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July 31, 2012

As Syria Goes, So Goes Iraq?

Joost Hiltermann analyses the powder keg that is Iraq:

It’s easy to be distracted by an uptick in violence in Iraq and ignore the larger political crisis in which al Qaeda, however diminished in its capabilities, can operate with apparent impunity. Despite last week’s events, violence has been at a steady level since 2008 – too high for sure to those caught up in the spasms that occur, but sufficiently low to nonetheless convey a general sense of stability – a vast improvement over the days of sectarian fighting some years ago. Spectacular attacks have punctuated a pattern of declining violent incidents, causing mass casualties even as overall casualty levels have gone down. Shia militias, which mainly targeted the U.S. presence, put their guns back under their beds after the military component of that presence came to an end late last year....

What matters in Iraq today isn’t so much its sporadic violence, however spectacular in nature, as the total absence of basic consensus over how the country should be run, as deepening discord could trigger a new round of civil war.

But wait, it gets worse:

In this unhappy state of affairs, the Syrian crisis threatens to exacerbate political tensions in Iraq and give them a renewed sectarian cast. As the minority-based Assad regime goes down, Syria’s Sunnis are certain to rise, re-empowering Iraq’s Sunnis, who have felt marginalized since 2003. Shiite perceptions of a looming Sunni alliance of Gulf states, Turkey, and a new Syria arrayed against the remaining Shia-run bastion of Iran and Iraq – with the intent of bringing down Maliki to deal a further blow to Iran’s influence in the region – are increasing sectarian polarization in Iraq. This is the perfect breeding ground for groups such as al Qaeda, which may find it easier to recruit in Sunni quarters, finding deep frustration and grievance, but also new Syria-inspired hope that the tide is again turning in their favor.

This is also the logical endgame of Washington's singular focus on "containing" Iran. We are fanning a jihadist whirlwind. Rather than stepping back and allowing the Mideast to work out its own problems and sectarian blood feuds, we're repeatedly jabbing our fingers into the hornet's nest.

July 30, 2012

U.S., Israel and American Exceptionalism


Walter Russell Mead highlights how Israel has become a dog-whistle for American exceptionalism:

Presidential candidates stressing their pro-Israel positions by supporting hard line Israeli leaders are more likely to be chasing non-Jewish than Jewish votes. In American politics, taking a strong pro-Israel stand is a way of communicating your commitment to American exceptionalism and to American global leadership. While there are plenty of individual exceptions, as a general rule of thumb voters who are skeptical about the value of the US Israel alliance or who have serious concerns about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians are voters who have qualms about the idea that America is an exceptional country with a mandate to change the world. Voters who identify strongly with Israel and want the US to support it tend to favor a strong US national defense and a forward leaning foreign policy.

I think this is clearly what many of the more hawkish pro-Israel voices in American politics want people to believe. And it's obvious why. Filter Mead's bloodless language through the demagoguery of electoral politics and the above paragraph starts to sound more like this:

"Those who are skeptical about the value of the U.S.-Israel alliance hate America."

The question here isn't whether the U.S. should provide financial, military or intelligence support to Israel - that's a settled issue. The question is whether it's healthy for the very idea of America's mission in the world to be so inextricably bound up with another state. And not just any state, but - as Mead notes - that state's "hard-liners." Israel happens to be the most salient nation here because it's become something of a 2012 campaign football, but the question applies to close allies like NATO member states or Japan and Taiwan. It's not an issue of alliances or America's cosmic "mandate" to remake the world, but of sovereign flexibility. If Israel's hard-liners adopted polices that American policymakers deemed detrimental to U.S. interests, it shouldn't be construed as a betrayal of national character to disapprove of them.

(AP Photo)

Europe's Lack of Competitiveness


Lack of competitiveness is often cited as one of the reasons why Europe, particularly the Eurozone, is in such trouble. But what exactly does that mean? How does a lack of competitiveness manifest itself? An article in The Economist sheds light on this:

Europe gave birth to just 12 new big companies between 1950 and 2007. America produced 52 in the same period... Europe has only three big new listed firms founded between 1975 and 2007. Of those, two were started in Britain or Ireland, which are closer to America in their attitude to enterprise than continental Europe.

What is the result of this attitude?

Many aspiring entrepreneurs simply leave. There are about 50,000 Germans in Silicon Valley, and an estimated 500 start-ups in the San Francisco Bay area with French founders. One of the things they find there is a freedom to fail.

Failure is a tragic, yet necessary, component of capitalism. Entrepreneurs need the freedom to both succeed and fail. And when they do fail, they need the ability to declare bankruptcy, pick up the financial pieces and, if they are so inclined, start all over again.

But that's not what happens in much of Europe.

Some countries keep failed entrepreneurs in limbo for years. Britain will discharge a bankrupt from his debts after 12 months; in America it is usually quicker. In Germany people expect it to take six years to get a fresh start, according to the commission; in France they expect it to take nine... In Germany bankrupts can face a lifetime ban on senior executive positions at big companies.

Failure is a basic lesson not only about capitalism, but indeed about life itself. Yet, this lesson appears to have evaded many people - one of them the current President of France. Perhaps a change of attitude must occur before the members of the Eurozone can expect to see economic progress.

(AP Photo: Petros Giannakouris)

July 26, 2012

As Assad Teeters, Hezbollah Gets Nervous


Laure Stephan reports that Hezbollah is standing by Bashar Assad, come what may:

Hezbollah fears the collapse of the Syrian regime, described by Nasrallah as “more than a bridge” in a reference to the country’s role in the transit of Iranian arms. Losing an ally like that would weaken the Shi’a party in the event of a conflict with Israel because Hezbollah’s arms supplies would be cut off. Nasrallah however espouses a publicly confident stance, and has promised the Israelis some “surprises” if they attack Lebanon.

Nasrallah also stated that military strategy was more important than anything else for the party insofar as its relations with Syria go. It is no longer a question of defending “the oppressed” as it has been maintaining in its political charters and by siding with the Egyptians, Libyans, Bahrainis and Yemenis since the beginning of the Arab Spring. Holding on to its weapons, upholding the "axis of resistance" -- Iran, Syria, Hezbollah – against Israel has become top priority.

But the price to be paid for Nasrallah’s refusal to condemn the Syrian regime’s repression – which he prefers to refer to as “violent acts” committed by both sides – is very high: nothing less than his degree of popularity in the Arab world. Syrian activists are now portraying Nasrallah on social media sites as a paunchy little man whereas before he was held in high esteem in Syria because of his anti-Israel stance.

What's interesting is that we could very well have a situation develop where Hezbollah and al-Qaeda come into direct conflict. We already have Sunni jihadists declaring war on Iran. It's not a stretch to imagine that al-Qaeda takes it upon itself to combat "Iranian influence" in the region by attacking its proxies if they gain another foothold in Syria.

(AP Photo)

July 25, 2012

On Iran, Romney Pledges to Scuttle Diplomacy

Jonathan Tobin says that Governor Romney has sketched out a different Iran policy than the Obama administration:

In speaking of not allowing Iran any right to refine uranium, Romney also drew a clear distinction between his view and the negotiating position of the P5+1 group that the president has entrusted to negotiate with Iran. The P5+1 alliance led by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has made it clear to the Iranians that if they will only agree to some sort of deal, their right to go on refining uranium will probably be protected. If Romney is telling us that his administration takes the position that he will not acquiesce to any kind of Iranian nuclear program, he is articulating a clear difference with Obama. That makes good sense because, as past nuclear talks with both North Korea and Iran proved, leaving Tehran any nuclear facilities ensures they will cheat on any deal and ultimately get their weapon.

Romney also probably knows that at this late date in the game, even the most rigidly enforced sanctions are not likely to make enough of a difference. As Romney told the VFW, the ayatollahs are not going to be talked out of their nuclear ambitions. His veiled reference to the use of force in which he said he “will use every means” to protect U.S. security illustrates a greater understanding that this issue is not going to be resolved with more engagement. [Emphasis mine]

So the big difference here boils down to the fact that Romney has pledged not to issue waivers for sanctions that no one - including Romney and his supporters - think will stop Iran if it wants to build a bomb. The other is that Romney will no longer pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis, since he would essentially be demanding that Iran not abide by the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (which gives signatories the right to a civilian nuclear program). Making that demand essentially ends the diplomatic tract full stop, which leaves only two possible avenues - doing nothing, or going to war.

Of course, the Obama administration has promised on numerous occasions to start a war with Iran if the nuclear issue is not resolved to its satisfaction. That leaves the issue down to one of trust (will either man really follow through on their threats or are they posturing?) and timing (Romney has pledged to attack faster than Obama).

Romney Sets Afghan Timetable (But It's Different Than Obama's ... Somehow)

David Sherfinski makes a good catch:

Earlier this year, presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called President Obama "extraordinarily naive" for putting a timetable of transferring control of Afghanistan to the country's security forces by the end of 2014.

On Tuesday, speaking at the Veterans of Foreign Wars' annual meeting, he said that "as president, my goal in Afghanistan will be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014."

But did you know that not all timetables are alike? According to Romney's senior adviser Kevin Madden:

"[Mr. Romney] mentioned the date as a goal to turn over to Afghan security forces, but not as a political calendar — instead, a calendar for securing the situation there," Mr. Madden continued. "I think the president put the premium on the calendar, where Governor Romney is putting a premium on the situation on the ground."


In Brazil, Prisoners Turned Into Power Plants

In Brazil, they've found a novel way to generate "alternative" energy:

Since the oil shocks of the ‘70s, Brazil has been home to a carnival of renewable energy initiatives that now generate a whopping 85 percent of the country’s power. At Santa Rita do Sapucaí prison, inmates are contributing to the effort by riding stationary bikes which charge batteries that fuel lights at a nearby park that previously didn’t have electricity. That makes the park safer and shaves a little off the city’s carbon footprint, while giving the inmates a chance to get buff – and reduce their sentences.

Why Japan Won't Go Nuclear

Mira Rapp-Hooper writes that the U.S. alliance will stay Japan's hand:

[I]t is highly unlikely that Japan will seek its own nuclear arsenal in the foreseeable future. Beyond public opposition to nuclear weapons, which has only increased since the Fukushima disaster, Japan does not yet have reason to believe it needs an independent deterrent. The U.S.-Japan military alliance has strengthened with the passing decades and has proven highly responsive to Japanese security concerns. On several occasions, Japan has reassessed its non-nuclear status, and has always concluded that the U.S. security guarantee is a superior option. There is little reason to believe that Japan will rethink its commitment to that alliance now.

Michael Auslin doesn't sound as confident:

To Tokyo, this highlights the continuing importance of its alliance with the U.S. With no close partners in the region, Japan remains reliant on America as the keeper of the peace. It is now watching to see if Washington's "pivot" to Asia results in less focus on Japan's security needs.

In fact, while Washington may depend on Japan for military bases, it's wary of being drawn into Tokyo's disputes with its neighbors, particularly over the Senkakus.

After a similar dispute with China in 2010, the State Department reaffirmed that the Senkaku Islands fall under provisions of the mutual defense treaty with Japan, but Washington made clear it expects Tokyo and Beijing to resolve the dispute through negotiation. Washington is willing to give even less support over the Kurile Islands. More broadly, the Pentagon is facing drastic cuts that will make it riskier to get involved in a conflict except for the most serious of issues, like an invasion of Taiwan.

That means Japan will be on its own when it comes to playing dangerous games over these islands. Yet Japan can't simply give up its claims to either group, since that would spur all its neighbors to make demands. Tokyo will have to perform a solo balancing act but expect it to focus more on the growing power in Asia: China.

Parsing Japan's territorial claims and those from Russia and China is tricky business - a minefield of historical animosity and power politics. The U.S. has to walk a fine line between defending a legitimate principle - that these issues must be settled through negotiation and not brute force - and being roped in to defend Japan irrespective of the merits of the Japanese position.

July 24, 2012

CIA Still Trying to Assess Syrian Rebels


The Washington Post reports that the CIA is still trying to get a read on the Syrian uprising:

U.S. spy agencies have expanded their efforts to gather intelligence on rebel forces and Assad’s regime in recent months, but they are still largely confined to monitoring intercepted communications and observing the conflict from a distance, officials said.

Interviews with U.S. and foreign intelligence officials revealed that the CIA has been unable to establish a presence in Syria, in contrast with the agency’s prominent role gathering intelligence from inside Egypt and Libya during revolts in those countries.

With no CIA operatives on the ground in Syria and only a handful stationed at key border posts, the agency has been heavily dependent on its counterparts in Jordan and Turkey and on other regional allies.

The lack of intelligence has complicated the Obama administration’s ability to navigate a crisis that presents an opportunity to remove a longtime U.S. adversary but carries the risk of bolstering insurgents sympathetic to al-Qaeda or militant Islam.

Not to worry: U.S. pundits with absolutely none of the already limited information that the CIA has are ready to make sweeping claims about the moral necessity of aiding the rebels who - we are assured by people who cannot possibly know - are "the good guys." Even American senators assert that Syrian rebels are "fighting for universal values." So that must make it so.

And besides, those intelligence agencies closest to the scene must have a firmer grasp on things:

“But we’ve got to figure out who is over there first, and we don’t really know that,” said a U.S. official who expressed concern over persistent gaps and who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing intelligence matters. “It’s not like this is a new war. It’s been going on for 16 months.”

The lack of clarity has also fueled anxiety among U.S. allies in the region over who will control Syria if Assad falls. Even among Arab intelligence services eager to help rebels overthrow Assad, “the vetting process is still in the early stages,” said a Middle Eastern intelligence official, insisting on anonymity to discuss his country’s involvement in the Syrian crisis.

These intelligence agencies evidently don't understand that all of these messy complexities will disappear in the face of "American leadership."

(AP Photo)

Who Understands the Iran Threat Better: America or China?


The news that China imported more oil from Iran in June than it did on average the previous year brought to mind an interesting series of questions.

The Chinese, we're told, are masters of realpolitik - coldly weighing their strategic interests. They're certainly not shy about protecting what they view as core interests, as evidenced by the dust-up over the South China Sea. So why are they not concerned about the potential for a nuclear Iran to "dominate" the Middle East, as so many American strategists are? Do the Chinese have a better read on the consequences than their American counterparts? Are they naive or is Washington alarmist?

A few possible answers come to mind. The first is that China isn't in much of a position to contest Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon (or some form of nuclear capability) outside the generally ineffective mechanisms of sanctions and lecturing, and so they're simply prepared to deal with whatever environment arises when/if Iran eventually goes nuclear. The second possibility is that they believe that the Iran threat is inflated and that an Iran with a nuclear weapon won't ultimately act to endanger the flow of energy through the Mideast. A third possibility is that they think a nuclear Iran would, in effect, balance against U.S. power in the region. In this view, China would apply the same principle to the region that the U.S. does - that no one power should dominate - only directed against America's actual dominance and not Iran's latent potential.

It's not clear which of these possibilities is the operable concept. In all likelihood, it's a delicate balance among several competing priorities. As Richard Weitz noted, China ultimately does not want to see a nuclear-armed Iran, but neither does it want regime change or another war in the Middle East.

(AP Photo)

July 23, 2012

Russia Declares War on Hamburgers

After worms were found in a "McChicken" sandwich in a Moscow McDonald's, Russia's top health inspector Gennady Onischenko had a few sharp words for the international chain and for hamburgers in general:

He referred to the McChicken sandwich as "an excuse for food."

Then, Onishchenko turned his ire at hamburgers.

"I would like to remind our fellow citizens that hamburgers, even without worms, are not a good choice of a meal for residents of Moscow and of Russia. This is not our cuisine."

But Onischenko isn't a disinterested gourmand:

Onishchenko has a history of giving medical advice and issuing warnings about imported food and drink that assist the Kremlin's political goals.

Amid unprecedented anti-Putin protests last December, for example, Onishchenko warned Russians not to take to the streets lest they succumb to the winter weather and catch a cold.

In the past he has also ruled that Moldovan and Georgian wines were unfit for consumption and banned them, decimating one of the countries’ most lucrative export industries at a time when Chisinau and Tbilisi’s relations with Russia had hit a low.

He has also taken aim at Ukrainian cheese and Belarusian milk at times when Moscow's relations with those countries were strained.

Vietnam Ranked Worst Country for Wildlife Crime

According to a new report from the World Wildlife Federation, Vietnam ranks last among Asian nations when it comes to wildlife crime:

The WWF report said Vietnam is "the major destination" for rhino horns trafficked from South Africa, where 448 rhinos were poached last year. Rhino horn can fetch the US street value of cocaine in Asia, where it is crushed and consumed by people who believe - wrongly, doctors say - that it can cure diseases.

It described South Africa as the "epicentre" in an African rhino poaching crisis, despite strong government efforts there that began in 2009 to stop the killings.

A record 448 rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2011, and this year could be even worse with 262 already lost from January to June, according to WWF.

WWF accused the Vietnamese government of doing very little to stop rhino horns from being imported, describing penalties in Vietnam for buying them as not nearly strong enough to act as a deterrent.

It also said Vietnamese diplomats had been arrested or implicated in South Africa for trying to buy rhino horns.

Planning for the Aftermath in Syria

Josh Rogin reports on the "quiet" efforts to plan for a post-Assad Syria:

For the last six months, 40 senior representatives of various Syrian opposition groups have been meeting quietly in Germany under the tutelage of the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP) to plan for how to set up a post-Assad Syrian government.

The project, which has not directly involved U.S. government officials but was partially funded by the State Department, is gaining increased relevance this month as the violence in Syria spirals out of control and hopes for a peaceful transition of power fade away. The leader of the project, USIP's Steven Heydemann, an academic expert on Syria, has briefed administration officials on the plan, as well as foreign officials, including on the sidelines of the Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul last month.

The project is called "The day after: Supporting a democratic transition in Syria." Heydemann spoke about the project in depth for the first time in an interview with The Cable. He described USIP's efforts as "working in a support role with a large group of opposition groups to define a transition process for a post-Assad Syria."

Nowhere in the planning process is there any indication of how security is supposed to be established in Syria once Assad falls (assuming that he does). That seems to be a rather glaring omission.

Meanwhile the Wall Street Journal reports on other "quiet" efforts by the U.S. government to unseat Assad:

The U.S. has been mounting a secret but limited effort to speed the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad without using force, scrambling spies and diplomats to block arms and oil shipments from Iran and passing intelligence to front-line allies.

A centerpiece of the effort this year focused on getting Iraq to close its airspace to Iran-to-Syria flights that U.S. intelligence concluded were carrying arms for Assad loyalists—contrary to flight manifests saying they held cut flowers. The U.S. has also tried to keep ships believed to carry arms and fuel for Syria from traversing the Suez Canal, with mixed results.

July 22, 2012

UK Lords Reform: Who Governs? To What Ends?


The late political scientist James Q. Wilson co-authored a textbook about American government. One of the primary themes of the book was the constant struggle of determining the answer to two fundamental political questions: Who governs? To what ends? A running joke among my classmates in our high school AP government class was our expectation that the final exam would be an essay, consisting merely of those two questions.

Yet, it appears that Dr. Wilson was quite right. The ongoing debate over reforming the UK House of Lords, despite the lofty talk of democracy, boils down to a self-interested power struggle. All three major political parties (Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats) supported the reform in their manifestos, but the only party which is truly interested is the Liberal Democrats. Of course, given that the House of Lords would be elected by proportional representation, they would have the most to gain. Conservatives and Labour, on the other hand, would have the most to lose. Perhaps it really isn't a surprise that they are less than enthusiastic about the reform.

Also, members of Parliament (MPs) fear that an elected House of Lords would overturn the tradition of allowing the House of Commons call all of the shots. When major disagreements occur, the Lords usually defer to the Commons.

The Economist summarizes the situation quite nicely:

Naturally lots of MPs want to keep an appointed House of Lords, growls a senior Lib Dem: it's where they plan to retire, or flee after losing seats. Talk of a referendum, favoured formally by Labour and informally by many Tories, is a transparent ploy to kill the reform, supporters worry—with voters in an anti-politics mood, they will not say yes to more professional politicians. As for talk of gumming up both houses of Parliament for months, that's a threat not a prediction, made by those planning on doing the gumming.

Of course Lib Dems want a proportionally elected Senate, counter Tory and Labour politicians: they think they would hold the balance of power there. Some Tories fret about rumours that, if the Lib Dems do not get Lords reform, they may withdraw their support for the Conservatives' favourite reform, a redrawing of House of Commons constituencies that could gain the Tories a dozen or more seats.

Instead of a highbrow academic contest over the future of British democracy, the reality is much uglier: British pols are simply fighting over power and influence.

Or as Dr. Wilson might ask, "Who governs, and to what ends?"

(AP photo)

July 19, 2012

The IMF Goes Bearish on the Eurozone

Some unusually tough language from a new International Monetary Fund report (pdf) on the Eurozone:

The euro area is in an uncomfortable and unsustainable halfway point. While it is sufficiently integrated to allow escalating problems in one country to spill over to others, it lacks the economic flexibility or policy tools to deal with these spillovers.

Crucially, the euro area also lacks essential financial and fiscal policy tools to stabilise the monetary union. As the crisis has illustrated, without a strong common financial stability framework, banking problems are hard to contain and resolve in an integrated market....

The deepening of the crisis suggests that its root causes remain unaddressed. The crisis calls for a much stronger collective effort now to demonstrate policymakers’ unequivocal commitment to sustain EMU. Only a convincing and concerted move toward a more complete EMU could arrest the decline in confidence engulfing the region."

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard piles on:

The IMF could hardly be clearer. It is a pre-emptive move to pin responsibility for the coming deluge exactly where it belongs:

On those who created this doomsday machine and pushed it through as a federalist Trojan horse, with scant concern for Europe’s democracies; on a second group of people who ran it for a decade with high-handed arrogance, disregarding warnings as the North-South gap grew to dangerous levels; and on a third group of leaders – led by Chancellor Angela Merkel – who now refuse to face up to the awful implications of what has happened.

Will Netanyahu Retaliate for Bulgaria Bombings?

Jeffrey Goldberg wonders:

I doubt Netanyahu will retaliate for the Bulgaria bombing by launching an immediate attack on Iran's nuclear sites. But there is a good chance he will launch attacks on Hezbollah targets and individuals, and possibly certain Iranian targets as well, and this sort of back-and-forth can only escalate tensions further, which could only bring us closer to an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran.

Which, of course, is an enormous challenge for President Obama, who can't seem to convince the Israeli leadership that he will deal with the Iranian nuclear program militarily, if need be. Leon Panetta, the secretary of defense, is traveling to Israel later this month, to meet with Netanyahu and the defense minister, Ehud Barak. He certainly won't be the last American official to visit before November.

Chavez Must Stop Helping Assad

By Joel Hirst

Few would dispute that Syria’s government has run afoul of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the new norm in international law that United Nations member states approved in 2005 to try and help prevent the worst “mass atrocity crimes” of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. These are the same crimes prosecutable under the International Criminal Court and are particularly heinous because they are crimes committed by governments against their own people. R2P allows for UN intervention in extreme cases.

Naturally, as most things go with the United Nations, what was signed enthusiastically by member states is quickly swept under the rug in the face of very real challenges. Countries that do not have a culture of respect for rule of law at home easily disregard international law. What today is Syria could very well be them tomorrow. While, like in Libya, authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia can often be brought in line with their R2P obligations, it will not ever be willingly. For them, weapons deals and energy relationships too often trump human freedom.

However there often emerges in international relations a regime that is so disdainful of human life and their international obligations that they cannot be swayed even as the world begins to turn against the oppressors. For Syria, this is Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, who is going out of his way to be a problem. As the violence against the Syrian people reaches such a crescendo that even the Russians are starting to distance themselves, Chavez stands firm as one of Bashar al Assad’s most important allies.

Since December 2011, Chavez has sent at least three diesel shipments to Assad to help fuel his war machine. In October of 2011 just as the violence was spinning out of control Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro led a delegation to Damascus of Foreign Ministers from the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) to show support for the Assad regime. (The ALBA is President Chavez’s regional network of Anti-American governments. It includes Syria and Iran as observers.) And just this month, Venezuela’s National Assembly passed a resolution calling for an international movement to “reject intervention” in Syria. As he did with Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, President Chavez supports prolonging and preserving Assad and his undemocratic regime.

This is a tragedy. The vast majority of the Venezuelan people make common cause not with the Assad dictatorship but with those being shelled for their desire to live in a country free of tyranny. President Chavez would do well to remember this and begin to live up to his international obligations.
Joel D. Hirst is a Human Freedom Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute. Find him on Twitter: @joelhirst. This post originally appeared on the Freedom Collection.

July 18, 2012

A U.S. Invasion of Syria Won't End the Violence

Max Boot makes a very good point here with respect to the attack against Assad's inner circle today:

But while the victims–the men who directed the military forces that have killed upwards of 17,000 Syrians since the start of the fighting–undoubtedly deserved their fate, it is hard to take much satisfaction in the manner of their demise. For suicide bombing is never the weapon of the moderate. As a terrorist tactic it was occasionally utilized by the Socialist Revolutionary Combat Organization in early 20th-century Russia but really came into its own with Hezbollah in Lebanon in the 1980s, before being picked up by al-Qaeda and its offshoots. While the willingness of ordinary soldiers to sacrifice their lives to win a battle is universally respected (think of the Spartans at Thermopylae) that is a very different thing from deliberately setting out to kill one’s self and take as many of the enemy with you as possible. Americans were appalled at the kamikaze tactics employed by the Japanese at the end of Word War II and rightly so: fighting in this way bespeaks a fanaticism that does not bode well for the future unless it is rooted out.

And then he makes a not-so-good point here:

So now in Syria there is a great danger that America’s hesitancy to get involved on the rebel side has ceded the momentum to jihadist suicide bombers. They by no means represent the mainstream of Syrian opposition. But they will increasingly gain the upper hand, quite possibly with Saudi and Qatari help, unless the U.S. does more to help the secularists and moderates. And that, in turn, means the Obama administration will have to stop waiting for the blessing of the UN and Moscow before getting more involved. Only greater American-led intervention can end the fighting and stop Syria’s descent into greater barbarism.

Really? Dropping U.S. troops into Syria would accomplish two things: 1. ensure the demise of the Assad regime; 2. ensure the rise of an anti-American insurgency. We saw this in Afghanistan and we saw it in Iraq.

Any intervention of a size sufficient to provide country-wide security in Syria after the Assad regime falls is going to provoke a backlash. The same Sunnis that flooded into Iraq to battle the U.S. occupation would flow into Syria (and many are already there) to battle U.S. forces. The U.S. has no better understanding of Syria than it did of Iraq and even fewer people to tap for a successor regime. The idea that we "ceded momentum" to the jihadis presumes that there was a well-organized but outgunned opposition composed of secular liberals just waiting for the U.S. cavalry. In truth, the opposition remains a mix of forces and naturally the most violent of those are going to come to the fore during an insurgency.

Syria appears poised to fall into disorder, or worse. The injection of U.S. troops would focus the coming whirlwind against American soldiers. Why on Earth would we want that to happen?

The World's Worst Currency Manipulators

China's getting beaten up in the U.S. presidential campaign for its practice of currency manipulation, but according to the Peterson Institute's Joseph Gagnon, most of the world's worst currency manipulators are close U.S. allies. Here's the ranking of the worst of the worst:

Saudi Arabia
Hong Kong

Hit the link for the full list.

Daily Beast Article on Cyber Attacks in Iran Used for Cyber Attack Against Iran

This is pretty funny:

Researchers have uncovered a major spearphishing attack targeting foreign embassies and critical infrastructure in Iran that spreads via... a forged article from The Daily Beast.

The article in question detailed efforts by the U.S. and Israel to wage "electronic warfare" on Iran. According to virus researchers, the attack isn't all that sophisticated, so it's not likely to be a "Stuxnet 2.0" but more like a malicious prank.

Eli Lake, the author of the original piece, chimes in:

As a journalist, I always wanted my stories to change the world. Delivering payloads and attacking critical infrastructure, though? Not exactly what I had in mind.

U.S. Public Opinion on Syria


Foreign Policy and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs asked Americans which options they prefer for Syria. The results, as shown above, highlight a pretty large disconnect between the general public and Washington's foreign policy establishment - at least on the question of sending arms to anti-government groups inside Syria.

Another disconnect is evident: the public favors "enforcing a no-fly zone" but not "bombing Syrian air defenses." You usually can't do one without the other.

In any event, it appears the Assad regime is reeling without an overt U.S. intervention.

July 17, 2012

Obama's Approach to the Middle East Peace Process

Over the weekend, the Washington Post's Scott Wilson published a long piece detailing the Obama administration's efforts to forge a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians. In it, Wilson touches on the president's early thinking:

Obama’s view of the conflict broke from Bush’s approach, which he believed overtly favored Israel and damaged the United States’ ability to play the role of trusted mediator. Bush developed a close relationship with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a Likud member for decades until breaking off to form a centrist party known as Kadima. He even took Sharon to his ranch in Crawford, Tex., before Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005.

With what they viewed as mixed results from the Bush years, some Jewish leaders in the meeting that day disagreed with Obama’s assessment that only by creating some public distance with Israel could diplomatic progress be made with the Palestinians.

“The case he was trying to make was that the United States will be a better partner to Israel if it has more credibility with the Arab states, that we will be a better, more useful friend to Israel if we have more friends in the Arab world,” Rhodes said.

So now we have two case studies in the Bush and Obama approaches. One hugs Israel very tightly, the other tries to put some "public distance" between the two countries. Neither produced a negotiated settlement.

You have to believe, at this point, that the idea of fostering an enduring peace settlement between the two parties is beyond Washington's ability, and that such a reality is probably starting to sink in in Washington.

Google Goes After Global Criminals

The company whose motto is "don't be evil" is looking to take on international crime:

Google Ideas, Google's think tank, is working with the Council on Foreign Relations and other organizations to look for ways to use technology to disrupt international crime.

Drug cartels, terrorists human traffickers and criminal gangs run their organisations via the web, often using advanced encryption technologies to conceal themselves from law enforcement.

But global anti-crime organisations hope that Google's technologies could be the keys to 'breaking into' these elusive groups.

Officials from Google and groups that combat illicit networks will meet Tuesday and Wednesday in Westlake Village, California, to develop strategies for fighting global crime.

The Race for the Arctic


Steve Hargreaves says that the race for Arctic resources is about more than oil:

In addition to oil and gas, the Arctic is is thought to contain world-class reserves of iron ore, zinc, nickel, gold, uranium, and other minerals.

Already, the world's largest zinc mine is in Arctic Alaska, while the largest nickel mine is in Arctic Russia. One estimate in a Geological Society of London paper said the mineral value in Russia alone could exceed $2 trillion.

Fishing is also an important resource in the region, and could grow as more waters become accessible and species such as cod migrate northward.

Clearly, there will be expanding uses of the Arctic as it thaws.

Whether humans can successfully tap these resources without further damaging the environment, and whether Arctic riches will offset the likely substantial costs imposed by global warming elsewhere on the planet, is another matter entirely.

I don't think these cost/benefit calculations are going to slow the march. If there's gold (black or otherwise) in them thar ice flows, history suggests they'll be exploited.

(AP Photo)

July 16, 2012

Russia Condemns Saudi Arabia on Human Rights

The diplomatic wrangling over Syria is steadily escalating:

Russian Human Rights envoy Konstantin Dolgov had expressed “great concern” about the situation in eastern Saudi Arabia following what he described as clashes between law enforcement and peaceful demonstrators in which two people were killed and more than 20 were wounded, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry website.

The Saudi interior ministry has said there were no clashes but that two people were killed by unknown assailants last Sunday in the east, where the country’s minority Muslim Shi’ite population is concentrated.

“The Kingdom learned with strong astonishment and surprise about the comment by the Russian Foreign Ministry’s representative on human rights which represents a blatant and unjustified intervention … in the internal affairs of the kingdom,” SPA quoted a Foreign Ministry statement, attributed to an “official source”, as saying.

Mark Adomanis thinks the Russians are "concern trolling." Certainly, the hypocrisy here knows no bounds.

Al-Qaeda in Yemen

Watch Al Qaeda in Yemen on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

In May, Frontline ran a fascinating documentary on al-Qaeda in Yemen. It follows Iraqi reporter Abdul-Ahad as he travels into an al-Qaeda-held city and several strongholds throughout the country.

One interesting revelation to emerge in the footage is how sensitive al-Qaeda has become to tribal sensibilities following their rout in Iraq. Indeed, Ahad relates that even in Yemen, al-Qaeda ran afoul of a local tribe in the town of Lawdar and was quickly driven out. Meanwhile, Yemen's divided and dysfunctional army has largely failed to dislodge al-Qaeda.

July 15, 2012

French President: Peugeot Layoffs 'Unacceptable'


The French car maker Peugeot has fallen upon hard times. It recently announced that it was laying off 8,000 workers. But the new French president, Francois Hollande, is having none of it. According to the Associated Press:

He told two interviewers from the major television networks TF1 and France-2 that the "plan is not acceptable as it stands and therefore it will not be accepted."

The layoffs are unacceptable? Companies do not like to lay people off; they generally do it as a last resort to prevent something worse ... like bankruptcy. Calling layoffs unacceptable is therefore complete nonsense. It would be akin to calling chemotherapy unacceptable.

Hollande's solution?

He added that the government would soon unveil a plan for the car industry...

Good luck with that.

(AP photo)

July 13, 2012

Is the Two-State Solution Dead?

Michael Freund argues that it is:

But whatever the motive, the repopulation of Judea and Samaria with Jews represents a remarkable triumph of the human spirit, and a validation of the pioneering ethos upon which this country was founded.

There are to be sure many challenges that still lie ahead, as pressure will continue to mount on Israel to draw boundaries and accede to some form of partial territorial retreat. The Palestinians and their allies will surely continue to insist on statehood and the expulsion of Jews.

But the Jewish people have withstood far greater threats in the past.

We have overcome diplomatic disapproval, international hostility, and unjustified opprobrium to reclaim the land that is ours by history and by right.

When Jeremiah (31:4) foretold that “you will yet plant vineyards in Samaria,” and that the sounds of rejoicing would again be heard in the cities of Judea (33:10-11), he knew of what he spoke.

With G-d’s help, recent years have shown that Jews are returning to Judea, Samaria and the Old City of Jerusalem in increasing numbers. So to our critics and foes I have one small piece of friendly advice: you had better get used to it, because the Jewish people are here to stay.

The mainstream position on this is (or maybe "was") that any feasible peace deal would see Israel retain large settlement blocks beyond the "Green Line" while compensating land-swaps elsewhere for the Palestinians. What Freund seems to be suggesting, though, is that the Palestinians will never get any state anywhere and instead ... well, it's not clear. But this seems to be the big question. If the two-state solution is dead ... what comes next?

China-Japan War Game Stokes Ire

A new game - Defend the Diaoyu Islands - recently popped up on Apple's app store. According to the Register, the game had players defending islands in the East China Sea from a Japanese invasion. From the game's description:

Defend the Diaoyu Islands, for they are the inalienable territory of China! Recently, the Japanese government has been sabre-rattling, making attempts to seize the Diaoyu Islands and even arresting our fishermen compatriots while selling off fish from the islands. Today, you can vent your anger by trying this game demo, working together to eradicate all Japanese devils landing on the island and turning them back towards their own lands. Defend the Diaoyu Islands!

Given the inflammatory nature of the app, Apple pulled the game from its store. The Diaoyu Islands are known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan.

July 12, 2012

Mystery Object in Baltic Sea May Be Secret Nazi Weapon, Not UFO


Evidently people thought the picture above of a mysterious object resting at the bottom of the Baltic Sea was the Millennium Falcon. Sadly, that's not the case, but the emerging explanation is still interesting:

Divers exploring a 'UFO-shaped' object in the Baltic sea say that the strange, curved object might be a Nazi device lost beneath the waves since the end of the Second World War.

Sonar scans have shown that the device, raised 10ft above the seabed and measuring 200ft by 25ft, could be the base of an anti-submarine weapon.

The weapon was built with wire mesh which could have baffled submarine radar, leading enemy craft to crash - much in the same way as turning out a lighthouse could be used as a weapon against shipping.

But now former Swedish naval officer and WWII expert Anders Autellus has revealed that the structure - measuring 200ft by 25ft - could be the base of a device designed to block British and Russian submarine movements in the area.

The huge steel-and-concrete structure could be one of the most important historical finds in years.

Cockroaches Invade Naples

The disgusting wages of austerity:

The invasion started in early July with a massive hatch in the city’s sewers, which hadn’t been cleaned or disinfected in over a year because of budget cuts triggered by Italy’s economic crisis. To make matters worse, changes to the city’s garbage collection system, which functioned poorly even during the best of times thanks to infiltration by organized-crime syndicates, require residents and restaurants to put out their garbage the night before early morning collectors pick it up, leaving festering food on the curbside by the sewer drains. Add the above-average temperatures and high humidity and you’ve got a cockroach paradise.

Now city workers are spraying sewers, stores and restaurants several times a day to try to stop the critters from multiplying. When the poison kills them, their dry shells litter the sidewalks. Street sweepers are working extra shifts to remove the crunchy carcasses. Health workers fear the insects could eventually carry hepatitis A or typhoid fever if they aren’t able to contain the invasion. Cockroaches are also known asthma triggers and city authorities have warned asthma sufferers to stay away from the most affected parts of the city.

U.S. Lifts Sanctions on Burma

The Obama administration formally eased some sanctions on Burma yesterday. Freedom House's Rhonda Mays and Robert Herman argue that the administration needs to go slow:

The waiver will permit business dealings with highly corrupt and opaque companies like the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), whose profits have bankrolled a succession of brutal military governments. The measure will leave untouched the actual laws underlying the sanctions, essentially granting U.S. businesses exemptions that, in theory, could be revoked should Burma's government stall or backslide in the reform process. However, trying to shut the flood gates after investment has begun to pour into the country would be next to impossible, especially given the influence that the business lobby seems to have exerted over the Obama administration's Burma outlook in recent months.

The Council on Foreign Relations vs. Paul Krugman

Nothing like a good wonky throw-down:

What seems like an arcane squabble over relative growth rates between Iceland and Latvia has erupted into an argument between two heavyweight voices on economic policy—the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and Paul Krugman. Obscure though it may be, their disagreement is important. It is actually a proxy for a much bigger debate on whether external devaluation (followed by Iceland and supported by Krugman) or harsh internal austerity measures (pursued by some Baltic countries as well as much of Europe right now) is the better strategy for getting out of the slump afflicting many countries in the region. It is therefore important to understand and settle the numbers. In this post, I demonstrate that CFR was wrong in how it presented the numbers and that the medium-term economic performance of the Baltic countries relative to Iceland is neither as good as CFR implied nor as bad as those who sided with Krugman.

Hit the link for the thrilling conclusion.

Can Iran's Nuclear Know-how Be Bombed Away?

Retired General Jack Keane tells Lee Smith that the U.S. military could seriously delay Iran's nuclear quest:

“My judgment tells me that if we did something as devastating as we could do, taking down their major sites, which also means their engineers and scientists, I think the setback would be greater than five years. I don’t like to read too much into people’s motivations, but at times when we don’t want to do something, we build a case in terms of our interpretation that it is too hard or it isn’t worth the payoff.” [Emphasis mine]

What this implies is that to really put time back on the clock - the U.S. would have to hit Iranian facilities en-masse on one day, during the day, so as to maximize the chance that people integral to Iran's nuclear program are killed.

A day-time strike is more risky for the U.S. and increases the number of civilian casualties in any attack - magnifying the potential for a strike to stoke Iranian nationalism.

Then there's this:

“It is inconceivable that the American military would say ‘we can strike but we cannot accomplish our objective.’ The assessment of one to three years assumes one blow but that is not what the reasonable American option is, which calls for repeated attacks if the Iranians restart the program. It is unreasonable to assume that after the strikes the U.S. would sit pat and Iran would rebuild. It’s absolutely imperative that if the U.S. strikes, its posture should be, ‘Dear Iranians, please do not proceed to rebuild the program, or we will strike again.’”

In other words, for a military solution to work, the U.S. has to be prepared to wage open war on Iran indefinitely. In essence, we will embrace a similar containment regime that was applied to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

July 11, 2012

What the U.S. Military Thinks About Iran

From the Pentagon's most recent assessment (pdf):

There has been no change to Iran's strategies over the past year. Iran's grand strategy remains challenging U.S. influence while developing its domestic capabilities to become the dominant power in the Middle East. Iran's security strategy remains focused on deterring an attack, and it continues to support governments and groups that oppose U.S. interests. Diplomacy, economic leverage, and active sponsorship of terrorist and insurgent groups, such as Lebanese Hizballah, Iraqi Shia groups, and the Taliban, are tools Iran uses to increase its regional power. Iran's principles of military strategy remain deterrence, asymmetrical retaliation, and attrition warfare.

Bank of England Prepared for Doom... By Buying Bikes

This is amusing:

When I was a member of the court, I sat in on a meeting of the financial stability committee – it would have been 2006 or 2007. One of the governors at that meeting proposed that as a mechanism to cope with crisis, the Bank should buy half a dozen or a dozen bicycles in order that members of the Bank could move swiftly and anonymously around the City.
That was Lord Myners, a former member of the Court of Directors of the Bank of England, testifying before the House of Lords.

Obama vs. Rubio on the Threat (or Lack Thereof) from Hugo Chavez


It's silly season, sure, but this exchange between Barack Obama and Marco Rubio over the threat posed by Hugo Chavez is interesting. First to Obama:

"We're always concerned about Iran engaging in destabilizing activity around the globe. But overall my sense is that what Mr. Chávez has done over the last several years has not had a serious national security impact on us," Obama said. "We have to vigilant. My main concern when it comes to Venezuela is having the Venezuelan people have a voice in their affairs, and that you end up ultimately having fair and free elections, which we don't always see."

Senator Marco Rubio is far more concerned:

Hugo Chavez is not only a threat to the Venezuelan people’s freedom and democratic aspirations, he has also supported Iran’s regime in its attempts to expand its intelligence network throughout the hemisphere, facilitated money laundering activities that finance state sponsors of terrorism and provided a safe haven for FARC narco-terrorists, among many other actions.

Just yesterday, the Wall Street Journal detailed how Hugo Chavez circumvents U.S. and EU sanctions to help prop up the Assad regime in Syria. And even Obama’s own State Department belatedly but rightly expelled Chavez’s consul general in Miami for her ties to a plan to wage cyber-attacks on the U.S.

If you're Hugo Chavez - whose rhetoric do you prefer? One that makes you out to be an impressive figure challenging a superpower, or the other that dismisses you as ineffectual?

(AP Photo)

Ronald Reagan: Liberal Interventionist?

Gulliver digs up a quote from a 1985 book titled Intervention and the Reagan Doctrine and an old Kenneth Waltz essay (pay walled) that described the administration's view on the budding concept of humanitarian intervention:

Senior officials in the Reagan administration elevated the right to intervene to the level of general principle. As one of them said, we "debated whether we had the right to dictate the form of another country's government. The bottom line was yes, that some rights are more fundamental than the right of nations to nonintervention, like the rights of individual people... [W]e don't have the right to subvert a democratic government but we do have the right against an undemocratic one."

Notes Gulliver:

But still we're left with the inescapable reality that decisions about intervention or nonintervention are made in national capitals on the basis of national interests; thus ever was it so.

Indeed. This is why the U.S. should be wary about making sweeping moral claims when it acts on behalf of its interests.

PR Firm Sought to 'Rebrand Mexico'


For many outside Mexico, the country is increasingly synonymous with its brutal drug war. But in 2011, the country enjoyed record tourism. How? According to Mark McNeilly, Mexico hired a good PR firm:

The first obstacle to turning around Mexico's brand relative to tourism was facing up to the problem caused by the negative publicity about drug violence. The old approach was to stay silent and hope the news stories would stop. However, as Ogilvy PR's lead for the project, Jennifer Risi, stated, "Unless you are out there talking and putting those stories in context, you are losing the messaging battle." For example, per Risi, prior to implementing the new strategy CNN had run more than fifty stories in a row focused on the drug issue.

While taking the issue head-on was a scary prospect for the Tourism Board, they stepped up to the plate. Gerardo Llanes, the CMO of the Tourism Board, agreed with the strategy, acknowledging that "being quiet was not working, especially for the tourism industry." To overcome the negative image they would need to craft a message to the media and their travel partners to put the issue in context....

The key proof points behind the message were twofold: one, showing that Mexico offers much more than just beaches by showcasing the country's adventure travel, cultural sites, and tours for foodies. Secondly, communicating the fact that, while there is violence in the country, it's limited to a few areas. Per Llanes, out of 2500 municipalities, only 80 are significantly affected.

(AP Photo)

July 10, 2012

Wikipedia Takes on Russian Regime Over Web Censorship

Via the New York Times:

Major Internet sites and human rights advocates sharply criticized a proposed law that would grant the Russian government broad new powers to restrict Web content, ostensibly to protect children from pornography and other harmful material. Critics said the law could quickly lead to repression of speech and a restrictive firewall like the one in China.

Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, shut its Russian Web site on Tuesday to protest the proposed measure, and instead posted a large warning on its home page: “Imagine a world without free knowledge.” The notice said the proposed law “can lead to the creation of extrajudicial censorship of the Internet in Russia, including the closure of access to Wikipedia.”

Would a Nuclear Iran Stabilize the Middle East?

Kenneth Waltz wrote a provocative essay (pay-walled) for Foreign Affairs arguing that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be a good thing (or not as bad a thing as most assume). In an interview with the Diplomat, he fleshes out his thoughts, comparing the development with Pakistan's nuclear breakout:

India quite naturally did not want Pakistan to become a nuclear state. A second nuclear state cramps the style of the first. It is hard to imagine one nuclear state acquiescing easily or gracefully to its adversary going nuclear. But certainly in the long run, the nuclear weapons have meant peace on the subcontinent. This is in GREAT contrast to the expectations that most people entertained. Statements abounded by pundits, academics, journalists that suggested that nuclear weapons would mean war on the subcontinent. These experts all denied that the nuclear relationship between India and Pakistan could be like that between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. When two countries have nuclear weapons it becomes impossible for either to strike at the manifestly vital interests of the other. It remains very possible, however, for nuclear states to engage in skirmishes, and those can of course be deadly. A historical example is the Soviet-China border disputes (1969), and a more recent one is the Mumbai attacks. But never have any of these skirmishes gotten so out of hand as to escalate to full-scale war.

The comparison with Pakistan is interesting. Pakistan, like Iran, is a state that nurtures alliances with terrorist groups yet never once passed off a bomb to one of these groups. Pakistan is an Islamic state yet never embraced national suicide by attacking their arch-enemy India. So the fact that the U.S and India have thus far lived, albeit very uncomfortably, with a nuclear Pakistan is proof that it could do so with a nuclear Iran. The India-Pakistan rivalry is orders of magnitude more intense than anything between Iran and Israel, and it has not devolved into a nuclear Armageddon.

On the flip side, the Pakistani example also shows why Waltz is being a bit too sanguine. Pakistan's nuclear weapons are source of huge insecurity both for Pakistan's neighbors and for the world - less because of fears that the Pakistani military will launch them, but that the Pakistani state will break down and the military would lose custody of one or more weapons. While a complete state collapse doesn't appear to be a near-term possibility, the country is far from stable. The fact that it has nuclear weapons is an added degree of international heartburn.

Iran doesn't have as much internal instability as Pakistan (a fact which some U.S. lawmakers apparently want to remedy by funding an anti-Iranian regime terrorist group) but it has been challenged recently. Once Iran acquires nuclear weapons (if it ultimately does so), internal instability becomes that much more dangerous. In Waltz' view, the spread of nuclear weapons stabilizes state-to-state relations, but there's the pressing problem of what happens if those nuclear weapons states break down.

Dr. Doom: Global Economy Could Implode in 2013

This won't make your day, but it's worth listening to. Nouriel Roubini explains how the world is heading into a 'perfect storm' of financial disaster in 2013 - including a possible recession in the U.S., a "hard landing" in China, a U.S./Israel-Iran war, a crash of (currently weakening) emerging market economies and, of course, the ongoing implosion of the Eurozone.

To top it off, Roubini notes that the world is also in a much weaker position to deal with the potential calamity now than it was in 2008 when crisis struck. Most of the "policy bullets" such as low interest rates and stimulus have been fired. "Too big to fail" banks are now even bigger.

That said, there's still room for some optimism: a war with Iran is not inevitable and the Chinese and American economies may surprise on the upside. Europe, though, looks in rough shape no matter how you slice it.

July 9, 2012

China Still Importing Policy Ideas

According to the BBC's Mukul Devichand, China's policy battles owe much to Western ideas:

For mainland Chinese intellectuals, the journey to the West - and then back to Communist China - is now a well-trodden path.

In fact, the main schools of intellectual thought in China have one thing in common - their leading thinkers have often spent time in Western universities.

That means that for Westerners, who may struggle with China's very different language or food, Chinese policy debates are split along strikingly familiar lines.

Google's Schmidt Predicts Fall of China's Great Firewall


In an interview with Josh Rogin, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt decried China's web censorship:

"I believe that ultimately censorship fails," said Schmidt, when asked about whether the Chinese government's censorship of the Internet can be sustained. "China's the only government that's engaged in active, dynamic censorship. They're not shy about it."

When the Chinese Internet censorship regime fails, the penetration of information throughout China will also cause political and social liberalization that will fundamentally change the nature of the Chinese government's relationship to its citizenry, Schmidt believes.

"I personally believe that you cannot build a modern knowledge society with that kind of behavior, that is my opinion," he said. "I think most people at Google would agree with that. The natural next question is when [will China change], and no one knows the answer to that question. [But] in a long enough time period, do I think that this kind of regime approach will end? I think absolutely."

Interestingly, in March Reuters reported that China's innovation sector was surging:

International filings for patent protection, a key indicator of technological innovation in major economies, hit an all-time record last year driven by growth in China and other middle- income countries, a United Nations agency said on Monday.

The World Intellectual Property Organization, which administers the global patent pact, reported that 2011 saw a 10 percent rise in applications to a total of 181,900...

WIPO figures showed the United States, Japan and Germany, the long-time leaders in total applications, accounted between them for 58 per cent of total filings, but China, with a rise of 33.4 per cent on the previous year, was pushing them hard.

Patents in and of themselves don't tell you all there is to know about the long-term dynamism of a country's tech sector. But in 2012, the lack of freedom doesn't appear to be slowing China's technological edge (although given the rampant intellectual property theft it's difficult to judge just how much indigenous innovation is actually occurring).

(AP Photo)

Driving with NATO Through Pakistan

GlobalPost's Suzanna Koster interviews a NATO truck driver making the dangerous journey from Pakistan.

China's Silt Wave


Every year, China removes silt from the Yellow River in an operation that moves an amazing amount of water through a specialized dam. The Daily Mail has more photos.

(AP Photo)

Israel's History Project

Yaacov Lozowick, Israel’s Chief Archivist, has embarked on an ambitious project: digitizing everything in Israel's archives and posting it online (like the 1935 soccer match in Tel Aviv you see above). In an interview with Yair Rosenberg, he describes the project:

“The mission of the archives is to transfer the documentation of the government to the possession of the governed,” he explains. “Since much of the content is both fascinating and relevant to most aspects of society’s life, enabling the citizens to have free and easy access to their documentation—within the obvious constraints—will enrich the public discourse and strengthen Israeli democracy.”

There's an English-language blog available for the project as well. History buffs rejoice.

The Middle East's Declining Relevance

Paul Miller says the Mideast's oil muscle is getting flabby:

The picture here is stark: when unconventional methods of oil development are taken into account, including development of heavy oil, shale oil and oil sands, the Middle East suddenly becomes a minor player. There may be as many as 7.9 trillion barrels of potentially recoverable oil left in the world from all sources, according to the IEA, with more than 90 percent of it outside the Middle East. The Middle East dominates the currently proven, conventional and commercially viable reserves, but these reserves account for less than 10 percent of the total oil in the world. Once unconventional methods become commercially competitive, the Middle East will be dwarfed by Canada, the United States and Venezuela.

Finally, as the massive unconventional oil deposits become commercially viable, the Middle Eastern oil industry will no longer be too big to fail. Middle Eastern oil producers will lose the implicit discount on risk they gain from dominating the current world oil market. They will, in fact, be dispensable, making it much harder for them to get a free ride on the implicit guarantees and subsidies they currently enjoy from their host governments. As they devolve from global politicians into businessmen, governments will rightly ask if these guarantees make good business sense anymore.

Miller then zeros in on the implications:

That means the central goal of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East will essentially be achieved: no power will be able to threaten the United States with unacceptable leverage over the American economy. That is because oil itself will be less important, and the world oil market will be more diffuse and diverse. The importance of this development cannot be overstated. It is a tectonic shift in the geopolitical balance of power, a strategically pivotal development only slightly less momentous than the fall of the Soviet Union. It is the slow-motion collapse of the Middle Eastern oil empire.

July 6, 2012

Israeli Researchers Take Buzz Out of Pot


Israel is well known as a hub for high-tech research and development. Some of their researchers also appear to be major buzzkills:

Israeli researchers have developed a strain of medicinal marijuana that can ease symptoms of diseases such as arthritis without making patients “high”....

Medical marijuana grower Tikun Olam has been developing a strain of cannabis that is high in CBD but very low in THC. It has managed to create one that has 15.8 percent CBD and less than one percent THC. This new strain is called Avidekel and seems to have the highest CBD to THC ratio of any other variant developed.

Tikun Olam’s head of development Zack Klein told Reuters: “Sometimes the high is not always what they need. Sometimes it is an unwanted side effect. For some of the people it’s not even pleasant.”

(AP Photo)

Cuba's New Inspiration


According to Sarah Rainsford, it's China:

Cuba has begun introducing measures intended to kick-start its inefficient, unproductive planned economy.

It is a tentative start: The word "reform" is never used, nor "private enterprise" - instead, Cuba says it is "updating" its economic model.

Like China and Vietnam before it, the island's aim is to protect and prolong its socialist political system by introducing elements of market economics.

So it seems Raul Castro is in Asia looking for inspiration.

(AP Photo)

Unintended Consequences of Iran Sanctions


A new round of Iran sanctions appear to be putting a real crimp in the Iranian economy. In the Financial Times, Akshay Mathur and Neelam Deo describe how the sanctions are also pushing emerging nations like Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (the "BRICS") to seek an end-run around the U.S.-dominated global financial system:

For decades, [the BRICS] have been successfully co-opted to submit to western-dominated institutions, leaving them with little motivation to build their own. Now, the Brics must urgently organize to build institutions of mutual economic benefit. The June 28 deadline that China faces on complying with Iran sanctions, highlights the urgency of the issue.

The Brics are a larger oil-importing bloc than the European Union. None is in confrontation with Iran, but they are nonetheless hostage to western sanctions because the conduits of international finance, trade and transportation used for crude oil trade are controlled by the West.

The authors go on to highlight ways that the BRICS are slowly circumventing this by building alternative global financial structures. There are limits to this project as long as the dollar is the undisputed global currency, but an internationalizing renminbi would help.

While Iranian sanctions are the immediate driver of this quest to create an alternative financial system that's not dominated by the West, steps in this direction were probably going to happen regardless given the divergent interests of countries like China, Russia and Brazil. But there's the rub: As much as the BRICS may object to Iran sanctions, or having their financial transactions mediated through Western institutions, do they really possess the unity of purpose to agree on and create an alternative architecture?

2012 may be seen as the high water mark of the West's ability to leverage its dominance in finance toward coercive ends, or it may see the BRICS' flirtation with an alternative collapse of its own internal contradictions (or poorer than expected economic performance).

(AP Photo)

July 5, 2012

WikiLeaks Releases "Syria Files"

Though its founder is buttoned up in the Ecuadorean embassy in the UK, WikiLeaks has poached millions of emails from the Syrian regime. Stories derived from this material will be published in the coming weeks, according to WikiLeaks.

Russia: No Asylum for Assad

Despite some hopes to the contrary, it seems Russia isn't moving the West's way on Syria:

Moscow lashed out on Thursday at the Western position on Syria, saying it could aggravate the situation to the point of war. “Their [Western] position is most likely to exacerbate the situation, lead to further violence and ultimately a very big war,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

The West has also distorted the Russian position on Syria by suggesting Moscow should offer Syrian President Bashar al-Assad asylum, he said.

“This is either an unscrupulous attempt to mislead serious people who shape foreign policy or simply a misunderstanding of what is going on,” Lavrov said.

He also warned that Russia will reject any UN Security Council peace enforcement resolution on Syria, since that would be “nothing but intervention.”

When it comes to intervention in Syria, none of the great powers are in much of a position to decry it.

Britain Finds Its 'Atlantis'

According to the Daily Mail, divers have discovered the "British Atlantis" in the North Sea:

'Britain's Atlantis' - a hidden underwater world swallowed by the North Sea - has been discovered by divers working with science teams from the University of St Andrews. Doggerland, a huge area of dry land that stretched from Scotland to Denmark was slowly submerged by water between 18,000 BC and 5,500 BC.

Divers from oil companies have found remains of a 'drowned world' with a population of tens of thousands - which might once have been the 'real heartland' of Europe.

A team of climatologists, archaeologists and geophysicists has now mapped the area using new data from oil companies - and revealed the full extent of a 'lost land' once roamed by mammoths.

Would America Have Been Better Off Staying British?

Conrad Black offers up some July 4th heresies:

If the Americans had maintained their British status, they would control Britain and Canada and Australia and New Zealand now (another 120 million people and over $5 trillion of GDP), have all their energy needs met, and enjoy better government than they have actually endured for the past 20 years. It would have been much easier to abolish slavery and, if there had been a Civil War, it would not have lasted long, nor cost a fraction of the 750,000 American lives that it did. There would have been no World Wars or Cold War, or at least no conflict remotely as perilous as those were. The United States would also have less than its current 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people, and wouldn’t have a legal cartel that devours 10 percent of its GDP. These are matters that, though they verge on secular heresy, Americans may want to consider, in between singing splendid anthems and rereading Jefferson’s defamation of poor old George III and his blood libel on the American Indian in the Declaration of Independence, this national holiday.

This is an interesting thought experiment. It's way too complicated to tackle in a mere blog post but I'd suggest right out of the gate that Black underestimates the ease with which slavery could have ended. Nor is it clear why having the U.S. as a part of Great Britain would make either World War avoidable.

July 3, 2012

Should the U.S. Reinstitute the Draft?

General Stanley McChrystal says yes:

"I think we ought to have a draft. I think if a nation goes to war, it shouldn't be solely be represented by a professional force, because it gets to be unrepresentative of the population," McChrystal said at a late-night event June 29 at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival. "I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game."

Most recent advocates of a return to conscription have usually pushed the idea because they believe a draft would act as a check on Washington's interventionist tendencies. If more people have "skin in the game," there would be a lot less patience for charging off into this or that country's civil war. That may be true for big ticket wars like the invasion of Iraq, but those are rare affairs. Most interventions rely heavily on air power and local proxies and wouldn't require mass mobilization in the U.S., thus negating much of the restraining power of that a draft would supposedly exercise.

For his part, McChrystal doesn't really advance this rationale (not all that surprising) but instead emphasizes the costs born by the military and their families due to repeated deployments.

Advice Governor Romney Should Not Heed

Victor Davis Hanson offers some advice to Governor Romney when it comes to attacking President Obama's foreign policy. Daniel Larison picks apart some of the weaker points here, but I wanted to draw attention to this charge:

The addition of $5 trillion in national debt was disastrous in terms of U.S. foreign policy. It lost us what leverage we had over China. It destroyed any credibility in advising the European Union about its own financial meltdown.

When, I wonder, did the United States have leverage over China? Was it when the prior administration bestowed America with two enormous tax cuts, two large land wars, one huge (debt-funded) expansion of federal entitlements and a housing bubble? Indeed, if I were the Romney campaign (stocked, as it is, with members of the prior administration) I would be very leery about making this charge for several reasons. First, if the Obama administration's huge debt increase was a foreign policy "disaster" then Bush's debt increase was at least as bad

Here's a handy debt chart that allows you to rank changes in gross U.S. federal debt (starting at WWII). It shows that while the Obama administration is no piker when it comes to larding it on (ranking third), it's outdone by its predecessor (ranked second and seventh). The Obama administration has been no slouch in the debt department, exceeding the Bush administration's total spend, but they can't (yet) hold a candle to the rapid pace at which the debt soared when President Bush and the GOP controlled the nation's purse strings.

Either way, it's patently absurd to argue that with this record, the Romney camp would have any credibility when it comes to lecturing Europe about how to handle national finances.

Second, the Bush era is noted as one of relative calm in Sino-U.S. ties precisely because the administration was in no position to challenge Beijing because it was preoccupied with the high strategic task of policing Baghdad and begging an elderly Shiite cleric to say nice things about democracy. It was the Bush administration's spendthrift ways, disastrous handling of the Iraq war and the calamitous financial crisis which unfolded on its watch that led many Chinese analysts to believe the U.S. was in a period of decline. It's not clear if the current administration has actually increased U.S. leverage over China, but it's not like they squandered some terrific inheritance.

July 2, 2012

Which Government Requests the Most Info from Twitter?


The United States. By a mile. Twitter explains in their first-ever "Transparency Index" that the goal of the report is to "shed more light on" three types of government intervention:

* government requests received for user information,
* government requests received to withhold content, and
* DMCA takedown notices received from copyright holders.

Where Are the World's Most Dangerous Biological Laboratories?


The Federation of American Scientists has usefully located all the labs in the world that conduct research into "dangerous and emerging pathogens." Click the map above for a larger, interactive image (and to see if you need to stock up on duct tape).

Mexico: The PRI's Back


Enrique Peña Nieto will be Mexico's next president and his PRI party notched more gains as well:

In other races, exit polls suggested that the PRI would pick up at least one more governor’s post, giving the party control of 21 of Mexico’s 31 states.

In the megalopolis of Mexico City, Miguel Angel Mancera captured 60 percent of the vote, allowing the left to continue to run one of the largest and most complex cities in the world.

From the Wall Street Journal:
Enrique Peña Nieto, a telegenic former governor of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, won with about 38% of the vote versus 31% for his closest challenger, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, according to a partial vote count by Mexico's election agency.

Josefina Vázquez Mota, Mexico's first major female presidential candidate and a member of President Felipe Calderón's National Action Party, or PAN, trailed with 26%.

The final official result might vary slightly, election officials said.

Ms. Vázquez Mota conceded defeat, but Mr. López Obrador said he would wait for final results in the coming days to decide what to do. Associates said he would likely contest the results in court, alleging that the PRI broke campaign spending limits and had favorable coverage in the media.
The return of the PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years through an extensive patronage system that Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa dubbed "the perfect dictatorship," marks a stunning comeback for a party that nearly fell apart after it lost its first presidential election in 2000. After a third-place showing in 2006, the party has united around its new face: Mr. Peña Nieto, a 45-year-old former state governor.

Even in victory, the party was supported by only four in 10 Mexicans. In his victory speech, Mr. Peña Nieto told cheering supporters that the PRI had been given a second chance at power, and must show voters that it can govern better than in the past, when it was dogged by corruption scandals. "We have to show that we understand Mexico has changed," Mr. Peña Nieto said.

Sr Peña-Nieto will succeed as president if he is willing to "de-PRI" the PRI. The question is, can he? We'll see:
While the 45-year-old presents himself as part of a more-democratic generation of leaders, many PRI governors continue to rule their states like “fiefdoms” and won’t take easily to centralized control, said Enrique Krauze, a historian and author of “Mexico: Biography of Power.” Pena Nieto also faces the threat of protests from an anti-PRI student movement and supporters of second-place finisher Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

“Pena Nieto has proved during these months that he has political instincts, that he’s a political animal,” Krauze said in an interview in Mexico City prior to yesterday’s balloting. “But he won’t have an easy ride now in the sense that he’ll have to fight both inside and outside” his party.

While the PRI will control at least one house of Congress, amending the Constitution - a step required to end Pemex’s grip on oil production, as Peña Nieto promised - would require at least a two-thirds majority.

Cross-posted at Fausta's blog.

(AP Photo)

China Closing the Space Gap: Reason to Worry?


China has made a lot of space-related news of late. They put their first female astronaut into orbit and recently completed their first space-docking mission.

Morris Jones writes that while China still trails America in space, the world should not dismiss their achievements:

There is a condescending tone to much of the international reportage on China's recent space docking and expedition to its first space laboratory, Tiangong 1. Commentators applaud China's progress in space exploration but claim they are decades behind the US and Russia, who achieved similar feats in the 1970s.

These reports fail to account for the 'leapfrog' effect of technological advances, and the benefit of experience from other nations. Such effects are propelling much of Africa from being disconnected from telecommunications to enjoying broadband wireless services in just a few years. The effects are just as significant for China's space missions.

Morris concludes that the "US will probably only restore vitality to its space program when it realises that China has achieved near-parity with its own activities."

I think it's just as likely that China will advance a bit more before realizing, like the U.S., that a very expensive manned space program has little practical utility. The U.S. has not abandoned space exploration or the strategic exploitation of space for defense purposes. China will certainly continue to improve its space-related technologies, but I don't think the U.S. should fear a Sputnik 2.0. The Chinese economy won't grow at 8 percent forever.

(AP Photo)

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