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April, 2007

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Win-Win-Lose Scenario

By all accounts, the face-off between Ségolène Royal and François Bayrou offered no real surprises, and more closely resembled a "dialogue", as Royal described it, than a debate, as was announced. Points of convergence on social policy were readily identified and disagreements on economic policy were expressed forcefully, but without any bitterness or discord. From the start, both candidate and also-ran ruled out the possibility of an endorsement coming out of the pourparler. But although it's still unclear how many people it actually reached (the live internet feed was unable to withstand the bandwidth demand, and the only other option was a radio broadcast) the debate seemed to be a win-win-lose proposition.

Judging from the uniformly positive reaction -- even among left-leaning Socialists -- to the way in which she stood her ground on her economic platform (the most traditionally Socialist aspect of her "Presidential Pact"), Royal clearly managed to solidify her position within her own camp, which had begun to seem shaky. As for Bayrou, he reasserted both his relevancy and his independence, while still managing to give Royal's campaign a boost.

The big loser of the debate, as Socialist Party general secretary François Hollande correctly pointed out, was the "absent one": Nicolas Sarkozy. He tried to paint the familiar portrait of himself as a victim, and accused Royal and Bayrou of confusing an election that the French people had hoped to clarify. But whether or not they're true, the accusations that he tried to keep the debate from taking place reinforced all the fears of the anti-Sarkozy voting bloc and have become the narrative context of the entire episode. So while he probably didn't alienate any of his supporters, neither did he convince any of the remaining undecided voters that the softer, gentler Sarkozy on display since last Sunday night is the genuine article.

Royal took a major gamble this past week, first by reaching out to Bayrou, then by standing up to him, and it  seems to have paid off. But there's no let up this week. Tuesday is May Day (the traditional leftist May 1 demonstrations which this year have turned into a nation-wide campaign rally for Royal), followed immediately by the debate between Sarkozy and Royal. 

Also on May 1st, the extreme-right National Front's annual Joan of Arc Day counter-rally, where Jean-Marie Le Pen is expected to announce his intentions for the second-round. Most analysts already count Le Pen's first-round voters among Sarkozy's second-round total. But something tells me that's pre-mature. According to exit polls, Sarkozy already peeled off a substantial amount of Le Pen's voters in the first round. What's left are the hardcore fanatics who, regardless of any personal preference for Sarkozy, will follow Le Pen's instructions loyally. And the authoritarian extreme right candidate is far less likely than Bayrou to "liberate" his voters. Should he give the order to stay home on May 6, the tenor of the race will change dramatically.

I'll be heading up to Paris on Monday to cover the demonstrations and the rest of the campaign from there. So posting might be light, but I'll do my best to mention any important developments.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Welcome To The Hotel California

Does equal protection under the law extend to punishment after the crime? If so, what to make of California's "pay to stay" county jails, where for the price of a modest hotel room, non-violent offenders can purge their sentences isolated from the general prison population? I can understand the logic in isolating dangerous inmates based on their behavior. But isolating vulnerable inmates based on their bank account balance seems like an admission of inadequate protective services for those who can't afford it.

Posted by Judah in:  Domestic Policy   Odds & Ends   

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Friday, April 27, 2007

The Chinese Emissions Myth

Now that it's become somewhat laughable to deny the reality of global warming, the excuse of choice for doing nothing to limit greenhouse gas emissions has become China. As in, If we enact costly environmental standards while the Chinese do nothing, we'll be putting ourselves at an even greater competitive disadvantage for global trade. Only trouble is, China's actually engaged in a pretty ambitious energy modernization and efficiency program:

But new evidence suggests that, despite a fast-growing economy that could make it the world's largest carbon-dioxide emitter as early as this year, China may be getting on board. In a bid to cut energy costs, boost energy security, and reduce air pollution, it could be essentially creating the largest greenhouse-gas-reduction plan on the planet.

Indeed, if the nation's leaders follow through, it may be the US playing catch-up with China – not the other way around.

There are still some wrinkles that need to be ironed out, like actually meeting the goals they've set (energy efficiency climbed only 1.2% last year instead of the 4% called for) and reducing their dependency on coal-fired electric plants. But the new plan, which aims to increase energy efficiency nationwide by 20%, could eliminate 1.4 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2010. By comparison, the US is only expected to eliminate roughly 185 million tons by the same date. What's more, all of the reductions are self-imposed, although China and Japan have recently agreed to develop a successor to the Kyoto Treaty.

So next time you hear someone say that when it comes to emissions reductions, we should only do as much as the Chinese, remember: They're probably right. 

Posted by Judah in:  The Natural World   

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Friday, April 27, 2007

The Good Guys

The Kurdish autonomous region is known for being the most peaceful part of Iraq. Unless, that is, you happen to be a woman accused of "immoral conduct". In which case, you might end up as charred remains on the outskirts of town, or shot dead, along with your married boyfriend, by your brother. And according to the latest report from the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, the Kurdish regional government is doing very little to stop the proliferation of these "honor killings".

But that's not all:

The United Nations also expressed concern over the treatment of detainees in prisons run by Kurdish Asayish (security) forces, and over attacks on press freedom by the same shadowy organization.

"UNAMI continues to receive allegations of torture or ill-treatment of detainees in Asayish detention facilities," it said.

"The Kurdistan Regional Government continued to subject journalists to harassment, arrest, and legal actions for their reporting on government corruption, poor public services, and other issues of public interest."

Iraqi Kurdistan. It's the new Denmark.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, April 27, 2007

A Hundred Battles

Since coining the term "China's Peaceful Rise" in 2003 to describe their intentions as a global superpower, the Chinese have encountered some skepticism from the West with regard to just how committed they are to co-operation and multi-lateralism. I tend to think that recent developments -- such as their participation in the N. Korean talks, as well as recent efforts to increase communication and openness between the Chinese and American militaries -- back up their claim.

Now, in what's got to be taken as a further sign of good intentions, China's top legislature has just appointed Yang Jiechi foreign minister. Yang had served in the Chinese Embassy in the United States for nearly 13 years during various periods since 1980, and was named ambassador to the US in 2000:

During his term in the United States, he was said to be able to balance the need to firmly defend China's national interests while maintaining smooth and stable ties with the United States.

He also won acclaim for his efforts to promote China-U.S. cooperation in fighting terrorism, improving trade ties and enhancing exchanges in law enforcement, military affairs and on the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue.

The man Yang succeeds as foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, was also his predeccesor as Ambassador to the US. So clearly, the Chinese want someone familiar with their foremost strategic rival running their diplomatic shop. What's encouraging is that Yang seems not only to be familiar with, but also on good terms with, his American counterparts.

Of course the skeptics might still quote Sun Tzu: "If you know both yourself and your enemy, you will come out of one hundred battles with one hundred victories."

To which I'd respond: "Therefore One hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the most skillful. Seizing the enemy without fighting is the most skillful."

Posted by Judah in:  China   

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Friday, April 27, 2007

The Bogeyman

Since Wednesday, the focus of the French presidential campaign has been a proposed debate between Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal and centrist non-candidate François Bayrou. At stake was the chance for Royal to win over Bayrou's first-round voters, with or without his explicit endorsement. Twice yesterday the debate was scheduled, first before a meeting with the French regional press and later on Canal+, only to be twice cancelled by the news media involved, citing France's strict "equal airtime" election rules.

Rumors and accusations of behind the scenes pressure have been swirling since, and this morning, both the Socialists and Bayrou directly accused Nicolas Sarkozy of exerting his influence to have the debate cancelled. Asked in a radio interview this morning whether he believed Canal+ had acted at Sarkozy's request, Bayrou didn't mince his words:

"I don't have proof, but I am certain," replied Mr. Bayrou...

..."Through a network of powerful financial and media interests that surround Nicolas Sarkozy, the editorial boards and networks are directly leaned upon in such a way that the news is locked up," he said, citing "numerous accounts."

"We're choosing a regressive path that challenges the elementary right of the French to be informed. Consider that Nicolas Sarkozy isn't elected yet. What will happen if he is?" he continued. [Translated from the French.]

Now there are two stories here. The first is that despite having lost the first-round runoff, François Bayrou has managed to insinuate himself into the very forefront of the second-round campaign, something that only stands to increase his legitimacy and solidify his position.

The second (and perhaps more immediately significant) is that the entire episode has given Ségolène Royal the opportunity, through both her Socialist proxies and Bayrou's complicity, to emphasize the very qualities that most opponents of Nicolas Sarkozy find most frightening, and that he himself was trying hard to soften: "His taste for intimdation and threats," as Bayrou himself put it so well.

Only yesterday it seemed like Royal would have some trouble balancing the demands of the extreme left with her need to court the center. But since a significant part of her second-round support is in fact an anti-Sarkozy vote, the sudden reappearance of "Sarko the Facho" (Fascist Sarko) is a jackpot.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Woulda Been, Coulda Been

Reading Bruce Riedel's latest article on al-Qaeda's resurgence in Foreign Affairs, I couldn't help but wonder how differently things might have turned out had George Bush concentrated on eradicating al-Qaeda and rebuilding Afghanistan in 2003, instead of invading Iraq. Because according to Riedel, Osama Bin Laden anticipated a much longer and costlier war in Afghanistan, and his strategy of drawing us in to bleed us out was dangerously thwarted by the ease and speed with which we defeated the Taliban and deprived him of a secure base of operations:

But thanks largely to Washington's eagerness to go into Iraq rather than concentrate on hunting down al Qaeda's leaders, the organization now has a solid base of operations in the badlands of Pakistan and an effective franchise in western Iraq. Its reach has spread throughout the Muslim world, where it has developed a large cadre of operatives, and in Europe, where it can claim the support of some disenfranchised Muslim locals and members of the Arab and Asian diasporas. Osama bin Laden has mounted a successful propaganda campaign to make himself and his movement the primary symbols of Islamic resistance worldwide. His ideas now attract more followers than ever.

It's a long article but well worth reading, as Riedel makes a number of points I've yet to see mentioned before. Among them:

  • That Bin Laden's new base in the Pakistani "badlands" actually facilitates recruitment and expands his global access through the Pakistani diaspora that enjoys lax travel restrictions between Pakistan and England;
  • That al-Qaeda fears the growth of Iranian regional influence and might try to provoke a war between the US and Iran with a well-disguised "false flag" attack, thereby using its two strategic enemies to destroy each other;
  • That if we effectively target its leadership and improve our public relations efforts in the Muslim world, there's no reason why al-Qaeda can't be neutralized in "short order".

Then there's this:

Iraq is, of course, another critical battlefield in the fight against al Qaeda. But it is time to recognize that engagement there is more of a trap than an opportunity for the United States. Al Qaeda and Iran both want Washington to remain bogged down in the quagmire.

Too bad no one's told the "independent Democratic senator from Connecticut".

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bad For Business

You'll remember the series of articles I flagged a few weeks ago about tensions on the Turkish border with Iraqi Kurdistan. Since then, according to this Jamestown Foundation article, the Iraqi Kurds have reinforced their side of the border with Peshmerga units re-deployed from Mosul, heavy anti-aircraft machine guns, and armored vehicles:

Although most Turks and Kurds within their respective governments are eager to de-escalate and to resolve many issues through dialogue, a dangerous momentum may be building that both Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdistan region may not be able to resist if actions by both sides remain unchecked.

Fortunately, there remain significant disincentives to war on both sides. For the Turkish, the European Union accession process, which exposes them to a high level of scrutiny. And for the Kurds, the fact that the status quo works greatly in favor of their strategic calculations.

In addition, as the article points out, Turkey has found another method of exerting pressure on the Kurds. Namely, by re-routing their commercial traffic from the Kurdish frontier to Syria, thereby denying the Kurds of significant revenue in the form of collections tolls.

Which might go a long way to convincing them to crack down on the PKK, as Turkey has been demanding. Because as Laura Rozen's recent Mother Jones article made clear, more than anything else, the Kurds are businessmen.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iraq   

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Tehran Spring

Wow. Le Figaro has a four-photo slide show of a woman getting arrested in Iran for violating the dress code. Among her transgressions? Bare... ankles. Apparently it's a yearly ritual in Tehran with the arrival of the warm weather.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Sang Froid

It's becoming more and more apparent how risky and volatile Ségolène Royal's position really is. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that risk and volatility have become the organizing principles of her strategy. By extending an olive branch to François Bayrou, she hoped to force his hand into pronouncing early, rather than late, between her and Sarkozy.

What she got from Bayrou, instead, was an early non-pronouncement, one that left Bayrou with plenty of room for maneuver, and Royal with plenty of headaches. First from the extreme left, who consider an alliance with Bayrou close to betrayal. And now from elected officials within her own Socialist Party, who resent not having been consulted before the overtures were made.

Royal seems to thrive when her footing seems most precarious, something that use to frighten me about her, but that I now find fascinating. Like the general on the battlefield, oblivious to the hail of bullets raining down on every side, she continues moving forward when everyone around her is either ducking for cover or taking aim at her. 

Right now I'm not sure if she even knows how she'll work her way out of this one. One key, however, is that all the dynamism, all the movement, all the action for the past few days has been coming from her campaign, with the help of Bayrou. So while she might be up on a high-wire with no safety net, at least everyone's watching her. 

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Suicide Pact

I've been mulling over my last post about Wolf Blitzer's interview with Dennis Kucinich, trying to come up with a more precise formulation of what I find so troubling about it. Unlike Blitzer, the Constitution never suggests that the powers of impeachment should be suspended during times of war. Not because of some glaring omission on the parts of the Founders. But because the idea that a declaration of war confers some sort of absolute power to the executive branch would have been anathema to the guiding principle behind the document.

But while the logic behind the question is hostile to the very notion of separation of powers, it does raise another more valid question. Under what circumstances are the people justified in removing the power to wage war from the hands of the President? And I think the answer is pretty clear: When a sufficient majority of them are convinced that the war does more harm to the national interest than good.

No general would go into battle without the option of strategic retreat in the event the attack fails, and none would confuse such a retreat with surrender. President Bush and the last supporters of the War in Iraq would have us choose a counterfeit version of honor over self-preservation. But they'll find no support for their masquerade in the Constitution.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   Politics   

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Friend Of The Devil

How's this for irony? The official reference number for the Articles of Impeachment that Dennis Kucinich just filed against Dick Cheney is H. Res. 333. Which means that once we get rid of the Veep, we'll have another 333 to go before the exorcism is complete.

On a more serious note, during the course of his interview with Kucinich, Wolf Blitzer asks him whether it's appropriate to impeach a sitting Veep during time of War. Kucinich rightfully reminds Blitzer that Nixon's impeachment took place while American forces were still in Vietnam.

But aside from the historical precedent, think about the guiding logic of the question for a second. Blitzer, and presumably many more soon to follow, is suggesting that by accepting to follow the President into war, the American people relinquish their Constitutional power to remove him from office. Or as the Bush administration formulates it, war exempts the executive branch from the legal constraints of the Constitution.

And if that's not a surefire invitation to despotism, I don't know what is.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Regime Of Secrecy

Anyone feeling a little subpoena fatigue from the Democrats' relentless attempt to get straight answers, or in some cases just answers, from the Bush administration on the US Attorney firings, Iraq War intelligence, RNC e-mail accounts, or any of the other investigations going on now should click through to Scott Horton's long post/short article on the threat the abuse of state secrets poses to democracy. For those who are too busy to read through the entire article, here's the closing paragraph:

There is no more urgent agenda before Congress today than reasserting its oversight function, and using all the tools at its disposal—including subpoenas, hearings and the power of the purse—to regain a check on a regime of secrecy which is reeling dangerously in the direction of a police state. It could yet make a difference.

What's going on right now on Capitol Hill is more than just political posturing. It really matters.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Balancing Act

As if François Bayrou playing hard to get in the center weren't giving her enough trouble, Ségolène Royal is now facing a mini-rebellion on her left. Both the Communist Party and the League of Communist Revolutionaries, representing 6% of the first-round vote, have just strongly criticized her attempts to woo Bayrou and his centrist voters. Since Bayrou's UDF only recently broke ranks with the governing majority, they claim, it's akin to fraternizing with the enemy.

Unfortunately, even a cursory glance at the electoral math shows that Royal simply doesn't have the votes to win unless she picks up quite a bit of support from the center. She's already ruled out any modification of the "Presidential Pact" on which she ran for the first round, which will probably cost her an explicit endorsement from Bayrou. But if even working at the margins to appeal to some of his voters costs her the support of the extreme left, it's hard to see how she can get to the finish line in one piece.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Mission Creep

I'm not sure how much press coverage it got, since I was offline at the time, but last week, President Bush issued an executive order revising various aspects of the US Code of Military Justice. Among other things, it brought the CMJ in line with the Unborn Victims of Violence Act of 2004 by making it a separate, punishable crime to cause the death or injury of an unborn child while committing a violent crime against a pregnant woman. To avoid any confusion, the President was kind enough to add this handy definition:

As used in this section, the term "unborn child" means a child in utero, and the term "child in utero" or "child who is in utero" means a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb.

The order goes on to stipulate that punishment for the new crime shall not include the death penalty, and explicitly exempts medical practitioners, including those carrying out legal abortions, from prosecution, as well as women with respect to their own unborn children.

The same executive order, oddly enough, also made stalking a crime under military law.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

And Then There Were Three

François Bayrou just wrapped up an hour long press conference during which he announced that he would not give an endorsement for the second round, but left the door open to changing his mind by stating that he would take into consideration any evolution in either of the other two candidates' positions between now and May 6. He also announced the formation of a new political party, tentatively named the Democrat Party, with which he intended to run parliamentary candidates in every legislative district, thereby ruling out for the time being any notion of joining a formal governing alliance with either candidate.

In "liberating" his voters, Bayrou made mention of his political principles, but also of his misgivings with both Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal. Of the two, the portrait he drew of the former was by far the less flattering, describing Sarkozy's close contacts in media and finance as a menace to democracy, and his "taste for intimidation and threats" as a risk for the already fraying social fabric. Of Royal, he expressed more comfort with her social policies and governing style, but repeatedly underlined their differences in economic policy. He later referred to his "sharp" (ie. personal) misgivings over Sarkozy, compared to his "chronic" (ie. policy) misgivings over Royal.

When asked if he had made a personal decision as to who he would vote for, Bayrou cleverly responded that he had a pretty clear idea of what he would not do, but was not yet sure what he would do, a formulation he referred back to later with the added remark that a moment of reflection ought to make clear what he was trying to convey.

My reading of his remarks is that he's very clearly closing the door on any possible alliance with Sarkozy, whereas he would entertain a semi-autonomous coalition with Royal based on how much she was willing to modify her economic platform. He accepted her invitation to debate their respective programs, and expressed an openness to do the same with Sarkozy should he extend an invitation.

So while both Sarkozy and Royal expressed pleasure last Sunday to find the race clarified into a classic right-left faceoff, Bayrou made it clear that he has no intention of going anywhere. To the contrary, with his new party and repeated assertion that the results of this past Sunday confirmed the arrival of a third political force, he seems to have every intention of sticking around.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Decline By Choice

I haven't had much to say about the Wolfowitz debacle at the World Bank, mainly because when you make fighting corruption your top priority, it seems pretty obvious that getting caught with your hand in the cookie jar is a hanging offense. But reading this NY Times article about a closed door meeting between Wolfowitz and the Bank's senior directors, I was taken aback to see this:

Graeme Wheeler, the bank’s managing director, said at the meeting that the fight over whether Mr. Wolfowitz should stay on at the bank amounted to the “the biggest crisis in its history.”

Now I'm not enough of an expert on World Bank history to know whether this is hyperbole or not. But seeing it put that way immediately triggered the thought, Is there any multi-lateral institution left that the Bush administration hasn't already confronted with a crisis of historic and/or existential proportions? Maybe NATO, but that's assuming the War in Afghanistan won't come back to haunt what used to be a regionally-confined alliance.

In case you're thinking that I'm unfairly blaming the Bush administration for Wolfowitz's misdeeds, the gist of the article is that the WB was already in crisis before the nepotism controversy erupted, primarily as a result of Wolfowitz's heavy-handed imposition of Washington's political line on Bank policies. And when the World Bank is in open revolt against Washington imposing its political line on bank policies, you know that something has gone very, very wrong.

It's hard to find another example from modern history of a world power that has squandered both might and influence to such a degree as George W. Bush's America has done from September 11, 2001 to the present. The only thing that even comes close is the post-WWII collapse of the British and French colonial empires.

But the dismantling of the colonial system was brought about by transformative movements for racial equality and national determination that swept the planet in the aftermath of a world war against tyranny. While certain policy choices made by the British and French might have served to exacerbate and accelerate the process, they were not the fundamental cause.

On the other hand, every single factor that has contributed to breaking our military, bankrupting our treasury, and reducing our standing in the eyes of the world over the past six years is the result of policy decisions taken by the Bush administration.

What we have witnessed is nothing short of the elective dismantling of American hegemony, not out of any commitment to a multi-polar world order, but ironically in the name of pursuing American hegemony. Which is another way of saying incompetence.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Invisible Filter

Jason over at Voices of Reason makes some good points about how the internet in general, and blogging in particular, have "democratized democracy", as he puts it. He identifies three areas in particular: the citizen watchdog function, the heightened efficiency of fundraising, and the broadening of participation in the political multilogue.

The first two seem self-evident. The third, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated, since a lot of what goes on behind the scenes of "political blogging" doesn't necessarily wind up onscreen.

Although anyone can click the "publish" button of their blog platform and present their views to the world, the sheer mass of available online opinion functions as an inherent editing function. In other words, traffic on the internet, and especially blog traffic, is directed, much like "Letters to the Editor" are selected. So while the outcome might be democratizing, the process itself is far from democratic.

It takes a lot of effort and some dumb luck to get noticed by a wide reading audience, which, as Jason notes, is concentrated around a relatively small number of high-traffic sites that either horde or distribute their "clicks" as they see fit. I've compared it to trying to get one's piece of confetti noticed at a ticker tape parade.

My point isn't that the editing role played by high-traffic blogs is unfair (it isn't any more fair or unfair than the role played by any editor), but rather that it is largely invisible to the average reader.

My major caveat, then, with regard to the impact of blogs on democracy is that when access to opinion is directed, it can be manipulated. And the explosion of energy that blogs once represented has been to a large degree harnessed. Should the filter ever become stifling (something that has not yet happened), people will have to find or invent new ways to circumvent it.

Because news, by its nature, travels. But opinion needs to work a little bit to get heard.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Fight For The Center Heats Up

With the second round of the French presidential election hinging on who grabs François Bayrou's first-round voters, both Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy have basically taken off the gloves to capture them.

After correctly resisting, before the first round, any suggestion of an eventual governing coalition with Bayrou's center-right UDF party, Royal was more open to the idea today. When asked whether, in the event of Bayrou's support, she would name members of the UDF as members of her government, she responded, "Of course, that's what a presidential majority means." [Translated from the French.]

Sarkozy, unsurprisingly, has chosen another, more violent approach. Having already picked off a number of UDF heavyweights unhappy with Bayrou's veer towards the left before the first round, Sarkozy today picked up the endorsement of the UDF mayor of Rouen, the largest city governed by the UDF. And while ruling out the idea of taking over the UDF from the inside with the help of disgruntled old-timers due to the party's protective governing regulations, he floated the idea of creating a new center-right party, independent of his own UMP, but still part of the governing majority. Which would effectively serve as a refuge for right-of-center UDF members who are uncomfortable with the party's new social democrat identity but hesitant to join the Gaullist UMP.

The calculus behind both candidates' moves is clear. A month after the Presidential election, France will vote again, this time for parliamentary elections. And one of the consequences of a governing coalition is a parliamentary ceasefire among the coalition parties. So, for instance, in 2002, the UMP didn't field a candidate in any district held by the much weaker UDF. Royal didn't go so far as to offer Bayrou the same deal, which is why she used the phrase "presidential majority" as opposed to "governing majority". But she didn't rule it out, either. Sarkozy's comments, on the other hand, were a clear ultimatum, both to Bayrou and any UDF parliamentarian who doesn't want to see a UMP challenge to his seat.

In the meantime, Bayrou has announced a press conference for tomorrow to discuss his views of the two candidates. It seems a little early for him to make any pronouncement, given what's been put on the table so far. But the campaigns are working overtime right now, so a deal could already be in the works. My hunch is he's playing now for the 2012 presidential election. And as much as his campaign was based on independence, five more years in the wilderness won't position him very well for it. And five years as Sarkozy's lap dog wouldn't be any better. So I wouldn't be surprised if he takes Royal's best offer and describes it as the government of national unity he was calling for two weeks ago.

One thing's for sure: The next two weeks are going to be very, very entertaining.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Theater Of The Absurd

If you're a regular reader, you know that I make it a point to read through the transcripts of the Gitmo CSRT hearings. And as a whole I find them oddly evocative portraits of what will certainly be looked back upon as the defining conflict of our times.

On the one hand, representing the foremost power of the modern world, you've got a military commission which, if imperfectly and even unjustly constituted, is made up of individual men and women who lack any apparent brutality, and seem committed to conducting the proceedings with whatever honor and justice is possible under the circumstances.

On the other, representing a ragtag militia movement that has dedicated itself to combatting not only America but modernity itself, you've got men of varying backgrounds, levels of sophistication, and scruples, expressing in broken English their dedication to a cause they consider just.

And lurking in the shadows, often conjured but appearing only in redacted glimpses, are al-Qaeda and its mimetic twin, the CIA black hole detention system, each with its own methodology of terror and brutality.

Probably none of the transcripts captures the unlikely protagonists more poignantly than that of Zayn Al Abidin Muhammad Husayn, a Palestinian who served as a conduit helping to funnel jihadi recruits from a safehouse in Pakistan to an independent training camp in Afghanistan...

Read the full post>>

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Talk Loudly And Carry A Small Stick

The AP, via the IHT, is reporting a possible breakthrough on the Iran uranium enrichment talks that have all but broken down over pre-conditions to negotiations set by America and its western European allies. While still calling for a freeze of the existing program, diplomats from the US, EU, Russia and China have signalled a willingness to "redefine" just what they mean by the word "freeze" in anticipation of talks between Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, and Ali Larijani, Iran's national security advisor and chief nuclear negotiator. So instead of dismantling the centrifuge cascades and other components of the program already in place, Iran would simply be required to put them on standby.

Of course, there are still details to be worked out, such as whether "standby" means leaving the cascades in running position or idle. But if all it takes is a simple re-definition of terms to let everyone come to the table while still saving face, I don't see the harm, even if it does mean having to sit through yet another "Munich diatribe" from Charles Krauthammer. The negotiations themselves might still fail, but even that clarifies things more than preventing them from taking place.

On the other hand, I'm not so sure about the Bush administration's decision to adopt their N. Korean strategy as a default negotiating position: Talk tough and stall any negotiations until the adversary has accomplished exactly what you were trying to prevent, then buckle and propose the compromise that they'd suggested from the outset. Seems downright Clintonian.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

With Friends Like This...

I've been arguing the merits of impeaching Dick Cheney for a while now. So while it's comforting to see the idea gain traction, I'd have liked to have seen it picked up by someone other than... Dennis Kucinich. He's put it on ice while the Veep gets some follow-up medical treatment, but as soon as Cheney's fit again, Kucinich plans to welcome him back to work with articles of impeachment. Too bad, because it's a move that's worth serious consideration, something I doubt it will get now. Oh, well. I suppose there's always Gonzalez.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"It is my firm belief that the Cheney-Bush team has committed offenses that are worse than those that drove Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew and Atty. Gen. John Mitchell from office after 1972. Indeed, as their repeated violations of the Constitution and federal statutes, as well as their repudiation of international law, come under increased consideration, I expect to see Cheney and Bush forced to resign their offices before 2008 is over."

-- George McGovern, LA Times Op-Ed 

Posted by Judah in:  Quote Of The Day   

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Setting The Scene

Just taking a quick glance at today's TNS/Sofres poll [note: French language] for the French presidential election, and if one thing seems pretty clear it's that the immediate calculations made after the first round seem to be born out by the poll results. I had some questions whether Jean-Marie Le Pen's voters (of which only the hardcore remained) could be won over, but apparently 62% of them solidly intend to vote for Sarkozy in the second round. (Surprisingly, Ségolène Royal stands to pick up 22% of them, probably out of spite towards Sarkozy for having "Le Pen-ized" his campaign.) Another interesting result: Royal wins the Bayrou voters, 46-25%, with 29% expressing no intention.

Now, neither Le Pen nor Bayrou has made any endorsements for the second round, so both of these numbers could change. Le Pen plans to make a statement on May 1st, at the FN's annual Joan of Arc Festival; Bayrou has refused to tip his hand in spite of both candidates actively courting his electorate, if not necessarily him. My hunch is that neither will make an endorsement of a candidate. What remains to be seen is whether they will "free" their voters, or call for "une vote blanche", ie. a blank ballot, which is functionally equivalent to an abstention.

Two other interesting, if not surprising, results. First, of those who have already decided to vote for Royal, 54% will do so out of opposition to Sarkozy rather than support for Royal, bearing out the theory of an "anti-Sarko" vote. And second, 17% of those questioned have not yet firmly decided for whom they will vote. Which means that at 51-49% in Sarkozy's favor, nothing is yet decided.

I don't plan to follow the polls that closely, but it is interesting to see that all the conventional wisdoms seem to be holding up.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Rising Tide

One item of note from last week: Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa's decisive victory in a national referendum calling for a constituent assembly to rewrite the country's constitution. Ecuador is far from the most influential country in South America. But the vote's outcome solidifies a trend that represents quite a historical revision: Fifteen years after being effectively eliminated through political and military repression, the Latin American left has returned to power through the ballot box.

I'm not a big fan of Chavez, who trail-blazed this tactic of writing the legislative branch out of the political equation, and I'm suspicious of populist demagoguery of any political stripe. So I don't dismiss out of hand the idea that the centralizing of power in the hands of strong executives, whether left or right, threatens democratic principles.

On the other hand, having lived shortly in Ecuador in 1996, and having travelled widely in the country, I think it's safe to say that when the elected government serves largely to legitimize a thuggish mafia of vested interests, all of whom subcontract the country's wealth out to the highest bidder, you'll end up with the kind of popular frustration that leads to either armed insurrection or cults of personality. We've seen the outcome of the former. The outcome of the latter remains to be seen.

Correa is not in the same virulently anti-American mold as Chavez. Which means that if we adopt a supportive stance that addresses the broad discontent that led to his rise, we might be able to channel this wave into a win-win outcome. If not, it's a natural leap from demonizing the "powers that be" to demonizing the "power that made them."

Posted by Judah in:  Las Americas   

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Barack & Bayrou

A few months ago I was struck by the parallels between the political arc of Barack Obama and Ségolène Royal, the French Socialist candidate for President. Both were relative unknowns a short while ago. Both capitalized on personal charisma and dissatisfaction with familiar faces to rise quickly in public opinion polls. And both emphasized governing philosophy while remaining vague about policy details.

But I'm struck now by the parallels between Obama and François Bayrou, the French centrist candidate. Like Bayrou, Obama emphasizes consensus and bi-partisanship. Like Bayrou, Obama is both a "fresh face" and a party insider. And like Bayrou, he's been accused of being out of step with voters' polarized, militant mood.

There's no doubting that Obama is a true Democrat, yet he insists on running on a platform of conciliation and consensus. The question he, like Bayrou, seems to be posing comes down to, "Can't we all just get along?" In France, the answer was, "Not yet." I wonder what America will respond.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   Politics   

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Monday, April 23, 2007

The Morning Paper

As you might have guessed, I'm back online after a week spent relaxing with a couple families and a small horde of kids down at the beach. A week during which my news consumption was regulated by the antiquated rhythm of daily edition newspapers, and punctuated by a running conversation about the French presidential campaign with an erudite Parisian friend. By Friday, both of us were a little burned out from the non-stop electoral coverage, and that was just from the print media, as we didn't even turn the televised news on once. I can only imagine what the rest of the country was going through.

I feel obligated to mention the senseless tragedy of Virginia Tech, if only to admit that I was thankful to have been shielded from the blanket coverage of it that I imagine filled the airwaves Stateside. The initial shock and horror I felt upon reading the news gradually subsided and gave way to other concerns, and each following day saw the same kind of ebb and flow as I discovered new developments from the morning paper, only to find my thoughts moving on to other things as the day progressed.

But even if I ended up spending less time thinking about the story than I otherwise would have, the emotions it provoked seemed somehow more authentic without the prurient, morbid carnival-like atmosphere of the non-stop news cycle reminding me what I should be feeling.

Tomorrow I'll be getting back to news-blogging. But the next time I hear someone say that old-fashioned newspapers are doomed to disappear, I'll think of this past week and reply, "I sure hope not."

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Coming Up For Air

Some quick thoughts about the run-off round of the French presidential election, which saw an astonishing 85% of voters participating. First of all, the tension and anticipation here were palpable for the week leading up to the voting. The political calculations were complex, especially for voters situated on the center-left without a strong party identification. And it's not certain the Socialist Party would have survived another first-round defeat, so the stakes were high.

As for the numbers, while both Sarkozy's (30%) and Royal's (25%) tallies seem impressive given the first-round results in 2002, a number of factors contributed to boosting them artificially. For Sarkozy, the fact that all the minor right-of-center parties merged for the 2002 legislative elections, and for Royal the urgency felt on the left to vote for a candidate who had a real chance of winning. (Which didn't prevent the parties on the extreme left from garnering 10% of the vote.)

The major surprises of the election, ones which could possibly change the landscape of French electoral politics, were the strength of François Bayrou's showing and the weakness of Jean-Marie Le Pen's.

Bayrou is clearly the big winner of the first round, despite finishing third with 19%. One reporter described him as serene and contented, while another joked that he would surely be the most sought-after man in France during the next two weeks. A quick glance at the electoral calculus is all it takes to know why. Neither Royal nor Sarkozy has a solid majority, even with votes recuperated from the other parties. Which means that Bayrou holds the key to the second round.

The preliminary exit polls described his voters as evenly split between traditionally left and traditionally right. And it's not at all clear how loyal they are, given that his emergence as a political force is a recent phenomenon. But the first round clearly left Bayrou in an apparent position of strength. If his support holds through the second round, and he capitalizes on it to create a coalition government, the traditional right-left split that has held in French politics since Mitterand's victory in 1981 will for all intents and purposes be finished.

Le Pen, on the other hand, ends his political career with his worst showing in years. Exit polling confirmed what many had suspected: that Sarkozy had cherry-picked some of his voters from the "unhappy France", almost a third of Le Pen's 2002 tally. Unfortunately for Sarkozy, this leaves only the hardcore Le Pen followers on the right, voters he will have trouble converting for the second round.

As for those who already made the leap, there are two possibilities. Either Sarkozy integrates their concerns into the governing party's political agenda, which means a real shift to the right and a hardening of the right-left cleavage in French politics. Or else he veers to the center for Bayrou's votes, leaving him vulnerable to Le Pen's successor on the right.

In any event, the stress and uncertainty of the first round is over. Which, of course, means that the stress and uncertainty of the second round has just begun.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Gone Fishin'

For all intents and purposes, I'll be offline for the next week. There's a possibility that a guest host will do some posting during that time (you know who you are). I'll let him introduce himself if it turns out he's willing and able to take over while I'm gone.

If you've stumbled on the site for the first time, I hope you'll take a second to browse some of the recent posts and check back in with us in the future. If you're a regular reader, I'll see you when I get back.

Posted by Judah in:  Open Thread   

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Political Theater

A word about the Pentagon's decision to extend Iraq tours from 12 to 15 months, which comes on the heels of some units being rotated back to Iraq before completing a year of Stateside duty. You don't need to be a four-star general to know that when you place low-morale troops in high-stress theaters for extended tours of duty, you dramatically increase the risk of misdirected violence. A massacre along the lines of My Lai would be the final nail in our Iraq coffin, yet the Bush administration is putting all the pieces in place that make such a horrible event almost inevitable. Which won't prevent them from blaming a few "bad apples" if one does end up occuring.

It's worth noting that one dramatic difference between this war and the Vietnam War is that back then, there was a draft. So even though plenty of people like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney managed to avoid serving, the impact of that war domestically was felt more broadly than the current war.

The Pentagon is going through all these contortions to maintain troop levels that don't really exist, in order to avoid placing any burden on the civilian population (other than the massive activation of reserve units). None of this is a military necessity. It's a political necessity.

The Vietnam War became unpopular as quickly as it did because after the Tet offensive, people realized:

  1. That the war was not going as well as the government had claimed;
  2. That the stakes were not as high as the government had made them out to be;
  3. Because they no longer wanted to personally pay the price of a failed policy.

I think we've already seen number one with the Iraq War, although the Surge was designed to forestall it a bit. Number two shouldn't be long in coming.

The only way Bush can run out the clock until someone else takes office (and responsibility for the entire mess) is if he can keep number three from happening. And he's willing to break the military to do it.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Kurdish Connection, Pt. 2

Laura Rozen's got an article in Mother Jones about what purportedly began as a story about an American-Israeli effort to set up anti-Iranian covert operations in Iraqi Kurdistan, but turned out to be, after she followed up on the reporting, a story about the Kurds' effort to set up pro-Kurdish covert operations in Iraqi Kurdistan. Here's the money quote:

In the end, Yatom and Michaels’ business activities may well be evidence, as much as any covert U.S. interests, of the Kurds’ superb gamesmanship, pragmatism, and sense of opportunity—instincts honed to a fine art by a people that, lacking durable proximate allies, has learned how to cultivate the enemies of its enemies. (Emphasis added.)

The Israelis aren't the only ones who came calling bearing gifts in the hopes of winning influence with Kurds. You'll remember this article that I flagged last week [note: the link seems to be temporarily broken], which described contacts between the Kurds and Iranian intelligence and security operatives dating back to before the American invasion of Iraq.

Apparently, the Kurds had no problem saying yes. To everyone. As the Kurds' Washington DC representative put it, "Kurdistan is open for business."

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Rock? Meet Hard Place.

Two new developments on the border between Turkey and Iraq. First, a Turkish general publicly called for cross-border incursions into Iraq to flush the PKK out of their mountain bases:

"An operation into Iraq is necessary," Gen. Yasar Buyukanit said, pushing for permission to raid northern Iraq to fight Kurdish guerrillas despite strong opposition from the United States and Iraq against such unilateral action.

The call raises the pressure on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to take a harder line against Kurdish guerrillas and against the Kurdish leadership in northern Iraq, where the rebels are based and train.

And second, the American press seems to have caught wind of what's going on over there, since the above quote is taken from an article in USA Today. As for what's at stake, here's another quote from the same article:

"The PKK has huge freedom of movement in Iraq," Buyukanit said. "It has spread its roots in Iraq."

But Iraq's government is barely able to control its own cities. U.S. commanders, who are battling the Iraqi insurgency in the middle of the country, are stretched too thin to take on Turkish Kurds hiding in remote mountains near the frontier.

Washington repeatedly has cautioned Turkey against staging a cross-border offensive, fearing that it could destabilize the region and antagonize Iraqi Kurds, who are allied with the U.S.

Of course, that's not entirely true. Iraq's government might be barely able to control its own cities. But the Kurdish authorities haven't had much trouble keeping their own in line. The PKK is just a problem they haven't been too keen on addressing. And we need the Kurds too much to put their feet to the fire on it. So file this one under "Things That Haven't Gone Majorly Wrong In Iraq But Still Could".

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Imus As Racial Snapshot

"You can make fun of everything, just not with everyone."
-- Coluche

"She was five-foot-six/ Two-fifteen/ A bleach-blond bomber with a streak of mean/ She knew how to knuckle and she knew how to scuffle and fight."
-- Jim Croce, "(The Night That I Fell In Love With My) Roller Derby Queen"

Most of what needs to be said about Don Imus' offensive remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team has already been said, but there are a couple interesting connections that I don't think anyone has made yet.

It's true "nappy headed" is an insult, but as far as I've ever heard it used, it's largely a black-on-black insult. For the simple reason that "bad hair" is a largely black cultural reference point (although my mother used to complain about having it). I would add that it seemed to be the kind of light-hearted dis that was shrugged off in any session of the dozens.

"Ho's", on the other hand, always struck me as shocking and distasteful. Nevertheless it's become a relatively banal term for women (along with "bitches") in the lexicon of black rappers, who have been largely using it with impunity for years, as has been pointed out.

So, yes, if a black comic had made the remark in the context of a routine, it might have gone unnoticed. And yes, too, if Imus had made the remark about a white team in terms offensive to poor whites, it might have gone unnoticed also. And yes, three, this is nothing new. Every group has something of an exclusive license to offensive humor about itself.

But above and beyond the issue of offensiveness, Imus' remarks offer an interesting crosssection of where things stand in terms of race in this country. I imagine that inasmuch as he thought there was humor to be mined in the remark, Imus was aiming for the longstanding punchline of a white guy mimicking black speech or behavior. In this, it was not so different from Al Jolson in blackface, or even Karl Rove as rapper.

But whereas the blackface tradition involved a white person camping a white caricature of black speech, Imus' remarks are the first that involve a white person camping a black caricature of black speech. From my own anecdotal experience as a white guy who spent quite a bit of my youth in black hip hop circles, I can attest to having heard the same remark, and far worse, casually tossed around by black men, and black women for that matter.

Which reminds me of a third quote, from The Autobiography Of Malcolm X, which I can only paraphrase since I don't have the text with me. (Anyone with a citation, pop it in the comments.) It went something along the lines of, "We know how you white people talk about us when we're not in the room. Because some of us can pass, and we've heard you."

Imus' remarks mark a turning point in terms of racial and racist speech, because for the first time, white people have an idea of what goes on among black people when "we're" not in the room. Imus just made the mistake of thinking he could repeat it.

Posted by Judah in:  Race In America   

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Iraq's Other Hot Border

Yesterday I mentioned that things are heating up on Turkey's border with Iraqi Kurdistan, with violent clashes breaking out over the weekend between the Turkish Army and the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). Today, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd, phoned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to apologize for threats made in the press by Kurdish Provincial President Massoud Barzani.

That didn't prevent Erdogan from filing a formal diplomatic letter of complaint with the Iraqi government, threatening diplomatic and economic sanctions, as well as "other approaches", if nothing is done to rein in the PKK, which Turkey claims uses Iraqi Kurdistan as a base for launching attacks across the Turkish border.

The American press finally seems to be picking up on the story, with NPR posting a to-be-aired report titled "Turkey, Kurds Move Toward All-Out Fighting", with the following lede:

Western governments are struggling to restrain Turkey back from a possible cross-border incursion into northern Iraq, where tensions have escalated with Kurds.

For various reasons, including the headstart on self-government they got with the Autonomous Region and no-fly zones, as well as the relative homogeneous nature of their population, the Kurds have managed to avoid the chaos that's overrun the rest of Iraq. As a result, they tend to be left out of the media picture, or else portrayed as the "good" Iraqis.

But stable does not necessarily mean responsible. And between harboring the PKK, which is on the State Department's list of known terrorist organizations, and developing close security contacts with Iranian intelligence operatives, there seems to be more than enough evidence that the Kurds are gaming the current situation as much as anyone.

The Kirkuk referendum, preceded by the relocation of Arabs and Turkmen who were settled in the city by Saddam Hussein, is a major priority for Iraqi Kurds. It also happens to be a major irritant to Turkey, which believes a Kurdish Kirkuk is the first step towards an independent Kurdistan.

So far, the only solution has been to postpone the referendum. But it's a problem that can't be put off forever. Something to keep in mind while evaluating the overall prospects for Iraq's future.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Monday, April 9, 2007

Two Wrongs Make Me Right

Every now and then, for reasons I can't well explain, I find myself trying to formulate an argument in defense of some aspect of George W. Bush's presidency. Which is to say, I consider the possibility that I (along with most of the people whose opinion I respect) am wrong, which I think is an important exercise for even the most firmly held beliefs. Especially for the most firmly held beliefs.

Take, for instance, the President's well-known track record of appointing to regulatory boards the lobbyists and executives from the very industries to be regulated. I wondered whether his critics (that is, me and most of the people whose opinion I respect) weren't ignoring the fact that when it comes to regulatory oversight, there's really no such thing as neutrality.

In other words, there are people who want to log national forests, drill for gas and oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and manufacture and buy products that pollute the environment. They think they should be allowed to do those things because they don't think there's anything wrong with it. For these people, an appointee who emphasizes preservation over use isn't neutral, he or she is partisan.

So, I end up thinking, maybe what we're feeling now is what these people have been feeling for all the years when the regulatory agencies were stacked against them.

Then I go and read Robert Kennedy, Jr.'s piece in Vanity Fair about environmental appointees in the Bush administration, and I realize that I was wrong for ever having considered that I might be wrong about George W. Bush.

There is one silver lining. When corporate lobbyists become the government, they no longer have to bribe anyone to get regulations to go their way.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   The Natural World   

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Monday, April 9, 2007

If A Tree Falls In The Forest

I don't know about you, but I consider an operation involving thousands of troops backed by helicopters in which eleven soldiers and fourteen insurgents are killed in the course of a long weekend pretty newsworthy. Especially if it's one that seriously jeopardizes the stability of Iraq.

So why did the major flare-up in southeastern Turkey between government troops and guerillas from the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) barely get a mention in the American press? Or this angry exchange that followed it between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iraqi Kurdish Provincial President Massoud Barzani?

"They should be very careful in their use of words... otherwise they will be crushed by those words... Barzani has again exceeded the limits," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in televised remarks...

"Turkey is not allowed to intervene in the Kirkuk issue and if it does we will interfere in Diyarbakir's affairs and other cities in Turkey," Barzani told Al Arabiyah television.

Iraqi Kurdistan is supposed to be the success story of the invasion. But the Kirkuk referendum has long been seen as the sleeping dog of the whole Iraq mess. Turkey has repeatedly warned that they'll intervene before they allow the Kurds to control the oil-rich city. It's also complained about the safe harbor they claim the PKK enjoys in Iraqi Kurdistan.

So when guns start going off in the general vicinity, you'd think we'd at least hear about it.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Monday, April 9, 2007

Endless Campaign

Something about Political Wire's Quote of the Day from yesterday wouldn't quit buzzing around in my head:

"Seeing this kind of intensity so early, it's unbelievable. I shudder to think how people are physically going to be able to maintain this pace, this personal focus, for two years."

-- Democratic media strategist Tad Devine, quoted by the Chicago Tribune, on the early start to the 2008 presidential campaign.

Of course, he's talking about the candidates who, instead of working behind the scenes to shore up their logistical infrastructure, are busy trying to stay in front of the cameras as much as possible.

I wonder about the voters who, at almost a year from the first primaries, are being subjected to a level of campaign intensity that even the most avid political junky can barely sustain.

Then there's the system itself, too. The early rollout of the 2008 presidential campaign means that candidates will spend two years of campaigning for a four year term of office. Four years that are spent greasing the wheels for a second term that, if won, is effectively over after two.

So is there a better alternative? I think so. Extend the presidential term of office to six years, with a one term limit. Then hold a Vice-Presidential election in the third year, whereby voters could elect an opposition Veep in the event of a wildly unpopular president.

That way the President can focus on governing, instead of campaigning. And so can we.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Sunday, April 8, 2007

Gold Digga

I admit to being mystified by Phyllis Schlafly. As a kid growing up in a progressive household, a woman arguing against the ERA made about as much sense to me as a black guy arguing against the Thirteenth Amendment. But in this LA Times op-ed, almost overshadowed by her riveting account of the previous demise of the ERA, she actually lays out her case against an amendment prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender. And it comes down to... alimony payments:

The amendment would require women to be drafted into military combat any time men were conscripted, abolish the presumption that the husband should support his wife and take away Social Security benefits for wives and widows.

Hmmm. Well, there's still the riveting account, which includes this jewel about a conference organized in Houston in 1977 to give a final push for ratification: 

The conference featured virtually every known feminist leader and received massive media coverage. But it backfired. When conference delegates voted for taxpayer funding of abortions and the entire gay rights agenda, Americans discovered the ERA's hidden agenda.

A couple of months later, a reporter asked the governor of Missouri if he was for the ERA. "Do you mean the old ERA or the new ERA?" he replied. "I was for equal pay for equal work, but after those women went down to Houston and got tangled up with the abortionists and the lesbians, I can tell you ERA will never pass in the Show-Me State."

Abortionists and lesbians. They'll kill a constitutional amendment every time. 

Posted by Judah in:  Domestic Policy   Politics   

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Sunday, April 8, 2007

When The Lunatics Run The Asylum

It's hard to imagine that our detention policy in Iraq could outdo the damage of the Abu Ghraib outrages, but according to this Times of London article, we seem to be accomplishing just that:

America’s high-security prisons in Iraq have become “terrorist academies” for the most dangerous militant groups, according to former inmates and Iraqi government officials.

Inmates are left largely to run their blocks, which are segregated on sectarian lines. The policy has created a closed world run by Iraq’s worst terrorists and militias, into which detainees with no links to insurgent groups are often thrown.

It's a pretty scathing indictment, not just of the detention facilities themselves, which despite being the backstop of our counterinsurgency operations (after all, the proportion of insurgents we end up killing is quite small), have never undergone the comprehensive re-evaluation they obviously require.

But also of the entire counterinsurgency cycle itself. Specifically the ease with the insurgents have learned to manipulate the process to their own ends, whether by feeding faulty intelligence into the system to settle scores with their enemies, or by recruiting as yet un-radicalized detainees mistakenly caught up in the system.

Most striking is that, four years into a counterinsurgency war and three years after Abu Ghraib, we still don't seem to have a clue about the crucial role that a well thought out detention policy can play, both in breaking the back of the insurgency, and in forging trust among the non-combatant population. Instead we seem to have designed a system that does the exact opposite.

Update: The LA Times has got a story up on this too, with some more detail and good analysis.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, April 8, 2007

Time For The Divorce?

Less than a week ago, in a post titled The Honeymoon's Over, I noted that, given the defections of both leadership and foot soldiers plaguing the Mahdi Militia, Moqtada al-Sadr could not afford to stand down his forces for much longer. My prediction was for a limited confrontation with either American forces or those of a competing militia to re-establish control over his organization.

That limited conflict, it turns out, was already taking place in Diwaniyah, a city in southern Iraq where the Mahdi Militia was engaged in skirmishes with the local police force. The local police force, that is, that doubles as the Badr Brigade, ie. the armed wing of SCIRI, an Iranian-aligned Iraqi political party whose prominent members include one of Iraq's Vice-Presidents and the current Finance Minister.

This past Friday, when it looked like al-Sadr's guys were getting the upper hand, US and Iraqi forces mounted a campaign to retake the city, engaging in pitched battles and even calling in airstrikes.

Today, the AP is reporting that al-Sadr has issued a proclamation calling on his forces to refrain from targeting Iraqi army  units and to concentrate their attacks on American forces. My reading of the situation leads me to believe that the article's headline, "Al-Sadr Calls for Anti-U.S. Attacks", is a bit misleading. The call seems to be more for Iraqi unity than for attacks against American forces.

But that could change. And if it does, it will amount to the first real test of the new American approach to the War. So this one is worth keeping an eye on.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, April 7, 2007

Friends In High Places

It must be reassuring to Syrian President Bashar Assad that his long, dark night of international isolation might finally be coming to an end. After all, it's been a while since we've seen headlines like this one: "Hungarian Party Official: Syria is guarantee of Peace and Stability in Region". Oh, wait a minute. That one's from the official Syrian news service. And the Hungarian party in question is the Hungarian Communist Workers' Party, which as of the last Hungarian parliamentary elections won 0.41% of the vote and no seats.

More seriously, though, the Economist notes that Assad has managed to take out a new lease on life, warming his relations with Iraq and Turkey, reconciling with Saudi King Abdullah (who came to the airport to welcome him personally to the recent Arab League summit), all while deepening his strategic alliance with Iran. Throw in visits from EU officials and American Congressional delegations and it's obvious that Assad is no longer the pariah he's looked like for most of the past four years.

Which means that the Bush administration's strategy of freezing Assad out is slowly but surely unravelling. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, they come up with as a fallback option. 

Oh, and since no story coming out of the Middle East these days is complete without some unintended consequence of the War in Iraq, there's this:

Appalled by the mess next door, few Syrians now doubt that their own secular dictatorship is preferable to the anarchy of supposedly democratic Iraq. Yet Syria's belated recognition of Iraq's government, skilfully portrayed as a graceful bow to American pressure, has brought big rewards. Syria is fast regaining its traditional role as the gateway to rich Mesopotamia. Iraq bought some 400,000 tonnes of Syrian farm produce last year. Near Qamishli, in the north-east, a queue of Syrian lorries heading for Iraq stretches 30km (19 miles). Even the influx of 1m Iraqi refugees brings some benefits: a boom in Syrian property, plus a surge in consumer demand.

The potential gains from Iraq are even greater. Large natural-gas fields lie just across the border in Iraq: the easiest export route for Iraqi oil is through Syrian ports. Iraqi officials already speak of enlarging existing pipelines, while Syria is expanding its refining capacity in anticipation.

So add Syria to the list of regional adversaries who have strategically benefitted from the Iraq War, which just might go down as the most generous elective war in history.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   

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Saturday, April 7, 2007

Aid And Comfort

You could see this one coming: The abducted Iranian diplomat who was just released in what some claim was part of a deal for the 15 British sailors claims he was tortured by the CIA while held captive at a base near Baghdad airport. The US denies any involvement in his abduction or detainment, and has dismissed his claims as "...the latest theatrics of a government trying to deflect attention away from its own unacceptable actions."

The significance of this story, of course, isn't whether or not it's true, which we'll never know for sure. It's whether or not it could be true. And while six years ago I think most of us would have, rightly or wrongly, dismissed it out of hand, that is simply no longer the case. Mainly because, unlike the the CIA official who "dismissed any claims of torture, saying 'the CIA does not conduct or condone torture'", most of us have been following the news for the past several years. And if in reading this story we experience some doubts, imagine what people feel who are pre-disposed towards believing it -- like the large swaths of the Arab and Muslim world we're trying to win over in the battle for hearts and minds.

Another reason why this administration's pig-headed resistance to renouncing, once and for all, coercive and inhumane interrogation and detention practices, ie. torture, is so short-sighted and counter-productive. Because in a battle of ideas, talking points are bullets. And the Bush administration has supplied the enemy with them by the truckload.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   Iran   

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Saturday, April 7, 2007

Death Be Not Proud

Two stories I ran across really bring home the true cost of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the first one quite literally. According to this AP story, a law quietly took effect this past January that changed the way in which our dead soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan are being returned home to their families. The military is now required to fly the flag-draped caskets on military or military-contracted aircraft, to regional airports as close as possible to the family. Once there, the caskets must be removed from the plane by a military honor guard.

Before the law took effect, the caskets were flown by standard commercial jet, often unloaded from the plane by baggage handlers using forklifts, and delivered to the family in cargo area warehouses. The military claimed they were simply trying to expedite the delivery as much as possible. But when you compare the costs -- $1.2 million for all of last year by commercial flights versus $11 million for a six month contract with a charter company -- it's easy to be skeptical.

Meanwhile, in Reno, Nevada, the National Guard Bureau held its first ever Army Guard honor guard competition. I'll quote the article's description of the competition's "events", because a summary doesn't quite do it justice:

Each day began with an exhaustive in-ranks inspection during which Old Guard NCOs "hard-eyed" each Soldier from head to toe. They used rulers to check the uniforms; they wrote down the "gigs," or discrepancies.

Then the best of the Army Guard's best had themselves rated on all aspects of performing a funeral for a fallen veteran - from lifting caskets and urns out of hearses to firing the customary salute with M-14 rifles and presenting the folded flag to a deceased's family member.

The participants ran a grueling, timed obstacle course which had to be done twice - once for time and then repeated in full dress blues while performing honors; both times while carrying a casket weighted down by 200 pounds of sandbags. They also took a 60-question written exam on the history of memorial affairs.

Now the whole thing seems a bit over the top to me, especially the last bit about running an obstacle course in dress blues while carrying a 200 lb. casket. Almost like a Monty Python skit. But I'm not going for a cheap laugh here. Because this is what comes at the end of article:

Oregon's Turner praised the competition and also summed up what it meant to win and to a veteran of the Iraq War: "Pretty much all of us are combat veterans and we all lost friends over there. Every day we do services we'll be marching past our friends' headstones. ... Going out there and being pallbearers together, it's something you can't describe."

Now I'm not judging the way the military honors its dead. In fact, I think there's something moving and important about it. But this seems to me to be representative of the triumph in certain circles of form over function. Or worse yet, of formulas over reality. Because the truth is, it's cynical to talk about supporting our troops and at the same time treat the fallen like cargo. Or worse yet, to talk about honoring the dead and at the same time factor even one unnecessary military funeral into the political calculus of the war's endgame.

And that's what this administration is doing.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Saturday, April 7, 2007

Draw-Draw Scenario

There's been alot of discussion on how to assess the outcome of the British 15 incident. Steve Clemons of Washington Note says Iran is the big loser:

Iran now looks unpredictable, dangerous (though some will correctly argue that Iran has always been dangerous), and irrational. To be trusted by the world with nuclear enrichment capacity of any kind, rationality, trust, and dependable and predictable behavior must be part of the equation.

Iran lost by convincing even its friends that it is a state that may not be in control of all it's own pieces, particularly a vital part of its military force...

Kevin Drum agrees:

Even countries friendly to Iran appear to believe that this whole episode was a pointless and foolhardy provocation; it's shown up the Iranian government as weak, disorganized, and unable to keep control of its own military...

...This was a plainly stupid miscalculation on their part, and one that they obviously lost control of once it began. Far from being scared off by their bluster, my guess is that this incident will make the world more united in its belief that Iran can't be trusted with a nuclear program, not less.

Meanwhile, commenters on the right are using the episode to trot out Churchillian quotes about Munich and clamoring for Tony Blair's head.

I think the truth is somewhere in between. And that becomes clearer when you separate out the two issues that have gotten tangled up here.

  1. The proxy war going on between the US and Iran:

    Whether or not the seizure of the British sailors was centrally planned or authorized, Iran comes out a winner for demonstrating it is willing and able to defend its territorial integrity, even in the most symbollic of ways. The method was amateurish, perhaps, but no more so than the American seizure of Iranian diplomats in Irbil and Baghdad. And it's already paid off, in that Britian has temporarily suspended their patrol operations in the Gulf.

  2. The uranium enrichment standoff:

    Both Clemons and Drum suggest that if this is evidence of divisions in leadership, or worse, lack of control over the IRG, it lends weight to the claim that Iran can't be trusted with nuclear enrichment capabilities. I tend to see the outcome as reassuring, since it shows that however opaque and convoluted the Iranian decision-making process may seem to us, it arrived at the right outcome. If it was a rogue operation, control mechanisms are in place. If it demonstrated division in central leadership, the cooler heads prevailed.

What really matters here, as Clemons points out, is whether the incident drives a permanent wedge between the Iranians and their support base (ie. the Russians, Chinese and Indians) in the uranium enrichment negotiations. If it does, the Iranians will find themselves essentially isolated on the issue and will be forced to either make concessions or escalate the standoff. If not, the incident demonstrates that the British approach of rallying support while engaging in conciliatory negotiations pays off.

In any case, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Bush administration comes out as the big loser. Its major contribution to the incident's resolution, by Britain's request, was to stand on the sidelines and not make matters worse. And given that we've got 150-odd thousand soldiers on the ground just next door and two carrier groups in spitting distance offshore, that says alot.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   

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Friday, April 6, 2007

Iran Attack: Pump & Dump?

That's the first thing that crossed my mind when I saw the headline to this RIA Novosti article: "No U.S. attack on Iran, oil price hits $70 in expectation". RIA Novosti, you might recall, was very active in pushing the April 6 attack rumor, with a steady stream of leaks from unnamed Russian military intelligence sources. Talk about moving the market.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Markets & Finance   

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Friday, April 6, 2007

Come Again?

This is the kind of candid military assessment that you just don't see that much of from Bush appointees. From Admiral William Fallon, Centcom commander, in Egypt meeting with Hosni Mubarak:

Asked whether the United States would attack Iran soon, especially as Washington beefed up military presence in the Gulf region recently, the top U.S. officer gave a negative answer.

"Washington already had its hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan," he explained.

He went on to say the Iranian issue should be reolved through diplomatic channels.

It's actually more than candid. It borders on ill-advised: An American commander on a foreign visit admits that the US military is stretched thin. I wouldn't be surprised to see Admiral Fallon offering up a clarification.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iran   Iraq   

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Friday, April 6, 2007

Lending A Hand

Remember the al-Qaeda training facilities in southeast Afghanistan? The ones where aspiring jihadists from across the Middle East, North Africa, Asia and Europe used to come to develop combat skills back before we drove them out of the country?

Well, according to this short piece in The National Interest, al-Qaeda's replaced them with live fire training in Iraq. And the technical expertise their operatives have gathered, like sophisticated IED technology and anti-aircraft tactics, is now showing up on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia.

Keep in mind, Bin Laden cut his teeth in the Afghan insurgency. For him, terrorism is only the preliminary tactic of a three-stage longterm strategy:

  1. Draw the US into a regional war through the use of terror attacks;
  2. Inflict enough losses to drive the US out of the Middle East definitively;
  3. Topple the newly-vulnerable moderate Arab states through local insurgencies.

So as far as he's concerned, live fire insurgency training will definitely come in handy some day. Of course, the only way his plan can ultimately succeed is if we help him out every step of the way. But so far, that's exactly what we've been doing.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Friday, April 6, 2007

What A Difference Six Years Makes

Krauthammer then:

China lost. But it is not yet a win for us. For that we must make China pay a price. There has to be a cost for buzzing a U.S. plane, causing a collision, taking the plane apart and holding the crew hostage.

You don't try to extract that cost while they're holding our guys. The administration played that coolly and correctly. But now that they are out, it is time to show some steel.

Krauthammer now:

Iran has pulled off a tidy little success with its seizure and release of those 15 British sailors and marines: a pointed humiliation of Britain, with a bonus demonstration of Iran's intention to push back against coalition challenges to its assets in Iraq. All with total impunity...

You would think maintaining international order means, at least, challenging acts of piracy. No challenge here. Instead, a quiet capitulation.

Like a fine wine, he gets better with age.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Media Coverage   

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Thursday, April 5, 2007

Idle Gossip?

For whatever it's worth, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti has a breaking story on its French language page quoting a Russian Foreign Ministry official as saying, "Our conversations with American counterparts don't give any reason to expect..." an American attack on Iran tonight. Which is consistent with what official spokesmen in the Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry have been saying since anonymous "Russian military intelligence" sources started floating the rumors of an April 6 attack last week.

On the other hand, it isn't quite a denial.

It's 3 am my time, and the attack is supposedly going to be launched at 4. So you all will know whether it goes down before I will, cuz I'm about to hit the sack.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Thursday, April 5, 2007

Who Do You Believe?

Amnesty International on Gitmo's new facility:

Built to accommodate around 178 detainees, the compound known as Camp 6 is surrounded by high concrete walls with no windows visible on the façade. Inside, detainees are confined for a minimum of 22 hours a day in individual steel cells with no windows to the outside. The only view from each cell is through strips of glass only a few inches wide in and adjacent to the cell door which looks onto an interior corridor patrolled by military police. There are no opening windows and detainees are completely cut-off from human contact while inside their cells...

Contrary to international standards, the cells have no access to natural light or air, and are lit by fluorescent lighting which is on 24 hours a day and controlled by guards. The lighting is reportedly dimmed at night, although it is unclear by how much. The only source of air in the cells is from air-conditioning controlled by guards. Lawyers who visited detainees in January 2007 reported that they consistently complained of being too cold in the steel cells, with the air-conditioning turned up too high.

The Defense Department on Gitmo's new facility:

Camp 6, which became operational in December and cost $38 million to build, now houses roughly 160 of the 395 or so detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris Jr., commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay, said in an interview here today.

The air-conditioned facility, modeled on the most modern and efficient prisons in the United States, is more comfortable for detainees. It allows them to have more room and privacy than earlier facilities used at Guantanamo and is similar to Camp 5, another modern facility built in 2004. “It’s much better across the board than the facilities from which they came,” Harris said of Camp 6.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Thursday, April 5, 2007

When Everyone Hedges Their Bets

According to this NY Times article, Israel is lobbying the US to strip satellite guided offensive weapons out of a proposed American arms deal with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The impetus for the sale was to reassure the moderate Sunni states that regardless of what happens in Iraq (ie. even if we pull out and leave the place a mess), we'll still cover their backs against the Iranians.

Trouble is, Israel isn't so sure that the coalition of moderate Sunni states that's been talked about as a means of containing Iran is actually going to materialize. Plus they've got their doubts as to the Saudi kingdom's stability in the face of miltant Islamic extremists that have it in their sights. Which would put its "qualitative military edge" at risk.

Meanwhile, for their part, the Gulf states have been lukewarm about committing to the deal, for fear of antagonizing Iran with only an uncertain longterm American commitment to the region to go by.

So the question is, When the Iran containment train pulls out of the station, is anyone going to be on board?

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   

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Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Mergers & Aquisitions

Last September on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden's right hand man, announced that the GSPC (the Algerian-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) had officially joined al-Qaeda. The group, which had already announced its support for Bin Laden's jihad against the United States four years earlier, would later change its name to better reflect the brand image, becoming the Organisation of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

At the time of Zawahiri's announcement, the most significant outcome of the alliance seemed to be the targeting for jihad of France, Algeria's former colonial ruler, which until then had been spared much attention because of its opposition to the Iraq War. But as Michael Sheuer points out in this article in Terrorism Focus, the deal actually points to much wider implications. The three he identifies are:

  1. The success of Bin Laden's effort to get local, nationalist-oriented Islamic resistance groups to shift their emphasis towards targeting the "far enemy" (ie. America and the West), which is his principal strategic contribution to jihad, as discussed here.
  2. The combination of al-Qaeda "franchises" with the resurgence of al-Qaeda's central operational and leadership capacities, which means the West now faces a two-tiered threat.
  3. The use of Iraq as "contiguous territory" from which to gain access to Mediterranean and North African Islamic states, and from there, targets in Israel and Western Europe.

This last is worth emphasizing, because it means that far from keeping the terrorists occupied so they can't strike us here, as President Bush likes to claim, the Iraqi battlefield has offered al-Qaeda operatives valuable training experience while also serving as a point of departure for expanding into previously out of reach markets. As Scheuer puts it:

Although more research needs to be completed on the idea of Iraq being an al-Qaeda base for projecting itself into adjacent countries, it seems that not all of al-Qaeda's time has been spent fighting U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq.

CEO President? Meet the CEO terrorist.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   

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Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Kurdish Connection

I ran across this interesting, if slightly dusty, piece on Iranian involvement in Iraq's civil war while doing some research for an unrelated article (Honest, I really was hoping for a couple Iran-free news cycles):

Then, on October 1, 2001, representatives of the Badr Corps and representatives of the KDP, which is led by Massoud Barzani, met in a Salahadeen resort located about 20 miles from Irbil, Kurdistan. The intent of the meeting was to renew and reinforce the Badr Corps’ ties with the KDP. During this meeting, Badr Corps leaders also asked the KDP representatives about the United States’ current and future intentions toward Iraq.

On October 2, 2001, the Badr Corps leadership met again with Massoud Barzani, head of the KDP, to discuss different ways to reinforce relations between the Badr Corps and the KDP. The Badr Corps’ representatives inquired about U.S. intentions in Iraq and asked Barzani’s permission to allow the Badr Corps to open an office in Irbil.

The Badr Corps is the armed wing of SCIRI, which is now an Iranian-aligned Iraqi Shiite political party. But before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, they were "organizationally indistinguishable" from Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

So in other words, the office that was raided this past January (think the Cockburn story from a couple days ago) was established as a result of Iranian-Kurdish contacts going back six years, to well before the American invasion. Which could explain why the Kurds were willing to get into a tense armed standoff with American forces to protect the Iranian intelligence officers we were after.

Not only is there a lot we don't know about the Irbil incident, I'm guessing it's pretty damning stuff. Something along the lines of our good friends the Kurds, the one success story of the entire invasion, are actually buddy-buddy with our worst enemy, Iran.

What's Christopher Hitchens going to say? 

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Our Man In Balochistan

I thought for a moment, when reading about the pending release of the 15 British sailors this morning, that we might have a few Iran-free news cycles to look forward to. Little did I realize that I'd missed a brand new one that had already started.

From an ABC News report broadcast yesterday:

A Pakistani tribal militant group responsible for a series of deadly guerrilla raids inside Iran has been secretly encouraged and advised by American officials since 2005, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence sources tell ABC News.

The group, called Jundullah, is made up of members of the Baluchi tribe and operates out of the Baluchistan province in Pakistan, just across the border from Iran.

It has taken responsibility for the deaths and kidnappings of more than a dozen Iranian soldiers and officials.

U.S. officials say the U.S. relationship with Jundullah is arranged so that the U.S. provides no funding to the group, which would require an official presidential order or "finding" as well as congressional oversight.

This is the group, you might recall, that claimed responsibility for blowing up a bus in southeastern Iran last February, killing 11 members of the Revolutionary Guards. Iran claims that the group is affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, though it's never been proven, and has long complained of American support.

An American official, on the other hand, told ABC News that Jundullah has collaborated with the US in tracking al-Qaeda members, and the CIA denied that they provided the group with any funding, which is consistent with the report's claims.

The truth is probably somewhere in between, depending on who shows up at the trading post on any given day. Either way, it's becoming increasingly clear that the Iranians have got some legitimate grievances. While it would be naive to think they've been acting like saints in Iraq, they're probably getting as good as they dish out, and on both sides of the map. As soon as the British sailors get back to London and the leaks start to fill in the gaps on what we know, it could turn out that they've actually shown some restraint.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Honeymoon's Over

Remember at the outset of the Baghdad troop surge, when Moqtada al-Sadr standing down the Al Mahdi militia was a good sign? Well, think again. Because according to the LA Times, with Sunni insurgents targeting Shiite neighborhoods with increasingly deadly car bombs, some of the Al Mahdi fighters aren't too keen on sitting around doing nothing.

Trouble is, Moqtada doesn't have too much room to operate. His leadership has either gone underground or been arrested. And for all his railing against US forces, he still stands to lose more than he gains by breaking with the Maliki government and openly confronting Coalition forces.

So guess who's picking off the Al Mahdi hotheads who haven't just turned into independent rogue operators? That's right. Our good friends in Tehran.

My hunch is that Moqtada will pick a symbolic fight (ie. a limited confrontation with either another militia or American troops) sometime soon. Nothing drastic. Just enough to re-establish his control over his fighters without permanently backing himself into a corner.

In any event, something tells me that the Surge, which had a predictably positive initial impact, is about to get bumpy.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Know Your Enemy

Despite the fact that President Bush's two-term presidency will be almost exclusively defined by his response to the attacks of 9/11 and the so-called War on Terror, his characterizations of that struggle have never amounted to much more than hollow rhetoric and feeble catchphrases, often recycled from past conflicts, such as WWII and the Cold War, that have limited contemporary applications.

Which is why it's refreshing to find, in the spring issue of Parameters, a decent, informative treatment of the guiding ideology of our enemy in this struggle, as well as an analysis of the strategic calculations that have led them to target us for attack. Although it's titled "Qutbism: An Ideology of Islamic-Fascism", the author, Col. Dale Eikmeier, quickly acknowledges the limitations of the term:

While Islamic-Fascism immediately conjures up images of an evil to be resisted and is therefore useful as a public relations term, intellectually it does little for the serious students of Islam or the strategic planners charged with its defeat.

He then goes on to discuss the early 20th century roots of Qutbism, a form of militant, universalist, fundamentalist Islam that eschews formal clerical channels and historical interpretation in favor of the "pure" Islam practiced in the time of Mohamed.

He also explains that Al Qaeda represents a turning point in jihadist strategy, based on Osama Bin Laden's substitution of the "far enemy first" approach for what had until then been a focus on the "near enemy".

This shift was the result of careful strategic decisionmaking by al-Zawahiri and bin Laden. It is only natural to assume that the two compared the failures of the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, Egyptian Jihad, and other organizations to prevail over the “near enemy,” to the successes of the Afghan mujahideen in their victory over the Soviets. They reasonably concluded that the “far enemy” strategy was the wiser course of action.40

Advantages of Jihad against the infidel “far enemy.”

  • Unifies and rallies international Muslim support.
  • Allows greater sanctuary in supportive states.
  • Is easier to portray as the defense of Islam and a religious obligation.
  • Attacks the source of power behind “apostate regimes.”
  • Is easier because infidel countermeasures are limited and less effective

Disadvantages of Jihad against the “near enemy.”

  • Splits Muslims and localizes support.
  • Subjects the organization to more effective state security organs.
  • Geography and political factors limit internal sanctuary.
  • Local politics versus religious issues confuse the members and the people, weakening their resolve.
  • Western support to apostate regimes not affected.

For these reasons al Qaeda in the 1990s focused its efforts on the “far enemy” and the United States in particular. Zawahiri and bin Laden pushed a shift from small isolated extremists attacking local apostate regimes to clear-cut and unified jihad against infidels. The intent was not so much as to destroy the West, but rather to unify Muslim masses behind al Qaeda’s goals.

Surprisingly, among Eikmeier's strategic recommendations for combatting the Qutbist ideology, not one suggests a military approach, let alone solution, to the conflict. They basically amount to a campaign of outreach and persuasion, backed up by some coercive measures, all of which he argues must be carried out by the moderate Muslim societies of the region in order to have any credibility.

What's lacking is any real suggestion of what America can do, beyond a de rigeur championing of universal modern values, to counteract our enemies' well-conceived approach. Which means that six years post-9/11, we still don't have an effective strategy for winning the struggle we're in.

But at least we know who we're fighting. And that's a start.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   

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Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Sustainable Security

Unlike the Bush administration, which is doing everything in its power to downplay, if not outright deny, global warming, the US military is taking the threat it poses seriously. So much so, according to an article in Le Monde (French language), that it's developing new strategic approaches based on projections of climate change's impact.

Some of the scenarios they're considering include competition for water resources in the Indian sub-continent, a scramble to secure shipping lanes opened up by melting arctic ice shelves, aggravated climate-related instability in the oil-rich African continent, and massive population migrations.

As for adjustments, the military foresees three fundamental changes in strategic planning, according to Thomas Morehouse of the Institute for Defense Analysis:

"Prepare for a greater number of humanitarian operations and peacekeeping missions; adapt coastal infrastructures; elaborate a more efficient energy policy."

This last point is not insignificant: the American army is the world's biggest energy consumer, on which it spends almost $11 billion per year. Something that limits its flexibility:

"On the battlefield, 70% of the tonnage transported is fuel." (Translated from the French.)

Or as John Ackerman of the Air Force Staff College put it, "We'll have to slide from the War on Terror towards the new concept of Sustainable Security."

The good news is that as far as the military's concerned, the crises provoked by climate change do not necessarily mean heightened conflict. They could lead to cooperative efforts as various regional actors join together to confront common threats. The determining factor? What approach to energy policy we decide to take.

Posted by Judah in:  The Natural World   

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Tuesday, April 3, 2007

No Quid Pro Quo?

Patrick Cockburn claims, in The Independent, that Iran targeted "highly vulnerable Navy search parties in the Gulf", eventually leading to the capture and detention of the 15 British sailors now held in Tehran, as a result of an incident that took place this past January in the Iraqi Kurdistan city of Irbil (Arbil).

At that time, American forces raided an Iranian liaison office and detained five Iranian nationals. Iran, the Kurds and the Iraqi government formally protested, claiming the detained men were diplomats and the building a soon-to-be consulate. The US claimed the men were intelligence agents involved in targeting Coalition forces in Iraq.

Oddly enough, Cockburn fails to mention that just after the raid, American forces were engaged in a tense standoff with Kurdish Peshmerga forces as they tried to detain more people at the Irbil airport. He does, however, identify the targets of the two raids:

The two senior Iranian officers the US sought to capture were Mohammed Jafari, the powerful deputy head of the Iranian National Security Council, and General Minojahar Frouzanda, the chief of intelligence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, according to Kurdish officials.

The two men were in Kurdistan on an official visit during which they met the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, and later saw Massoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), at his mountain headquarters overlooking Arbil.

It's obviously impossible to know for sure if Cockburn's right. But in an interesting development, another Iranian diplomat who was "seized" two months ago by uniformed Iraqi soldiers considered to be under the direction of Coalition forces was just released.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Monday, April 2, 2007

Have We Won Yet?

It's Opening Day, the start of another season. Which, as I explained to a friend, is not such a big deal when you're a Yankee fan. Because whereas other teams still strain in the muck and mire of the baseball season, the Yankees have long since transcended into the rarified atmosphere of baseball history. Other teams may bask in the ephemeral glory of last season's success, and their fans hold out hope for the one to come. A Yankee fan barely notices them passing, so tuned in is he to the longterm narrative of the game. There's a reason why Hemingway's Old Man talks about the Mighty Yankees as he chases his mythic shark. What other team could hold up the weight of such an adjective?

But there's something else that keeps me from getting geared up for baseball season, or basketball season, or the NCAA Tournament. And J.C. Bradbury nails it in his NY Times op-ed titled "What Really Ruined Baseball": Expansion.

Between the deflation in the quality of the performances, the increase in the number of players, teams and playoff formulas to follow, and the bi-polar media coverage veering from pitch-by-pitch analysis to highlight reel hysteria, I don't even start paying attention until late August.

To me, baseball has always been about a certain kind of nostalgia, in its imagery if not always in its reality. So you can dismiss it as just the grumpy complaints of a purist. I just don't see how a town like Tampa Bay has a Major League franchise. Or Jacksonville an NFL football team. That's what Triple-A ball and the NCAA is for.

Posted by Judah in:  Hoops, Hardball & Fisticuffs   

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Monday, April 2, 2007

Leaving The Comfort Zone

Lest we forget amidst all the discussion of how to get out of Iraq, the case for going in, back when it was first targeted for invasion four years ago, was the threat that Saddam Hussein's WMD posed to America. Of course, there was never any doubt here in Europe that Iraq had been effectively disarmed. So to see reasonable, responsible people entertaining the notion to the contrary seemed like some sort of hysteria-induced collective delusion.

What was even more shocking, though, was the neocon vision that served as theoretical apologia for what was so obviously an elective war in violation not only of international law, but of common sense. Who in their right minds could have actually believed that invading Iraq was to be the first step in a glorious transformation of the Middle East into a regional alliance of liberal democracies?

As events have unfolded since then, I've only become more convinced that we've witnessed perhaps the greatest strategic blunder in American history. From the bungled occupation and savage sectarian bloodletting within Iraq, to the unleashing of Iranian influence throughout the region, everything that could have gone wrong has, and often to the worst degree possible.

And still, there are moments when a particular news item or a general trend leads me to consider the possibility that I'm wrong. Not about the past, which is a matter of historical record. But about the future, which is still susceptible to the element of surprise.

Now, before you start worrying that I've been re-programmed by The Weekly Standard crew, let me state for the record that no, I don't think there'll be a Prague Spring breaking out in Riyadh anytime soon. But when the Arab League reactivates a dormant comprehensive peace plan and Israel responds by proposing a regional peace conference, there does seem to be the hint of a paradigm shift, if not quite a glorious transformation, in the Middle East. Ironically, if it does materialize into real progress, it will be as a result of our disastrous failure in Iraq, rather than because of any success.

If it has accomplished nothing else, the American invasion of Iraq has disrupted the status quo that has governed the region, with brief interruptions, for the past generation. Specifically, the fear of Iran has proven to be the kind of motivation that the Saudis needed to move outside of their comfort zone. They began their recent diplomatic inititiative by heading off a civil war between Fatah and Hamas, moved on to shore up a strategic opposition to Syrian/Iranian influence in Lebanon, and just might cap it off with a comprehensive regional deal formally establishing peace and diplomatic relations between the moderate Arab states and Israel.

Of course, the one player missing from the table, the one who until now was considered indispensable to any hopes of striking a deal, is the US. Who could have ever imagined, four years ago, that a drastic reduction in America's strategic position and influence in the region would coincide with attempts at this kind of broad coalition-building? Certainly not the neocons. And, I admit, certainly not me.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Monday, April 2, 2007

Standoff Within A Standoff Within A Standoff

As Ray Tayekh pointed out in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Iran's leadership is far from monolithic. What's more, the familiar fault lines between factions of reformers and hardliners are increasingly overshadowed by growing tensions between "the elders of the revolution" and "their more assertive disciples."

Now The Times of London is reporting that not even the Revolutionary Guards, often protrayed as a radical, rogue element of the Iranian regime, is immune from the power struggles:

The fate of the 15 British marines and sailors held in Tehran may depend on the outcome of a power struggle between two of Iran’s top generals, write Uzi Mahnaimi and Marie Colvin.

According to an Iranian military source, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards has called for them to be freed.

Major-General Yahya Rahim Safavi is said to have told the country’s Supreme National Security Council on Friday that the situation was “getting out of control” and urged its members to consider the immediate release of the prisoners to defuse tension in the Gulf.

However, Safavi’s intervention was reportedly denounced by another senior general at a meeting of high-ranking commanders yesterday.

Yadollah Javani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ political bureau, was said to have accused him of weakness and “liberal tendencies”. Javani is said to have demanded that the prisoners be put on trial.

These kinds of divisions should come as no surprise, given the political polarization currently on display here in Washington. What's more, they're encouraging inasmuch as they suggest possible lines of approach for engaging Iran.

But they're not only reason for hope. A divided leadership, while offering potential interlocuters for dialogue, also increases the chances of precipitous escalation, as one faction tries to force the hand of its adversaries. The same internal divisions that could lead Iranian extremists to provoke hostilities with the US could lead the Bush administration to pre-empt Congress and public opinion by launching a unilateral strike on Iran's uranium enrichment program.

The significance of the international standoff between Britain and Iran lies in how it impacts the internal standoff within Iran's leadership. Which in turn could influence the broader standoff between Iran and the international community regarding its uranium enrichment program. How the crisis is resolved will tell us alot about what the future holds for the Persian Gulf.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   

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Sunday, April 1, 2007

Deferred Maintenance

This LA Times article gives a good status report on all the political benchmarks that the Iraqi government was supposed to meet in order to justify the ongoing surge of American troops. Upshot? Don't hold your breath.

In fact, all of the much-touted political progress in Iraq turns out to be a hodge-podge of deferred decisions (the Kirkuk referendum), promised revisions (Sunni misgivings over the constitution), and pigeon-holed legislation (oil-sharing, amnesty, disbanding the militias), all cobbled together and promptly swept under the rug.

The good news is that the Iraqi battalions reporting to Baghdad for the surge are no longer arriving at 60-65% troop levels.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Sunday, April 1, 2007

What A Difference A Year Makes

Did you catch these three headlines?

Kind of hard not to notice them, given that the standoff between Congress and the White House over the Iraq War funding bill has been all over the news. The only thing is, these headlines are all about the Iraq War funding bill... from 2006. Here's a good quote from an April 25 WaPo article that described the bill hitting the Senate floor:

The measure is expected to eventually pass with ease, but not before the Senate takes ample time to discuss Iraq policy, gasoline prices and lawmakers' appetites for homestate projects.

And in fact, that's just what it did, so much so that the President threatened a veto, and a June 7 WaPo article titled "Deal Elusive On Iraq, Hurricane Aid Bill" included the following paragraph:

A Pentagon money crunch is worsening almost daily, but there won't be a crisis if Congress fails to clear the legislation by the end of the week.

An agreement was eventually reached the following day, almost four months after the President's initial appropriations request. So why didn't the President claim that Congress was playing politics with the safety of the troops, as he's done this year? And why didn't the Pentagon brass roll out a media campaign about the impact on troop readiness, as they've done this year? And why hasn't anyone referred to this in the coverage of the current showdown?

Update: UPI is reporting that according to the Congressional Research Service, there is absolutely no funding shortage for the war effort:

In a careful review of U.S. Army data and the Defense Department's existing legal authorities, non-partisan budget experts at CRS informed Congress the Army could maintain its wartime operations well into July 2007 with funds already provided.

Remember, the President's first response to the House's bill was to call it "political theater." 

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Sunday, April 1, 2007

Some Deal

David Kurtz did a real good rundown on some of the backchannel politicking that apparently went into making David Hicks' Gitmo plea deal go down. Among the striking coincidences? The length of the gag order imposed, which just happens to take Australian PM John Howard past his re-election bid later this year.

Here's the full transcript of the agreement. Among all the glaring assaults on veracity, this one stands out:

No person or persons have made any attempt to force or coerce me into making this offer or to plead guilty. This is a free and voluntary decision on my part made with full knowledge of its meaning and effect.

But what really adds insult to injury is this clause, which basically amounts to a lifetime sentence of watching your back:

I agree that for the remainder of my natural life, should the Government of the United States determine that I have engaged in conduct proscribed by Sections 950q through w. of Chapter 47A of title 10, United States Code, after the date of the signing of this Pretrial Agreement, the Government of the United States may immediately invoke any right it has at that time to capture and detain me, outside the nation of Australia and its territories, as an unlawful enemy combatant. (Emphasis added.)

The message is clear: Keep your mouth shut, don't cause us any trouble, and we'll leave you alone. But just in case you get any ideas, remember: We'll be keeping your orange jumpsuit ready.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Sunday, April 1, 2007

When Everyone's Backed Into A Corner

There were signs yesterday that the standoff over the 15 British sailors captured and detained by Iran was beginning to ratchet down a notch or two. Reports out of Tehran revealed the first signs of disagreement between the hardline Revolutionary Guards who carried out the operation and the ayatollahs who run the country, specifically over whether or not to release Faye Turney, the lone woman captive, as a gesture of good faith.

Meanwhile, the Sunday Telegraph reported that Britain was preparing to send an envoy to Tehran, and a defense official was quoted as saying:

We are quite prepared to give the Iranians a guarantee that we would never knowingly enter their waters without their permission, now or in the future.

We are not apologising, nor are we saying that we entered their waters in the first place. But it may offer a route out of the crisis.

But there were also signs that things could still get bumpy. After keeping a low profile for the past week, President Bush finally offered his first extensive comments on the matter, calling the capture of the sailors "inexcusable" and stating, "The Iranians must give back the hostages."

The same article also quoted remarks that Iran's President Ahmadinejad made in a speech, remarks that seemed to signal a hardening of the Iranian position:

"The British occupier forces did trespass our waters. Our border guards detained them with skill and bravery,'' Iran's official news agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying. "But arrogant powers, because of their arrogant and selfish spirit, are claiming otherwise.''

And in Tehran, police had to physically prevent protesters from entering the compound of the British embassy yesterday.

All in all, although it's in everyone's best interests to de-escalate and peaceably resolve the conflict, it's becoming the kind of situation that could spiral out of control, mainly because of the inherent weakness of everyone involved:

  1. Iran is using the show of national resolve to counter both their inability to keep British and American forces from entering their territory, and their increasing international isolation over their uranium enrichment program.
  2. Britain must balance the affront to its national honor with the fact that it has very few effective options for forcing Tehran's hand.
  3. And the United States can't risk disrupting the gathering consensus opposing Iran's uranium enrichment program by any heavyhanded involvement in a matter that ostensibly doesn't really involve them.

In other words, everyone's boxed into a corner, which is usually when people do desperate things. There's no shortage of third parties who have offered themselves up as mediators. Hopefully someone will have the sense to bring them in, otherwise things could get volatile.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   

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