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December, 2007

Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year

I'm about to head off and celebrate New Year's Eve. Best wishes for a joyful, healthy and prosperous 2008. See you all next year!

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Methinks They Doth Protesteth Too Much

Wow. This little conference out in Oklahoma has sure brought out the heavy artillery. Steve Benen calls it "a solution in search of a problem", David Kurtz writes it off as "another round of holding hands and singing the praises of bipartisan unity", Steve Clemons says that it's (probably) "a waste of time and a fuzzy distraction", and Matthew Yglesias goes for the jugular with the ole "(X+Y)/2 percent of GDP".

They all point out that for now, the meeting (and Bloomberg's testing of the presidential waters) amount to empty platitudes about bi-partisanship with no substantial policy prescriptions. And in that, none of them are wrong, even if criticizing politicians for empty platitudes doesn't seem like the most challenging of pursuits. But it says a lot that, of them all, Steve Clemons comes closest to being right when he calls for more rebels and dissidents in one paragraph, and is willing to settle for pragmatism and realism in another.

The problem is the rhetoric that the meeting's organizers have chosen, which recycles the very same errors I saw made by Francois Bayrou, the French centrist candidate for president who came from out of nowhere last spring to almost pull off what would have been a stunning first round upset. What kept him from actually succeeding was that at the height of his surge in the polls, he suddenly shifted from effective attacks on both the left and right to the language of bi-partisanship. Even worse, he began insisting that he was neither left nor right, without ever formulating just what he was. Unfortunately, claiming you're neither left nor right means you're neutered, as a psychoanalyst aquaintance pointed out in a conversation at the time, and you need a pair (or at least the temperamental equivalent if you're a woman) to win elections.

There's a difference between bi-partisanship and independent on the one hand, and redefining what we now think of as the middle into an autonomous political force on the other. The calculus for such a force being viable as a party depends on two things: 1) whether moderate Republicans decide that they have more policy priorities in common with moderate Dems than they do with the rabid base of the fraying GOP coalition; and, 2) whether moderate Dems decide that it's a more promising longterm political proposition than the status quo.

Of course, a lot depends on circumstances. Should Obama win the Democratic nomination, the question is moot and this meeting isn't even remembered as a blip on the radar. Should he lose, however, and should Bloomberg be motivated by more than just presidential ambitions, the two of them, with Hagel, represent the kinds of personalities that could redefine the American political landscape in the same way that Ronald Reagan did.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Kosovo Countdown

Somewhat neglected amid all the attention being given to events in Pakistan, over which we have limited influence, is the approaching endgame for the Kosovo impasse, over which we have enormous influence. As things stand, it's looking increasingly likely that come the new year, the US, the EU, and NATO are going to bypass the UN Security Council, where Russia has threatened a veto, and serve as guarantors of the breakaway Serbian province's unilateral declaration of independence. Here's how Mikhail Gorbachev described the Western approach:

"It is an unprecedented step, which will certainly result in failure, both politically and morally," Gorbachev said in an interview with the government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

"For the first time in history, two organizations are trying to assume responsibility for the future of a country - Serbia - which is not a member of either of them."

Serbia has already threatened retaliatory measures in the event of a unilateral declaration of independence, including suspending its membership proceedings for acceding to the EU. And as Dimitri Simes explained in this excellent IHT op-ed, the standoff has even broader implications for the West's relationship with Russia. If Kosovo serves as a precedent, it could legitimize the eventual absorption by Russia of two separatist Georgian provinces, which is why the West is trying to treat it as a one-off "policy by exception". But its heavy-handed dissection of Serbia's territorial integrity would deal Russia another humiliation at a moment when Moscow increasingly feels the need to demonstrate its resurgent influence.

I'll be writing more about this, not only because it represents a giant hornets' nest in practical terms. It also presents a lot of food for thought on theoretical levels. Addressing the potential atomization of multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian states deserves to be on the short list of our foreign policy priorities, right up there with global warming and nuclear proliferation. And whether we like it or not, how we handle Kosovo will of course determine a precedent, so exploring some its broader implications seems worthwhile. But for now I just wanted to get this up and into the mix.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   International Relations   Russia   

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Blogging The Louvre

Today I walked to the other side of the Seine, descended into the glass pyramid and bought my "Friends of the Louvre" membership. It's the first step towards what will become a weekly feature, starting next Monday, similar to Michael Plotz's "Blogging the Bible" series that Slate ran this past year. By "blogging" a room of the Louvre each week until I've covered them all, I'll attempt to convey a sense of the art, the artists, the stories and the histories represented. But more than that, I'll also be trying to deconstruct the very experience of visiting a museum, especially one as celebrated as the Louvre.

The project will be one of discovery for myself, as well. My art credentials are limited to an Art History 101 class I took at Stanford University with Albert Elsen in 1987, and a year spent working alongside a group of brilliant (and, yes, starving) artists at the MoMA bookstore in NY the following year. In addition to forming many of my attitudes towards art, that year at MoMA also enamored me of museums in general, and a certain type of museum experience in particular: the extended occupation of a space that is meant to be passed through.

That's something I'll try to capture in this series. By becoming a fixed and recurrent observer, I'll really be letting the room itself lead me to the story. Some weeks it'll be a painting, others a painter; sometimes I'll dive into the story on a canvas, other times it will be the story behind the canvas. Some weeks, though, the story might be a visitor I meet during my visit, or else a museum employee, or maybe even the collector who donated the work to the museum. I'll combine the experience of the visit with whatever research it inspires me to do afterwards, and as much as possible, I'll include images of the work I'm dealing with.

Depending on how it goes, I might spin this off into its own blog. For the time being, though, it will be here each Monday as a little time out from the discussion of global events. Hope you enjoy it.

Posted by Judah in:  Blogging The Louvre   

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Hammers And Nails

Ever since I read this Matthew Yglesias post about America's fixation on political personalities -- in this case Benazir Bhutto -- in determining its foreign policy, the following phrase has been buzzing around in my head: History might be determined by leaders, but policy is determined by interests. Of course, notwithstanding her checkered past and her uncertain democratic bona fides as a leader, Benazir Bhutto did, in fact, represent the best bet for American interests in Pakistan. In fact, according to some analysts, her vocal support for a hardline against Islamic extremists and openness to American military operations in the Pakistan-Afghan border area were more likely to get her elected in Washington than in Islamabad.

But the related question, which Steve Clemons raised here (see the Brzezinski quote), is what role America should play in the internal politics of other countries. The question itself has only limited application. Obviously, when France or England (or Portugal for that matter) choose their head of state, America doesn't exert its influence one way or the other. We wait for the electoral outcome and adapt to the winner. If it's someone we're comfortable with, so much the better. If not, we make due.

But then there's a whole slew of countries where America feels it has both the capacity and the obligation to intervene. The former, as demonstrated by events in Pakistan, is debatable. The latter is a legacy of the Cold War, where American interests were calculated in the context of a US-Soviet zero-sum game. The immediate consequence of 9/11 was to provide a needed replacement for the Cold War logic of American intervention, putting an end to America's brief flirtation with the idea of a post-American global order, where the "reluctant policeman" would somehow enforce the world's interests as opposed to its own. The world that emerged on September 12, 2001 had suddenly been re-polarized along the paranoid/hysterical neocon faultline of "us vs. them".

Over the past six years, our efforts to force the world's multi-polar pegs into bi-polar holes have led to a string of strategic miscalculations. At the same time that we've abandoned efforts to re-construct and solidify failed states, we've interfered with, undermined or overthrown functioning, if abhorrent, ones. Now it's time to apply more intelligence and restraint to our foreign policy. We still have regional interests around the globe, and we should still advance them forcefully. But we need to begin with the assumption that we can determine neither the leadership nor the policy priorities of the countries we're dealing with. There are just too many moving pieces and the necessary logic to organize them all into a coherent whole is too complex.

As the old saw would have it, when all you've got is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail. It's perhaps understandable that the trauma and shock of 9/11 caused America, in looking at all the varied tools in its kit, to see only hammers. Somewhere in there, there's an old forgotten jigsaw that we could probably use right about now. But it might even be too limiting to think of our foreign policy as a toolbox. What we need today is more a maestro's baton.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"To use the language of values, the West continues 'advancing democracy' towards the Russian borders, but the language of interests unfortunately indicates that this all looks very much like an 'encirclement'."

-- Russian Senator Mikhail Margelov, describing Russian-American relations.

Posted by Judah in:  Quote Of The Day   

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Bloodline Democracy

To give a sense of just what kind of Pakistani democratic tradition Benazir Bhutto represented, I heard a French commentator on the nightly news explain that her husband probably would have been elected to take her place at the head of the PPP "...if only he had Bhutto blood in his veins." As it is, he'll have to be satisfied with the position of regent to his and Bhutto's nineteen year-old son, Bilawal.

Meanwhile, Democratic candidates who competed to see who could come up with the most callous use of Bhutto's assassination for political advantage all lost out to Nawaf Sharif. Here's how a spokesman for his party explained its decision to compete in upcoming legislative elections instead of boycotting them as planned:

"If they (PPP) don't mind contesting elections after Benazir Bhutto's assassination, then there is no point in our boycotting general elections."

Late word is that they'll probably be postponed by the Pakistani electoral commission tomorrow.

Posted by Judah in:  Pakistan   

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Taxing Wealth

Regular reader and frequent commenter Gerald Scorse has a guest post on tax policy over at Voices of Reason that's worth a read. While I agree with his overall argument -- that longterm capital gains should be taxed at a higher rate than income from work -- I have to take issue with this claim, which I've seen elsewhere as well:

Billions of shares change hands daily on the major exchanges. On any given day, only a minute fraction of those shares grows anything. Days can pass without a bona fide investment; the sounds you hear are aftermarket noise and the closing bell.

In short, "investors" do not grow jobs (except in the financial sector). The seed money that nourishes start-ups and expansions comes from a tiny subset of real investors; the rest of us merely place our bets at the tables down on Wall Street. 

While it's true that only IPO's actually generate revenue for a company issuing stock, the market capitalization resulting from rising stock prices can create a more favorable credit environment for a company to invest in expanding its business. So aftermarket investors do contribute, albeit indirectly, to economic expansion.

Posted by Judah in:  Markets & Finance   

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Viral Video

In reading through Steve Benen's guest post over at Washington Monthly about why the CIA recorded the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah and then erased the tapes, it suddenly occurred to me that there's got to be a copy of those tapes somewhere. An unauthorized copy, an edited copy, a low resolution copy, whatever. In the age of digital files, it just doesn't seem plausible to me that they managed to erase every last byte. Hell, it wouldn't even surprise me if some of it's been uploaded to YouTube. But somewhere a copy of that footage exists.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Fourth Way

Taegan Goddard calls this a gathering to discuss an Independent presidential candidacy. And indeed, among the attendees are Mike Bloomberg and Chuck Hagel, two guys Steve Clemons has been mentioning as a possible Independent ticket for a while now. But as I said with regards to Barack Obama not so long ago, the time is ripe for more than just a bi-partisan approach to politics or an isolated independent presidential campaign. A viable third party based on a preponderence of restraint seasoned with a dose of intelligent intervention in both domestic and foreign policy could permanently house a broad coalition across the center of American politics, leaving the one-trick ponies on both sides of the political spectrum braying in the wind.

In many ways, Bill Clinton laid the groundwork for just such a party on the left side of the center by rehabilitating fiscal responsibility and the responsible use of military intervention in Democratic politics. Counterintuitively, George W. Bush laid the groundwork on the right side of the center by utterly bankrupting the GOP's credibility among voters who aren't insane. Obama, Bloomberg and Hagel are the kinds of guys that could now build that party, assuming none of them is sitting in the White House come January 2009.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Afghan Awakening

A few weeks ago I flagged a report in the English press about Gordon Brown being ready to announce a new Afghanistan strategy, calling for among, other things, using large sums of money to buy the allegiance of negotiating with Taliban leaders. Brown subsequently chickened out about the announcement, but as the Telegraph reported a few days ago, not before giving the new strategy a try. As a result, a British diplomat working for the UN and an Irish diplomat working for the EU were politely tossed out of the country earlier this week.

At the time, I made two observations about Brown's proposal: 1) it was sure to put him pretty high up on the Bush administration's shit list; and 2) it's time to re-examine the logic of the War in Afghanistan. As for the first, the Telegraph further reports that the two diplomats were expelled at the request of the US and thanks to intelligence provided by the CIA.

As for the second, there seems to be a logical inconsistency in the US position of promoting an Anbar Awakening in Iraq while at the same time opposing a Helmand Awakening in Afghanistan. The Taliban only posed a threat to America in so much as they harbored Al Qaeda training camps. Now that Pakistan has taken over that function, the Taliban amount to a bunch of tribal warlords resisting a foreign occupation of their country, much like the Sunni tribes in Iraq. Either we take the job of re-constructing the country and the authority of the Afghan central government seriously, or else we sub-contract the security function to local players. But to do neither seems like the worst possible option.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Playing Both Sides

A few days ago, the Turkish Daily News reported (and Ha'aretz followed up) on an Israeli-operated drone system that the Turkish air force is using to target its strikes against the PKK. The leased Heron UAV, along with its Israeli operating team, is a stopgap measure put in place as a result of delivery delays in a deal between the Turkish air force and Israel Aerospace Industries. The planes, ordered in 2004 in a deal reportedly worth several hundred million dollars, were scheduled to be delivered in October, but have been delayed until at least next year.

The report demonstrates the significant challenges posed not only by Turkey's hot conflict with the PKK but also by its cold conflict with Iraqi Kurdistan. Like the US, Israel is trying to play both sides of the border, developing security ties with Iraqi Kurds at the same time that it's trying to maintain its traditionally close relationship with Turkey. And like the US, Israel is trying balance Turkey's demands for security co-operation against the PKK with a desire to avoid alienating the Kurds, who are paying customers sitting on lucrative oil reserves.

In the long term, whether or not the US and Israel will be forced to pick a side will depend on just how far towards an independent state the Kurds are determined to go. Turkey also has enormous trade and development investments in Iraqi Kurdistan and has every reason to seek cordial relations. The Kurdish parliament just agreed to another six-month postponement of the Kirkuk referendum, which kicks a potentially explosive can a bit further down the road.

But in the short term, the major sticking point is how to deal with the PKK. And Turkey's heavy-handed winter air campaign against PKK mountain positions risks putting everyone on the spot.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Looking Back

The end of 2007 coincides roughly with Headline Junky's first anniversary, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to give you all a little rundown on just how the site's doing. Readership, while still modest and decidedly quiet in terms of comments, has nonetheless grown steadily throughout the year. It's a real source of satisfaction to know that those of you who check in regularly appreciate the work I put into the site enough to have made it a part of your day. So first and foremost, I'd like to thank you.

Of course, much of the site's growth in readership is due to the exposure it has enjoyed on various high-traffic blogs. Since its launch last January, Headline Junky has been cited or linked to by Andrew Sullivan, Kevin Drum, Wonkette, Crooks and Liars, Noah Shachtman at Danger Room, Matthew Yglesias, Ezra Klein, Jeff Sharlet at The Revealer, and Barry Ritholz, as well as by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune (where I'm considered a "conservative blogger" -- go figure). It has also been permanently blogrolled by Andrew Sullivan, Laura Rozen, Small Wars Journal, Jason Sigger at Armchair Generalist, Melissa Rogers, Voices of Reason and Bastard Logic. So a big thanks to all of you, as well.

A final word about just what it is I do here, which has become clearer to me after a year of doing it. On its most basic level, it amounts to reading a wide variety of news sources and commentary from around the world, and distilling what I consider the most essential items into a combination blog/news wire. But the simple act of keeping abreast of what's going on in the world over the course of a year has in turn evolved into something else. Part of it involves identifying global crises and hotspots before they've shown up on the mainstream radar. Part of it involves spotting patterns in seemingly unrelated news events that when taken as a whole represent something more noteworthy. And part of it involves combining the two to arrive at some sort of analysis about America's role in the world. Just what I think that role should be has evolved considerably as a result of my work on the site, and that, for me, has been its most rewarding aspect.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

These Go To Eleven

It seems that after some early confusion, America has finally come to its senses and decided that the moral of the story of Dr. Seuss' "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" is... the lights!

I can only imagine world reaction:

Riyadh: Ka-ching!! Yes!!
Baghdad: Uhhh... got any to spare, guys?
The Caves of Waziristan: Targeting systems are now operational, Sir.
Hollywood (via Crackberry): I know! Joe Satriani royalties in 2007! Luv-in' it!

(Video via The Armchair Generalist.)

Posted by Judah in:  Say What?   

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Oscar Peterson

I just learned that Oscar Peterson, the man Duke Ellington called "the Maharaja of the keyboard", died over the holiday. Barry Ritholz has got an informative Friday Evening Jazz obituary, with links, discography and some video embeds. Peterson's playing was unequalled for the sheer volume of its melodic substance, which he achieved with swoops, dives, and cascading falls of note after glistening note. But he also had touch, range, and depth to back up the virtuosity. It's hard to think that Oscar Peterson has run out of notes. There always seemed to be one more ready to splash across the ivories.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   

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Friday, December 28, 2007

The Smokefilled Room

So you think you're confused about the impact Thursday's Iowa caucuses will have on the outcome of the presidential campaign, try explaining what they mean to a French listener. Once you've pointed out that Iowa is representative of the country in neither demographics nor economy, and that it plays no role to speak of in the nation's cultural life, and that the only other time it's mentioned in the course of national politics is never again for another four years, you're left with the obvious question of just how it's become the traditional arbiter of who will be the next president of the United States. Adding as an afterthought that the foregoing is also true for the New Hampshire primaries only renders the moment -- wherein both of you ponder the inescapable conclusion that the entire world really does suffer the consequences of the American electoral process -- even more awkward and self-conscious.

That said, Iowa really doesn't decide everything. In fact, if you look at the list of past winners, not only does it not decide everything, it decides close to nothing. The historical case for an Iowa surprise is of course Jimmy Carter's stunning 1976 loss to first-place finisher "Uncommitted". But if you take a look at that particular list of nominees, any one of them finishing runner-up to "None of the above" would have qualified as a surprise. After that, in two elections that could be qualified as wide open, 1988 and 2004, the Democratic Party's ultimate nominee finished third (Dukakis) and first (Kerry) respectively. The Republican outcomes reveal no clear pattern either.

Iowa is more of a political Rorshcach test than a deciding contest. It means what we want it to mean. Expectations going in, organization and financing coming out, the media's preferred storylines all play as much a role as the vote count. So now I'm ready for a prediction. Barring some stunning landslide blowout that seems unlikely, Iowa will decide nothing. A handful of candidates competing for cabinet level appointments will drop out. Besides that, the campaign will look remarkably similar the day after the caucuses as it did the day before. We'll be asking the same questions (electability) about the same candidates (Hillary, Obama, the entire GOP field) with just as little certainty about the answers.

And no, I don't think New Hampshire is likely to change that either. For different reasons, the two parties will have a hard time deciding on a nominee this year, the GOP because of a lack of solid candidates, the Democrats because of a wealth of them. So while some have called this the "change" election, I think it will be more of a "throwback" election: In a binary primary campaign with an early break, the convention becomes an imprimatur; in a triangulated primary with no early break, which looks at least possible for both parties, the convention becomes a negotiation.

It makes for better theater, but the implications for American democracy are obviously troubling. So I sure hope I'm wrong. But I've got a sneaking suspicion that I'm not.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Benazir Bhutto

I'd been adding a grain or two of salt to media coverage of Benazir Bhutto's return to Pakistan, given the darling status she enjoys in the Western press and her corruption-tarnished past. Needless to say, the news of her assassination put all that in perspective. Whatever her flaws, she was a courageous woman who refused to let cowards intimidate her into silence. And in so doing, she denied her murderers any possible claim to victory in the battle of images that goes hand in hand with terrorist violence.

Ultimately, it's up to the Pakistani people now to decide just how much and what kind of an impact her murder has on the future of their country. I've read some dire forecasts of chaos and violence. Hopefully it becomes a catalyst for unity and cohesion. But whatever meaning Pakistan ultimately takes from Bhutto's life and death, the rest of us would do well to remember her for her fearlessness in this metaphorical age of terror.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Pakistan   

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Paper Papers

Just a quick note to let you know that posting has been light due to a combination of no internet access, tired eyes, a 24-hour flu bug, and a desire to check out for a bit. I just took the TGV (high-speed train) back to Paris and enjoyed that almost obsolete pleasure of reading three honest-to-goodness newpapers. The ones made out of paper. Of course, I marked up the articles that caught my eye, so I'll get some of them linked to and opinionated on tonight. I'll also be doing some posting this weekend, with the goal of getting things back to normal next week.

Hope everyone had a great holiday.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Big Tent

I'll be travelling tomorrow, heading off for the holidays. So I'd like to wish everyone who celebrates it a very Merry Christmas. And to everyone who doesn't, have a Happy Holiday Season. (Note to Mike Huckabee: See how easy that was?)

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Global Awakening

Kevin Drum already took care of what the Maliki government's promise to disband armed Sunni groups once they've calmed "restive areas" means for our efforts at establishing a stable Iraqi state. So I'll limit my observations to the fact that defining "Awakened" as "pointing the weapons you bought with our money at somebody other than us" is obviously incompatible with the notion of a central government with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Our enthusiasm for it as a method reveals not only the legal fiction that is the current Iraqi central government, but also our acceptance that arriving at a more legitimate replacement will almost certainly require the outbreak of a full-scale Iraqi Civil War.

On a broader level, though, the Anbar Awakening model needs to be understood as part of an emerging temptation in American foreign policy circles to accept the fragmentation of multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian states to their lowest common denominator. An outright Iraqi Civil War will almost certainly result in the partition of Iraq into three separate states, even if the degree to which they'll be federated remains to be seen. That's the direction the Anbar Awakening model leads to, and that's how it needs to be understood when it's proposed for defusing the insurgencies in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan.

The problem in Iraq is similar to that of Kosovo, namely that there are other regional powers that have interests diametrically opposed to ours. Just as Russia has its reasons to oppose the Western-backed unilateral declaration of independence in Kosovo, so do Turkey and Iran have vested interests in preventing the emergence of a Kurdish region that increasingly resembles an independent nation-state. The same can be said for Pakistan and Iran vis a vis Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas.

America's fatigue with nation-building is understandable. But if accepting the atomization of failed states simply displaces the instability of local conflicts to the regional rivalries between global power, we run the risk of trading shortterm tactical convenience for longterm strategic advantage.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iraq   

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Back To The Figurative Drawing Board

Via Frank Lockwood at Bible Belt Blogger comes this article in the Boston Phoenix which definitively debunks the claim that Mitt Romney's father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Detroit in 1963:

On Sunday, June 23, 1963, 125,000 people marched down Detroit's Woodward Avenue to the Civic Center, in what was described at the time as the largest civil-rights demonstration in the nation's history. According to the next day's account in the Holland Evening Sentinel , the crowd at the Center "lustily booed," when representatives of Governor George W. Romney read a proclamation declaring "Freedom March Day in Michigan."

But Martin Luther King Jr. didn't fault Romney for his absence, which the governor ascribed to his policy against public appearances on the Sabbath. "At a news conference following the march... [King] refused to criticize Romney for not attending the demonstration," the Sentinel reported.

The most unfortunate consequence of Mitt Romney's lying about his father's historical record is that it ends up diminishing its significance. Here's Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University, also quoted in the Phoenix article:

"Issuing the proclamation, and sending his personal representatives, was probably more than 49 other governors would have been willing to do at that time...It took considerable courage."

There was a brief moment where it appeared that Mitt Romney had tried to explain away his "figurative" use of the expression "I saw my father march with MLK" too early. It's now clear that he did so because he knew he'd been caught telling a whopper.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Decision Time

Turkey bombs PKK camps in northern Iraq, a spokesman for the Peshmerga militia declares that they'll defend Kurdish civilians in the event of an incursion, and what looked like a successfully resolved crisis creeps back into the red zone.

Meanwhile, air attacks being the most inflammatory and least effective method of counterinsurgency, you've got to wonder what's happened to flip the switch in the Turkish decision-making circles that they'd basically toss aside six months of skillful diplomacy for what amounts to playing with matches in a powder keg. A stable Iraqi Kurdistan currently occupies at least the top three positions on America's foreign policy priority list, so if the Turks are trying to force us into making a longterm strategic choice between them and the Iraqi Kurds, they seem to be going about it in a way, and at a time, that guarantees we choose the latter.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Circling The Water

I flagged these two articles last night but was a bit too bleary-eyed to comment on them. The first, from The Times of India, discusses France's interest in forging civil nuclear energy ties with India. The second, from The People's Daily Online, discusses the status of the stalled deal between Russia and India by which Russia would construct four civil nuclear reactors, in addition to the two already under way, at India's Koodankulam site.

Both arrangements, like the US-India deal, depend on India arriving at an agreement with the IAEA that would create an "India-specific" inspection regime, including an intrusive Additional Protocol. But as the IPS News wire reported, those discussions have hit a snag over India's insistence on an "uninterrupted supply" clause which would allow it to create a stockpile of nuclear fuel for use in the event of a disruption of imported supplies. The concern is that the stockpile would immunize India against sanctions in the event of, among other things, a nuclear weapons test, thereby undermining the IAEA's leverage that is about the only incentive, from the point of view of non-proliferation, for creating the India-specific status in the first place.

The entire situation reveals not only how fierce the competition over India's civilian nuclear energy market is, but also the tension that the lucrative market worldwide is placing on the increasingly fragile non-proliferation regime. For the time being, everyone has agreed to pay lip service to the IAEA's regulatory role under the NPT. But the IAEA has already reported Iran to the UN Security Council for non-compliance with its intrusive inspection obligations, which didn't keep Russia from delivering the first batch of nuclear fuel to the Bushehr reactor this week. Under such circumstances, France's rapid acceleration of its "nuclear checkbook diplomacy" is cause for concern. (It has already announced plans to supply Morocco and Libya with nuclear reactors, and its flagship nuclear power group, Areva, recently declared its goal of supplying a third of the reactors set to go online worldwide between now and 2030).

India obviously represents a major challenge to the non-proliferation regime, and as such, efforts to bring it into semi-compliance should not be rejected out of hand. With so many sharks circling the water, sometimes a less good solution is preferable to a very bad one. But semi-compliance is not the same as a legal fiction. And the worst possible outcome would be for an India-specific deal to serve as a disincentive for other countries to take the NPT seriously.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Let's You And Him Fight

In an Asia Times Online article, M K Bhadrakumar argues that Russia's tactical alliance with Iran must principally be understood in the context of the rivalry between Washington and Moscow for Eurasian energy supplies and transit points. Specifically, Europe's growing dependence on gas that either comes from or travels through Russia runs the risk of splintering the strategic interests of the Atlantic alliance. That's why Washington has been intent on encircling and containing Russia's resurgence, and Moscow on tightening its grip on gas fields and pipelines leading to Europe.

Iran represents a potential wedge, since by directing their gas supplies to the European market they weaken Russia's leverage. Russia's cooperative line with Tehran on bi-lateral energy policy is designed to divide the pie (Russian gas to Europe, Iranian gas to Asia) in such a way to maximize both countries' influence and triangulate America's strategic alliances.

But nothing about the Russian-Iranian tactical arrangement gives the impression that it's an indelible longterm alignment. So strategically, it seems intuitively obvious that Washington's got to decide on one of two options: either a broad deal with Russia, or a broad deal with Iran. But to ratchet up the pressure on both of them simultaneously will surely result in driving them even further into each other's arms.

Which leads me to wonder if American strategic thinking isn't at a natural disadvantage compared to countries where instead of a two-party system in domestic politics, there are multi-party parliamentary coalitions that make a political calculus of "You're either with us or against us" inconceivable.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Written In China

The People's Daily Online offers the top ten catchphrases used by Chinese media in talking about the Chinese economy, along with brief explanatory passages that I've excerpted. It's a fascinating glimpse of how this white-hot economy perceives itself:

"Sound and fast"

...The emphasis on "sound" demonstrated the central government's determination in accelerating the shift of economic growth mode and realizing a comprehensive, balanced and sustainable development of the national economy...


Huge rises in food prices lifted the nation's consumer price index to an 11-year high of 6.9 percent in November...

The price increases were deemed as "structural and temporary in nature" because the rises were not caused by an imbalance between general social demand and supply. But it was widely believed that China was entering a period when inflation would keep rising...

Excess liquidity

...Affected by imbalance in the world economy, China has been bothered by mounting trade surplus that resulted in huge foreign exchange reserves and the banking system's credit initiative...

Yuan appreciation

...The yuan has appreciated about 11 percent since China de-pegged it from the U.S. dollar in July 2005.

Some critics said that the yuan was undervalued, something which gave China exporters an unfair price advantage. It was also a main reason for the massive trade imbalance between China and its major trading partners...

Interest rates

...On Thursday, the central bank raised interest rates for the sixth time this year to cool the economy after inflation accelerated at its quickest pace since1996.

Such frequent rate hikes have been rarely seen in history...The monetary policies, in the form of "combination punches" as described by analysts, aimed at strengthening the currency and guiding investment growth...

Stock market

...A bullish market calls for discipline and rationality. China Securities Regulatory Commission Chairman Shang Fulin has said, generally speaking, China's capital market was still in the primary stage of continuous and solid development.

He pointed out that the key task at present, and for some time to come, was to "accurately grasp the development rule and features of the capital market, strive to develop the capital market and raise the proportion of direct financing".

Property income

This statistical term was used in the report delivered at the 17th Party Congress...

The original statement in the report read "conditions will be created to enable more citizens to have property income"...

Energy and emission

...In 2007, a turning point appeared for the first time in the aspect of energy conservation and emission reduction. In the first three quarters, energy consumption per unit of GDP dropped three per cent and the discharges of both sulfur dioxide and chemical oxygen demand dropped for the first time.

It seemed the nation would achieve the goal in the Outline of the 11th Five-Year Plan -- "from 2006 to 2010, we will achieve the goal of reducing the energy consumption per unit of GDP by around 20 per cent and the total emission of major pollutants by 10 per cent"...

Economic legislation

...The economic lawmaking has been deepened from the level of the framework legislation. It has paid more attention to the establishment of the system and standardization of rights and responsibilities, as well as protection of rights and benefits.

Made in China

"Made in China" -- a term familiar to people of numerous countries around the world -- suffered from an unprecedented "confidence crisis" this year.

The blasting fuse was the recall of China-made toys by Mattel Inc. It was followed by the fact that Chinese exporters encountered quality problems with their toys, toothpastes and foods.

The reasons for the recalls were not just quality defects because behind them were standard disputes, technical barriers, trade protection and the playing-up of media coverage.

However, China was determined to restore the confidence in "China-made" products with a four-month nationwide special campaign for rectification of product quality and food safety.

The Chinese leadership has officially signaled the shift from economic growth to economic development. So it's not surprising to see the emphasis on legal and regulatory infrastructure, as well as the warnings against the pitfalls of excess cash and inflation.

The world has gotten used to double-digit Chinese growth rates over the past ten years. But that can't go on forever. Still, given that China is a cash-importing country, what would a Chinese economic crisis do to the world economy? Any economists who happen to read this, consider that an invitation to weigh in. I'll bump any insightful Comments into an update to the post.

Posted by Judah in:  China   

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Friday, December 21, 2007

In Defense Of The Asterisk

Everyone seems to be reading the Mitchell Report on steroid use in baseball as a reason to call into question various players' stats. And it's true that if you compare a guy like Barry Bonds to a guy like Babe Ruth, it's fair to point out that Bonds had the advantage of performance enhancing drugs.

It's also fair to point out that he had the advantage of a ton of other things, too, including scientific weight training, video analysis of his swing, detailed scouting reports of opposing pitchers, vastly improved diet and nutrition, chartered planes and luxury accomodations. To say nothing about the actual changes in the equipment and rules of the game, including, among other things, the small detail that black ballplayers were excluded from the Majors when Ruth played the game. All of which is to say, it's simply not possible to compare two players from two different eras, with or without steroids tossed into the bargain.

On the other hand, if you compare a guy like Bonds to his contemporaries, who are all just as juiced as Bonds is, the only logical conclusion is that Bonds really is better than them for some reason that has to do with his talent, skill, discipline, strength, concentration, and all the other positive qualities that we like to think athletic accomplishment reflects. Steroids aren't magic pills that turns a talent-less slob into a champion. Even less so when you get into the rarefied atmosphere of professional athletics, where the difference between journeyman and star can be measured in milliseconds. So if Bonds has stood out as dramatically as he has in his juiced years, it's because beneath the steroids there's a gifted athlete.

Is he a cheater? Sure. A criminal? Time (and a jury) will tell. But he's still the greatest player of all-time, with or without the asterisk.

Posted by Judah in:  Hoops, Hardball & Fisticuffs   

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Putin's Grand Bargain

I've been sitting with this one all day, pondering what to make of it. And the more I go over it, the more I'm of the belief that Vladimir Putin really does deserve his Time magazine cover.

Iran's Bushehr reactor, whose construction has been suspended pending a dispute over payments (or so the story goes), was supposed to go online six months after the first shipment of nuclear fuel. Russia just delivered that first batch of nuclear fuel, under IAEA seal, a few days ago. But today the head of the company constructing the reactor just announced that it wouldn't go online before the end of 2008.

Along with its veto on the UN Security Council, the Bushehr reactor is Russia's trump card in the Iran nuclear stand-off. Now that the NIE report has dramatically reduced the urgency of the crisis -- ie. extended the timeframe of a resolution -- Russia has every incentive to hold onto the leverage the reactor provides for as long as possible.

But why deliver the fuel this week, and put the reactor online in January 2009? Well, one possible explanation is that this week coincides with a deadlock in the Security Council negotiations over Kosovo, and January 2009 coincides with the remainder of the Bush administration's term in office. By this reading, Russia is sending a signal that, a) it takes the Kosovo crisis very seriously; and, b) if there's a grand bargain to be made (missile defense, CFE, Eurasian bases, Kosovo), it wants to make it with the Bush administration, and not its successor.

Of course, Putin is poised to leave office but retain power. The same, thankfully, can't be said for President Bush. Just about all of his probable successors are likely to adopt a policy of increased engagement with Iran, a policy that weakens Putin's leverage in the standoff. On the other hand, President Bush has every reason to try to push for a final year of accomplishments in order to not leave office in disgrace. And a deal with Russia that not only defused Russian-American tension but also contained Iran's nuclear ambitions would be quite an accomplishment.

It's a cagey move on Putin's part. Keep your eye on the Kosovo negotiations. Should they somehow get sent back to the Security Council for one final attempt at a breakthrough, don't be surprised to see some more advances on other sticking points in Russian-American relations follow shortly thereafter. On the other hand, should the US and EU follow through and guarantee Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence, don't be surprised to see the Bushehr timetable miraculously shorten.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Son Of Tonkin

With tensions between America and Iran as high as they are, Kaveh Afrasiabi makes the very astute observation that, while a grand bargain might be too much to hope for right now, the very least we ought to consider is an "incidents at sea" agreement. Both countries' navies are operating in the Persian Gulf where, as the British can attest, maritime boundaries between Iran and Iraq remain somewhat murky.

With the NIE report effectively removing the "imminent threat" card from the Crazies' hand, the sane folks in Washington might want to try to limit the risk of them playing the "Tonkin Gulf" instant conflagration wild card before it's too late.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Uh-Oh Spaghetti-o (Franco-American)

Any American who has had a profound contact with French culture knows that beneath the appearance of similarity that comes from belonging to the same Western intellectual tradition lie some very fundamental cultural differences. In fact, those differences are sometimes magnified by the very assumption of similarity that we begin with. If America and England are two countries separated by a common language, America and France are two countries separated by a mutual misunderstanding.

Take for instance the question of keeping religion out of the public schools. When France outlawed Islamic veils -- along with yarmulkes and ostentatious crosses -- from its public schools, what was intended in France as a defense of the state's role to guarantee a secular education to all students was perceived Stateside as an interference by the state in an individual's expression of faith. The protection from religion on one hand versus the protection of religion on the other.

So how does France reconcile its stance on secular education with the fact that all of its public school vacations are named after the Catholic holidays that accompany them? All Saint's in November, Christmas in December, Easter in April, etc. How, too, to explain the Christmas tree I found in my 6 year-old son's first grade class today when I arrived for the end of semester parents visit? Well, as many in the States on both sides of the issue might be surprised to learn, Christmas apparently isn't a religious holiday. It's a national one. A cultural one. Much as it might disappoint Mike Huckabee to find out, the Christmas tree is not even a Christian symbol.

Some other things that jumped out at this American father in Paris? When the teacher at first proposed to distribute the chocolate cakes and sugary goodies we'd been asked to bring to the skinny kids first and then the fat ones who needed the food less, but then changed his mind and suggested the pretty kids should go first. Then there was the kid who got up in front of the class to do a little comic presentation with a classmate but instead shoved his partner twice in the head, the second time with some mustard. He was told simply to sit back down. Case closed.

The approach is different, but is it wrong? Kids will be kids, and here in France the tendency is to leave them to their own devices to determine the pecking order. Strength and beauty, as well as intelligence and talent all play a role in society and one's place in it. Rather than deny that obvious fact or try to handicap the field, in France the approach seems to be to accept it and learn how to use it to one's advantage.

As a parent, of course, I have very little to worry about either way, because the Lil' Feller happens to be a good looking kid, no slouch when it comes to the grey matter, and a natural born charmer to boot. But as a cultural observer it gave me some pause.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

NATO In Afghanistan And Beyond

This Middle East Times editorial on NATO's faltering efforts in Afghanistan is throught-provoking for the questions it raises (and largely leaves unanswered) about the broader impact the alliance's first out-of-theater deployment might have on its future. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Afghanistan seemed like an ideal test-case to define the post-Cold War NATO's role as a multi-lateral global security organization.

Six years later, with the mission having evolved from nation-building to a counter-insurgency campaign that is fraying the alliance's cohesion and commitment, that initial optimism seems near-sighted. And while most attention has focused on how the lack of resource commitment on the part of member nations has limited the campaign's effectiveness, less has been paid to the structural problems that plague the NATO/ISAF effort, in particular the incompatible rules of engagement among the various country's contingents.

Meanwhile back in Europe, dramatically different perceptions of how to deal with Russia have divided the alliance along the lines of the former Iron Curtain, with attitudes reversed from those of the Cold War-era. Now it's Eastern European capitals, with memories of Soviet domination, that advocate a more aggressive containment strategy in the face of Russia's resurgence, while Western Europe struggles to find ways to smooth relations with Moscow. America's clumsy handling of its Eastern European-based anti-missile defense system, as well as its aggressive base-procurement policy among former Eurasian Soviet republics, has only exacerbated the tension.

But in many ways, NATO's identity crisis reflects the degree to which the current global geopolitical situation is beginning to take on the aspects of another major paradigm shift for which the post-War 20th century multi-lateral institutions -- from the UN Security Council to the IMF/World Bank to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to NATO to the EU -- are no longer adapted. As recently as a month ago I was arguing here that America's standing in the world could be re-established with a modest, determined course correction by the next administration, as opposed to a dramatic about-face.

But re-establishing our standing, ie. our image, is a modest goal in and of itself. The fact is, as someone I interviewed for an upcoming article put it recently, there's simply no inherent reason why the Arab world should be anti-American, and I think the point can be generalized to the world writ large. We have an enormous amount of goodwill capital that it takes quite an effort to override.

On the other hand, to strategically situate ourselves in order to effectively advance our interests will now demand a fundamental strategic re-evaluation of how best to adjust our own orientation towards the various emerging poles of power around the globe, how best to reform the multi-lateral institutions to better reflect that emerging geopolitical reality, and how best to harmonize the two. There's absolutely no guarantee that having articulated a theoretically sound strategy that we'll be able to put it into practice. The world is too unpredictable for that. But without one, we'll be reduced to putting band aids on wounds that will soon outgrow our ability to cover them.

Of all the presidential candidates, I think Hillary Clinton would probably be the most effective at the band-aid solution, which is not meant to be as much of a back-handed insult as it sounds like. She's almost certain to steer America very ably, protecting our interests while at the same time accomodating our friends and allies to the extent possible. As such she'll also undoubtedly manage to improve America's image in the world. Depending on which John McCain shows up for duty, he'd probably do just as good a job, at least on the former count, if less so on the latter. But I think Barack Obama's combination of analytical insight and intellectual synthesis make him the most qualified to oversee the kind of fundamental strategic overhaul that I'm talking about.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   Politics   

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Physics Of Whack-A-Mole

Iraq might be out of sight, out of mind Stateside, but it's important to keep in mind that private-sector torture chambers with juiced iron bedframes and blood still coating the knives and swords don't get discovered in countries on the path towards stability. American military commanders linked the grisly discovery to Al Qaeda, which we already know is a term used very fluidly by American military commanders, as well as to the displaced violence that accompanied insurgents trying to stay one step ahead of the Surge.

Either way, it's evidence that while the security situation might be dramatically improved and various anti-American factions either co-opted or weakened, the conditions that favor violence do not seem to have been resolved. From a physics perspective, the kinetic violent energy has not been spent, it's been re-converted into a state of potential violent energy.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Shifting Burden

Le Figaro is reporting what a French intelligence source called one of the "most important operations of 2007": the arrest of at least eight men suspected of furnishing logistical and material support to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. From the report, it seems the network operated as an IT support cell, providing computer and telecommunications equipment. Seven of the suspects are Algerian, one French.

The arrest contrasts with American counter-terrorism arrests of the past few years, or at least the ones we've heard about. No outlandish plots, no comic twists, no high-profile grandstanding, and above all, no fear-mongering. The intelligence sources all emphasized that they'd intervened for operational reasons, downplaying the threat of any imminent attack. Still, as one of the article's sources put it in a typically French way, "We got into the hard wood."

The arrest, as well as others like it in Denmark and Germany earlier this year, also serves to demonstrate the real impact of America's hysterical response to the attacks of 9/11: to shift the burden of the terrorist threat to Europe.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Endgame

Small Wars Journal has got the highlights of this After Action Report delivered by Gen. Barry McCaffrey (ret.) following his recent tour of Iraq. In a nutshell, he confirms that the security situation has improved dramatically, that the economy is beginning to revive (although with 50% un-employment, there's not a whole lot of downside left), that the Kurdish region is a stable autonomous state enjoying rapid economic growth and that Al Qaeda has been tactically defeated. That's about it for the good news.

The bad news is that the central government is non-existant, Iraq has hemorrhaged its professional class, its internal refugees are in misery, and its neighborhoods are dominated by armed thugs whose only legitimacy is their declared allegiance to higher-order militias. Most significantly, while McCaffrey suggests that a counterinsugency campaign comprised of twenty-five combat brigades stationed in Iraq over the next decade would probably succeed, he ackowledges that the US military is already unravelling with only twenty brigades deployed there now.

McCaffrey heaps praise on Bob Gates for having quickly and effectively cleaned up the huge mess Donald Rumsfeld left behind. He suggests that Gates can put President Bush's successor in good position to manage the endgame by reducing troop levels to twelve brigades by January 2009. Unfortunately, the best he offers in terms of hope for a longterm successful outcome is that a reduced American military presence just might manage to hold the central government together by the seams until bottom-up reconciliation reaches Baghdad.

So after all the cost in lives, resources, international standing and domestic cohesion, our hopes for a stable outcome in Iraq amount to crossing our fingers and making a wish.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Outta Here Like Vladimir

I'm not sure if Vladimir Putin is really Man of the Year, as Time Magazine maintains. But if there were a MVL (Most Valuable Leader) award along the lines of the MVP in professional sports, he'd certainly be high in the running this year. Between his bellicose rhetoric on American missile defense, his high-stakes maneuvering on Iran, his suspension of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, and his reintroduction of long-range bomber sorties and Russian navy flotillas on the high seas, about the only thing Vlad didn't do this year was bang his shoe on a desk at the UN.

There's also a pretty strong argument to be made that he's about ready for a Lifetime Achievement award, too. Judging by his human rights record, the guy's a psychopath, it's true. But if you compare the bareknuckled arena of realpolitik to the Ultimate Fighting Championships, Putin's Royce Gracie. It's hard to think of another leader over the past ten years who has consolidated his or her country's position as effectively as Putin. Tony Blair comes close, but the Iraq War put a pretty big black mark on any assessment of his tenure. Meanwhile, neither Chirac, Schroeder, Berlusconi, or Aznar comes close to measuring up. He's had a bunch of help, ranging from George W. Bush's decision to run America into the ground, to the massive influx of oil and gas revenues. But like it or not, Putin's been at the helm for a pretty incredible turnaround in Russia's geopolitical fortunes.

Meanwhile, the difference between Time's gimmicky pick last year and their selection this year is sobering: viral videos on the one hand, ruthless realpolitik on the other. It's almost as if the shock of 9/11 is beginning to wear off and, in looking around, America's suddenly realizing that while we've been squandering our political capital, there are other countries out there who have been slowly but steadily building their's up.

What a difference a year makes.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Media Coverage   Russia   

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Credit Risk

It looks like the Fed and European central banks aren't the only ones concerned (read: panicking) about the credit crunch resulting from the subprime crisis. The China Investment Corp, the state-run investment company capitalized by China's massive foreign exchange reserves, has just agreed to buy $5 billion worth of Morgan Stanley equity. The equity units will pay 9% interest before being converted to account for roughly 10% of the investment banker's common stock.

While the CIC justified the move, which follows a $3 billion investment in the Blackstone Group earlier this year, by arguing that the American financial sector is undervalued right now, it's hard not to interpret this as a private sector credit infusion reflecting China's concern for its massive dollar reserves. Again, people who get overly worried about China's sway over the dollar should remember that now that China's holding about 750 billion of them, the dollar's got some sway over China,too.

Posted by Judah in:  China   Markets & Finance   

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Table

Laura Rozen's new Mother Jones article on the impact of the NIE report lends credence to what I pointed out here, namely that a diplomatic resolution to this stand-off depended on the Iranian threat being taken seriously. By reducing the sense of urgency of the threat, the NIE's immediate effect is to remove the military option from the table. But by reducing the urgency of the threat, it also undermines the diplomatic track. Which ultimately means that if a non-NPT compliant, nuclear-capable Iran really is as unacceptable as everyone says (a claim I agree with), the only way to prevent it from happening will be the military option.

The problem is that the Bush administration never made the effort to actually educate people about what the actual threat is. So perhaps the intelligence community thought it was doing us a favor by releasing a document that forced it to be more honest. But as Matthew Yglesias seems to be catching on, the report itself has made a third round of UN sanctions unlikely or ineffective. It has also thrown France, which was holding a very tough line compared to Germany's reticence, for a loop. As Matthew put it, Bad news.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

From Thermodynamics To Simple Mechanics

Justin Logan is right. If there's one positive result of the Bush administration's handling of foreign policy, it's that it has sparked a renewed interest in reconsidering America's role in the world. His comparison is noteworthy, since he says we haven't witnessed such a fundamental identity crisis since 1991 and the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. But whereas the last paradigm shift involved the disappearance of a global power and the resulting power vacuum that needed to be somehow filled, the current paradigm shift involves the appearance of new poles of power and the resulting demand for room to be made at the table.

The difference explains why the possible combinations have gotten so complicated, and why the first instinct of those proposing a major course correction seems to be towards restraint. But restraint taken to an extreme can result in isolation, and the prospect of a disengaged America is as worrisome as an overly assertive one.

My own feeling is that a move towards restraint is welcome if it implies a more intelligent approach to using our influence when necessary, as opposed to an unwillingness to do so. Specifically, instead of trying to solve problems, we need to start identifying and supporting regional players who can do the job for us. That means piggybacking our own regional interests onto those of carefully chosen tactical allies to the extent that it's possible.

In such a fluid and dynamic geopolitical landscape, the goal should be to find the points of leverage that, in combination with American influence, can achieve workable solutions. In so doing we can contribute to the formation of stable power blocs integrated into a realist multi-lateral order, as opposed to the utopian one proposed last time around.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Chad Hanging

The EU peacekeeping mission to Chad is either, a) an important milestone in the development of a European defense component; or b) a remake of "The Keystone Kops Go To War", but with sound. So far, events seem to be pointing to the latter:

The deployment of a European Union peacekeeping force in Eastern Chad has fallen behind schedule amid fears that its French-dominated troops could come under attack after setting foot in the troubled African state.

Initially, the EU had signalled its desire to have the 3,000-strong force, known as Eufor, operational by mid-November, when the dry season was expected to begin.

Not only was that deadline missed, there has also been a fresh outbreak of fighting between soldiers loyal to Chad President Idriss Deby and rebels commanded by Mahamat Nouri. Nouri's Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (UNFDD) declared Nov. 30 that they were "in a state of belligerence against the French army or any other foreign force on the national territory." His rebels accuse France of bias in favour of Deby.

The French government has argued that the resumption of hostilities increases the need for a peacekeeping force as quickly as possible. But other EU governments have asked if the neutrality of the force would be compromised.

Norbert Darabos, Austria's defence minister, has warned of a "danger of direct engagement of Eufor in armed confrontations".

Of course, Mr. Darabos is right. There's always a "danger of direct engagement" when you send troops into a warzone. But it's one of the risks most armies are willing to take.

Seriously, though, this is precisely the sort of identity crisis the EU will have to resolve if it wishes to assume a more assertive role in global affairs. Of course, the willingness to project force presupposes the willingness to fund the defense budget. Which means that the EU has a lot of soul searching to do before it arrives at an answer. But the Chad mission, if it ever touches down in Africa, will almost certainly be a formative step in the process.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Not So Easy Way Out

The coming showdown in Kosovo is worth our attention for a number of reasons. To begin with, in terms of pure power politics, it will have a major impact on Russia's orientation towards Europe and the West. That in turn will have consequences for some of the regional alignments where Russia can make things difficult for American and European interests, including the Middle East, but also Eurasia.

On a more theoretical level, given how questionable the multi-lateral legitimacy of the initial Kosovo War was, and given the degree to which the foundations of multi-lateralism have been undermined since, it's hard to imagine how a second Kosovo War could be anything but extremely destabilizing on a global level.

On an even more theoretical level, the Kosovo crisis raises questions for the West in terms of its approach to addressing ethnic and sectarian conflict in fragile and failed states. We seem to be moving increasingly towards an atomized vision of reducing nation-building efforts to the lowest common denominator. As an example, our vision for Iraq has moved from a central government, to a Federalized arrangement, to tribal "awakenings".

The element in these atomized "solutions" that seems to be taken for granted (read: ignored) is that in order to prevent them from completely degenerating into festering zones of violence and instability, they require some sort of longterm, outside military presence to stabilize them. It's easy to talk about an "independent" Kosovo. But if it takes a permanent outpost of EU peacekepers whose presence is contested by Serbia and Russia, it's a legal fiction.

There's an old joke about the French intellectual who, confronted with an arrangement that seems to be working, objects, "It's great in practice. But does it work in theory?" It's a question we ought to ask ourselves about our rejection of multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian nation-building. The path of least resistance is by definition easier to travel. But it doesn't necessarily take us where we want to go.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   International Relations   

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Airheads, Redux

According to a spokesman for the Kurdish Regional Government, Turkey sent 300 troops into a "deserted mountainous area" in northern Iraq overnight. A Turkish official reported that the troops were sent as permanent reinforcements for the forward operating bases Turkey has maintained in the area since 1996. FOB's that have generally functioned to locate PKK positions for artillery and air strikes. Here's the takeaway quote from the article:

Abdullah, the spokesman for the regional Kurdish government, also criticized the operation and cautioned that Turkish forces should "be careful not to harm civilians" who might be living in the area.

"If the Turkish military conducts limited operations against the rebels, this is a problem of their concern," he said. "But if this ... leads to harm for civilians, we will absolutely be against that and reject that."

So there's the red line for just what the Kurds will tolerate. And it's a red line that Turkey is almost certain to cross should it insist on launching air strikes on PKK mountain camps rendered unreachable by ground troops due to winter conditions.

Having followed this story closely since this spring, I can't help but conclude that Turkey is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory here. They patiently used a blend of sabre-rattling and diplomatic initiatives over a period of six months to gain American and Kurdish cooperation in their fight against the PKK. What's more, the winter is traditionally a time of reduced PKK activity due to the conditions in the mountains. Even if there were isolated PKK attacks, they would only have lent added legitimacy to an effective ground operation launched next spring.

Given all that, the decision to launch airstrikes seems awfully short-sighted.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Cell Reproduction And The Happy Microbe

I remember a book I read when I was about twelve called "Who Should Play God" that dealt with recombinant DNA -- the insertion of tiny snippets of genetic material into already existing chromosomes to create previously non-existent (but "all-natural") hybrid life forms. It's the procedure that eventually led to genetically modified food crops and the like. But at the time it was still an unknown bio-technology (if the word even existed back then) that inspired the kind of alarmist paperback jacket copy -- POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS NEW TREND!! -- that, along with baseball biographies, easily separated my twelve-year old self from the weekly book allowance my Dad used to give us.

So it's pretty incredible that only twenty-seven years later, we're now at the point where scientists will soon be working with interchangeable, LEGO-like blocks of DNA with which they can construct an entirely artificial chromosome. That then gets deposited into "...a chassis and power supply for the artificial systems we are putting together..." (You remember? That thing we used to call a cell back in the old days?) And presto, change-o, you've got yourself a brand new artificial life form.

The creepy part is how the scientists talk about removing the organism's genetic urge to reproduce so they can squeeze even more "work" and profits out of their new "inventions". Of course, they're only talking about yeast and bacteria microbes, but it's enough to make you wish for some E. Spartacus strain to rise up and free their miserable microbial cohorts.

On a more serious note, if humans can create life forms, it seems to be a very strong argument in favor of "intelligent design". On the other hand, it's a pretty convincing rebuttal of the idea of an infallible designer.

Posted by Judah in:  The Natural World   

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Mao's Virtual Sea

Here's how Kevin Drum defends former Sen. Bob Kerrey's suggestion that Barack Hussein Obama's name and background will help in the fight against Islamic terrorism:

Kerrey wasn't suggesting that electing Obama would have any direct effect on hardcore al-Qaeda jihadists. It wouldn't. But terrorists can't function unless they have a critical mass of support or, at a minimum, tolerance from a surrounding population. This is Mao's sea in which the jihadists swim. Without it, terrorists simply don't have enough freedom of movement to be effective, and their careers are short. It's why the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany lasted only a few years, while the IRA in Ireland has lasted decades.

What Kerrey was getting at was simple: in the long run, the only way to defeat the hardcore jihadists is to dry up their support in the surrounding Muslim world. And on that score, a president with black skin, a Muslim father, and a middle name of Hussein, might very well be pretty helpful.

Kevin's point about drying up surrounding support is classic counterinsurgency/counterterrorism stuff. But there are significant differences between a classic terrorist insurgency group like the IRA and Al Qaeda. The former was a relatively poor organization that operated in largely urban areas, necessitating the kind of active support from the surrounding populace that Kevin is talking about. They were also on their home turf, fighting against a foreign occupying force, which facilitated it.

Whereas Al Qaeda collects donations from wealthy patrons swimming in petro-dollars. It's based in inaccessible hinterlands, and operates on a globalized battlefield against an enemy whose presence is largely symbolic. (Or at least they did until we provided them with convenient targets close to home.) And its recruiting pool is multi-national, de-centralized and mobile.

In other words, I wonder to what extent globalization has rendered "Mao's sea" an obsolete concept, or if not, whether it has supplied terrorist groups with a virtual replacement. The most effective operation Al Qaeda has mounted to date remains the work of twenty individuals operating within the United States, aided by a network of agents based in Western Europe, financed through legitimate banking and credit card networks.

I agree that Barack Obama will be a more convincing spokesman for an American appeal to the Arab street. I also think that he's more likely to engage in a foreign policy that will make us more sympathetic in the Arab world. That's already alot.

But I question whether that will have a real effect on Islamic terrorism, which with a firm but non-hysterical response from the West will in all likelihood fade away of its own accord. The prize we should be aiming for is to make sure it's not replaced by something worse.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Monday, December 17, 2007


As much as anything else, Turkey's latest airstrikes on PKK camps or Kurdish villages (depending on who you believe) demonstrate why any country relying on air power as their primary method of counterinsurgency is asking for trouble. This is doubly true when the targets are inaccessible mountain locations where it's difficult to get independent verification of one's claims.

It also violated the principle component of what made the working arrangement to deal with the PKK acceptable to everyone involved, namely reasonable deniability. Targeted precision raids based on American intelligence are one thing. Attention-grabbing strikes comprised of twenty to fifty F-16s sent out in waves up to 100 km into Iraqi territory are quite another. Especially when Iraqi airspace is guaranteed by America. (Note to the American ambassador to Turkey who issued a statement denying that Ankara got an American go-ahead: The idea of deniability does not mean denying things that are obviously undeniable. It's means doing things in such a way that a denial seems at least somewhat plausible.)

According to The New Anatolian, Ankara plans on doing this all winter long. Good grief.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Special Delivery

The news that Russia has delivered a first batch of nuclear fuel to the Iranian reactor at Bushehr is significant more for what it says about the state of play on the third round of UN sanctions than for any impact it has on Iran's potential weapons capacity. Previous announcements put the timing of the reactor going operational at six months following the fuel delivery. The fuel remains under IAEA jurisdiction, and Iran has signed agreements to return the spent fuel rods to Russia. So the only way for this to change the threat level is if the Iranians go completely berserk, kick the IAEA out of the country and start reneging on their deal with their major protector on the UN Security Council. And even then, there will be plenty of time to organize some sort of multi-lateral intervention.

On the other hand, the Russians' willingness to ship the fuel suggests that in the aftermath of the NIE report, they are significantly downgrading their willingness to consider the Iranian nuclear program a multi-lateral security threat. It also provides an element of legitimacy to the Iranian government at a time when its bargaining position with the EU has become more intransigent. The Russian foreign ministry also stated that the delivery eliminates any actual need for an Iranian domestic enrichment capacity, but that hasn't stopped the Iranians from declaring their adamance about continuing the program.

It might be true that the NIE has provided more time to resolve the issue through negotiations, as the German Foreign Minister suggested. It might also be true that the negotiations won't achieve anything. But the clock is definitely still running and so far I haven't really come across any convincing arguments to stop worrying about this.

Update: The NY Times adds some interesting details that I should have caught but didn't. First, in justifying the need to continue its domestic enrichment program, Iran made reference to a second nuclear reactor under construction. Second, they claimed that the second reactor would necessitate 50,000 enrichment centrifuges as opposed to the 3,000 currently online. Now there's already a good deal of skepticism about the efficiency of Iran's existing centrifuge cascades, and I don't even know whether Iran is capable of putting 50,000 of them online. But if they did, that would seriously shorten the timeline of when they'd be able to enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon. In other words, kiss all that time the NIE supposedly gave us to calmly resolve this standoff goodbye. You can bet Dick Cheney is thanking the Good Lord for Ahmadinejad in his prayers tonight.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Reading In Traffic

My first reaction to the Kindle was the thought that it would eliminate the need for lighting in order to read. Since then I've been struck by how the various pro and con arguments about it really boil down to the difference between an artifact and a text delivery system. Of course, in time, the Kindle might very well become its own artifact in the same way the iPod has. Obviously, it will change the way people relate to the text that's being "delivered". But it will never replace a book, in the same way that an iPod can't replace a CD, and a CD can't replace vinyl, and vinyl couldn't replace live musicians.

The basic progression common to all these phenomena is the increasing independence of place and time, and a reduction in physical interaction with objects. Think of the movement and tactile interaction that went into putting a particular track from a particular record on the turntable, compared to cuing up some music in an mp3 player.

I'm almost certain to never use a Kindle, in the same way that I couldn't imagine listening to music through earphones on an mp3 player. A professional musician I just met put into words what I'd been thinking, namely that he preferred listening to the music of everyday life on the street, to say nothing of the safety issues of cutting oneself off from one's sonic surroundings.

But I still don't think it's valid to argue that the Kindle cheapens the text it displays or diminishes one's experience of it. It just changes both. Here in Paris, for instance, people actually read books while walking down the street. So what's a cheaper reading experience, reading a Kindle in a library, or the book version while navigating rush-hour traffic on a busy street?

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

When Gordon Brown Talks, The Taliban Listens

To follow up on this post from yesterday, Gordon Brown's actual proposals for "talking" with the Taliban were couched in very diplomatic language:

"If they are prepared to renounce violence and abide by the Constitution and respect basic human rights, then there is a place for them in the legitimate society and economy of Afghanistan," he said.

Mr Brown, who held talks with Mr Karzai in Kabul this week, said that direct negotiations with the Taleban were not an option, but realism was needed when tackling the insurgency that has rumbled on for nearly six years. "Our objective is to root out those preaching and practising violence and murder, in support of men and women of peace," he said.

In other words, Brown is willing to talk with any Taliban members willing to accept what amounts to unconditional surrender. Which explains why they've managed to convince about 5,000 "tier-two and tier-three" Taliban to "talk", whereas the 70 Taliban "leaders" who listened to reason and laid down their weapons this year only did so once they'd been killed. Brown also committed to keeping almost 8,000 British troops in Afghanistan for the "longterm". Not a whole lot for Washington to throw a hissy fit about after all.

Update: According to The Independent, which cites the Taliban's former chief spokesman as a source, unlike Gordon Brown, Hamid Karzai doesn't mind talking with the Taliban and has been in direct negotiations with key lieutenants of Mullah Omar in an attempt to isolate the latter from his top-level leadership.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

An Inconvenient Runway

This sort of article really brings into focus the genius and folly that is humankind:

A passenger jet has made a historic landing on a new blue ice runway in Australia’s Antarctic territory and regular flights are expected to start within a week, officials said yesterday.

But trips on the Airbus A319 to the Wilkins Runway will be for scientists and research staff only, with no plans to open the airlink to tourists, project manager Charlton Clark told AFP.

The runway is 4km long, 700m thick and moves about 12m southwest a year because of glacial drift.

In the first trial landing on Monday, the plane pulled up within 1,000m despite the lack of friction to grab the wheels on the ice.

Clark said work had begun on the A$10mn (US$8.7mn) runway 70km from Australia’s Casey research station in 2005, with crews living in shipping containers.

"Just living in that environment, with conditions of minus 35 degrees and up to a hundred knots of wind, let alone doing the work, was an amazing undertaking," he said.

Using laser levelling technology, they graded and shaved the ice flat and must keep grooming it to keep it snow free.

The runway was named for the adventurer and aviator Sir Hubert Wilkins, who made the first flight in Antarctica 79 years ago.

In just 80 years, we've gone from first flight to a mile-long, laser-levelled commercial jet runway. And really, what better way to study the icecap than to encourage the very activities that are melting it?

Posted by Judah in:  The Natural World   

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Who Is Rattling The Sabre?

When Nicolas Sarkozy and Bernard Kouchner made comments a few months back that were portrayed as suggesting that France would support a war to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capacity, Sarkozy was accused of aligning himself with the hawkish elements of the Bush administration. My own feeling is that the remarks were misrepresented, and were made merely to correct any lasting misperception of France's position -- which has consistently been in very firm opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapons capacity -- that may have been caused by Jacques Chirac's off-the-cuff statement last spring that a nuclear Iran could be deterred. So it's interesting to see Sarkozy, in an interview with the Nouvel Obs, give his version of what was really at stake:

Everyone agrees that what the Iranians are doing has no civilian explanation. The only debate is whether they'll achieve a military capacity in one year or five years. The problem for us isn't so much the risk that the Americans launch a military intervention, but rather that the Israelis consider their security to be truly threatened. The danger of a war exists. If Iran lets the IAEA conduct its inspections, I'll be willing to go to Tehran and explore a civilian nuclear cooperation. I've got the trust of the Israelis and the Americans on this question. The Americans aren't, in this case, warmongers. (Translated from the French.)

Something tells me we're going to be hearing more about that Israeli strike on a Syrian "nuclear" facility in the very near future. I've already seen some speculation linking the strike to the same intelligence source that allowed for updating the Iran NIE. Call it a Debka Files moment, but I've got a gut feeling that whatever threat was targeted in that strike, whether real or fabricated, has still got a role to play in the Iran debate.

(Via French Politics.)

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   La France Politique   The Middle East   

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

India, Pakistan And The Limits Of Deterrence

According to this article in The Middle East Times, India's intelligence service is in the spotlight these days for what some say is a massive failure last month to predict the State of Emergency in neighboring Pakistan. Given the nuclear status of both nations, that's the kind of lapse that could potentially have global implications. It also adds some context to the duelling announcements this week of the test-firing of a 700km-range, nuclear capable Pakistani cruise missile, and a 6000km-range, nuclear capable Indian missile that's now in the works for next year. The range of India's missile would put it out of striking range for "most capable missiles in Pakistan's arsenal..." according to the Times of India.

In addition to being alarming in and of itself, the India-Pakistan nuclear standoff demonstrates the potential risks of a nuclearized Middle East, especially one where the nuclear equation is not bi-lateral but multi-lateral. The argument that a nuclear Iran can be deterred is, to my mind, defensible. But the image of deterrence that is often invoked is based on the relatively stable version eventually arrived at by two mature and stable superpowers. The Middle East bears no resemblance to that kind of arrangement, and even less so should Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt all join Israel as nuclear weapons states. A situation where every missile test launch evokes existential alerts adds an unacceptable level of tension to an already volatile region.

It's also interesting to see American progressives suddenly become proponents of nuclear deterrence, even if in theory it could apply to Iran. As I recall as a thirteen year-old marching in the 1981 No Nukes rally, a defense posture that ultimately depends on a willingness to obliterate hundreds of thousands of lives was a very high burden to bear. Its relegation to the dustbin of history was one of the supposed benefits of the end of the Cold War. While it's reassuring to see the principle of deterrence enjoy something of a revival in lunatic neocon circles, I'd like to see progressives to come up with proposals that represent, well, progress.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Pakistan   

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bad News Out Of Beirut

Gen. Francois El-Hajj, widely expected to succeed Gen. Michel Sleiman as Army chief should Sleiman ever assume the office of President, was killed along with his bodyguard in a car bombing on the outskirts of the city. El-Hajj gained prominence during the operation that liberated a Palestinian refugee camp from a Muslim extremist group this past summer. So there's a possibility his assassination has nothing to do with the political infighting going on right now to hammer out a deal on the still vacant Presidency. (Yesterday's parliamentary session to elect Gen. Sleiman was postponed, the eighth postponement since the beginning of the crisis.) But with Beirut already jumpy as it is, any loud noises -- and especially loud noises where people wind up dead because of them -- can only make things worse.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Dead Man Walking

Gordon Brown is set to announce a major shift in strategy for Afghanistan, including a call for dialogue with the Taliban. That, coupled with the official British handover of Basra to Iraqi forces (read: Shiite militias) this Sunday, ought to put him fairly high on the Bush administration's shit list. But frankly, that's not the sort of thing people worry about anymore. Having just lived through the end of Chirac's second term, I can assure you that a year left in a "dead man walking" presidency is an awful long time. The major difference between Bush and Chirac being that Bush can still cause a lot of new problems, whereas Chirac just couldn't do anything to solve the old ones.

Beyond that, I've been wondering about the continued logic of the War in Afghanistan for a while now. The Taliban only posed a security threat to America insomuch as they harbored Al Qaeda training camps. In the aftermath of the initial invasion, regime change and a continued military presence to shore up the Karzai government seemed to make sense. But now that Al Qaeda has re-located to Pakistan and we've abandoned any pretense at nation-building, the Taliban no longer seem like the kind of menace that warrants a major American and NATO force commitment.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

NIE: Final Thoughts

A couple news cycles have gone by, and the reaction to the NIE will soon be taking definitive shape in policy-making circles and public opinion. Having read through a wide range of analysis, I'm struck most by how the report's principle impact -- a reduction in the perceived threat level posed by the program -- is the source of both its most positive and negative effects.

The most positive consequence of this changed perception is that it has removed the threat of a unilateral American military strike against Iran, with all its potentially catastrophic consequences and no particular guarantee of success. The most negative consequence of the changed threat perception is that it has potentially undermined political and diplomatic resolve to pressure Iran to comply with its NPT obligations. Significantly, while the sense of urgency now attached to the issue has been dramatically reduced, the actual threats posed by the Iranian nuclear program have not changed. That they were never as dramatic as what the Bush administration was claiming does not mean they were never serious.

This reduced sense of urgency, while perhaps mistaken, does present some opportunities. To begin with, it has opened a window of opportunity for a period of reflection on all sides of the issue (ie. the 3+3: France, England, Germany and the US, Russia, China). For the US, that primarily means deciding how far we're willing to go in normalizing relations with Iran, which in turn means deciding how much we're willing to concede Iran a strategic role in regional affairs.

However desirable a broader diplomatic resolution to the issue as a longterm goal might be, though, any bi-lateral "grand bargain" between the US and Iran would be for the time being premature. For such an agreement to be durable, it needs to be negotiated by governments that enjoy more broadly based support than either the Bush administration (with its divisive character and lame duck status) or the Ahmadinejad administration (with its factional infighting and institutional opaqueness) can now claim.

For the Europeans, the NIE report certainly signals the deathknell of the Bush administration's already diminished relevance. That it came so unexpectedly only magnifies the degree to which it renders the Bush administration an unreliable partner, unable as it is to even guarantee the coherence of its own political line. The irony of course being that, for all the anxiety it was causing in America, the Bush administration's hardline rhetoric masked a significant recalibration of its actual negotiating position, which in combination with the European strategy of engagement was on the verge of isolating Iran from its principle support on the Security Council (Russia and China). The potential for a breakthrough round of sanctions was only increased by Iran's latest negotiating position with the EU's Javier Solana, which was universally considered to be disastrously confrontational.

A third round of sanctions is still possible, but its impact will almost certainly be limited. Which means the clock will continue to run out, and contrary to the impression people have taken from the NIE, there are many ways in which that aggravates the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program.

One thing no one has yet mentioned: The NIE gives an outside threat estimate for a nuclear Iran of 8 years, which is more than enough time to at least identify and introduce a sane domestic energy policy, one that diminishes our dependence on the strategic security of the Persian Gulf in particular and Middle East in general. Take all the unknown variables of the Iran nuclear program, then consider what happens when you multiply them by the three to six countries capable of pursuing similar programs in the next ten to twenty years and you'll get a sense of just how important such a policy really is.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Son Of NIE

Egypt, which announced in October that it would dust off plans to build several civilian nuclear reactors, just announced that it would sign no further agreements to expand its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. What that means is that it will not submit to intrusive, short-notice IAEA inspections under a voluntary Additional Protocol even after it has mastered the nuclear fuel-enrichment cycle. These inspections remain the principle means to ensure that a country is not secretly developing a weapons component with dual-use technology, by allowing the IAEA to inspect not only declared nuclear activity, but to verify there is no undeclared activity going on as well.

Now the title of this post is perhaps a bit inflammatory, but I don't think the timing of Egypt's announcement is a coincidence. And it won't be the last announcement of its kind should Iran be allowed to backslide across the nuclear finish line without ever fully complying with its NPT obligations (including an Additional Protocol that it signed). Remember, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Libya are already queued up and waiting for clearance on the nuclear runway, with others sure to follow.

As for Kevin Drum's and Matthew Yglesias' speculation that the third round of UN sanctions might have been facilitated by the release of the NIE, in the course of researching an article today I spoke with someone in a position to know who left no doubt that whatever watered-down sanctions they manage to wrangle out of the Russians and Chinese, it will be very much in spite of, and not thanks to, the NIE. China, for instance, just came up with two billion reasons to be less than enthusiastic about putting any more trade restrictions on Iran, so the case for sanctions was already a tough one to make before the NIE significantly downgraded the threat level.

Once more, I'll reiterate my belief that a unilateral strike against Iran would have been disastrous. While the NIE seems to have ruled out such a disaster, it has made another one -- a non-NPT-compliant nuclear Iran and the impact it will have on the region -- more difficult to head off.

On the other hand, one thing the NIE does do is give everyone some time to really think through their options. After all, Iran's nuclear program can still be brought into compliance, and Egypt's is at least 15-20 years off. What's more, given the lame duck status of the Bush administration and the need for clarification in Tehran's internal factional divisions, for any resolution to be durable it will have to be reached in the early years of the next Presidential term. It's essential to take advantage of that window of opportunity to develop a coherent and unifying approach, not just to Iran's nuclear ambitions, but to those of the entire region.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   The Middle East   

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

New & Improved

It's funny. Every six months or so, there comes a moment when, thinking about the situation in Iraq, I say to myself, 'We haven't heard much about Moqtada al-Sadr lately. I wonder if this time he's really out of the game for good.' Systematically, no sooner do I get done formulating the thought than an article immediately appears explaining that Moqtada al-Sadr is busy gearing up to get back into the game. And wouldn't you know it, this time is no different:

Away from public view, however, Sadr's top aides say the anti-American cleric is anything but idle. Instead, he is orchestrating a revival among his army of loyalists entrenched in Baghdad and Shiite enclaves to the south -- from the religious centers of Karbala and Najaf to the economic hub of Basra. What is in the making, they say, is a better-trained and leaner force free of rogue elements accused of atrocities and crimes during the height of the sectarian war last year.

Many analysts say what may reemerge is an Iraqi version of Lebanon's Hizbullah -- a state within a state that embraces politics while maintaining a separate military and social structure that holds powerful sway at home and in the region.

Now, obviously, claims about a "new & improved" Mahdi Army that come from Sadr's top aides should be taken with a grain of salt. As an analyst quoted in the article points out, "The Mahdi Army is far from being the organized fighting machine like Hizbullah." What's more, according to a DoD intelligence analyst based in Baghdad, Sadr's recent unilateral ceasefire has served him well and is in no danger of unraveling.

More significant is what the article says about Iran, namely that it's been hedging its bets by supporting various rival Shiite militias in Iraq, including the Mahdi Army. Which means that when the dust clears in Basra, Tehran stands to gain an ally no matter who comes out on top.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Monday, December 10, 2007

The Angry Bear Awakening

If you've found yourself wondering lately whether Russia's a real threat, a paper tiger, or just plain old grumpy, click through to this Army War College monograph and skip to p. 35, where you'll find Dmitri Trenin's enlightening analysis of just what's driving Russian strategic thinking these days.

According to Trenin, starting in 2003 and culminating in 2005, Russia definitively decoupled its foreign policy orientation from the West. But rather than representing a return to a Cold War mentality, as many have conjectured, Trenin argues that Russia's posture more closely resembles a pre-WWI Great Powers rivalry mentality, where realpolitik is the name of the game and military power its currency. According to this "highly pessimistic worldview", the game of geopolitics is a lonely, cutthroat affair: professed alliances mean little, and everyone can be considered a potential threat.

As significantly, Russia considers that its security environment has deteriorated in the post-Soviet era, with its loss of influence and the resulting insecurity in Eurasia outweighing the threat-reduction effect of its improved Western relations. And while it considers the EU to be "incoherent", and expects NATO to be occupied for the time being in Afghanistan, it regards the US as a "dangerous nation" and its principle security concern.

From the Russian point of view, the West proved itself to be untrustworthy by taking advantage of Russia's post-Soviet moment of weakness. So the expansion of America's willingness to wage war, beginning with the 1990's humanitarian interventions and culminating in a war of choice in Iraq, combined with its increasing unwillingness to abide by the constraints of arms control treaties, has been viewed with great alarm. Russia's current military planning is based on modernizing its force structure, both conventional and strategic, in order to present a more robust deterrent, primarily to American airpower, which Russia sees as the main component of American military planning.

As the monograph's preface points out, it's easy to dismiss another country's threat perception as bizarre or ill-conceived based on our own ideas of what motivates our policy. But that's irrelevant if the country's national security strategists have become convinced of their assessment and have based strategic thinking on it. As an example, consider how bizarre America's obsession with the Iraqi threat must have seemed to the folks who made up the Iraqi policy-making establishment. That didn't keep most of them from ending up as face cards in the Iraqi Most Wanted deck.

The obvious and striking parallel to Russia's lonely posture is that of America at the time of the neocon ascendancy, where any potential rival to America's hegemony qualified as a target for neutralization, where there were no more alliances, only coalitions of the willing, and where the legitimacy of a mission was determined by its success or failure. In light of which, the Russian strategists don't seem so far offbase.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Waking Up With Fleas

The arrival in Paris today of Libya's Muammar Khaddafi has brought into sharp relief just how Nicolas Sarkozy's emphasis on results can sometimes call into question his judgment about the company he keeps. The visit is part and parcel of the deal that Sarkozy struck to get Khaddafi to release the Bulgarian nurses back in July.

Unfortunately for Sarkozy, Khaddafi is not exactly what you might call discrete as far as state visits go. He arrives with an entourage of roughly four hundred, and will install his Bedouin tent in the garden of the official residence provided by the French government. While Elysee has made sure to downgrade the protocol from that of an official state visit (a cabinet Minister will greet Khaddafi at the airport, for instance, instead of the Prime Minister or President), Khaddafi will meet twice with President Sarkozy to sign the contracts agreed upon at the time of Sarkozy's visit to Libya following the release of the Bulgarian nurses.

Little was said about Sarkozy's willingness to collaborate with Hugo Chavez for the release of Ingrid Betancourt, for obvious reasons. Sarkozy's congratulatory phonecall to Vladimir Putin last week in the aftermath of the latter's "election" victory sparked some pointed criticisms, but only from some anonymous backbenchers.

By contrast, Khaddafi's visit has brought out the heavy artillery, with centrist opposition leader Francois Bayrou calling it an example of how France's foreign policy has been reduced to "checkbook" diplomacy. But perhaps the most violent criticism came from Rama Yade, Sarkozy's very own Secretary of State for Human Rights:

"I don't think we can be satisfied with a declaration of virginity from Colonel Khaddafi. It's like in a love affair, it's the proof that counts," she tossed out, adding that "to find ourselves with Human Rights Day on one hand and Khaddafi on the tarmac of Orly on the other, that's a problem." She went on to cite the disappeared, those condemned to death, or still more, the families of the victims of Lockerbie.

She repeated that "France has an identity, values, prinicples," and is not "just a commercial scale"...adding that "France isn't a doormat that a leader can just come wipe his bloodstained feet on..."

"I haven't said anything until now, since we do have to encourage economic growth. But after a while, I've got to put on the habit" of Secretary of State for Human Rights. (Translated from the French.)

Yade was quickly brought to order by Prime Minister Francois Fillon followed by a convocation to Elysee, but not before Bernard Kouchner supported her right to speak out on a question that concerns her ministerial portfolio. Kouchner rejected the suggestion of a realpolitik, which he described as a "violent, Germanic word". Instead, he made sure to point out that the treatment now enjoyed by Khaddafi reflected the latter's willingness to rehabilitate himself and re-integrate the world order, a not so subtle invitation to Iran to follow his lead and renounce their nuclear ambitions.

Posted by Judah in:  La France Politique   

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Not Your Father's Oldsmobile

It's hard to imagine someone even surviving the kind of hits that the Giuliani and Huckabee campaigns have taken this past week, but incredibly Giuliani is still considered a credible candidate and Huckabee is surging in the polls. The political equivalent for Democrats would be if people had greeted the Gary Hart/"Monkey Business" scandal by grinning slyly and giving him a "You da' man" shout out.

The psychological subtext for why both men will be able to walk around with shit on their heels without the smell bothering the GOP base demonstrates just how dangerously insane the Republican Party has become. It also shows the particular form of the insanity, which is a schizophrenic lack of coherence between its two major wings: the proponents of a national security state on one end and the Christian right on the other.

Giuliani's misuse of the police force and subsequent creative bookkeeping to keep his marital infidelity under wraps demonstrates something quite different to his supporters than if does to people who aren't on medication. To the latter it shows that he's a megalomaniac who considers the public till as if it were his own personal kitty. It also suggests that somewhere along the way a line blurred, and Giuliani's obsessive prosecution of Mob bosses as US Attorney for NY became something more complicated than just a commitment to grabbing reputation-making headlines.

To the former, on the other hand, the whole episode reinforces his principle appeal: that he's willing to do what needs to be done to keep folks safe. Whether they excercise the function of Mayor or Godfather, powerful tough guys always have less powerful tough guys protect their mistresses. The fact that Giuliani used public funds to pay them is less important than the fact that he got it done.

As for Huckabee, the clemency he showed for Wayne Dumond will undoubtedly be written off, sotto voce, as yet one more instance where cleaning up after Bill Clinton got more messy than people expected. The fact that it was an individual case and not policy, like Mike Dukakis' furlough program that eventually served up Willie Horton on a Lee Atwater platter, will work in his favor. And anyone expecting outrage over his 1992 remarks calling for the "isolation" of AIDS patients are missing the crucial dog-whistle code word from those remarks: plague.

Because as Huckabee's followers know (and as he knows they know), while scientific causes might account for epidemics, pandemics, and diseases, plagues have their source in God Himself, who sends them down periodically to let us know it's time to straighten up our act. His refusal to disavow the remarks, similarly, is simply proof that he, unlike Mitt Romney or Giuliani, has no need to reinvent himself to appeal to this crowd. After all, his political positions are based on something more enduring than public opinion polls.

That's Rudy and Huck's GOP: law & order has become a willingness to break the rules to keep people safe; traditional values have become a test of Biblical literalism. And somewhere Richard Nixon is turning over in his grave, wondering whatever happened to good old-fashioned crooks.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Saturday, December 8, 2007

Mutually Assured Dysfunction

I'll preface this post by saying that Matthew Yglesias' recent critical line on Hillary Clinton's foreign policy approach (as well as the team she's already assembled to advise her campaign) has been eagle-eyed in its analysis. He's really managed to weed out the obfuscations (tough with Clinton) and nail down the principle issue at hand: unilateral pre-emption as a plank of non-proliferation policy. In so doing, he's helped me bring my own thoughts on the matter more into focus. And while I think his conclusion that Democrats should categorically renounce unilateral pre-emption is admirable in principle, I think there are reasons why in the practice of foreign policy, it's not advisable.

To begin with, a minor clarification of terms. What Yglesias is in fact referring to is not pre-emptive intervention, which is a first strike in anticipation of an already ordered or already launched attack recognized in international law as a legitimate act of self-defense, but rather preventive intervention, a first strike in anticipation of a potential future threat, whether of attack or a less advantageous balance of power. Clearly, though, his point of reference is the Iraq War. And while he's right to conclude that the catastrophic results of the war weigh strongly in favor of abandoning preventive intervention, he's wrong to call for a public renunciation.

The decision to launch the Iraq War was a watermark for post-Cold War geopolitics because it demonstrated both the limits of American unilateral intervention and the limits of the multi-lateral deterrent on American power. In other words, it showed that while we can't accomplish anything alone, the world can't stop us from trying. While immediate analysis has focused on the destabilizing impact the episode has had on the global order, I'm convinced that in time it will be regarded as a useful failure. Everyone knows what happens now when the multi-lateral order breaks down, which means that everyone has a clear incentive to make sure it functions better next time around. For that to happen, everyone's got to take a step back towards the middle.

The obvious comparison would be the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which helped ensure that nuclear weapons were never again used, even though the logic of nuclear deterrence demanded that they continue to be stockpiled. In the same way, the Iraq War makes another American unilateral intervention unlikely, but only if the rest of the world has a disincentive to keep them from blocking our interests in mulit-lateral bodies. And that disincentive is paradoxically the possibility of another American unilateral intervention. By taking it off the table, we actually make it more likely, which is why the Iran NIE, contrary to what people are assuming, does not entirely eliminate the possibility of a preventive strike on Iran.

What's more important than a blanket policy renunciation (which wouldn't be worth the paper it would never be written on) is a clear strategic calculus for how we assess imminent, likely and potential threats, and a commitment to addressing them in the context of the multi-lateral order. Nurturing our frayed multi-lateral and bi-lateral alliances would also go a long way towards ensuring we don't go it alone again. Gradually, as we rehabilitate our international standing, the question will recede of its own accord. But in the meantime, any rush to restabilize the multi-lateral order by removing a necessary counterweight might only wind up further destabilizing it.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Iraq   

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Saturday, December 8, 2007

Mitt's Mormon Moment

As usual, I tend to have something of a delayed reaction to a lot of the presidential campaign developments. From the safe distance of Paris, I'm only as surrounded by the wall-to-wall media coverage as I choose to be. And my exposure to what other people are actually talking about is limited to what I gather from political blogs.

So it's taken me a couple of days to gather my thoughts about Mitt Romney's speech on the place of religion in politics. In the meantime, I've done some (admittedly cursory) reading on Mormonism. And I have to say that in all the attention being paid to whether or not Romney can convince the Christian right that he's on the same side as they are in the fight against evil liberal secularists, there's another element to this story that people seem to be tiptoeing around, and understandably so.

Namely, that Mormonism is a pretty strange religion. Not only that, it's a pretty strange religion that was "revealed" (read: invented) relatively recently by concrete historical figures (as opposed to mythic historical figures) on whom contemporaneous records don't reflect too well, which makes it even stranger. (People have mentioned Scientology, but for me the theological comparison that comes to mind is Elijah Mohammed and the Nation of Islam.)

Now I understand that on a certain level, all religions are strange and that by some unspoken rule of common courtesy, the word "religion" functions as a sort of catch-all barrier behind which we all agree not to poke around too closely or too indelicately. (All of us except for Christopher Hitchens, that is, who gets a pass because he's so damn good at eviscerating the logical inconsistencies upon which religion is based.) But be all that as it may, Mormonism is really pretty weird.

Which raises the question that Romney tried to dodge by couching his argument in Constitutional terms and tossing his faith in Jesus in the same grand "faith basket" he thinks will get him off the Christian right's shit list. And that question is, Do voters have a right to judge candidates by the farfetched ideas they hold to be true, even if those ideas are part and parcel of their religious faith?

As a point of comparison, consider that in the context of a Democratic debate, Dennis Kucinich was asked about an account that implied he'd seen what he considered to be at least a UFO, and perhaps a vessel carrying intelligent extra-terrestrial life forms that were trying to communicate with him. He responded by citing the percentage of Americans who claim to have seen UFO's. But what if he'd responded that he's a New Ager, and that the belief in ET-carrying UFO's is part of his religion? The fact is, it's hard to imagine that kind of belief system not being a disqualifying criterion for the vast majority of voters.

Romney was successful in business and was a pretty popular governor of Massachusetts from what I understand. There's no reasonable basis to claim that his belief in some of the imagination-stretching aspects of the Mormon faith have interfered with his ability to make decisions in the real world. But my hunch is that that really won't matter.

I feel strange saying this, and even stranger being somewhat ambivalent about it, because it borders on the "Is America ready for a [Fill in the blank] President?" discussion that I personally find absurd when directed towards Hillary or Obama. By addressing his religion, though, Romney's introduced it as a legitimate campaign issue. Which means that if it's fair game to ask Huckabee whether he believes in evolution, it's fair game to ask Romney whether he believes he'll inherit a planet and ascend to godhood once he dies, or whether his underwear will protect him better than the Secret Service. The problem for Romney is that unlike Huckabee, whose rejection of modern science will cost him quite dearly among those whose view of the world is based on the fossil record but will endear him to the Christian right, Romney's belief in the bedrock tenets of his faith will most likely cost him dearly with both.

While that might be a measure of prejudice towards Mormons in general, I can't say I'll shed any tears for Mitt about it. His campaign's approach to religion has been cynical from the very start. His fifty-member Faith & Values Steering Committee doesn't even have a single representative from his own Faith & Values. No Mormons, no Muslims, and one Jew. So if it's finally his own religion that trips him up, I won't have much sympathy for him. I also won't be very surprised.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Friday, December 7, 2007

The Image Of Torture

Like everyone with a conscience still intact after seven years of assaults on our basic conception of constitutional rights (to say nothing about human morals and dignity), I'm shocked, outraged and angered by the CIA's brazen hubris in destroying evidence of illegal acts of torture. Had we caught an enemy in such an attempt to erase the historical record of their crimes, we would be rightfully indignant. Those responsible should be prosecuted to the full extent the law allows.

On the other hand, I can't say that I regret that the videos themselves were actually destroyed. Because we already know the crimes have been committed, and my sense of optimism leads me to be confident that the guilty parties will be brought to justice. But the actual footage itself would almost certainly have become the latest viral video, similar to the footage of Saddam Hussein's hanging, or the images from Abu Ghraib. Shock and horror would quickly give way to prurient curiosity, and the unthinkable -- American torturers -- would become not only mundane and trivialized, but reduced to the individuals on the screen.

In the same way that Abu Ghraib should not have been reduced to Lynndie England holding prisoners on a leash, but rather pursued up the chain of command, the American government's use of torture should not be reduced to several individuals caught on film. This is an American tragedy that should haunt us in the deepest reaches of our consciences in a way that concrete images can't.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   

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Friday, December 7, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"If a woman reveals herself as more useful, the lama could very well be reincarnated in this form."

-- The Dalai Lama, commenting on his possible successor

Posted by Judah in:  Quote Of The Day   

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Friday, December 7, 2007

Is Somebody Trying To Tell Us Something?

A 5.9 magnitude earthquake struck off of Bali, where the UN conference on climate change is meeting. The quake was "strongly felt" by the conference. Luckily, there was no threat of tsunames. I think it goes without saying that losing all of the world's diplomats responsible for negotiating an agreement to rolling back climate change would be a pretty major setback for the larger cause of rolling back climate change. The image of it happening, on the other hand, does add a certain urgency to the conference's outcome.

Posted by Judah in:  The Natural World   

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Friday, December 7, 2007

The Counterintuitive Implications Of The NIE

This Kaveh Afrasiabi piece, as usual, is a very informative analysis of the impact of the Iran NIE. I take exception with the premise that it demonstrates the "invented" nature of an Iranian threat, for reasons that I detailed here. But it is an alternate take on the idea that the NIE puts the EU three (France, Great Britain and Germany) in the driver's seat:

But, too bad for Europe, the net result of the NIE is that, in effect, it makes Europe redundant in the nuclear diplomacy, by depriving it of the stick of US hard power that has constantly lurked in the background every time European officials met with the Iranians and pressed their (unreasonable) nuclear demands. These were that Iran should forever forego its right to peaceful nuclear technology simply because of unfounded allegations and hyped-up fears.

This is, indeed, the nub of the paradox of the new situation as a result of the NIE: it has raised Iran's expectations for a more proactive European role precisely when Europe is now deprived of the necessary muscle to deal with Iran, hitherto provided by the US's credible threat of military action. With the latter jettisoned from the equation for now, Europe's cards for dealing with Iran have diminished considerably. All the attention has been deflected from Vienna and other European capitals to Washington, which until now has "outsourced" its Iran nuclear diplomacy to Europe.

Again, I reject the premise that a clandestine nuclear program including a (most probably) frozen weapons component is a hyped-up fear, as I do the claim that holding Iran to its obligations under the NPT (to which it is a signatory) is an unreasonable demand. More interesting, though, is Afrasiabi's reading of the state of play on the diplomatic front.

He points out that the threat of military force has not been taken off the table, so much as the nuclear standoff removed from the list of possible pretexts. (That list still includes any number of conceivable incidents in Iraq.) But the larger context of his argument, that the NIE reduces the Iran nuclear program to a non-issue, is an example of how by undermining the gathering diplomatic pressure on Tehran, the NIE might actually serve to lock in a military outcome.

In the absence of a credible EU negotiating position, the logic of a diplomatic resolution to this crisis is based on the Bush administration embracing a grand bargain with Tehran. Two things mitigate against this happening. First, Tehran had already begun to harden its negotiating position with the EU's Javier Solana even before the release of the NIE. Second, the Bush administration has long made it clear that opening the discussions for any grand bargain would depend on regaining the leverage it has lost through the Iraq fiasco.

The combination of the improved security situation in Iraq (even if it is due to Iranian cooperation) and the looming threat of a third round of sanctions seemed to have offered just such leverage. Now, with the EU's negotiating position eviscerated, the prospect of such a grand bargain, even if it follows from the logic of the NIE itself, looks more remote.

As I said, there's a counterintuitive element to this NIE that seems to be getting lost in translation. By reducing the imminent threat level of the Iranian nuclear program, it has removed the justification for a military strike, and rightly so. But it has also very clearly, if unjustifiably, undermined the diplomatic track. And by undermining the diplomatic track, it reduces the likelihood of a negotiated resolution to the crisis, which very much increases the likelihood of a military strike.

It's twisted logic, I know. But don't be surprised to find the military option, with even more catastrophic consequences because even more unilateral, very much back on the table should a third round of sanctions fail.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Friday, December 7, 2007

Pen Pals

Could it be that President Bush is considering using Pyongyang for a Nixonian "Peking Moment" before the end of his term? There's a lot of row left to hoe, but that's the direction that South Korea would like to see things go in. And the announcement that Bush had sent a personal note to "Chairman" Kim via Chris Hill has led to a certain amount of speculation.

...The US still wants to know about North Korea's program for developing warheads with highly enriched uranium, separately and secretly from the plutonium that everyone knows about at Yongbyon, and also wants to know what North Korea has been doing to "proliferate" its nuclear expertise elsewhere, notably to Syria and Iran.

The rewards for North Korea, as far as the Americans are concerned, are completely clear. If only Kim Jong-il will come through as desired, the US will surely remove the North from its list of countries sponsoring terrorism, will take away the embargo on most forms of trade with North Korea, will even normalize diplomatic relations and asset to a peace treaty.

The easy criticism to make is that the Bush administration, once again, has gotten its priorities mixed up in terms of nuclear non-proliferation. By fully engaging with a nuclearized North Korea, even in return for total transparency, it will only reinforce the idea that nuclear weapons capacity is the only guarantee against the interventionist doctrine of regime change. Obviously Tehran will be paying close attention to how things evolve.

But I think the more productive analysis is that engagement in this case is the lesser of two evils and the best hope for a stable outcome. After initially exacerbating the already challenging North Korean nuclear standoff, the Bush administration has managed to correct course and arrive at the cusp of a satisfactory resolution. A lot depends on how committed Kim Jong-il is to actually arriving at and respecting a final agreement. But if the promise of normalized diplomatic ties proves to be determinant, the argument for a broad diplomatic intitiative towards Tehran is only strengthened.

Again, there's a lot of row left to hoe. If the Annapolis summit caused Dick Cheney's pacemaker to sputter and blink, a Pyongyang summit between Bush and Kim would make it light up like a pinball machine. And Bush's notoriously bad judgment about foreign leaders' souls immediately de-legitimizes even his most promising foreign policy initiatives. But just like it took Nixon to go to Peking, it would be hard to roll back a Bush administration imprimatur on a lasting engagement with North Korea. And even harder to deny the logic of applying the same approach to Iran.

Posted by Judah in:  Dear Leader   Iran   

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Friday, December 7, 2007

France, Lebanon & The NIE

Last week it seemed like all sides in Beirut had found a way out of the Lebanese presidential impasse: change the constitution to allow the head of the Lebanese army, Michel Suleiman, to hold the office. This week, things don't look that certain anymore. Everyone still agrees that Suleiman is the man for the job. But the Lebanese minority, which includes pro-Syrian factions and Hezbollah, is insisting on altering government power-sharing formulas as a pre-condition to clearing the way for Suleiman's election. As Le Monde put it:

The silence and drawn features of the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bernard Kouchner, said it all...about the impasse in his mediation of the negotiations...

If the crisis remains unresolved, it will have been a pretty tough week for French foreign policy. Lebanon is supposed to be one of the cards that France delivers in the Middle East. So a failure to do so weakens its offer in any sort of regional bargaining going on with the Bush administration.

At the same time, this week's Iran NIE report poses some problems for Nicolas Sarkozy. Rightly or wrongly, his recent stance on the Iran nuclear standoff was interpreted by many to signal that he'd been tipped off to an eventual American military intervention and was positioning himself to be on the right side of the Bush administration when it went down. According to this view, the report itself leaves him out in the cold with his good friend George, throwing a war to which no one shows up.

I'm not sure I agree with that interpretation. For me, Sarkozy's and Kouchner's recent declarations were, a) more a corrective to Jacques Chirac's slip of the tongue downplaying the significance of an Iranian bomb this past spring than a change in policy, and b) wildly distorted to sound more bellicose than they actually were. (Admittedly, using the word "war" in the same sentence as Iran, even without actually advocating for it, was clearly provocative.)

As for the underlying strategy, I felt it was a way to make the hardliners in the Bush administration more comfortable with the EU negotiation track by convincing them that he, too, understood how high the stakes were. But he was determined to bring the hawks back to the negotiation track because the very stakes involved demand that any resolution to the crisis be legitimized by a multi-lateral approach. The NIE itself, as Jeffrey Laurenti of the Century Foundation points out, validates the EU approach and firmly places the initiative in the engagement camp. The danger now being that the wildly exagerrated rhetoric out of Washington has de-legitimized any sense of alarm about the underlying crisis and reduced Russia and China's willingness to go along with sanctions.

That would be unfortunate, because it seemed like the latest round of diplomatic wrangling was clearly moving towards sanctions designed to raise the pressure on Iran to fully comply with its NPT obligations. Which makes the timing of the NIE's release all the more curious. Counterintuitively, if the NIE ends up derailing what looked like promising diplomatic initiatives to a negotiated resolution of the conflict, it might end up making the military option that much more likely.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   La France Politique   The Middle East   

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Thursday, December 6, 2007

Subprime Redline

According to this brief titled "African Americans and Homeownership: The Subprime Lending Experience,1995 to 2007" from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, even after controlling for comparable risk factors as well as borrower and lender characteristics, blacks and other ethnic minorities were wildly overrepresented in the subprime market for home purchase, home improvement and home refinance loans. There was also a direct correlation between states with a high proportion of subprime loans and states with a high proportion of black residents. Ditto for predatory loans and ZIP codes with predominantly minority populations.

Oddly enough, blacks in predominantly wealthy neighborhoods were three times as likely to take out subprime refinance loans as people in wealthy neighborhoods overall. Compare that to blacks in predominantly poor neighborhoods, who were only one and a half times as likely to take out subprime loans as people in predominantly poor neighborhoods overall. Leaving the brief's authors to wonder whether the expectation of racist lending practices doesn't lead qualified black borrowers to forego the more above board financing options and head directly to the predatory lenders that are happy to see them walk through the door.

Posted by Judah in:  Markets & Finance   Race In America   

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Thursday, December 6, 2007

Make It Stop

You know things are getting wonkish in your brain when you see a conference coming up this weekend at the Hudson Institute titled The Azerbaijan-Turkey-U.S. Relationship and its Importance for Eurasia and you think to yourself, "Damn. Too bad I'm not in DC."

Oh, well. Maybe I'll just wander through the Louvre instead.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Thursday, December 6, 2007

Hard To Please

The Turkey-PKK crisis has cooled down quite a bit since last it made front page news, mainly because President Bush and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to have found the ideal solution: the US would help Turkey target pinpoint strikes on PKK bases in Iraq's Kandil Mountains by providing actionable intelligence, the Iraqi Kurds would isolate the PKK from their supply and support base within Iraqi Kurdistan, and everybody would act like everything was hunky dory.

Only trouble is, two days ago, State Department spokesman Chase Beamer complained that the Kurdistan Regional Government wasn't doing enough to rein in the PKK, and today Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan made the same claim. Which is hard to understand in light of this (lengthy) excerpt from the Beamer article:

Under diplomatic pressure from both Ankara and Washington, the regional Kurdish administration in Iraq has started announcing new measures against the PKK almost every day. Following the Turkish military's operations over the weekend, the largely autonomous Kurdish region's peshmerga security forces positioned reinforcement troops near the border in order to prevent PKK infiltrations into Turkish territory. Heavy armament, cannons and armored combat units have also been sent to the area near the border, the Cihan news agency reported on Monday from Qanimasi, northern Iraq.

Peshmerga forces have been on constant guard particularly near the Kandil Mountains, which is a strategic settlement area for the PKK terrorists as well as the northern Iraqi cities of Zakho, Begova, Qanimasi, Amedi, Batufa, Bamerni and Choman, Cihan reported. Only villagers living in nearby villages are allowed to cross into the area after being searched thoroughly by the peshmerga forces deployed there, peshmerga officials said. Small-scale operations are also carried out to curb PKK movements.

The measures, coupled with increased security on the Turkish side of the border, appear to have confined the PKK to the mountainous region, according to Cihan. Over the weekend, an Iraqi-Kurdish official said the PKK, unhappy with the Iraqi Kurdish administration's recent measures to curb its supplies, is a threat to the Iraqi Kurds.

"The PKK is trying to destroy us," said Fazil Mirani, secretary-general of Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). "We have fought for 50 years and secured some achievements. We have no intention of giving them up because of the PKK."

For what it's worth, Barzani is the hotheaded President of the KRG who earlier this year threatened to intervene in Turkey's internal affairs should Turkey interfere in the Kirkuk referendum. So the fact that the Secretary General of his political formation is basically cutting the line on the PKK is pretty significant. And the deployment of Peshmerga units to the border not to repel the Turks but to contain the PKK is a 180° turnaround from even a month ago. I'm not sure just what the folks in Ankara were hoping for, but they do seem to be a bit demanding on this one.

[And if you're thinking that the main reason I wrote this post was to put the names "Chase Beamer" and "Ali Babacan" in the same sentence, you wouldn't be all wrong.]

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Illogic Of Peace

I was willing to suspend disbelief in the aftermath of Annapolis, if only because it seemed too easy to dismiss the entire affair as an intricately staged excercise in futility. But when a week later the Israeli government announces plans to build over 300 homes in a contested East Jerusalem settlement, I have to admit that the disbelief starts kicking back in.

It's possible that Olmert felt the need to toss a bone to the rightwing parties of his governing coalition whose members were unhappy with his participation in the conference. But the fact that he wasn't willing to postpone this announcement, let alone cancel it, seems like a slap in the face to just about everyone who made the effort to show up at Annapolis.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Easy As MP One, Two, Three

Another French internet service provider, Alice, has come out with a free music download formula. For the price of the basic service package, new subscribers will have unlimited access to EMI's catalogue, for their computer and up to three mp3 players. The one wrinkle is that the files come embedded with Microsoft's DRM system, so they're not compatible with either iTunes or iPod. A spokesman for the company added that come 2008, for an extra 10 Euros, subscribers will have access to Sony, Warner and Universal. The offer comes in response to Neuf's recent formula of different levels of access to Universal's catalogue. That deal, which guaranteed Universal exclusivity for six months, will soon open up to other labels.

I'm a bit out of the loop with what's going on in the States, so I don't know if this kind of deal is already standard fare for American ISP's. What's becoming increasingly clear is that the entire landscape of music delivery is changing so rapidly that the early adapter companies will in some ways suffer from their innovative ways, on both ends. Those paying licensing fees to bundle music in their products or services can get locked in to limiting deals. And the majors have to be careful about not giving away the farm to any single licenser. If everyone can download free with an internet account, they have no incentive to pay slightly extra for an mp3 player that comes with pre-licensed catalogue downloads.

The music industry has been suffering (from self-inflicted wounds, in my opinion) for so long that they're in a rush to recoup some cash. But if it doesn't think through how this is all going to play out in the next five years, it will end up with end consumers saturated with offers, and little demand.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   Markets & Finance   

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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Happy Hanukkah

Just lit the candles a few hours ago with the Lil' Feller.

And in a sign that I'm clogging my brain with too many thoughts about global developments and geopolitics, yesterday as I waited in line for the cash register with the other parents and grand-parents in the already mobbed toystore, the thought occured to me that we were all pressing our way toward the counter to drop our money before the mouth of an enormous vacuum tube that spirited it away to a Chinese bank account on the other side of the world, collectively driven by a marketing-fueled bulimic hunger to exchange cold cash for disposable plastic chachkes. History will certainly look back at this voluntary wealth transfer with curiosity.

On the brighter side, the candles sure were beautiful tonight. Happy Hannukah.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Hold The NIE Euphoria

A lot of the reactions to the NIE are understandably focusing on the discrepancy between the Bush administration's alarmist characterization of the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program and the intelligence community's finding that Iran froze the weapons component in 2003. And to be sure, the NIE is reassuring, especially in that it discredits the claim that any sort of military option, whether unilateral or multi-lateral, is urgently necessary.

It's important not to overlook, though, the fact that Iran's entire nuclear program is the result of a decades-long clandestine procurement effort that was in direct violation of their legal obligations under the NPT, that at no time since the program was revealed has Iran ever been in full compliance with its obligations under the NPT, and that they have repeatedly backtracked on promised concessions both to the IAEA and EU. It's also worth noting that while Iran has recently been more transparent with regards to its declared nuclear activity, the one area where they still have been obstructive is in giving the IAEA more intrusive access to its program sites in order to verify that no un-declared activity is taking place.

On a theoretical level, one may be willing to minimize the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran due to Israel's and America's deterrent power, and willing to accept Iran's regional influence under the protection of a nuclear umbrella. I think there are reasonable arguments in defense of both propositions.

But on a very practical level, there are three reasons why Iran's mastering of the nuclear fuel enrichment cycle while remaining non-compliant with the NPT poses real threats to regional and global stability. To begin with, it further de-legitimzes the NPT at a time when it has already been severely destabilized. (Yes, the US-India deal contributes to this process.) Second, it has already caused a rush on the nuclear bank, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Morocco and Libya already declaring their intentions to go nuclear within the next 15-20 years. (Keep a close watch on Turkey, which for the time being has had trouble finding a seismically safe location for its declared nuclear ambitions.) That process could be reversed with a NPT-based resolution to the Iran standoff. It's unstoppable in the absence of one. Third, it will likely push Israel to shed even more of its posture of nuclear ambiguity than what Ehud Olmert revealed in apparently off the cuff remarks earlier this year, which would only accelerate the aforementioned regional race for nuclear capacities.

In other words, it's a good thing that Cheney and his gang's nonsense have been revealed for the Iraq redux they are. But that doesn't diminish the need to deal very carefully with the very real dangers presented by an Iranian nuclear program outside the auspices of the NPT. One of the strongest arguments often made against the Iraq War, both in the run up and the aftermath, was that it was a needless distraction from North Korea and Iran, two countries whose nuclear ambitions were further advanced and more determined. Nothing about the catastrophic nature of the Iraq War diminishes the argument, as demonstrated by North Korea's newfound nuclear status. The NIE confirms that Iran has proven more cautious than North Korea, but it doesn't say anything about what happens next.

There's no question that the Bush administration's approach to the standoff has been needlessly bellicose, and remarkably uncreative, given the openings for a broader kind of bargain that seemed possible in 2003. As Matthew Yglesias puts it, Sometimes you have to be willing to take yes for an answer. But in the rush to celebrate Cheney's defeat, we shouldn't treat Iran with kid gloves. My thoughts have evolved on this question over time, it's true, primarily due to getting pretty deep into the weeds on the issue. A unilateral strike would be disastrous. But so would a nuclear-armed Iran outside the NPT. Of the two, the second would probably be more manageable, and therefore less undesirable. But it's by no means a benign option.

Again, the key is to keep the pressure on, but to make sure it's multi-lateral pressure. In addition to pressure, some sort of opening has to be offered to Iran, and given that Europe already has pretty strong commercial and diplomatic ties with Iran, that opening can only come from us. But Iran has to be held accountable for its commitments under the NPT. Otherwise they'll have bluffed their way into normalized relations, without ever revealing just what cards they're holding.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Media Coverage   

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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Whose Estimate?

One quick afterthought about the NIE finding on Iran's nuclear weapons program. Two weeks ago, Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher made the following remarks:

"Iran is deadly dangerous. They have been isolated from us for a very, very long time, and we don't have very good intelligence. I am glad we use a lot of international intelligence, especially the French and (the U.K.'s) MI6," she told reporters.

Asked if the U.S. administration's warnings about Iran's alleged secret nuclear weapons program should be believed, Tauscher said, "You shouldn't, you should believe the French."

So if the US depends on France for its Iran intel, what does France have to say about Iran's weapons program? Well, it just so happens that Herve Morin, France's Defense Minister, made the following remarks in Abu Dhabi in late October:

Our intelligence, corroborated by that of other countries, gives us the opposite impression... If Baradei is right, there is no reason for Iran not to allow the IAEA to carry out its inspections...

The impression he was referring to was Mohamed ElBaradei's announcement that no proof exists of a military component for Iran's nuclear program. So far I haven't seen a French response to the NIE. But it wouldn't surprise me if they don't call too much attention to the discrepancy, seeing as France is increasingly becoming the fulcrum of the diplomatic effort to bring Iran back to the negotiating table.

From what I can tell, Israel is the only country to challenge the American NIE.

Update: I just found an excerpt of the French Foreign Ministry's statement:

"It appears that Iran is not respecting its international obligations. We must keep up the pressure on Iran ... we will continue to work on the introduction of restrictive measures in the framework of the United Nations."

Not terribly upbeat. But the French position has always been pretty tough on Iran. 

[Note: I flagged both of these stories at the time, here and here, where you can find the links. But it seemed worthwhile re-posting the comments.]

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Third World Currency

It looks like the Bush administration's policy of a "strong" dollar has finally begun to pay off. After losing 25% of its value against the Euro in two years, the dollar now buys barely more than 50 euro-cents. The damage to Euro-zone exporters is obvious. But in a move that exemplifies the gravity of the situation, EADS chairman Louis Gallois today declared that its Airbus subsidiary will soon be forced to outsource its production to the dollar-zone:

"Unfortunately, I believe we must not use the conditional anymore. We must not say 'We ought to', we must say 'We will have to', because we no longer have the choice... The only way to prepare the company for a dollar that no one controls anymore is unfortunately to set ourselves up in the dollar zone," he added, judging that "the industrial substance is in the process of leaving" Europe... (Translated from the French.)

Had someone suggested two years ago that the Chinese, OPEC, the ECB and all of the other enormous market-making capital funds would simply sit by and watch the dollar lose 25% of its value, I'm not sure anyone would have believed it. Now there doesn't seem to be a whole lot anyone can do about it. Over the cliff we go...

Update: According to Der Spiegel, Airbus is exploring the possibility of an assembly plant in Mobile, Alabama, and VW is looking to establish a North American factory also.

Also, in response to a Comment thread, I should also make my broader point more explicit. Namely, that the dollar devaluation has been part of an economic "assault" on the Euro-zone and China. So far it's managed to boost American exports, and might end up resuscitating America's industrial productive base through "insourcing" from the Euro-zone, even if it hasn't gotten China to unpeg its currency. But it's hard, if not impossible, to imagine that the US can somehow maintain its global influence while at the same time becoming a Third World economic zone to a "rich" EU and a cash-bloated China.

Where it also gets sketchy is when it combines with underlying fundamentals to make investors reluctant to subsidize the American lifestyle. Already Asian central banks are increasingly moving towards Euro-zone debt, and should the dollar continue to slide, that will only become more pronounced. Since America is now primarily a non-productive debtor nation, this will have very painful consequences.

Posted by Judah in:  Markets & Finance   

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Monday, December 3, 2007

The Joyful Elite

That's what a New York Magazine article in the eighties called the students of my high school alma mater, Hunter College High School. So of course some enterprising smart-ass went and had "Joyful Elite" buttons made up and sold them for two bucks a piece. They sold out in an afternoon or two.

Anyway, according to an Alumnae/i Association e-mail, Hunter (or the Brick Prison, as we called it) was just ranked the top public high school nationwide by the Wall Street Journal, and 14th overall. (The private schools that beat it out charge up to $32,000 for tuition.)

One thing I don't quite get. The way they judged the schools was by who got the most students into certain colleges, which is already a pretty one-dimensional way of judging a high school. But the colleges they chose were Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Williams, Swarthmore, the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins and Pomona.

Now, I can understand Harvard being in there. After all, it is the Stanford of the East, as we used to say in Palo Alto. But why not just put Stanford on the list? As it stands, Pomona is the only representative of a quality West Coast undergraduate education, which obviously weights the results towards East coast prep schools.

Meanwhile, in trying to find that Joyful Elite article, I stumbled across (what else?) the Wikipedia page for HCHS and discovered all the distinguished alums: Audre Lord, Cynthia Ozick, Angela Bofill, Manohla Dargis, Cynthia Nixon, Eli Attie (who in addition to playing bass in my high school band also happened to write Al Gore's final concession speech in 2000). Pretty impressive. I'm kind of surprised I went six years to the place and never knew Audre Lord was an alum, though.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Monday, December 3, 2007

Evolving Without Escalating

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the Gulf Cooperation Council today, which in itsef is significant, given that the Council was established in 1980 in part to counter the spread of Iran's influence and its revolutionary brand of theocracy. But Ahmadinejad's appearance, in which he proposed a regional Islamic security pact and declared once again Tehran's willingness to share its nuclear expertise with other Gulf states, was far from just symbolic.

This is a very cagey Iranian gambit to reconfigure the balance of power in the standoff over its nuclear program. It comes in the aftermath of this Saturday's meeting of the "3+3" (US, Russia, China + Great Britain, Germany, France) in Paris, which reportedly succeeded in moving all concerned (and in particular China) one step closer to a third round of UN Security Council sanctions.

Should Russia and China acquiesce to even watered down sanctions, it would seriously isolate Iran, and put the burden of responsibility on Tehran to suspend its uranium enrichment program. Ahmadinejad's proposal is clearly an effort to create a fallback option -- and what's more, one that reinforces the image of a clash of civilizations -- in the event it finds itself isolated on the international stage.

Meanwhile, the new NIE concluding that Iran has frozen the weapons component of its nuclear program is reassuring for three reasons. First, it shows that the current approach of sanctions and negotiations by proxy has so far been effective at discouraging Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons capacity. Second, it provides more confirmation that Iran cares about being perceived as a responsible power, which is a powerful leverage point in continuing negotiations. And third, it suggests that time is not necessarily working in Tehran's favor. Yes, they're continuing to master the fuel enrichment cycle, which is the pre-requisite for a weapons capacity. But if the red line were putting centrifuge cascades online, we'd have already bombed the labs. It's not. The red line is a weapons capacity. And the current approach has forestalled that.

All in all, despite some major structural weaknesses in the EU/US negotiating position, some real obstinacy on both sides of the conflict, and some opportunistic manipulativeness on the part of the Russians, this crisis has somehow managed to evolve without escalating. Ahmadinejad's latest proposal might be the next phase in its evolution, one that, were it to be pursued, borders on a genetic mutation. But given the level of suspicion and alarm Gulf Arab states harbor towards Iran, that's unlikely.

There's no telling what direction the Iranian leadership will choose to take should an international consensus develop against them. Their most recent negotiating position in their talks with Javier Solana of the EU was apparently a disaster. But an alternative line in Tehran has already been articulated by Ahmadinejad's opposition. A hardening of international opprobrium might be the necessary catalyst to undermine Ahmadinejad's internal support.

Regardless of Tehran's position, the determining factor for the EU/US is to build a multilateral consensus that legitimizes its position. That looks more and more like what is happening.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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