Archive for the 'Foreign affairs' Category

Pulling Strings in Foreign Relations

Seems to be an awful lot of “testing” going on.

Mutiny in Georgia!!!

Iran attacks Kurdish guerillas in Iraq with helicopters

Pakistan is melting down!!!

Chinese Ships Come Dangerously Close to American Vessel

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Send in the SEALS

Well, here’s a true foreign crisis to test the President with.

My response is noted in the title. And we should kill the pirates. In fact, after rescued the hostages, and killed the pirates, we should get all Jeffersonian with the rest of them.

Denmark’s A.P. Moller-Maersk confirmed that the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama had been attacked by pirates about 500 km (300 miles) off Somalia and had probably been hijacked. The company said it had 20 American crew on board.

A spokesman for the U.N.’s World Food Program (WFP) in Nairobi told Reuters that among the vessel’s cargo were 232 containers of WFP relief food destined for Somalia and Uganda.

At least the administration has already , although a weak one, so far.

A presidential spokesman says the White House is assessing a course of action to resolve the hijacking of a U.S.-flagged ship off the coast of Somalia.

Press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday that the White House was monitoring the incident closely. Said Gibbs: “Our top priority is the personal safety of the crew members on board.”

Keep checking back for updates when they’re available.

I’m not the only one following this: may have already retaken their ship. Should be an interesting story once we hear the whole truth. (hattip to tigerhawk) And there’s what I get for going out to lunch.

And it looks like Dam Riehl had the same idea as me… This mission would have been exactly why we have SEAL team 6, (now called the Naval Special Warfare Development Group,) isn’t it.


Well, I would have to say President Obama, and the Navy SEALs get passing marks for the resolution to this crisis. The bits-n-pieces to the story that I’ve heard are the stuff that will make great bar fodder when these SEALs cozy up for a brew. Two teams, parachuting at night in the seas near the Navy ship, to be picked up. 3 simultaneous shots from the deck of 1 ship into a towed lifeboat, taking at all three targets.

I’m sure if asked, all the SEALs involved would say it was “all in a days work.” Surely they deserve a moment of praise and adoration, even if they personally will be kept in the shadows as part of their mission.

And to all the second guessing about President Obama’s actions out in punditstan, we wouldn’t have done this to President Bush, so why disrespect the office now.

The scene got “tenuous” according to one official, shortly after the three pirates agreed to let the Bainbridge tow their boat. The sea conditions were worsening and the lifeboat was “floundering” before pirates acknowledged that by establishing a tow, it would be a smoother ride.

But sometime soon after the boats were hooked together, shots were fired from the lifeboat and the pirates were seen holding a gun to Captain Phillips back. Acting on a standing order from President Obama to move in when Phillips was in “imminent danger” snipers were ordered to fire.

They established clear head shots on all three pirates. One of the pirates was visible through the front window, and the other two were revealing their heads through the top hatch, presumably to get fresh air. It would be their last breath.

As to what this might portend for the future, one data point does not make a trend.

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Iraq – We’re Winning!!!

A funny thing happened on the way to Iraq, President Obama declared that we’re winning.

Anyone who’s been keeping up to date knows we’ve been making great progress, and I say, winning in Iraq. President Obama acknowledges the courage and sacrifice of our troops, while ignoring the sacrifice of the Iraqis, and the choices President Bush made to enable progress to be made.

Under enormous strain and under enormous sacrifice, through controversy and difficulty and politics, you’ve kept your eyes focused on just doing your job. And because of that, every mission that’s been assigned — from getting rid of Saddam, to reducing violence, to stabilizing the country, to facilitating elections — you have given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country. That is an extraordinary achievement, and for that you have the thanks of the American people. (Applause.) That’s point number one.

Point number two is, this is going to be a critical period, these next 18 months. I was just discussing this with your commander, but I think it’s something that all of you know. It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis. (Applause.) They need to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty. (Applause.)

And in order for them to do that, they have got to make political accommodations. They’re going to have to decide that they want to resolve their differences through constitutional means and legal means. They are going to have to focus on providing government services that encourage confidence among their citizens.

All those things they have to do. We can’t do it for them. But what we can do is make sure that we are a stalwart partner, that we are working alongside them, that we are committed to their success, that in terms of training their security forces, training their civilian forces in order to achieve a more effective government, they know that they have a steady partner with us.

Something’s missing from this. Oh yeah, an acknowledgment that Iraqis have made a huge commitment, and have sacrificed much more then we have towards achieving these goals.

Nor did he, or the press mention that Iraqis already have control of a large number of the provinces, and has been making tremendous progress in the last 2 years.

As of November 2008, 13 of Iraq’s 18 provinces have successfully transitioned to Provincial Iraqi Control (PIC). In fact, the current report, shows that the same provinces that hadn’t transitioned, are still the areas of concern for further transitioning.

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The Permission for Resistance

Brief except of a talk at the 92nd Street Y between Salman Rushdie and Irshad Manji, discussing the possibility of reform against extremism in the Islamic faith. Rushdie draws a fine parallel with the experience of the Western left during the Cold War. Specifically, its attempt to create a distinction between their non-existent idealized socialism, and the actuality of a destitute, totalitarian nightmarescape on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

At issue is the extent to which the Western left sought to resist criticism of existing socialism in the name of defending it as an ideal. Commendably, Rushdie has little faith in this project reapplied to Islam, much less as a promise to actualize reform.

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Abrogation of the Soul

Somewhat tortuously, the State Department has congratulated the victory of Hugo Chavez’s referendum to revoke term limits on his rule as a victory for participatory democracy, while faintly recommending a new respect for multiparty pluralism. Consider for a moment if you were to receive official foreign congratulations for your civic virtue, upon learning that a president of the United States had just succeeded in repealing the 22nd Amendment, allowing him to serve forever as permanent head of state. A cold experience, surely.

Congratulating this referendum is an insult to liberal forces in Venezuela which have been battling mightily against long odds and at risk of arrest, to preserve some semblance of a liberal society in a country deeply mired in the grip of crypto-fascist hysteria.

One of the most regrettable ideas of the Bush years was the then president’s bizarre belief that any political outcome was ultimately justifiable if it were arrived at by course of a general election. Something that even the experience of an elected Hamas government in Gaza apparently failed to completely dissuade him of. It’s a pity to learn that we’ve traveled even further down this misbegotten path with a new administration.

It should be understood that it is the liberal dispossition –one that supports and informs constitutional restraint on state power– not the democratic procedure, that distinguishes Western democracy from being the will of a fanatical mob. Liberalism is the soul that makes democracy moral and viable. The United States should not praise any democratic outcome as instinsically worthwhile, as Bush once did. What it should praise are liberal democratic outcomes….and Chavez’s coupling of potential permanence with his already near autocratic authority, is no victory for liberalism.

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Bleh, Sullivan.

Just when I was thinking that Andrew Sullivan must have hit some sort of moral and intellectual bottom by now, I read his retrospective on neoconservatism. It turns out the philosophy was actually a vast Zionist conspiracy:

The closer you examine it, the clearer it is that neoconservatism, in large part, is simply about enabling the most irredentist elements in Israel and sustaining a permanent war against anyone or any country who disagrees with the Israeli right.

Yes, it’s merely a matter of a guarded preface and a few adjectives that distinguishes this sort of thing from the photocopied rants of an ‘anti-Zionist’ street corner pamphleteer. But what’s most amusing about Sullivan’s post is his insistence that “America is not Israel”, and should not be made into a garrison society to wage permanent war against the adversaries of the Jewish state. As always, it’s a convenient formula for Sullivan to attack, given that no one appears to have actually advanced such an argument. Excepting people like Pat Buchanan in denouncing it as a hidden purpose (someone who Sullivan is now strangely in perfect alignment with in this post).

Whatever may be wrong with the neoconservative perspective on foreign affairs (and there is a great deal), at the very least I can say I’m at pains to think of a neoconservative who is as enterprising as Sullivan in inventing conspiratorial opponents, or as promiscuous in choosing new political bedfellows.

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David Cay Johnston Puts on his Bad Idea Jeans

(Edit: Mr. Johnston graciously replies in the comments section. It seems the invasion was a bit of a modest proposal that I failed to pick up on. While there are things to disagree with in the rest of the article, I think it does a good job of showing the need for a much simpler tax code.)

That’s the only explanation for this column by Pulitzer prize winning journalist David Cay Johnston in Mother Jones.In it, Johnston advocates invading countries who’s laws we don’t like. Not laws like treating women like property, stoning homosexuals, or systematic oppression of minorities. No, laws like having low taxes and vibrant banking systems.

In 1983 just 10 percent of America’s corporate profits were funneled through places that charge little or no corporate income tax; today more than 25 percent of profits go through tax havens. The Obama administration could tell the Caymans—now fifth in the world in bank deposits—to repeal its bank secrecy laws or be invaded; since the island nation’s total armed forces consists of about 300 police officers, it shouldn’t be hard for technicians and auditors, accompanied by a few Marines, to fly in and seize all the records. Bermuda, which relies on the Royal Navy for its military, could be next, and so on. Long before we get to Switzerland and Luxembourg, their governments should have gotten the message.

The rest of the article is also filled with some bad ideas, but this is the one that stands out. Many on the right have been called blood thirsty and warmongers for advocating less against actual military enemies of the US.

(H/T Radley Balko at Reason)

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Rejecting Hamas

Here’s a bit of good news from earlier. As you may have seen, reports have been swirling about a plan by Obama to open direct talks with Hamas. Those reports are evidently groundless, as a statement from Brooke Anderson was quite strong:

“The President-elect has repeatedly stated that he believes that Hamas is a terrorist organization dedicated to Israel’s destruction, and that we should not deal with them until they recognize Israel, renounce violence, and abide by past agreements. The President elect’s repeated statements are accurate. This unsourced story is not.”

A question would then enter though. If it is so unacceptable to negotiate with Hamas absent these conditions, why is it forgivable to open diplomatic dialogue with its chief sponsor, Iran? It can’t escape notice that Iran similarly fails Obama’s preconditional test: it does not recognize Israel, nor does it renounce violence.

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Gaza War Arrives in Second Life

And amid the protests, obscenities, and intolerance we find a scene that you’d only find virtual worlds like Second Life:

An American Jew, Canadian Muslim, and a cute bunny

An American Jew, Canadian Muslim, and a cute bunny

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Frank Miller’s Geostrategic Theory

Frank Lovece sat down with Frank Miller for Newsday to discuss his upcoming film The Spirit. Toward the end of it Lovece asked Miller about remarks he’d made in 2007 in support of the Iraq War, and offered him an opportunity to clarify/retract. Miller was unapologetic:

Miller: When the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor, we didn’t just declare war on Japan, we declared war on Germany. It was an international fascist effort. And so when I said that the attack on Iraq made sense, it was the same way we had to attack not just Afghanistan. Instead we had to attack the center of Islamofascism.


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Implications of the Pletka Purge

Roland picks up an interesting piece by Jacob Heilbrunn for the National Interest, describing an ongoing purge of neoconservative intellectuals from the American Enterprise Institute, allegedly instigated by Vice President Danielle Pletka. So far Michael Ledeen and Reuel Marc Gerecht are gone, with Joshua Muravchik soon leaving. Others are said to be soon in following.

This could signal the reemergence of an old conflict over machtpolitik and just war doctrine, which used to exist in Republican security policy circles (ie, coercion-for-values vs. coercion-for-interests). If Pletka is indeed purging with intent, we may even expect AEI to shift its attitude toward the Middle East, Asia and Africa, given how much more amenable authoritarian regimes tend to be to interest pressure.

And the idealism of the AEI departed is considerable. Gerecht for instance wrote a fascinating but bizarre book I read in the late 1990s under the pen name Edward Shirley, in which he smuggled himself into Iran in the trunk of a car, essentially for the romance of it.


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The West as Nuclear Proliferator


The New York Times has a fascinating little chart today, illustrating the primary sources of nuclear weapons proliferation over time. In looking at the diagram, one cannot escape the overall impression that until recently the West has been the main and long-enduring source for most of the world’s nuclear proliferation. Given our traditional focus on authoritarian rouge states when it comes to proliferation threats –and our obsession with Russia and the former Soviet republics as potential proliferating agents– this might prompt us to reexamine some basic assumptions about where the sources of danger lie in technology transfer.

When considered, it shouldn’t really be surprising that the West is or was the top proliferator. There are several factors we could readily identify which would have made getting nuclear secrets in a Western democracy far easier than within the USSR. Among them might be:

  1. Unregulated communications make it easy to operate covert networks with little fear of detection.
  2. Relatively open borders facilitate easy transportation of personnel and material.
  3. Integrated trade alliances dedicated to industrial products make the shipment of advanced technology between countries relatively unremarkable.
  4. A cosmopolitan scientific community which publishes and socializes in a consolidated cross-cultural milieu, in which technical information exchange between countries is also unremarkable.
  5. An educational experience and civic culture that encourages individualism which can create rogue actors more easily.
  6. A shared lingua franca among an international scientific elite that makes it easy for them to converse and exchange ideas one-to-one, without need of translation services.
  7. Being the focal point for scientific and technology origination attracts attention from foreign intelligence services and black market operators.

Closed off and regimented societies prohibit or severely curtail most of these facilitating characteristics, and this fact might represent the disqualifying criteria that made a country like the USSR a virtual non-proliferator. Conditions more commonly associated with proliferation risk in policy debates such as malicious government, poverty and political repression, do not historically appear to be the primary risk points. Indeed, such characteristics might lead us to target the wrong societies for technology transfer such as Russia and North Korea.

But if the above list better reveals vulnerability points to proliferation, the country most likely to proliferate inadvertently or intentionally outside of the West would have to be China, with targets being her integrated East Asian and African alliance states. Increasingly China satisfies almost all of the requirements. Her massive communications architecture is becoming increasingly unmonitorable (even if the government tries), she is expanding her transportation links with the world at a rapid pace and making it easier to come and go, she has a large and increasingly cosmopolitan scientific community that is English speaking and mobile, she is a major commercial technology exporter and an origination point of primary scientific research.

Perhaps it should therefore not be surprising that the most recent proliferation vectors in the diagram above emanate from the PRC. Something to consider.

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A Separate Cause on Gitmo

In commenting on Barack Obama’s renewed pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, Con Coughlin observes that most of the assembled army of Al Qaeda jihadists currently confined there would likely be released for lack of evidence, if the United States mandated their transfer to the civilian court system for trial. He then wonders aloud:

There have already been suggestions that former Gitmo detainees have carried out terror attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq after being released from Gitmo. What if one of those released by President Obama then masterminded a repeat of the 9/11 attacks?
(Daily Telegraph)

For some of us, it is astonishing that there can be an assumption made by anyone that future terrorist attacks wouldn’t happen, should one precipitate the release of the Gitmo rogues gallery. The question before us would seem to be merely one of scale and target location. It is after all extremely implausible that upon their release, the detainees would suddenly and collectively renounce their violent religious war or its tactics, as an act of reciprocal beneficence.


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A Scandal in Seven Hills

The premier of New South Wales, Mr. Nathan Rees, was reportedly surprised to discover that an illegal brothel was in operation above his offices, in a commercial building in the Seven Hills area outside Sydney. Unfortunately for the brothel’s owners, Mr. Rees is taking steps to have the rather obtrusively titled “Tiantian Chinese Massage Shop” shut down. Unsurprisingly, it seems journalists were intimately familiar with the parlor’s location and purposes.

But tech writer Steve Levenstein had the most amusing observation on this: Apparently now a politician knows what it’s like to be screwed from above.

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Malaysia’s War on Tomboys

Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council issued a warning to human rights groups yesterday that should they criticize its efforts to repress “tomboy behaviour” among Malaysian women, it could result in…further repression.

One has to marvel at this sort of thinking. How dare you accuse me of being repressive and insane, I’ll show you by being repressive and insane.

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The Voice of Murder

The subject of the bloody 1965 Indonesian mass murder of suspected communists is not often openly discussed history even in today’s Indonesia. Given the pervasive silence, estimates vary on the actual number of people killed, but it’s generally accepted as being somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000. Yet so infected with fear is the subject of the massacre (and so influential do many of the men who took part in it remain), that outspoken eyewitnesses are extremely rare, despite the enormous numbers of people involved and widespread knowledge of where each town’s unmarked mass graves can be found.

Some of the worst killings were carried out on a volunteer basis by village men who were members of Islamic and nationalist youth groups, often on extremely flimsy evidence of communist sympathies. Yet due testimony from actual members of these groups who performed the round-ups and committed the killings in the countryside, is virtually nonexistent in the historical record. So it is remarkable and important that some of those men have finally spoken out in old age to the Associated Press. All the men interviewed by the AP however are unrepentant and convinced that they saved their country from an impending communist takeover.


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Sarkozy The Georgian Hero?

Not sure how true this is, but here’s what the London Times says about how close Putin came to over throwing the Georgian government.

With Russian tanks only 30 miles from Tbilisi on August 12, Mr Sarkozy told Mr Putin that the world would not accept the overthrow of Georgia’s Government. According to Mr Levitte, the Russian seemed unconcerned by international reaction. “I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls,” Mr Putin declared.

Mr Sarkozy thought he had misheard. “Hang him?” – he asked. “Why not?” Mr Putin replied. “The Americans hanged Saddam Hussein.” Mr Sarkozy, using the familiar tu, tried to reason with him: “Yes but do you want to end up like [President] Bush?” Mr Putin was briefly lost for words, then said: “Ah – you have scored a point there.”

This would seem to settle whether or not Russia aimed to actually overthrow Georgia’s government that some in the blogosphere were debating.

Also is it just me or have a lot of my titles been ending in question marks lately? Who knows?

(HT: Reason Online)

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Getting Drunk with Oilfield Trash

I was sitting in an airport lounge yesterday and got to chatting with a member of the self-described “oilfield trash” who was bound for Lagos, and then for an FPSO in the Gulf of Guinea. These are rough and ready guys who lead the sort of perilous commercial-adventurer lifestyle that one has the mistaken tendency to think went extinct with the age of empires. Thus it’s always an interesting conversation when you run into them…and invariably, an intoxicated one. To form, I was soon quite drunk.


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Flaccid in Mexico City

When you think of the numerous problems routinely facing residents of Mexico City, things like an astronomical violent crime rate, standstill traffic, urban poverty, collapsing infrastructure, chronic water shortages, claustrophobia-inducing overcrowding and toxic pollution might come to mind. Even aircraft falling out the sky might reasonably have joined your list of hazards confronting the city’s densely concentrated population.

But it seems that leftist Mayor Marcelo Ebrard has very different ideas about the city’s problems. That’s because he just identified elderly sexuality as a pressing “quality of life” concern for residents, and has initiated a program to distribute impotence drugs to the city’s senior citizens free of charge.

Enjoy the irony if you don’t have to live there. It’s not every day that a government manages to confess its impotence by alleviating impotence.

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Poison from Austria

If the public outpouring of mourning for the loss of fascist sympathizer Jörg Haider were not enough to injure your esteem for contemporary Austrian public affairs, here’s another such moment. Klaus Emmerich, the highly esteemed former editor of Austria’s state television broadcaster, took the occasion of the election of Barack Obama to disgrace himself and embarrass his country:

“I do not want the western world being directed by a black man. And if you say this is a racist remark, I say you are damn right it is.”

“[Barack Obama's election is] a highly disturbing development [because] blacks are not as far advanced in the civilization process nor in their political progress.”
(Daily Mail)

He also described Obama as possessing a “devil-like talent” as well as being a man “branded” by his race. I think it goes without saying that we Americans should tolerate no lessons in the making of devils or the branding of human beings from Austria.

But there’s always hope for the salvation of the national reputation of course. As the tired old joke goes, Austria did convince the world that Hitler was German and Beethoven Austrian. Given such a “devil-like talent”, we might expect to hear Angela Merkel forced to apologize for Herr Emmerich’s remarks in coming days.

(HT: Foreign Dispatches)

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Fair Trade Wars, Act I

South Korea is getting jittery about prospects for its long sought Free Trade Agreement with the United States, which is still yet to be approved by both countries, and is now under threat from a potentially protectionist Obama administration.

In the past Obama has criticized the agreement as deeply flawed, but has proven somewhat idiosyncratic about that at other times. South Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon must not like the trend of things though, as today he took the remarkable step of categorically ruling out any renegotiation of the agreement to placate the incoming administration, despite renegotiation talks being something Obama has insisted on.


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The Post-Post-American World

So, did you enjoy the much discussed post-American world order? Hope you didn’t miss it. Surely it didn’t lack for advertising.

But if you did happen to step out for a moment, we just lived through the end of market capitalism, the death of the dollar, the collapse of American power, the cultural and political atrophy of the West, the rise of Eastern dictatorships to world leadership, and petrocracy as the vanguard political philosophy of the future.

Bill Emmott notices that a lot of this isn’t exactly plausible in historical context, and that with the collapse in the price of oil, a strengthening dollar, an even worse European recession and the unavailability of predicted competitive alternatives to American power…the post-post-American moment may be upon us.


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The Philippines as Red State

Filipino writer Benjamin Pimentel is surprised to discover that his countrymen were among the very few foreign populations to prefer John McCain to Barack Obama in a Gallup international survey. A happy place for Republicans in a lonely world apparently, as in the Philippines the outgoing Bush administration enjoys a 66% approval (more than twice its abysmally low domestic support).

Pimentel then speculated somewhat interestingly that had the Philippines ever applied for US statehood or multi-statehood (the most recent proposals call for the country to be broken into three states: Luzón, Visayas, and Mindanao), McCain would handily win the general election. The Philippines 91 million plus population would easily dwarf the combined advantage of Democratic California and New York in the electoral college.


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A Man Without a Season

Stéphane Dion, leader of the defeated Canadian Liberal Party, has rather ignominiously resigned his position today. Thereby he becomes the first Liberal Party leader since the 19th century to have never become Prime Minister of Canada. Given his dismal political skills, it might seem somewhat mystifying how he ever even became a national party leader. According to Dion himself, that’s not a minority opinion:

“In my consultations it became very clear, that in the door-to-door canvassing, my colleagues, my friends were told, ‘We don’t like your leader.’”
(National Post)

Unflattering as it is, the print does the statement a certain justice. Dion’s grasp of the English language often seemed rather more tenuous than it reveals.

For the international observer with no stake in the outcome of the election, it was often amusing to watch Dion’s struggles with common conversations. Something that doubtlessly would have been a little more troubling for Canadian voters with a very real stake in the results. For example, here’s an entertaining flashback from just prior to the election:

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Stock and Awe in Baghdad

The Markets have spoken, the best place to invest in the world is…Iraq!

Now it’s stock and awe in Baghdad!

As the Dow plummeted nearly 700 points yesterday to fall well below the 9,000 mark, the Iraqi stock exchange – where this broker was merrily keeping up with her booming business – was flourishing, buoyed by four-year lows in violence and hopes of a reconstruction windfall.

Last month, Iraq’s general index went up nearly 40 percent, about the same percentage the Dow dropped over the past year. The jovial trading-floor mood is reminiscent of Wall Street’s bygone ‘greed is good’ era of the 1980s.

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Georgia’s Tapes

Who jumped first in South Ossetia has become a bit of a information war between Georgia and Russia. Today, the Georgian government went a ways toward resolving it by releasing recordings of intercepted radio traffic preceding the Russian invasion. The tapes seem to demonstrate that elements of the Russian invasion force had entered Georgian territory twenty hours before the Georgian army responded.


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When They Came for Kenny…

Photos of Russian kids mounting a street protest against the banning of South Park by the state. This is no small or meaningless act.

As daily experience, one of the worst aspects of living under a repressive fascist regime is how utterly boring it is. It is a horrible experience to be a teenager in a society where every radio station plays only opera, and every television show is a boring panegyric to the wisdom of the regime.

This is an intrinsic hostility to youthful enthusiasms too. In more than one way fascism can be described as a permanent war conducted by the state on the innate liberality and frivolousness of youth. Under fascism, something as light-hearted as South Park becomes “extremist propaganda” because the fascist is altogether incapable of understanding the necessary playfulness of entertainment. He feels the driving necessity to infect everything with deep political significance.

It is by such a course that the abolition of free expression induces the characteristically pervasive and perverse boredom of its societies. This does not only affect youth either, as a society robs itself of its own vitality by repressing its youth’s enthusiasm.

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The New Russian Diplomacy of Profanity

Russian FM Sergei Lavrov reportedly went berserk on David Miliband in phone discussions over the Georgia war. Apparently he was raving, shouting obscenities, and ridiculing Miliband’s knowledge of history.

There’s something incredibly deranged about that government. They’ve taken the traditional Russian penchant for seeing itself under siege (real or imagined), and pressurized it to a delusional pitch.

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Four Hours to Tbilisi

Well, well. Mr. Putin held a press conference and there’s much to condemn as usual. Not the least of which is Putin’s continued delusion that Russia was invaded by Georgia. But foremost perhaps, is an education for those who argued that the investiture of Tbilisi was not very much in the cards until the very last moment:

Mr Putin said that Russia had been four hours away from invading the Georgian capital Tblisi and deposing its pro-American leader, Mikheil Saakashvili. It refrained from doing so but now, Mr Putin said, it was up to the Georgian people.
(The Times)

A mitigating faction is still at work in Russian policy however, as today the South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity again pledged to be annexed by Russia…and was forced to withdraw his statement. Simultaneously, Sergei Bagpash, leader of Abkhazia, pledged not to join Russia, but instead the CIS.

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Be Thankful for Insurance Companies

Don’t like them? Cuba hasn’t any…and thus hurricane damage is forever. Ike is thereby beating down on towns in Cuba still unrepaired from Hurricane Charlie, in 2004.

“It’s been four years since Charlie and we’re still waiting for new homes,” said Rachel Gonzalez Ojeda, 44, seated outside her roofless wood and concrete home. “We never even got the materials to do the repairs.”
(La Contra Revolucion)

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Buying Tymoshenko

As the European Union commendably attempts to pull Ukraine closer into the safety of the West, Russia has reportedly earmarked $1 billion to fund suddenly pro-Kremlin Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, against heroically pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko in the 2010 presidential election.

One billion. If true, it seems Russia is ready to make an enormous commitment to the subversion of democracy in her neighbor…and it’s a frighteningly expensive investment to allow to fail.


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Ruining Ramadan in Egypt

My Camel in Giza

Ramadan always means new soap operas in the Arab world. I learned today it also means not even thinking about masturbation. A small thing to you perhaps, but in a repressive sexual society where the curves of the female figure are a matter of imaginative mystery, this is a serious lifestyle sacrifice for young men.

For me, Ramadan always means sharing a cigarette on a dirty floorboard outside Cairo. I’d offered my driver my last smoke in the midst of the holy month when he’d picked me up from a camel train. I’d held it out with an appeal that God was after all merciful. Tobacco is haram, forbidden, during the daylight hours of Ramadan. He’d stared at it for a long time. ‘Western devils and their temptations’ might have been in his thoughts. Finally he said “Yes. But not here.”

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A Shattered Idol in the Black Garden

Baku skyline
(photo: Rahim Alizadeh)

In Verdi’s opera Nabucco –the namesake of the western gas pipeline to Europe that holds the promise of partial independence from Russian energy reliance– the Jewish patriots take the daughter of the Babylonian king hostage, in order to compel his charity for Jerusalem. Today, after the Georgian invasion, Azerbaijan is a victim of a not dissimilar hostage-taking by example, and it’s just as perilous.

So much a captive to the gambit is Azerbaijan, that it had to be seen embarrassingly consulting with the Russian president, while the American vice president was left to rant to reporters in their captial. Cheney wanted a Nabucco pipeline endorsement from Azerbaijan, although he didn’t get the rejection portrayed in the press, he didn’t get approval either. He got the thing Dick hates most: strategic ambiguity.

Sympathy for the Azeri position here is mandatory. Their heart is with the United States, but their survival instinct forces them to withdraw into balance. An overt endorsement of a pipeline under American pressure would have potentially been against every instinct for a country that has been playing the game of pacifying powerful neighbors for far longer than the Americans have even been aware of the region. Any pipeline threaded through Turkey to Central Europe –which Iran has been refused access to, and is designed specifically in order to bypass Russia– has long promised the Azeris hostility from her two invidious and lethally powerful neighbors. (more…)

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Uneven Anti-Western Attitudes in Russia

A survey finds that public perspectives in Russia are turning sharply anti-Western in matters of international relations. But what’s particularly interesting about this, is that such sentiments have grown fastest and strongest in Russia’s most cosmopolitan and urban regions, whereas a pro-Western orientation remains strongest in the Urals and rural Far East of all places.

It’s conceivable that this may be a corollary to a new kind of state-controlled media saturation, which would be more pronounced in the cities. That is, a media environment where there remain multiple competitive outlets for news and information, but all of which increasingly convey a consonant nationalist, anti-Western and xenophobic message in accord with government policy, amplified through volume.

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Independence to Scale

Another splendid ad for SOSGeorgia. I say again, in the conceptual appeal to world opinion, the Georgians are simply better at this sort of thing than their far better financed adversaries.


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Containing Russia – The Battle for Ukraine

“Ukraine is the big prize and thus a dangerous flash point between Russia and the West. For the West, a firm alliance with Ukraine would anchor the containment of Russia. But for Russia, such an alliance would be a step too far. For Russia, winning Ukraine is vital. For the West, winning Ukraine would largely end its problems with Russia. It is for these reasons that the battle over Ukraine is both so tempting and so dangerous.”

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Medvedev’s Caribbean Dream

A depressingly confused analogy from Medvedev on US aid to Georgia:

“I wonder how they would like it if we sent humanitarian assistance using our navy to countries of the Caribbean that have suffered from the recent hurricanes.”

We’d welcome that. It’s distressing that the Russian government hears only our resistance, without our reasons for it. And here again, there is a certain naiveté to Medvedev that always makes one think it might someday be possible to penetrate the reality distortion field of Putinism that imprisons his imagination.


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A Test for French Will in Afghanistan

In the wake of a horrific magazine spread depicting Taliban fighters showing off war trophies looted from the bodies of French soldiers, President Sarkozy has been predictably and commendably resolute. France isn’t going to run away for a change.

Unfortunately and just as predictably, that might not be the majority opinion in France. A recent poll found that 55% of the French public wants to pull out. For his own part, Eric de Lavarene, the journalist who published the pictures, grotesquely defended his actions as morally equivalent to reporting as a NATO embed. A statement as contemptible as arguing that a serial murderer is as entitled to his perspective on his crimes being broadcast, as the detectives pursuing him in the cause of self-evident justice.

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Substantive Debate vs Pot Shots vs Mudslinging

An interesting debate occurred through email over my short jab at Obama’s experience. Now, I think it’s great when we have substantive debate about important issues, but I’m not above taking pot shots at our political class. A little sarcasm can go a long way towards highlighting a particular issue.

Mudslinging – the act of throwing around outright lies, innuendo, and gossip, in the hopes of tarnishing the opposition. There may be the whiff of truth somewhere, but it’s usually hidden beneath a partisan agenda.

Pot shots – humorously pointing out a negative feature of the opposition. Should be true in and of itself.

Substantive debate – the point/counter-point revealing of facts about a topic.

Now, I’m not claiming that the following is a complete debate about the issues brought up. But it does show that, a pot shot may lead to a greater discussion of the issues. I think if you look through some of the comments on recent posts about Palin you’ll see examples of mudslinging. Actually you can look through the mainstream media and see enough mudslinging.


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Anders Aslund on the Russian Economy

After forcefully savaging the Russian invasion of Georgia, controversial Swedish economist Anders Aslund lays out ten reasons he expects an impending economic collapse in Russia. Each point is sound, although some are more problematic than others.

Particularly cogent are the following Aslund points IMO:

4. Renationalization is continuing and leading to a decline in economic efficiency. When Putin publicly attacked Mechel, investors presumed that he had decided to nationalize the company. Thus, they rushed to dump their stock in Mechel, having seen what happened to Yukos, Russneft, United Heavy Machineries and VSMP-Avisma, to name a few. In a note to investors, UBS explains diplomatically that an old paradigm of higher political risk has returned to Russia, so it has reduced its price targets by an average of 20 percent, or a market value of $300 billion. Unpredictable economic crime is bad for growth.

5. The most successful transition countries have investment ratios exceeding 30 percent of GDP, as is also the case in East Asia. But in Russia, it is only 20 percent of GDP, and it is likely to fall in the current business environment. That means that bottlenecks will grow worse.

6. An immediate consequence of Russia’s transformation into a rogue state is that membership in the World Trade Organization is out of reach. World Bank and Economic Development Ministry assessments have put the value of WTO membership at an additional growth of 0.5 to 1 percentage points a year for the next five years. Now, a similar deterioration is likely because of increased protectionism, especially in agriculture and finance.


8. Oil and commodity prices can only go down, and energy production is stagnant, which means that Russia’s external accounts are bound to deteriorate quickly.

9. Because Russia’s banking system is dominated by five state banks, it is inefficient and unreliable, and the national cost of a poor banking system rises over time.
(Moscow Times via Robert Amsterdam)

As for all this leading to a Russian economic apocalypse, it should be noted that the accuracy of Aslund’s predictive powers leaves more than a little to be desired. I note that we’re still waiting for his prediction of a military coup against Medvedev to come true.

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Declinism as Exceptionalism

Francis Fukuyama argues in the Financial Times that the United States should have traded European missile defense and/or Kosovar independence in order to pacify a resurgent Russia. This strange proposal of strategic charity work for the Kremlin, is animated by his belief in an inevitable diminution of American moral authority by course of the Iraq War, and alleged American provocations of Russia which have in his view, inaugurated a decline of American global power.

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China and Provincial Secessionism

Extremely interesting post from Seth Weinberger on the opportunity for pulling China in the pro-Georgia camp, after the SCO failed to endorse Russian actions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Seth is as mystified as I am that the Russian foreign ministry could possibly have believed it would persuade China to endorse ethnic separatism and provincial secession. If there is such a thing as an enduring Chinese ideology from ancient times, it is the idea of struggle against separatist disorder and provincial independence. A fear that is only amplified to extraordinary degrees by the prospect of other great powers assisting in the dismemberment of traditional territorial unity.


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Black Signs at the Exhibition

The IMF has come through for Georgia in an enormous way, approving a $750 million credit line for the beleaguered republic. Beyond the much needed aid, it’s a powerful political reminder for Russia of the gargantuan economic advantage the West maintains.

But in that article notice the black banner in the feature photograph. It’s a promotional piece for the slick SOSGeorgia site, written in very literate English and produced by a Georgian IT firm. Have you noticed how much better the Georgians are at appealing to world opinion than the Russians? Granted, theirs is the far more sympathetic cause, but there is some native skill involved in the marketing that may have something to do with the country’s cultural, political and commercial orientation toward the West. I hate to speculate too deeply on it, but it’s possible that disconnection from the West simply leads to bad public relations strategy. At least when you need to persuade the West, as both the Russians and Georgians do.


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The Captives of Years

On Monday the United States officially returned all security duties for Anbar province to Iraqi police and military. The collapse of the Sunni insurgency there now appears to be almost total, with attacks having declined 90% from only two years ago.

The progress is perhaps best illustrated by this dramatic chart from the New York Times:

(NYT via BlogsforVictory)

Is 2006, 1968? The year the antiwar movement stopped paying attention to developments on the ground in the war, as Creighton Abrams’ Vietnamization strategy or Petraeus’ “Iraqification” approach later worked so spectacularly well? With their continued opposition to ongoing stabilization efforts, it certainly seems like a great many in the antiwar left are still captives of that dramatic and pivotal year.

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To be the King of Libya

When Muammar al-Gaddafi was a student at the Benghazi Academy in the 1960s, he swore to destroy monarchism in Libya. In September 1969, when his military coup finally overthrew the monarchy, Libya was proclaimed a republic by Gaddafi. Shortly thereafter, he sought to unify pan-Arab nationalism with Marxist theory, in an anti-monarchist hybrid ideology he called “Islamic socialism.” Well, until this weekend that is.

On Saturday, Gaddafi appeared in public wearing a regal crown and carrying a scepter, for the formal signing ceremony of a reconciliation pact with Italy. In tow was his son, Seif al Islam, designated as his dynastic successor to rule the republic or kingdom. All of this followed a meeting in which 200 tribal leaders conferred the title of “King of Kings” upon the once anti-monarchist revolutionary. How strangely the world turns.


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Albright Supports Georgian NATO Membership

I often find former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s supporting arguments irksome and occasionally even masochistic. But she has a certain knack for ending up in the right place by the wrong course. It’s a unique skill really.

Thus it is that she denounces US policy toward Russia as too hostile, emphasizes assuaging largely fabricated Kremlin territorial security fears, and criticizes overt US solidarity with Georgia…but (there’s always a *but* with Maddy), in the end she rejects South Ossetian and Abkhazian annexation and demands the eventual integration of Georgia into NATO.

As always with Maddy,  my feeling is that however we got to the same page matters not, so long as we’re both on it.

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Christopher Hitchens on Robert Mugabe

I’d heard that Hitch addressed the situation in Zimbabwe in his introductory remarks at the Freedom Fest 2008 debate with Dinesh D’Souza, but I hadn’t seen the video of it until today. It’s worth a watch.

The subject of the debate itself wasn’t Zimbabwe, but the general subject of conflict and religion. If you’ve seen one D’Souza/Hitchens debate on God and man, you’ve seen everything that follows this clip, so I’ll only post the first part.

Hitch takes the opportunity to examine his marginal complicity in fostering the Western mythology of Robert Mugabe as a heroic anticolonial guerrilla leader resisting Rhodesian tyranny. A Western moral investment that Mugabe has been trading on ever since, to the unbelievable misfortune of his people.

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War of Conquest

A couple of days into Russian-declared, universally unrecognized independence (excluding Hamas and Belarus), South Ossetian officials have expressed their desire to be annexed by Russia. The brave new defenders of Russian imperialism on the American Left have thus suddenly found their arguments for fake Ossetian self-determination on Georgian soil dealt a sudden blow.

Apologizing for Russian foreign policy ventures is historically always a tricky business. The sensibility of which is perhaps now restricted to the brief thaw of Yeltsin’s dream of a benign commonwealth of trade and friendship. A dream now sustaining an excruciatingly painful death on the world stage.

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Geography, people:

Aug. 25 (Bloomberg) — Prime Minister Kevin Rudd sent extra diplomatic and police officials to west Africa to help investigate the kidnapping in Somalia of a group of reporters, including an Australian photojournalist.

“We have deployed additional staff from our mission in Pretoria to our High Commission in Nairobi,” Rudd told reporters in Canberra today. “This is a sensitive and difficult case. We are engaged at every level.”

Australia doesn’t have diplomatic representation in Somalia and its officials in neighboring Kenya are making contact with Somali authorities as well as the Canadian, French and British embassies to help locate Nigel Brennan, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said.

Both Somalia and Nairobi, Kenya, are in East Africa.

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Rumors from the Necrocracy

Kim Jong Il as Colonel Sanders by Jonathan Barnbrook (photo: acb | The Null Device)

North Korea is already a formal necrocracy (government by the dead), given that Kim Il-sung –who has been dead since 1994– remains the titular head of state there. But according to Waseda University professor Toshimitsu Shigemura in Japan, Kim’s son and successor in power Kim Jong Il has been dead himself since 2003. Shigemura has a number of family contacts which might validate a rumor which has been circulating since a period of peculiar diplomatic activity which attended Kim the Younger’s alleged death.

According to Shigemura, the role of leader is being filled by a number of body-doubles in an elaborate international charade which would seem unlikely in any other country. However, such a ruse seems completely plausible in the hermit kingdom, in which even more ludicrous fantasies are routinely employed to justify government policy and loyalty (for instance the state maintains that the birds of the country sang praise in Korean, when Kim Jong Il was born).

Evidently Japanese intelligence was concerned enough that former Prime Minister Koizumi had held a summit with a body double in 2004, that they considered voice-printing Kim and the suspected double. Only the prospect of political embarrassment for Koizumi made them hold off. With Koizumi out of office, I wouldn’t mind them doing as much now to clarify the issue.

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