Friday, April 25, 2008

How Chinese nationalists are like blog commenters

John Pomfret makes the connection:

I've never really been able to take China nationalism that seriously. It's like some of the comments on my blog. There's no shortage of passion but it's also curiously skin deep. It's often a foil for anti-government feelings, employed by Chinese who are actually fed up with Communist Party rule but aren't allowed to say it. Finally, it often masks deeper divisions in Chinese society. Whenever I read a Chinese blogger urging an anti-foreign boycott or some other type of joint action, I'm reminded of the telling saying that Chinese have about themselves. "A Chinese alone equals the power of a dragon, but three Chinese, nothing but an insect."
Read the whole thing.

posted by Dan at 10:31 AM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, November 30, 2007

So what's going on in the Islamic justice system?

A British teacher in Sudan was convicted of "insulting Islam because her class of 7-year-olds named a teddy bear Muhammad," according to the New York Times' Jeffrey Gettleman. He has more information on the Sudanese reaction, which is a bit varied:

Hundreds of demonstrators in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, poured into the streets on Friday demanding the execution of a British teacher who was convicted of insulting Islam because her class of 7-year-olds named a teddy bear Muhammad....

Despite the display of outrage, witnesses said that many of the protesters were government employees ordered to demonstrate, and that aside from a large gathering outside the presidential palace, most of Khartoum was quiet. Imams across the city brought up the case in sermons after Friday Prayer, but few of them urged violence.

“This woman gave an idol the name of Muhammad, which is not acceptable,” said Ahmed Muhammad, the imam at a mosque in Khartoum 2, an upscale section of town. But, he added, the proper response was more nuanced: “We have to first respect ourselves, and then others will respect us.”

Time's Rob Crilly has more backstory, which suggests that much of the outrage is terribly, terribly faux:
Teachers at Unity High have stood by their colleague, noting that the first complaint came only last week despite the fact that parents had been aware of the class bear's name since September.

During an eight-hour court proceeding on Thursday, it emerged that a school secretary had been the first to raise the alarm. Teachers have alleged that Gibbons was the victim of a staffer trying to discredit the school rather than an offended parent....

The case is an embarrassment for the Sudanese government, whose policies in Darfur have helped make it an international pariah. But the government is hamstrung by extremist elements, who will capitalize on any perception that Khartoum is bowing to British pressure, said Professor Elteyb Hag Ateya, director of Khartoum University's peace research institute.

"There is a sort of "who is the best Muslim?" competition to this whole thing which makes it difficult for the government to be seen to back down," he said.

At the same time, there's another case in Saudi Arabia that's equally interesting -- because it suggests that there are fissures within the Saudi government. Click over to Charli Carpenter's post at Duck of Minerva for more -- as well as this post at the wonderfully-named Elected Swineherd.

UPDATE: Lydia Polgreen has a front-pager today iin the New York Times about yet another country that has incorporated sharia into its justice system -- Nigeria. The outcome, however, is at variance with initial expectations:

When Muslim-dominated states like Kano adopted Islamic law after the fall of military rule in 1999, radical clerics from the Arabian peninsula arrived in droves to preach a draconian brand of fundamentalism, and newly empowered religious judges handed down tough punishments like amputation for theft. Kano became a center of anti-American sentiment in one of the most reliably pro-American countries in Africa.

But since then, much of the furor has died down, and the practice of Islamic law, or Shariah, which had gone on for centuries in the private sphere before becoming enshrined in public law, has settled into a distinctively Nigerian compromise between the dictates of faith and the chaotic realities of modern life in an impoverished, developing nation.

posted by Dan at 11:38 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Meanwhile, in Iraq....

The New York Times' Damien Cave and Alissa Rubin have the story that will occupy the blogosphere for today -- Baghdad is safer:

The security improvements in most neighborhoods are real. Days now pass without a car bomb, after a high of 44 in the city in February. The number of bodies appearing on Baghdad’s streets has plummeted to about 5 a day, from as many as 35 eight months ago, and suicide bombings across Iraq fell to 16 in October, half the number of last summer and down sharply from a recent peak of 59 in March, the American military says.

As a result, for the first time in nearly two years, people are moving with freedom around much of this city. In more than 50 interviews across Baghdad, it became clear that while there were still no-go zones, more Iraqis now drive between Sunni and Shiite areas for work, shopping or school, a few even after dark. In the most stable neighborhoods of Baghdad, some secular women are also dressing as they wish. Wedding bands are playing in public again, and at a handful of once shuttered liquor stores customers now line up outside in a collective rebuke to religious vigilantes from the Shiite Mahdi Army.

Iraqis are clearly surprised and relieved to see commerce and movement finally increase, five months after an extra 30,000 American troops arrived in the country. But the depth and sustainability of the changes remain open to question.

By one revealing measure of security — whether people who fled their home have returned — the gains are still limited. About 20,000 Iraqis have gone back to their Baghdad homes, a fraction of the more than 4 million who fled nationwide, and the 1.4 million people in Baghdad who are still internally displaced, according to a recent Iraqi Red Crescent Society survey.

This report, combined with reports on monthly deaths from sectarian violence, suggest that the effects of the surge are clear -- we've managed to get Baghdad back to the place it was prior to the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra. I believe this is also a period in which even members of the Bush administration admitted that their Iraq policy was "adrift."

Well, there are some other changes... ike in the rest of Iraq. The Christian Science Monitor's Sam Dagher has a story on this:

Ammar al-Hakim is presiding over an Iraqi Shiite building boom. His austere Shaheed al-Mihrab Foundation has raised 400 mosques in Iraq since 2003. It's building the largest seminary here in the holy city of Najaf and opening a chain of schools. And it now has 95 offices throughout the country.

What's more, Mr. Hakim's foundation is winning over adherents to his party – the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) – through all-expenses-paid mass marriages along with cash payments and gifts for the newlyweds, free education and stipends at his new schools, and an array of other charitable projects such as caring for orphans and displaced families.

All of this is being done to promote ISCI's core vision: a federation of nine provinces where conservative Shiite Islam would reign.

While opponents say that such a federation among central and southern provinces would only hasten the breakup of Iraq and create a ministate where Iran would hold great sway, Hakim and his party are making great gains.

For them, the plan would bolster security for Shiites and benefit the stability of the country as a whole. And, most significant, they are winning much support ahead of a national referendum on the issue by April 2008, as proscribed by the Constitution.

Is this a good thing? The International Crisis Group is skeptical:
As long as the U.S. remains in Iraq, its alliance with ISCI will help entrench the party in the country’s governing, security and intelligence institutions, in Baghdad as well as most southern governorates. Its only true challenger remains the Mahdi army, which despite its ruffian credentials and bloody role in sectarian reprisals enjoys broad support among Shiite masses. Their rivalry now takes the form of a class struggle between the Shiite merchant elite of Baghdad and the holy cities, represented by ISCI (as well, religiously, by Sistani), and the Shiite urban underclass.

This struggle, more than the sectarian conflict or confrontation between Anbari sheikhs and al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters, is likely to shape the country’s future. The most plausible scenario is a protracted struggle for power between these two movements, marked perhaps by temporary alliances, such as is presently in force.

The U.S. has fully backed ISCI in this rivalry. This is a risky gambit. Unleashing ISCI/Badr against the Sadrists is a dangerous policy that will further deepen intra-Shiite divisions; it also is a short-sighted one, given the Sadrists’ stronger mass base.

Question to readers: is there cause to be optimistic about the future of Iraq?

UPDATE: Anne Applebaum makes an important point:

[The] optimism is totally unwarranted. Not because things aren't improving in Iraq—it seems they are, at least for the moment—but because the collateral damage inflicted by the war on America's relationships with the rest of the world is a lot deeper and broader than most Americans have yet realized. It isn't just that the Iraq war invigorated the anti-Americanism that has always been latent pretty much everywhere. Far worse is the fact that—however it all comes out in the end, however successful Iraqi democracy becomes a decade from now—our conduct of the war in Iraq has disillusioned our natural friends and supporters and thrown a lasting shadow over our military and political competence. However it all comes out, the price we've paid is too high.

posted by Dan at 08:49 AM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Could Hugo Chavez threaten Venezuela baseball?

Maria Burns Ortiz has a story at that indicates Hugo Chavez's nationalization policies are starting to foreign direct investment -- in baseball:

With that kind of talent emerging from Venezuela in recent seasons, one would assume that big league clubs would be flocking to the South American nation in search of the next superstar. However, the cultural and political scene in Venezuela is undergoing rapid and radical transformation, and instead of flocking to the country, teams are fleeing over concerns about safety and political uncertainty. They aren't leaving in droves just yet, but the stream has been steady enough to raise a red flag about the future....

The number of clubs pulling their player development operations out of Venezuela has been a concern for Major League Baseball. Nineteen teams have participated in the Venezuelan Summer League in the past, but only 11 did so this year.

The Padres, for example, had planned on leaving Venezuela following this season after they built a multimillion-dollar facility in the Dominican, but the current situation accelerated the move. The team moved all its player development operations out of Venezuela following the 2005 campaign, two years earlier than originally anticipated.

"We just figured we might as well do it [then] to avoid some of the hassle of having to deal with some of the legislation that [President Hugo] Chávez passes down there in hiring coaches, worrying about severance pay and just getting in and out of the country," says Juan Lara, San Diego's Latin American operations coordinator.

San Diego is not alone. Baltimore ceased operating its academy following the 2006 season. The Red Sox -- one of the teams the Padres shared an academy with -- left when San Diego did in 2005. Cleveland pulled out in 2004.

posted by Dan at 06:30 PM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, October 26, 2007

I was in a nowhere job... going nowhere....

until I heard about the Robert Mugabe National School of Intelligence!!

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has launched an intelligence academy named after him, saying it would produce officers able to counter growing threats from Western powers, state media reported on Friday.

Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980, is fighting isolation from the West, which accuses him of human rights abuses and rigging elections and economic mismanagement....

"With the current unjustified demonization of Zimbabwe by Western powers, the role of intelligence in shaping foreign, security and economic policies become even more critical," the Herald newspaper quoted the president as saying at the launch of the Robert Mugabe National School of Intelligence near Harare....

The intelligence academy is also expected to train members of the army, police and operatives from other southern African countries.

Mugabe said Britain and the United States continued to try to destabilize Zimbabwe by working with "non-state actors" aimed at unseating his government.

"The important role of defending our country cannot be left to mediocre officers incapable of comprehending and analytically evaluating the operational environment to ensure that the sovereignty of our state is not only preserved, but enhanced," Mugabe said.

Request to commenters: please propose possible course names for the Robert Mugabe National School of Intelligence. Pedagogically, which courses should be required? What are the possible areas of concentration?

Hat tip: Blake Hounshell.

posted by Dan at 02:00 PM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Blip or surge?

The Financial Times' Steve Negus offers some good news from Iraq. No, really:

The Iraqi government reported on Monday that civilian casualties dropped by more than 50 per cent in September, a month in which US casualties also declined to their lowest level in 14 months.

All estimates of civilian casualties are contentious, due to the difficulty of obtaining complete data from conflict zones scattered across the country as well as the danger that statistics will be politically manipulated.

But September’s drop is one of the most dramatic since the Iraqi government began releasing figures, and is in rough accordance with other data suggesting levels of violence may be dropping.

The apparent decline also comes in spite of September’s partial overlap with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which usually sees an increase in attacks by Sunni Arab militants. A tally provided by Iraq’s health, interior and defence ministries quoted by news agencies noted 884 civilians killed in September, down from 1,773 in August, 1,653 in July and 1,227 in June.

The independent Iraq Body Count, which tallies press reports of civilian deaths, recorded higher numbers but showed a similar trajectory – 1,280 killed in September, 2,575 in August, 2,600 in July, and 2,092 in June.

US casualties also declined., a website which keeps a tally of US deaths, reported 63 fatalities in September, compared with 84 in August and 126 in May. September’s total is the lowest since July 2006.

posted by Dan at 10:23 AM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, September 17, 2007

What will Iran do in Iraq?

A common objection to any kind of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is that it's a gift to Iran. Iran is actively meddling in Iraq's politics as we speak. Should U.S. forces go over the horizon, the prospect of a powerful Iran and a subordinate Iraq stokes fears of a Shiite superstate in the region.

Is this how things will actually play out? Consider what is heppening now in Basra. The Christian Science Monitor's Sam Dagher reports on how Iraq's second-largest city is doing in the wake of the British exit from the city earlier this month. To get a sense of how fractious the place is, here's Dagher's guide to the key players in the region:

Sadrists and Mahdi Army: The movement of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is a formidable force in Basra. The Mahdi Army is estimated to number 17,000 in the province. Security officials say that some of the Basra militia are infiltrated by Iran and beholden to Tehran. It opposes a super-Shiite region, but supports the ouster of the Fadhila governor.

The Council: The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, previously known by its acronym SCIRI, embraces four other affiliate parties in Basra:

The Badr Organization – Once the council’s Iranian-trained paramilitary arm, known as the Badr Brigade.

The Shaheed Al-Mihrab Organization – A nationwide movement headed by Ammar al-Hakim, the son of the Council’s chief.

The Sayed Al-Shuhada Movement (Master of Martyrs Movement).

The Hizbullah Movement in Iraq (no relation to Lebanese Hizbullah) and another small Iraqi party called Hizbullah al-Iraq (see below).

All five parties were previously based in Iran and have strong ties to Tehran. The Council and its affiliates hold 21 of the 40 seats in the provincial council. Badr still controls several police units, including customs.

The Pentacle House: The Council and its four party affiliates make up the Bayet al-Khumasi, or the Pentacle House. The goal: to create a nine-province Shiite group called the “South of Baghdad region.” Billboards in Basra tout the project as a “Shiite Renaissance.”

The Islamic Fadhila (Virtue) Party: Fadhila is a national party founded by Basra natives. Its spiritual leader is Najaf-based cleric Ayatollah Muhammad al-Yacoubi, who broke ranks with Moqtada al-Sadr in 2003.

The movement continues to espouse Sadrist ideas but has increasingly fashioned itself as a Shiite Arab Islamist party opposed to Iranian meddling in Iraq. It opposes the pro-Iranian Council and its affiliates over a number of issues, including the supersouthern region.

Fadhila holds 12 seats in the Basra provincial council, including the governorship and one of the two deputy governor slots in Basra. Fadhila dominates the 15,000-strong oil protection force.

Thaar Allah (God’s Revenge) Party: A small party based in Basra and headed by Yousif al-Mussawi. He is suspected by many city residents of being an Iranian agent. The party derives much of its funding from wealthy merchants who rely on it for protection. It has allied itself with the Council and its Pentacle House in the fight to oust the Fadhila governor. Mr. Mussawi blames the governor for the death of three members of his family during a raid on his party headquarters in 2006.

Hizbullah al-Iraq: A small party headed by tribal chief Abdul-Karim al-Mahamadawi, based in neighboring Maysan Province. The Prince of the Marshes, as Mr. Mahamadawi is known, has a large, armed tribal following and presence in Basra. He has tense relations with the Council and its affiliates.

Mahmoud al-Hassani al-Sarkhi: The cleric broke ranks with the Sadrists and is believed to be in the holy city of Karbala with the bulk of his militia. But he still has a following in Basra. His posters adorn many streets. The controversial cleric has challenged the authority of the marjiya, the Shiite religious authority dominated by the Najaf-based Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Read the whole thing. A few facts are quite clear: 1) Iran is playing a very active supporting role;

2) Iran does not appear to be playing a unifying role. The Monitor story suggests that this is because it lacks the capacity to do so:

Although Iran is closest to the council and its affiliate parties like Badr and Sayed al-Shuhada, it's also backing many other Shiite groups in southern Iraq including those that are openly using violence to oppose British and coalition troops, according to Ali Ansari, an Iran specialist at London's Chatham House.

"The Iranians are backing as many horses as they can," he says. "But there is a limit to their influence, given how fractious Shiites are in Iraq."

There's an alternative interpretation -- it's possible that Iran lacks the interest. A fractious Iraq can serve as a buffer for Iran without triggering a security dilemma with Saudi Arabia or other Sunni states.

The Basra story is still developing, of course. Still, one wonders whether Tehran will be any more adept at nation-building in Iraq than the United States.

posted by Dan at 08:13 AM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Saturday, September 8, 2007

And here I thought "angry Buddhist monks" was an oxymoron

The Financial Times' Amy Kazmin and Andrew Ward report that Myanmar's regime is so bad that they've actually managed to make Budshist monks angry. Apparently, you wouldn't like them when they're angry:

Burma’s military regime fulminated on Friday against ’external anti-government groups’ which it claimed were trying to foment a mass uprising in Burma, and warned that it remains determined to crush open displays of dissent....

The regime’s outburst came amid persistent high tensions in the town of Pokkoku, a centre of Buddhist learning, where angry Buddhist monks have clashed with government authorities and pro-regime supporters in recent days....

Burma’s ruling generals are on edge after a rare wave of small but persistent protests against a sudden sharp increase in the price of rationed fuel, which has exacerbated the hardships of the impoverished population.

Initially, the regime relied mainly on its civilian militias – with frightening names like Swan-aah Shin, or “Masters of Force” – to help police and other security forces to haul off demonstrators, and snuff out protests and marches almost as soon as they began.

But tensions have intensified since Wednesday night when soldiers in Pokkoku fired warning shots over the heads of hundreds of protesting monks, who complained of being manhandled, and tied to electricity poles.

On Thursday, monks infuriated at the harsh treatment held a dozen government officials captive in a tense standoff, and burned four official cars, before freeing the group unharmed a few hours later. However, later monks and town residents destroyed an electronics shop and a home that belong to members of the regime’s Union Solidarity and Development Organisation, reflecting the strength of public anger towards any one seen as linked to the regime.

More than 100 people have been arrested by the regime in an attempt to quell the protests.

posted by Dan at 02:58 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, August 24, 2007

In honor of Hugo Chavez and Woody Allen....

Starting in September, Hugo Chavez is going to be shifting Venezuela's clocks forward by a half-hour (to ensure "a more fair distribution of the sunrise" according to Reuters).

An hour I can understand -- but a half-hour?

How long is it going to be before Chavez delivers this kind of speech?

If you liked that clip, then I must encourage you to click here as well.

posted by Dan at 09:48 AM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

For those of you nostalgic for Pravda

Simon Romero reports in the New York Times about Hugo Chávez's proposed constitutional changes:

President Hugo Chávez will unveil a project to change the Constitution on Wednesday that is expected to allow him to be re-elected indefinitely, a move that would enhance his authority to accelerate a socialist-inspired transformation of Venezuelan society.

The removal of term limits for Mr. Chávez, which is at the heart of the proposal, is expected to be accompanied by measures circumscribing the authority of elected governors and mayors, who would be prevented from staying in power indefinitely, according to versions of the project leaked in recent weeks.

Willian Lara, the communications minister, said Mr. Chávez would announce the project before the National Assembly, where all 167 lawmakers support the president. Supporters of Mr. Chávez, who was re-elected last year with some 60 percent of the vote, also control the Supreme Court, the entire federal bureaucracy, public oil and infrastructure companies and every state government but two.

The aim of the overhaul is “to guarantee to the people the largest amount of happiness possible,” Mr. Lara said at a news conference on Tuesday.

The story has a whiff of the old Soviet-era Pravda. Not because Romero is Chávez's mouthpiece, but rather the tone of the comments made by Venezuelan officials.

And, of course, Chávez's apparent fondness for democratic centralism.

posted by Dan at 08:05 AM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

This is a responsible negotiating partner?

One of the standard mantras uttered by Middle East experts is that if the Bush administration had approached Hamas differently when they came to power in 2006, that group could have eventually cut a deal with Israel.

This may very well be true, but every once in a while I run into a story like this one in the New York Times that makes me wonder just how much wishful thinking is embedded in that sentiment:

Hamas television, which was criticized for a Mickey Mouse-like character named Farfur who spouted anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish nostrums at children, has replaced the mouse with a bee named Nahoul, who says he is Farfur’s cousin.

Farfur was beaten to death by an Israeli who wanted his land on the previous episode of the children’s show “Tomorrow’s Pioneers.”

Nahoul, the bee, says: “I want to continue on the path of Farfur, the path of ‘Islam is the solution.’ The path of heroism, the path of martyrdom, the path of jihad warriors.”

In the name of Farfur, the bee says, “we shall take revenge on the enemies of Allah, the murderers of the prophets, the murderers of innocent children, until Al Aksa will be liberated from their filth.”

UPDATE: In the words of my people... sweet fancy Moses!!

posted by Dan at 08:30 AM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Zimbabwe invites an anarchy pool

Michael Wines' describes Zimbabwe's comical efforts to fight inflation in the New York Times:

Zimbabwe’s week-old campaign to quell its rampant inflation by forcing merchants to lower prices is edging the nation close to chaos, some economists and merchants say.

As the police and a pro-government youth militia swept into shops and factories, threatening arrest and worse unless prices were rolled back, staple foods vanished from store shelves and some merchants reported huge losses. News reports said that some shopkeepers who had refused to lower prices had been beaten by the youth militia, known as the Green Bombers for the color of their fatigues.

In interviews, merchants said that crowds of people were following the police and militia from shop to shop to buy goods at the government-ordered prices.

“People are losing millions and millions and millions of dollars,” said one merchant in Bulawayo, referring to the Zimbabwean currency, which is becoming worthless given the nation’s inflation, the world’s highest. “Everyone is now running out of stock, and not being able to replace it.”

Because the government has threatened to seize any business that does not sell goods at the advertised price, the merchant said he was keeping his shop open, but with virtually nothing on the shelves.

Economists said that the price rollbacks were unsustainable and that shops and manufacturers would soon shut down and lay off workers rather than produce goods at a loss.

“You can’t buy eggs or bread or things of that sort,” said John Robertson, an economic consultant in Harare, the capital. “Suppliers can’t supply them at a price that allows retailers to make a profit.”

“It’s pretty chaotic,” he added. “But I think the impact will be worse if it stays in place.”

Zimbabwe’s annual inflation rate was last reported to be 4,500 percent in May, a figure the government has yet to confirm. Mr. Robertson and others say that the true rate now is probably about 10,000 percent, but official statistics apparently are no longer being released.

He and others said they feared that the economic collapse would quickly lead to social unrest if Zimbabwe’s already shrunken work force were hit by huge layoffs and foods like cornmeal, cooking oil and sugar became unavailable.

I'm offering five weeks as the over/under before complete lawlessness and anarchy break out in that country.

posted by Dan at 08:32 AM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Hey, what happened at those EU negotiations?

Henry Farrell answers this question over at Crooked Timber.

The depressing part comes with Nikolas Sarkozy's success at "moving market competition from the list of the EU’s main goals." Henry is undoubtedly less concerned about this than I am, but even he concludes:

I suspect that the main beneficiaries of these changes will be powerful semi-monopolies and national champions with good political connections, which can by no means necessarily be expected to act in the public interest.

posted by Dan at 10:03 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, June 25, 2007

Laugh, cry, take your pick

In Der Spiegel, Marco Evers writes about the President of Gambia, ruled one 41-year-old Yahya Jammeh. He's quite the Renaissance man:

Jammeh -- a military officer who staged a successful putsch in 1994 -- is not just the president. He's also a healer on a divine mission. In January of this year, he summoned a number of his acolytes together with foreign diplomats and revealed to them that he had made an extraordinary discovery. He announced that, in addition to asthma, he was now capable of healing Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) -- the epidemic that ravages sub-Saharan Africa like no other region of the world. More than 15 million Africans have already died of AIDS, and a further 25 million are infected with the HIV virus which causes the disease.

On Thursdays -- Jammeh's healing powers are only available to him on that day of the week he says -- the president frequently allows Gambian television to film him as he defeats AIDS: Patients lie flat on their backs as the president whirls around them and mumbles verses from the Koran. He slaps green sludge onto their skin, sprinkles liquid from an old Evian bottle over them and gives them a brown broth to drink. A quick banana snack completes the therapy.

That's it. Thanks to the power of the Koran and seven secret herbs this treatment, repeated over the course of several weeks, leads to the patient being cured of the lethal virus "with absolute certainty," as Jammeh says. But two requirements need to be met for it all to work. First: His patients have to renounce alcohol, tea, coffee and sex for the duration of their treatment -- as well as theft. And second: Whoever is taking anti-viral medication has to stop doing so immediately, according to Jammeh.

Even more disturbing is that the Gambian minister of health supports his president -- despite being a trained gynecologist educated in Ukraine and Ireland. The country's other institutions, including the parliament, are doing the same. And on the streets of the Gambia, demonstrations can sometimes be seen -- not against Jammeh, but in support of him.

Lest one think that Gambia has the monopoly on this sort of behavior among African leaders, Evers points out some more examples:
[South Africa's] former vice president, Jacob Zuma, has had unprotected sex with a woman who was HIV positive at the time. There was hardly any risk of infection, Zuma said publicly, since he showered immediately after having sex. It's astonishing that Zuma isn't more knowledgeable about the spread of HIV; he was, after all, previously the director of a national AIDS organization.

And the South African minister of health, a med-school graduate, advises those infected not to take anti-viral medication in favor of a mixture of garlic, lemon, potatoes and red beet. That's better, she says, because the side effects are less severe. "Dr. Red Beet," as she is mockingly called, also sympathizes with German miracle healer Matthias Rath, who sells vitamin drinks in South Africa as an alleged alternative to established HIV medication.

Writing in Passport, Preeti Aroon laments:
Speaking seriously, though, this "cure" for AIDS highlights the misinformation that surrounds the disease in many countries. In Africa, many aren't aware that condoms protect against HIV infection. Even if they are told, they also face anti-condom messages: Condoms are a conspiracy by whites to lower African birthrates; condoms are tainted with HIV to decrease the African population. On top of it all, traditional healers, tribal leaders, and the Catholic Church warn against using condoms. What is one to believe?

posted by Dan at 12:06 AM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

How's the economy going, Mahmoud?

The Financial Times' Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Gareth Smyth report that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, if left to his own devices, will succeed in running the Iranian economy into the ground:

Some 60 economists this week wrote to Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad criticising his government for putting “short-term welfare above long-term sustainable development”.

Almost half way through his first four-year term, the letter underlines the acute dilemmas faced by the president in delivering short-term welfare promises as he manoeuvres to bolster political support.

The government’s indecision over two major issues – the price of petrol and bank lending rates – is a particular source of confusion.

More than three weeks after the lapse of the original date for petrol rationing – designed to curb a $5bn (€3.75bn, Ł2.5bn) bill for importing 35m of the 75m litres Iran consumes daily – the government is still groping its way around any decision it fears might be unpopular. Officials have this week made differing statements over when and how rationing – which was to begin tomorrow – will start....

Private bankers wrote to the economy minister last week demanding a freeze on loan rates to “make survival of private banks possible”.

But even with inflation officially at 13.6 per cent last year, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is battling with the central bank over his insistence on a 12 per cent lending rate, down from the current 14 per cent in state-owned and 17 per cent in private banks. The Guardian Council, a constitution watchdog, is due to rule this week on a compromise.

“What the government describes as economic policies do not match any professionally-known theories, but are rather populist political policies,” said Mohammad Tabibian, former deputy head of the Management and Planning Organisation, a cross-governmental co-ordination body....

Many observers doubt official figures of 14 per cent inflation and 12 per cent unemployment. One economist told the FT that inflation was above 20 per cent, while unemployment was 25 per cent among university graduates.

A depressing parlor game to play: which economy will implode the fastest, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, or Iran?

The smart money would have to be Zimbabwe, but don't underestimate the economic incompetence of either Hugo Chavez or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

UPDATE: Congatulations to Venezuela and Zimbabwe for making this list.

posted by Dan at 10:49 PM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (1)

Monday, May 28, 2007

Hugo Chavez vs. the telenovela

According to CNN International, Hugo Chávez has declared war on yet another facet of Venezuelan life:

Venezuela's most-watched television station -- and outlet for the political opposition -- went off the air after the government refused to renew its broadcast license.

Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), which has been broadcasting for 53 years, was replaced by a state-run station -- TVes -- on Monday. The new station's logo began running immediately after RCTV went off the air.

Leading up to the deadline, police on Sunday used water cannons and what appeared to be tear gas to break up thousands of demonstrators protesting the government's decision to close the country's most-watched television station.

The protest began in front of National Telecommunications Commission headquarters after members of the National Guard seized broadcast equipment, including antennas, the result of a Supreme Court order on Friday....

Inside the studios of Radio Caracas Television, employees cried and chanted "Freedom!" on camera, AP reported.

"We are living an injustice," presenter Eyla Adrian said, according to AP. "I wish that tonight would never come."

President Hugo Chavez announced in January that the government would not renew the broadcast license for the station, long an outlet for opposition parties.

Chavez has accused the station of supporting the failed 2002 coup against him and violating broadcast laws.

He called the station's soap operas "pure poison" that promote capitalism, according to AP.

RCTV, which has been broadcasting for 53 years, is slated to be off the air at midnight. It will be replaced by a state-run station.

"To refuse to grant a new license for the most popular and oldest television channel in the country because the government disagrees with the editorial or political views of this channel, which are obviously critical to Chavez, is a case of censorship," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

"We have arrived at totalitarianism," said Marcel Granier, president of Empresas 1BC, which owns RCTV. (emphasis added)

In a war between Hugo Chavez and the telenovela, I'll take the telenovela every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Never mess with an art form that is capable of producing the likes of Salma Hayek.

In the Guardian, Ben Whitford goes to town on Chávez 's decision:

Chávez and his officials unilaterally branded the network coup-mongers and pornographers - the latter apparently a reference to the trashy but popular telenovelas that are standard fare on all the region's networks. No investigations, meetings or hearings were held to assess the station's failings; no evidence was presented, and the network was given no right of reply.

It wasn't until this March, three months after announcing its decision to revoke the station's license, that the government deigned to release a "White Book" giving an official account of the station's transgressions. More polemic than policy paper, the book only serves to underscore the arbitrary and politicized nature of the government's decision; RCTV is accused of a raft of minor sins, from sensationalizing its coverage of a recent murder to showing alcohol consumption during its coverage of a baseball game. RCTV had never previously received more than a warning for these violations; other stations guilty of the same or worse errors have been allowed to retain their licenses.

It's hard to see RCTV's closure - which was opposed by 70% of the Venezuelan people - as anything more than an act of political retaliation for the network's continuing, and increasingly isolated, resistance to the Chávez administration. While it's true that the country's media remains largely in private hands, most of the other opposition channels have allowed themselves to be cowed by Chávez's threats, and have substantially cut back their news and editorial coverage. Of the stations with national reach, only RCTV had remained an outspoken critic of the government; on Sunday night that voice, too, fell silent. (Claims that RCTV could stay on the air by switching to cable or satellite are disingenuous; even if the network survives, it will reach only a tiny fraction of its current audience.)

In pulling the plug on RCTV, Chávez appointed himself judge, jury and executioner; and in doing so, struck a dangerous blow against Venezuela's proud traditions of democracy and free speech. Worryingly, he did so as part of a wider campaign to stifle dissenting voices and independent views. Since coming to power, Chávez has pushed through a barrage of regulations designed to breed a compliant and uncritical media sector; organizations now face swingeing fines and license suspensions if they fail to meet vague and arbitrary "social responsibility" criteria, while draconian defamation regulations and "insult laws" make it illegal to show disrespect for government officials and institutions....

A few minutes after RCTV flickered off the air, a new network took its place: Venezuelan Social Television. The new public channel, run by Chávez appointees, will provide news and entertainment that is more palatable to Chávez's government; it will join a growing portfolio of state-owned channels that one government station chief says is part of Chávez's wider plan for "communication and information hegemony". The failure of the likes of Tariq Ali and Colin Burgon to recognize this as a blow to Venezuela's tradition of free speech shouldn't surprise anyone; Chávez is a past master at playing the international left to his own ends. The truth, though, is that this is one occasion when people on both the left and the right, as supporters of liberal democracy, should be prepared to cry foul.

posted by Dan at 12:43 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, May 21, 2007

Just how bad is Iran's international image right now?

If you're a developing country that reflexively opposes the United States, you have to work exceptionally hard -- I'm talking years of effort here -- to do anything that provokes the ire of Noam Chomsky. I mean, this is a guy who had few qualms about the Cambodian genocide because the Khmer Rouge was anti-American. Clearly, the bar of awfulness is pretty high to get ol' Noam's attention.

Amazingly, Mahmoud Ahmdainejad's Iran has pulled this off. Robin Wright explains in the Washington Post:

Momentum is building behind an academic boycott of Iran to pressure the government to release imprisoned American scholar Haleh Esfandiari, director of Middle East programs at the Smithsonian's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who was jailed in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison May 8 after more than four months under house arrest....

MIT professor Noam Chomsky also issued a statement today calling Esfandiari's detention "deplorable" and warning that the action by Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security was "a gift" to American policymakers trying to organize support for military action against Iran.

"Now is a time for diplomacy, negotiations and relaxation of tensions, in accordance with the will of the overwhelming majority of Americans and Iranians, as recent polls reveal," he said. "The intolerable treatment of this highly respected scholar and human rights activist severely undermines the efforts of those who are seeking peace, justice and freedom in the region and the world."

In his popular blog, University of Michigan Middle East expert Juan Cole announced today that he has canceled plans to attend a conference this summer in Iran because of Tehran's imprisonment of Esfandiari.

"Everyone should be outraged about this story," he said. "Her arrest should be an issue for everyone who believes in human rights, in academic freedom, and in women's rights."

Cole added, "I don't see how normal intellectual life can go on when a scholar at the Wilson Center can't safely visit Iran." He also suggested that academics and others mobilize to protest in front of Iranian diplomatic missions around the world.

If you're interested in registering your own protest about this action to the Iranian government, Amnesty International has conveniently set up a website to send letters to Ahmdainejad and other Iranian leaders.

UPDATE: Wright's follow-up report is not good:

American scholar Haleh Esfandiari has been charged with trying to topple the Iranian regime, Iran's state-controlled television reported today.

Iran's Intelligence Ministry accused Esfandiari, director of Middle East programs at the Smithsonian's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, of trying to foment a soft revolution by setting up a network "against the sovereignty" of Iran. Esfandiari was imprisoned May 8 after more than four months under virtual house arrest.

"This is an American-designed model with an attractive appearance that seeks the soft-toppling of the country," state TV reported, according to the Associated Press....

In a statement published by Iran's ISNA news agency, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security charged that Esfandiari had received money from George Soros's Open Society Institute.

"The long-term and final goal of such centers is to try to enable this network . . . to confront the ruling powers. This model designed by the Americans . . . is following the 'soft revolution' in the country," the statement said....

Esfandiari, a 67-year-old grandmother who is a dual U.S. and Iranian national, was originally in Iran to take care of her 93-year-old mother when her passport was taken in a robbery as she was en route to the airport Dec. 30. When she went in to get a replacement, she was put under interrogation for six weeks.

I suspect that Iran's war against American "soft power" is going to have a lot of collateral damage.

posted by Dan at 09:27 AM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Hugo Chavez approaches the Mugabe level of economic mismanagement

On Thursday the Wall Street Journal's Jose De Cordoba had a front-pager describing how Hugo Chávez's agricultural reforms are going:

Now Mr. Chavez is taking his revolution to the Venezuelan countryside. "We must end latifundios," he said in a televised speech in March, referring to large agrarian estates. "The people order it, and we will do it, whatever the cost." Then he announced the seizure of a land area larger than the state of Rhode Island.

Since coming to power, The Chávez government has handed over 8.8 million acres, an area bigger than Maryland, for use by the poor. While much of this was state-owned land that was either idle or leased to ranchers, some 4.5 million acres were "recovered" from private owners, Mr. Chávez said recently. In some cases, the government compensated them. In most others... it has simply turned a blind eye to land invasions.

The government bills land reform as a way to make Venezuela self-sufficient infood. But so far, the effect has been to undercut production of beef, sugar and other foods, as productive land is handed over to city dwellers with no knowledge of farming. Established farmers and ranchers, fearing their land may be seized next, are cutting investment in their operations to a minimum.

The chaos in the countryside has contributed to shortages in basic items like milk and meat, a paradox in a country enjoying an economic boom traceable to high oil prices. Also spurring the shortages are price controls on certain foods that keep them prices below the cost of production. Meanwhile, 19%-plus inflation--as oil revenue floods the economy--spurs panic buying: purchasing price-controlled and other goods the shopper might not immediately need for fear of having higher prices in the future or not finding the items at all.

"You get up at dawn to hunt for a breast of chicken all over town. Housewives are in a foul mood." says Lucylde Gonzalez, a Caracas homemaker, who says she hasn't seen an egg in a week."

Chávez has now reached the Robert Mugabe level of economic incompetence by messing with the farm sector. Let's hope he does not move past that to the Mao Zedong/Great Leap Forward level of economic mismanagement.

posted by Dan at 09:49 AM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (1)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

How's the diversification thing going, Hugo?

Over at Duck of Minerva, Peter Howard explains why Hugo Chavez's plan to diversify oil exports away from the United States will not work. This bit from a linked Washington Post story was particularly interesting:

During most of Chávez's eight years in office, more than 60 percent of the country's total crude exports have gone to the United States, up from 50 percent throughout much of the 1990s, according to Ramón Espinasa, a former chief economist at PDVSA who is now a consultant in Washington. The trend is due to growing U.S. demand, Venezuela's rising consumption and what oil analysts say is the state's inability to diversify its base of clients to include big consumers.

But in an ideologically drawn battle, one marked by constant verbal slings, Chávez has promised to veer sales away from the United States.

He often says that PDVSA is considering selling Citgo, its refining and retail arm in the United States, which processes and sells the extra-heavy brand of crude mined in Venezuela. His government has also increased sales to China, with 300,000 barrels a day now headed there, Rafael Ramirez, the energy minister and PDVSA's president, said in an interview this month....

So a country less capable of producing oil, analysts say, is more tied to the United States, where refineries wholly or partly owned by PDVSA refine Venezuela's molasses-like oil. The installations exist nowhere else, which makes some analysts skeptical that Venezuela is exporting as much to China as it claims.

Here's an interesting (and purely hypothetical) question: if Chavez is so gung-ho to nationalize the energy sector in Venezuela, what would happen of the United States government chose to nationalize Citgo?

posted by Dan at 12:03 AM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, May 7, 2007

My bold prediction about Sarkozy

Nicholas Sarkozy will be the next French President. The Economist spells out what this means:

By sheer drive and political cunning, Mr Sarkozy managed to build up an electoral machine, through the party that Mr Chirac originally founded, and reinvent himself—30 years after entering electoral politics—as a force for change.

The question now is how far Mr Sarkozy will be able to implement some of the controversial reformist elements of his programme. In his election-night speech, he declared that "the French people have chosen change.” Among the first reforms that he intends to bring about are labour-market measures: he plans to secure minimum service on public transport during strikes; to break the big five unions' stranglehold on union representation; to change the unemployment-benefit rules to penalise those who refuse two job offers; and to introduce a single job contract with progressive rights.

Unlike President Chirac, who in 1995 also tried to bring about reform but had been elected on an uncontroversial promise to "heal the social fracture", Mr Sarkozy arrives in office with a clear mandate to change. Not only was his score high, but turn-out—at about 85%—was too. Mr Sarkozy knows that he has to move fast to capitalise on that. On minimum service for trains and buses, for instance, he says that he will let the unions and bosses' organisations try to negotiate a deal until the end of the summer; after that, in the absence of agreement, he will legislate. There will doubtless be resistance, and strikes and street protests are widely predicted. Indeed, on election night there were already clashes between riot police and anti-Sarkozy protesters.

In a prediction that I believe Kevin Drum would label as, "Drezner says the sun will rise in the East tomorrow," I'm not terribly optimistic about Sarkozy's chances for reform implementation. Craig Smith put it nicely in yesterday's NYT Week in Review:
In the months leading up to today’s presidential voting in France, there was a lot of talk about breaking with the past. Don’t bet it will happen.

The French are notoriously resistant to change, and any new president would be hard-pressed to deliver any dramatic departure from the way people here live and work and get along with each other (or don’t)....

Mr. Sarkozy promised pension reforms and limits on unions’ ability to strike. Already, the most critical union federations are warning him to expect people in the streets if he tries to push through either change.

“Radical change in an authoritarian manner will lead to a situation of blockage,” said Michel Grignard, national secretary of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor. French unions are strong in part because the right to strike is written into the Constitution.

And then there is the French love of their vacations.

Parliament usually is away from mid-July to October, but Mr. Sarkozy has suggested he would call a special session to push through legislation while most of the French are vacationing — and when it would be hard for unions to mobilize them.

The unions warned against it. “Whoever is elected president, if he or she thinks there are things that must be decided very fast, in a flash, and pass them in July, watch out,” said Mr. Mailly of the Force Ouvričre federation. “There’ll eventually be a boomerang effect.”

[But what about Franco-American relations? Sarkozy has made repeated statements expressing his fondness for most things American!!--ed.] Yes, why, Sarkozy is clearly the most pro-American French president since.... Jacques Chirac, who when elected president stressed his fondness for America, developed after he worked in the States.

My guess is that Sarkozy will adopt more anti-American rhetoric -- regardless of U.S. foreign policy -- right around the time his first major domestic reform effort shuts down the streets of Paris.

posted by Dan at 09:18 AM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, March 12, 2007

Does Zimbabwe support or weaken the smart sanctions argument?

Last week Michael H. Cognato blogged at Passport about the fact that smart sanctions seemed to be having an effect in Zimbabwe:

[The International Crisis Group] found that targeted sanctions have played an important role in undermining Mugabe's support:
Targeted EU and U.S. sanctions on senior regime figures are working. ZANU-PF leaders cite their personal financial situations as motivation for wanting Mugabe out. “We have businesses which we worked hard over years to set up which are collapsing. It is about time we change course”, said a senior politburo member.
The possible implications stretch far beyond Zimbabwe. Targeted sanctions, which limit the activity of specific regime members, rather than the entire country, are a relatively recent innovation. The hope has been that they would better pressure a target government while sparing its citizens needless suffering. Officials in Sudan, Iran, and North Korea are currently on the receiving end of these appeals to their unenlightened self-interest. The news out of Zimbabwe is reason to hope they might be similarly persuaded.
Sounds promising... until we get to more recent events. Like today's AP report:
Top opposition leaders were assaulted and tortured by police who broke up a prayer meeting planned to protest government policies, colleagues of the activists said Monday.

One protester was shot dead by police in Sunday's unrest in the outskirts of the capital and scores of others were arrested. Journalists trying to cover the events also were arrested.

In a statement, organizers of the prayer meeting, an alliance of opposition, civic, church leaders and student and anti-government groups, said lawyers who visited the detainees Monday reported the main opposition party leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, fainted three times after being beaten by police.

The alliance, called the Save Zimbabwe Campaign, said another opposition leader, Lovemore Madhuku, was taken to the main Harare hospital early Monday after collapsing from police assaults.

At least four other opposition and civic leaders were beaten and tortured in custody, the campaign said.

``The police thoroughly assaulted leaders of the Save Zimbabwe Campaign while in custody,'' the group said.

The alliance said lawyers were still trying to establish the whereabouts of all those picked up by police, saying some were denied food or legal advice.

No comment was immediately available from police on Monday.

There are two ways to interpret this kind of repression. One way is that this is the last gasp of a dying regime. You can find this interpretation in this Washington Post story by Craig Timberg:
[Former member of parliament Roy] Bennett, speaking in Johannesburg after consulting with other opposition figures by phone, said Sunday's gathering was the beginning of mass protests against Mugabe's government under a newly formed Save Zimbabwe Coalition.

"This is what everybody's been building up to," said Bennett, who fled Zimbabwe a year ago. "It's the beginning of the end."....

Tafadzwa Mugabe, from the group Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said from Harare that attorneys were denied access to Tsvangirai and the others who were arrested. Judges at the High Court of Harare declined to hear the case Sunday night but scheduled a hearing for Monday morning.

Mugabe, who is not related to the Zimbabwean president, said there had never been such a broad crackdown on opposition figures there. "In terms of magnitude and profile, I'd safely say it's unprecedented," he said.

Zimbabwe has been in economic decline for seven years. It has inflation of more than 1,700 percent, unemployment exceeding 80 percent and chronic shortages of such basics as gasoline, bread and cooking oil. Mugabe, who has been Zimbabwe's ruler since the end of white-supremacist rule in 1980, has become increasingly authoritarian, sharply limiting political freedoms....

The International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution organization based in Brussels, reported last week that the crisis in Zimbabwe was nearing its conclusion because of deepening splits in Mugabe's ruling party, but warned that spontaneous violence could erupt.

The opposition has been severely split as well. There are now two rival factions of the Movement for Democratic Change, the group Tsvangirai helped found. The leader of the other faction, Arthur Mutambara, also was arrested Sunday, as was Lovemore Madhuku, head of the National Constitutional Assembly, which also opposes Mugabe's rule.

The thing is, the Save Zimbabwe Campaign has been around for six months now, and prior efforts to mobilize have not panned out.

So there's another, gloomier possibility: smart sanctions are insufficient, and the state's ability to repress will not be tamed anytime soon.


posted by Dan at 03:30 PM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, March 9, 2007

Talk about addiction to cheap oil

The Financial Times' Gareth Smyth reports that Iran is starting to tighten its belt in anticipatio of serious economic sanctions. Of course, one person's "belt-tightening" is another person's "pitiful reduction of massively inefficient subsidy.":

Iran’s parliament this week set May 22 as the day when the country’s 15m motorists lose access to unlimited cheap fuel.

Pump prices, frozen for three years at 80 tomans (or 9 cents) a litre, have boosted consumption far beyond the capacity of Iran’s oil refineries and meant that 40 per cent of petrol has had to be imported.

With Iran facing further UN sanctions over its nuclear and missile programmes, politicians have opted to dampen demand by a combination of rationing and higher prices.

Parliament decided on Wednesday to limit annual petrol subsidies to $2.5bn, and Iranian news wires have reported the new rationed price will be 100 tomans (11 cents) a litre, with extra fuel sold at a higher price.

Deputies left the government to decide by April 20 on ration quantity, the price of un-rationed petrol, and the method of rationing, likely to be the use of ‘smart cards’.

The price of petrol has been regarded as politically sensitive, especially as many Iranians run cars as unofficial taxis to supplement low incomes or survive unemployment.

Basic commodities – like bread, electricity, gas and medicines – are subsidised by the government, and with Iran sitting on the world’s second highest oil reserves, many Iranians see cheap petrol as a birth-right.

Mahmoud Abtahi, a deputy, warned a 25 per cent increase would bring a “severe shock because petrol is the life blood of the economy” and urged parliament to support low-income groups.

posted by Dan at 10:14 AM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Why suicide terrorism is different in Afghanistan

Spencer Ackerman explains:

While Iraqi suicide bombers target civilians and soft targets in order to sow destabilization and provoke/respond to sectarian violence, nearly all Taliban suicide bombings -- and in Afghanistan, resistance to the presence of foreign forces and the Karzai government is overwhelmingly Taliban -- are focused on Afghan or U.S./NATO security forces. The two researchers assess that unlike the Iraqi insurgents, al-Qaeda or Shiite militias, the Taliban has to cleave the population away from the Karzai government, but in the process must "avoid losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people by needlessly killing civilians."

The trouble is that it works. Members of the International Security Assistance Force have in some cases balked at taking up operations in suicide-bomb-heavy territory. Worse still, Williams and Young find that freaked-out ISAF forces have responded by upping their tolerance for collateral damage. Little is more provocative in Afghanistan than civilian deaths at foreign hands; in that sense, the Taliban gambit does show some success.

posted by Dan at 11:15 PM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Things begin to fall apart in Venezuela

Simon Romero report in the New York Times about what happens when you combine price controls and the Dutch disease in Hugo Chavez-land:

Faced with an accelerating inflation rate and shortages of basic foods like beef, chicken and milk, President Hugo Chávez has threatened to jail grocery store owners and nationalize their businesses if they violate the country’s expanding price controls.

Food producers and economists say the measures announced late Thursday night, which include removing three zeroes from the denomination of Venezuela’s currency, are likely to backfire and generate even more acute shortages and higher prices for consumers. Inflation climbed to an annual rate of 18.4 percent a year in January, the highest in Latin America and far above the official target of 10 to 12 percent.

Mr. Chávez, whose leftist populism remains highly popular among Venezuela’s poor and working classes, seemed unfazed by criticism of his policies. Appearing live on national television, he called for the creation of “committees of social control,” essentially groups of his political supporters whose purpose would be to report on farmers, ranchers, supermarket owners and street vendors who circumvent the state’s effort to control food prices.

“It is surreal that we’ve arrived at a point where we are in danger of squandering a major oil boom,” said José Guerra, a former chief of economic research at Venezuela’s central bank, who left Mr. Chavez’s government in 2004. “If the government insists on sticking to policies that are clearly failing, we may be headed down the road of Zimbabwe.”....

In an indicator of concern with Mr. Chávez’s economic policies, which included nationalizing companies in the telephone and electricity industries, foreign direct investment was negative in the first nine months of 2006. The last year Venezuela had a net investment outflow was in 1986.

Shortages of basic foods have been sporadic since the government strengthened price controls in 2003 after a debilitating strike by oil workers. But in recent weeks, the scarcity of items like meat and chicken have led to a panicked reaction by federal authorities as they try to understand how such shortages could develop in a seemingly flourishing economy.

Entering a supermarket here is a bizarre experience. Shelves are fully stocked with Scotch whiskey, Argentine wines and imported cheeses like brie and Camembert, but basic staples like black beans and desirable cuts of beef like sirloin are often absent. Customers, even those in the government’s own Mercal chain of subsidized grocery stores, are left with choices like pork neck bones, rabbit and unusual cuts of lamb.

With shoppers limited to just two large packages of sugar, a black market in sugar has developed among street vendors in parts of Caracas. “This country is going to turn into Cuba, or Chávez will have to give in,” said Cándida de Gómez, 54, a shopper at a private supermarket in Los Palos Grandes, a district in the capital....

Fears that more private companies could be nationalized have put further pressure on the currency as rich Venezuelans try to take money out of the country. Concern over capital flight has made the government jittery, with vague threats issued to newspapers that publish unofficial currency rates (officially the bolívar is quoted at about 2,150 to the dollar)....

But recent expropriations of farms and ranches, part of Mr. Chávez’s effort to empower state-financed cooperatives, have also weighed on domestic food production as the new managers retool operations. So has the flood of petrodollars into the economy, easing food imports and making some domestic producers uncompetitive, an affliction common to oil economies.

“There seems to be a basic misunderstanding in Chávez’s government of what is driving scarcity and inflation,” said Francisco Rodríguez, a former chief economist at Venezuela’s National Assembly who teaches at Wesleyan University.

“There are competent people in the government who know that Chávez needs to lower spending if he wants to defeat these problems,” Mr. Rodríguez said. “But there are few people in positions of power who are willing to risk telling him what he needs to hear.”

It will be interesting to see whether Chavez will reverse course. His supporters repeatedly point to Chavez's apparent successes in poverty reduction as the hallmark of his administration (though those "successes" are more illusory than real). Inflation above 20%, however, is a guaranteed recipe for increasing economic inequality -- because only the rich can move their capital abroad or otherwise hedge against inflation.


UPDATE: Chavez is now on a goodwill tour in the Caribbean trying to buy more international support. According to the AP, "The crowd, however, did not respond with applause to the Venezuelan leader's vitriolic statements."

posted by Dan at 08:55 AM | Comments (21) | Trackbacks (3)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Ségolčne Royal's democratic socialism

When the International Herald-Tribune characterizes an economic program as "far-left," it's time to click over and see what all the fuss is about:

Ségolčne Royal, the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, unveiled a long- awaited platform on Sunday, veering sharply to the left on economic policy while also stressing discipline and "traditional values."

Ten weeks before the election, Royal is hoping to reverse a slide in popularity that has seen her lose ground to her main challenger, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

In a two-hour speech to about 10,000 supporters north of Paris, she laid out a 100-proposal platform, pledging to raise pensions, to increase the minimum wage to €1,500, or about $2,000, a month and to guarantee a job or further training for every youth within six months of graduating from university.

She also said that randomly selected citizens' juries would watch over government policy and that juvenile delinquents could be placed in educational camps run by the military.

As if to preempt her opponents on the right, she stressed throughout her speech that her ideas had been nourished in 6,000 debates with citizens throughout France, a method she has called "participative democracy."....

A substantial part of her speech was dedicated to social and economic issues, on which Royal took a hard-left line.

"The unfettered rein of financial profit is intolerable for the general interest," she said. "You told me simple truths. You told me you wanted fewer income inequalities. You told me you wanted to tax capital more than labor. We will do that reform."

Royal said she would tax companies in relation to what share of their profits is reinvested in equipment and jobs, and what portion is paid to shareholders. She also promised to abolish a flexible work contract for small companies and hold a national conference in June on how to increase salaries.

Indeed, she seemed to have something to offer to most groups in society without saying how much the combined measures would cost: Under her presidency, she said, young women would get free contraception, all young people would get access to a €10,000 interest- free loan and the handicapped would see their benefits rise.

At this time, there is no official confirmation that Royal has also promised free ponies to all French children who asked for them.

I have enough of a soft spot for the old Athenian council of 500 to hope that the citizen jury idea could actually work. Beyond that, if Royal wins and actually tries to implement this, it will be the fiscal equivalent of Francois Mitterand's "Keynesianism in One Country" -- with the same results of massive capital flight, recession, and policy retrenchment.

UPDATE: Over at U.S. News and World Report,James Pethokoukis blogs about another prominent politician who's big into taxing profits.

posted by Dan at 09:25 AM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

So how's it going in Belarus?

The Temporary Turkmenbashi of the Blogosphere commands all who revere him to look in the direction of Belarus. When we last left things, Russia was putting the screws on the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

According to Lukashenko's interview with Reuters, the screws really hurt -- but he has a plan:

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, stung by big rises in Russian energy prices, vowed on Tuesday to recover $5 billion in losses by making Moscow pay for vital transit traffic and military cooperation.

But despite disappointment over Moscow's price rises and its foreign policy, Lukashenko said close ties with Russia remained the cornerstone of his isolated administration's policy.

The two former Soviet neighbors have long enjoyed warm relations and were negotiating a union with a common currency.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin's sudden doubling of gas prices and cut in oil subsidies at the end of last year threatened a vital prop for the Belarussian economy and prompted Minsk to strike back.

"Now that the Russian president has mentioned a transition to market relations ... we will in return ask Russia to pay in hard currency for services that Russia used to benefit from free of charge," Lukashenko told Reuters in a rare interview at the presidential offices.

The president was speaking the day after Belarus announced big rises in the amounts it charges Russia for the transit of oil across its territory to supply markets in western Europe..

Read the whole thing to get a sense of Lukashenko's foreign policy bind. He's not going to befriend the West anytime soon (and vice versa). This gives Russia something close to carte blanche to put the screws on its smaller, politically isolated neighbor.

It's worth keeping this fact in mind when reading about Belarus' recently announced intentions to build its first nuclear reactors.

posted by Dan at 05:58 PM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

There's no partisanship in Turkmenistan!

The hard-working staff here at has demanded that your humble blogger be declared the Turkmenbashi of the Blogosphere by universal assent. I hereby accept that mandate for the day -- which makes it about as legitimate as the last guy to accept this title.

In honor of the old Turkmenbashi, I hereby decree to spend the day posting about the remaining totalitarian dictatorships in the world.

OK, so let's see....Zimbabwe? Yep, got that one. Hey, let's check up on Turkmenistan itself!

Of course, they're hold a presidential election, so they might fall from totalitarian status. However, if this report from Peter Finn of the Washington Post Foreign Service is any indication, it's a presidential election that warms the cockles of the Turkmenbashi's heart:

Six presidential candidates are barnstorming the country and holding public meetings to talk about improving education, reforming health care, ensuring adequate pensions and boosting agriculture.

It could be Iowa -- if it weren't Turkmenistan.

Acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, 49, will almost certainly win when the Central Asian country's citizens go to the polls Feb. 11. His opponents, a deputy minister and four regional officials, are willing foils, according to analysts and exiled politicians.

Murad Karyev, the supposedly neutral chairman of the Central Election Commission, has already said Berdymukhammedov is the best man for the job....

The exiled opposition has been prevented from returning to take part in the election. A coalition of exile organizations chose Khudaiberdy Orazov, a former vice premier and head of the Central Bank, to run as their candidate, but he is sitting out the campaign abroad.

"They are trying to create an image of real elections, but of course these are not elections. It's some sort of clownery," said Orazov, who lives in Sweden. "I believe we are entering the second stage of dictatorship."

Agents from Turkmenistan's internal security service, the MNB, are shadowing five of the candidates to ensure they don't stray from their scripts and say things contrary to policies laid out by the leading candidate, according to the Eurasian Transition Group, a nongovernmental organization in Germany that is one of the few with a presence in Turkmenistan.

"The other five candidates have to attend security council meetings, where they receive their orders," said Michael Laubsch, executive director of the German group. "Everything is concentrated on Berdymukhammedov, and the MNB have total control over the other candidates."

The Turkmenbashi of the blogosphere applauds the measures taken to eliminate the petty squabbles that come with partisanship and political competition.

posted by Dan at 08:50 AM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Things fall apart in Zimbabwe

In the New York Times, Michael Wines chronicles the slow collapse of the state in Zimbabwe:

For close to seven years, Zimbabwe’s economy and quality of life have been in slow, uninterrupted decline. They are still declining this year, people there say, with one notable difference: the pace is no longer so slow.

Indeed, Zimbabwe’s economic descent has picked up so much speed that President Robert G. Mugabe, the nation’s leader for 27 years, is starting to lose support from parts of his own party.

In recent weeks, the national power authority has warned of a collapse of electrical service. A breakdown in water treatment has set off a new outbreak of cholera in the capital, Harare. All public services were cut off in Marondera, a regional capital of 50,000 in eastern Zimbabwe, after the city ran out of money to fix broken equipment. In Chitungwiza, just south of Harare, electricity is supplied only four days a week.

The government awarded all civil servants a 300 percent raise two weeks ago. But the increase is only a fraction of the inflation rate, so the nation’s 110,000 teachers are staging a work slowdown for more money. Measured by the black-market value of Zimbabwe’s ragtag currency, even their new salaries total less than 60 American dollars a month.

Doctors and nurses have been on strike for five weeks, seeking a pay increase of nearly 9,000 percent, and health care is all but nonexistent. Harare’s police chief warned in a recently leaked memo that if rank-and-file officers did not get a substantial raise, they might riot....

Mr. Mugabe’s fortunes appear to have dimmed as well. In December, the ruling party that has traditionally bowed to his will, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, balked at supporting a constitutional amendment that would have extended his term of office by two years, to 2010. The rebuff exposed a fissure in the party, known as ZANU-PF, between Mr. Mugabe’s hard-line backers and others who fear he has brought their nation to the brink of collapse.

The trigger of this crisis — hyperinflation — reached an annual rate of 1,281 percent this month, and has been near or over 1,000 percent since last April. Hyperinflation has bankrupted the government, left 8 in 10 citizens destitute and decimated the country’s factories and farms.

In it's darkest hour, however, Mugabe's government has come up with a brilliant plan to deal with the situation:
The central bank’s latest response to these problems, announced this week, was to declare inflation illegal. From March 1 to June 30, anyone who raises prices or wages will be arrested and punished. Only a “firm social contract” to end corruption and restructure the economy will bring an end to the crisis, said the reserve bank governor, Gideon Gono. (emphasis added)
Read the whole thing. I have two questions after reading it:

1) Wines also reports the following: "Foreign journalists remain barred from the country under threat of imprisonment, and harassment of Zimbabwean journalists has sharply increased." OK then, Michael Wines, how did you pull this off then? That was just a big ol' raspberry to the Washington Post's Africa correspondent, wasn't it?!

2) One wonders whether South Africa has any kind of cintingency plan for what happens when the Mugabe government collapses.

posted by Dan at 08:04 AM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Raul Castro... reformer?

Anthony Boadle writes a story for Reuters suggesting that Cuba under Raul Castro is somewhat different than Cuba under Fidel:

Six months after Cuba's sick leader Fidel Castro handed over power provisionally to his brother Raul, signs of an opening in public debate are emerging in the communist-run country.

Articles have appeared in the government-controlled media since October uncovering theft in state enterprises and other previously unmentionable deficiencies in Cuba's economy....

In unusual public statements, Cuban intellectuals have denounced the resurfacing of censors who were responsible for blacklisting writers and homosexuals 30 years ago.

The state conceded it made a mistake and allowed 400 writers and artists to hold an unprecedented meeting on Tuesday to discuss the Stalinist-style cultural purges of the 1970s....

The acting president has taken credit for stirring some of the debate, saying he has prodded the uncritical Cuban media to play a greater role in identifying economic shortcomings.

Raul surprised Cubans by encouraging greater discussion on government policies and more transparent state management. He said the country was tired of excuses and criticized delays in paying private farmers who provide 60 percent of its produce.

"Raul has made a point of abandoning Fidel's practice of scapegoating others. Instead, he is admitting that the revolution's problems are serious and home grown," said Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst and author of "After Fidel."

"The good thing about Raul is that he listens," said a Cuban economist who asked not to be named.

Raul has commissioned studies from think tanks on how to raise food production and stimulate the economy without ruling out private ownership of small business, he said....

"Each day there are more intellectuals speaking up, and that is new in Cuba," said dissident Espinosa Chepe.

But he said economic reforms wanted by most Cubans --the average monthly wage is $17-- are too slow in coming and Cuba may face turmoil without a leader of Fidel Castro's stature to contain it.

"Cuba is stable for the moment, but there is a lot of discontent on the streets," he said.

Calling for greater criticism of economic shortcoming might be a sign of greater openness -- or it might be a clue for how Raul plans to consolidate his political position. Much as China's central government highlights the daily demonstrations that take place within China as a motivation for greater government centralization, Raul might be highlighting economic difficulties to lay the groundwork for steps that consolidate his own political position.

Mind you, Raul Castro might actually be going for perestroika rather than abertura. But I'm not holding my breath.


posted by Dan at 10:14 AM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The dictator for life is dead

If there were a contest for wackiest dictator in the world, many Vegas oddsmakers would have made Kim Jong Il the putative frontrunner. In truth, however, until today the hands-down winner would have been Turkmenistan president Saparmurat Niyazov:

He renamed the town of Krasnovodsk, on the Caspian Sea, Türkmenbaşy after himself, in addition to renaming several schools, airports and even a meteorite after himself and his immediate family. He even named the months, and days of the week after himself and his family. Niyazov's face appears on Manat banknotes and large portraits of the president hang all over the country, especially on major public buildings and avenues. Statues of himself and his mother are scattered all over Turkmenistan, including one in the middle of the Karakum Desert as well as a gold-plated statue atop Ashgabat's largest building, the Neutrality Arch, that rotates so it will always face into the sun and shine light onto the capital city. Niyazov commissioned a massive palace in Aşgabat commemorating his rule. He was given the hero of Turkmenistan award five times. "I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets - but it's what the people want," Niyazov said.
The Independent has more on the Niyazov looniness:
He renamed the month of January after himself and April after his mother and banned ballet, gold teeth and recorded music. A planet of the Taurus constellation, a crater on the Moon and a mountain peak were other things named after him....

Like the khans who once ruled this long-nomadic land, Niyazov ran Turkmenistan from an office draped with carpets that made it look like a nomad's tent. When foreign leaders met him he often presented them with a horse.

In 1999, the Turkmen parliament elected him president for life. Which apparently lasted only seven years. The Financial Times has his obit:
Saparmurat Niyazov, the president of Turkmenistan, has died leaving the gas rich Central Asian republic he had ruled for over twenty years impoverished, internationally isolated and with no obvious successor.

Niyazov, known as Turkmenbashi, or Ruler of the Turkmens, died of cardiac arrest in the early hours of Thursday morning, according to a statement broadcast by Turkmenistan state television.

“The people of Turkmenistan will continue to pursue the political course of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi at this difficult moment”, the statement said.

Niyazov, who was appointed president for life by Turkmenistan’s Majlis, or parliament, in 1999, was 66 years old. He admitted earlier this year that he suffered from heart disease, but no successor was named.

Niyazov was a hardline dictator who established a bizarre personality cult in Turkmenistan, a largely desert republic bordering Afghanistan, Iran and Uzbekistan. The opposition has been brutally crushed and there is no independent media.

Western diplomats have expressed concern that frequent government purges ordered by Niyazov have denuded Turkmenistan’s administration of officials capable of ruling the republic or its industries.

Western diplomats are right to be concerned -- it's going to be an interesting few weeks ahead in Ashgabat.

Whether this translates into a few interesting weeks for global energy markets remains to be seen.

posted by Dan at 08:06 AM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, October 5, 2006

So what's going on in Ukraine?

Crooked Timber's Maria Farrell went on a study tour organised by the 21st Century Trust and the John Smith Memorial Trust to see what's going on in Ukraine nearly two years after the Orange Revolution. The group decided to create their own blog to record their thoughts on the trip.

If you're interested in the country, go check it out.

posted by Dan at 11:19 PM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Why are there no anti-Borat riots in Kazakhstan?

The New York Times' Steven Lee Myers looks at a question that I've wondered about from time to time -- what do the people of Kazakhstan think about Borat? The answer appears to be surprisingly liberal:

There is no Running of the Jews here. No one greets you with the expression “Jagshemash,” which is either nonsense, garbled Polish or mangled Czech; it’s hard to say. The country’s national drink is not made from horse urine, though fermented horse milk, or kumys, is considered a delicacy. (It tastes like effervescent yogurt.)

There is almost nothing, in short, remotely truthful in the satiric depiction of Kazakhstan popularized by Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comedian who plays a bumbling, boorish, anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynistic Kazakh television reporter named Borat Sagdiyev.

And yet Borat — Mr. Cohen, that is — has managed to infuriate and confound the country’s officials. Their attempts to respond, to set the record straight, have resulted only in more attention here, where Borat’s antics, shown on British and American television and on the Internet, now make the rounds like samizdat from the long-gone days when the country was part of the Soviet Union....

“There is an unwritten rule that the president’s personality is never criticized,” said Baryz Bayen, a correspondent and editor for TV 31, a privately owned channel in Almaty.

Last fall Mr. Bayen prepared a six-minute feature on the controversy over Mr. Cohen’s MTV performance that included clips of the skit depicting Mr. Nazarbayev, borrowed from Russia’s NTV channel. Mr. Bayen cited a history of political satire dating to Moličre and recalled an old refrain from Soviet times: “I have never read Solzhenitsyn, but I condemn him absolutely.”

“I do not feel any false patriotism,” said Mr. Bayen, who, like all ethnic Kazakhs, bears no resemblance to Borat whatsoever. “I saw portions of his show, and I can say it is funny.”

TV 31’s executive producer, Yevgeny Grundberg, said he hoped to send a correspondent to interview Mr. Cohen in character, reversing the roles in Borat’s acts, where his mock interviews have duped some subjects. So far, though, Mr. Cohen has not responded to his offer. He said Mr. Cohen’s satire was hyperbolic at best and wildly off the mark at worst but nonetheless served as an antidote to the articles and broadcasts that appear in official state media, where Kazakhstan is forever harmonious and prosperous.

“Most people take it normally,” he said, noting that those who have seen Borat remain a minority with access to the Internet or satellite television, where “Da Ali G Show” appears on Russian MTV, which is on cable television here. “The nation has changed enough for that.”

It is interesting that this Muslim country can take Borat with a grain of salt, whereas other jibes at Middle Eastern values provoke a more... frenzied response.

[Borat does not poke fun at Islam, whereas Mohammed cartoons do. You're comparing apples and oranges!!--ed. Maybe... except that nationalism can provoke just as much passion as religion, so I think the similarities are more important than the differences.]

Oh, and you can see the trailer for Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan by clicking here. As for Borat's reaction to the Kazakh government's denunciations, click here.

posted by Dan at 02:45 PM | Comments (16) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The underwhelming Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

I have discovered, through long and intensive soul-searching, that I would be a lousy pundit for a Sunday morning talk show. The reason is that my reaction to 99% of the topics discussed on such shows boils down to, "This too shall pass."

In other words, claims that individual leaders or individual political performances make a difference leave me, for the most part, unimpressed.

Which brings me to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Multiple sources have Ahmadinejad performing brilliantly while in NYC. Consider the New York Times' David Sanger:

Over the objections of the administration and Jewish groups that boycotted the event, Mr. Ahmadinejad, the man who has become the defiant face of Iran, squared off with the nation’s foreign policy establishment, parrying questions for an hour and three-quarters with two dozen members of the Council on Foreign Relations, then ending the evening by asking whether they were simply shills for the Bush administration.

Never raising his voice and thanking each questioner with a tone that oozed polite hostility, he spent 40 minutes questioning the evidence that the Holocaust ever happened — “I think we should allow more impartial studies to be done on this,” he said after hearing an account of an 81-year-old member, the insurance mogul Maurice R. Greenberg, who saw the Dachau concentration camp as Germany fell — and he refused to even consider Washington’s proposal for Russia to provide Iran with nuclear reactor fuel, and take it back once it is used.

See also Sanger's audio report.

Then there's Andrew Sullivan:

Watching the CNN interview with Mahmoud Ahamedinejad and reading about his meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations reinforces my sense of foreboding about Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There's no point in denying that his trip to the U.S. has been a big media and p.r. coup for him. And there is a chilling slickness to him that is as disturbing as it is obviously formidable. The way he deflected questions always back toward the U.S., the way he skilfully used every awkward moment to pivot to the themes his domestic and international audience want to hear, the very image of the informal, mild-mannered, quiet-spoken, constantly smiling serenity: all these represent a very, very capable politician. There is a complete self-assurance to him that suggests he can neither be trusted as a diplomatic partner nor under-estimated as a global foe.
Even's Bernard Gwertzman:
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran sparred with a high-levelgroup from the Council on Foreign Relations for ninety minutes Wednesday on virtually every contentious issue between the United States and Iran.

There were no obvious changes in the responses given by Ahmadinejad, who has been granting interviews to major news organizations over the past week ahead of his trip to the opening session of the UN General Assembly. But the Iranian leader engaged in a protracted punch and counterpunch with the panel.

“I’m not sure we learned anything new,” said Richard N. Haass, the CFR president, in comments afterwards.

Color me mostly unimpressed. Ahmadinejad gets points for staying on message and not losing his temper. However, I judge whether someone has put in a good political performance based on whether they manage to persuade others of the merits of their worldview.

Looking at Gwertzman's account, I did not see that. Instead, I see Ahmadinejad getting pilloried by Matin Indyk, Brent Scowcroft, and Kenneth Roth -- not exactly a homogenous bunch. Which might explain Ahmadinejad's truculence at the end:

As the meeting drew to a close, the Iranian leader observed, “In the beginning of the session you said you are independent, and I accepted that. But everything you said seems to come from the government perspective.” Haass responded that there had been no advance coordination among the Council participants and that “the aim was to expose you to views of a broad range of Americans. It would be wrong for you to leave this meeting thinking that you heard unrepresentative views.”
Like Hugo Chavez, Ahmadinejad might be able to stoke his own supporters, but he seems to excel even more at creating and unifying his adversaries.

Ahmadinejad too will pass.

UPDATE: OK, I'll give Ahmadinejad credit for sartorially converting Matthew Yglesias.

ANOTHER UPDATE: A valid question running through the comments boils down to, "what if Ahmadinejad gets nuclear weapons?" I agree that this does not fall under the "this too shall pass" category -- however, we need to be clear about terms here. My (limited) understanding of the Iranian power structure suggests that on the nuclear question, Ahmadinejad is a) not the most important decision-maker; and b) holds the minority position of rejecting all compromise. So even if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, I do not think this means Ahmadinejad is going to have his finger on the button.

Besides, I suspect Ahmadinejad has his own domestic troubles.

posted by Dan at 10:15 PM | Comments (40) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The worst form of government in Thailand and Hungary

It's strictly a coincidence that third-wave democratic governments in Hungary and Thailand are having a spot of trouble today. There does seem to be a loose commonality in the underlying sources of the instability, however.

Why the attempted coup in Thailand? The BBC has a good backgrounder:

Thailand's latest political crisis traces its roots back to January when Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra sold his family's stake in the telecoms firm Shin Corp.
The move angered many, mainly urban Thais, who complained the family avoided paying tax and had passed control of an important national asset to Singaporean investors.

It led to mass protests and calls for the resignation of the prime minister, who was already under pressure over his handling of a Muslim insurgency in the south and his extensive control over the media.

In a bid to tackle the crisis, and to show he still had widespread public support despite regular massive street protests in Bangkok, Mr Thaksin dissolved parliament in February and called a snap election for April.

Mr Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party won 57% of the vote in the April election, but millions of Thais cast protest votes and the opposition refused to take part.

After weeks of limbo, Thailand's highly-revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej called the situation a "mess" and ordered the courts to sort it out.

The election result was ruled invalid by the Constitutional Court and a new date was set for later this year.

As for the situation now, the BBC also reports that: An army-owned TV station is showing images of the royal family and songs linked in the past with military coups." To which I must say -- there are songs associated with military coups???

As for Hungary, here's the Associated Press explanation:

Protesters clashed with police and stormed the headquarters of Hungarian state television early Tuesday in an explosion of anger over a leaked recording of the prime minister admitting his government had "lied morning, evening and night" about the economy.

Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany said the overnight riots were "the longest and darkest night" for the country since the end of communism in 1989. About 150 people were injured, including 102 police officers, one of whom suffered serious head injuries, officials said....

The outpouring of rage may be linked to austerity measures Gyurcsany's Socialist-led coalition has implemented in order to rein in a state budget deficit expected to surpass 10 percent of gross domestic product this year — the largest in the European Union.

The government has raised taxes and announced plans to lay off scores of state employees, and introduce direct fees in the health sector and tuition for most university students.

Until the scandal suddenly broke this weekend, the 45-year-old Gyurcsany had been the Socialist Party's golden boy — a youthful, charismatic leader promising to lead his nation to the prosperity as a full EU member.

His coalition with the Alliance of Free Democrats in April became the first Hungarian government to win re-election since the return to democracy in 1990.

The violence came after a mainly peaceful protest outside parliament attended by several thousand people began late Sunday, when a recording made in May was leaked to local media in which Gyurcsany admitted to repeatedly having lied to the country about the true state of the Hungarian economy to win April's elections.

In both countries, the formal electoral rules and laws seem incapable of dealing with shady behavior by duly elected officials.

A mark against democracy? Well, yes, but only until one considers Winston Churchill's thoughts on the matter.

posted by Dan at 01:13 PM | Comments (16) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, September 15, 2006

Mexico returns to normality

James C. McKinley reports in the New York Times that after an interesting period of protest, Mexico is now returning to normal:

Supporters of a leftist candidate who narrowly lost the presidential election this summer were tearing down five miles of tents on Thursday that have blockaded this capital’s central avenues for six weeks.

“It’s an emotional situation,” Juan Gutiérrez Calva, 45, a street vendor, said as he packed up his tent. “I’m calm. I’m not sad or happy. It was always clear that we were not going to advance much toward a real democracy in this country.”

The move signaled a shift by their leader, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City, who says he was robbed of an election victory.

Having lost a legal battle for a full recount, and facing a steady defection of supporters, Mr. López Obrador is now striving to find a way to remain a political force over the coming six years, while Felipe Calderón, a conservative, serves as president.

It is an interesting irony that one of the reasons for this is Mr. López Obrador's self-defeating strategy -- by alienating so many of his supporters, he created a consensus for Calderón that did not exist at the time of the election:
Now even Mr. López Obrador’s aides acknowledge that he is losing some support among middle-class liberals and influential leftist politicians and intellectuals, as Mexicans seem prepared to move on from the election dispute, even if Mr. López Obrador is not.

The founder of his party, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, for instance, published a letter on Thursday accusing Mr. López Obrador and his inner circle of being intolerant of dissent.

“It worries me profoundly, the intolerance and demonization, the dogmatic attitude that prevails around Andrés Manuel for those of us who do not accept unconditionally his proposals and who question his points of view and decisions,” he wrote.

And Carlos Fuentes, the giant of Mexican letters, also assailed Mr. López Obrador this week for continuing to insist there was widespread fraud in the election, while he never challenged the elections of his party’s members to the Legislature.

“There could have been fraud in the Chamber of Deputies, there could have been fraud in the Senate, but there wasn’t,” he said. “There was only fraud for the presidency of the republic. How strange, no? I don’t believe it.”

There have been other signs of weakening support. Mr. López Obrador’s party voted down a slate of his closest allies for leadership positions in Congress, choosing the leaders of other factions. Two prominent governors from his party have also recognized Mr. Calderón’s victory.

The questioning extends to the voters. Several said in interviews that the prolonged blockade of the city’s central avenues and main square, as well as Mr. López Obrador’s refusal to concede defeat, only confirmed the accusations of his political enemies that he was autocratic and had little regard for courts or the law.

posted by Dan at 09:02 AM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

How bad was Hezbollah hurt?

Last month I posted the following caveat to my blogging about the Lebanon conflict:

[I]it is possible that Hezbollah has suffered far greater losses than we know. There is an asymmetry in the reporting of the conflict -- reporters clearly have much greater access to the Israeli military than Hezbollah. While it's in both sides' interest to keep published reports of their losses to a minimum, it's institutionally tougher for Israel to do this.

As a result, the Israeli losses are known -- the Hezbollah losses are not completely known.

So the war is over now -- how bad was Hezbollah hurt?

I still don't know the answer. According to Greg Djerejian, Hezbollah has acted so swiftly to reconstruct and rebuild the affected portions of Lebanon that, "Hizbollah's vast independent network undermines the state and encourages criticism of the cash-strapped central government."

On the other hand, according to Michael Totten, Hezbollah is acting in a quite chastened manner in South Lebanon:

[T]he most recent development in Hezbollah’s post-war saga is frankly humiliating.
Hizbullah has dismantled 14 outposts on the Israel-Lebanon border near the Shaba Farms, Lebanese security sources said Monday.

Reportedly, the group evacuated the posts using trucks to carry artillery, other weapons and military equipment, while bulldozers blocked access to tunnels and bunkers.

Witnesses said that the vehicles laden with weapons and other military equipment were headed northward.

A French news agency reported that the Lebanese army had deployed troops along the border with Syria and that its soldiers had blocked routes used by weapons smugglers.

I challenge my readers to parse out these contradictory developments.

UPDATE: Below is an extract from an e-mail relayed to me by someone within the "defense establishment" -- make of it what you will:

1. All serious military analysts in the US, Iran and Israel understand that Hezbollah suffered an enormous defeat on the battlefield.

2. However, Hezbollah’s military branch developed a technique to nullify the tactic that the IDF normally uses in cross-border raids. Specifically, the IDF often conducts raids by quickly sending in a platoon backed up by a few tanks/mobile armor units. By arming their fighters with anti-tank weapons, Hezbollah nullified the tank advantage. By using tunnels, they were able to surprise the IDF infantry and evade reprisal.

3. In response, IDF changed tactics. Specifically, they activated massive reserves and then flooded the areas with troops. This nullifies the Hezbollah technique because the IDF could cut retreat routes, block routes to other tunnels, and can quickly kill the people who pop out of tunnels. In short, after you take a cheap shot at the IDF and you try to run, you will encounter more IDF.

4. In the last days, when the IDF called its reserves, Hezbollah lost much ground and was powerless to stop most IDF actions.

5. Also, the strategy of distributing rockets throughout the population is very effective for publicity. Though the rockets themselves cause relatively little damage and have little effective military use, they are easy to use, hard to stop and are sensational (in the sense that they bring attention).

posted by Dan at 11:31 AM | Comments (14) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

That Lopez Obrador has an interesting political strategy

Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s strategy to reverse the results in Mexico's presidential election is starting to confuse me. Consider this Financial Times story by Adam Thomson:

Ever since Mr López Obrador, leftwing candidate in the election for president on July 2, lost by a razor-thin 244,000 votes to Felipe Calderón of the ruling centre-right National Action party, he has been “fighting to save democracy”....

In a rare interview, Mr López Obrador told the Financial Times at the weekend that not only would his struggle continue but that it would also become more radical and incorporate new acts of “civil resistance” to press his case.

All this has come as little surprise to his critics, who brand the silver-haired 52-year-old simply as an unreformed leftist campaigner with an authoritarian streak and scant regard for legal process.

They would probably be unsurprised, too, to learn what Mr López Obrador is reading: Sources on the History of the Mexican Revolution, a large leather-bound book with gold leaf on the spine. “You have to know history to know what to do in circumstances . . .”, he says before tailing off into silence.

Mr López Obrador has been reading about José Vasconcelos, a prominent revolutionary figure who later put down his loss in the 1929 presidential election to fraud and called on supporters to begin an armed struggle. And like that of Vasconcelos, Mr López Obrador is aware that the story of his own struggle might be retold for future generations.

Never in this country’s history has an opposition movement managed to bring together so many people,” he says. “This is a historic moment because the next few days will define the future of democracy in Mexico, the role of the institutions and respect for the constitution.”....

As a political strategy, however, most analysts believe the call for peaceful civil resistance is a big mistake. The resulting traffic chaos from the blockade of Reforma has annoyed many residents in the capital, which is by far Mr López Obrador’s biggest support base. An increasingly radical strategy may also alienate members of his own party, which did well at the legislative level. Before long, they argue, instead of becoming a new Vasconcelos, he may find himself a lonely – and insignificant – character.

Mr López Obrador admits that “there has been a drain of support” since he began his civil resistance campaign. He also accepts that less than half the population supports him in his struggle. In the capital, for example, he believes he now has the backing of 38 per cent of citizens.

But he insists that he had no option but to challenge the authorities. “You can’t stop them unless you take these kinds of steps. The way to fight fraud and to overcome the news blackout is what we are doing now,” he says. “If we hadn’t taken Reforma [the occupied avenue], we would not exist.” (emphases added)

If this Bloomberg report by Patrick Harrington and Adriana Arai is accurate, the sit-in in Mexico City cost his party votes in Chiapas.

If Lopez Obrador knows that his "permanent protest" campaign is causing him to lose support, and there is no indication that the protests to date are affecting the legal part of the electoral process, how is this Mexican standoff going to end?

posted by Dan at 07:52 AM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

So what's it like in Northern Uganda?

Taylor Owen at Oxblog relays a first-person account from Erin Baines about negotiations to end a conflict in Uganda. You know a situation must be pretty dire when the Sudanese government is the mediator in a dispute.

Go check it out.

posted by Dan at 12:16 AM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Saturday, August 5, 2006

Mexico is about to get very interesting

The BBC reports that there will not be a full recount in Mexico's recent presidential election:

Mexico's electoral body has rejected a request by left-wing candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador for a full recount of votes from July's disputed election.
Instead, the electoral tribunal's seven judges ordered a partial recount.

Mr Lopez Obrador's supporters have repeatedly said a ballot-by-ballot recount is the only way to restore faith in Mexico's electoral system.

The 2 July vote gave victory to the conservative candidate, Felipe Calderon, by less than 1%.

The electoral tribunal ordered the recount of votes at 11,839 of the country's almost 130,500 polling stations.

Mr Obrador has challenged the election result, saying the vote was rigged.

He has said he will not accept a partial recount, raising fears of prolonged public unrest.

Reporting for the AP, Traci Carl reports that Lopez Obrador's supporters are not taking the news well:
In Mexico's central plaza, thousands of protesters watched the court session on a huge screen, chanting "Vote by vote!" and drowning out the judges' statements. Representatives of Lopez Obrador walked out of the session in protest.

Tens of thousands of Lopez Obrador's supporters have camped out in the capital's center for a week, disrupting business and traffic to press their case that their candidate was cheated of victory in the July 2 election and to demand that all the votes be recounted....

Lopez Obrador contends he won the election and argues that a full, ballot-by-ballot recount is the only way to restore faith in Mexico's electoral system.

Calderon has expressed confidence the election was clean and fair, and European Union observers said they found no problems in the vote counting.

The protest camps in Mexico City's cultural and financial heart, the elegant Reforma Avenue and the Zocalo plaza, have snarled traffic for nearly a week.

Lopez Obrador's party controls the Mexico City government, so there is very little chance of the city trying to clear out his supporters. What will be interesting is whether the court decision will increase protests, or whether the current sit-in has turned off former supporters. As this New York Times story by James C. McKinley, Jr. suggests, the street protests are starting to annoy people:
The blockade looks more like a fair than a protest. City workers and party members have erected enormous circus-like tents the length of the avenue. There are stages where musicians entertain the protesters, and a photo exhibit of Mr. López Obrador’s life. A volleyball net had been set up, as well as a mini soccer field.

But the protest has cost Mr. López Obrador many allies, among them the leftist writer Carlos Monsivais, who believe that causing traffic jams throughout a city that voted overwhelmingly for him is going too far.

Business owners in the city center have also complained they are being hurt and have demanded the city government dislodge the protesters, to no avail. Hotel owners say their occupancy rate has dropped 50 percent this week. Restaurateurs and retailers are also hurting. The blockade is causing losses of $22 million a day, estimates the Mexico City Chamber of Commerce.


posted by Dan at 02:24 PM | Comments (13) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, July 28, 2006

The situation in Lebanon has calcified

When the war started in Lebanon, I said the situaion was fluid.

Not any more.

Neil MacFarquhar has a front-pager in the New York Times suggesting that the Arab Middle East has come to a consensus about the war in Lebanon -- and it's not a consensus the United States would like:

At the onset of the Lebanese crisis, Arab governments, starting with Saudi Arabia, slammed Hezbollah for recklessly provoking a war, providing what the United States and Israel took as a wink and a nod to continue the fight.

Now, with hundreds of Lebanese dead and Hezbollah holding out against the vaunted Israeli military for more than two weeks, the tide of public opinion across the Arab world is surging behind the organization, transforming the Shiite group’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, into a folk hero and forcing a change in official statements.

The Saudi royal family and King Abdullah II of Jordan, who were initially more worried about the rising power of Shiite Iran, Hezbollah’s main sponsor, are scrambling to distance themselves from Washington.

An outpouring of newspaper columns, cartoons, blogs and public poetry readings have showered praise on Hezbollah while attacking the United States and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for trumpeting American plans for a “new Middle East” that they say has led only to violence and repression.

Even Al Qaeda, run by violent Sunni Muslim extremists normally hostile to all Shiites, has gotten into the act, with its deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, releasing a taped message saying that through its fighting in Iraq, his organization was also trying to liberate Palestine.

This situation is no longer developing -- it's developed. And ironically, it's developed because Arab governments in the region are doing what the Bush administration wants them to do -- respond to popular opinions within their countries.

To be fair, I suspect if the IDF had managed to cause Hezbollah to disintegrate within the week of conflict, this wouldn't have happened -- and I think that was what the IDF expected to happen. However, I'm shocked, shocked to report that pre-war intelligence might have been flawed.

Now, Israel faces the worst of both worlds -- they've discovered that Hezbollah is a more potent, disciplined, and technologically savvy threat than they previously thought. At the same time, public opinion in Lebanon, the region and across the world has shifted against Jerusalem, making it next to impossible for them to adopt the military measures necessary to eradicate the threat [What measures are those?--ed. I'm not even sure -- I just now they would involve action on a greater scale than what the IDF is currently doing.]

UPDATE: There is one whopping caveat to the above that I forgot to mention -- it is possible that Hezbollah has suffered far greater losses than we know. There is an asymmetry in the reporting of the conflict -- reporters clearly have much greater access to the Israeli military than Hezbollah. While it's in both sides' interest to keep published reports of their losses to a minimum, it's institutionally tougher for Israel to do this.

As a result, the Israeli losses are known -- the Hezbollah losses are not completely known. [If Hezbollah crumbles in the next week, will this be your "quagmire" post?--ed. Pretty much, yes -- but I still don't think they will fall apart.]

posted by Dan at 07:57 AM | Comments (23) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Remember Iraq?

In their summer 2006 issue, Foreign Affairs featured a roundtable on "What to Do In Iraq?" with contributions by Larry Diamond, James Dobbins, Chaim Kaufmann, Leslie Gelb and Stephen Biddle.

This month, invited four prominent online commentators -- Christopher Hitchens, Kevin Drum, Marc Lynch, and Fred Kaplan -- to a web-only discussion of the articles and Iraq in general. Biddle and Diamond respond in kind.

Go check it out.

posted by Dan at 09:03 AM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Stratfor on Israel's strategy

Back in Boston, but very jet-lagged.

I see that the Middle East did not get more peaceful while I was on a jet plane. Stratfor provides a useful analysis on what Israel and Hezbollah are thinking in the current conflict. I don't know if the analysis is correct, but it does have the advantage of matching my cogitation on the matter:

The Israeli strategy appears to be designed to do two things. First, the Israelis are trying to prevent any supplies from entering Lebanon, including reinforcements. That is why they are attacking all coastal maritime facilities. Second, they are degrading the roads in Lebanon. That will keep reinforcements from reaching Hezbollah fighters engaged in the south. As important, it will prevent the withdrawal and redeployment of heavy equipment deployed by Hezbollah in the south, particularly their rockets, missiles and launchers. The Israelis are preparing the battlefield to prevent a Hezbollah retreat or maneuver.

Hezbollah's strategy has been imposed on it. It seems committed to standing and fighting. The rate of fire they are maintaining into Israel is clearly based on an expectation that Israel will be attacking. The rocketry guarantees the Israelis will attack. Hezbollah has been reported to have anti-tank and anti-air weapons. The Israelis will use airmobile tactics to surround and isolate Hezbollah concentrations, but in the end, they will have to go in, engage and defeat Hezbollah tactically. Hezbollah obviously knows this, but there is no sign of disintegration on its part. At the very least, Hezbollah is projecting an appetite for combat. Sources in Beirut, who have been reliable to this point, say Hezbollah has weapons that have not yet been seen, such as anti-aircraft missiles, and that these will be used shortly. Whatever the truth of this, Hezbollah does not seem to think its situation is hopeless.

The uncertain question is Syria. No matter how effectively Israel seals the Lebanese coast, so long as the Syrian frontier is open, Hezbollah might get supplies from there, and might be able to retreat there. So far, there has been only one reported airstrike on a Syrian target. Both Israel and Syria were quick to deny this.

What is interesting is that it was the Syrians who insisted very publicly that no such attack took place. The Syrians are clearly trying to avoid a situation in which they are locked into a confrontation with Israel. Israel might well think this is the time to have it out with Syria as well, but Syria is trying very hard not to give Israel casus belli. In addition, Syria is facilitating the movement of Westerners out of Lebanon, allowing them free transit. They are trying to signal that they are being cooperative and nonaggressive.

The problem is this: While Syria does not want to get hit and will not make overt moves, so long as the Syrians cannot guarantee supplies will not reach Hezbollah or that Hezbollah won't be given sanctuary in Syria, Israel cannot complete its mission of shattering Hezbollah and withdrawing. They could be drawn into an Iraq-like situation that they absolutely don't want. Israel is torn. On the one hand, it wants to crush Hezbollah, and that requires total isolation. On the other hand, it does not want the Syrian regime to fall. What comes after would be much worse from Israel's point of view.

This is the inherent problem built into Israel's strategy, and what gives Hezbollah some hope. If Israel does not attack Syria, Hezbollah could well survive Israel's attack by moving across the border. No matter how many roads are destroyed, Israel won't be able to prevent major Hezbollah formations moving across the border. If they do attack Syria and crush al Assad's government, Hezbollah could come out of this stronger than ever.

Judging from the airstrikes in the past 24 hours, it would appear Israel is trying to solve the problem tactically, by degrading Lebanese transport facilities. That could increase the effectiveness of the strategy, but in the end cannot be sufficient. We continue to think Israel will choose not to attack Syria directly and therefore, while the invasion will buy time, it will not solve the problem. Hezbollah certainly expects to be badly hurt, but it does not seem to expect to be completely annihilated. We are guessing, but our guess is that they are reading Israel's views on Syria and are betting that, in the long run, they will come out stronger. Of course, Israel knows this and therefore may have a different plan for Syria. At any rate, this is the great unknown in this campaign.

posted by Dan at 09:38 PM | Comments (36) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, July 14, 2006

The fluid situation in Lebanon

You know a crisis is still in a fluid state when major U.S. newspapers take opposing positions on in their new analysis of the situation.

For example -- how have the Israeli attacks affected Hezbollah's political position in Lebanon?

The New York Times' Michael Slackman thinks Hezbollah is the big winner:

A few short months ago, representatives of every Lebanese faction gathered in central Beirut and discussed many of the issues that divide them - including how and when to disarm the Hezbollah militia.

While Hezbollah and its supporters vowed never to give up their weapons, the recent events have served only to support their position: anyone calling for disarming Hezbollah now risks being called a traitor.

"It is strange that one man representing a faction of the Shia, Hassan Nasrallah, is holding the whole Lebanese population hostage," said Elie Fawaz, a Lebanese political analyst....

In Lebanon, [Hezbollah leader Hasan] Nasrallah tried to make clear during his own press conference on Wednesday that Hezbollah was only acting to free Lebanese prisoners and to liberate a disputed piece of land called Shabba Farms. Hezbollah has always maintained that its mandate is to fight for Lebanon - not to pursue anyone else's agenda, not even the Palestinians. No one doubts that the recent events served Hezbollah's interests, at least in the short term.
In the Washington Post, Anthony Shadid takes a different position:
The radical Shiite movement Hezbollah and its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, hold an effective veto in Lebanese politics, and the group's military prowess has heartened its supporters at home and abroad in the Arab world. But that same force of arms has begun to endanger Hezbollah's long-term standing in a country where critics accuse it of dragging Lebanon into an unwinnable conflict the government neither chose nor wants to fight.

"To a certain Arab audience and Arab elite, Nasrallah is a champion, but the price is high," said Walid Jumblatt, a member of parliament and leader of Lebanon's Druze community. "We are paying a high price."....

Since the fighting with Israel started Wednesday, calls for Hezbollah to relinquish its weapons have gathered urgency. The violence began when Hezbollah fighters captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border incursion, followed by an Israeli attack on roads, bridges, power stations and airports.

Lebanese critics as well as allies of Hezbollah insist that the Israeli response was disproportionate. But at the same time, in meetings Thursday, Lebanese officials began to lay the groundwork for an extension of government control to southern Lebanon. Hezbollah largely controls southern Lebanon, where it has built up a network of schools, hospitals and charities.

"To declare war and to make military action must be a decision made by the state and not by a party," said Nabil de Freige, a parliament member. He belongs to the bloc headed by Saad Hariri, whose father, Rafiq, a former prime minister and wealthy businessman, was assassinated in 2005, setting off a sequence of events that forced the Syrian withdrawal. "It's a very simple equation: You have to be a state."

After a cabinet meeting Thursday, the government said it had a right and duty to extend its control over all Lebanese territory. Interior Minister Ahmed Fatfat said the statement marked a step toward the government reasserting itself.

Other government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, went further, calling it a first move in possibly sending the Lebanese army to the border, a U.N.-endorsed proposal that Hezbollah has rejected. The officials described the meeting as stormy and contentious but said both sides -- Hezbollah and its government critics -- were especially wary of public divisions at a time of crisis.

"It is becoming very clear that the state alone must bear responsibility for the country's foreign policy," said Samir Franjieh, a parliament member who is close to the Hariri bloc. "But our problem now is that Israel is taking things so far that if there is no help from the international community, the situation could get out of hand."


posted by Dan at 05:00 AM | Comments (43) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, July 7, 2006

Just how disaffected are European Muslims?

Going by news stories -- the London bombings, the French riots, the Danish cartoons -- 2005 was not a terribly good year for Muslim immigrants living in Europe.

So it's interesting to see that according to the Pew Global Attitudes project, the situation might not be as bleak as previously thought:

Muslims in Europe worry about their future, but their concern is more economic than religious or cultural. And while there are some signs of tension between Europe's majority populations and its Muslim minorities, Muslims there do not generally believe that most Europeans are hostile toward people of their faith. Still, over a third of Muslims in France and one-in-four in Spain say they have had a bad experience as a result of their religion or ethnicity.

However, there is little evidence of a widespread backlash against Muslim immigrants among the general publics in Great Britain, France, Germany, and Spain. Majorities continue to express concerns about rising Islamic identity and extremism, but those worries have not intensified in most of the countries surveyed over the past 12 months; a turbulent period that included the London subway bombings, the French riots, and the Danish cartoon controversy....

Most notably, France shows no signs of a backlash in response to last year's riots. In fact, a counter trend seems to have emerged with slightly more French people saying that immigration from the Middle East and North Africa is a good thing than did so a year ago. The French public is also more inclined this year to say that Muslims living in France want to adopt French customs - a view held by an overwhelming majority of Muslims in France. Nor do German and British publics express any increase in negative views of immigrants - although, unlike the French, they are not more positive toward immigrants this year. Meanwhile, the Spanish public's view toward immigrants has grown slightly more negative over the last year.

The poll finds that Muslims themselves are generally positive about conditions in their host nation. In fact, they are more positive than the general publics in all four European countries about the way things are going in their countries. However, many Muslims, especially in Britain, worry about the future of Muslims in their country.

This part is particularly interesting:
Religion is central to the identity of European Muslims. With the exception of Muslims in France, they tend to identify themselves primarily as Muslim rather than as British, Spanish, or German. In France, Muslims are split almost evenly on this question. The level of Muslim identification in Britain, Spain, and Germany is similar to that in Pakistan, Nigeria, and Jordan, and even higher than levels in Egypt, Turkey, and Indonesia. By contrast the general populations in Western Europe are far more secular in outlook. Roughly six-in-ten in Spain, Germany, and Britain identify primarily with their country rather than their religion, as do more than eight-in-ten in France.

Americans, however, split about evenly on this question: 42% say they first think of themselves as Christians versus 48% who think of themselves primarily as Americans - a divide close to that found among French Muslims.

Click here to read the whole report.

posted by Dan at 08:33 AM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

So what's it like outside of the Green Zone?

The leaked memo from the Baghdad embassy to Condoleezza Rice on the situation for Iraqis in Baghdad makes for very sobering reading.

Read it and comment away. The first thought that came to mind for me: please, please tell me that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has sources of intel on the situation there beyond the locals working at the embassy.

I hope Dick Cheney is right when he says that 10 years from now people will look back at 2005 and say, "That's when we began to get a handle on the long-term future of Iraq." Memos like the one linked above, however, make Cheney's assertion look pretty out-of-touch.

posted by Dan at 08:43 AM | Comments (51) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, June 8, 2006

Open Zarqawi thread

Accoding to both U.S. and Iraqi officials, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in an airstrike today.

Question to readers: what effect, if any, will this have on the security situation in Iraq?

UPDATE: I do like this AP headline: "Around the world, al-Zarqawi death praised"

ANOTHER UPDATE: Greg Djerejian has some instant analysis that is worh reading.

posted by Dan at 08:01 AM | Comments (32) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Has Al Qaeda acquired a new base?

I've occasionally riffed about how Al Qaeda acts like the Tampa Bay Devil Rays Kansas City Royals of world politics. However, this was predicated on the assumption that Al Qaeda had lost their base in Afghanistan and failed to acquire a new one.

Which brings me to Somalia, and the takeover of Mogadishu by an entity called the Union of Islamic Courts. There are some very disturbing parallels between what's happening in Mogadishu, Somalia right now and what happened in Afghanistan when the Taliban took over Kabul. Consider this BBC report:

The Islamic Courts say they want to promote Islamic law rather than clan allegiance, which has divided Somalis over the past 15 years.

However, all but one of the 11 courts is associated with just one clan - the Hawiye, who dominate the capital....

The Union's public face is its chairman Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a moderate who sought to assure Somalis and the international community this week that the Islamic Courts were no threat and only wanted order.

But the Union does contain radical elements.

Two of the 11 courts are seen as militant; one is led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, on an American list of terrorism suspects because he used to head al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, which was linked to al-Qaeda.

Mr Aweys says al-Itihaad no longer exists and also denies accusations from some western diplomats and observers that there are training grounds for Islamic fighters in Somalia.

He is, however, strongly critical of the United States and its "war on terror"....

During the years of warfare and anarchy, many Somalis have increasingly turned to their faith for some sort of stability.

One visible sign is that before the civil war began in the 1980s, very few women wore headscarves in Mogadishu.

Now, almost every woman wears a headscarf and an increasing number are wearing veils covering their faces, with just narrow slits for the eyes.

Even those Mogadishu residents who are wary of Islamic extremism may welcome a single group being in control of the capital for the first time in 15 years, saying there will at least be some authority.

And many will prefer Islamic preachers to the warlords who have fought over and in many cases systematically looted the city since 1991.

This July 2005 report from the International Crisis Group about Somalia does not make me feel any more sanguine.

James Gordon Meek has a roundup of U.S. intelligence views in the New York Daily News:

"Now you've got a safe haven for al-Qaida," said a defense intelligence official monitoring the country that was used as a base to stage attacks on two U.S. embassies and an Israeli resort in East Africa. "It's definitely a concern."

However, current and former U.S. officials told the New York Daily News that Osama bin Laden's terror network isn't firmly established in Somalia, though the country hasn't had a central government in 15 years.

U.S. Special Forces teams have found no signs of a firm al-Qaida presence, such as terror training camps, sources said.

"Probably our worst fears have not materialized," said recently retired CIA counterterrorism official Paul Pillar.

But Pillar said events in Mogadishu this week are "somewhat similar" to how the Taliban ended infighting by Afghan warlords in the 1990s, brought peace to a war weary country and gave sanctuary to bin Laden's training camps. Pillar said the CIA is likely telling its operatives to "collect, collect, collect" intelligence urgently.

"Having a place to stage attacks in that area is going to be attractive" to al-Qaida, warned former National Counterterrorism Center chief John Brennan.

Developing.... and not in a good way at all.

posted by Dan at 07:55 AM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Saudis have some 'splaining to do

Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House, has a long essay in the Washington Post today on just what Saudi textbooks are saying after they promised to excise some of the more intolerant rhetoric post-9/11:

A review of a sample of official Saudi textbooks for Islamic studies used during the current academic year reveals that, despite the Saudi government's statements to the contrary, an ideology of hatred toward Christians and Jews and Muslims who do not follow Wahhabi doctrine remains in this area of the public school system. The texts teach a dualistic vision, dividing the world into true believers of Islam (the "monotheists") and unbelievers (the "polytheists" and "infidels").

This indoctrination begins in a first-grade text and is reinforced and expanded each year, culminating in a 12th-grade text instructing students that their religious obligation includes waging jihad against the infidel to "spread the faith."

Freedom House knows this because Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi dissident who runs the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs , gave us a dozen of the current, purportedly cleaned-up Saudi Ministry of Education religion textbooks. The copies he obtained were not provided by the government, but by teachers, administrators and families with children in Saudi schools, who slipped them out one by one.

Some of our sources are Shiites and Sunnis from non-Wahhabi traditions -- people condemned as "polytheistic" or "deviant" or "bad" in these texts -- others are simply frustrated that these books do so little to prepare young students for the modern world.

We then had the texts translated separately by two independent, fluent Arabic speakers.

What follows is a sample of some of the translated phrases:

" Every religion other than Islam is false."

"Fill in the blanks with the appropriate words (Islam, hellfire): Every religion other than ______________ is false. Whoever dies outside of Islam enters ____________."


"Whoever obeys the Prophet and accepts the oneness of God cannot maintain a loyal friendship with those who oppose God and His Prophet, even if they are his closest relatives."

"It is forbidden for a Muslim to be a loyal friend to someone who does not believe in God and His Prophet, or someone who fights the religion of Islam."

"A Muslim, even if he lives far away, is your brother in religion. Someone who opposes God, even if he is your brother by family tie, is your enemy in religion."


"As cited in Ibn Abbas: The apes are Jews, the people of the Sabbath; while the swine are the Christians, the infidels of the communion of Jesus."


"Jihad in the path of God -- which consists of battling against unbelief, oppression, injustice, and those who perpetrate it -- is the summit of Islam. This religion arose through jihad and through jihad was its banner raised high. It is one of the noblest acts, which brings one closer to God, and one of the most magnificent acts of obedience to God."

I have no doubt that this is going to inspire a lot of "The Saudis are not our friends" rhetoric, and I can't say I'm inclined to completely disagree. There is a small part of me, however, that wonders two things:
1) How much cherry-picking is going on with the quotations?

2) If one were to go to religious schools in other countries, including the United States, how much rhetoric would one find that would smack of this kind of chauvinism?

I don't know the answer to either question, but I would be curious.

posted by Dan at 02:47 PM | Comments (43) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, May 5, 2006

When going to Brussels is a crime

I had the good fortune to attend the first-ever Brussels Forum last weekend. It turns out that at least one invitee was not so lucky, according to this e-mail from the Forum's conveners:

One of our invited guests to the Brussels Forum, Dr. Ramin Jahanbegloo, never made it to the event as he was detained by the Iranian authorities on the way to the airport to fly to Brussels. Dr. Jahanbegloo is a well-known Iranian intellectual and human rights advocate who currently heads the Cultural Research Bureau in Tehran. Over the weekend we decided not to make his arrest public in the hope that he would shortly be released by the authorities. This has since proven not to be the case.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is a Sorbonne-educated expert on German philosophy. He has also been a post-doc in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University and a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. Dr. Jahanbegloo is a valued member of our intellectual community and a symbol of the universality of democratic and human rights. He is a frequent contributor to the many debates about human rights and democratic freedom in both Europe and the Middle East. Among his many books are Conversations with Isaiah Berlin and (as editor) Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity. At the time of his arrest, he was working on a study of Ghandi and peaceful resistance. He holds a Canadian as well as an Iranian passport.
It would be safe to say that the Human Rights Watch release on the arrest provides little comfort:
“The arbitrary arrest of Ramin Jahanbegloo shows the perilous state of academic freedom and free speech in Iran today,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “This prominent scholar should be celebrated for his academic achievements, not interrogated in one of Iran’s most infamous prisons.”

The authorities detained Jahanbegloo at Tehran Airport on or around Thursday, April 27. Officials refused to acknowledge his detention until Wednesday, May 3, when Tehran’s deputy prosecutor general, Mahmoud Salarkia, confirmed Jahanbegloo’s detention in an interview with the Iranian Students News Agency.

Also on Wednesday, the Fars News Agency quoted the chief of prisons in Tehran Province, Sohrab Soleimani, as saying that Jahanbegloo is being held in Tehran’s Evin prison. Neither official gave any reason for Jahanbegloo’s arrest. An unnamed Judiciary official told the daily Etemad-e Melli that charges against Jahanbegloo “will be announced after the interrogations.”

“Iran’s Judiciary is notorious for coercing confessions by means of torture and ill-treatment,” Stork said. “We hold the Iranian government entirely responsible for Jahanbegloo’s well-being.”
Multiple press reports have Iranian authorities accusing Jahanbegloo of espionage. This makes perfect sense to me -- if I were the Iranian regime, the last thing I'd want is to have a scholar in my midst with deep knowledge of Isaiah Berlin and Mohandas Gandhi.

Needless to say, the Iranian blogosphere has been abuzz about the arrest, the first of a prominent intellectual since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election. This post by Shahram Kholdi provides the a sense of the Farsi blogosphere:

[T]hrough this post, I inform the readers of Free Thoughts on Iran that Dr. Jahanbegloo's arrest is a cause of concern and his release should become the goal of all who are concerned with the promotion of civil society, open public space for free political debate, and last but not least a space safe enough to conduct such debates in a non-violent manner. Dr. Jahanbegloo has taught, lived, and acted in a non-violent manner, and those who would like to rally for his release should remember one fact: He did all this without Media-Mongering and without recourse to Sensationalism.

Here, I join all those who are already active to do something to secure the immediate release of Dr. Jahanbegloo, and invite those who have not joined the rest of us yet, to join us. Also, I would like to ask all those who are willing to join the cause and care for Dr. Jahanbegloo not just as a scholar, intellectual, teacher, and a friend, but as a person who deserves due process, just representation, and freedom from arbitrary confinement, to join the cause in a non-sensationalist manner.

Kholdi provides more info here.

I am uncertain what useful non-governmental actions can be done with regard to Jahanbegloo's case -- but e-mailing Iran's Permanent Mission to the United Nations might be a useful starting point. They even have a "human rights" category in their subject menu.

posted by Dan at 10:29 AM | Comments (13) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

I'm so glad the moderate Al Qaeda faction is in charge

Foreign Policy magazine has started up a blog with the catchy name of Passport. Perusing the posts, I think it will have to go up on the blogroll.

Among other posts, Davide Berretta informs us about Abu Zarqawi's apparent demotion within the ranks of Al Qaeda:

Remember the letter in which Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's sidekick, chided chief insurgent in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for killing too many civilians? Apparently, that was only a warning: word is that Zarqawi was stripped from his political duties two weeks ago, apparently due to the dispute over civilian killings.
Berretta thinks this is a good thing, because "Zarqawi's demotion, if confirmed, could indicate that al-Qaeda is farther from its goal of dividing Sunnis and Shiites than we might think.

Continuing the Tampa Bay Devil Rays metaphor, I look forward to Zawahiri issuing a press release confirming that Zarqawi will be staying on as a consultant, and that the demotion is not really an organizational shake-up.

posted by Dan at 04:39 PM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, April 3, 2006

So how's it going in Lebanon?

Christine Spolar takes a look in the Chicago Tribune at what's happened in Lebanon since Syrian troops left the country. Spolar takes a pesimistic view of politicians dithering while the people suffer -- but after reading the article, I didn't see a lot of heft to that claim.

The interesting part of the story was about how Hezbollah is coping with normal politics:

The pressure is on the Lebanese political class to recapture the promise of a lost spring. Leaders from all parties in parliament are in round-table talks, the first national dialogue in decades, in hopes of translating last year's street protests for "freedom, sovereignty, independence" into some kind of progress.

After bitter delays, they are debating whether President Emile Lahoud, a former commander of the Lebanese armed forces allied with Syria, should be forced from office. They are also questioning for the first time whether the militant group Hezbollah needs its decades-old armed wing.

The discussions are difficult but necessary, according to those involved in the talks and observers keen to see results.

"We never even sat with some of these people before," said Galeb Abou Zeinab, a Hezbollah strategist. "Just sitting and talking is positive . . . and opens people up to a natural give-and-take."....

The United States and France are sponsors of a UN Security Council resolution that calls for the disarming of Lebanese militia, including Hezbollah. But Hezbollah says it needs to maintain its fighters to guard against possible Israeli incursions.

When others argue that weapons are unnecessary since Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah leaders point to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as evidence of Israeli ambition, and they see no reason that Israel would not return to the south if Hezbollah forces disappeared.

Such words appeal to many Arabs in Lebanon, who view Israel as an enemy, and the estimated 350,000 Palestinians who live in refugee camps in Lebanon.

Like other Islamist parties in the Middle East, Hezbollah made inroads in recent elections, claiming 14 seats in the 128-member parliament. Party members are heading ministries for the first time.

But Hezbollah's strength in these internal talks also is due to its history. It has been one of the few political forces in Lebanon to connect with people over the issue of land and sovereignty. When Israeli troops left, Hezbollah leaders were quick to claim credit.

"Everyone will be looking to maneuver," political scientist Makdisi said about the historic dialogue. "Hezbollah may know that at some point they will give up the arms--but the question is: How do you use them as a bargaining chip?"

I'm not holding my breath waiting for Hezbollah to disarm -- but then again, I never thought I would have ever heard a Hezbollah strategist praising the "natural give-and-take" of politics.

posted by Dan at 09:11 AM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, March 24, 2006

Jacques Chirac doesn't like capitalism that much

Another month in France, another excuse for mass protests. This month, the justification has been a law proposed by French prime minister Dominique de Villepin that would make it easier for employers to fire younger workers. The thinking is that this would encourage firms will hire more workers. Needless to say, the French unions disagreed.

The Financial Times' Martin Arnold reports that de Villepin is ready to cave:

Dominique de Villepin will hold talks with trade unions “with no strings attached” on Friday over his unpopular employment law, a move widely interpreted as a climbdown by the embattled French premier....

The meeting could happen on Friday. But the offer for it came only after a long and reportedly heated meeting with President Jacques Chirac, fuelling rumours that the prime minister was ordered to back down.

The new law, which allows companies to fire people aged under 26 in the first two years of their contract without reason, has sparked widespread protests by students and workers which erupted into violence in central Paris yesterday....

Unions want the law withdrawn. François Chérčque, leader of the moderate CFDT union, said: “If the prime minister does not respond positively to our demand to withdraw the first job contract, we will end the conversation.”

Critics suspect Mr de Villepin has fallen into the same trap as his hero Napoleon Bonaparte, ousted after leading France to military defeat at Waterloo.

Analysts, opposition Socialists and members of his own centre-right UMP party said he had tried to push reform too far, too fast, in pursuit of his personal ambitions.

“President Chirac has told him to back down as he was leading the country to the wall,” said Dominique Moisi, a senior adviser at France’s Institute for International Relations. “He tried to convince himself he could be France’s Margaret Thatcher, but forgot he was only the number two.”

Chirac's hostility to any idea with a whiff of Anglo-Saxon provenance is also demonstrated in this FT story by George Parker and Chris Smyth:
Jacques Chirac, French president, defended his walkout on Thursday night from the EU summit – after a French industrialist began addressing leaders of the bloc in English – saying he had been “profoundly shocked to see a Frenchman express himself in English at the (EU) Council table”.

Mr Chirac and two senior French ministers walked out in protest at the decision of Ernest-Antoine Seilličre, head of the Unice employers organisation, to make a plea for economic reform in what he called “the language of business”.

Mr Chirac’s boycott reflected the tensions surrounding the two-day economic summit, which comes against a backdrop of French street protests over labour market reform and claims that Paris is engaged in protectionism of its energy market. The French president was not in the room to hear Mr Seilličre urging leaders to “resist national protectionism in order to avoid a negative domino effect”.

He returned after Mr Seilličre had finished speaking.

posted by Dan at 10:14 AM | Comments (18) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, March 20, 2006

Don't expect Orange Revolution II

Belarus had a presidential "election" over the weekend, which current president Aleksandr Lukashenko won handily.. I use quotations because the OSCE reported:

The Belarusian presidential election on 19 March failed to meet OSCE commitments for democratic elections, despite the fact that voters were offered the potential for a genuine choice between four candidates.

Arbitrary use of state power and widespread detentions showed a disregard for the basic rights of freedom of assembly, association and expression, and raise doubts regarding the authorities' willingness to tolerate political competition.

The full text of the OSCE report can be found here.

There have been some protests in Minsk because of the outcome, but as I've written before, I'm not expecting a Orange revolution in Belarus anytime soon. This Times of London report by Jeremy Page doesn't make me feel any more sanguine:

President Lukashenko of Belarus declared yesterday that he had thwarted a Western plot to overthrow him, pouring scorn on the thousands who protested against his election victory.

About 5,000 opposition supporters protested again last night, setting up a dozen tents in central Minsk, after Western observers said that Sunday’s presidential poll had failed to meet international standards.

The US, which has branded Mr Lukashenko “Europe’s last dictator”, denounced his victory and backed opposition calls for a new election. The EU said that it would impose more visa bans on Belarussian officials.

But President Putin of Russia quickly congratulated Mr Lukashenko, highlighting the Kremlin’s determination to prevent another revolution in a former Soviet state. “The results of the election testify to the fact that the voters trust in your course,” he said.

Mr Lukashenko brushed aside his critics at a two-hour celebratory news conference. “The revolution that was so much talked about, and so much prepared for, failed. It couldn’t be otherwise,” he began, prompting applause from the 600 audience members — mostly state officials.

He derided the 10,000 people who demonstrated on Oktyabrskaya Square on Sunday night despite driving snow and a threat from the KGB chief that they could face the death penalty. “You saw the people who went on to the square. They were good-for-nothings.” He even suggested that God had intervened by sending a blizzard at the height of the protest. It was a vintage performance by the former collective farm manager who has resurrected Soviet-style economic and political controls since he was elected in 1994.

He sat alone beneath a giant plastic model of the Soviet-era national emblem, which he revived after taking power. A map of Europe showed Belarus to be about the size of France.

In one particularly stage-managed exchange, Sergei Gaydukevich, a candidate in the election who was widely regarded as a stooge, stood up to congratulate Mr Lukashenko. The President responded that he had voted for Mr Gaydukevich. “I have a tradition that I don’t vote for myself,” he said.

A Serbian woman asked if she could kiss Mr Lukashenko, on behalf of all Serbian women, for travelling to Belgrade while it was being bombed by Nato. When a French journalist asked about his threat to “break the neck” of anyone organising protests, he responded: “Is your neck broken?”

One thing I love about British papers, however, is that they can be much more blunt than comparable American papers. Take this paragraph:
Shown on national television, the conference was sure to appeal to his supporters in the countryside and the elderly. However, it only reinforced his image among younger Belarussians and most Westerners as a deluded megalomaniac.
UPDATE: A Fistful of Euros has more... including a link to a this fake Belarusian news blog, which is apparently being used as part of a policy simulation exercise for University of Kentucky's Patterson School of Diplomacy.

posted by Dan at 06:16 PM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Has Ahmadinejad jumped the shark?

Michael Slackman writes in the New York Times that both Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are catching some flak for their handling of the nuclear negotiations:

Some people in powerful positions have begun to insist that the confrontational tactics of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have been backfiring, making it harder instead of easier for Iran to develop a nuclear program.

This week, the United Nations Security Council is meeting to take up the Iranian nuclear program. That referral and, perhaps more important, Iran's inability so far to win Russia's unequivocal support for its plans have empowered critics of Mr. Ahmadinejad, according to political analysts with close ties to the government.

One senior Iranian official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the delicate nature of the issue, said: "I tell you, if what they were doing was working, we would say, 'Good.' " But, he added: "For 27 years after the revolution, America wanted to get Iran to the Security Council and America failed. In less than six months, Ahmadinejad did that."

One month ago, the same official had said with a laugh that those who thought the hard-line approach was a bad choice were staying silent because it appeared to be succeeding.....

Average Iranians do not seem uniformly confident at the prospect of being hit with United Nations sanctions.

From the streets of Tehran to the ski slopes outside the city, some people have begun to joke about the catch phrase of the government — flippantly saying, "Nuclear energy is our irrefutable right."

Reformers, whose political clout as a movement vanished after the last election, have also begun to speak out. And people with close ties to the government said high-ranking clerics had begun to give criticism of Iran's position to Ayatollah Khamenei, which the political elite sees as a seismic jolt.

Now, this might be a case of wishful thinking reporting. Much like the hope a few years ago that Iran's regime would be overthrown in a democratic revolution, reports of a regime crack-up are intoxicating because we so desperately want them to be true.

That said, Slackman has a source who explains why Iran has found itself in the pickle it's in -- like Saddam Hussein before them, the Iranians counted on the Russians way too much:

[O]ne political scientist who speaks regularly with members of the Foreign Ministry said that Iran had hinged much of its strategy on winning Russia's support. The political scientist asked not to be identified so as not to compromise his relationship with people in the government.

The political scientist said some negotiators believed that by being hostile to the West they would be able to entice Moscow into making Tehran its stronghold in the Middle East. "They thought the turn east was the way forward," the person said. "That was a belief and a vision."

The person added, "They thought, 99 percent, Russia would seize the opportunity and back the Iranian leaders."

And herein provides a lesson that I might add to my small compendium of Princess Bride-level maxims of international relations that I plann on publishing in my dotage:
1) Never get involved in a land war in Asia;

2) All French diplomacy is predicated on maximizing the self-importance of France;

3) Never trust the Russians to be a dependable ally.

posted by Dan at 10:48 AM | Comments (15) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, March 13, 2006

So what was Saddam thinking?

In the New York Times, Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor get their hands on a classified United States military report on what Saddam was thinking before and during the Second Gulf War. And it turns out that Saddam was petrified of insurgencies more than the U.S. Army:

As American warplanes streaked overhead two weeks after the invasion began, Lt. Gen. Raad Majid al-Hamdani drove to Baghdad for a crucial meeting with Iraqi leaders. He pleaded for reinforcements to stiffen the capital's defenses and permission to blow up the Euphrates River bridge south of the city to block the American advance.

But Saddam Hussein and his small circle of aides had their own ideas of how to fight the war. Convinced that the main danger to his government came from within, Mr. Hussein had sought to keep Iraq's bridges intact so he could rush troops south if the Shiites got out of line.

General Hamdani got little in the way of additional soldiers, and the grudging permission to blow up the bridge came too late. The Iraqis damaged only one of the two spans, and American soldiers soon began to stream across.

The episode was just one of many incidents, described in a classified United States military report, other documents and in interviews, that demonstrate how Mr. Hussein was so preoccupied about the threat from within his country that he crippled his military in fighting the threat from without.

Foreign Affairs has published an extract from the actual report by Kevin Woods, James Lacey, and Williamson Murray for U.S. Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM). From the report, it appears that Saddam Hussein's theory of international relations had a lot in common with Norman Angell and Woodrow Wilson:
Judging from his private statements, the single most important element in Saddam's strategic calculus was his faith that France and Russia would prevent an invasion by the United States. According to Aziz, Saddam's confidence was firmly rooted in his belief in the nexus between the economic interests of France and Russia and his own strategic goals: "France and Russia each secured millions of dollars worth of trade and service contracts in Iraq, with the implied understanding that their political posture with regard to sanctions on Iraq would be pro-Iraqi. In addition, the French wanted sanctions lifted to safeguard their trade and service contracts in Iraq. Moreover, they wanted to prove their importance in the world as members of the Security Council -- that they could use their veto to show they still had power."

Ibrahim Ahmad Abd al-Sattar, the Iraqi army and armed forces chief of staff, claimed that Saddam believed that even if his international supporters failed him and the United States did launch a ground invasion, Washington would rapidly bow to international pressure to halt the war. According to his personal interpreter, Saddam also thought his "superior" forces would put up "a heroic resistance and . . . inflict such enormous losses on the Americans that they would stop their advance." Saddam remained convinced that, in his own words, "Iraq will not, in any way, be like Afghanistan. We will not let the war become a picnic for the American or the British soldiers. No way!"

Go check it all out.

posted by Dan at 12:57 AM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

The European Commission's tough test

The European Commission has lost a lot of big battles over the past few years -- the growth and stability pact and the constitutional referendum, to name two. One could easily debate the virtues of either proposal, but the key political science fact is that the Commission was unable to get its way.

Tobias Buck reports in the Financial Times that the next big test is coming -- preventing a beggar-thy-neighbor policy on mergers and acquisitions:

Just over four months ago, Charlie McCreevy raised eyebrows when he warned of a “strong wind of protectionism” blowing through the European Union.

Today, that wind has turned into a storm that is threatening to tear apart some of the principles on which the Union is founded.

Within the past few weeks, the EU internal market commissioner has seen governments in Madrid, Paris, Warsaw and Luxembourg hardening their opposition to foreign takeovers.

Stung by France’s move to fend off a possible bid from Italy’s biggest energy group, the government in Rome this week also ratcheted up its protectionist rhetoric.

More trouble could be in store. On Tuesday the Commission began examining French justification for its decision to protect 11 sectors from foreign takovers.

Even though Commission officials stress that some countries may be violating the spirit rather than the letter of the law, the hostility to foreign takeovers is raising serious doubts over whether the 25 EU members are committed to the idea of a borderless, open and competitive market.

Mr McCreevy said on Tuesday: “Some...hanker after protectionist barriers not only on the Union’s external borders but internally as well. Such an attitude strikes at the very heart of the freedoms enshrined in the treaties and I will never accept it.”

The architects of the internal market have watched recent developments with growing dismay. While protectionism has never really been defeated, attacks on the free market have become more numerous and aggressive, they say.

Karel van Miert, who served as a European commissioner for transport and competition between 1989 and 1999, told the Financial Times on Tuesday : “The vehemence we have seen recently in the Mittal case, in Spain and in Poland is indeed something new and rather worrying.”

The report suggests that the Commission is fighting against some awfully powerful structural forces:
[S]ome point to a more sinister reason for the rise in hostility towards foreign suitors. “One factor is clearly the current economic malaise gripping Europe. In times when the macroeconomic conditions are less favourable, protection is always on the rise,” said Jean-Pierre Casey, research fellow and financial policy expert at the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies.

High levels of unemployment in western Europe have hampered efforts to open the European services market to more cross-border competition. The centrepiece of those efforts – the services directive – now looks certain to take effect only in a heavily diluted version. Much of the hostility towards the services directive has fed on fears that workers in countries such as Germany and France would be swept aside by an influx of cheap service providers from the new EU member states in eastern Europe.

EU enlargement may also have fuelled protectionist sentiment. The EU of today is, after all, a less cosy and less homogenous place than it used to be. But perhaps the most worrying reason for recent developments is that protectionist measures in one country appear to trigger protectionist responses in other EU member states....

“There is a risk that over time this dynamic triggers a series of tit-for-tat reactions,” said Mr Casey. “That is precisely how the great depression started: one country after the other erected barriers and finally free trade just ground to a halt.”


posted by Dan at 06:06 PM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Open Iraqi civil strife thread

Comment away on the ever-worsening violence in Iraq, triggered by the bombing of the Askariya shrine, also known as the Golden Mosque, in the city of Samarra. Dan Simon has a disturbing synopsis in the Christian Science Monitor.

It would be a cruel irony if a bombing that didn't actually kill anyone turned out to be the straw that broke the camel's back.

posted by Dan at 10:01 PM | Comments (33) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, February 17, 2006

Putin's party becomes a caricature

Steven Lee Myers reports in the New York Times about how a Russian province deals with cartoons that offend the sensibilities of Valdimir Putin's United Russia party:

In a controversy with echoes of the Islamic anger over Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, the authorities in a central Russian city today ordered the closing of a newspaper that published a cartoon showing Muhammad along with Jesus, Moses and Buddha.

The cartoon, published on Feb. 9 in the official city newspaper in Volgograd, prompted some criticism and a federal criminal investigation but no public outrage. That may be, in large part, because it depicted the figures respectfully, renouncing violence, though Islamic teachings forbid any depiction of Muhammad.

"Well, we did not teach them that," Moses says in a caption as the four watch a television set showing two groups confronting each other with banners and clubs and hurling stones. The cartoon appeared on Page 5, accompanying an article on an agreement signed by regional political parties and organizations to combat nationalism, xenophobia and religious conflicts.

Volgograd's first deputy mayor, Andrei O. Doronin, announced the closing of the newspaper, Gorodskiye Vesti, or City News, "in order not to inflame ethnic hostilities," according to the official Russian Information Agency. He gave the newspaper a month to liquidate its assets, leaving the fate of its staff unclear....

Most of the criticism against the cartoon in Volgograd came not from Muslim or other religious leaders, but rather from the local branch of United Russia, the pro-Putin political party that dominates governments across the country. Those complaints prompted Russia's deputy prosecutor general, Nikolai I. Shepel, to announce an inquiry on Wednesday.

Officials in Volgograd initially defended the newspaper, but another deputy mayor, Konstantin E. Kalachyov, said the decision to close the newspaper was an effort to contain a scandal that was "fanned up artificially" in the wake of the fury over the Danish cartoons.

"You can say that the journalists were taught a lesson in political correctness," he said in a telephone interview.

Since a city enterprise owns the newspaper, the mayor's office was essentially shutting its own business, though Mr. Kalachyov said he hoped the newspaper's staff could continue to work at a new city-owned paper that would replace Gorodskiye Vesti.

posted by Dan at 07:09 PM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

A catastrophic victory for Hamas?

As Bob Uecker would put it, this New York Review of Books essay by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley on Hamas is juuuuust a bit slanted in its assessment of the Palestinian situation.

That doesn't mean it's devoid of value, however. Their take on Hamas after victory seems pretty much on point to me:

Out-and-out victory was not what Hamas had expected or, for that matter, what it had wished for. It had come to see itself as a watchdog on the sidelines, sitting in the legislature without controlling it, shaping the government's policies without being held accountable for them, taking credit for its successes and escaping blame for any setbacks. Its triumph presents it with challenges of a different, more urgent, and less familiar sort. Hamas suddenly finds itself on the front line, with decisions to make and relations to manage with the world, international donors, Israel, Fatah, and, indeed, its own varied constituents. The Islamists may have secretly expected to sweep the elections but, if so, that secret remains well kept. Referring to Iraq, President Bush once spoke of America's catastrophic success. Judging from the Islamists' initial, startled reactions to their triumph, this may well be theirs....

Hamas's leaders were counting on an honorable defeat, and they looked forward to the prospect of making the most of it. Coming in a close second, their options would have been wide open. They could have joined the government, or stayed out. Either way, they would have remained in the safety of the fringes, keeping a watchful eye on domestic issues, seeking to demonstrate that Hamas's presence, including the services it provides, could improve daily life, reduce corruption, and deal with lawlessness. Hamas would have concentrated on its long-term goal of Islamicizing Palestinian society, doing so doggedly, though in increments. It would have kept to its conditional truce, reserving the right to respond to Israeli attacks on Palestinian population centers and against its own leaders....

How swiftly victory can spoil the best-laid plans. Hamas's leaders had hoped to hide behind Fatah and the PA; they are now on the front lines. The burden that was supposed to be on others is now squarely on them. In the days just after the election, Hamas suddenly sounded more modest, restrained, and dependent on third parties. This was not a matter of choice. It had to reassure Fatah members and Fatah security forces that were knocked off balance by their loss, as well as donors hesitant to bankroll a Hamas-led PA, and Arab neighbors apprehensive about having an Islamist stronghold at their doorstep, doubly so about witnessing an Islamist success at the polls. The calm and quiet that Israel once requested has become a necessity for Hamas: if it is to consolidate and maintain its popularity, it will have to live up to the promise of reform and good governance. Renewed violence would lead to swift, devastating, and unrestrained Israeli attacks, thwarting any chance for the Islamists to have a successful domestic policy. Paradoxically, Hamas's electoral sweep has curbed its freedom of action far more than defeat would have....

Abbas's gamble was that integrating Hamas into Palestinian politics would moderate its behavior. To a degree, it already has. During the past eleven months, Hamas has demonstrated its willingness and ability to honor a cessation of violence, and Israeli officials regularly credit its discipline for the sharp drop in attacks. Elected in record numbers to municipal positions during 2005, local Hamas officials have maintained practical coordination with Israel wherever necessary. Throughout the campaign, the Islamic movement dropped repeated hints of possible flexibility. Its leaders did not rule out changing their charter ("It's not the Koran," they whispered), negotiating with Israel, or accepting a long-term truce based on Israel's withdrawal to the 1967 lines. Since the elections, the pattern has continued. Hamas has indicated that it is prepared to extend its truce, integrate its forces into a Palestinian army, and accept some past arrangements between Israel and the PA. There are serious caveats to all these positions and the ideological aggiornamento still will have to wait. But if it is a trend one is looking for, it is there.

If this trend holds -- and that's an admittedly big "if" -- then Hamas' catastrophic victory is good news for everyone else. And further evidence that the best way to deal with Islamists is to let them try to govern.

posted by Dan at 10:48 AM | Comments (13) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Could Ĺland secede from the EU? Where the f#$% is Ĺland?

David Rennie has a story in the Daily Telegraph suggesting that a very small cluster of Finnish islands could cause some headaches for the European Union:

In the decade since they voted to join the European Union the islanders of the Ĺland archipelago in the Baltic Sea have been outvoted and overruled by Brussels, time and again.

Now Ĺland, a unique, autonomous region of Finland, is about to teach Brussels a lesson in democracy it may never forget.

Thanks to a quirk of early 20th-century history, Ĺland's 26,000 people are essentially sovereign co-rulers of their home nation of Finland. As such, they can veto any international treaty that Finland wants to enter, including EU treaties.

And the islanders are threatening to do just that when the European Commission attempts to revive the moribund EU constitution later this year.

But last week the archipelago's head of EU affairs, Britt Lundberg, travelled to Brussels - a day-long trek - to deliver a warning that dismally low public opinion on Europe could mean Alanders prevent Finland from ratifying the constitution.

The islanders' revolt has been brewing for some time. First, this community of Swedish-speaking Finns lost the right to fish at sea with traditional nets.

Then Ĺlanders saw their beloved spring duck hunting virtually abolished. To the Ĺlanders' final outrage, local laws on consuming "snus" or Swedish chewing tobacco, are about to be quashed by the European Court of Justice....

Brussels is trapped in a "Catch 22" situation of the EU's own making. Snus, a form of chewing tobacco, has been outlawed by EU fiat in every nation except Sweden, which secured a -special opt-out as a condition of its joining the EU, and in every region - except Ĺland.

The Commission recently took Finland to court to quash Ĺland's snus law. But Finland has no power to change that law. Finland does not control laws covering health in Ĺland; Ĺland does.

Ĺland is not allowed to defend its law before the justices in Luxembourg because the court recognises only nations. So the court is set to convict and fine Aland, without allowing the island's government to plead its case....

The head of the Ĺland government, Roger Norlund, admitted that he did not even like snus. To him, the row is philosophical. "Ĺland finds small-scale solutions to its problems. But the EU model is one of large-scale solutions, and harmonisation."

Tomas Grunér, a navigator on the big boats, uses snus "24 hours a day". "It keeps me relaxed," he said. "I thought the EU was a good idea, but now I think it sucks."

For more on why snus is such a big deal in Ĺland, check out this Brussels Journal post.

Rennie might be exaggerating Ĺland's influence just a wee bit. It's true that the Finnish Customs Service confirms the special tax and regulatory status of the island. However, if you go to the Ĺland Islands' official home page, you discover the following:

Foreign affairs is not transferred to Ĺland under the Autonomy Act, but remains under the control of the Finnish Government. Even so, Ĺland has a degree of influence on international treaties that contain provisions relating to areas where Ĺland is the competent authority. The Autonomy Act states that an international treaty of this kind entered into by Finland requires the consent of the Parliament of Ĺland to become valid also in Ĺland.

Thus, when Finland became a member of the European Union in 1995, Ĺland’s accession was dependent on the consent of the Parliament. After the population had expressed its opinion in two separate referendums and it had been decided that Ĺland’s relationship to the EU would be regulated in a special protocol, the Parliament of Ĺland expressed its consent. The protocol, which is part of Finland’s treaty of accession, states that Ĺland shall be regarded as a third territory with respect to indirect taxation. It also contains certain special provisions relating to the purchase of real property and the right to conduct a business in Ĺland, and confirms Ĺland’s special status under international law. (emphasis added)

So, if I read this correctly, Ĺland can block the proposed European constitution from applying to its jurisdiction -- but it doesn't hold a veto over the rest of Finland. I will happily defer to real international lawyers on this question of law that probably interests only me.

Click here if you want to know the historical reasons for Ĺland's special status. For some irrational reason, I do find it amusing that a small jurisdiction of 26,200 people could decide to stymie the mighty, mighty European Commission.

posted by Dan at 08:34 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (2)

Friday, January 27, 2006

Open Hamas thread

I'm at a conference all day today, which means I conveniently do not have the time to post deep thoughts on Hamas' electoral victory in Palestine. So I'll let me readers comment instead. Go to it!!

But click here and here if you want an inkling of what I think. And click here for Esther Pan's concise summary of the situaion at

UPDATE: Michael Herzog has a very pessimistic take at Foreign Affairs:

Optimists argue that Hamas' participation in mainstream Palestinian politics will spur the group to moderate its radical goals and terrorist tactics. But history shows that political participation co-opts militants only under very specific conditions -- and almost none of those exist in the Palestinian Authority today.

posted by Dan at 10:42 AM | Comments (24) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Michael Ignatieff.... elected official

Ten days ago I blogged about Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff's quixotic campaign for parliament seat in Canada, as a member of the Liberal Party..

Well, the elections were yesterday, and the Liberals didn't do so well, according to the Chicago Tribune:

Canadian voters, saying they were fed up with financial scandals and ready for a change, ended the 12-year run of the ruling Liberal Party on Monday, ousting Prime Minister Paul Martin in favor of a Conservative Party likely to steer a path closer to the United States.

Nearly complete returns in the national election gave a strong victory to Conservative leader Stephen Harper, 46, an economist and political strategist from western Canada who jokes about being dull.

He shrugged off Martin's accusations that he is too cozy with U.S. conservatives for liberal-leaning Canada--the same accusations that crippled his candidacy in 2004.

While this is bad news for the Liberal party, CTV reports that Ignatieff weathered the backlash against the party and is now an elected official:
Liberal Michael Ignatieff, touted as a potential future party leader, passed his first political test Monday, shaking off a campaign marred by accusations of opportunism and ethnic slurs to win a west Toronto riding.

The 58-year-old political neophyte and Harvard academic kept Etobicoke-Lakeshore in the Liberal fold, defeating Conservative John Capobianco and NDP candidate Liam McHugh-Russell.

The Ignatieff win took on a new significance after Liberal Leader Paul Martin said early Tuesday he would soon step down.

"Now he's got to stick around and live up to the expectations that he might be the leader-in-waiting,'' said David Docherty, a political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.

Ignaieff must now suffer the cruel fate of having political scientists talk about him in the media. [Could be worse..... could be bloggers!--ed.]

posted by Dan at 10:38 AM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Will the Pakistani airstrike be worth it?

So there was an airstrike in Pakistan over the weekend that was intended to kill Al Qaeda #2 Ayman Al-Zawahiri -- but the strike missed the target. This caused thousands of Pakistanis to protest the airstrike the next day. The Pakistani press has also been up in arms.

With goodwill earned in-country from the earthquake relief, it seems as though a single airstrike could vitiate the shift in public opinion. The Council on Foreign Relations has a web page declaring, "MISSILE STRIKE PUTS U.S. ON DEFENSIVE."

Which leads us to this tidbit of information from ABC News:

ABC News has learned that Pakistani officials now believe that al Qaeda's master bomb maker and chemical weapons expert was one of the men killed in last week's U.S. missile attack in eastern Pakistan.

Midhat Mursi, 52, also known as Abu Khabab al-Masri, was identified by Pakistani authorities as one of four known major al Qaeda leaders present at an apparent terror summit in the village of Damadola early last Friday morning....

"He wants to cause mayhem, major death, and he puts his expertise on the line. So the fact that we took him out is significant," said former FBI agent Jack Cloonan, an ABC News consultant, who was the senior agent on the FBI's al Qaeda squad. "He's the man who trained the shoe bomber Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, as well as hundreds of others."

Pakistani officials also said that Khalid Habib, the al Qaeda operations chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Abdul Rehman al Magrabi, a senior operations commander for al Qaeda, were killed in the Damadola attack. Authorities tell ABC News that the terror summit was called to funnel new money into attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

"Pakistani intelligence says this was a very important planning session involving the very top levels of al Qaeda as they get ready for a new spring offensive," explained Alexis Debat, a former official in the French Defense Ministry and now an ABC News consultant.

There is no word on whether Mursi was also Al Qaeda's number three official.

Question for readers -- assuming this information is accurate and becomes common knowledge in Pakistan, will it blunt the downturn in public opinion?

[What do you care? The bad guys are dead!!--ed. Yeah, but I want the whole megillah.]

posted by Dan at 08:35 PM | Comments (14) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, January 16, 2006

It's been a busy day for Iran-watchers

Let's see what's been going on with regard to Iran for the past day or so, in order from tragedy to farce:

1) The BBC reports that Britain, France and Germanyt will request an extraordinary session of the IAEA in order to refer Iran to the UN Security Council.

2) In an interview with Newsweek's Christpher Dickey, IAEA head Mohammed El Baradei -- who was quite the skeptic when it came to whether Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons -- makes it clear that he's pissed at the Iranians:

DICKEY: You've said you're running out of patience with Iran. What does that mean?
ELBARADEI: For the last three years we have been doing intensive verification in Iran, and even after three years I am not yet in a position to make a judgment on the peaceful nature of the [nuclear] program. We still need to assure ourselves through access to documents, individuals [and] locations that we have seen all that we ought to see and that there is nothing fishy, if you like, about the program.

At one site called Lavizan, facilities were bulldozed by Iran before you could look at them, and you weren't allowed to run tests in the area.
We clearly need to take environmental samplings from some of the equipment that used to be in Lavizan. We need to interview some of the people who have been engaged in Lavizan. We have [also] gotten some information about some modification of their missiles that could have some relationship to the nuclear program. So, we need to clarify all these things. It is very specific. They know what we want to do, and they just have to go and do it. I'm making it very clear right now that I cannot extend the deadline, which is ... March 6.

With all due respect, the Iranians don't seem to care what you think.
Well, they might not seem to care. But if I say that I am not able to confirm the peaceful nature of that program after three years of intensive work, well, that's a conclusion that's going to reverberate, I think, around the world....

What if the Iranians are just buying time for their bomb building?
That's why I said we are coming to the litmus test in the next few weeks. Diplomacy is not just talking. Diplomacy has to be backed by pressure and, in extreme cases, by force. We have rules. We have to do everything possible to uphold the rules through conviction. If not, then you impose them. Of course, this has to be the last resort, but sometimes you have to do it.

You're angry.
No, I'm not angry, but I'd like to make sure the process will not be abused. There's a difference. I still would like to be able to avoid escalation, but at the same time I do not want the agency to be cheated; I do not want the process to be abused. I think that is clear. I have a responsibility, and I would like to fulfill it with as good a conscience as I can.

This would be more persuasive if ElBaradei didn't make this point every month or so.

3) Iran has expelled CNN from working in Iran because of a slight mistranslation problem, according to the AP's Nasser Karimi:

Iran said Monday it is barring CNN from working in Iran "until further notice" due to its mistranslation of comments made by the president in a recent news conference about the country's nuclear research.

In a speech Saturday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defended Iran's right to continue nuclear research. State media have complained since the speech that CNN used the translation "nuclear weapons" instead of "nuclear technology."

The ban by the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry was read in a statement on state-run television.

"Due to mistranslation of the words of Ahmadinejad during his press conference, activities of the American CNN in Tehran are banned until further notice," the statement said.

CNN acknowledged that it had screwed up -- but this does strike me as overkill.

4) Finally, in a separate story, the AP's Karimi reports that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has decided to make his contribution to genocide studies:

Iran announced plans yesterday for a conference to examine evidence for the Holocaust, a new step in hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's campaign against Israel -- one that could deepen Tehran's international isolation.

Ahmadinejad already has called the Nazis' World War II slaughter of European Jews a ''myth" and has said the Jewish state should be wiped off the map or moved to Germany or the United States....

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi did not disclose where or when the Holocaust conference would be held, and he would not say who would attend or what had prompted Tehran to sponsor it.

Ahmadinejad, who took office in August, caused an international outcry in October by calling Israel a ''disgraceful blot" that should be ''wiped off the map."

You just know this will be one of those invitation-only kind of conferences where only the cream of the Holocaust-deniers will be asked to attend.
If Iran keeps this up -- making news, kicking out competitors -- they're going to exhaust that poor AP guy based in Tehran.

posted by Dan at 02:42 PM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Kadima is doomed -- the sequel

It appears that Ariel Sharon has suffered from a massive, debilitating stroke -- Omri Ceren has the tick-tock on the latest medical news.

The AP reports that a full recovery is highly unlikely.

Looking a few steps ahead, this will leave Shimon Peres as the leader of Kadima -- which compels me to repeat what I blogged a few weeks ago:

I have only one thing to say about Shimon Peres' decision to leave the Labor party and join Ariel Sharon's brand-spanking new Kadima Party -- it can only mean Kadima is doomed to implode.

Why do I say this? Because the one constant in Israeli politics is that Shimon Peres might be the single-worst politician in the brief history of the Israeli state. By this I don't mean Peres is a bad policymaker or leader -- I mean the man couldn't win an election to save his life....

[U]nless the focus is completely on Ariel Sharon, Kadima will have a very short half-life.

posted by Dan at 07:23 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Psst.... anybody interested in a dissertation topic?

Every once in a while a natural disaster has a significant impact on international relations. We've seen in the past year how U.S. humanitarian assistance can improve America's public image in the affected countries. The 1999 earthquake that affected Greece and Turkey -- and the outpouring of cross-border assistance -- led to a thaw between those two enduring rivals.

Of course, not every natural disaster has such an effect. The Bam earthquake in Iran, for example, led to no diplomatic thaw -- neither did the French heat wave of 2003 nor hurricane Katrina in 2005.

This leads to an interesting question for a dissertation -- under what circumstances will a truly exogenous shock lead to a lessening of international or internal conflicts?

The December 2004 tsunami presents an interesting comparative case study. In Indonesia, Nick Meo reports for the Australian on the budding peace in Aceh:

The head of the feared Indonesian military in Aceh was doing what was almost unthinkable only a year ago: telling its people that the war - one of Asia's longest and, until last year's tsunami, most intractable - was over.

There was a bigger surprise for the departing 3500 soldiers on Thursday. Irwandi Yusuf, leader of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), who 12 months ago was one of their deadliest enemies, was there to shake hands with the hard men in fatigues before their ships slipped away from the jungle-covered hills of Aceh, probably forever.

The event was stage-managed but nobody could doubt the sincerity, part of an extraordinarily successful peace process that has confounded the pessimists and inspired a people who suffered more than any other in the tsunami.

Thinks have not worked out quite as well in Sri Lanka, as the Economist observes:
One year on from the tsunami that devastated large parts of Sri Lanka, killing more than 30,000 there, the South Asian island’s people are facing another looming disaster: the revival of a brutal civil war that has killed around 65,000 since it began 22 years ago. A fragile ceasefire, brokered by the government of Norway three years ago, is close to breaking-point after a string of recent attacks by the Tamil Tiger rebels, who are fighting for an independent homeland in the north and east of the island.

On Thursday December 29th the head of the ceasefire-monitoring team, Hagrup Haukland, gave a warning that, if the spate of violence were not halted, “war may not be far away.” In the most serious of the recent attacks, 12 Sri Lankan soldiers were killed in a landmine attack in the Jaffna peninsula on Tuesday and, four days before that, 13 sailors were killed with mines and rocket-propelled grenades in a rebel attack in the north-west of the island. On Sunday, a parliamentarian linked to the Tigers was assassinated at a Christmas mass in Batticaloa.

I have absolutely zero knowledge about either conflict, but I do find it interesting that the tsunami clearly pushed one case towards a more peaceful equilibrium while having no appreciable effect on the other case.

Looking at both cases, John Quiggin proposes a different dissertation topic:

It would be a salutory effort to look over the wars, revolutions and civil strife of the last sixty years and see how many of the participants got an outcome (taking account of war casualties and so on) better than the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation and peaceful agitation. Given the massively negative-sum nature of war, I suspect the answer is “Few, if any”.

posted by Dan at 10:24 AM | Comments (13) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, January 2, 2006

Talk about frozen in time

When I was living in Ukraine in the early nineties, Russia was trying to exploit Ukraine's dependence on Russian energy to extract economic and political concessions from that country -- minor things like control over key industrial groupings and the Black Sea Fleet. Russia and the government gas provider, Gazprom, would periodically threaten to shut off supplies.

While it sounds like Russia had all the leverage, there was one problem -- Russia exported much of its gas to Southern and Eastern Europe through the gas pipeline that ran through Ukraine -- and Russia could do very little to prevent Ukraine from siphoning off these supplies... except bluster a bit.

A decade later, of course, all of this seems like ancient history. Oh, wait....

Now, back then, all of the involved parties would muddle through -- Ukraine would proffer some token concessions without making its economy more energy-efficient, Gazprom would punt on raising prices in the near abroad, and the crisis would be deferred for a year.

Let's see what develops this year.

UPDATE: Well, that was fast:

A heavily-criticised Russia on Monday promised to restore full gas supplies to Europe after Germany warned that its dispute with Ukraine over deliveries could hurt its long-term credibility as an energy supplier.

With winter demand already high, gas supplies through Ukrainian pipelines to Europe started to fall off dramatically as a result of the Russian blockade, prompting Western fears about insecurity in the energy sector.

Russia, which took over the G8 chairmanship for the first time this month and has sought to promote itself as a reliable energy source, cut its neighbor's gas supplies on Sunday after Ukraine rejected Moscow's demand for a fourfold price rise.

As criticism mounted, the state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom said it would restore full gas supplies through the pipeline to Europe by Tuesday evening, and that it had piped across an extra 95 million cubic meters of gas.

But it made clear it held Ukraine responsible for the problem.

"With the aim of preventing a possible energy crisis caused by Ukraine illegally taking gas, Gazprom has taken the decision to deliver additional gas into the gas transport system of Ukraine," the company said in a statement.

"We stress that the additional delivery of gas is not designed for Ukrainian consumers but is meant for transit through the territory of Ukraine for delivery to consumers outside the borders of Ukraine."

posted by Dan at 10:27 AM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Open Bolivia thread

I would be remiss in not mentioning that Bolivia just elected a former coca farmer turned socialist politician as president. Among his many campaign pledges are to decriminalize coca production and to renationalize the commanding heights of the national economy.

Comment away on the implications of this power transition in Andean region. Noah Millman offers various reasons for why this should concern the United States.

[Hey a few years ago you were pretty sanguine about the rejection of the neoliberal model in Latin America. How about now?--ed.] Well, the spread of Chavez-like politicans throughout Latin America would be intrinsically bad. At the same time, this Associated Press report suggests just how difficult it will be to foster regional solidarity by pursuing a policy of economic nationalism:

The winner of Bolivia's presidential elections has repeated his vow to nationalize oil and gas and said he will void at least some contracts held by foreign companies "looting" the poor Andean nation's natural resources.

Indian coca farmer Evo Morales said he will not confiscate refineries or infrastructure owned by multinational corporations. Instead, his government would renegotiate contracts so that the companies are partners, but not owners, in developing Bolivia's resources, he said....

On Monday, Morales said Brazilian oil company Petrobras must turn two refineries it owns in Bolivia back to Bolivian control.

Morales announced that he had asked Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to return the refineries, which Petrobras purchased in the last decade. Petrobras bought the two refineries from Bolivia's state-owned oil company in 1999 for roughly $100 million....

The top investors in Bolivia are Petroleo Brasileiro SA, known as Petrobras, Spain's Repsol YPF, France's Total SA, British Gas and BP PLC . Foreign energy firms have invested $3.5 billion in Bolivia since 1996. But after the passage of the new hydrocarbons law in May, and amid increasing calls for an outright nationalization of the energy industry in Bolivia, they this year have mostly frozen any new investments. (emphases added)

So, the new Bolivian president's first move is to alienate his top foreign investor, who happens to be.... Brazilian. The last paragraph suggests that staying this course will retard other foreign investors. And note that no U.S.-based multinational appears on that list.

Even if Hugo Chavez lends a hand, I don't think this strategy is going to inspire a lot of solidarity elsewhere in the continent.

posted by Dan at 04:13 PM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is getting some bad press -- again

Poor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian president just can't escape his press stereotype. Marc Wolfensberger has the latest story for Bloomberg:

The West has "fabricated a myth under the name 'Massacre of the Jews,' and they hold it higher than God himself, religion itself and the prophets themselves,'' Iran's leader told thousands of supporters in the south-eastern Sistan-Baluchestan province, state television showed in a live broadcast.

"If you say and insist it's true that you killed 6 million Jews in crematoria during World War II, then why should the Palestinians pay for that?'' Ahmadinejad asked. "Our proposal is that you give a piece of your land in Europe, the U.S., Canada or Alaska. If you do that, the Iranian people will no longer protest against you.''

This is the strongest anti-Israeli public comment by Ahmadinejad since he took office in August. The Iranian president drew international condemnation on Oct. 26 after saying that Israel should be "wiped off the map.'' On Dec. 8, he prompted another outcry when he said Europe should host Israel on its soil. Some 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis until Germany's defeat in the 1939-1945 war.

Now, far be it for me to pass up an opportunity to poke some fun at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but if I were his spinmeister, I'd stress that he really didn't say anything new in these statements. He's articulated his belief that the Holocaust did not happened, and he's articulated his belief that Israel should be removed from the Middle Eastern region. All Ahmadinejad did in his recent utterances was reaffirm his previous positions. So, I'd make darn sure the press got the following bullet point:
The President of Iran has not ratcheted up his anti-Israeli rhetoric -- his views on Israel have remain unchanged since he took office.

posted by Dan at 07:06 PM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, December 8, 2005

This week in the Ahmadinejad follies...

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the gift that keeps on giving as far as I'm concerned. According to Reuters's Paul Hughes, Ahmadinejad put his foot in his mouth in Saudi Arabia today:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Thursday expressed doubt the Holocaust took place and suggested the Jewish state of Israel be moved to Europe.

His comments, reported by Iran's official IRNA news agency from a news conference he gave in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca, follow his call in October for Israel to be "wiped off the map", which sparked widespread international outrage....

Ahmadinejad was quoted by IRNA as saying: "Some European countries insist on saying that Hitler killed millions of innocent Jews in furnaces and they insist on it to the extent that if anyone proves something contrary to that they condemn that person and throw them in jail."

"Although we don't accept this claim, if we suppose it is true, our question for the Europeans is: is the killing of innocent Jewish people by Hitler the reason for their support to the occupiers of Jerusalem?" he said.

"If the Europeans are honest they should give some of their provinces in Europe -- like in Germany, Austria or other countries -- to the Zionists and the Zionists can establish their state in Europe. You offer part of Europe and we will support it."

I confess to being confused with Ahmadinejad's actual policy towards Israel -- does he want to relocate it to Europe or just wipe it off the map entirely?

UPDATE: The AP's Ali Akbar Dareni has a long story nicely detailing the variors international and domestic actors who have had it up to here with Ahmadinejad. The list includes the U.S., Europe, Russia, Saudia Arabia, the IAEA, Iranian moderates, and "[e]ven some of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's conservative allies." This quote, however, is really priceless: "Saudis fumed Friday that Iran's hard-line president marred a summit dedicated to showing Islam's moderate face by calling for Israel to be moved to Europe."


posted by Dan at 07:46 PM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, December 5, 2005

Do the insurgents really want the U.S. to withdraw?

Time's Michael Ware has a long profile of the Iraqi insurgency and U.S. strategies to cope with it. The single most depressing sentence: "After 31 months of fighting in Iraq, the U.S. still can't say for sure whom it is up against."

The basic thrust of the article is that the U.S. believes that a fair amount of the insurgency consists of "Sunni rejectionists," an odd word choice given that they are nevertheless interested in participating:

The vast majority of those groups fall into a category the military dubiously refers to as Sunni "rejectionists." Mostly Baathists, nationalists and Iraqi Islamists, they oppose the occupation and any Baghdad government dominated by Iraqis sheltered from Saddam by foreign-intelligence agencies, such as Iran's or the U.S.'s. But they don't oppose democracy in Iraq. Many voted in the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum and have plans to participate in the Dec. 15 election. Few see a contradiction between voting and continuing to battle U.S. forces. "I voted in the referendum, and I'm still fighting, and everybody in my organization did the same," says Abu Marwan, the Army of Mohammed commander. "This is two-track war--bullets and the ballot. They are not mutually exclusive."
Here's the most revealing paragraph:
Evidence of shifts within the insurgency in some ways presents the U.S. with its best opportunity since the occupation began to counter parts of the Sunni resistance. Adopting the long-standing attitudes of secular Baathists, some Sunni leaders tell TIME they have lost patience with al-Zarqawi and would consider cutting a political deal with the U.S. to isolate the jihadis. "If the Americans evidenced good intent and a timetable [there's that word again--DD] for withdrawal we feel is genuine, we will stand up against al-Zarqawi," says Abdul Salam al-Qubaisi, spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars. "We already stood up against him on the Shi'ite issue, and if he doesn't follow us, it will be a bad path for him." Baathist insurgent leader Abu Yousif, who has met with U.S. intelligence officers, says, "The insurgency is looking for a political outlet--once we have that, we could control al-Qaeda."
Color me skeptical about these assertions, for one simple reason -- the Sunnis will be the big losers when/if the United States were to withdraw. It would be irrational of them to give up the extralegal strategy of insurgency, precisely because such a tactic has garnered them influence beyond their number to date.

Assume the withdrawal goes well. in any electoral democracy, the Sunnis will lose because they are vastly outnumbered by the Shia and the Kurds. Now assume the withdrawal goes poorly -- the insurgents will face a Shia majority pefectly willing to use extralegal means to ensure that they control the levers of power. Either way, the insurgents are better off right now than they will be when the Americans leave.

The one possibility of a U.S. withdrawal contributing to the Sunnis laying down their arms is if there's some kind of grand bargain behind the scenes in which the Shiite parties basically pledge to keep their militias from engaging in any kind of a pogrom -- but if I was Sunni, I'd take my chances playing cat-and-mouse with the U.S. military instead. Indeed, my strategy would be not to engage with U.S. forces at all, but do as much damage to Shia-predominant military units as possible.

[What about the possibility that Iraqis are now in the mood to vote for secular, non-sectarian parties?--ed. Again, great for the Sunnis, if true -- but the disturbing thing about both the Time piece and the Christian Science Monitor story linked above is that neither of them have any hard data -- just assertions by the reporter. Also remember that the supposed beneficiary of this secular trend -- former PM Iyad Allawi -- just got pelted with shoes in Najaf.]

posted by Dan at 09:45 AM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (0)

Saturday, December 3, 2005

Kadima is doomed. Doomed, doomed, doomed, doomed, doomed.

I've been remiss in not blogging about Israel, because I do so love the roiling comments section such posts generate. However, I have only one thing to say about Shimon Peres' decision to leave the Labor party and join Ariel Sharon's brand-spanking new Kadima Party -- it can only mean Kadima is doomed to implode.

Why do I say this? Because the one constant in Israeli politics is that Shimon Peres might be the single-worst politician in the brief history of the Israeli state. By this I don't mean Peres is a bad policymaker or leader -- I mean the man couldn't win an election to save his life. This is a guy who couldn't beat Mr. anti-charisma, Yitzhak Shamir. He couldn't beat Bibi Netanyahu after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish zealot.

If Peres keeps his mouth shut and goes into a bunker until the election is over, maybe Kadima has a chance. But unless the focus is completely on Ariel Sharon, Kadima will have a very short half-life.

UPDATE: Omri Ceren has an Israeli politics blogg, Mere Rhetoric, that is worth checking out. He's more optimstic about Peres than I am.

posted by Dan at 01:13 AM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, November 28, 2005

Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad is off his medication again

Since he took office earlier this year, the militance of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad has alienated many of his natural supporters in Iran.

If you think his prior statements have made some question his sanity, however, wait until people read this Financial Times story by Gareth Smyth and Najmeh Bozorgmehr:

A leading website in Iran has published a transcript and video recording of President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad claiming to have felt “a light” while addressing world leaders at the United Nations in New York in September. – a website linked to Mohsen Rezaei, former commander of the Revolutionary Guards – said the recording was made in a meeting between the president and Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi-Amoli, one of Iran’s leading Shia Muslim clerics.

According to the transcript, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad said someone present at the UN, possibly from his entourage, subsequently told him: “When you began with the words ‘In the name of God’… I saw a light coming, surrounding you and protecting you to the end [of the speech].” Mr Ahmadi-Nejad said he sensed a similar presence.

“I felt it myself, too, that suddenly the atmosphere changed and for 27-28 minutes the leaders could not blink,” the transcript continues. “I am not exaggerating…because I was looking. All the leaders were puzzled, as if a hand held them and made them sit. They had their eyes and ears open for the message from the Islamic Republic.”

The staff here at confirms that its eyes and ears will definitely be staying open whenever Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad decides to say something.

posted by Dan at 03:32 PM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Could be worse... could be in Harbin

Among the things to be thankful for this year -- my family does not live in Harbin, China. David Fickling explains in the Guardian:

Panic was today spreading in Harbin, with officials preparing to cut off water supplies as heavily polluted river water flowed towards the Chinese city.

Residents were storing water supplies in bathtubs and buckets ahead of the expected three-day drought. Supermarkets reported panic buying of water, milk and soft drinks, while Harbin's airport and railway station were jammed with people fleeing the area.

The provincial government was also trucking in water from neighbouring areas, testing little-used local wells and demanding 1,400 tonnes of activated charcoal to purify the water intake after the pollution had passed through the city.

Harbin's authorities warned residents not to even approach the Songhua river because of the risk of pollutants escaping into the atmosphere when the polluted water hits the city around 5am tomorrow. The 50 mile-long stretch of pollution is not expected to flow out of the city until Saturday....

The city, in China's icy north-eastern Heilongjiang province, has a population of 3.8 million and draws most of its water from the Songhua. The river has been contaminated with more than 30 times the usual levels of benzene after an explosion at a chemical plant on its banks.

The blast, in the neighbouring Jilin province, happened on November 13, killing five people and causing 10,000 to be evacuated from the area, officials said.

Benzene, a component of petrol, is highly flammable and toxic. Short-term exposure to the chemical in drinking water can cause long-term damage to the nervous system, while long-term exposure can result in cancer and leukaemia.

Of course, my thanks is tempered by the fact that 3.4 million people do live there.

posted by Dan at 04:22 PM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The difficulty of doing good on HIV/AIDS

UNAIDS released a good news/bad news kind of report yesterday about the state of the AIDS epidemic. These paragraphs from their press release capture the nature of the problem:

Despite decreases in the rate of infection in certain countries, the overall number of people living with HIV has continued to increase in all regions of the world except the Caribbean. There were an additional five million new infections in 2005. The number of people living with HIV globally has reached its highest level with an estimated 40.3 million people, up from an estimated 37.5 million in 2003. More than three million people died of AIDS-related illnesses in 2005; of these, more than 500000 were children.

According to the report, the steepest increases in HIV infections have occurred in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (25% increase to 1.6 million) and East Asia. But sub-Saharan Africa continues to be the most affected globally with 64% of new infections occurring here (over three million people).

"We are encouraged by the gains that have been made in some countries and by the fact that sustained HIV prevention programmes have played a key part in bringing down infections. But the reality is that the AIDS epidemic continues to outstrip global and national efforts to contain it," said UNAIDS Executive Director Dr Peter Piot. "It is clear that a rapid increase in the scale and scope of HIV prevention programmes is urgently needed. We must move from small projects with short-term horizons to long-term, comprehensive strategies," he added.

The report recognizes that access to HIV treatment has improved markedly over the past two years. More than one million people in low-and middle-income countries are now living longer and better lives because they are on antiretroviral treatment and an estimated 250 000 to 350 000 deaths were averted this year because of expanded access to HIV treatment....

Levels of knowledge of safe sex and HIV remain low in many countries - even in countries with high and growing prevalence. In 24 sub-Saharan countries (including Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda), two-thirds or more of young women (aged 15-24 years) lacked comprehensive knowledge of HIV transmission. According to a major survey carried out in the Philippines in 2003, more than 90% of respondents still believed that HIV could be transmitted by sharing a meal with an HIV-positive person.

David Greising has a front-pager in the Chicago Tribune about the efforts of Abbott Laboratories to help Tanzania cope with the AIDS epidemic. The story highlights the fact that this is not simply about access to cheap medicines:
For five years now, Abbott has worked with Tanzania's government to alleviate the impact of AIDS. The experience has taught the company that the biggest obstacles are less obvious, and less readily overcome, than getting drugs to the villages.

Hospital laboratories are archaic. Treatment wards are overrun with patients. There is little capacity to treat AIDS-related illnesses such as tuberculosis and malaria.

Tanzania cannot adequately care for the orphans of AIDS victims. A social stigma against AIDS victims persists, which deters people from getting tested and treated for the disease.

"People who simplify this into just drop-shipping gobs of drugs into remote areas of Africa, they're nuts," said Miles White, Abbott's chief executive, during a trip to Tanzania last month to review the progress of Abbott's work. "It's a lot more complicated than that."....

Dealing effectively in Africa also means avoiding pitfalls that have hit other donors.

The United Nations-supported Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria early this year cut off support for five programs in Uganda, citing widespread mismanagement. In Kenya, skepticism over the government's ability to deliver drugs has led church-backed organizations to form a private distribution company.

Merck & Co. teamed with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation five years ago to launch a groundbreaking $100 million program to aid Botswana, where 37 percent of the adult male population has AIDS. But the donors have found it difficult to distribute money, in part because of bottlenecks and logistical difficulties.

posted by Dan at 10:12 AM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, November 21, 2005

That old Iraqi nostalgia

Ellen Knickmeyer has a front-pager in the Washington Post about U.S. and Iraqi efforts to reconstitute the Iraqi army's junior officer corps with former officers from Saddam Hussein's army. Kinckmeyer's report suggests that this process is going pretty smoothly by Iraqi standards -- but it leads to some very bizarre scenes:

Clad in the olive-green uniform of old, his heart rising to the sound of the lilting march to which he once went to war for President Saddam Hussein, Sgt. Bashar Fathi, a veteran of Iraq's once-elite Republican Guard, watched Iraqi tanks trundle across a parade ground recently -- just as they once swept across the sands of Kuwait.

"This ceremony -- this same music -- it makes us remember the old army," marveled Fathi, standing on the top tier of a reviewing stand south of Baghdad. Next to him was Capt. Khudhair Alwan, whose contact with U.S. forces began by trying to kill them as they invaded the southern city of Basra in 2003....

[There was] a ceremony Thursday officially delivering 77 Hungarian-donated Soviet-era T-72 tanks to the Iraqi army, giving the force its most formidable armor so far. Loudspeakers played music that would be familiar to members of Hussein's army -- including "We Are Walking to War," the anthem to which hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men went to battle against Iran in the 1980s.

The low-slung, refurbished T-72s, with gunners saluting from the hatches, rolled past the reviewing stand without breakdown or excessive smoke. The music, the martial pageantry and the tanks -- the same model as the tanks Hussein used to roll out to war against his neighbors and his peoples -- had men in the stands speaking nostalgically.

[Er... isn't the reliance on former army people a bad thing in terms of democratizing Iraq?--ed. It's been a while since I've perused the comparative politics literature on this, but if memory serves there has never been a successful occupation or revolution that did not rely on the cooperation of the prior regime's technocrats. It's just a fact of life.]

posted by Dan at 12:07 PM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Not a good sign for Russia

One of the standard lines of criticism about Council on Foreign Relations task forces/reports/working groups is that the desire to product nonpartisan output can water down CFR foreign policy analysis and recommendations. There might, just might, be a grain of truth to that charge every now and then.

So it's pretty damn telling that Jack Kemp and John Edwards, the co-chairs of the Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force on U.S. Policy Toward Russia, sent a letter to President Bush that was pretty damn explicit in terms of concern about Russia's new law regulating NGOs. Here's how it opens:

Dear Mr. President:

Last spring the Council on Foreign Relations asked the two of us to serve as co-chairs of an independent task force on U.S. policy toward Russia. The group has met several times over the past six months and is preparing a report to be issued early next year. As sometimes happens in the course of such a broad review, an individual issue emerges that is so timely -- and about which task force members feel so strongly -- that the co-chairs decide to make early contact with policymakers to express their views. We are writing you now on just such a question -- a disturbing new challenge to the ability of Russian non-governmental organizations to cooperate with, and draw support from counterparts in the United States and elsewhere. We believe this issue urgently needs discussion when you meet with President Putin this week.

As you may know, members of President Putin's party and other factions of the State Duma introduced legislation last week that would, among other things, keep foreign NGO's from maintaining "representative offices" or branches in Russia and deny foreign funds to Russian organizations that engage in (undefined) "political" activities. Virtually the entire non-profit sector -- from human-rights monitors to policy think-tanks, even public-health alliances -- is likely to be affected.

The impact of this measure, if it became law, should be obvious: it would roll back pluralism in Russia and curtail contact between our societies. It would mark a complete breach of the commitment to strengthen such contact that President Putin made when you and he met in Bratislava on February 24, 2005. And it raises an almost unthinkable prospect -- that the president of Russia might serve as chairman of the G-8 at the same time that laws come into force in his country to choke off contacts with global society.


posted by Dan at 11:48 PM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The rioters really are French, part deux

Following up on this post from earlier in the week about the rioters acting within the political traditions of France, we have Mark Landler's, "A Very French Message From the Disaffected" in today's New York Times:

More than 7,000 vehicles have been set ablaze since the civil unrest began in the suburbs of Paris on Oct. 27. The daily damage report posted by the French police is a car owner's nightmare: 502 burned on Friday night, 463 the previous night, 482 the night before that, and so on.

No other country in Europe immolates cars with the gusto and single-minded efficiency of France. Even during tranquil periods, an average of 80 vehicles per day are set alight somewhere in the country.

"Burning cars is rather typically French," said Michel Wieviorka, a French sociologist who has studied the phenomenon. "The last two weeks have been unusual, but it is more common than people realize."

posted by Dan at 03:40 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Open Jordan thread

Comment away on the latest suicide bombing attacks in Jordan.

Earlier in the week I had referenced Marc Lynch's overvations about prior Zarqawi-inspired attacks in northern Africa. I tend to agree with his preliminary read of this attack as well:

[C]alling it an "al-Qaeda attack" is misleading - you have to look at it, I'd say, as a Zarqawi operation aimed both at his Iraqi strategy and at his escalating intra-Islamist strategy. The timing and nature of this attack suggest that it may have more to do with Iraq and with Zarqawi's two-level games than with bin Laden's grand plan....

The nature of the attack - especially the sheer evil brutality of attacking a wedding celebration - once again throws dirt in the face of Ayman al-Zawahiri, who (assuming the authenticity of that letter) urged Zarqawi to stop doing things which would alienate Arab public opinion. That the traditional Jordanian opposition - including the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated professional associations - led an angry protest against Zarqawi speaks volumes. Jordanian public opinion (certainly the organized political opposition) has been more generally supportive of the insurgency than in most other places... to hear them shouting "death to Zarqawi" shows how thoroughly his methods alienate even potential supporters.

Here's an MSNBC story on the post-bombing protests:

Hundreds of angry Jordanians rallied Thursday outside one of three U.S.-based hotels attacked by suicide bombers, shouting, “Burn in hell, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi!” — a reference to the leader of Al-Qaida in Iraq, the terrorist group tied to the blasts that killed at least 56 people.

The protest was organized by Jordan’s 14 professional and trade unions — made up of both hard-line Islamic groups and leftist political organizations — traditionally vocal critics of Abdullah’s moderate and pro-Western policies.

posted by Dan at 01:31 PM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

The rioters really are French

A lot has been written about the ongoing riots in France, but the best things I've seen have come from Megan McArdle and Daniel Davies.

From Miss Jane Galt:

Is it because Arabs/Muslims are a roiling repository of violent, seething hatred, ever threatening to bubble over onto unsuspecting victims in their path? Because the French are so damn mean?

Let me suggest another possibility: Muslim youth are rioting in France because breaking windows and setting cars on fire is fun.

But Davies wins the prize here, pointing out the one way in which this is all so... French:

These young men have got a political grievance, and they're expressing it by setting fire to things and smashing them up. What could be more stereotypically, characteristically French than that? Presumably they're setting fire to cars because they don't have any sheep and the nearest McDonalds is miles away. "French society is threatened by anarchy and lawlessness". I mean really. Everyone would do well to remember that this is France we're talking about, not Sweden or perhaps Canada.

Indeed. The only difference between these riots and prior action like this by, say, Air France employees is that by this point in the game the French government would have already capitulated.

posted by Dan at 11:11 AM | Comments (19) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Way to go Zarqawi

Marc "Abu Aardvark" Lynch reports that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's latest tactics in Iraq haven't gone down well in the Maghreb states:

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has taken another step to alienate mainstream Arab public opinion: kidnapping and threatening to execute two Moroccan embassy workers. Just as the murder of an Egyptian diplomat infuriated Egyptian opinion, and the murder of Algerian diplomats enraged Algerian opinion, the threats to kill the two Moroccans have set off a national protest....

Zarqawi's strategy aims at driving representatives of Arab states out of Iraq to prevent any Arab intervention on behalf of the struggling Iraqi government. The cost is the alienation of mainstream Arabs - tactical gain for strategic loss, or at least so it appears on the surface.

Read the whole thing -- the idea that Zarqawi is playing a tw-level game is an interesting one.

posted by Dan at 04:30 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, November 7, 2005

That Burmese junta is just so wacky

In the Financial Times, Amy Kazmin reports that the military junta controlling Burma has found a brand-new way of ensuring its diplomatic isolation:

Burma’s military rulers have begun the relocation of civil servants and central government ministries to an isolated compound near Pyinmana, hundreds of miles north of Rangoon.

In a statement to diplomats on Monday, Kyaw Thu, deputy foreign minister, said the regime had decided to move the entire government to remote Pyinmana to help with the “formidable tasks of building a modern and developed nation throughout the whole country and, in particular, the border areas”.

The Burmese regime selected Pyinmana, halfway between Rangoon and Mandalay and surrounded by mountains and dense forests, as a “command and control centre based at a strategic location central in the transportation and communication networks of the entire country”.

Foreign diplomats and international aid workers said the move suggested the military junta was retreating into a physical bunker....

While construction of the complex has long been an open secret, few believed the move would take place.

Government officials, many of them civilians, were reportedly devastated on Friday when relocation orders were unexpectedly issued to 10 ministries, including foreign affairs, home, commerce, health, transport, and communications.

The first convoys of trucks with office equipment and personnel moved out of the capital at the weekend.

Rangoon residents said civil servants were warned they would be charged with treason if they sought to avoid the move by resigning from their poorly paid jobs.

In its statement, the foreign ministry advised diplomats: “If you need to communicate on urgent matters, you can send a fax to Pyinmana.”

posted by Dan at 05:45 PM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, November 3, 2005

So what's going on in the Parisian suburbs?

OK, so the French appear to be experiencing some domestic disquiet in recent days. The Guardian has some details:

French youths fired at police and burned over 300 cars last night as towns around Paris experienced their worst night of violence in a week of urban unrest.'

The French prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, was involved in a series of crisis meetings today following the clashes between police and immigrant groups in at least 10 poor suburbs, during which youths torched car dealerships, public buses and a school....

The violence has once more trained a spotlight on the poverty and lawlessness of France's rundown big-city suburbs and raises questions about an immigration policy that has, in effect, created sink ghettos for mainly African minorities who suffer from discrimination in housing, education and jobs.

In the north-eastern suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, gangs of youths set fire to a Renault car dealership and incinerated at least a dozen cars, a supermarket and a local gymnasium....

Today, France's government was in crisis mode with Mr de Villepin calling a string of emergency meetings with government officials throughout the day.

One was a working lunch with the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been accused of inflaming the crisis with his tough talk and police tactics. Mr Sarkozy has called troublemakers "scum" and vowed to "clean out" troubled suburbs, language that some say further alienated their residents.

The unrest was triggered by last Thursday's accidental death in Clichy-sous-Bois, five miles from Aulnay, of two African teenagers who were electrocuted while hiding in a power substation from what they believed, apparently wrongly, was police pursuit....

The minister of social cohesion, Jean-Louis Borloo, said the government had to react "firmly" but added that France must also acknowledge its failure to deal with anger simmering in poor suburbs for decades.

"We cannot hide the truth: that for 30 years we have not done enough," he told France-2 television.

[Wait a second -- there's a ministry of social cohesion in France?--ed. Well, sort of.]

Comment away -- but I am curious about the accuracy of the press analysis on the riots. After the reportage on Katrina, my radar is up about any exaggeration of chaos and mayhem.

posted by Dan at 12:03 PM | Comments (40) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, October 27, 2005

How crazy is Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad?

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad had some lovely words for Israel yesterday, according to the FT's Gareth Smyth:

Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran’s fundamentalist president, on Wednesday declared that Israel should be “wiped off the map” and warned Arab countries against developing economic ties with Israel in response to its withdrawal from Gaza.

His remarks, delivered at a conference in Tehran entitled “A World without Zionism”, led to diplomatic protests by the UK, France and Spain, while Shimon Peres, Israel’s deputy prime minister, said Iran should be expelled from the United Nations.

In Washington, spokesmen for the Bush administration said the statement underscored US concern over Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.

The most depressing sentence in the story? "US analysts noted that the president’s remarks were not a departure from hardline Iranian rhetoric and did not represent new policy." Well that's a relief.

Whenever political leaders start talking crazy talk, some political scientist like me usually comes out of the woodwork to explain the underlying rationality of such a move. After reading this Financial Times piece by Smyth and Najmeh Bozorgmehr, however, I'm beginning to wonder about Ahmadi-Nejad's competence:

Complaints about rising chicken prices during the holy month of Ramadan mark the first widespread disquiet about president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, just two months after he became Iran's president.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, last week acknowledged public concerns in Friday prayers, saying it was "unfair to drag the government to the table of expectations after only two or three months". Private business was wary of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's rhetoric even as he won June's landslide election victory, but is now approaching a crisis of confidence. "Name me one sector that is working," says a government official.

The Tehran Stock Exchange (TSE) has dropped 20 per cent since the election, with the Tehran price index (Tepix) closing on Monday at 10,014, perilously close to the psychological 10,000 mark level. Yesterday the exchange was closed for a public holiday.

A sense of malaise in the economy has resulted both from Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's statist rhetoric and from tension with Europe and the US over Iran's atomic programme. Hossein Abdeh-Tabrizi, secretary-general of the TSE, has linked falling share prices to the nuclear issue. Business circles welcomed the new government's economic team and applauded parliament's plan to reduce subsidies on the sale of imported petrol, but Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has himself spread confusion over the government's direction. The president reacted to falling share prices by calling on public bodies, which own about 80 per cent of shares, to control the decline. At the same time, the commerce ministry banned cement exports to help meet domestic demand, hitting the cement companies which comprise about 30 per cent of the bourse. "The government seems to jettison long-term policies [favouring the market] for short-term reasons and so it's not clear where it's heading," says an economy analyst.

Iran's private businesses are also worried about possible UN Security Council sanctions over Iran's nuclear programme. Questioned last Thursday by reporters, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad refused to deny that Tehran is blocking letters of credit for companies from South Korea, the UK, Argentina and the Czech Republic, countries that last month voted for a resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency finding Tehran in "non-compliance" with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. "Economic relations have to be balanced with political relations," says Mr Ahmadi-Nejad.

South Korean direct and indirect exports to Iran and its investment - mainly in the oil and auto sectors - were about $3bn in 2004. "When you compare this with Korea's $55bn trade surplus with the US, it's hard to see what Iran thinks it can achieve from such pressure on Korea," says the analyst.

I can't see the rationale either. Maybe these kind of sanctions weaken Ahmadi-Nejad's domestic political opponents, but in a country like Iran there are better ways of weakening one's political opponents. Even in a world of $60 oil and the U.S. bogged down in Iraq, this kind of political behavior is not heakthy.

So is Mr. Ahmadi-Nejad crazy like a fox -- or just crazy? Discuss.

posted by Dan at 12:59 AM | Comments (54) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Open Iraq constitution thread

Comment away on the implications of the Iraqi vote on its constitution.

Condi Rice is apparently pleased:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday that initial assessments indicate Iraqis had probably approved a controversial constitution, although the turnout alone showed the fragile new political process has taken hold despite a deadly insurgency.

"There's a belief that it has probably passed," Rice told reporters traveling with her, based on people in Iraq who are seeing preliminary vote tallies. At least 63 percent of Iraqis voted Saturday, she said, an increase of about 1 million voters over the first democratic election in January for a transitional government. Much of that increase, she said, comes from the higher participation of Iraq's minority Sunni Muslims.

The violence also was lower and produced fewer lethal attacks than in January's vote, she noted.

The constitution requires a simple majority to be approved, unless two-thirds of voters in three of Iraq's 18 provinces voted against it. Then the constitution would not pass and Iraqi leaders would be forced to draft a new document to be submitted to voters.

News services from Baghdad reported Sunday that early returns suggested large numbers of voters rejected the constitution in the Sunni strongholds of Anbar and Salahuddin provinces. But according to initial results, Sunni voters may not have been able to reach the two-thirds threshold in Diyala province east of Baghdad or in Nineveh province in the north, where Sunnis also have large representation.

Disputes over the constitution have been intense and threatened to deepen the religious and ethnic divide right up to the Saturday vote. But Rice said the turnout sends a strong signal to insurgents that the political process is "alive and well."

"What [the referendum] will certainly help to do is to broaden the base of the political process," she said, and diminish the influence of those supporting violence.

"Ultimately, insurgencies have to be defeated politically. You defeat them by sapping them of their political support, and increasingly Iraqis are throwing their support behind the political process, not behind the violence," she said on the last stop of her week-long tour of Central Asia, Afghanistan and Europe.

There's a lot riding on that last paragraph.

posted by Dan at 12:00 PM | Comments (18) | Trackbacks (0)

Saturday, October 1, 2005

Liberalization, Moroccan style

Neil MacFarquhar has an excellent front-pager in today's New York Times looking at the conundrums of Morocco's recent liberalization:

Morocco has moved further along the reform road than any of its Arab neighbors. Its press is vibrant and outspoken. A family law no longer treats women as chattel. Civic organizations can be formed with relative ease, and scores of them work on everything from improving prison conditions to lowering the country's abysmal illiteracy rate.

Yet the entire system of law rests not on a framework of checks and balances, but on the whim of the king. Morocco's Constitution declares the king both sacred and the "prince of the faithful."

Other Arab constitutions do not declare the ruler holy, but an official reverence cocoons virtually every president or monarch in the region. Anyone who challenges the ruler does so at his own peril.

It is a fact that raises a central question here and across the Middle East: What is needed to turn states of despotic whim into genuine nations of law?

Read the whole thing.

posted by Dan at 04:46 PM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, September 26, 2005

How to try Saddam

How do you try a dictator for crimes committed while in office? The question is not an easy one to answer. The best treatment I've seen of this problem, ironically, is fictional: Julian Barnes' The Porcupine.

This question will rear its head again when Saddam is put on trial in three weeks. Gary Bass -- author of Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals -- has a non-Times-Select op-ed in the NYT expressing concerns about how the Iraqi government is handling the matter:

The Iraqi war crimes tribunal's first case against Mr. Hussein, which opens Oct. 19, charges him with the 1982 massacre of at least 143 men and boys from the village of Dujail. This was meant to be a test case of manageable scope and strong evidence. Unfortunately, Laith Kubba, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, says that once the court has reached a guilty verdict in the Dujail case, the near-certain sentence of death "should be implemented without further delay."

But if Mr. Hussein is executed for the Dujail killings, he will never be called to account for the larger atrocities on which he was arraigned in July 2004: killing political rivals, crushing the Shiite uprising in southern Iraq in 1991, invading Kuwait in 1990, and waging the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds in 1988, including gassing Kurdish villagers at Halabja.

If this sounds trivial, Bass is correct to point out that the treatment of Saddam's past affects Iraq's political future:

[T]he Iraqi tribunal would do well not to rush Mr. Hussein to the gallows. A hasty execution would shortchange Mr. Hussein's victims and diminish the benefits of justice. Baathists would be all the more likely to complain about a show trial. Kurds would rightly feel that they were denied their day in court for the Anfal campaign. Shiites in the south would also be deprived of a reckoning.

A thorough series of war crimes trials would not only give the victims more satisfaction but also yield a documentary and testimonial record of the regime's crimes. After Nuremberg, the American chief prosecutor estimated that he had assembled a paper trail of more than five million pages. A comparably intensive Iraqi process would help drive home to former Baathists and some Arab nationalists what was done in their names. The alternative is on display in Turkey, where the collapse of a war crimes tribunal after World War I paved the way for today's widespread Turkish nationalist denial of the Armenian genocide.

Read the whole thing.

posted by Dan at 11:34 AM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (1)

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Wild Portuguese cigar orgies in Vatican!!!

Well, no, not exactly. But the AP's Nicole Winfield does have some new information on the conclave that eleated Cardinal Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI:

A cardinal has broken his vow of secrecy and released his diary describing the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, revealing in a rare account that a cardinal from Argentina was the main challenger and almost blocked Benedict's election.

Excerpts of the anonymous diary, published Friday, show the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, led in each of the four ballots cast in the Sistine Chapel during the April 18-19 conclave. But Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit, was in second place the whole time.

Most accounts of the conclave have said that the retired Milan archbishop, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, was the main challenger to Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI after his election, and that a Third World pope was never realistically in the running.

While Bergoglio never threatened Ratzinger's lead--and made clear he didn't want the job, according to the diary published in the respected Italian foreign affairs magazine Limes--his runner-up status could signal the next conclave might elect a pope from Latin America, home to half the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics.

The diary of the anonymous cardinal also shows that Ratzinger didn't garner a huge margin--he had 84 of the 115 votes in the final ballot, seven more than the required two-thirds majority....

offers other colorful insights of what went on behind the scenes during the two days the 115 cardinals were sequestered in the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican's Santa Marta hotel.

Because the hotel prohibits smoking, Portuguese Cardinal Jose da Cruz would sneak outside for an after-dinner cigar, the diary says. And Cardinal Walter Kasper shunned the mini-buses that shuttled cardinals to the Sistine Chapel, preferring to walk by the Vatican gardens instead.

Wow, that last paragraph had some spicy info, let me tell you.

This is one of those stories where the news is not in the content but in the fact that someone made it public. [What about the prospect of a Latin American pope?--ed. Possible, but prior second-place finishers are far from guaranteed to be viable candidates in the next round of voting. That said, I'm sure Andrew Sullivan or Stephen Bainbridge could parse out further meaning.]

UPDATE: Ed Morrissey is saddened at this news, believing that, "[this] comes as a sad commentary that even the princes of the church cannot be trusted with secrets any longer, except those which specifically benefit themselves."

Hmmm... as someone who occasionally studies closed-off regimes, I can't say I agree.

posted by Dan at 03:13 PM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

"The streets were full of miniskirts"

Last Thursday was Costa Rica's independence day. According to Jacqueline Paisley, the Costa Rican Ministry of Public Education put some constraints on how the day should be celebrated:

The Ministerio de Educación Público promised to suspend for up to 30 days any marcher who wore a miniskirt, defined as anything with the hem above the knees. The streets were full of miniskirts Thursday all over the country, in part because such skirts were part of the uniforms schools have purchased....

Each year the ministry decrees against miniskirts, and each year tons of female marchers wear them.

posted by Dan at 02:07 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Koizumi wins in Japan

Both the exit polls and the early returns suggest that Japanese PM Junichiro Koizumi has won a handy victory in parliamentry elections -- reversing a decade-long decline in the fortunes of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and paving the way for privatization of the postal savings system, which has been a corrupt albatross on the Japanese economy.

From a U.S. perspective, this is a huge win. A staunch U.S. ally has been re-elected, and if Koizumi's proposed reforms are implemented, then Japanese growth could finally escape its 15-year doldrums. Since Japan is a natural market for U.S. exports, a growing Japanese economy would be a very good thing.

Some reporters will credit Koizumi's charismatic leadership as the key to victory.

I choose to credit the lipstick ninjas.

posted by Dan at 12:40 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Whither Egyptian democracy?

Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential elections were held today, and much of the press coverage echoes this London Times account by Richard Beesron: "the experiment in democracy risked being seriously compromised by intimidation, electoral abuse and widespread voter apathy."

Dan Murphy's account in the Christian Science Monitor includes corruption among the sins of this elecvtion:

The bus is rolling through the narrow dirt roads of Dar El-Salam, a down-at-heel Cairo neighborhood, and men and women are running to catch it, afraid they'll miss voting in Egypt's first presidential election.

The man with well-oiled hair cramming them into the rusty machine - festooned with portraits of President Hosni Mubarak - isn't collecting fare. Instead, he's gathering ID cards to be checked against voter rolls. Those will be returned, with 20 Egyptian pounds ($3.20), after his riders cast their votes - for the incumbent.

Sounds rather depressing. However, Steven Cook writes on Foreign Policy's web site that in the long term, Hosni Mubarak may get more reform than he originally planned:

[J]ust because the election was a sham, doesn’t mean that it was meaningless. The constitutional amendments that were instituted to make the election possible may just open the door for real democracy in Egypt....

Influential elements of Egyptian society are already mobilizing to push Mubarak’s changes further than he anticipated. Approximately 3,000 members of Egypt’s Judges Club, for instance, are insisting that they be given full authority to supervise the presidential elections to ensure polling is conducted freely and fairly. One astute Egyptian observer puts it this way: “Egyptian judges now know the power of making collective, public demands, buoyed by the admiration and support of pro-democracy forces and the glare of the international and domestic media.” Other groups are following suit, including journalists, human rights activists, Islamists, and even Egypt’s sclerotic opposition parties. All are signaling to Mubarak and his regime that business as usual is no longer acceptable. Mubarak’s appointed successor, whoever it is, will likely not be able to waltz through the 2011 elections by believing merely that his patronage network will be enough to trump these reform-minded forces.

While immediately unsatisfying, Mubarak’s constitutional amendments could make a significant impact on Egyptian politics in the middle to long term. Sure, the changes seem like yet another gambit to reinforce Egypt’s existing political order under the guise of reform. But they nevertheless have the potential—in combination with continued internal and external pressure for change—to provide the basis for significant moves toward real democracy. The status quo in Egypt is slowly slipping away. And by 2011, Egypt may have a president who is neither a military officer nor a civilian with the last name Mubarak.


UPDATE: The AP's Maggie Michael reports that Egypt's regime might be feeling some blowback earlier than he had anticipated:

More than 3,000 people marched through downtown Cairo at midafternoon -- by far the largest crowd ever drawn by the opposition group Kifaya, or "Enough" in Arabic. Police watched from a distance, despite government vows that protests would not be allowed.

posted by Dan at 04:46 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Good news about Chernobyl

Peter Finn reports in the Washington Post that twenty years after the disaster at Chernobyl, the health effects have been much less than prior estimates would have suggested:

The long-term health and environmental impacts of the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, while severe, were far less catastrophic than feared, according to a major new report by eight U.N. agencies.

The governments of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, the three countries most affected by radioactive fallout from Chernobyl, should strive to end the "paralyzing fatalism" of tens of thousands of their citizens who wrongly believe they are still at risk of an early death, according to the study released Monday.

The 600-page report found that as of the middle of this year, the accident had caused fewer than 50 deaths directly attributable to radiation, most of them among emergency workers who died in the first months after the accident. In the wake of the world's largest nuclear disaster, there were numerous predictions of mass fatalities from radiation.

The report said that nine children had died of thyroid cancer, but that the survival rate among the 4,000 children in the region who had developed thyroid cancer has been 99 percent. An expected spike in fertility problems and birth defects also failed to materialize, the study found....

Officials said that the continued intense medical monitoring of tens of thousands of people in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus is no longer a smart use of limited resources and is, in fact, contributing to mental health problems among many residents nearly 20 years later. In Belarus and Ukraine, 5 percent to 7 percent of government spending is consumed by benefits and programs for Chernobyl victims. And in the three countries, as many as 7 million people are receiving Chernobyl-related social benefits.

"The monitoring of people with incredibly low doses uses huge amounts of resources and does more psychological harm than good," said Fred Mettler, a professor of radiology at the University of New Mexico who chaired one of three health groups in the study, titled "Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts."

Here's a link to the World Health Organization's press release on the report -- compare and contrast with this media assessment from a decade ago.

Environmentalists will likely not appreciate the irony of Finn's closing paragraphs:

The abandonment of large tracts of land, combined with a ban on hunting, has led to a dramatic increase in wild animals and birds, including wolves, elk, wild boars, white-tailed eagles, owls, cranes and black storks.

"Without a permanent residency of humans for 20 years, the ecosystems around the Chernobyl site are now flourishing," the report said. "It looks like the nature park it has become."

posted by Dan at 12:48 AM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (1)

Saturday, September 3, 2005

Attack of the lipstick ninjas

In the Washington Post, Anthony Faiola reports that Japanese PM Junichiro Koizumi is pulling out all the stops in the run-up to parliamentary elections in Japan:

Armed to the teeth with blood-red lipstick and a killer smile, Yuriko Koike stormed the streets in a working-class neighborhood here with rapid-fire handshakes and a brigade of young campaign aides wearing hot-pink T-shirts and waving rose-colored flags. One of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's hit squad of female "assassins," the former anchorwoman vowed to take no prisoners in Japan's nationwide elections a week from Sunday.

"This is a ground battle for reform!" Koike, 53, shouted through a bullhorn to her giddy audience. "Let's change Japan!"

Koike joined a star-studded cast of female candidates sent out on the campaign trail this week by Koizumi, who has vowed to resign if his fractured Liberal Democratic Party fails to win control of Japan's lower house on Sept. 11. The women -- now ubiquitously referred to in the national media as Koizumi's assassins -- also include Satsuki Katayama, a model-turned-bureaucrat, and Makiko Fujino, Japanese television's version of Martha Stewart. Their mission: to take out the prime minister's political enemies in the old boys' network that long held sway over the LDP.

The women embody Koizumi's strategy of putting a new face on the stodgy, conservative party that has ruled Japan for most of the post-World War II era. In a country where only a small percentage of elected officials are female and women are still expected to pour tea for male co-workers and defer to their husbands, Koizumi's "new LDP" is fielding a record 26 women in the upcoming race, more than double last year's number.

More important, Koizumi, 63, chose Koike and eight other well-known, successful women to run in key races. They are opposing the powerful hard-liners whom Koizumi effectively purged from the party after they voted against his bill to privatize Japan's massive postal service, the centerpiece of his plan to reform the world's second-largest economy. Rejection of that bill in August led Koizumi to angrily dissolve the lower house and put his job on the line by calling new elections in which he has vowed "to change or destroy" the LDP....

Koizumi's popularity is soaring ahead of the vote -- particularly among such nontraditional LDP voting groups as younger people and urbanites.

"There's no way around it," said Yasunori Sone, a professor of political science at Keio University in Tokyo. "Koizumi is a political genius. His creation of the assassin candidates has captured the public's imagination."

Indeed, Koizumi's daring approach has surprised a nation used to consensus politics, titillating the press and jolting many Japanese out of their state of political apathy. Public opinion polls indicate heightened interest in the elections.

posted by Dan at 12:44 AM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (1)

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Iran's smoking gun goes poof

Three weeks ago today Dafnia Linzer had a Washington Post front-pager on an National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran wasn't nearly as close to developing nuclar weapons as previously thought.

Three weeks later, Linzer pours even colder water on Iran's WMD progress:

Traces of bomb-grade uranium found two years ago in Iran came from contaminated Pakistani equipment and are not evidence of a clandestine nuclear weapons program, a group of U.S. government experts and other international scientists has determined.

"The biggest smoking gun that everyone was waving is now eliminated with these conclusions," said a senior official who discussed the still-confidential findings on the condition of anonymity.

Scientists from the United States, France, Japan, Britain and Russia met in secret during the past nine months to pore over data collected by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, according to U.S. and foreign officials. Recently, the group, whose existence had not been previously reported, definitively matched samples of the highly enriched uranium -- a key ingredient for a nuclear weapon -- with centrifuge equipment turned over by the government of Pakistan.

Iran has long contended that the uranium traces were the result of contaminated equipment bought years ago from Pakistan. But the Bush administration had pointed to the material as evidence that Iran was making bomb-grade ingredients.

The conclusions will be shared with IAEA board members in a report due out the first week in September, according to U.S. and European officials who agreed to discuss details of the investigation on the condition of anonymity. The report "will say the contamination issue is resolved," a Western diplomat said.

U.S. officials have privately acknowledged for months that they were losing confidence that the uranium traces would turn out to be evidence of a nuclear weapons program. A recent U.S. intelligence estimate found that Iran is further away from making bomb-grade uranium than previously thought, according to U.S. officials.

The IAEA findings come as European efforts to negotiate with Iran on the future of its nuclear program have faltered, and could complicate a renewed push by the Bush administration to increase international pressure on Tehran.

Link via David Adesnik, who asks, "The question, then, would seem to be the same one as we now ask about Iraq: Why would a government with nothing to hide constantly lie to international inspectors?"

posted by Dan at 06:07 PM | Comments (26) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, August 22, 2005

Does China contradict the liberal paradigm, part deux

Following up on my post a few months ago on whether China's economic liberalization will lead to democratization, the Economist asks similar questions about the trajectory of Hu Jintao's government -- and comes up with the same muddled answer:

Mr Hu's (in fact, fairly consistent) conservatism has been evident in his belief that the Communist Party, riddled with corruption and other abuses of power, is quite capable of cleaning up its own act without the need for any checks or balances. This year, for instance, he has ordered millions of party officials to take part in many hours of mind-numbing ideological training designed to tighten party discipline (known as the “education campaign to preserve the advanced nature of Communist Party members”)....

Publicly, Mr Hu's comments have been moderate in tone. But he has been tougher at closed-door gatherings, such as during a meeting of the party's Central Committee last September. The plenum was of crucial symbolic importance for Mr Hu. It appointed him as the supreme commander of China's armed forces, thus completing his takeover of the country's three top positions, following his appointment as party leader in November 2002 and president in March 2003. The contents of Mr Hu's maiden speech have not been published in full. In the still secret portion, Mr Hu reportedly railed against “Western hostile forces” and “bourgeois liberalisation”. It was a worrying throwback to the paranoid language that suffused official rhetoric in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989....

Yet for all Mr Hu's rhetoric, he has yet to strike out at perceived wayward tendencies with anything like the vigour shown by Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping or even Jiang Zemin, whose crackdown on Falun Gong, a spiritual movement, in 1999 sent many thousands to labour camps. The complaints of Beijing's intellectuals are offset by other signals that China's economic reforms are continuing, even if government enthusiasm for the kind of mass privatisation of state-owned enterprises that occurred in the late 1990s and early this decade may have abated. In February the government issued new guidelines for private investment in areas hitherto the preserve of the state. This month it issued a draft of China's first law on property rights, aimed at protecting individuals and companies from arbitrary appropriations by the state. Many say the new law is inadequate, but it is still something of a concession to a growing middle class.

Even in the realm of privatisation, the government continues to experiment. In May, a new attempt was launched at off-loading state-owned shares in the 1,400 companies listed in China's stockmarkets. The government has indicated that the reform plan will not mean selling off its controlling stake in “key enterprises”. But it will relinquish at least some of its firms.

Given the increasingly conspicuous inequalities emerging in China as a result of the country's embrace of capitalism, it suits Mr Hu to appear to pour cold water on the idea of laisser-faire economics, blamed for a growing gap between rich and poor, between regions and between urban and rural areas. In the past couple of years there has been an upsurge in the number of protests triggered by these disparities, as well as by rampant corruption. Mr Hu is trying to strengthen the party's legitimacy by stressing its sympathy for the disadvantaged.

Mr Hu's catchphrase is “balanced development”. This will be a central theme in a new five-year economic plan (a still cherished relic of the central-planning era) due to be discussed by the Central Committee in October and ratified by the legislature next March. It will be Mr Hu's first opportunity to put his stamp on a long-term economic strategy. But rapid growth will remain his first priority. Mr Hu has shown no sign of retreat from the core belief of party leaders since the early 1990s: that growth is essential to social stability and thus the party's survival. If redistributing wealth were to jeopardise that, even the conservative Mr Hu would back off.

posted by Dan at 08:30 AM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, August 8, 2005

Will Singapore remain the outlier?

Whenever people start talking about the interrelationships between regime type, the rule of law, economic development, and political corruption, the outlier is always Singapore.

Think that economic development inexorably leads to freedom of the press? Hello, meet Singapore.

Think that authoritarianism automatically leads to corruption? Have you met Singapore?

Think that no government can plug its country into the Internet while still retaining a vast web of censorship? Yes, yes, that is Singapore over there in the corner giving you the raspberry.

[So what do political scientists say whenever the Singapore is brought up as the counterexample to the general rule?--ed.] There are a few options available:

OPTION #1: "Oh, you say a small city-state violates my covering law? I say 'feh.' All statistical relationships will have outliers. The general observation still holds."

OPTION #2: "Unless Lee Kuan Yew can be cloned, this is a unique example of political leadership that doesn't generalize beyond the borders of Singapore."

OPTION #3: "Oh, Singapore won't remain an exception for long. A one party state cannot be combined with information technology and a free market and live to tell the tale. You just wait.... yes, you wait right over there in the corner."

OPTION #4: "Singapore is merely the exemplar to demonstrate that these kind of feel-good generalizations break down when applied outside of OECD countries. Deal with it."

Some of these options are not mutually exclusive.

My thought piece on information technology and regime type takes some steps towards the third position. So I'm pleased to see that Associated Press reporter En-Lai Yeoh is also moving in that direction:

Singaporeans are seeing "Sex and the City" on TV. Actors may utter four-letter words on stage. Opposition parties can gather without police permission--as long as they do it indoors.

Tiny and famously disciplined Singapore is turning 40 on Tuesday, and continuing to lighten up. Gone are the days when chewing gum and long hair were banned. Singaporeans are even being allowed to bungee-jump and dance on bar tables.

In April, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained: "We risk being relegated to the second league if we rely only on past achievements. We must continue to reinvent ourselves."

Political analyst Ho Khai Leong of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies says the ruling People's Action Party is being pragmatic without relaxing its grip on power over the island and its 4.2 million citizens.

"It can't remain authoritarian when globalization is on your doorstep," he said. "There is a dynamic to the desire to be more open."....

The Internet puts the government in a quandary. It knows the future depends on an Internet-savvy public but recognizes the Web's power to bypass state-controlled media and foment its own kind of people power.

The Internet effect was evident in June, when an online petition became a driving force behind the ouster of the head of the largest government-backed charity, the National Kidney Foundation, for allegedly misusing funds.

"Rarely have Singaporeans showed such unanimous purpose in demanding change, and it worked--an undeniable plus for democracy," said political commentator Seah Chiang Nee.

I'm not holding my breath anytime soon for displays of Singaporean people power. But this story suggests that maybe there are limits to how far Singapore's exceptional identity can be maintained.

posted by Dan at 12:34 PM | Comments (21) | Trackbacks (1)

Thursday, August 4, 2005

The quaint old coup

Mauritania is a not-so-pleasant reminder of a relatively pleasant fact: military coup d'etats are a post-Cold War rarity. According to Patrick McGowan (‘African Military Coups d’Etat, 1956–2001: Frequency, Trends and Distribution’, Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 41, issue 3, 2003.):

[T]he military coup is today almost exclusively an African phenomenon. Once frequent and widespread in the global South, since the mid-1980s successful military coups d’e´tat have become relatively rare in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, and Asia; whereas between 1985 and 2001 SSA [sub-Saharan Africa] experienced 21 successful coups and 41 failed coup attempts.

Outside of Africa, the only successful coups in the past decade have been in Haiti and Pakistan. Interestingly, the only countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have been independent for 25 years and have avoided coups are Botswana, Cape Verde and Mauritius -- all of which are multiparty democracies. [UPDATE: Hmmm..... this previous sentence came straight from the McGowan article, but Jacob Levy is right to wonder why South Africa isn't on this list. One possibility is that McGowan includes attempted coups, and there might have been one in the late eighties/early nineties that escapes our collective memory.]

Even inside Africa, there is relatively good news -- although the pace of coup activity has not abated, according to McGowan the relative success of coup attempts has declined. In other words, there are as many coup attempts as in the past, but fewer of them succeed.

Why? One obvious reason for the decline in coups is the absence of great power support for them. Another reason might be contained in this London Times story by Jenny Booth:

The African Union today suspended the membership of Mauritania after yesterday's bloodless military coup deposed President Maaouiya Ould Taya.

The AU Peace and Security Council said that the suspension would remain in place until "constitutional order" is returned to the west African state.

"In light of the coup d’etat that took place on August 3... Mauritania’s participation in all AU activities should be suspended until the restoration of constitutional order in the country," the council said in a statement.

Here's a link to an earlier AU condemnation of the coup.

Whether this will actually alter the behavior of the coup plotters is doubtful at this point, but it's worth remembering that even this gesture would never have taken place ten years ago. And such gestures in the past have helped to thwart coups in Latin America.

The rest of the world's response has been along similar lines to what's happened in Mauritania.

Alas, focusing on Mauritania itself, it seems pretty clear that the coup does not do wonders for U.S. foreign policy, according to Booth's report:

The quick return to calm appeared to suggest there was widespread acceptance of President Taya’s overthrow. Islamic opposition parties celebrated the deposition of a ruler who had looked increasingly to the West, in response to alleged threats from al-Qaeda linked militants with ties to radical groups in Algeria.

On the other hand, this International Crisis Group report from March 2005 suggests that fears of radical Islamic activity are overblown. See also Princeton Lyman's CFR briefing on the coup.


posted by Dan at 02:42 PM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, August 2, 2005

So what's the deal with Iran's nuclear program?

The past few days have seen a lot of hand-wringing over Iran's decision to defy the principal EU countries and IAEA and proceed with "uranium enrichment activities" as the FT's Gareth Smyth and Najmeh Bozorgmehr put it.

Ordinarily, this development would fill the Bush administration with glee. After all, the administration cut a deal with the Europeans agreeing to let them have the negotiation lead with Iran, and even remove the block from Iran's WTO candidacy -- provided that if the talks ever broke down, the EU countries would back at U.S. resolution to bring the matter to the UN Security Council.

Now, however, I see this front-pager by Dafna Linzer in today's Washington Post:

A major U.S. intelligence review has projected that Iran is about a decade away from manufacturing the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon, roughly doubling the previous estimate of five years, according to government sources with firsthand knowledge of the new analysis.

The carefully hedged assessments, which represent consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies, contrast with forceful public statements by the White House. Administration officials have asserted, but have not offered proof, that Tehran is moving determinedly toward a nuclear arsenal. The new estimate could provide more time for diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. President Bush has said that he wants the crisis resolved diplomatically but that "all options are on the table."

....At no time in the past three years has the White House attributed its assertions about Iran to U.S. intelligence, as it did about Iraq in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion. Instead, it has pointed to years of Iranian concealment and questioned why a country with as much oil as Iran would require a large-scale nuclear energy program....

The new estimate extends the timeline, judging that Iran will be unlikely to produce a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient for an atomic weapon, before "early to mid-next decade," according to four sources familiar with that finding. The sources said the shift, based on a better understanding of Iran's technical limitations, puts the timeline closer to 2015 and in line with recently revised British and Israeli figures.

The estimate is for acquisition of fissile material, but there is no firm view expressed on whether Iran would be ready by then with an implosion device, sources said.

If you read the whole article (oh, and here's a Q&A with Linzer about the story) , you'll see that the big question Bush officials are asking is whether there will be regime change in Iran before that country acquires a nuclear capability.

I have a different question -- is it possible that the mullahs are copying Saddam Hussein? Recall that even though Iraq's WMD program turned out to be relatively moribund, Hussein repeatedly refused to cooperate fully with UN officials. Among the many possible motivations, one hypothesis was that Hussein was unwilling to expose his relative weakness.

Right now every country in the Middle East fears Iran's growing power -- could the mullahs have an incentive to exaggerate perceptions of that power?


UPDATE: Frank Foer, guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan, frets that the new NIE will be counterproductive to the "broad consensus that the mullahs must be stopped."

posted by Dan at 12:27 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Mahathir Mohamad's grumpy retirement

There appears to be a rift brewing between former Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad and his successor, current Malaysian PM Abdullah Badawi.

After reading this excerpt from John Burton's story in the Financial Times, see if you can guess which one I hope prevails:

The future of Proton, Malaysia's national carmaker, appears to have caused a schism in the government, with the issue pitting Abdullah Badawi, the prime minister, against his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad.

Dr Mahathir, who has championed Proton's cause, has claimed that a system of import licences for foreign cars has damaged Proton sales and demanded that those who have received the privileged licences should be revealed.

Mr Abdullah, who has favoured reducing trade barriers protecting Proton, this week named the licence holders, which have long been secret, in a move to promote government transparency ahead of the ruling party's annual meeting.

The prime minister's disclosure is seen as calling his predecessor's bluff to embarrass him. Among those holding the approved permits was Mokhzani Mahathir, Dr Mahathir's son, who was allowd to import 95 Saab and Porsche cars....

High tariffs have protected Proton until recently. But aggressive sales tactics by Toyota and Hyundai among others have reduced Proton's domestic market share from 70 per cent to 45 per cent in the last five years. Malaysia is south-east Asia's largest passenger car market.

Doubts about the survival of Proton have increased after Mr Abdullah agreed to nearly eliminate car tariffs by 2008 under south-east Asia's free trade agreement.

Analysts say Proton's best hope for survival is a partnership with a foreign carmaker. Volkswagen last year agreed to produce cars for the regional market at Proton plants in return for providing technical assistance.

But Proton officials have indicated that they would resist VW taking a majority stake in the company.

Since stepping down as prime minister in 2003, Dr Mahathir has become a key defender of Proton in his role as the company's special adviser.

posted by Dan at 12:49 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, July 7, 2005

Al Qaeda in Europe

CNN reports on the group claiming responsibility for the London transport bombings:

A previously unknown group calling itself the "Secret Organization group al Qaeda Organization in Europe" released a statement Thursday claiming responsibility for the subway and bus bombings in London earlier in the day...

CNN could not confirm the authenticity of the statement, which was posted on a Web site connected to Islamic radicals....

The claim of responsibility from the group said it had repeatedly warned Britain.

"The mujahedeen heroes have launched a blessed attack in London," the statement said.

"Here is Britain burning now out of fear and horror in its north, south east and west. We have often and repeatedly warned the British government and people."

The statement said the group had carried out the attack after exerting "strenuous efforts ... over a long period of time to guarantee" its success.

"We still warn the governments of Denmark and Italy and all the crusader governments that they will receive the same punishment if they do not withdraw their troops from Iraq and Afghanistan," it said. "We gave the warning, so we should not be blamed."

Click here for dueling translations of the short statement..

The clumsy-sounding name (at least in English) of this group makes me wonder if this is another of Al Qaeda's local subcontractees.

UPDATE: Stephen Flynn has some thoughts at the Council on Foreign Relations home page that sound this theme as well. Some highlights:

[This attack] tells us that al Qaeda is increasingly more of a movement than it is an organization. There are splinter groups and it would appear, in this instance, that many of these groups are homegrown--that is, they're made up of U.K. citizens rather than foreign fighters who have arrived on British soil....

I don't have a lot of detail, obviously--but what I've picked up from the web and the bit of reporting I've heard from Scotland Yard indicates that is likely the case. Many of the folks who are setting up these [Qaeda-affiliated] organizations carry a European Union passport. In some instances, they are first generation. Others are established citizens living in the cities, as opposed to Saudis who come in to carry out these attacks. Of course, that was the case with [the March 2004 al Qaeda bombings of commuter trains in] Madrid as well....

[I]n the aftermath of the London attacks, it's likely that very quickly you'll see law enforcement identify the responsible parties and to start to roll up their organization. In Madrid, the group responsible for the attacks was rolled up relatively quickly. Terrorist groups have to be careful about carrying out attacks. They have to be successful, because they put their organization at high risk whenever they carry out an attack. It's impossible not to leave bread crumbs. The scale of the forensic evidence for this kind of coordinated, large-scale attack endangers an organization. It suggests that attacks, when they happen, are more likely to be of this sophisticated, coordinated nature, not a single event.

Read the whole thing.

LAST UPDATE: Steve Coll and Susan B. Glasser make a similar point to Flynn's in the Washington Post:

Now more a brand than a tight-knit group, al Qaeda has responded to four years of intense pressure from the United States and its allies by dispersing its surviving operatives, distributing its ideology and techniques for mass-casualty attacks to a wide audience on the Internet, and encouraging new adherents to act spontaneously in its name.

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, terrorism experts in and out of government have warned that the movement has appeared to gain ground, particularly in Europe, where a large, mobile, technology-savvy and well-educated Muslim population includes some angry and alienated young people attracted to the call of holy war against the West.

The simultaneous bombings of four rush-hour commuter trains in Madrid on March 11, 2004, the shooting death of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh last November and recent preemptive arrests made by European police suggest a less top-down, more grass-roots-driven al Qaeda. The movement's ability to carry off sophisticated, border-crossing attacks such as those Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants mounted against New York and the Pentagon almost four years ago appears diminished, some experts say.

Yet al Qaeda's chief ideologues -- bin Laden, his lieutenant Ayman Zawahiri, and more recently, the Internet-fluent Abu Musab Zarqawi, have been able to communicate freely to their followers, even while in hiding. In the past 18 months, they have persuaded dozens of like-minded young men, operating independently of the core al Qaeda leadership, to assemble and deliver suicide or conventional bombs in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Spain, Egypt and now apparently London.

posted by Dan at 01:15 PM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, July 1, 2005

Open Ahmadinejad thread

Comment here on the prospect that Iran's president-elect might have been one of the students involved in the 1979 embassy takeover.

More generally, It's still unclear to me what the precise relationship is between Ahmadinejad and the clerics that actually run Iran. Yesterday's New York Times op-ed by Abbas Milani said the clerics "masterminded Mr. Ahmadinejad's victory." However the NYT editorial of the same day argues that Ahmadinejad, "offered a populist economic platform that implicitly challenged the cronyism and corruption of more than a quarter-century of clerical rule."

I don't know enough about Iran's internal politics to comment -- but I'm sure that will not deter you from commenting.

[Isn't this just a case of life being complex? Maybe Ahmadinejad agrees with the clerics on some issues but not others?--ed. Undoubtedly true -- but the question that's still unanswered is whether he's willing to address certain sacred cows within the clerical establishment even as he's agreeing with them on other issues.]

posted by Dan at 10:20 AM | Comments (34) | Trackbacks (2)

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Vladimir likes the bling-bling

Some stories are so odd that all you can do is post them without comment:

Russian President Vladimir Putin walked off with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft's diamond-encrusted 2005 Super Bowl ring at a recent meeting with U.S. business executives.

But not to worry: Kraft says the ring was a gift to Putin, presented out of ''respect and admiration.''....

''I showed the president my most recent Super Bowl ring,'' Kraft said in a statement. The Russian president ''was clearly taken with its uniqueness.''

''At that point, I decided to give him the ring as a symbol of the respect and admiration that I have for the Russian people and the leadership of President Putin.''

Putin met with the businessmen Saturday near St. Petersburg, Russia. Near the end of the meeting, Kraft took off the ring, and handed it to Putin. Putin tried it on, put it in his pocket and left, according to Russian news reports.

It's an amazing coincidence.... it's my understanding is this is exactly how it worked with Gazprom as well.

posted by Dan at 10:17 AM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, June 27, 2005

Interpreting Iran's election

The Economist asks the questions on many people's minds following Iran's presidential elections:

WAS it a backlash by Iran’s devoutly Muslim poor against a corrupt elite? Or was it a massive fraud perpetrated on the people by the hardline clerics? Perhaps it was a bit of both. Whatever the case, the margin of victory for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the second round of Iran’s presidential election, on Friday June 24th, was striking. Mr Ahmadinejad, the mayor of the capital, Tehran, and a hardline religious conservative, garnered around 62% of the vote, despite having gone almost unnoticed in the field of seven candidates who had contested the first round of voting, a week earlier.

However, Gordon Robison has an op-ed in the Beirut Daily Star suggesting that the western media fell down on the job in covering the Iranian elections:

So Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is not Iran's new president. That result must come as a particular surprise to anyone who tried to follow the campaign by light of the Western media.

As recently as last Thursday - the day before the run-off vote between Rafsanjani and his rival, Tehran mayor Mahmood Ahmadinejad - reputable polls gave the latter a clear lead. Yet headlines in the International Herald Tribune continued to describe Rafsanjani as the "front-runner." In the run-up to the first round of voting on June 17, his campaign was the focus of most election coverage in the Western media. CNN's interview with Rafsanjani during the campaign treated him as a president-in-waiting.

So what happened, exactly?....

The answer may be much simpler, if no less embarrassing: Granted how little most of us outsiders know about the politics of the Islamic Republic, it was probably just easiest to focus on Rafsanjani because he, alone among the candidates, was a familiar figure to Western journalists....

Prior to the election [reformer Mustafa] Moin was often seen in the West as Rafsanjani's main competition. The assumption in that narrative was that Rafsanjani represented the conservative old guard. Moin, a former cabinet minister who was initially barred from standing by Iran's Council of Guardians (the body that approves potential candidates for Parliament and the presidency), was seen as the obvious successor to Khatami. That might have been true, but it ignored the fact that there is more than one type of "reform." Reform can mean loosening restrictions on how people dress and behave in public and private. But it can also mean tackling corruption and cronyism - which was the vein of popular anger into which Ahmadinejad tapped.

Well, to be fair, some of the western media had already figured some of this out:

In truth, so much of this [analysis about Iran's election] is rubbish and disinformation. The country's supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, remains firmly in charge of the country -- exactly as he would have been had Mr. Rafsanjani won the other day. The pop analysis aside, the election will have no effect on Iran's weapons of mass destruction or its role in supporting terrorism.

posted by Dan at 11:41 PM | Comments (19) | Trackbacks (1)

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Does China contradict the liberal paradigm?

The constant in U.S. policy towards a rising China for the past three administrations is encapsulated in the current National Security Strategy:

China has begun to take the road to political openness, permitting many personal freedoms and conducting village-level elections, yet remains strongly committed to national one-party rule by the Communist Party. To make that nation truly accountable to its citizen’s needs and aspirations, however, much work remains to be done. Only by allowing the Chinese people to think, assemble, and worship freely can China reach its full potential....

The power of market principles and the WTO’s requirements for transparency and accountability will advance openness and the rule of law in China to help establish basic protections for commerce and for citizens. (emphasis added)

In other words, by trading with China, and by encouraging them to embrace the information revolution, the Chinese will inevitably morph into an ever-more-open society that will therefore become more benign in world politics.

There are valid reasons to doubt the second part of that logic, but I'm more concerned about the first part for now: is U.S. trade with China making the country more free?

I ask because of this Philip P. Pan front-pager in the Washington Post from last week on how Chinese President Hu Jintao is consolidating his power:

More than two years after taking office amid uncertainty about his political views, Chinese President Hu Jintao is emerging as an unyielding leader determined to preserve the Communist Party's monopoly on power and willing to impose new limits on speech and other civil liberties to do it, according to party officials, journalists and analysts.

Some say Hu has cast himself as a hard-liner to consolidate his position after a delicate leadership transition and could still lead the party in a more open direction. There is a growing consensus inside and outside the government, however, that the 62-year-old former engineer believes the party should strengthen its rule by improving its traditional mechanisms of governance, not by introducing democratic reforms.

Hu has placed particular emphasis on tightening the party's control over public opinion, presiding over a crackdown to restore discipline to state media and intimidate dissident intellectuals. He has also gone further than his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, by adopting new measures to regulate discussions on university Internet sites and the activities of nongovernmental organizations.

Meanwhile, Paul Mooney reports similar information about the Chinese academy in the Chronicle of Higher Education (sorry, subscription only):

Shortly before a new, younger generation of Chinese leaders took office in 2002, intellectuals in Beijing were hoping that Hu Jintao, who is now the country's president, would be a force for reform.

Since taking the reins of power, however, the new regime has launched a bitter attack on freedom of expression. Newspapers have been shut down, books banned, journalists and dissidents imprisoned, and scholars brought under increased pressure to toe the official line. The political situation is the worst it has been in years, many scholars say.

"I'm very pessimistic," says Xu Youyu, a researcher at the Institute of Philosophy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "I'm sure that these harsh policies are not just for a short time."

As for the power of the Internet to make China more free, Rebecca MacKinnon has tirelessly covered the Chinese government's recent efforts to expand its monitoring and filtering capacities -- click here for one example.

This would all seem to suggest that our open trade policy with China ain't generating a lot of political openness on their side. By the Freedom House measures, China has been rated as "not free" for the entire history of our expanded trade relationship with them. Within that category there are some subtler trends -- in the eighties both the poliitical rights and civil liberties measures improved slightly. Both went back down after Tiannamen, and then since 1998 the civil liberties score has improved marginally.

So does China vitiate the underlying premise that an open economic relationship leads to political openness?

Well consider that even the Freedom House data and the Chronicle story suggests that economic openness can have an effect on civil liberties -- it's just that the effect is very small and trumped by Hu Jintao. See this section of the Chronicle story:

Free speech was given a big boost in China in recent years by the commercialization of the news media and the advent of the Internet, two channels that gave scholars unprecedented ways to disseminate their opinions. Newspapers and magazines once controlled by the government are now scrambling to attract readers. The Beijing News, which has won a large readership with its bold reporting, devotes an entire page each day to articles written by prominent intellectuals.

However, nothing has been as important as the Internet. "It's almost revolutionary," says Jiang Wenran, associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta, in Canada, and a native of China. "Without the Internet, how could they speak out?"

Anything important that has been written can be found online, and that, says Mr. Jiang, "gives intellectuals confidence that they have a voice and can use it to express their opinions."

Academics have also set up numerous Web sites, though they have had to exercise caution. Some sites voluntarily shut down every year before the anniversary of the May 4th Movement, marking the 1919 student demonstrations on that day in Beijing against the Treaty of Versailles, and the 1989 crackdown that grew out of the student protests in Tiananmen Square. If they did not take that self-imposed break, China's vigilant Internet police -- said to number in the tens of thousands -- might take more drastic action, forcing them to shut down permanently.

Second, remember that China is a special case because of its market size. China can get Microsoft to do what it wants, but smaller countries cannot.

Third, when questioning the utility of a certain policy, one always needs to compre it to the alternative set of options. There is no other option that would cause China to democratize any faster that a policy of openness.

Fourth, as I argued earlier this year, the effect of the information revolution on authoritarian states is not a continuous one. It is possible that repressive regimes can succeed in maintaining control for long periods of time -- but then crumble quickly. One reason for Hu's recent decision to crack down is his acute recognition of this fact.

So maybe current U.S. policy will work in the long run. The thing is, none of those points makes me feel any more sanguine about current U.S. policy in the short run.

UPDATE: David Shambaugh has an interesting piece in The Washington Quarterly on the complex triangle between the U.S., China, and Europe.

posted by Dan at 06:11 PM | Comments (26) | Trackbacks (7)

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Open Chinese nationalism thread

I've been remiss in not posting about the surge of anti-Japan protests in China over the past ten days or so, and the official Chinese reaction, which ranged from tacit support at the outset to a hasty, clumsy effort to assuage the Japanese and characterize the protests as part of an evil plot to undermine the Communist Party.

Comment away on the implications. I will only make one observation -- the Chinese government has been extraordinarily maladroit over the past six months. Until recently, the government was keenly aware about the geopolitical anxiety caused in the Asia-Pacific region by its growing economic and military strength. Being a rising, somewhat opaque power is tricky terrain for any state to navigate. Post-9/11, the Chinese had been pretty deft, tolerating the U.S. focus on the Middle East while pointing out to its neighbors, Europe, and even Africa the value of close economic relations with Beijing. Chinese academics have labeled this the "peaceful rising" strategy.

However, in the past six months, the Chinese government has:

1) Looked stingy following the meager tsunami aid allotment;

2) Looked stupid following their anti-Taiwan law;

3) Looked out of control with their handling of the anti-Japan riots.

I'm curious to see how both the Chinese and the other countries in the region will respond.


posted by Dan at 12:44 PM | Comments (20) | Trackbacks (1)

Monday, April 25, 2005

What happens if the French say "non"?

When we last left the French referendum on the EU constitution, President Jacques Chirac had bungled a TV appearance designed to bolster support for a "oui" vote.

In today's Financial Times, John Thornhill reports that France's neighbors are warning of the apocalypse if France says non.

A French rejection of the European Union's constitutional treaty would result in the “fall of Europe,” Romano Prodi, former president of the European Commission, warned on Sunday.

His words came as the Yes campaign stepped up its increasingly desperate search for a strategy to turn the tide of public opinion ahead of the May 29 vote. In the starkest warning yet of the consequences for the EU if French voters reject the treaty Mr Prodi who was in office when it was drawn up told a French newspaper: “There would be no more Europe. We will pass through a long period of crisis.

“The problem will not only be a catastrophe for France, but the fall of Europe.”

Mr Prodi said the treaty was not perfect but was the best compromise possible. “It is impossible for me to imagine a French No. I have always thought of France as a pillar of Europe.

“A No would be catastrophic for Europe, from a social and economic point of view, not only political. And that is the whole contradiction: everybody knows very well that there is no Europe without France, yet France does not realise the chance it has with Europe. She should reflect on that because an isolated France would be very weak,” he said....

However, the latest opinion polls in France suggest the No camp is consolidating its lead with 58 per cent support. They also suggest that a growing number of French voters are playing down the fallout from a No vote.

The fact that articles like this one and this Charlemagne column in the Economist are being printed suggests that experts are taking the likelihood of a non vote very seriously.

Of course, this begs the question -- would a rejection of the EU constitution really mean the end of the EU project? I'd like to hear from the Europeanists in the audience, but this strikes me as a gross exaggeration. The European project has managed to generate a common market, a common Court of Justice, the euro, Schengenland, an increasingly assertive European parliament, and even the faint stirrings of a common foreign and defense policy -- all using the current set of legal and political arrangements. None of these will disappear if the French say non (a good indicator of its significance will be to see what happens to the value of the euro as the probability of a non vote approaches one. If it actually starts to fall in value, then I'm wrong).

The "end of Europe" claim by Prodi is an extreme version of the "bicycle theory" of international integration, which says that if there is any slowdown in integration, the process starts to wobble like a slow bicycle, eventually toppling under its own weight. This line was also used after the Maastricht accord was signed in the early nineties. I suspect that warnings like Prodi's will, if anything, further turn off people against what elites tell them about the European Union.

Does this mean the EU would just sail along after a French rejection? Non, it would not, but I'm not sure that the ensuing difficulties would be any more severe than, say, what the World Trade Organization experienced after the 1999 Battle in Seattle. The EU will live on.

What will be interesting to see is whether the rest of Europe would interpret a negative vote as an actual rejection of the planned future of the EU or explain it away as a rejection of Jacques Chirac and nothing more.

posted by Dan at 03:59 PM | Comments (25) | Trackbacks (4)

Friday, April 15, 2005

Will realpolitik sell the EU constitution to the French?

In six weeks, the French will vote on a referendum to ratify the EU constitution. Current polling in France runs about 55% against, and twelve straight polls have had the "no" camp in the lead.

In an attempt to combat this trend, last night French President Jacques Chirac held a nationally televised town hall-style meeting with 83 "young people."

Two things were interesting about the event and its aftermath. The first was Chirac's principal arguments for ratification -- political and economic balancing against the United States. According to the Wadhington Post's Erika Lorentzsen:

"What would be the role of France tomorrow if we block this process?" [Chirac] asked during a question-and-answer session with young people and journalists, broadcast from the Elysee Palace. "We will not be strong, and Europe would not be strong enough against the big powers."

Proponents of the constitution contend that it is crucial to making the European Union, an often internally divided alliance, more influential in world affairs. Among many Europeans, this means standing up to the United States....

In his remarks, Chirac sought to convince voters that irrational worries were standing in the way of the constitution, which he said would protect Europe from an "ultra-liberal" and "Anglo-Saxon" economic model, code words for American-style free-market capitalism.

"I'm always surprised to see this expression of fear," he said. "Europe needs to feel proud of itself and France in its principal role in defending our interests. This fear of young people I don't understand. I have confidence in France and our future."

In the Financial Times, John Thornhill and Peggy Hollinger provide an even more explicit quote:

Mr Chirac said the treaty, which established a new set of rules for the expanded European Union of 25 countries, was essential to preserve French values. “What is the interest of the Anglo-Saxon countries and particularly the US? It is naturally to stop Europe's construction, which risks creating a much stronger Europe tomorrow,” he said.

The second interesting thing was that Chirac's line of argumentation floundered. Both the BBC and CNN International have recaps of the French media response, and they were not good. From the latter's round-up:

"In front of an audience in which those favoring the 'No' seemed to be in the majority, the head of state often struggled to make heard his pro-European plea during a muddled broadcast," the conservative Le Figaro wrote on its front page.

"Chirac: difficulty reassuring," LCI television said, while the left-leaning Liberation newspapers said Chirac appeared "strained, almost clenched-up" in the meeting.

Laurent Fabius, a former Socialist prime minister and leading "no" campaigner accused Chirac of trying to scare voters into backing the charter.

"I found Mr. Chirac, like the constitution, long and not very convincing," he told RTL radio.

"I was very struck to see Mr. Chirac saying on the one hand, 'don't be afraid', but his main argument was to try to create fear."

The Economist, among others points out that much of the "no" support might have less to do with the EU constitution and more to do with Chirac's growing unpopularity. However. going back to the FT, it's possible that the two may actually be linked:

[S]ome of the audience said the constitution was too complex and doubted it would make any difference to their lives. They quizzed Mr Chirac aggressively over France's high unemployment, the threat to the country's public services and the possible influx of cheap labour from eastern Europe.

Asked by one voter why the unemployment rate was so much lower in the UK than in France, Mr Chirac replied that Britain had social rules that would not be “acceptable to us”.

....Mr Chirac's greatest political rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, the populist president of the ruling UMP party, on Thursday contradicted the president's upbeat views by saying that the “French social model” was failing the people.

In a speech in southern France, Mr Sarkozy said that with a 10 per cent unemployment rate France should stop saying its system worked better than that of others. “In 20 years both the left and the right have doubled the credits to combat unemployment but we have not produced one fewer unemployed person,” he said.

Even the Economist acknowledges that, "in contrast to the Maastricht vote, which led to the euro, it is hard to say what is at stake in the EU constitution."

It will be very interesting to see how this plays out over the next six weeks. My hunch is that support for the "yes" side will increase as the vote nears -- and even if the referendum fails, the French can simply schedule another referendum. On the other hand, if the quixotic combination of realpolitik and social democracy doesn't generate majority support in France, then I'm not sure where it will work.


posted by Dan at 12:12 PM | Comments (19) | Trackbacks (6)

Monday, April 11, 2005

J. Lo, Conan the Barbarian, and Afghan Idol

You have to think that things are going pretty well in Afghanistan when a major subject of public debate is.... what's on television. Kim Barker explains in the Chicago Tribune:

The two men spend several minutes debating which came first, the chicken or the egg. They argue over whether people dream in color.

This hardly seems like the most controversial TV show in Afghanistan. But in between the polite chitchat, these men--the Afghan version of MTV veejays--play music videos, which sometimes feature heaving bosoms, dancing women and sexually suggestive lyrics.

Such videos have turned the show "Hop" into one of the most popular programs on the Afghan capital's most popular new television station, Tolo TV. They also have drawn the ire of the country's clerics and the scrutiny of the government.

"Watching a woman with half-naked breasts and a man and a woman sucking each other's lips on TV, like on Tolo, is not atocceptable," said Abdul Malik Kamawi, spokesman for the country's Supreme Court.

The debate over programming on the five private TV stations in Kabul highlights a major difficulty facing the new Afghanistan: trying to balance democratic freedoms and a largely conservative Islamic society. The constitution protects freedom of expression and prohibits anything that is against Islam. That inevitably leads to conflict, because what is against Islam often depends on who is watching.

Several new stations are pushing the limits in the land where the Taliban once banned TV sets and forced women to be hidden. They are playing Indian movies, which mostly focus on love and sexy couples dancing and singing. Some have shown movies from the United States, such as "Conan the Barbarian," with sex scenes....

On Tolo, people Rollerblade and fly kites at a New Year's celebration. Men and women talk to each other, even laugh together. Jennifer Lopez videos are shown frequently, and commercials tout the benefits of chicken bullion and dandruff shampoo. In many ways the station shows a vision of Kabul not as it necessarily is, but as many young people would like it to be.

A short makeover feature takes ordinary Afghans off the street and turns them into fashionable young people who would blend into any Western city. Think of it as "Hip Eye for the Traditional Afghan Guy." On one recent show, a young Afghan man with a beard, an uneven haircut and the typical Afghan knee-length shirt and matching pants got a shave, a haircut and a shower and was dressed in jeans and a modern shirt....

Most people on the street say Tolo TV is their favorite Afghan station. They like the news and the investigative reporting--new to Afghanistan. They like "Moments," a prank program similar to "Candid Camera." But most people, young and old, say their favorite show on Tolo is "Hop," which features videos from India, Iran, Turkey, the U.S. and Afghanistan.

"It's a good program," said Walid Shahbaz, 22, who was out shopping. "Mullahs are usually talking about things that are against Islam. But I don't think `Hop' is against Islam."

The TV station is planning to air a new program, one that station workers are certain will be a hit. It shows just how much the clerics are up against, and how much Afghanistan has changed since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001.

That show, modeled on a popular U.S. program, will feature men and women singing their way to fame. "Afghan Idol" will start shooting in a few weeks. (emphasis added)

I can just picture Virginia Postrel smiling at the bolded section.

UPDATE: Barker has a follow-up piece in Tuesday's Tribune on the opening of the first plastic surgery clinic in Kabul:

Most patients want their scars removed, all evidence of burns, skin diseases and even gunshot wounds erased. But others, hiding beneath their burqas, want nose jobs.

Cosmetic surgery has arrived in Kabul, in the form of the tiny Hamkar Surgical Clinic, across the street from the bombed-out Cinema Theatre building, in need of its own face-lift. In this clinic, tucked away at the top of a dark stairway, people can pay for tummy tucks, although no one has been brave enough yet to try. Women will be able to buy larger breasts, although only one woman has expressed interest so far.

"It's peaceful now in Afghanistan," nurse Mohammad Fazel said. "People can get rid of their wrinkles. They can get rid of their bad figures."

LAST UPDATE: Oxblog's Afghan correspondent provides an update on the situation on the ground outside of Kabul. Quick summary: "[E]nthusiasm, continued commitment, and some degree of optimism -- these are I think proper attitudes when considering the situation in Afghanistan."

posted by Dan at 12:22 PM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, March 24, 2005

So how's Iraqification going, part II

As a follow-up to my previous post on the question of transfering police and security functions to Iraqis, it's worth linking and quoting from Spencer Ackerman's Iraq'd blog. Ackerman -- hardly a fan of the administration's Iraq policy in the past -- was a huge fan of the raid on foreign insurgents that took place yesterday.

Why is Ackerman in such a good mood about this raid?:

It's hard to overstate how fantastic a development this is, but let's try. I wrote last December about insurgent overconfidence. Is this ever a case in point! Insurgents have had their bloodiest successes in urban areas. Establishing training camps in remote locations plays to the strengths of the U.S. military and its Iraqi proteges by offering discrete targets to be wiped off the face of the earth, without the prospect of civilian casualties to inflame the sensibilities of the broader Iraqi population. What's more, according to the Iraqi Interior Ministry, an intelligence tip came from nearby residents about the precise location of the camp, indicating a disgust for the jihadists in the heart of the Sunni Triangle. (We've seen this from civilians before in areas devoid of U.S. troops that the jihadists infest.) And not only did the police commandos lead the raid, they fought for hours despite taking casualties. (Though not many: According to The New York Times, Iraqi commandos went in massively, with a force of between 500 and 700. Seven were killed and six wounded, which should say something about their training and fighting prowess.)

A quick word about the politics of the raid. The apparent isolation of the jihadists from Sunnis in the area is one the most hopeful signs we've gotten yet from Iraq. At the risk of succumbing to wishful thinking, it suggests a fracturing of the insurgency, which is crucial to victory, might be within sight.


posted by Dan at 10:07 AM | Comments (13) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, March 21, 2005

So how's Iraqification going?

Derrick Jackson argued in the Boston Globe last Friday that the U.S. has no exit strategy for Iraq and this is costing us allies:

Country by country, the coalition is wilting from such uninspired leadership from the United States. Once Italy, Poland, Ukraine and Netherlands finish jumping ship, the U.S. percentage of the dubious Iraq mission will creep to 90 percent from 85 percent. Italy is pulling out because it sees no exit strategy. The coalition of the willing is no longer willing to accept America's rosy scenario on Iraq.

Jackson cites this Government Accountability Office report detailing the difficulties the United States is having with reconstituting Iraqi security forces. From the abstract:

U.S. government agencies do not report reliable data on the extent to which Iraqi security forces are trained and equipped. As of March 2005, the State Department reported that about 82,000 police forces under the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and about 62,000 military forces under the Iraqi Ministry of Defense have been trained and equipped. However, the reported number of Iraqi police is unreliable because the Ministry of Interior does not receive consistent and accurate reporting from the police forces around the country. The data does not exclude police absent from duty. Further, the departments of State and Defense no longer report on the extent to which Iraqi security forces are equipped with their required weapons, vehicles, communications equipment, and body armor....without reliable reporting data, a more capable Iraqi force, and stronger Iraqi leadership, the Department of Defense faces difficulties in implementing its strategy to draw down U.S. forces from Iraq.

Sounds like Iraqification is not going well. However, two press reports from inside Iraq suggest that in fact progress has been made. John F. Burns reports in the New York Times that the transfer of duties from the U.S. military to Iraqi security forces has helped in one Baghdad neighborhood:

When most roads in central Baghdad are choked with traffic, there is rarely more than a trickle of vehicles on Haifa Street. At the day's height, a handful of pedestrians scurry down empty sidewalks, ducking into covered walkways that serve as sanctuaries from gunfire - and as blinds for insurgent attacks in one of Iraq's most bitterly contested battle zones....

In the first 18 months of the fighting, the insurgents mostly outmaneuvered the Americans along Haifa Street, showing they could carry the war to the capital's core with something approaching impunity.

But American officers say there have been signs that the tide may be shifting. On Haifa Street, at least, insurgents are attacking in smaller numbers, and with less intensity; mortar attacks into the Green Zone have diminished sharply; major raids have uncovered large weapons caches; and some rebel leaders have been arrested or killed.

American military engineers, frustrated elsewhere by insurgent attacks, are moving ahead along Haifa Street with a $20 million program to improve electricity, sewer and other utilities. So far, none of the work sites have been attacked, although a local Shiite leader who vocally supported the American projects was assassinated on his doorstep in January.

But the change American commanders see as more promising than any other here is the deployment of large numbers of Iraqi troops. American commanders are eager to shift the fighting in Iraq to the country's own troops, allowing American units to pull back from the cities and, eventually, to begin drawing down their 150,000 troops. Haifa Street has become an early test of that strategy.

Last month, an Iraqi brigade with two battalions garrisoned along Haifa Street became the first homegrown unit to take operational responsibility for any combat zone in Iraq. The two battalions can muster more than 2,000 soldiers, twice the size of the American cavalry battalion that has led most fighting along the street. So far, American officers say, the Iraqis have done well, withstanding insurgent attacks and conducting aggressive patrols and raids, without deserting in large numbers or hunkering down in their garrisons.

If Haifa Street is brought under control, it will be a major step toward restoring order in this city of five million, and will send a wider message: that the insurgents can be matched, and beaten back....

Iraqi units still complain about unequal equipment, particularly the lack of the heavy armor the Americans use, like Bradley fighting vehicles and Abrams tanks. But the complaints among American officers about "tiny heart syndrome" - a caustic reference to some Iraqi units' unwillingness to expose themselves to combat - have diminished.

"Now, they're ready to fight," said Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the American officer overseeing the retraining effort, in a recent interview at his Green Zone headquarters.

Lethal intimidation of recruits - the suicide bombing of army barracks, police stations and recruiting lines, with scores of volunteers killed - remains the single biggest problem in building the Iraqi forces, the general acknowledged. But an overwhelming majority of new recruits have refused to buckle, he said, and they understand that they are fighting, not for the Americans, but for their own country. "Guys who get blown up in the morning get themselves bandaged up, and they're back in the afternoon," he said.

The uncompromising image is one that Gen. Muhammad al-Samraa, 39, the commander of the Iraqi 303rd Battalion, based on Haifa Street, is eager to push. "My aim is 100 percent clear: all the terrorists living here, they go now," he said, in halting English. He was a major in Mr. Hussein's air defense force, and spent a year as a bodyguard and driver for a Shiite tribal leader in Baghdad before signing up for the new army.

Meanwhile, Time's Christopher Allbriton reports on the growing professionalism of The Iraqi Special Forces Brigade (ISOF):

Two years since the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. is scrambling to train and equip a new Iraqi army to take over combat duties and pave the way for a reduction in the size of the U.S. troop presence. After a slow start, the training program appears to be picking up momentum: last week the Pentagon announced plans to trim the number of U.S. troops in Iraq from 150,000 to 105,000 by early next year, a move that reflects the improved capabilities of the Iraqi forces. The top commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, said that "very much sooner rather than later, Iraq will be able to provide for its own security."

....While their numbers are few, Iraqi special forces have assumed a bigger role in sensitive counter-insurgent operations, often acting as the lead teams in raids and rescue missions. In some cases, Iraqi units have used intelligence gleaned from locals to identify their own low-level targets, and then execute small raids on their own. Trained by Task Force Pioneer, a unit drawn from a support company from the U.S. Special Operating Force's 10th Group, the emerging Iraqi commando units have impressed U.S. commanders with their combat performance and bolstered confidence that Iraqis can keep the insurgents at bay on their own. "We can step away more now," says the U.S. commander of Task Force Pioneer, who, like all of the special forces in this story, cannot be named. "It's about 50-50."

....Advisors from the U.S. Green Berets say the Iraqi special-ops teams have suffered none of the problems of desertion in the face of enemy fire seen in most of the regular Iraqi units. None have refused to fight, they say, and rates of those absent without leave are well below other forces. "It's unbelievable, but it's all down to the espirit de corps," says the Americans' Executive Officer.

Putting Iraqis on the front lines, U.S. officials say, is yielding results in the shadow war against the insurgents. When the key to unraveling insurgencies is denying the rebels the support of the population, putting an Iraqi face on the offensives is vital. It also helps avoid blunders. Often targeting information is slightly off, with troops raiding the wrong house. Local Iraqis are loath to point the Americans in the right direction. "They're not scared of Americans, but when an Iraqi in a ski mask confronts them they talk a lot more, and they're more likely to say, 'He's not here but lives across the road,'" says Task Force Pioneer's commander. During the raid on Tamimi's safehouse, the joint U.S.-Iraqi team hauled off Tamimi and another insurgent suspected of being a key bombmaker. The other men upstairs were left behind, a mark of the more "surgical" style of business the Green Berets are hoping the Iraqis can deliver them, blunting locals' perceptions of Americans as brutish and arbitrary. "In the past, we'd have scooped them all up," says an American with the CTF, "but we only took the guys our Iraqis said were dirty.

At this rate, the departure of other coalition country forces from Iraq is less a sign of failed American leadership than a sign that they can hand over their duties to the Iraqis themselves. Everyone agrees that this is the best possible exit option.


posted by Dan at 02:49 PM | Comments (46) | Trackbacks (2)

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Well this is nice

Barbara Slavin reports in USA Today that Iraqis are feeling better about Iraq:

More Iraqis believe their country is headed in the right direction and fewer think it's going wrong than at any time since the U.S. invasion two years ago, according to a new poll.
The poll, by the International Republican Institute (IRI), due to be made public Wednesday, also found that nearly half of Iraqis believe that religion has a special role to play in government.

The survey of 1,967 Iraqis was conducted Feb. 27-March 5, after Iraq held its first free elections in half a century in January. According to the poll, 62% say the country is headed in the right direction and 23% say it is headed in the wrong direction. That is the widest spread recorded in seven polls by the group, says Stuart Krusell, IRI director of operations for Iraq. In September, 45% of Iraqis thought the country was headed in the wrong direction and 42% thought it was headed in the right direction. The IRI is a non-partisan, U.S. taxpayer-funded group that promotes democracy abroad.

Pollsters did not survey three of Iraq's 18 provinces because of security and logistical concerns. Two of those omitted, Anbar and Ninevah, are predominantly Sunni Muslim. A third, Dahuk, is mostly Kurdish. Krusell said that even if those areas had been included and 100% had expressed negative views, the poll would still have shown that most Iraqis believe that the situation in their country is improving.

Here's a link to the IRI press release of the poll.

Assume for the moment a best-case scenaio in which the insurgency starts to die down. Given that the National Assembly has just started to meet, don't be surprised if that satisfaction figure were to go down. This is the funny thing about democracy -- one people get it, their dissatisfaction from seeing the process up close seems to increase.

Eventually, most people adopt the Churchillian posture: democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.

posted by Dan at 11:43 PM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (2)

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Can 200,000 Chinese ex-communists be wrong?

This is one of those blog posts where I have to say up front that I don't know enough to gauge the significance of the event I'm posting about. That said, the information is interesting enough to link and mention.

Apparently the Chinese Communist Party has been suffering from a rash of resignations as of late -- approximately 200,000 in four months. At The Epoch Times, Stephen Gregory reports on what's going on:

On November 19, 2004 The Epoch Times published in Chinese the first of “The Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party”. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been scrambling ever since to find a way to respond.

The “Nine Commentaries” are a book-length set of nine editorials that tell the true history of the CCP. Written under the auspices of The Epoch Times editorial board, the authorship is anonymous.

The “Nine Commentaries” lay out the Party’s crimes: its campaigns of mass murder, brainwashing and terror; the 80 million plus unnatural deaths; the avoidable famines; the degradation of the environment; the corruption that goes from top to bottom, and much more....

On December 3, 2004 The Epoch Times established the Tuidang (“withdraw from the Party”) website in order to give the people of China the opportunity to renounce their membership in the CCP and its related organizations, such as the Communist Youth League (CYL).

On December 4, the website received its first solemn declarations by Party members who wished to renounce all ties with the CCP. In December the rate of such statements was a few hundred a day. But the rate has increased exponentially. On March 7, the Tuidang website recorded over 22,000 renunciations. The website has been limited in the number it can post by its ability physically to keep up with the huge volume of statements....

The CCP and its state-controlled media have not publicly responded to the “Nine Commentaries”. This is not surprising. If the CCP were to issue a statement condemning the “Nine Commentaries,” then everyone in China would want to know more about them.

Now, the thing is, the CCP isn't the only institution that hasn't responded to these resignations -- I can't find a non-Epoch Times report on this. On the other hand, they've been all over the story. What's going on?

Gregory is candid in an e-mail he sent to me:

To avoid the suspicion I am attempting to hype a story, I should point out a few things about these resignations. First, the resignations or withdrawals are from the CCP and its affiliated organizations, such as the Communist Youth League (CYL), which almost all Chinese are required to join. Second, the resignations, or perhaps more accurately, renunciations, are from any association with the Party, even if that association is many years in the past. Thus, former members of the CCP and former members of the CYL are posting their withdrawals to organizations of which technically they are no longer members. Third, in order to protect those who are withdrawing from harm, the website accepts resignations made under assumed names. Fourth, the relatives of deceased family members are allowed to post withdrawals on behalf of their now dead relatives. Finally, while the pace of resignations has increased rapidly all along, it really shot up after the founder of Falun Gong, Li Hongzhi, published his own withdrawal from the CYL on the Epoch Times.

Having said all of that, the resignations are real, and they represent a real and dramatic challenge to the rule of the CCP. And, given the amount of detail included in the resignation statements, they often are done at great risk, even if they are done under an alias. These resignations are the most important story in China today, and no one outside the Epoch Times is covering them.

So there it is. I'll leave it to my readers to decide how much weight to put on this. I would also love to see the mainstream media do some digging on this story.

posted by Dan at 12:19 AM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (5)

Monday, March 14, 2005

Calling and raising Hezbollah

Last week I said that the re-appointment of Lebanese PM Omar Karami would trigger more protests. It turns out that was a mild understatement. The Associated Press reports that the anti-Syrian proestors in Lebanon have responded to the reappointment -- and Hezbollah's pro-Syrian rally from last week, which was undoubtedly a factor in Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's decision to reappoint Karami -- with the largest demonstration of people power yet:

Hundreds of thousands of opposition demonstrators chanted “Freedom, sovereignty, independence” and unfurled a huge Lebanese flag in Beirut on Monday, the biggest protest yet in the opposition’s duel of street rallies with supporters of the Damascus-backed government.

Crowds of men, women and children flooded Martyrs Square, spilling over into nearby streets, while more from across the country packed the roads into Beirut — responding to an opposition call to demonstrate for the removal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

“We are coming to liberate our country. We are coming to demand the truth,” said Fatma Trad, a veiled Sunni Muslim woman who traveled from the remote region of Dinniyeh in northern Lebanon to take part....

Monday’s protest easily topped a pro-government rally of hundreds of thousands of people last week by the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah. That show of strength forced the opposition to try to regain its momentum.

Publius Pundit has much, much more on this.

UPDATE: Neil MacFarquar reports on the protest for the New York Times. The telling section:

The most notable element in the rally was that it did represent a broad cross section of Lebanese from all around the country.

"They can say that they represent a wide spectrum of Lebanese factions, including some Shiites, and they have been able to bring the Sunnis into the streets, which is not easy," said Ghassan Salame, a former minister of culture and political science professor, speaking by telephone from Paris. "They have an upward momentum now after a week that was full of uncertainty." ....

"This will counterbalance last Tuesday, and now we can sit and talk," said Mazen al-Zain, a 30-year-old financial analyst, noting that he himself was a member of an illustrious Shiite clan from southern Lebanon. "What is really important after today's gathering is that we all sit down at the same table."

posted by Dan at 11:40 AM | Comments (22) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, March 10, 2005

There are going to be more protests in Lebanon

That's not a particularly powerful prediction given this Voice of America story:

Lebanon's President Emile Lahoud has renamed pro-Syrian Omar Karami as prime minister, just two weeks after he resigned the post following massive opposition protests against Syrian influence in Lebanese politics.

The decision Thursday, came after Mr. Lahoud held consultations with parliamentary deputies. The parliament, where Syria's allies have a majority, overwhelmingly advised in favor of reappointing Mr. Karami.

Mr. Karami, a pro-Syrian Sunni Muslim politician, immediately called for a national unity government and urged the opposition to join, saying it is the only way out of Lebanon's crisis.

The opposition, which did not present a candidate, has been demanding a full Syrian withdrawal from the country.

Jenny Booth reports in the London Times that the opposition has already rejected joining a unity government.

The Beirut Daily Star's Nada Bakri has the reaction from protestors. They're pretty mixed. Here's one example:

Boutros Fadel, 41, from the Lebanese National Liberal Party (LNLP) and who has been camping out at Martyrs' Square for over a week, said: "We oppose Karami's reappointment as he is part of the pro-Syrian regime. However, he won't and can't affect our will and determination to free Lebanon from the Syrians."

He added: "Karami resigned to calm protesters down, like giving them a morphine injection. It won't work and the cure to the virus which entered Lebanon in 1976 is UN Resolution 1559."


posted by Dan at 11:38 AM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, March 7, 2005

Hezbollah generates a natural experiment

As change continues to roil parts of the Middle East, media focus is increasing on Lebanon. The Syrian government is getting more specific in its plans for a partial pullout of its troops. However, the really interesting development is within Lebanon's domestic political scene. Scott Wilson explains in the Washington Post about Hezbollah's decision to maintain its support for Syria:

The leader of Hezbollah, the militant Shiite Muslim movement that for weeks has stood on the sidelines of Lebanon's political upheaval, called Sunday for national demonstrations against what he characterized as foreign influences seeking to expel Syria, a key sponsor of the party, from the country.

Hassan Nasrallah, a Shiite cleric who serves as Hezbollah's secretary general, was critical in particular of the United States and France. His announcement dashed the hopes of Lebanese opposition leaders that the large, disciplined movement would join their cause to drive Syrian troops and intelligence services from Lebanon.

The first demonstration is scheduled for Tuesday in Beirut, along an avenue near the central square where Lebanon's anti-Syrian opposition movement has staged round-the-clock protests since the Feb. 14 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Nasrallah appeared after what he called an "emergency meeting" of more than 30 political parties aligned with the Syrian government, which is facing international pressure and a popular uprising here to end its 30-year presence in Lebanon....

"Freedom means that we decide for ourselves the best way to address what we see today as clear intervention of the United States and France in Lebanese internal affairs," Nasrallah said at a news conference in the Shiite suburbs of south Beirut. "The opposition must give us explanations regarding the foreign intervention. We must convince each other that only true sovereignty means independence."

Nasrallah's defiant position comes as an emerging Lebanese alliance of Christian, Druze and Sunni Muslim parties has turned its attention to winning parliamentary elections scheduled for this spring in the hopes of forming a government free of Syrian influence. Nasrallah appeared to serve notice that Hezbollah and a variety of smaller pro-Syrian parties intended to mount a unified campaign to prevent a government hostile to Syrian interests from emerging after the elections....

With an extensive social services network and an armed wing celebrated here for helping end the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah is perhaps the most formidable player in the power-sharing system among religious-based parties. Linked to the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, Hezbollah is now recognized as a legal political party in Lebanon and controls a 12-seat bloc in parliament. The United States has placed Hezbollah and its satellite television channel on its list of terrorist organizations, and the European Union is considering adopting a similar designation.

Nasrallah's ability to mobilize perhaps hundreds of thousands of Hezbollah followers for demonstrations, in addition to other large Shiite, Sunni and pan-Arab parties that will likely take part, threatens to expose a deep gulf in Lebanese society that Syrian officials have warned could widen into the kind of sectarian strife that fueled Lebanon's 15-year civil war.

Assad, in a speech to parliament Saturday, said: "We should not remain in Lebanon one day after there is a Lebanese consensus over our presence," something Hezbollah's counter-demonstrations are likely to show does not exist....

Nasrallah said the international pressure against Syria and Hezbollah, which increased sharply after the assassination of Hariri, was designed to further Israel's political goals, and he has called on several important Arab governments that have aligned themselves with the U.S. position to change course. Some Lebanese opposition leaders have called openly for Lebanon to recognize the 1949 armistice with Israel signed after the first Arab-Israeli war, a position Hariri was believed to have supported at the time of his assassination.

This will be interesting. There is no denying Hebollah's political strength in Lebanon -- however, there is also no denying that the group has been very slow to react to recent political developments.

Many commentators question whether democratization in Lebanon necessarily advance U.S. interests in the region if all it does is empower groups in Hezbollah. I've maintained in the past that even if that short-run effect takes place, democratization remains the proper long-term strategy. However, Tuesday will provide fresh evidence of whether even the short-run costs are as great as many people fear. If Hezbollah musters fewer people than expected in counter-demonstrations, then it suggests the fear of radicalism in a democratizing Middle East might be misplaced. [And if there are huge counter-demonstrations?--ed. Hey, then I'm wrong. But the social scientist in me is more excited about the prospect that there will soon be data to examine the hypothesis than worried about being wrong.]

UPDATE: The Council on Foreign Relations has an informative interview with Stephen A. Cook on the Syria-Lebanon dynamic from late February. Two useful tidbits:

Q: How much does it cost Syria to keep thousands of troops in Lebanon? Do the Lebanese pay for their expenses?

A: No. The Lebanese don't pay for them per se, but Lebanon has become an economic lifeboat for Syria. There are thousands of Syrian workers, along with Syrian soldiers, in Lebanon who send money back to Syria. There is a certain amount of smuggling that goes on through Lebanon. And so Syria, which is facing a dire economic situation right now, sees Lebanon as very important economically....

Q: Talk about the street demonstrations we're seeing now in Lebanon. There was another one yesterday demanding that Syria get out. What are we seeing here?

A: Yesterday's demonstration was the largest yet and, according to press reports, there were tens of thousands of people in the streets screaming, "Syria out!" And like what happened in the Ukrainian situation, people are now draping themselves, not in orange, but in [the Lebanese national colors of] red and white, expressing their opposition to the Syrian presence and their opposition to the Syrian government.

But there was also a rather sizeable demonstration that was held under the auspices of Hezbollah over the weekend that was a counter-demonstration, saying people should not trifle with the government, should not trifle with the Syrians, and that Hezbollah supported the current arrangements. And Hezbollah is the largest and most powerful militia--the only remaining militia--in Lebanon. So there seems to be a groundswell of average people--Muslims, Christians, and Druze--who are opposed to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. But at the same time, Hezbollah is also able to mobilize a significant percentage of the population in support of this continued Syrian presence.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Lee Smith will be posting daily dispatches for Slate this week from Beirut. His first posting contains this amusing paragraph:

[D]uring Eid al-Adha, a major Muslim holiday commemorating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Saudi tourists have just about taken over downtown, especially the restaurants where the Saudi women seem less interested in the various food choices—French, Lebanese, Moroccan, Italian, TGIF, Dunkin’ Donuts—than in smoking water pipes underneath see-through plastic tents set up in the middle of the cobblestone streets. Some of the women are fully veiled in black, but most seem to be availing themselves of the opportunity to show off their latest purchases. After a little time checking out their dresses, jewelry, hair, and make-up, it dawns on me that underneath every Saudi veil, there's a Jersey girl dying to break free.

Smith also links to two expert blogs on what's happening in the Fertile Crscent -- Across the Bay and Syria Comment. Go check them out.

posted by Dan at 10:47 AM | Comments (44) | Trackbacks (4)

Monday, February 28, 2005

Two steps forward, one step back in the Middle East

In the past 72 hours, there have been a number of developments in the Middle East -- suicide bombings in Iraq, Egyptian announcements about political reform, Lebanese people power bringing down the government, half-brothers being captured, reformist cabinets being named.

I was going to post something about how in the political change in the Middle East used to follow a one step forward, two steps back mentality, but as of late the trend has been more of a two steps forward, one step back nature of -- but Greg Djerejian and David Brooks beat me to it, so go check them out.

The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe happened after reformists first attained power through elections in Poland and Hungary. It happened rapidly, with no one comprehending the speed with which the old, corrupt edifices of power crumbled. Could the example of elections in one Muslim country in the Middle East have a similar ripple effect?

[You forget the backward steps--ed. True, true, I'm probably engaging in the error of analogy. Still it's interesting that such an analogy is even conceivable now.]

posted by Dan at 10:08 PM | Comments (60) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, February 25, 2005

The Saudis move, but move slowly

Richard Cohen pointed out recently that:

When coming to Saudi Arabia from the United States, you need to set your watch. Officially, the time difference is eight hours ahead of the East Coast. Unofficially, I think it's about 250 years behind.

Indeed, as Glenn Reynolds has recently pointed out, the Saudis remain a potent source of terrorist support.

Neverheless, the Saudi regime does seem to be moving forward -- however slowly -- in altering their behavior in constructive ways. Again, it's maddeningly slow, but progress nevertheless.

This week saw further evidence of this. This past week the British and Saudis held a two-day conference entitled "Two Kingdoms: The Challenges Ahead," and some constructive things were said. Khaled Almaeena reports an example of this in Arab News :

It was a cold day in London, but the near zero degree temperature did not chill the second day of Saudi-British conference, where the two nations’ chief diplomats reflected on eight decades of warm relations between their two peoples and charted an equally amicable course for the future.

Addressing the conference, Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal announced plans to appoint women to the Foreign Ministry for the first time this year. He pointed out that successful political reforms required “an evolutionary process.”

Similarly, the Saudi government is making tentative noises about giving women the right to vote in future election. Beth Gardiner explains this in an Associated Press report:

Women may be allowed to vote in future Saudi Arabian elections, but such political reforms must be implemented "gradually," the kingdom's foreign minister said Wednesday.

The Gulf nation, an absolute monarchy, recently held its first regular election, for city council members. But the vote was open only to men.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, in London for meetings with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and other officials, said his country's election commission had recommended women participate in the next vote.

"I would not be surprised if they do so in the next round of elections," he said.

Two more phases of the municipal vote will be held in March and April, but it was unclear whether Saud was referring to those elections....

Saud, however, said political reforms would have to come slowly.

"The wish is to move as fast as we can, the reality says that you have to move gradually," he said. "We in Saudi Arabia believe in the necessity of political reform, but it must be evolutionary."

He said the government wanted to improve human rights, an issue Straw said was on the agenda for the ministers' talks.

"We're working very hard for that ... to assure that justice reaches every single human being in the country," Saud said.

One wonders if the strong performance of the conservatives in the first round of regional elections convinced the regime that giving women the political franchise might be in their own self-interest.

This post is not meant to be a jumping up and down saying, "Look, Saudi reforms!! Yippee!!" Clearly, this is going to take a while.

But it would be nice if one could say that the Saudis were only 85 years behind the times -- instead of 250.

Developing.... very, very, slowly.

posted by Dan at 11:28 AM | Comments (29) | Trackbacks (4)

Thursday, February 17, 2005

A run on the Lebanese pound?

Roula Khalaf and Kim Ghattas report in the Financial Times that the Lebanese pound could be in trouble:

Lebanon's central bank on Thursday sought to calm nervous local markets and contain the fallout from the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister who had led the country's reconstruction efforts after its civil war.

After meeting senior bankers, Riad Salame, the central bank governor, stressed his institution would support the Lebanese pound amid fears there might be a rush to convert local currency into dollars on Friday, when markets reopen after a three-day shutdown. "The central bank is present in the markets to ensure liquidity in all currencies," Mr Salame said....

Mr Hariri, who led the country for 10 of the past 15 years but resigned his post in October, had been instrumental in providing confidence to currency markets and attracting investment into Lebanon, though his governments had also built up a $35bn (€27bn, £18.6bn) debt. In November 2002 he pulled the economy from the brink of collapse when he agreed a financial rescue package with western and Arab creditors. Bankers said his resignation last year forced the central bank to intervene in the markets, spending $2bn of its foreign exchange reserves between October and November.

But since then reserves have been replenished and now stand at $11.7bn, around 20 months of imports. Yesterday's central bank statement followed a report from Credit Suisse First Boston warning that the risk of political instability in Lebanon would hurt investor confidence, at least in the short term.

The report said the likely decline in tourist receipts, higher conversions of the Lebanese pound into foreign exchange and other capital outflows would "very likely" put renewed pressure on foreign exchange reserves.

What's historically intriguing about this is that if memory serves, the Lebanese pound managed to retain its value throughout the 1975-1991 civil war.

UPDATE: Daniel Davies points out in the comments that my memory is faulty, and that the Lebanese pound suffered hyperinflation during the civil war. As it turns out, the historical data says we are both correct. The pound did a decent job holding its value in the first stage of the civil war, from 1975 to 1983. After the Israeli incursion, however, hyperinflation did kick in.

posted by Dan at 10:34 PM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

It's getting uncomfortable for Syria

Prior to the invasion of Iraq, I wrote the following at TNR Online:

The area specialists aren't necessarily wrong; democratizing Iraq won't be easy. But the conditions aren't nearly as barren as these experts suggest, and the potential upside is enormous. If a democratic transition were to succeed in Iraq, then Syria, suddenly surrounded by established democracies (Israel and Turkey) and emerging democracies (Iraq and Jordan), might start to feel nervous as well.

Note that Lebanon was not mentioned in that graf, because that country has essentially been a Syrian fiefdom since the end of the Lebanese Civil War.

However, the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri yesterday highlights the increasing crunch Syria now faces. David Hirst -- who's covered the Middle East for over forty years -- explains what's going on in the Guardian:

It is Syria, with only one real ally left in the world, Iran, that is on the defensive. So are its Lebanese allies, inside and outside the regime. The conflict is an outgrowth of American strategies in the Middle East, from the war on terror to regime change, democratisation and the invasion of Iraq. Syria is not a member of President Bush's "axis of evil", but, with Iran, it is increasingly targeted as a villain. It is regularly charged, for example, with aiding and abetting the insurgency in Iraq, interfering with the Arab-Israel peace process and sponsoring the Hizbullah militia in Lebanon. The Hizbullah are in turn accused by Israel of aiding and abetting Hamas.

For decades now Syria has been losing card after card in a steadily weakening strategic hand. Its domination over Lebanon is one of the last and most vital of them. Ultimately it will perhaps be a bargaining counter in some grand deal to be struck with America that secures the Ba'athist regime's future in the evolving new Middle East order.

Conversely, however, Lebanon, as a platform that Syria's adversaries exploit against it, is liable to turn into a source of great weakness, if not an existential threat. The Ba'athists, now under siege in so many ways, feel that they are struggling desperately to keep their grip on Lebanon.

But the methods Syria uses, such as political intimidation and backstage manipulation by its intelligence services, seem, if anything, only to be backfiring against it....

Down the years the Lebanese have attributed many political assassinations to Syria, but never dared say so publicly. This time, they have.

Rami G. Khouri, writing in the Beirut-based Daily Star, agrees on the tectonic political shifts uinleashed by the assassination:

The speed, clarity and intensity with which Lebanese opposition groups Monday blamed Syria and its allied Lebanese government for the killing spoke volumes about the troubled Syrian-Lebanese axis being the central political context in which this whole matter must be analyzed....

The events of Monday have unleashed political forces that could transform both Lebanon and, via the Syrian connection, other parts of the Middle East. The already intense backlash to the assassination may lead to an accelerated Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, and faster reform movements inside both Lebanon and Syria.

The fact that within just hours of the murder five distinct parties were singled out as possible culprits - Israel, Syria, Lebanese regime partisans, mafia-style gangs, and anti-Saudi, anti-U.S. Islamist terrorists - also points to the wider dilemma that disfigures Lebanese and Arab political culture in general: the resort to murderous and destabilizing violence as a chronic option for those who vie for power, whether as respectable government officials, established local warlords, or freelance political thugs.

The New York Times' Steven Weisman and Hassan Fattah report that the assassination itself has already made life more difficult for Syria:

The Bush administration recalled its ambassador to Syria on Tuesday to protest what it sees as Syria's link to the murder of the former prime minister of Lebanon, as violent anti-Syrian protests erupted in Beirut and several other Lebanese cities.

At the United Nations, the administration also demanded that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon, and the Security Council called for an urgent investigation into the killing of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, who died Monday with 13 others when a huge car bomb blew up his motorcade in downtown Beirut....

In Beirut, large crowds went to the site of the explosion, which investigators said appeared to be the work of a suicide attacker who managed to drive in between cars of Mr. Hariri's motorcade. Another theory was that the bomb had been placed in a sewer or under the pavement.

Though there were some in Lebanon who argued that the murder might have been engineered by Al Qaeda, presumably to punish Mr. Hariri for his ties to Saudi Arabia, demonstrators mobilized throughout the country to blame Syria. In Damascus, Syrian officials continued to vigorously deny involvement in the explosion.

In Sidon, Mr. Hariri's hometown, Syrian workers were attacked by dozens of protesters before the police intervened, and hundreds of Lebanese marched with black banners and pictures of the slain leader. A mob also attacked a Beirut office of Syria's ruling Baath Party.

Thousands of protesters also massed in the northern port city of Tripoli, according to Reuters.

Megan K. Stack and Rania Abouzeid have additional reporting in the Los Angeles Times. And Greg Djerejian has a post up on this at Belgravia Dispatch.

posted by Dan at 09:31 AM | Comments (89) | Trackbacks (6)

Monday, February 14, 2005

Iraq's election results

Anthony Shadid and Doug Struck provide a summary of Iraq's election returns in the Washington Post. The highlights:

A coalition dominated by Shiite Islamic parties and tacitly backed by the country's most influential religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, won the most votes in results released Sunday from Iraq's landmark elections, but fell short of a symbolically important majority that many of its leaders had projected.

The results, expected last week but delayed because of allegations of vote-tampering, were the culmination of Iraq's Jan. 30 vote for a 275-member parliament, the country's first democratic ballot in more than a half-century and one of the freest in the Arab world. The results represented one of the most sweeping statements of Iraq's shifting political terrain, as the country's long-repressed communities are set to assume power in the National Assembly, which will have to confront a durable, Sunni Arab-led insurgency, persistent power cuts, widespread joblessness and the task of drafting a constitution, among other challenges....

According to the returns, which are considered preliminary until they are certified in three days, the largely Shiite coalition known as the United Iraqi Alliance won 48.2 percent of the vote, the low end of what its officials had predicted. A coalition of two major Kurdish parties won a surprising 25.7 percent of the vote, and a bloc led by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi got 13.8 percent. Together, the three coalitions accounted for nearly 88 percent of the vote, making them the dominant players in a new parliament, which will choose a largely ceremonial president and two deputy presidents. They, in turn, will appoint a powerful prime minister, who will choose a cabinet....

As expected, Sunni Arab-led parties won just a fraction of the vote. The Association of Muslim Scholars and other influential Sunni groups had declared a boycott of the election, deeming it illegitimate as long as U.S. troops occupied Iraq, and many in Sunni-dominated provinces said they stayed home because of pervasive threats against candidates and voters.

A party led by Iraq's interim president, Ghazi Yawar, won less than 2 percent of the vote, although that was enough to assure his list a handful of seats. A prominent Sunni politician, Adnan Pachachi, did not win a seat, and it remained unclear whether other well-known Sunni figures, such as Mishan Jubouri, had sufficient votes to win a seat.

"The Association of Muslim Scholars is responsible for the catastrophic results," Jubouri said.

The election commission said 8.55 million votes were cast; about 14.66 million people were registered to take part in the election. The 58 percent turnout fell short of the 60 percent that officials had predicted soon after the vote.

Jeff Weintraub, analyzing the results, suggests that "On first impression, the latest news about the Iraqi election returns has confirmed my most optimistic hopes." Juan Cole, looking at the same numbers, concludes, "[current Prime Minister Iyad] Allawi's defeat... is a huge defeat for the Bush administration, though it will not be reported that way in the corporate media."

UPDATE: Robin Wright has an odd news analysis piece in the Washington Post today. It's odd becuse the headline reads, "Iraq Winners Allied With Iran Are the Opposite of U.S. Vision" -- and the piece consists of expert quotes (including Cole) making this point. However, in the 16th paragraph there's this casual admission that, "U.S. and regional analysts agree that Iraq is not likely to become an Iranian surrogate." I'll have more to say about the question of Iran's influence in Iraq sometime this week.

Meanwhile, Weintraub e-mails the following:

[W]hat [Cole] says in this particular quotation is not incompatible with what I said. Holding the elections now was not the preferred outcome for the Bush administration, and the results of the election are probably not their preferred outcome, either. But as one Iraqi put it (addressing people whose positions on Iraq are simply a function of whether they like or hate the Bush administration): "It's not all about you."

Also, the fact that some people in the US government would have preferred to see a victory for the Allawi list--which is plausible--doesn't necessarily mean that, in objective terms, this would actually have been the best outcome for long-term US interests in Iraq.

ANOTHER UPDATE: It's intriguing to compare the New York Times news analysis by Dexter Filkins with Wright's analysis in the Washington Post. Filkins' analysis differs from Wright's in two ways: a) no expert quotes from American sources (though plenty of quotes from Iraqis); and b) a more optimistic piece. The highlights:

The razor-thin margin apparently captured by the Shiite alliance here in election results announced Sunday seems almost certain to enshrine a weak government that will be unable to push through sweeping changes, like granting Islam a central role in the new Iraqi state.

The verdict handed down by Iraqi voters in the Jan. 30 election appeared to be a divided one, with the Shiite political alliance, backed by the clerical leadership in Najaf, opposed in nearly equal measure by an array of mostly secular minority parties.

According to Iraqi leaders here, the fractured mandate almost certainly heralds a long round of negotiating, in which the Shiite alliance will have to strike deals with parties run by the Kurds and others, most of which are secular and broadly opposed to an enhanced role for Islam or an overbearing Shiite government....

[S]ome Iraqi leaders predicted Sunday that the Shiite alliance would try to form a "national unity government," containing Kurdish and Sunni leaders, as well as secular Shiites, possibly including the current prime minister, Ayad Allawi. Such a leadership would all but ensure that no decisions would be taken without a broad national consensus.

One senior Iraqi official, a non-Shiite who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the slim majority won by the Shiite alliance signaled even greater obstacles for the Shiite parties in the future. If the Sunni Arabs, who largely boycotted the election, decide to take part in the future, they would almost certainly dilute the Shiite alliance's already thin margin.

"This is the height of the Shiite vote," the Iraqi official said. "The next election assumes Sunni participation, and you will see an entirely different dynamic then."

See this James Joyner post for more.

posted by Dan at 12:56 AM | Comments (26) | Trackbacks (6)

Saturday, February 12, 2005

So how are things in Saudi Arabia?

The Chicago Tribune has two stories on developments within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia today -- kind of a good news/bad news deal.

The bad news is that those provincial elections didn't turn out like Saudi reformers had hoped. Evan Osnos explains:

In a blow to reformers in Saudi Arabia, candidates backed by Islamic clerics appear to have won a key region in the country's first nationwide election.

Preliminary tallies Friday for the capital city of Riyadh showed that at least five of the seven winning candidates in Thursday's municipal elections have close ties to Saudi Arabia's clerical establishment. Though the results apply only to a municipal race for the capital, they had been widely anticipated here and in Washington as a rare referendum on reform efforts in one of the world's most traditional absolute monarchies.

The Islamists' victory in the political heart of the country could be a setback for reform-minded Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto Saudi ruler, who had gambled that elections could loosen hard-line clerics' grip on the government. Abdullah has clashed with more conservative royals who do not support his reforms and who had watered down his balloting plan by barring women from the election and setting aside half the seats to be appointed by the ruling family....

Moderate candidates say they are worried that a victory by the religious establishment might undermine Saudi Arabia's halting reform efforts, including expanding women's rights, strengthening the rule of law and revamping the educational system.

"We have enough religious power in our country, and they will increase it even more. The result is not promising," said al-Homeidi, a professor of public administration at King Saud University. "I am concerned about the future. Once they get into the level of municipality, then I'm sure they will get more power and will get into the higher levels [of government]."

Read the whole thing -- it's not clear how much of a setback this is, given that it was only one region, and a conservative one at that (though I'd love a Saudi expert to identify a liberal region in the country). Of course, the decision to exclude women from the vote probably didn't help the moderates much.

One other nitpick at this report is the history it provides of Islamist movements:

The success of Islamist political parties has roots that date to political events a generation ago. Political analysts point to the devastating Arab loss to Israel in the 1967 war and the death of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had advocated a secular pan-Arabism.

In the ashes of that secular vision stirred a revival of religion as the possible salvation of the Arab world, and that spirit gathered strength after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. Islamist parties, which call for a greater role for Islam in the affairs of state, tend to have more unified messages and stronger organizations, while moderate candidates often spread votes across an array of agendas.

I'll be happy to be corrected on this, but if memory serves that's not quite accuate. It's true that the Six Day War was a triggering event for the rise of Islamist parties -- but the motivation was different. Secular Arab regimes were afraid of the growing political power of leftist/communist parties in their countries. As a result, they permitted the rise of Islamist parties to offer a counterweight.

On the good news side of the ledger, Christine Spolar reports that the Saudi regime is reaching out on the war on terror:

Saudi officials this week reached across borders and bureaucracies to underscore domestic efforts in pursuing terrorist networks and to refocus the nation's role in global discussions on combating terrorism.

For the first time since Al Qaeda surfaced, the Saudis publicly sought to trade and share technical information about counterterrorism operations with professional delegations from more than 50 nations.

The international anti-terrorism conference, a first for the Arab Peninsula, was deemed remarkable by several participants if only for the fact that the Saudis, once defensive about extremist elements within their borders, openly acknowledged that they needed counsel for their own "war on terror."

The four-day conference drew diplomats and intelligence professionals from the United States, France, Germany, Belgium, Pakistan, Turkey and other countries.

It produced a single resolution: that the creation of a global counterterrorism center should be explored. But participants in closed workshops that focused on the origins, financial underpinnings and criminal elements of terrorism said there was additional value in dialogue and building personal contacts.

"Two years ago, the Saudis wouldn't even admit the problem was in their back yard," said a European intelligence official who requested anonymity. "There is a shift in approach. They are being more open in their exchanges."

The internal steps to combat radicals is particularly interesting:

The Saudi remarks appear to be confirmed in a recent assessment by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, an independent research group in Washington.

During the first half of 2004, the kingdom fired 44 Friday preachers, 160 imams and 149 prayer callers for incompetence, according to a report released in January. Nearly 1,400 religious officials were suspended and ordered to undergo retraining, the report said.

The Saudis also have begun grass-roots campaigns aimed at promoting stability. Web sites have been created to seek discourse and chats with a younger generation. Cell phone users in Riyadh now are peppered with text messages that reject terrorism. The week of the conference, even the family of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden sought a public moral high ground.

"We strongly condemn all kinds of terror," exclaimed a large newspaper ad placed by the construction company owned by the bin Laden family. The family, close to the royal family, has previously condemned Al Qaeda's activities and said it has no ties to Osama bin Laden, who was stripped of Saudi citizenship more than a decade ago.

Here's a link to the one-page summary of that CSIS report. Click here for a copy of the draft reports by Anthony H. Cordesman and Nawaf Obaid.

posted by Dan at 10:50 AM | Comments (16) | Trackbacks (2)

Thursday, February 10, 2005

What's Kim Il Sung's Kim Jong Il's game?

I'm typing this in Princeton, NJ, as I'm giving a talk here today -- so there will not be much blogging for the next 24 hours.

Talk amongst yourselves. Here's a topic for discussion -- why has North Korea decided now is the time to publicly announce that they have nuclear weapons and suspend participation in six-nation non-proliferation talks?

Is it because Kim feels he can widen the diplomatic wedge between the United States and the other members of the talks (Japan, South Korea, China, Russia) -- or is it that Kim fears his regime is tottering on the abyss and the only way he can stay in power is to gin up a new international crisis? These are not mutually exclusive reasons, of course -- but which one is the primary cause?

Be sure to check out NK Zone for more blogging on the Hermit Kingdom. Also worth reading: In Foreign Affairs, Mitchell Reiss and Robert Gallucci rebut Selig Harrison's claim that North Korea doesn't really have a uranium enrichment program (link via Josh Marshall).

UPDATE: Oh, man did that first header date me -- I meant the current leader of the DPRK, Kim Jong il -- not his father, Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. Apologies to all for the error.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Follow-up post here. Over at NRO, S.T. Karnick offers the following speculation on Kim's motives:

If there is a calculation by which North Korea's action makes sense, the law of Occam's Razor suggests we should apply it. I believe there is such a possibility.

It is unlikely mere coincidence that North Korea made this announcement and pulled out of talks just a few days after the elections in Iraq. In fact, it seems quite plausible that the Kim regime saw the recent comments by Secretary of State Rice as a warning that the United States was going to come after North Korea, and sooner than anyone might think.

The statement by the North Korean foreign ministry said Pyongyang has "manufactured nukes for self-defense to cope with the Bush administration's undisguised policy to isolate and stifle" the nation. Thursday's New York Times reported that Pyongyang's statement "zeroed in on Dr. Rice's testimony last month in her Senate confirmation hearings, where she lumped North Korea with five other dictatorships, calling them 'outposts of tyranny.'"

It seems plausible, then, that Pyongyang came to the conclusion that the United States and a coalition of other nations was about to do something that would ultimately lead to the fall of the Kim regime and a reunification of Korea on terms determined entirely by South Korea and its powerful allies. Today's statement, then, was Pyongyang's way of forestalling such action by raising the stakes radically, in suggesting that any U.S. move to impose its will on North Korea would lead to the use, however inefficient and elementary, of nuclear weapons by Pyongyang.

I think that's a major stretch. As CNN points out today, there have been ample rhetorical opportunities as of late for the administration to target North Korea -- and they haven't used them:

In his inaugural address on January 20, U.S. President George W. Bush did not mention North Korea by name, and he only briefly mentioned the country in his February 2 State of the Union address, saying Washington was "working closely with governments in Asia to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions."

Bush's tone was in stark contrast to his State of the Union address three years before, when he branded North Korea part of an "axis of evil" with Iran and Iraq.

The new, more restrained approach raised hopes for a positive response from North Korea. Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun agreed to push for an early resumption of the six-nation talks.

No, Rice's testimony was a useful rhetorical hook for North Korea's actions, and not the cause.

In the International Herald-Tribune, there is more speculation about this being an example of internal DPRK strife:

[S]ome analysts suggested that North Korea's retreat from the peace process may simply be a reflection of political confusion in Pyongyang.

"I wonder if this is an inability to come back to the table, resulting from divisions in the North Korean leadership over reaching a deal," said Peter Beck, who heads the Seoul office of the International Crisis Group.


posted by Dan at 10:43 AM | Comments (88) | Trackbacks (3)

Thursday, February 3, 2005

Speaking of Egypt...

This was one of the more interesting paragraphs in Bush's State of the Union:

To promote peace and stability in the broader Middle East, the United States will work with our friends in the region to fight the common threat of terror, while we encourage a higher standard of freedom. Hopeful reform is already taking hold in an arc from Morocco to Jordan to Bahrain. The government of Saudi Arabia can demonstrate its leadership in the region by expanding the role of its people in determining their future. And the great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.

The lines about Egypt and Saudi Arabia were nicely phrased, in that they represented a challenge to the regimes there.

Coincidentally enough, the Wall Street Journal has a front-pager by Karby Leggett on Egypt's economic reforms. From the opening, it appears that Egypt's latest prime minister is adopting a much more market-friendly posture:

When Ahmed Nazif was appointed prime minister of Egypt last year, it came as a surprise. Mr. Nazif, 52 years old, was the youngest of 32 ministers in the previous government. His name hadn't appeared on any of the internal U.S. embassy briefs handicapping the leadership race.

What Mr. Nazif did next was even more surprising: He introduced the most far-reaching economic changes in Egypt's modern history, cutting customs tariffs by 40%, signing a trade deal with Israel and the U.S., and chopping income taxes in half. Now he's planning more painful steps. He wants to slash the government payroll and scale back subsidies on everyday goods.

The moves are designed to spur foreign investment and coax Egypt's long-dormant economy to life. "Egypt is open for business," says the Canadian-educated prime minister.

Sounds good -- but what about democracy? Here's where things get sticky:

Economic change doesn't necessarily mean political change. In the wake of Iraq's election, in which voters chose freely from a wide range of candidates, attention is turning to Arab states such as Egypt where the government keeps a leash on political competition. Mr. Nazif argues that if Egypt gives full rein to democracy before prosperity spreads, an "organized minority" -- referring to Islamic fundamentalists -- might take over. He says "nobody in his right mind today would be against democracy" but "when and how is the real challenge."

Egyptian intellectuals and government officials speculate that Mr. Mubarak is hoping for an economic revival to pave the way for his son to take over from him one day. The president has repeatedly denied that he wants to hand power to his son. He has also ruled out significant changes to the political system.

So, what does the U.S. do? Hope that the economic reforms trigger future political reforms, or apply more leverge on the Mubarak regime -- even if a more democratic government might not pursue such market-friendly policies?

posted by Dan at 11:03 AM | Comments (23) | Trackbacks (2)

Monday, January 31, 2005

Post-tsunami India

Sumit Ganguly -- a gentleman who knows a thing or two about India -- has an interesting piece in TNR Online about what India's response to the tsunami implies for India's future. The highlights:

The country--which suffered more than 15,000 deaths in the southern coastal state of Tamil Nadu and the Andaman Islands chain in the northeastern Indian Ocean--has a civilian bureaucracy with a much-deserved reputation as slothful and hidebound. On this occasion, however, Indian bureaucrats belied every popular stereotype. Within hours after the tsunami hit, officials in India's Ministry of External Affairs were on the phone with their American, Japanese, and Australian counterparts, negotiating a division of labor: India would concentrate on providing assistance to its most immediate neighbors, such as Sri Lanka, freeing others to focus on more distant areas.

India is still considered by most observers to be part of the "developing world," a group of countries that frequently depend on assistance from others. But the day after the tsunami, India became the leading regional provider of assistance to others. The country's surprising reaction to the tsunami may signal its coming of age as a regional and even global power--with significant consequences for South Asia and beyond....

What does all this mean geopolitically? First, there is the fact that the left-of-center Congress Party-led government willingly worked with the United States in responding to the tsunami. In the past, such a regime would have gone to great lengths to torpedo any American effort to provide relief in the region. For example, when a massive cyclone hit Bangladesh in 1991, leaving extensive devastation in its wake, India expressed misgivings about the U.S. response, which was called "Operation Sea Angel." These anxieties, a product of the cold-war years, have steadily dissipated over the past decade, replaced by a willingness to work with, and even court, the United States on a range of issues, from anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean to jointly confronting terrorism. Indeed, the growing scope of military-to-military contacts between the two countries over the past several years (a centerpiece of the new Indo-U.S. relationship) made it possible for the two states to play a leading and coordinated role in post-tsunami relief. To be sure, the countries remain at odds over certain issues, such as India's ties to Iran and the brutal regime in Myanmar. But the signs point in a positive direction. For example, in a sharp departure from the past, the ongoing U.S. military presence in Sri Lanka to provide humanitarian assistance has not elicited any visceral, reflexive comments from New Delhi officialdom. The latent suspicion of all American initiatives in the region that until recently preoccupied India's foreign policy elite now appears to be in steady decline.

Read the whole thing.

UPDATE: Thanks to Balasubramani for linking to this recent Fareed Zakaria column. Zakaria also knows a thing or two about India:

To understand how much and how fast India is changing, look at its response to the tsunami. I don't mean the government's reaction but that of individual Indians. In the two weeks after the tidal wave hit, the Prime Minister's Relief Fund, the main agency to which people make donations, has collected about $80 million. After the Gujarat earthquake of April 2001, it took almost one year to collect the same amount of money. And remember that the 2001 earthquake was massive (7.9 on the Richter scale), killed more Indians (30,000) than the tsunami appears to have, and also got intense media attention (Bill Clinton headed the fund-raising efforts). What has changed in these four years is the most important new reality about India: the growing wealth, strength and confidence of Indian society....

20 years of modest but persistent reforms in India have had huge effects. Over the past 15 years, India has been the second fastest-growing large economy in the world (after China), with an average growth rate of 6 percent. Per capita income in the country has almost doubled (from an admittedly tiny base), and more than 100 million Indians have moved out of poverty. The animal spirits of Indian capitalism, long suppressed, have been unleashed.

Gurcharan Das, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble in India, and one of the first chroniclers of these shifts in attitude, told me a story of a poor young teenager he encountered. The boy told Das that in order to succeed, he had three goals. He wanted to learn to use Windows, to write an invoice and to learn 400 words of English. "Why 400 words?" asked Das. The boy explained that that's what it took to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language, the base requirement for admission to an American university. "Now, this guy probably won't get into an American college, but this is the way people are thinking all over India," Das said.

posted by Dan at 02:49 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (4)

The first step -- but far from the last -- in Iraq

Kieran Healy has an excellent post at Crooked Timber on what needs to happen in Iraq after this first election. It boils down to, "those in power who lose elections have to be willing to step aside," but Kieran says it better than that -- and provides an encouraging example from Irish history.

posted by Dan at 10:15 AM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

How did the Arab media cover the election?

Hassan Fattah provides an interesting answer in the New York Times:

Sometime after the first insurgent attack in Iraq on Sunday morning, news directors at Arab satellite channels and newspaper editors found themselves facing an altogether new decision. Should they report on the violence, or continue to cover the elections themselves?

After nearly two years of providing up-to-the-minute images of explosions and mayhem, and despite months of predictions of a blood bath on election day, some news directors said they found the decision surprisingly easy to make. The violence simply was not the story on Sunday morning; the voting was.

Overwhelmingly, Arab channels and newspapers greeted the elections as a critical event with major implications for the region, and many put significant resources into reporting on the voting, providing blanket coverage throughout the country that started about a week ago. Newspapers kept wide swaths of their pages open, and the satellite channels dedicated most of the day to coverage of the polls....

For many Arabs, the strong turnout on election day proved a unique opening, one that made the debate on television screens more nuanced. On Al Jazeera, especially, many Iraqis lauded the process even as analysts from other Arab countries and Iraqis tied to the former government of Saddam Hussein denounced the elections for having occurred under occupation, and for having been centered on sectarian issues.

"Things used to be a negotiation between political parties where you scratch my back and I scratch your back," noted one commentator, Abas al-Bayati, on Al Jazeera. "Now, this new government will approach all the parties as having the backing of the people. It will have legitimacy." And that legitimacy should allow the government to face down the insurgents, he added.

With the relative lack of violence, many nerves appeared calmed. Iraqis, especially, may have been emboldened by the coverage.

Read the whole thing. One wonders whether the election coverage will embolden residents of the Middle East beyond the borders of Iraq.

UPDATE: In Slate, Michael Young provides another rundown of how the Middle Eastern media covered the election. It has a great opening paragraph:

If there was one message from the Iraqi election on Sunday, it was that newspapers are often vast repositories of conventional wisdom just begging for demolition. What had been broadly pegged by the media in recent months as a likely "illegitimate" election that might lead to an Iraqi civil war appeared to be nothing of the sort (even though 36 people died and nearly 100 others were injured in insurgent attacks). On Monday, the international press was scrambling to make up for having been so wide of the mark.

This would apparently include the New York Times editorial page, as Andrew Sullivan observes.

posted by Dan at 09:46 AM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (1)

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Open Iraqi election thread

Feel free to comment here on today's historic election in Iraq. Both the wire service reports and blog accounts suggest that the turnout has been higher than expected. The Washington Post reports that, "Carlos Valenzuela, the United Nations' chief election adviser in Iraq, told CNN that he believed that overall turnout was considerably 'better than expected.'"

Certainly a 72% turnout represents a pretty humiliating political defeat for the insurgency. [UPDATE: hmmm.... the Financial Times now says turnout estimates have been scaled back to 60%] The Reuters story has the most encouraging detail:

Even in Falluja, the Sunni city west of Baghdad that was a militant stronghold until a U.S. assault in November, a steady stream of people turned out, confounding expectations. Lines of veiled women clutching their papers waited to vote.

"We want to be like other Iraqis, we don't want to always be in opposition," said Ahmed Jassim, smiling after he voted.

Dexter Filkins' account in the New York Times is positively effusive:

[If] the insurgents wanted to stop people in Baghdad from voting, they failed. If they wanted to cause chaos, they failed. The voters were completely defiant, and there was a feeling that the people of Baghdad, showing a new, positive attitude, had turned a corner.

No one was claiming that the insurgency was over or that the deadly attacks would end. But the atmosphere in this usually grim capital, a city at war and an ethnic microcosm of the country, had changed, with people dressed in their finest clothes to go to the polls in what was generally a convivial mood.

Matthew Yglesias acknowledges the turnout but has an odd post declaring, "The important thing to keep in mind, I think, is that if the lack of problems does hold up, that will be a testament to the success of our extraordinary security measures, not to the success of our political project." Actually, I'd say it's a testament to both factors -- though it's certainly true that the political project can't be judged a success or a failure based on only one election.

On the other hand, Yglesias' post is a ray of sunshine compared to this morose Juan Cole post.

posted by Dan at 10:41 AM | Comments (47) | Trackbacks (3)

Thursday, January 27, 2005

What a long, strange, trip for Lula

When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ran for president in Brazil, he took great delight in railing against the Washington Consensus, the IMF, and the United States more generally. Since he's won, however, he's pursued a somewhat different course.

How different? Raymond Colitt has a story in the Financial Times that highlights the gulf between Lula then and Lula now:

For all his charisma, even Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who came to power as the idol of Latin America's Left, found it hard to sell his orthodox economic policy at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on Thursday.

His audience of 10,000 anti-globalisation activists was already miffed at the Brazilian president's decision to attend the World Economic Forum on Friday to meet the bigwigs of capitalism they so despise.

But having to defend two years of textbook economic orthodoxy and cosy relations with the International Monetary Fund was too much for disenchanted supporters at an event launched as a challenge to Davos, Switzerland, five years ago.

As a former union leader who in the late 1970s took on big business and a military dictatorship, Mr Lula da Silva was quick to snap back at his hecklers. “That noise comes from those . . . who don't have patience to hear the truth,” he retorted, in reference to spontaneous jeering.

posted by Dan at 06:08 PM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (1)

Monday, January 17, 2005

Behind the scenes in Ukraine

Back on November 25th, at the beginning of Ukraine's Orange Revolution, I blogged the following:

When a government facing a popular uprising, there is a moment when all of Burke's "pleasing illusions" about power fade away, and the rulers face a choice between using raw coercion or backing down. At this juncture, there is one of three possibilities:

1) The leadership backs down;
2) The leadership cracks down;
3) The leadership tries to crack down but the coercive apparatus splits.

That moment is rapidly approaching in Kiev.

In the New York Times, C.J. Chivers has a riveting behind-the-scenes look at Ukraine's security services during the election campaign, suggesting that in the case of Ukraine, it was a combination of options (2) and (3). Here's one key moment:

The state was leaking power. The next day, Nov. 27, Mr. Kuchma summoned [S.B.U. chief] General Smeshko to a meeting at Koncha Zaspa, a government sanitarium outside Kiev.

In a conference room were Mr. Yanukovich and politicians from eastern regions supporting him, with the leader of the Interior Ministry, or M.V.D., Mykola Bilokon, one of Mr. Kuchma's loyalists, who made no secret of his support for the premier.

Mr. Yanukovich confronted Mr. Kuchma, asking if he was betraying them, four people in the meeting said. Then came demands: schedule an inauguration, declare a state of emergency, unblock government buildings.

Mr. Kuchma icily addressed his former protégé. "You have become very brave, Viktor Feyodovich, to speak to me in this manner," he said, according to Mr. Bilokon and General Smeshko. "It would be best for you to show this bravery on Independence Square."

General Smeshko intervened to offer the S.B.U.'s assessment of the situation, warning the premier that few of Ukraine's troops, if ordered, would fight the people. He also said that even if soldiers followed an order, a crackdown would not succeed because demonstrators would resist. Then he challenged Mr. Yanukovich.

"Viktor Feyodovich, if you are ready for a state of emergency, you can give this order," he said. "Here is Bilokon," he continued. "The head of the M.V.D. You will be giving him, as chairman of the government, a written order to unblock the buildings? You will do this?"

Mr. Yanukovich was silent. General Smeshko waited. "You have answered," he continued, according to people in the meeting. "You will not do it. Let us not speak nonsense. There is no sense in using force."

Mr. Kuchma left the room to take a phone call, then returned with a state television crew. Mr. Yanukovich slammed down his pen and left.

The government's position was set: there would be no martial law. It was formalized the next day, on Nov. 28, when the National Security and Defense Council voted to solve the crisis through peaceful means.

"This was the key decision," Mr. Kuchma later said. "I realized what it meant to de-block government building by force in these conditions. It could not be done without bloodshed."

Read the whole thing.

posted by Dan at 10:26 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (2)

Sunday, January 16, 2005

How much has China changed in fifteen years?

Zhao Zhiyang, the former leader of the Chinese Communist Party until the Tiananmen Square crackdown, has died. Jasmine Yap has an obituary in Bloomberg; here's a link to the New York Times obit by Jim Yardley.

Combined, the obituaries make a telling point about China in the eighties -- and set up a test to see how much China has changed.

As Yardley points out:

At Mr. Deng's behest, he acted boldly, embracing economic reform by expanding self-management for peasant farmers and some industries. In 1987, after the ouster of Hu Yaobang, who was deemed too lenient toward student protests, Mr. Zhao became general secretary of the Communist Party, a job that made him Mr. Deng's presumptive heir.

Yap's obit points out the initial trigger for the Tiananmen protests:

Zhao, also a former prime minister, lived under house arrest after he opposed the military crackdown on pro-democracy activists and was removed from power by then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. He was last seen in public on May 19, 1989, begging student protesters to leave Tiananmen Square, a day before Chinese authorities declared martial law in the capital and shot dead hundreds of the demonstrators.

Students began filling the square in April 1989 to commemorate the death of former party Secretary General Hu Yaobang, whom they considered was sympathetic to demands for more democracy in China. By May, the square had turned into an encampment for students from across the nation, who called for democracy and an end to Communist Party corruption and defied government orders to leave.

If Hu's death triggered Tiananmen, one wonders whether Zhao's death will trigger any similar kind of political mobilization against the government.

To be honest, I'll be surprised if it does. This is for one of three reasons:

1) China's communist government has delivered robust economic growth in the 15 1/2 years since Tinanmen;

2) The Chinese government's tools of political coercion and suppression have become more sophisticated and aware since 1989 -- therefore, they are more likely to nip a poential Tiananmen in the bud;

3) China's citizenry has become more nationalist in the past fifteen years, and therefore do not have the same amount of political antipathy towards the government.


UPDATE: Looks like the Chinese government is attempting to try hypothesis no. 2 out, according to the New York Times' Joseph Kahn:

Chinese leaders imposed a ban today on news reports about the death of Zhao Ziyang, the former Communist Party chief who opposed the 1989 crackdown on democracy protesters, suggesting that his official obituary would treat him as a pariah.

The New China News Agency issued a terse dispatch announcing that Mr. Zhao, who was 85 years old, died early today. But the news agency identified Mr. Zhao simply as a "comrade," not as China's former top political leader, and the main evening news broadcast made no mention of his passing.

Editors said that propaganda officials had ordered television stations and newspapers not to report about Mr. Zhao, and popular Web sites were instructed to ban public discussion of the former leader.

posted by Dan at 10:14 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (4)

Monday, January 10, 2005

What's next for Palestine

It looks like Mahmoud Abbas won a healthy mandate in Palestine. What should he do now?

Seth Jones offers some suggestions in the Financial Times [Full disclosure: Jones did his graduate work in poli sci at the U of C.] Some highlights:

An opinion poll regularly conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, an independent body, shows the percentage of Palestinians who believe there is significant corruption in Palestinian Authority institutions jumped from about 50 per cent in 1996 to more than 85 per cent last year. This explains the frenzied demonstrations by Palestinian crowds against corruption in the authority last year.

The first step after Sunday's election to create a better security and justice system for Palestinians is to restructure their “Balkanised” security services. There are roughly nine Palestinian security services in the West Bank and Gaza each. They range from civil police to the General Intelligence service, or Mukhabarat Salamah. Arafat retained power and control over these services with few checks and balances. They were organised under the rule of political leaders rather than the rule of law. The restructuring should include decreasing the number of services, eliminating direct executive control over them and separating law- enforcement functions from intelligence and other security aspects by placing them in different ministries.

Read the whole thing. And offer your comments about whether Abbas will be able to turn the Palestinian Authority into a functioning, law-abiding state.

posted by Dan at 10:38 AM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (1)

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

West Africa and Islamic fundamentalism

As part of the Chicago Tribune's continuing series on the internal struggle among Islamic societies between the forces of moderation and the forces of radicalism, Lisa Anderson has a fascinating front-pager on the country of Mali.

Mali appears at first glance to be one of the most improbable democracies in existence -- life expectancy is at 45 years, infant mortality is higher than 100 deaths per 1,000 live births, it's literacy rate is 46%, and according to the CIA World Factbook, "is among the poorest countries in the world, with 65% of its land area desert or semidesert and with a highly unequal distribution of income."

However, as Anderson chronicles:

Mali's young democracy is thriving with all of the attendant institutions, including a legal system, however still imperfect, and a free news media that includes 42 privately owned newspapers and 124 private radio stations, the most popular medium in a highly illiterate country. It also is essentially free of human-rights abuses, according to a 2003 State Department report.

The bulk of her story is on efforts by Islamic radicals from Algeria and Pakistan to attract supporters in the arid northern part of the country, and American efforts to combat this push. Some highlights:

Democracy also guarantees freedom of religion, though, and new types of Islam are challenging the traditional faith. In the past three years, ultraconservative Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia have opened 16 mosques in Timbuktu, a development termed disturbing by the city's mayor, Aly Ould Sidi.

"All these people who are Wahhabi are not citizens of Timbuktu. They come from outside," he said. "Their presence here has raised a kind of conflict with the people."

Added Abdrahmane Ben Essayouti, imam of the Djingareiber Mosque, the oldest of three great 14th Century mosques: "Wahhabis come here from Saudi Arabia. They have means. They give money and build mosques and schools and buy books.

"If you don't have means, you cannot stop them," he said. "And if we don't pay attention, they will use the students against us."

Moreover, Wahhabism often clashes with Malian practice of Islam.

"According to Wahhabism, you cannot go through someone, but should go directly to God. That's why we have a problem here--we have 333 saints," said Imam Sidi Alpha Maridje of the Sareikeina Mosque.

He's not the only one disturbed by the situation, however.

As dusk fell, some two dozen men of Araouane, many swathed in the turbans and the long, loose robes of desert nomads, solemnly crammed into a one-room, mud-walled house, settled onto woolen mats strewn across the sandy floor and looked expectantly at Vicki Huddleston.

Seated on the floor before them in a modest white shirt and mushroom-colored, ankle-length skirt, she smiled and respectfully thanked the village chief for receiving her.

Throughout Mali's history, every village, however small, has had a chief, who either inherits the job or is selected by the village. Accountable to the people, he and his council make important decisions for the village, listen to problems and adjudicate disputes. The institution thrives under democracy and, in many ways, helped prepare the way for it....

The settlement, half-buried in sand, has a rudimentary Koranic school but no electricity, running water, roads or medical facilities. It needs everything, but most of all a source of clean water that isn't contaminated by the camels and goats.

Huddleston and her staff have come to discuss a new well and solar pump the U.S. will provide. But she takes up a more urgent matter first.

"I will be very frank with you," she began, sweeping the room with her eyes. "We are very worried about the Salafists who have been seen in this zone. We know you want to preserve your traditional religion. We think democracy depends very much on a traditional Islam like yours."

The chief said he had heard about the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, or GSPC, an Islamist group advocating overthrow of Algeria's secular government, but never had seen any of its members. Nonetheless, he assured Huddleston that Araouane had not abandoned the traditional and tolerant Malakite Islam of Mali. "We are against those who would try to change our religion and culture," he said.

Another element seeking to change Malian culture in recent years is the fundamentalist Pakistani sect Dawa al-Tabligh, which has joined the Wahhabis in seeking converts in Mali, particularly in the northern areas.

Fundamentalist bans on smoking, wearing protective fetishes and praying to ancestral saints do not easily endear these austere versions of Islam to easygoing Malians.

Many Malians, including President Toure, are skeptical that fundamentalists or terrorists will sink deep roots here.

"Mali is a very old Islamic country where tolerance is part of our tradition," Toure said.

"I'm not worried, but it's always good to take precautions," he said, noting that Mali has expelled some visitors and denies visas to others but declining to identify them.

Nonetheless, Toure agreed that in an environment like the north, where people are poor and opportunities are few, preachers bearing hope and extremists offering pride--and often cash--have their appeal.

"Poverty is the fertile ground of terrorism. Some get involved to get to heaven tomorrow. Others believe it can change the world today," he said, but he added that he sees no evidence of an immediate threat to the country.

Huddleston sees it differently.

"Like the Malians, I tend to agree that Mali is not going to change into a Wahhabi state," she said. "But it is worrisome because the more fundamentalism [there is], the more women are disenfranchised and the development of democracy is more difficult.

Read the whole thing. Anderson's implicit thesis -- and it's not a bad one, is that Mali's history of tolerant Islam is resilient enough to resist outside efforts at fundamentalism. Philip Smucker had a story in November's International Herald Tribune chronicling the efforts of African scholars -- with an assist from Harvard's Henry Louis Gates -- to exploit Mali's written history to reinforce this moderate brand of Islam:

Particularly relevant, black African and Arab scholars say, are accounts of how the African interpretation of Islam helped regulate the affairs of men, resolve disputes and provide a model of tolerance. Buried in the crumbling manuscripts of Timbuktu and neighboring cities, scholars are finding evidence of wars averted, sieges ended and lawlessness put to rest.

The information is all the more valuable for moderate Muslim leaders because of the rise of less tolerant forms of Islam, like Saudi Arabia's Wahhabism or the Salafist movement in Algeria, that are expanding their foothold.

[Oh, c'mon, this is French West Africa -- does this stuff really matter to Americans?--ed. Check out Nick Tattersall's report for Reuters on the significance of West African oil to the U.S. economy. This part stands out in particular:

The United States shares [China's] concern as it ventures into remote corners of West and Central Africa in search of alternative oil supplies to the turbulent Middle East which could also act as counterweight to OPEC's monopoly power.

The world's biggest energy consumer hopes the African region will provide up to a quarter of its oil imports within a decade, up from 14 percent now, and is working to guarantee stability in one of the most volatile parts of the planet.

From coup attempts inspired by dreams of petrodollars to concerns over Islamic extremists, political anarchy, civil war and piracy, the region around the Gulf of Guinea is seething with tensions that would faze the most intrepid investor.

"We are in no position to endure a serious oil supply disruption from the Gulf of Guinea today. The global oil market is stretched to capacity," said David Goldwyn, a former assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration and head of a Washington-based strategy think tank.

"We are not ready for trouble, but trouble is on the horizon," he told a U.S. Senate committee earlier this year.

Washington is particularly concerned that militant Islamists may gain a foothold in its new oil haven, where policing is often lax, millions of youths are unemployed and the sheer size of territories makes maintaining full control almost impossible.

"It's a good place for people who want to be left alone to operate outside the reach of the law -- to go unnoticed, to take time to recruit, to regroup," General Charles Wald, deputy commander of U.S. European Command (EUCOM), told Reuters.

Click here for an African perspective on why the continent matters to the Bush administration. And, finally, check out John Donnelly's report in the Boston Globe on the military side of U.S. efforts to prevent Islamic terrorist groups from making further gains in the West African region.

posted by Dan at 11:53 AM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (1)

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

So what's going on in Iran?

Patrick Belton links to this Economist story on the state of Iran's domestic polity. The highlights of their analysis:

Iran's liberals and reformers feel increasingly beleaguered, and [hardline] voices... are louder and more menacing than they were even six months ago. In that period, says one of Tehran's longer-serving foreign diplomats, “there has been a dramatic change in mood”. Bullying militias are again trying—so far without much success—to enforce the old morality. Last month a female MP from the conservative camp suggested that if ten “street-walkers” were executed, “We will have dealt with the problem [of prostitution] once and for all.”

More worrying from the liberals' point of view, the reform-minded but disappointingly dithery Mr Khatami has been the lamest of ducks since the ruling clergy and the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Mr Khomeini in 1989, presided over a rigged general election in February when the candicacy of 2,000-plus reformers was blocked. As a result, the new parliament is distinctly more xenophobic and illiberal than its predecessor. Of its 290 members, more than a quarter share the sort of rabid views expressed by Mr Shariatmadari, and they seem to be mocking Mr Khatami with impunity in his last months in office....

Not that mass repression is needed to keep the media, or the Iranian people in general, in line. According to a respected human-rights campaigner, between 2,000 and 4,000 Iranians, including about 30 journalists, are behind bars for political reasons. The reason for the overall figure's vagueness is that many of those incarcerated are in “unofficial” prisons: even their relatives are not told they are there.

In the past few months detentions have swelled of “bloggers” who have set up internet sites, which the state has taken great trouble to block. A number of well-known campaigners for human rights have been prevented from going abroad or arrested on their return. Human Rights Watch, an independent lobby group, said this week that “secret squads operating under the authority of the Iranian judiciary have used torture to force internet journalists and civil-society activists to write self-incriminatory confession letters”.

The clampdown seems to be working. Many of the liberal and sophisticated professionals of northern Tehran, downcast by Mr Khatami's failure, seem to have withdrawn into a private life behind the walls of their villas. Many are emigrating, at an estimated rate of 200,000 a year, especially to the United States (where there may be 800,000 Iranians), Canada (perhaps the most popular destination), Britain, France and Australia....

The one thing everyone knows is that Iran is in a jam. Above all, plainly, there is a crisis of legitimacy. Only half of Iranians bothered to vote in February's election; not much more than a quarter of those in Tehran, which embraces at least 8m people, turned out. Western diplomats reckon that barely 15% of Iranians still support the ruling order. The low turnout reflected not just apathy and fatalism, which are indeed strong. Many sour and embittered Iranians consciously decided not to go to the polls as a gesture of protest....

According to some reports, disaffection with the regime even among the clergy is spreading. A cleric from an influential religious family, also out of favour with the supreme leader, derides the Council of Guardians for mostly taking “orders and hints from the powers that be”—a euphemism for Mr Khamenei. Most striking of all, sociologists and educators report that religious belief and observance, especially among the young, have slumped since the mullahs took power a quarter of a century ago. Instead of fortifying the people's devotion, the system seems to have switched many people off the spiritual side of life, inspiring a shallow materialism instead....

The mullahs have patently failed to revamp an economy that remains distorted by subsidies, closed to competition within Iran or from abroad, locked in the hands either of the state or of state-connected foundations known as bonyads, and increasingly reliant on the high price of oil: Iran has about a tenth of the world's known reserves. Barely a fifth of the economy is in private hands. The conservatives have made it hard for the timid Mr Khatami to sell off state firms or open up to foreigners. The merchants of the bazaar, a longstanding pillar of the mullahs' power, still protect their own cartels. Capital flight continues apace. Only four private banks exist (three of them linked to bonyads or to the state), with just 4% of the banking sector's assets. Corruption in every sphere of business stunts growth and puts off investors. People mutter about the mullahs' wealth and patronage....

In the face of such gloomy contrasts, Iran cannot make up its mind whether to co-operate with the perfidious infidel West to save its economic skin and strengthen its security, or to keep its Islamist soul unsullied. That dilemma is at the heart of the present wrangle over nuclear power....

The American administration's hope that sanctions and other pressures will eventually force a change of regime in Tehran looks, in the foreseeable future, forlorn. And an Israeli or American attack might well have the adverse effect of rallying Iranians to their rather unpopular regime.

Otherwise, only three things could jolt Iran out of its present torpor of stagnation and depression. One is the presidential election due in May. Another, further down the road, is a dramatic slump in the oil price. The third is the possibility of a Gorbachev figure emerging from within the clerical establishment to open up the deadening political and economic system. At present none of these three possibilities looks likely, at least not in the short run.

As I've said before, I'm very gloomy about the prospects of the theocratic regime toppling from "people power." [On the other hand, I was similarly skeptical about Ukraine, and events have progressed there in a far more peaceful and positive direction that I anticipated. Point is, I could easily be wrong.]

One question is whether expanding Iran's trade with the rest of the world would nudge them in a more positive direction. Based on this report, the Bush administration doesn't think so -- or, to be fair, they think it wouldn't lead to regime change prior to the mullahs developing nuclear weapons.

Commenters are heartily encouraged to devise a policy that would ensure peaceful regime change in Iran. I don't think it can be done -- but that could just be because I'm still jet-lagged.

posted by Dan at 02:48 PM | Comments (21) | Trackbacks (1)

Monday, December 13, 2004

Notes from Paris

So, what dirt was able to be gleamed from my trip to Paris? Here's the tidbits about the people, the place, and the ideas that are worth divilging:

1) I love it when stereotypes don't hold up. There was a moment in the second day when Ambassador Francois Bujon De L'Estaing sneeringly mocked Lawrence Kaplan's presentation about the European Union as the embodiment of the neoconservative stereotype -- after which Kaplan jibed back about the Ambassador also fulfilling his stereotype equally well.

For me, what was refreshing was the number of people who didn't conform to my preconceived expectations. For example, the big mooseheads at the conference -- William Schneider, Charles Cook, and Thomas Mann -- did a great job on their panel. Schneider, in contrast to his CNN smiling-face persona, was perfectly willing to cross swords with the other participants. Furthermore, the three of them actually attended every panel presentation. At events like these, the headliners often decamp after they've presented their own spiel -- particularly if they're in Paris. Not these three.

Similarly, it was refreshing to hear ACLU head Nadine Strossen say that 90% of the USA Patriot Act was completely unobjectionable (actually, it was just refreshing to hear a reasonable conversation about the Patriot Act). It was good to hear Dan Mitchell from the Haritage Foundation say that larger budget deficits do put upward pressure on interest rates (though he thinks the magnitude of that effect is pretty damn small). It was amusing to hear a French businessman blast the Kyoto Protocol -- not because the U.S. hadn't signed, but because the agreement put serious constraints on France but not China.

2) In an act of stunning symbolism for French diplomacy, the Foreign Ministry was supposed to host a grand lunch