an easy task, as compared to Ahmadinejad, who by comparison makes everyone else seem less contentious. If elected, it is very likely that we will see an end to questions about The Holocaust, and statements calling Israel a "dirty microbe."

However, like any Iranian president, he will support the Palestinian cause and condemn Israel's actions and policies towards Hamas and Hezbollah.

Although many Israeli officials will be relieved to hear an end to the insulting verbal attacks by Ahmadinejad, some could soon miss him. In the search for sticks, Israel, the EU and the US had to go to the United Nations Security Council. This was a long and laborious effort.

But Ahmadinejad, with his contentious statements and isolating rhetoric, was giving sticks away by the dozen, and for free. Mousavi's election could spell the end of such bargains.

Meir Javedanfar runs the Middle East Analyst blog.

The World Without Us


In the current issue of Democracy, Charles Kupchan and Adam Mount, say we should abandon the quasi-utopian dreams on both the right and left for a Western dominated world order and instead begin accommodating ourselves to a world of greater political diversity.

Instead, the United States should take the lead in constructing a more pluralist international order. Were Washington to orchestrate the arrival of this next order, it would not denigrate the accomplishments of democracy, but rather demonstrate an abiding confidence in the values the West holds dear and in the ability of liberal forms of government to outperform and ultimately prevail against authoritarian alternatives. Cultivating new stakeholders, carefully devolving international responsibility to regional actors, and placing the international economy on a more stable footing will also allow the United States the respite needed to focus on rebuilding the foundations of its own prosperity.

The United States will be better off if it gets ahead of the curve and helps craft a new order that is sustainable than if it fights a losing battle against tectonic shifts in global politics. As Kissinger observes, "America needs to learn to discipline itself into a strategy of gradualism that seeks greatness in the accumulation of the attainable."

I suspect Kupchan and Mount are correct about the overall contours of the international system in 20-30 years, but I don't think we're going to arrive there by dint of any coherent strategy on behalf of the U.S. Just as containment was cobbled together across a diverse array of bureaucrats and politicians with conflicting visions, America's "post hegemony" phase will mostly consist of ad-hoc adjustments to new realities.

Photo via Stephen Moore under Creative Commons license.

March 15, 2009

Russia: Crisis Forces Food Reduction

Russian economy begun to actively respond to the needs and demands of the local population by drastically slashing the amount of food and agricultural imports to the country. That does not bode well for the Russian people nor for the import-export sector which rose in trade volume over the last few years. Before the advent of the crisis in 2008, many staple food products were imported, since the vast agricultural potential of the Russian Federation that has not been realized following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In February 2009, Russia reduced food imports to 21.8% compared to February 2008, as reported by the Federal Customs Service: "Thanks to the devaluation of the ruble, foreign goods went up in price by more than a third, so domestic importers can not buy in the previous volumes. Additionally, local demand leaves much to be desired due to the crisis."

According to the official data, Russia imported less than half the alcohol as compared with last year - a first-of-a-kind reduction in the last 8 years. Import of fish and sea products fell by a third, import of milk products fell by almost 37%, while most felt are going to be reduction of meat and beef products by an estimated 11%. Russian domestic producers cannot yet satisfy the domestic demand with locally grown meat products, and general population still relies on foreign exporters.

The crisis is going to be a serious concern for the bulk population of former Soviet Union, states the sociological polling company "Research & Branding Group." For example, when asked if they are very concerned because of the current crisis, 62% of Ukrainian respondents, 56% of Russians, and 30% of Belorussians answered affirmatively. Additionally, 64% of Ukrainians admitted that in the last month their incomes were reduced, while for Russia and Belarus the numbers were 56% and 46.8%, respectively. And 67% of Ukrainians, 43% of Russians and 30% of Belorussians began actively saving money. The only "positive" indicator for Ukraine were slightly lower unemployment numbers - 17% of Russians, 13% of Ukrainians and 8% of Belorussians lost their jobs. Moreover, 25% of Ukrainian citizens were affected by the delay of salary payments, compared to 21% in Russia and 11% in Belarus. Ukraine"led" in another unflattering category- rise in crime - 16% of Ukrainians, 11% of Russians and 6% of Belorussians personally experienced increased crime in their country.

Economic experts recognize that the economic crisis in Ukraine is indeed serious, but the situation is not that much better in neighboring countries. According to the economist Andrei Blinov, "In Russia, the industrial production is falling more than 10% compared to the same period last year. Only in Belarus, the effects of the crisis are not as tangible as its economy is more domestically-oriented. Its banking system was already weak even before the crisis, and there were few consumer loans granted."

Experts also believe that the lives of former Soviet compatriots are not worse than their neighbors. "In Ukraine, people were preparing for a crisis for a long time, but did it so awkwardly that now the population is more scared rather than realize how exactly this situation has affected it," according to political analyst Andrei Yermolayev. He was confident that Ukrainian citizens are concerned about the coming future challenges, while Kiev's permanent political crisis continues to further dramatize the situation. "Our people see that instead of overcoming the crisis, politicians continue to struggle with each other. And if politicians will not overcome economic hardship, who then would do it?" A similar point of view is espoused by political expert Vladimir Fesenko: "Ukrainians are accustomed to being the victims, they were taught to cry and complain about it, and politicians contributed to that state of being. Our fellow citizens think that almost all the troubles can be blamed on external enemies. This historical "victim" complex is now manifested in full."

While the crisis continues to affect the population, Russian leadership is preparing to solidify its gains from the August 2008 war with Georgia. South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoiti promised on March 11 that the land for the Russian military and border police bases in South Ossetia will be granted for 99 years. "The Administration of the South Ossetian Republic has decided to allocate land for the deployment of Russian border guards in the country for 99 years. I think that land for the Russian military bases will be allocated for the same time period. The last word in this matter is after the Parliament of South Ossetia", noted the President of the breakaway Georgian enclave.

He expressed hope that a South Ossetian-Russian agreement on joint border defense with Georgia and the deployment of Russian military bases on the republic's territory will be signed shortly. "An agreement between the finance ministries of both countries will be signed soon. I want to emphasize that there are no contradictions between Moscow and Tskhinvali on the rebuilding of the republic, which was a victim of Georgian aggression."

Chinese Sphere: Rubber Stamp and Baseball

The Chinese government wrapped up its annual dual legislative sessions last week with 97.4% of the 2,898 representatives voting their approval for Premier Wen Jiabao’s work report that set an economic growth rate for 2009 of 8%. Although largely seen as rubber stamp parliaments, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has in recent years tried to play up their credentials as the voices of the people in response to citizens’ desires to have a greater say in public affairs. In the Southern Metropolis Daily, one of China’s leading commercial newspapers, an op-ed written by a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law criticizes the sub-optimal quality of the briefings given by government leaders. From these criticisms, one can get an idea of what these legislative sessions can be like:

1. Briefings focus on accomplishments foremost, then problems. Talk of accomplishments take up at least half of the time or more and avoid urgent, real-world issues that need to be resolved. …

2. Paucity in thought, tedium in language. New political ideals proposed by the ruling party and the government are not further explored. Instead, briefings mechanically repeat the contents of the official press, turning working meetings into empty propaganda sessions. …

3. Repetitive speech, twisted logic. A briefing that can be done in half an hour often ends up taking two to three hours to complete. Because the briefing is devoid of any real content, the speaker must resort to employing repetition, meaningless words, and twisted logic. It is as if a briefing’s level of importance is related to its length. …

4. Extremely irresponsible secretaries. Leaders are busy people and some of their speeches need to be written by their secretaries. This is all understandable. However, judging by the text of their briefings, we can clearly see that some secretaries are not only irresponsible, but are flagrantly so. Some briefings are repetitions of past reports. Some are probably copied and pasted together on a computer. There are some reports that have tens of thousands of words, but only 3-4,000 of them are of any use.

Furthermore, these briefings all bear the name of government leaders or organizations. These types of reports are printed out and passed out to everyone for “study.” Isn’t this absurd and a disgrace to the leadership? Shouldn’t this kind of secretary be replaced?

In baseball-crazy Taiwan, fans were reeling last week after their national team’s 4-1 loss in the World Baseball Classic (WBC). With a past history of placing decently in the Olympics and other international baseball competitions, this defeat at the hands of their cross-Strait neighbor is especially humiliating because the Chinese government only started focusing on baseball a few years ago. This was not only Taiwan’s second straight loss to China following the Beijing Olympics, but it also made them the first team to be forced out of contention for the WBC championship.

An editorial in the Apple Daily, one of the highest circulating papers in Taiwan, states:

It would not be surprising if Taiwan lost to Japan or Korea, but to lose to China was a big surprise and disappointment, because we have already long recognized that Japan and Korea are stronger than us, and we have already long lost our resolve and will to beat them. Without the will to defeat stronger teams, we will lose to weaker ones, especially now that China is not the dabbler of the past. It is like the high jump – if we want to scale 1.8 meters, our goal should be to scale 2 meters. If we want to defeat China, than our goal should be to defeat Korea. If we want to defeat Korea, our goal should be to beat Japan. How can a team that was slapped together and lacking any chemistry hope to defeat one that is well-trained and disciplined?

Taiwan’s baseball team is like the latter-Qing Dynasty’s Eight Banner Army -- its glory is a thing of the past. Its might and power has also faded. Taiwanese baseball has long been weakened by gambling, game-fixing, alcoholism, internal struggles, greed, sex, and organized crime. Players that grow up in this kind of culture are undisciplined, lackadaisical in training, and weak in their resolve to win.

From my own recent stint in the Taiwanese military, I would say that the island’s baseball travails could serve as an appropriate metaphor for its current cross-Strait situation.

March 14, 2009

A Financial Balance of Terror?


Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is worried about the U.S. economy. That makes two of us. Still, his worries carry a tad more weight considering the $1 trillion in U.S. debt Jiabao's government owns. That figuring is staggering, the largest debt holding in the world, according to the Times, and many smart minds are trying to wrap themselves around the geopolitical implications of it.

Is this a matter of what some could rightly call America's domestic irresponsibility (spending immensely more than we earn) having serious foreign policy implications? Our debt fueled spending spree placing us in a position of weakness vis-a-vis a potential rival? Or is it a useful dynamic that will solidify a peaceful (if occasionally tense) relationship between the U.S. and China?

I lean toward the latter. The U.S. and China are locked in what Larry Summers has dubbed "a financial balance of terror." As with the nuclear balance of terror, both sides would suffer immense losses if direct hostilities broke out. This balance gives both nations a strong interest in not upsetting the applecart through, among other things, a shooting war. (The Taiwanese just announced an end to military conscription, so perhaps they buy into the theory too.)

That's not to say that the U.S. should sink deeper into debt to advance world peace. Just that America's substantial debt to China might not be so detrimental to U.S. security interests as it initially appears.

Of course, Norman Angell said as much of Britain and the Germany in 1913, and if memory serves, that didn't work out so well.

Photo via Yonanimus under a Creative Commons License.

Poll: U.S. & the United Nations

Via Rasmussen:

Sixty-six percent (66%) of U.S. voters said America should continue to participate in the United Nations. Twenty-four percent (24%) think the United States should not stay in the international organization, and 10% are not sure.

Democrats are much more bullish on the United Nations than Republicans. While 84% of Democratic voters say America should continue to be in the United Nations, just 48% of Republicans agree. Thirty-eight percent (38%) of GOP voters believe the United States should not participate in the organization, compared to only eight percent (8%) of Democrats.

Among voters not affiliated with either party, 61% favor continued participation in the Untied Nations, while 30% are opposed.

Eighty-eight percent (88%) of liberals and 77% of moderates think America should still participate in the international body, but conservatives are much more closely divided, favoring continued involvement by just six points.

This poll was taken before Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the U.S. a "deadbeat" so perhaps the numbers have shifted a bit.

March 13, 2009

Sarko and Bruni's Excellent Mexican Adventure


Having been to Rio last December, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni are now in Mexico.

The visit, which started last Friday, has generated a fair amount of controversy since the couple started their stay in Mexico with two nights at a mansion in the exclusive resort of El Tamarindo. The mansion is owned by a friend of Mexican president Felipe Calderon. The UK's Mail estimates the cost of the stay at £45,000. As they did in Brazil, two naval vessels carried out patrols in the ocean, while helicopters flew overhead.

On Sunday, before the start of the official state visit, the couple toured Aztec ruins in Teotihuacán with Mexican President Felipe Calderón and his wife Margarita Zavala. Mexico's El Universal described the occasion as Calderón-Sarkozy: a meeting in the land of the gods, which contrasts with other tourists' annoyance at having the archeological site closed two hours ahead of schedule for the dignataries' photo-op.

The big story in both countries was the Florence Cassez case: Cassez was sentenced to sixty years in prison after having been arrested at her Mexican boyfriend's house. She claimed not to know that he was the leader of the Zodiacs kidnapping gang and that there were three hostages in the house. During Sarkozy's state visit on Monday the two governments announced that they would create a commission to study the case and make a report and recommendations in three weeks. This is a very sensitive case in Mexico because of increased public pressure to halt what is perceived as impunity by criminals in a country with the highest kidnapping rate in the world.

The trip was not simply a photo-op and an agreement on a legal issue. Sarkozy seeks to boost access of French companies to the region. During the state visit he addressed the Mexican Senate.

On the business front, Forbes and Bloomberg report

France’s security and defense company Thales will sign today a contract with Mexico City to develop a video-surveillance network aimed at curbing gang violence. Thales will jointly build the close-circuit television (CCTV) system with billionaire Carlos Slim’s Telmex Internacional SAB, according to French newspaper Le Monde.
France offered support in the fight against crime,
"We are ready to receive Mexican equipment in French police laboratories. We are willing to send equipment to Mexico.

"We would like to help Mexico resolve this problem which causes so much distress such as insecurity."

Additionally, EADS will open a helicopter plant in Mexico. Six helicopters will also be used on the battle against drug traffic, but the plant's market will be other countries in the hemisphere.

The main subject of the discussion during the state visit was the upcoming G20 summit and the countries' response to the global economic crisis.

As the US apparently rethinks its NAFTA commitments, Mexico and France are not sitting still and are finding common ground. Mexico clearly wants to diversify its trade, 80% of which currently is with the US.

In other French news: Thursday Sarkozy announced that France is to return to NATO's military command.

March 12, 2009


I believe Matt Duss (via Matt Yglesias) is making a couple of critical errors in this Iran/Soviet Union comparison:

During the Cold War, “Kremlinology” was a term for the practice of attempting to determine the workings of the Soviet government, and which leaders or factions were on the rise or decline at a given moment. U.S. analysts often (and often wrongly) drew clues from such things as who was standing where during the May Day parade, who was lunching with whom, who got the best seats at the Bolshoi Theater.

A couple of stories out of Iran provide good opportunity to argue against a similar sort of approach — call it Tehran-ology — that tries to determine an approach toward Iran based upon perceived political trends among Iranian elites.


While inviting Iran to the upcoming conference on Afghanistan seems like a prudent move — engaging Iran first on a key area of mutual concern rather than going after the big issues outright — it’s important to remember that [Supreme Leader] Khamenei is the main arbiter of Iran’s foreign policy. Regardless of who is favored at the moment or what trends are extant, as Karim Sadjadpour told Middle East Progress last month, any approach “that aims to ignore, bypass or undermine Khamenei is guaranteed to fail.”

It is indeed true that Ayatollah Khamenei's leadership apparatus has final (and more accurately, appellate) control over Iran's foreign policy, however it's false to argue that the presidency is without clout or efficacy. Iranian presidents - like Rafsanjani in the late 1980s, and Khatami in the late 1990s - have challenged the Leader on matters of economic isolation, domestic security and the freedoms of Iranian citizens.

And Iranian presidents have affected American foreign policy decisions. When, for instance, President Bill Clinton had reason to believe that the Iranians played a role in the Khobar Towers bombing, he ultimately failed to act on that intelligence due to what appeared to be a moderating and reform-minded Iran under Mohammad Khatami. Khatami's presence may have seemed cosmetic at the time, but it wasn't to average Iranians. The victor of this June's presidential election may serve as a telling reflection of Iranian domestic discontent over Iran's position in the world, and more importantly, their dissatisfaction with this regime's inability to improve economic conditions at home.

The second problem with Duss' argument is demographic in nature. The Soviet Union implemented domestic policies that eventually led to the depopulation we're currently witnessing in Russia. By contrast, as a result of decrees made by Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1980s, Iran is currently experiencing its own version of a baby boom. The median age in Iran is right around 26, and a clear majority of Iranians are under the age of 30. These people are removed from the dogmatic days of the revolution, as well as the war of attrition against Iraq.

To ignore these elections, and instead focus narrowly on Khamenei and the Royal Guard, would put us in the same place we were in the 1970s: out of touch with the situation on the ground, and disconnected from the concerns of ordinary Iranians. These decisions, as President Carter learned in 1979, have an impact on foreign policy.

I think the Obama administration has handled this dynamic pretty well so far, making sure not to undermine any particular faction in Tehran. It's certainly true that Obama will need to deal with the Supreme Leader's office, but doing so at the expense of popular consent in Iran could be a bad rerun that Americans certainly don't want to see again.

Pakistan and the Predator


The Washington Times notes a study conducted by the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy that surveyed 550 people living in areas of Pakistan subjected to Predator Drone strikes. The results are certainly interesting:

Between last November and January AIRRA sent five teams, each made up of five researchers, to the parts of FATA that are often hit by American drones, to conduct a survey of public opinion about the attacks. The team visited Wana (South Waziristan), Ladda (South Waziristan), Miranshah (North Waziristan), Razmak (North Waziristan) and Parachinar (Kurram Agency). The teams handed out 650 structured questionnaires to people in the areas. The questionnaires were in Pashto, English and Urdu. The 550 respondents (100 declined to answer) were from professions related to business, education, health and transport. Following are the questions and the responses of the people of FATA.

-- Do you see drone attacks bringing about fear and terror in the common people? (Yes 45%, No 55%)

-- Do you think the drones are accurate in their strikes? (Yes 52%, No 48%)

-- Do you think anti-American feelings in the area increased due to drone attacks recently? (Yes 42%, No 58%)

-- Should Pakistan military carry out targeted strikes at the militant organizations? (Yes 70%, No 30%)

-- Do the militant organizations get damaged due to drone attacks? (Yes 60%, No 40%)

A group of researchers at AIRRA draw these conclusions from the survey. The popular notion outside the Pakhtun belt that a large majority of the local population supports the Taliban movement lacks substance. The notion that anti-Americanism in the region has not increased due to drone attacks is rejected. The study supports the notion that a large majority of the people in the Pakhtun belt wants to be incorporated with the state and wants to integrate with the rest of the world.

Obviously, this isn't the final word on whether these strikes will ultimately undermine the stability of the Pakistani government, but given the news out of the country of late, it seems that instability owes at least as much to Pakistan's dysfunctional political elite as it does America's counter-terrorism campaign in the tribal areas (it's also worth noting that Pakistan's political elite were dysfunctional long before America was waging a not-so-covert war inside the country's borders). For more on the issue see here and here.

March 11, 2009

America: The Leveraged Leviathian

Jon Hoffman, a military historian, took issue with my post on America's AIG Defense Policy.

His email is reprinted here with his permission:

I'm not sure your analogy between the financial crisis and the Dept of Defense holds up very well. The concept of financial leverage (basically using a small amount of actual money to control a much larger pool of financial assets) has no obvious connection to the way our defense program is run, except that both are bound to a degree by past actions (which could be said of just about everything). A certain amount of defense spending is tied to 'exotic' future products in the form of new technology, but I don't see the analogy of failed connection to underlying assets.

Much of the technology is in the form of improvement to legacy systems such as tanks, planes, and ships, or their ability to communicate and process information. If your point is that new spending should pursue entirely new ways of fighting that break all ties to the past, you would be making a leap of faith that would be risky in the extreme. In sum, your analogy needed much more explanation to make it clear and useful.

Your statement that the US far outspends China on defense is true but hopelessly simplistic and not very useful. A large chunk of US spending is on manpower, which costs orders of magnitude more for us than it does for China. We are also funding expensive current wars, requiring the replacement of worn equipment and other expenses that do nothing to improve capability. If you want to seriously compare our military capability to theirs, then look at the numbers and quality of troops and major weapons types. I feel confident we are still ahead of China in most areas, but not by an order of nearly 6 to 1 as you suggest. We may be well ahead in terms of nuclear weapons, but their utility is limited to dissuading the Chinese from launching that sort of attack against us and are unlikely to figure in any other scenario given the obvious constraints on actually using them.

Furthermore, while we have capable allies in the region, we cannot entirely count upon them in a crisis with China and therefore it would be imprudent to calculate their strength as if it were our own. Do you think Japan would come to the defense of Taiwan, given its constitutional and pacifist limitations? Would South Korea come to the defense of Japan, with whom it has longstanding enmity? Would Taiwan help out anywhere else in the region if China blackmailed it with threats of missile attacks?

Your overall point that we need to discipline defense spending is correct, but I think you need to employ stronger and more easily understood arguments to support it.

My response after the jump:

Fair points all. I do think the financial sector analogy could be confusing. Let me just sketch out briefly what I was driving at. When I wrote "leverage" I meant, over-committed. And Professor Hoffman's email reinforces the point - we're nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has placed a huge burden on our ground strength and led to (expensive) calls to increase the size of the Army and Marines. Throw in our Cold War-era obligations to Taiwan and South Korea, responsibilities for policing the Gulf, maintaining 865 military bases around the world and it's little wonder we're spending the money we are.

By "exotic products" I was actually referring not to hardware but to the intellectual investment in a world view that justifies these enormous expenditures as somehow essential to the security of the American people. That exotic notion is "hegemonic stability theory." Suffice it to say that anyone with a passing familiarity with empires knows that most of them expire violently and many of the former imperial powers don't age well (nor do the post-imperial nations they leave in the wake of their inevitable decline).

Finally, regarding the U.S. vs. China. I'm perfectly willing to accept the argument that we should benchmark our capabilities vs. theirs, and not our respective budgets. Still, this has to be done keeping two facts in mind: first, resources are finite. We can't expect to fight manpower intensive counter-insurgencies across the Muslim world, retain military dominance in Asia, Europe and the Middle, update our military to keep pace with China and invest in advanced R&D - all while we suffer through the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression. Second, a conflict with China is not predetermined, but the probability increases the more the U.S. asserts its right to dominate Asia. America rejected outside influence over the entire Western Hemisphere when she was a rising power and complained incessantly during the Cold War about Soviet activity in Latin America. It is a stretch to think that a rising China, with a billion people, an industrialized economy, and centuries of being a major center of world power, is going to passively accept American preeminence in her backyard.

There is definitely a case to be made that China could become an aggressive power and wield her Asian hegemony to our detriment, cutting off trade, and perhaps invading or intimidating her neighbors. It's a smart bet to hedge. But if you want your China-fighting military, you have to forsake your nation building colonial corps.

High Stakes on the High Seas

The recent near-violent confrontation on the South China Sea between the Chinese navy and a U.S. navy reconnaissance ship brought back memories of the 2001 showdown over the crash landing of an American recon plane on Hainan Island. History has a funny way of repeating itself.

The Chinese intention is pretty clear - it wants to test a new American president who is even more of a rookie at international affairs than George W. Bush was in April 2001. But more important, the Chinese really would want to know how its navy stacks up against the world's premier sea power.

China's adventure into the Horn of Africa region last year was but a thinly disguised attempt to flex its new naval muscles. A land power throughout its history, China in recent years has made a concerted effort to bolster its maritime capabilities. It needs a stronger navy to provide safe passage for its growing number of freight and merchant ships - the backbone of the world's second-largest exporter.

But there is another aim at work. China may not be spoiling for a fight with the U.S. Navy, but it wants to make sure it won't be totally overwhelmed if a confrontation becomes inevitable. Of course, much of this has to do with Taiwan - China knows if it must take the island by force, a thousand missiles and a hundred divisions of the PLA won't get the job done if they can't get across the Taiwan Strait.

And there's the matter of the South China Sea, which has long been considered a "lake" by the Chinese, who claims ownership of all of the potentially oil-rich (on par with Kuwait by one estimate) Spratly Islands. Hainan Island serves as the hub of China's budding submarine fleet, a force that has undergone rapid modernization and is quickly becoming the second-strongest in the world.

So when an American ship crept nearby, it became a golden opportunity for China to fire a shot across the bow of USS Barack Obama. The new president's reaction, or the absence of, will give China important clues it's looking for.

Congress Lifts Restrictions on Cuba, or Not?

Yesterday the Senate approved the $410 billlion omnibus spending bill to fund most of the federal government for the remainder of the year:

In an important policy shift, the bill includes a loosening of restrictions on travel to and imports from Cuba that the Bush administration imposed. The issue proved explosive among supporters of the trade embargo. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the leader of the group, voiced strong objections last week on the chamber floor and withdrew his support for the underlying legislation, forcing Reid to delay a final vote from Thursday until last night.

But Menendez, along with Sens. Bill Nelson (D) and Mel Martinez (R), who are both from Florida, said they were reassured by a letter from Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner pledging that the Cuba provision would be interpreted narrowly, and the two Democrats supported the final bill.

Americans will be allowed to travel to Cuba once a year, even when that remains illegal, and send more money to relatives on the island. Remittances are a huge source of revenue to people in Cuba, where the average salary is $20 a month and access to better medical care is paid for in US dollars.

The Miami Herald explains,

The budget bill, which already passed the House, creates a general travel license for Americans who want to travel to Cuba to cut agricultural and medical sales deals with the communist government. It also lets Cuba pay for goods on arrival -- instead of before the products leave U.S. ports -- and removes funding for enforcement of family travel restrictions enacted by former President George W. Bush.

Geithner wrote that the agricultural travel license would be limited to ''only a narrow class of businesses,'' which would have to report back on their trips. By law, he said, Cuba would still have to pay up front.

Left intact in the bill, which expires in October, is a measure that suspends enforcement of rules that say Cuban Americans can only visit immediate relatives once every three years. Travel to the island would still be illegal, but the department wouldn't be allowed to spend money trying to catch anyone doing it.

Geithner's letter is controversial:

* Senators Menendez, Nelson and Martinez were assured by Geithner that the new law will be interpreted so strictly as to be ineffective. If so, why pass it?

* Travel to Cuba by Americans will still be illegal but the government won't be trying to enforce the law. Then why the assurance that the new law will be strictly interpreted?

* According to the Miami Herald, when asked about the Geithner letter, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: ``It's like a presidential signing statement, except it's not the president, and it's not a signing statement.''

* In view of that, why would the Treasury Department pay any attention to Geithner's letter in six months from now?

* Another question: why didn't Pres. Obama issue his own executive order?

Rep. José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), who wrote the Cuba amendments in the bill, promised a "showdown", and warned that the law is not open to "creative interpretation."

Meanwhile, in Cuba, Cuban Official Rules Out Any Obama Preconditions for Improved Relations.

Stay tuned.

March 10, 2009

Bibi's Problems

Shmuel Rosner does a good job of outlining them:

Avigdor Lieberman: There is no coalition without him. And since Lieberman’s ambition doesn’t stop at the Foreign Ministry, he will be the one to decide when to end his partnership with Bibi. Another problem with Lieberman: he likes to annoy people, especially Israeli elites. This will not help Bibi in his quest to rule from the center.

Strong opposition: Tzipi Livni got more votes than Netanyahu, and will be ready to do it again to take his seat. This means that the Israeli public will be able to replace Netanyahu should it so desire. Ariel Sharon was a strong prime minister for many reasons - one of them was the perception that there was no one around even close to being a satisfying successor. Netanyahu will not enjoy such a luxury.

March 9, 2009

Our AIG Defense Policy

I think one could make a useful analogy between America's defense programs and the current financial crisis. Like many of our erstwhile investment banks, the Pentagon is hugely leveraged - tied to a series of legacy defense commitments from the Cold War, both formal and informal. Like the banks, those stumping for more defense dollars are chasing exotic products whose connection to underlying assets are strained.

It is in this light that Dov Zakheim's "worrisome" indications on Obama's defense spending should be seen:

While the administration is certainly funding short-term military needs, it appears willing to sacrifice long-term U.S. military superiority. We should not forget that, even if China's GDP is no longer growing at 8-9 percent each year, even a five percent annual growth will enable Beijing to continue to modernize and expand its military capability over the medium to long term, while the current U.S. defense budget clearly limits our capability over the same time frame.

The U.S. currently outspends China by roughly 5.8 to 1 on defense. If you include America's Asian allies, the ratio expands still further. We have an orders of magnitude advantage over China when it comes to strategic nuclear weapons. China is also ringed by Russia and India, large powers in their own right and not exactly fast friends with the Chinese.

Still, as Zakheim argues, the U.S. is leveraged and to the extent that we are invested in nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan and still tethered by Cold War-era defense commitments, our ability to invest in defense R&D will be more constricted over the long term. Now, there are multiple paths one can travel from this conclusion. Zakheim, like our erstwhile bankers, takes the one that leads directly to your wallet: "The United States should spend what it needs to on defense, be it 3, 4, 5 or 8 percent of GDP."

But really, why stop at eight? If we're unwilling to discipline our defense policy with a sober appraisal of our core interests and defense needs, why not spend and invest away? It's not like the money will ever run out. Right?

March 8, 2009

Russia: Managing the Political System

March 2, 2009 marked the one-year anniversary of President Medvedev's rule. Russia's ruling party, "United Russia" (Edinaya Rossia) held a forum titled "Strategy-2020," which was devoted to summaries and conclusions about the President's first 12 months. The current economic crisis took center stage during the party discussions. The most notable comment was delivered by Vladislav Surkov, First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, who assured the audience made up of party functionaries, economists, journalists and political experts that while the Russian political system works effectively, calling for major changes would be an "extremely risky speculation."

The discussion revealed an interesting cross-section of the current Russian opinion about both the domestic policies and Russia's place in the international system. Valery Fadeyev, Chief Editor of the "Expert" magazine, stated at the meeting that the Medvedev-Putin tandem leadership has improved the political system of Russia, as "it has become stronger, since each of the leaders brings his own qualities into the system." According to Fadeyev, "policy is a difficult thing to begin with, and it's not logical to resist the current situation when Putin is still a strong leader." It is this political system, according to political expert Oleg Pavlovsky, that protected Russia from the fate of Iceland, Hungary, Latvia and Ukraine, "which is already not bad."

The latest Russian sociological studies also reveal a certain paradox: on the one hand, people are very realistic in evaluating the economic crisis and its aftermath, while on the other hand, they fully support the current government. According to economist Michael Yuriev, "there exists no political system that would be good at everything, each has its detriments." As for the economic crisis, Yuriev thinks that under the current circumstances, it is important that Russia's long-term strategic interests would not be affected by the current needs of the Russian economy. "If we begin to pursue policies that would limit our dependence on the global economy, we will pay some of the costs of this policy in the future, but they would be small - and we would obviously benefit in the short-term. Otherwise, we do not know what would be the future result from our total integration, but the fact that we could lose now is very clear."

The economic crisis may have irrevocably affected Russia's already gloomy demographic situation. The first months of the crisis put an end to governments talks on the expected demographic breakthrough, which was predicted by Russia's leaders over the last few years. The expected boom in fertility rates has been one of the most important discussion subjects for both President Medvedev and then-President Putin. The demographic issue even took center stage during Medvedev's election campaign. By the end of 2008, Russian Health Ministry still gave optimistic predictions on this issue. However, there has been no discussion of Russian demographic situation at the highest levels of power for the past several months, while the experts argue that the country faces a demographic decline.

Anatoly Vishnevsky, Director of the Institute of Demography of the Higher School of Economics, believes there will be a real decline in fertility in the coming year by 100,000-200,000 births. Some women will have an abortion, someone will take steps to avoid getting pregnant, he said to the correspondent of "Nezavisimaya Gazeta": "Of course, the financial crisis affected the birth rates - people's incomes are getting lower and lower. If you think you could lose your job, then any prudent person will decide not to have children. Growth in abortions is therefore inevitable. In fact, for the the majority of the population the crisis came suddenly. People have not expected that the economic situation would deteriorate so rapidly, that they would lose their jobs and would not be able to pay the mortgage. In the near future, some women would try not get pregnant at all."

The crisis is not the only reason to expect the coming demographic breakdown, said Vishnevsky: "In the 1990s, fewer children were born than in previous decades - and, accordingly, there are now fewer girls who may become mothers by 2025." The official statistic shows that in the first half of 2008, before the onset of the crisis, deaths outpaced births by 30% across the Russian Federation. As of March 4, 2009, official data records a death every 15 seconds in the country, while a new birth takes place only every 18 seconds.

While Detroit's Big Three automakers are hurting form the economic slowdown, at least one bright spot exists for Ford Motors - and it's in Russia. The American company has recently launched into production its Ford Mondeo mid-sized sedan, to be built in Vsevolzhsk at 125,000 units per year. Across Russia, this car is third in popularity behind Focus and Fusion models. Interestingly enough, the stylish Mondeo sedan is used widely by the Russian government officials, and are utilized by practically every member of the Council of the Federation, in the Parliament. In 2008, Ford sales in Russia grew by 6%, selling a total of 185,000 cars.

While politicians and economists debate the effects of global economy in Russia, and while many in the political establishment is wary of America's role in the crisis - all the while driving Ford cars to government jobs - Russian astrologers are trying to take center stage with their own prognostications and predictions about our economic and social future. The first ever meeting of the "Commission on Cosmorythmology" took place in Moscow's Press Club, with the aim to show the general population that astrology is a science similar to physics or chemistry. Chief astrologer Pavel Globa predicted to the overflowing audience that the current global crisis would not end in a few years, and will last till 2021: "There would be three or for crisis waves, with some periods of stability in between. We will survive the year 2012. This is the first peak of the crisis. The second peak for Russia is in 2014. The latest crisis for the world - 2016 and 2018."

Other astrologers noted specifics in this scenario: "The year 2013 will be marked by the political crisis - there will be a dramatic change of policy in Russia. Currently, the country is in a "pause." Proper movement for the state in the future will take place after 2021. Prior to the 2021 the situation in the country will be shaky. New activity, together with the new reforms, will begin after 2021." Another astrologer, Pavel Sviridov, predicted that in 2025, Russia will become a truly market-oriented, free country, and "to some extent, this will be the new Union of States, a prototype of the Soviet Union." Answering the journalists' quires whether this new state will come about as a result of war, Sviridov cited astrological and historical evidence: "When Planet Pluto is in early Capricorn, and when Uranus is in early Aries - this creates highly-charged conflict situations which always give birth to world crises. there will be such a situation in 2014, but afterwards I have hope that Russia will emerge out of this situation with a 'net plus.' There is also such concept as 'lose-win cycles.' We as a country won in 1945, then we lost in 1991 - the collapse of the Soviet Union. - and in 2014, we will have a chance for another victory."

China: Careful Steps Toward E-government

Last week the Chinese government held its annual meetings of what, on paper, are its highest consultative and legislative bodies, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National People’s Congress (NPC). They are largely viewed as rubber stamp parliaments by foreigners. However, the central government in recent years has tried to play up their credentials as representatives of the people. The People’s Daily, the government’s official newspaper, launched the “E-Two Sessions” website last week where netizens can submit, discuss, and vote on proposals for new laws. An editorial uses some pretty lofty rhetoric in describing the website as a major step forward in participatory government:

This is a witness to the ever-increasing maturity of Chinese netizens. Using their mouse clicks to express their wishes for the motherland, using their keyboards to type out their hopes for the revival of the people, our netizens have become more mature. Their outlooks have become broader. Their attitudes have become more rational. They offer advice for the nation through their writings. They consciously assert their identities as citizens and incorporate social justice and national affairs into their outlooks. This reflects their passion for bearing the responsibility for the nation and participating in the political process. The popularity of the “E-Two Sessions” website is the best witness to netizens’ growing sense of civic consciousness and increasing rationality in expressing their opinions.

And what are the top five proposals with the most votes? As of this writing, they are:
1. Government and party officials of county-level and lower should not have their own special drivers.
2. Cancel requirements for private businesses to apply for licenses in order to increase employment.
3. Distribute subsidies for senior citizens.
4. Crack down heavily on corruption.
5. Enable those who have lost their jobs through reform of state-owned enterprises to also enjoy the benefits of economic reform.

Note that those are just the titles of the proposals. All of them link to separate web pages which contain comprehensive descriptions as well as sections for leaving comments and voting. How much this website will actually affect the proceedings of the Two Sessions is uncertain. And with the Internet in China, one should always approach whatever content, especially that coming from government channels, with a measure of skepticism.

Western Europe: Not a Boring Week

Just like in the United States, last week was quite interesting for the Europeans. All major stock markets crashed, especially the Dutch AEX index, which hit rock bottom yesterday. Whereas the index stood at 700 points in 2000, it dropped below 200 points Friday.

Not only did the Dutch stock market collapse, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende also told the nation the current crisis would turn out to be the worst in 80 years. These remarks came only a few months after he and his Minister of Finances Wouter Bos said this country would not suffer from the crisis at all. Instead of looking at his own role, Balkenende and his fellow coalition members are busy trying to find scapegoats.

Dutch princess Máxima (wife of crown prince Willem Alexander) has found some: she blames banks for the crisis. They behaved irresponsibly, she says, and blames their "overzealous marketing" for creating the circumstances in which all Dutch will carry the financial burden of the banks' greed. It was a remarkable comment considering the Dutch Royal Family doesn't, normally at least, comment on politics. It functions as a symbol, not as a political powerhouse nor as a representative of public opinion.

Meanwhile, the Brits were angered by the way Prime Minister Gordon Brown was received in the White House earlier this week. Obama, British journalists complained, gave the distinct impression he wasn't interested in Brown nor in what he had to say. The present British press corps, meanwhile, was told to wait outside in the freezing cold while the two men talked about nothing at all. When the meeting had ended these journalists were tired, cold and hungry while Obama quickly moved on to do other things.

To make matters even worse, the Brits complained, Michelle and Barack Obama insulted Brown, his wife, their children and their entire nation by giving them useless, irrelevant and thoughtless presents. Brown received a 25-DVD box (with, among other movies, ET and Star Wars in it) while his two sons received models of Marine 1, the president's helicopter. Heads of state normally exchange thoughtful, valuable presents, so the Browns had truly tried their best to give Obama and his two daughters something they'd appreciate.

At the same time that the Brits were fighting with the White House about the reception Brown received in Washington, the Germans were fighting among each other about how to commemorate the Berlin wall. Some believe it to be an important part of German history which should be remembered by the nation, others complain their "wounds take more time to heal."

Whatever the Germans will decide, one thing is clear: last week wasn't exactly boring here in Europe. If politicians weren't fighting with each other, they attacked CEOs of banks; if citizens weren't complaining their governments weren't doing enough to end the economic crisis they declared war on each other over a wall that was destroyed 20 years ago; and if Brits didn't throw custard in the face of their own politicians, they dreamt about doing so to President Barack Obama.

March 7, 2009

The Cuban Cosmetic Change


Readers may recall that last Tuesday I wrote about Raúl Castro's House Cleaning. Raúl Castro replaced ten high-level posts in the Cuban government.

As I pointed out in that article, the changes came shortly after the release of the Lugar Report on Changing Cuba Policy, after French envoy Jack Lange's visit, and on the same week as the US Senate votes on the $450 billion omnibus bill

In 2003 the European Union imposed sanctions on Cuba following the arrest of 75 Cuban dissidents, of which 55 remain imprisoned. Without any concession on Cuba's part, the EU voted last June to lift the sanctions and restore aid, even when according to the BBC the sanctions did not restrict trade or investment.

Since this is the first time so many Cuban government officials had been replaced at once, the story has been covered by the international media:

France's Le Monde emphasized the element of surprise:

No one could have predicted the departure of two figures as important as vice-president Carlos Lage and Minister for the foreign relations Felipe Pérez Roque. They were the youngest members among a group of septuagenarian. In touch with the economic realities of the outside world, both had been credited with a certain spirit of opening.

In contrast, Time Magazine has an almost opposite assessment:
By dumping Fidel loyalist Felipe Perez Roque as foreign minister and replacing him with a career diplomat, Raul may be signaling a less political and more flexible tone for Cuba's foreign policy apparatus. Perez Roque, 43, a former personal aide to Fidel, is a pugnacious communist doctrinaire often referred to a Fidel's pit bull, more suited to el comandante's policy of confrontation with Washington. (He once called himself part of the Cuban "Taliban.") His successor, Bruno Rodriguez, who had been Perez Roque's No. 2, is by contrast a more bookish foreign service veteran, a former journalist who was Cuba's ambassador to the United Nations from 1995 to 2003. As such, he may be a better fit as foreign minister as Raul tries to engage the new Obama Administration — and vice versa. The younger Castro has expressed a desire for improved ties with the U.S. and is seeking an end to Washington's 47-year-old trade embargo against communist Cuba.

Venezuela's Noticias 24 quoted Organization of American States president José Miguel Insulza, who was interviewed in Chile, disagreeing with the way the resignations were brought about,
"Regarding the method, one doesn't like some of the practices, such as letters of resignation and acts of constriction... it's rather complicated, I would prefer that it didn't happen"

All the same, Insulza favors a political opening of the countries of the region (such as the US) towards Cuba and said removing the 1962 resolution removing Cuba from the OAS is an option.

Mexico's El Universal reported on Friday that Granma, the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party, published two near-identical letters written by Lage and Pérez Roque and addressed to Raúl Castro where they "admitted responsibility for their errors." The article quoted dissident Manuel Cuesta Morúa, who said that the message is on the form of the mea culpa, which demonstrates that Cuba is still

"under a Stalinist government that always transfers general guilt to individuals and turns them into scapegoats."

Miami-based Latin Business Chronicles viewed the change as continuing a trend of militarization:
The announced changes can be explained by resorting to three “isms:” Raulism, militarism and economism. The new leadership is fiercely loyal to Raul; they are “his” men. It seems to indicate that Raul wanted to put his imprimatur on his regime and assure that the Raulista era began in earnest. In a “reflexion” published Tuesday in Granma, Cuba’s official newspaper, Fidel supported his brother’s actions, explained that he was consulted and emphasized that those replaced were not originally proposed by him.

The militarization of society has continued unabated for the past several years. The rise of more military figures to the top echelon of the Cuban government emphasizes and expands that trend. Raul trusts the military to ensure discipline, efficiency and productivity in the Cuban economy and to reduce rampant corruption.

Brazil's O Globo quoted members of the Democracia Ya (Democracy Now) group in Madrid saying, "This new stage represents a "continuation of the Castro dictatorship," but with a "taste of Raúl." The article was titled "Dissidents: The start of the Raul era does not signal substantial changes in Cuba."

When I wrote the Tuesday post I mentioned that there were reports of Fidel Castro having been seen strolling in Havana. The New York Times says that there had been no reports in the Cuban state media, and, additionally,

there was plenty of anxiety. Some of the Havana residents who had spotted him insisted that their names, sex, and even the exact day in which they saw Mr. Castro not be published to avoid running afoul of the government, which has declared Mr. Castro’s illness a state secret.

The Fidel sightings, then, serve as a reminder to the Cuban people that the Revolución is still alive, since the embodiment of that is still walking the streets, that they must continue to sacrifice and struggle, and that the Castro era continues. For them, there are no changes.

All translations by Fausta Wertz. Corrections and comments welcome. If you use the translation, please link to this post. Thank you.

Brazil's Lula to Visit Obama


In his first meeting with a South American leader since his inauguration, President Obama will be meeting Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva next Saturday, March 14, in Washington. The leaders are expected to discuss

ways to respond to the global financial breakdown in connection with the G-20 meeting in Britain next month.
Market Watch points out,
The meeting comes before Obama travels to London for the Group of 20 economic summit in London on April 2, and to Trinidad for the Summit of Americas in April, set for April 17 through 19.

Brazil is becoming a leader in Latin American diplomacy, and Lula has distanced himself from from Hugo Chávez's highly inflammatory style of politics. Lula has repeatedly asserted in the past that
"it's been a privilege to have been among the presidents who are building good relationships with the United States."

Not one to miss a chance to insert himself into the headlines, Chávez in turn came out saying that he has given Lula permission to discuss Venezuela with Barack Obama during the meeting.

March 3, 2009

Red Lines

I believe Steve Clemons is overreacting here:

Now Israel has gone one better and is issuing instructions to the United States on what America's red lines with Iran should be. The implication of course is that Israel will take matters into its own hands if these lines are crossed -- whether America does or not.

According to a piece that will appear in tomorrow's Haaretz, Barak Ravid writes that these red lines and instructions of Israel to the U.S. will be presented to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

1. Any dialogue must be both preceded by and accompanied by harsher sanctions against Iran, both within the framework of the UN Security Council and outside it. Otherwise, the talks are liable to be perceived by both Iran and the international community as acceptance of Iran's nuclear program.

2. Before the dialogue begins, the U.S. should formulate an action plan with Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain regarding what to do if the talks fail. Specifically, there must be an agreement that the talks' failure will prompt extremely harsh international sanctions on Iran.

3. A time limit must be set for the talks, to prevent Iran from merely buying time to complete its nuclear development. The talks should also be defined as a "one-time opportunity" for Tehran.

4. Timing is critical, and the U.S. should consider whether it makes sense to begin the talks before Iran's presidential election in June.

Iran's pretensions in the region are a problem in my view -- but Iran, which fears regime change efforts by the US and other of its neighbors, is responding to an "ecosystem" that many around the world have complicity in building.

Israel should be rebuffed by Hillary Clinton. She should listen to Israel's views on the region of course -- and consider proposals. But this kind of instruction manual on what red lines can be tolerated or not is pretty outrageous -- and borders on the type of irresponsibilty and consequences of what a Taiwanese declaration of independence from China would mean.

I find Clemons' argument a little bit odd here, especially since he's a rather vocal supporter of Flynt Leverett and the so-called Grand Bargain approach to settling US-Iranian differences.

I've expressed my own concerns with this approach, but for Clemons, it would seem to make sense to get the Israelis on board with discussions, as Iran's often deleterious role in the Mideast peace process would undoubtedly be a component in these negotiations. Indeed, the article in question even says as much - Israel's defense apparatus is establishing an open position on US-Iranian negotiations, yet they wish to insert their own specifications for said negotiations.

This is pretty much par for the course stuff here. If part of the discussion is going to be about creating a more positive role for the Iranians in the region, than the Israelis will need to be considered in those discussions. If the US - after reaching some sort of agreement with Tehran - hopes to measure the efficacy of their negotiations, it'll require assistance from Israel, Egypt and a few other neighboring countries to monitor and make sure that Iranian weapons aren't ending up in Gaza or elsewhere.

Israel clearly has a stake in these negotiations, as do the Gulf states surrounding Iran. The GCC outlines its stated desires for the region all the time, so why is it so egregious for Israel to do the same?

And these suggestions, by the way, are rather sensible! Maybe The United States could benefit from hearing the suggestions of a country that rebuffed the pressures to pursue their own version of a Grand Bargain; opting instead for direct, but narrow, negotiations with enemy states.

Raúl Castro's House Cleaning


Raúl Castro is replacing the top echelons of the Cuban government, including Vice President Carlos Lage and Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, and possibly as many as 10 government posts.

Cuban government undergoes massive restructuring in the Miami Herald:

Lage, 57, was one of five vice presidents below Raúl Castro and had served as a de-facto prime minister. He was credited with helping save Cuba's economy by designing modest economic reforms after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Pérez Roque, 43, was previously personal secretary to Fidel Castro and a former leader of the Communist Party youth organization. He had been foreign minister for almost a decade.

Other ousted officials include Economy Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez, Finance Minister Georgina Barreiro Fajardo and Labour Minister Alfredo Morales Cartaya.

Four ministries were merged in the reshuffle.

Lage was replaced by General José Amado Ricardo Guerra. Interestingly, Lage keeps his post as vice-president of the Council of State.

Pérez Roque was replaced by vice-chancellor Bruno Rodríguez.

Both Lage and Pérez Roque were considered close to Fidel Castro, and had been seen as possible presidential candidates.

While Raúl Castro had announced when he came to power almost exactly a year ago that he planned to restructure the government, this is the first time so many government officials had been replaced at once.

Recent Cuban news point to stresses between the Fidel and Raúl factions. According to Chilean newspaper La Tercera's editor Cristián Bofill, the brothers don't agree on Cuba's foreign policy. During Michelle Bachelet's visit to Havana last month, Granma, the official organ of the Cuban Communist party, published an article by Fidel stating that Chile should grant Bolivia access to the Pacific. Bachelet was displeased, but Pérez Roque insisted that there would be no retraction over Fidel's article, even when Fidel is a retired head of state.

All of this, of course, makes the news ripe for speculation, particularly coming after last week's Lugar report on changing US policy on Cuba and the visit of French envoy Jack Lange to Havana. In the wake of Lange's visit, Pierre Rigoulot, director of the Institute for Social Studies had predicted big changes in Cuba.

In other, rather odd news, Hugo Chávez claimed that Fidel Castro had gone for a stroll in Havana. The Prensa Latina article (via Cuban Colada) explains that Chávez had seen photos of Castro's stroll while Chávez visited Havana last weekend.

March 2, 2009

Roger Cohen and Iran

Let me preface this commentary by first stating that I am a fan of Roger Cohen's work in the New York Times. I look forward to his columns every week, and as any avid reader of RealClearWorld could attest, we link to his pieces quite regularly.

One of the reasons I enjoy Mr. Cohen's work is that he strikes me as a journalist first, and a pundit at a distant second. He writes, reports and travels with a passion, and his reporting often offers a personal perspective on the issues plaguing various corners of the globe.

Last week, Cohen created quite a stir in his weekly column when he argued that the Jewish population of Iran was in fact free to practice their faith, and treated as coequal citizens by the Iranian government. Through these anecdotal efforts - stories of content Iranian Jews, "tranquilly" working away in their "dusty little" Persian shops - Cohen, apparently, hoped to add some nuance to the debate over Iran's repressive regime. It wasn't Cohen's point, so much as his example, however, that caused the reaction earned him by the likes of Jeffrey Goldberg and Rafael Medoff. These critics, along with several others, lashed out at Cohen in the ensuing week.

Coming this week to his own defense, Cohen has once again taken to the op-ed pages of the New York Times in order to address his critics:

The indignation stems from my recent column on Iranian Jews, which said that the 25,000-strong community worships in relative tranquility; that Persian Jews have fared better than Arab Jews; that hostility toward Jews in Iran has on occasion led to trumped-up charges against them; and that those enamored of the “Mad Mullah” caricature of Iran regard any compromise with it as a rerun of Munich 1938.

This last point found confirmation in outraged correspondence from several American Jews unable to resist some analogy between Iran and Nazi Germany. I was based in Berlin for three years; Germany’s confrontation with the Holocaust inhabited me. Let’s be clear: Iran’s Islamic Republic is no Third Reich redux. Nor is it a totalitarian state.

Munich allowed Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland. Iran has not waged an expansionary war in more than two centuries.

I share Cohen's disdain for repeated attempts to correlate every nasty government in the world with Nazi Germany. It makes it difficult to analyze the situation in a sensible, contemporary fashion, and as Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, it belittles the very real genocide and barbarism conducted by some of the world's most wicked men.

However, in his efforts to distance the Islamic Republic from Nazi Germany, he instead makes a critical overreach, and ultimately plays fast and loose with history. It is true that not every totalitarian is Adolf Hitler, but this does not necessarily excuse one from being a totalitarian:

Totalitarian regimes require the complete subservience of the individual to the state and tolerate only one party to which all institutions are subordinated. Iran is an un-free society with a keen, intermittently brutal apparatus of repression, but it’s far from meeting these criteria. Significant margins of liberty, even democracy, exist. Anything but mad, the mullahs have proved malleable.

What totalitarian regimes require, and what they actually achieve, are often two very different things. The "margins of liberty" in Iran are always in jeopardy, as news outlets are routinely subject to arbitrary closure, and women are regularly beaten, shamed and arrested for clothing deemed to be too revealing, or "Un-Islamic."

Whether or not the totalitarians in Tehran have a firm grasp over their society is somewhat moot. It's certainly a moot point to the newspaper closed for interviewing a prominent gay expat. And such Kirkpatrickian distinctions between totalitarianism and authoritarianism mustn't be terribly consoling to the other religious minorities systematically executed and persecuted by this regime since 1979.

As for Iran's expansionist inclinations, well I'm sure Bahrain and the UAE must take comfort in Cohen's words. But why even go back two centuries? Why would the behavior of the Qajaris or the Pahlavis even matter when discussing a regime that assumed power in 1979?

The revolutionary government of Ruhollah Khomeini fought a bloody, eight-year long war with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein over the Middle Eastern sphere of influence. In 1982, Hussein withdrew his battered forces from Iran, and cynically offered a truce with Tehran, so that both governments could instead aid the Palestinian cause in Lebanon. This offer was refused. Iran invaded Iraq, and the conflict waged on for nearly six more years.

Anyone who doesn't understand this fact is simply lacking in a solid foundation of that war's history, and is likewise ill-equipped to provide us the readers with a substantive analysis of Iranian military history.

Aside from Iraq, Iran spent much of the 80's and 90's financing various terror groups and asymmetric insurgent organizations to promote upheaval and, ideally, revolution in several of its neighboring Gulf states. What the war of attrition with Saddam Hussein taught the Iranians was that they lacked the military capabilities to engage an Arab world armed to the teeth by the west, so the next best thing would have to be the exportation of terrorism and the purchasing of influence in various capitals.

After all, why fight with Baghdad when you can simply buy it?

Cohen's rebuttal only gets more bizarre:

The June presidential election pitting the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, against Mohammad Khatami (a former president who once spoke in a synagogue) will be a genuine contest as compared with the charades that pass for elections in many Arab states. No fire has burned the Majlis, or parliament, down.

A "genuine contest"? Well, if one considers the political exclusion of thousands to be legitimate, then I suppose that might be the case. Khatami will be allowed to run because he is a widely respected figure in Iran. Ahmadinejad has the ideological favor of Iran's Principlist religious hardliners. Khatami - once a beacon of hope and reform in Iran - has already pledged his loyalty to the existing political system in Iran. Any prospective candidate who does otherwise would likely be disqualified, arrested, or worse.

Cohen goes on, offering more anecdotal comparisons - happy Iranian teenagers surfing the web, satellite televisions, and so on. Never once, however, does he truly address the systemic disconnect in Iran between those hopeful young Iranians and the government they suffer under.

And this is partly the problem. In his attempt to apply some nuance to the issue, Cohen instead offers us some plainly obvious and predictable facts: Iranians are nice people. Many Iranians are happy. Iran is a wonderful country, rich in history. All of these things are certainly true, but none of this qualifies as nuanced analysis. We get on-the-ground accounts of happy teenagers, happy store clerks and happy Iranian Jews, but very little substantive expansion on why Iran's current government - rather than the one it had two centuries ago - poses a geopolitcal dilemma for the Obama administration.

Iran is not Nazi Germany, but it is a problem, and it's on the latter that Cohen misses the opportunity to truly educate his readers.

John Bolton Calls for Regime Change in Iran

Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton buries what should be the lede in his Wall Street Journal op-ed:

Changing Tehran's Holocaust-denying regime could end its nuclear program, as well as eliminate its continuing financing of and weapons supplies for Hamas and Hezbollah, reduce its malign hold over Syria, and strengthen Lebanon's fragile democracy. Taming Iran is not a magical cure-all, but surely addressing the central threat is more sensible than haphazardly dealing with the symptoms separately.
This comes at paragraph eight, but surely this should be up front. After all, deposing the government in Iran is something of a serious undertaking. Unfortunately, Bolton doesn't devote much time (none, in fact) to the mechanics of how the U.S. goes about deposing the Mullahs. (Maybe we dust off the Kermit Roosevelt playbook?)

He asserts that a Mullah-free Iran would give up nuclear weapons. You have to wonder how plausible this claim is given that Iran's nuclear program began under the auspices of the U.S.-backed Shah and is reportedly a source of pride among the Iranian people. More broadly, while attempting regime change may result in all the benefits Bolton expressed above, it might not. As Bolton acknowledged, it's not a "cure all." But it could be far worse than that.

As we learned in Iraq, once you topple a repressive regime, there's no telling what happens next.

March 1, 2009

Russia: Kremlin Tightens the Belt

The Kremlin continues to battle the effects of the global economic slowdown on Russia, and this time, President Dmitry Medvedev is setting an example by planning to cut into his administration's budget and personnel. By March 1, all major administration departments must present the plan to Medvedev's assistant on how they will cut their expenses. There are also concrete plans to cut up to 100 staffers from the Administration's payroll. Earlier, the Russian President said that in tough economic conditions, "... we must start with ourselves; President's Administration is not a large organization, but it must lead by example." Currently, Medvedev's offices employ approximately 1,600 people across the country, and the outgoing 100 are most likely going to be staffers close to retirement or those working in various regional offices.

In order to stimulate its flagging economy, Russian Ministry of Economic Development has put forth a plan to Prime Minister Putin in order to support greater competition within the country. The plan, developed 'till the fiscal year 2012, will be supported by specific anti-monopoly legislation, which is being developed by both chambers of Russian Parliament. According to Putin, this legislation "should give the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service greater authority to interdict unsavory business practices and the abuse of monopolistic behavior on the market, but at the same time it should free entrepreneurs form excessive controls." The plan will devote special attention to so-called "natural monopolies" and should simplify taxation of Russia's financial systems in order to stimulate financial trading in the country. Until recently, "natural monopolies" included Russia's oil, gas, metals, energy and certain industrial and armaments entities that so far contributed the most to Russia's economic growth. The government plan also seeks to simply access to the natural monopolies' infrastructure, as well as lowering the cost of access to electric grids and small business participation in state orders.

While Russia struggles to steady its economy and come up with ways to instill confidence in its domestic market, many leading Russian policy experts put the blame on the ongoing crisis at the feet of the "global elites", emanating from America. Aleksei Pushkov, Director of the Institute of International Affairs at the Diplomatic Academy (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and Professor of the elite Moscow Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), states that the global financial elite feels the responsibility for the ongoing crisis, but refuses to talk about it. "At the recent Davos Economic Forum, many leading officials and managers of the global banks and financial institutions simply did not show up. There was a feeling that the very model of global capitalism developed over the last three decades is itself in crisis."

He further stated that "here, we are talking about the neo-liberal model of development. It was believed until recently that globalization and global economic integration will create conditions for the uninterrupted growth of economic well-being. In practice, however, it contributed to the spread of America's financial crisis all over the world. It was globalization that spread the virus that first struck the U.S. economy." Professor Pushkov also thinks that America's attempts at creating global hegemony and uni-polar world have crumbled: "The neo-liberal economic model manifested itself in politics after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. In 1991, United States was saying that it remained the only global leader. Then-president George Bush was talking about the New World Order. Even in the United States, it is now acceptable to talk about this uni-polar "moment" that lasted 'till about 2003-2004, when America overestimated its capabilities and begun its policy of regime change in the Middle East, starting with Iraq. That "moment" lasted about 10-14 years and came to and end during the presidency of Bush Jr. Barack Obama is a president of universally accepted 'multi-polar world.' By electing him, America showed everyone that it is refusing to be the hegemon. If the country thought differently, then the next president would have been John McCain - the continuation of George W. Bush policies."

Russia continues its plan for decreasing economic and military-industrial cooperation with Ukraine. This was confirmed by the Vice Premier Sergei Ivanov, who remarked that Moscow is not able to unilaterally break its defense cooperation with Kiev. "We continue to depend on each other, since the Russian-Ukrainian cooperation in the defense industry was developed in the Soviet years," said the former head of the Defense Ministry. "But even before the Georgian aggression [in August 2008], there were adopted a number of measures aimed at ending the industrial and military-technical cooperation with Ukraine. This is an inevitable process, as we see what is happening with our neighbors. We cannot take risks, especially given the desire of the Ukrainian leadership to join NATO."

This past Wednesday at the Kremlin, President Dmitry Medvedev met with the President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh. The outcome of the negotiations was Yemen's desire to assist Russian ships involved in the fight against piracy in the Gulf of Aden. "We would like to talk about what is necessary to continue providing the Russian warships with all necessary facilities in terms of countering piracy in the region," said Saleh. Yemeni President stressed that "the issues of countering the pirates are of great importance to Sana'a." For this purpose, Yemen will host a regional center dealing with anti-piracy efforts. President Saleh also remarked nostalgically that ".... we have longstanding friendly relations with Russia. I am talking about those long-standing relationships that bind the Arab world, including Yemen, yo the Soviet Union." Throughout the Cold War, Yemen was divided into a communist South Yemen and a pro-Western North Yemen. In the 1970s, Soviet Navy gained access to South Yemeni facilities and maintained military presence in the Gulf of Aden. The country was eventually peacefully unified in 1990, as the Cold War was coming to an end.

Chinese Sphere: Searching for Transparency in Government

One of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) key challenges in preserving its ruling position and maintaining domestic stability is carrying out political reform to correct for the excesses and imbalances of the past 30 years of economic growth. The CCP has ruled out Western-style democracy, so it must search for other ways to fight corruption, improve efficiency, and strengthen local governance capacities. A few weeks ago, a People’s Daily editorial called for government officials to be willing to withstand scrutiny by the country’s 300 million netizens. Last week, a National People’s Congress delegate from Guangzhou called for video feeds of the city government’s meetings to be accessible by the Internet (article in Chinese here). An editorial in the Yangcheng Evening News, one of China’s largest circulating newspapers, voiced its approval:

In practice, televising the government’s decision-making process on the TV or Internet would better protect the public’s right of knowledge, participation, expression, and monitoring. It would contribute to reducing policymaking mistakes and decrease the costs associated with policymaking and implementation. … TV or Internet video feeds of the decisionmaking process for policies affecting people’s livelihoods demonstrate the government’s openness, democratic nature, and resolve to eliminate conflict of interests.

These calls for using the Internet to foster an open government do not sound much different from what some citizens in the U.S. have been advocating. It will be interesting to see how significant a role the CCP allows the Internet to play in making politicians more transparent and accountable.

Controversy over the possibility of Taiwan signing a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with China intensified last week with opposition parties threatening to launch an impeachment effort against the president if it goes through. Government officials have described it as a free trade agreement that Taiwan needs to sign in order to remain competitive after China, Japan, and South Korea enter into free trade agreements with ASEAN over the next few years. However, none of the agreement’s details have been made available to the public, and the government will only submit it to the legislature for review after it has been signed. The Apple Daily, one of the leading newspapers in Taiwan, weighs in on this situation:

[President Ma] has indicated that the CECA would immediately take effect after signing and would then be sent to the legislature for review. This drew the immediate criticism from both the KMT and DPP. In terms of democratization, this is without a doubt a step backwards. The Constitution grants the president the authority to enter into agreements with foreign countries. However, it also grants the legislature the authority to review the signing of agreements. It is the norm in democracies for the parliament to perform an ante hoc review rather than a post hoc ratification – only the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress of China “enjoys” the right of post hoc ratification. Is Taiwan’s legislature a local branch of the National People’s Congress?

What President Ma is exercising is somewhat equivalent to the Fast Track negotiating authority that U.S. presidents used to enjoy before it expired in 2007. The root problem, however, is not really over procedure, but the fact that he is signing a CECA with China. It also does not help that the CECA name sounds similar to CEPA, the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement signed between Hong Kong and China. Now, if the Ma administration was about to enter into an FTA with the U.S., there would not be nearly as much suspicion and controversy.

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