Talking to myself about foreign policy, US politics, technology, &c.

U.S. AID Chief Chosen

November 10th, 2009

From the department of it’s-about-freakin’-time: U.S. AID Chief Chosen

The 36-year old *cough* nominee from the  Agriculture *cough* department will be tasked with heading up what is supposed to be a co-equal tentacle of the US foreign policy establishment.

My friends inside AID have had a tough time; it’s hard to have the crew doing their job when your ship doesn’t have a captain.

This speaks partly to the incredible difficulties with the vetting process; ridiculously talented people are not taking jobs with the Administration – not because the pay is low or the work hard, but because the vetting process is too damn hard.

Of course, the vetting process has gotten so onerous because there is so much political theater to be made out of the high-wire act of Senate advice-and-consent positions. Given the depressing and destructive obstructionism of Republicans, Obama has to be careful – but it is another example of how the machinery of American government is being forced to a halt.

Articles of Confederation, Take Two

November 5th, 2009

There’s a new international juggernaut on the world scene. Russia? Nah, they’re too busy drinking themselves to death. India? Nah, they’re 34% illiterate. China? Brazil?


Nope, it’s the United States of Europe. After a long journey, the European Constitution Lisbon Treaty has crossed its final hurdle.

This is a truly historic moment. Much as one might laugh about Brussels, the process of “ever closer union” has made a very significant step. Remember that, after a period under the weak Articles of Confederation, we quickly got a much stronger federative document – but even with that the balance of power was in the hands of the states for a long time.

The logic of centralization will continue for a long time. God forbid another Great Power war, but if we have one then things will speed up infinitely.

With a first EU president, Kissinger’s snide question – “If I want to call Europe, who do I call?” finally has an answer. I hope it’s this one.

Iceland, the rogue state.

November 3rd, 2009

Iceland just lost its McDonald’s franchises. As we all know from the MacDonald’s theory of international peace, this means they now are beyond the pale of polite global society, and a risk to the tranquility and stability of the international order.

Of course, the true nuclear-armed rogue state we have to worry about is closer to home.

If you haven’t seen it, this Vanity fair story on the Icelandic financial meltdown is spectacular. Upshot: blame it on the elves.

Wok the Dog

October 30th, 2009

A pair of Kiwi researchers suggested that we would be better off not having dogs and cats due to their carbon footprint. Instead we should raise pigs and rabbits, love them, welcome them into our homes and hearts, and then eat them. Presumably you could do the same with your canine companions, but that wasn’t mentioned as an option.


This reminds me of a similar idea someone had once. Now, what was that

The researchers suggest that a typical dog has as much impact on the environment as an SUV.

[As an aside, I find this incredible. Dogs don't have to be manufactured out of parts assembled from around the world. They do not burn fossil fuels extracted from the ground under thuggish governments. Dog chow largely consists of food byproducts we weren't about to eat anyway. But let's concede the point.]

There is at times a puritanical obsession in the quest to have a zero-impact lifestyle. The only way to really do that would be for all of us to switch back to subsistance farming off the land. As long as we didn’t overgraze with our evil goats.  Or deplete the soil and leading to the collapse of our civilization. Or drain our aquifers

Misguided, in my mind. Yes, we should try and moderate our impact to the extent possible. But I like living in the 21st century. I am fortunate that I’ve  been able to ride around in huge, polluting jets. I’m really fortunate to have had a beautiful dog who was a wonderful part of my life.

While we should make lifestyle changes, we want to retain as much of the benefits of what we have as we can. Instead, we need to squeeze more efficiency out of what we do.

I’ll write up some thoughts on that next time.

Meet the UNPhone (charger)

October 28th, 2009

UN LOGO(1)The UN has approved a new phone charging standard. Presumably it will interoperate globally while protecting the sovereignty of member devices.

It is unclear at the present time if the P5 retain a veto over connection of new devices or if Responsiblity to Protect applies to people using their iPhones for purposes that may be in violation of Geneva conventions on stupidity.

Let’s just hope the UN’s International Telecommunications Union is less cumbersome than their attempt to draft an Internet communications standard.

The Company You Keep: Goldstone and Israel

October 23rd, 2009

cranesThe Goldstone Report on potential war crimes during the Gaza conflict Operation Cast Lead last winter has set off a frenetic flurry of spin and pushback in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government. The report could even lead to International Criminal Court prosecutions for Israeli leaders.

Goldstone’s report, commissioned by the somewhat ridiculous UN Human Rights Council, condemns both Israel and Hamas for violating humanitarian law by targeting civilians. The Human Rights Council is a travesty packed with governments that sometimes, say, torture their own people. Despite that and the fact that the group relentlessly bludgeons Israel the Council, in this case, still has a point worth investigating.

The Israeli government and allies have been running a full-court press to try and quash and discredit Goldstone’s report and the man himself. A past president of of Human Rights Watch excoriated the criticism of Israel, suggesting that rights defenders have no business criticizing largely open governments.

I disagree completely. As someone deeply concerned with civil liberties here in the United States, I vociferously criticize developments in my country that I think are human rights violations, and I applaud outside groups who apply pressure and scruitiny to the US on these topics as well.

This does not mean that the US – or Israel – is as bad as Zimbabwe or Hamas. It does mean that one must speak out about injustice in your home as well as abroad. Countries that are more open and more liberal – and that proudly claim to be so – have a special obligation to acknowledge mistakes, investigate them, and attempt to ensure they do not occur again.

You don’t need to get into a who-is-more-awful pissing match to recognize faults that need to be corrected.

Oh, but Israel doesn’t need to worry about referral to the ICC. The Chinese have promised to veto any Security Council move to do so.

Turkish president walks it back.

October 16th, 2009

I guess all the worlds problems will not be solved immediately. Too bad.

It is impossible to solve all problems at once: Turkish President.

Best headline of the year: All problems in Caucasus to be resolved – Turkish President

October 7th, 2009

In my job with the US Helsinki Commission I start the day by compiling news clips. Pretty interesting, often depressing, only occasionally laugh-out-loud humorous. This one was, thanks to our friends in the Azeri media.

All problems in Caucasus to be resolved: Turkish President.

I can’t say how glad I am to hear that. Some of my colleagues will probably be out of work, the end of thousands of years of fractious violence is worth celebrating.

I don’t know why the NYT didn’t lead with the good news, though.

Freelancing Foreign Policy

October 4th, 2009

There’s only one branch of the US government that is responsible for foreign policy. Fuzzy as the constitution can be on some things, this one is pretty cut and dried.

Now, Republicans, the Party of Patriotism ™ might be expected to follow the maxim of partisanship ending at the waters’ edge.

You would regrettably be wrong.

Senator DeMint went traipsing off to Honduras today to be a cheerleader the leaders of the coup who overthrew President Zelaya. His moves are in direct opposition to US policy which has staunchly

Indeed, those who would call the military’s violent ouster of a democratically elected leader a ‘coup’ are, according to DeMint, “ill informed.”

Good to know.

I had some sympathy for the revolutionaries; the former president was publicly mulling constitutional changes to pave the way for another term for himself. Hitler’s rise to power provides the ultimate example of the argument for stopping a leader undermining a democratic system while staying mainly within the constitutional lines; you can make a case for saving a democracy by overriding it in such cases.

With junta leaders attempting to squash free speech rights, though, that seems to make such a premise a bit doubtful.

Worse, in my mind, was Mike Huckabee’s grandstanding in Israel. In an attempt to bolster his standing with evengelicals he goes over to Jerusalem and makes provocative statements opposing a two-state solution, undermining what has been official US policy for ages, and undercutting Obama as he is working to bring peace to that troubled land.

China to U.S.: Look! Shiny object!

September 28th, 2009

Funny but all-to-true aside from Steve Clemons on how China benefits from America’s rather ADHD attention span. From a Center for Strategic and International Studies discussion on the aftermath of the Japanese elections.

Steve Clemons:

A few years ago, I was in Beijing and visited the director of policy planning at China’s ministry of foreign affairs and I said, what are you working on? And he says, how to keep you Americans distracted in small Middle Eastern countries. (Laughter.)

Meanwhile, the Chinese are building the biggest high-speed rail network in the world.

Development Does Some Good

September 14th, 2009

Sometimes when you deal with the world of international development you get the sense that it would be a lot more useful to take all the billions spent on foreign aid and burn them. At least that way you might get a really cool bonfire out of it.

The NYT has a beautiful slideshow on development developments in Malawi, one of the most spectactuarly awful countries on Earth as all health and education indicators go.

The great take away is that, through concerted efforts and billions of dollars, things have made a big jump. Infant mortality, for example, has been cut by more than half. That’s a real difference for a lot of real families.

Partial Democracy as Ice Cream Cone

August 27th, 2009

The NYT has a great piece on ongoing dissent in Iran. While Ahmadinejad has bloodily quieted the streets, within the government struggles continue.

The most powerful quote:

A dissident senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, once in line to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic, released a letter on his Web site that struck at the moral and religious credentials of the leadership, saying it had chosen a “deviant path.”

“I hope they will compensate for their damages and not hold innocents in prison any longer,” he wrote, “and end the legal trials and the broadcasting of confessions, so that they no longer mock the Islamic judiciary; or at least have the courage to announce that this government is neither a republic nor is it Islamic.”

Oooh, snap! A bit of the power of constitutional democracy on display. While authoritarian, Iran’s always had something of a liberal mask; after all, apart from Israel & Turkey they were the most democratic system in the Middle East. But that has been ripped away. On the same principle that you don’t take an ice cream cone away from a toddler, this may have been a significant strategic error.

There’s a lot of smart, educated middle-class people in Iran who were already chafing under the religious thuggishness. Not that it is clear they are living under a dictatorship, who knows what the long-term consequences might be.

12% Of Internet Users are Blithering Idiots

July 17th, 2009

Ever wonder why you get so much spam?

Apparently because one in six internet users actually buy things through that garbage that clogs your inbox.

Given that the marginal cost of an additional email is, oh, zero, there’s no wonder these awful vendors keep trying.

Oh, and it’s virtually all being sent via botnets created by the 90% of users who are also cretinous imbeciles who do not keep their machines patched. (Yes, I’m looking at you. Run your updates now. Or do the smart, easy, sexy thing and buy a MacBook.)

HRC is a Tough Lady.

July 16th, 2009

On top of the punishing work schedule, Hillary is apparently in constant pain from her shattered elbow. Joints are NOT good things to break. For a 61 year old this has gotta be rough.

The Times had a nice piece on Secretary Clinton’s role in the Obama Administration, and her relatively low profile. I love the fact that Henry Kissinger is a) still alive, and b) remains the éminence grise of the foreign policy world.

While the Obama team seems to be working well together, the only thing that smacks a bit of a snub to HRC from my perspective is the fact that there was a major presidential health care press conference that drowned out the coverage of Hillary’s simultaneous major policy address to the Council on Foreign Relations.

(hat tip: Madame Secretary)

Independence Day in the US. In Iran, They’re Still Fighting

July 4th, 2009

A leading group of clerics in Iran has called for the elections to be thrown out. As far as I can tell, this group, the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qum (Qum = the important Iranian religious center) have no official role in the convoluted semi-constitutional setup of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Still, it’s a significant break in the religious hierarchy, and a reason why people of faith in Iran who disagree with the outcome of the election can feel a bit more confident in their opposition.

For a very powerful view of how the Iranian people are challenging their despotic regime, check this out:

Night Chants, 2nd July (hat tip: Lew Weinberg)

For a bit of context: apart from being one of the core slogans of faith, Allahu Akbar was also chanted around the clock before the fall of the Shah.

Dogs are Smarter than Cats.

June 18th, 2009

Indifference does not equal intelligence. Neener neener, cat owners.

Oh, JK had a good piece too.

June 17th, 2009

The ol’ boss had a good – if typically verbose – piece in the NYT on Iran.

Short version: If we don’t want to help the bad guys out, then American leaders need to Shut The @#$! Up on the topic.

Breaking: Conservative Pundit Has Valid Point on Iran

June 17th, 2009

The Grey Lady seems to have made a decent choice in their new winger columnist, Ross Douthat.

Writing on Iran he makes a number of astute historical points by way of talking about something I’ve noted before – an economic crisis is bad news for dictatorships. Battered by sanctions and without $100/bbl oil, Iran is not doing well financially. Freedom may be a luxury good – people who are starving are more concerned about their lunch box than the ballot box – but for a more advanced, well educated society if the economy takes a nasty turn into decrepitude there’s gonna be a looot of latent frustration.

Couple that with the fact that they had an opportunity to voice their preferences – and then had them bulldozed. Taking to the streets is then left as their only option. Dangerous times.

Weirdly Douthat observes that Obama’s plans – for health care, etc – are not actually the second coming of Trotsky. A sensible debating position that does not start with the assumption that my people are out to destroy the world? I might actually have to listen to him.

Of course, he’s sometimes a bit stupid, too.

Consequences pt II

June 13th, 2009

The news looks like Scenario 2. The Grand Ayatollah blessed the results, which means there is no way that the government of Iran will ever willingly recognize a different result.

(breaking news – but might there be a chance the Ayatollah himself could be recalled? Wily old Hashemi Rafsanjani is the head of the group with the power to do so and has a bloody feud with Ahmadinejad)

Let’s assume the electoral coup succeeds.


1) Ahmadinejad remains in power, but is seen as illegitimate by whatever percentage of the population voted for “the other guy” + whoever gets angry with him.

2) Because of the overt intervention by Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader will himself lose legitimacy.

3) Brutal government intervention against street protests will further alienate people from the regime.

4) Government crackdowns are likely to keep the lid on protests. The whole authoritarian monopoly of power makes it hard for people throwing rocks to face down riot police dressed, according to reports, like spaceship troopers.

All in all, not a recipe for internal Iranian stability. Which could itself reinforce the belligerency of the regime in power – attempting to distract the people from internal problems by uniting against an outside enemy.

UPDATE – Looks like HR could be out. If so, that sounds like an escalation…

Elections have Consequences

June 12th, 2009

Iran voted today. Apparently heck of a turnout.

Crazy system over there – check out the bbc briefing for details. Given their card-carrying status as a member of the Axis of Evil, it is a suprise to a lot of people that they are – outside of Israel and Turkey – as democratic a country as there is in that bad neighborhood we call the Middle East. (But a shout-out to you, Acil al-Awadi!)

Looks like we don’t know what’s happened yet. Both sides are declaring victory, which suggests that the opposition made a decent showing. In the system over there the elections division is under the control of the president – which may make for interesting recounts. Faster than Minnesota’s, I’ll bet. Authoritarianism has its advantages.

Three possibilities:

Ahmadinejad wins, decisively. That would be a vindication of his policies of confrontation with the West, and probably a recipe for continuation of the status quo. Despite that, though, there appears to have been a record turnout and a high degree of interest,

It’s exceptionally close – or perceived to be so – then the legitimacy of the election will be called into question. The huge numbers who supported Moussavi – despite the state apparati arrayed against them – will be incensed. Signs of tampering in elections were core to the series of Color Revolutions, and if Moussavi’s voters think they were robbed, the mass demonstrations that impressed the world recently could escalate.

Enough of a win for Moussavi that he goes on to a final round and then takes the presidency would, I think, make for a moderate rapprochement. The sanctions that Ahmadinejad has brought on the country have angered a large swatch of the country, and some lightening of them will be core to a new administration. However, given the ultimate authority held by Ayatollah Khamenei, it would be unlikely that a true sea change could occur. Evolutionary change would still be very welcome.

A lot of frustration in Iran, a lot of repression. Given the right circumstances a velvet revolution is not impossible. From the outside – and with Iran, I believe even country experts are on the outside – authoritarian regimes can shift from iron to glass in a moment. Fingers crossed.

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