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Friday, September 18th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Jason Burke and Ian Black assessed the state of Al Qaeda for the Guardian last week. Their conclusion: Al Qaeda has been decimated, especially by recent attacks on its middle management, and they are having trouble gaining new recruits, in part because of various bureaucratic obstacles Al Qaeda has put in place which have detracted from the “romance” of the terrorist life, including:

If there’s a certain set of individuals who are willing to blow themselves up, and another set of individuals willing to fill out forms in triplicate, I would guess the overlap is relatively small.

[Image by Mike Kline licensed under Creative Commons.]

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Posted in National Security, The War on Terrorism | 1 Comment »

Khamenei, Palestinian Classical Music, Waterboarding Pro-Life Terrorists, and the Renegade Boy Guru

Friday, June 5th, 2009

Here – for the first time in two weeks thanks to a hosting problem on the blog and a week off – is the list of best reading material for the weekend:

How Khamenei Took and Asserts Power. Mehdi Khalaji writes in Real Clear World about an aspect of Khamenei I have not previously seen – about how he was able to take such significant power in Iran. As Khalaji writes:

During his twenty years in power, Khamenei has managed to overcome his initial obstacles and transform the conventional house of religious authority into a bureaucratic powerhouse. As a result, Iranian decision-making is no longer shared, as it was in the last years of Khomeini’s life, especially with regard to war. The house of the leader makes the main decisions today, whether political or military, domestic or foreign policy related, and Khamenei is the principal decisionmaker.

Young Palestinians Take to Western Classical Music. Daniel J. Wakin had a fascinating piece in the New York Times this past Sunday about how the younger generation of Palestinians seems to have a strong interest in classical music. Wakin focuses on anecdotes – so I’m not sure if there is a discernible movement of young Palestinians becoming interested in classical music, but there is something beautiful about the idea:

The flute, [Dalia Moukarker, 16] said later, “takes me to another world that is far away from here, a more beautiful world. Because it is not a beautiful place here. It is an ugly place.”

Dalia is one of a new generation of Palestinians who have been swept up in a rising tide of interest in Western classical music in the last several years here in the Palestinian territories, but especially the West Bank. The sounds of trills and arpeggios, Bach minuets and Beethoven sonatas, are rising up amid the economic malaise and restrictions of the Israeli occupation.

Waterboarding Pro-Life Terrorists. Hypocrisy is not confined to any political movement (or even to politics.) But Conor Friedersdorf asks a basic question of those he terms the “War on Terror hawks”:

Would these predominantly conservative officials, commentators and writers be comfortable if President Obama declared two or three extremist pro-lifers as “enemy combatants”? Should Pres. Obama have the prerogative to order the waterboarding of these uncharged, untried detainees? Should he be able to listen in on phone conversations originating from evangelical churches where suspected abortion extremists hang out? The answer is probably that different “War on Terror hawks” — anyone have a better term for this? — would react differently, but as a matter of law, it seems to me that if they’d gotten their way during the Bush Administration, President Obama would have the power to take all those steps and more, a prospect that is terrifying to me, not because I think our Commander in Chief is looking for a pretext to round up innocent pro-lifers, but because it doesn’t take many violent attacks before Americans start clamoring for a strong executive response, a dynamic that tends to erode liberties in previously unthinkable ways and spawn mistakes whereby innocents are made to suffer.

Michelle Malkin tried to make similar charges of hypocrisy against those to her left in a column about the Tiller murder. I almost included her on this reading list – as her claims seemed plausible – that islamist domestic terrorists were identified as “lone shooters” while christianist domestic terrorists were identified with the larger christianist movement – and that in general, the attention paid by the media and politicians to the attacks on military recruiters has been undercover while this Tiller case has been explosive. But after investigating some of the claims she made, I don’t think I can recommend her article be read – except as a representative right-wing propaganda piece. For example, Malkin writes:

Politically and religiously motivated violence, it seems, is only worth lamenting when it demonizes opponents. Which also helps explain why the phrase “lone shooter” is ubiquitous in media coverage of jihadi shooters gone wild…but not in cases involving rare acts of anti-abortion violence.

She lists three specific people: Mohammed Taheri-Azar, Naveed Haq, and Hesham Hedayet. My brief Google searches for all three along with the term “lone shooter” turn up ZERO (0) news results (except for various conservative sites citing Malkin) – which is somewhat less than ubiquitous. Malkin also tries to say that the term “hate fuck” means to rape – which it does not. Urban Dictionary lists 10 definitions of the term – none of which imply it is rape. If the two easiest facts to check in her article are more than misleading – and are actually outright false – it’s hard to trust any of the harder to to fact check statements such as the comparisons between the degrees of media coverage of the events and the degress of administration response.

The Renegade Boy Guru. The Dalai Lama chose Osel Hita Torres “as a reincarnation of a spiritual leader” named Lama Thubten Yeshe when Osel was a baby. He lived his entire life isolated – but now has quite the monastic life. The Guardian story by Dale Fuchs is short and interesting. Here’s one nugget:

At six, he was allowed to socialise only with other reincarnated souls – though for a time he said he lived next to the actor Richard Gere’s cabin.

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Posted in Foreign Policy, Iran | No Comments »

The Primal Politics of Pakistan

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]The stories that have been coming out of Pakistan in the past few days have been extraordinary. It is politics being shaped by individuals at a basic and primal level, in a way only possible in an unstable nation. Just a few weeks ago, Simon Tisdall in the Guardian would write that:

Pakistan’s disintegration, if that is what is now being witnessed, is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions, a riveting spectacle, and a clear and present danger to international security. But who in the world can stop it?

As President Zardari seemed to buffoonishly wield power – ham-handedly using the power of the government to sideline his opponents, resistant built up. First, he refused to honor a deal he made with his main opponent, Nawaz Sharif, to reinstate the chief justice of the Supreme Court Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry who had been dismissed by President Musharraf. This was especially significant as the civil society movement or the Lawyers Movement which was formed to protest this move of Musharaff’s was one of the primary factors forcing him to step down. Then – and I skip over a great deal here, Zardari closes down a television station for seemingly political reasons prompting, as The Daily Times reported:

Federal Information Minister Sherry Rehman resigned from her ministerial slot on Friday night to protest the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA)’s blocking of a private TV channel.

With Sharif and Sharif’s brother still agitating for change – specifically the reinstatement of Chaudhry – the current Supreme Court, which is seen to be in the pocket of Zardari, rules that neither Sharif nor his brother can hold any public office. Sharif and his N-League party begin to stage mass rallies to protest this decision – which then prompts Zardari to take even more drastic action. He places all of his political opponents under house arrest – for their own protection – and bans rallies. Over the weekend, Sharif breaks out of his house arrest to go to a large demonstration as Jane Perlez reports in the New York Times:

Sharif, who had planned to address the demonstration, left his house in a convoy of cars that broke through a ring of barriers, including barbed wire and parked buses that had been placed by the police.

When he arrived at the rally in Lahore, Sharif was aided by elements of the police sympathetic to him – and embraced by the crowd:

As his bulletproof four-wheel-drive vehicle entered the main thoroughfare of Lahore, it was showered with pink rose petals from the crowd, made up of lawyers, party workers and couples who came with their children to join what turned out to be a celebration of Mr. Sharif’s nerve.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik meanwhile urged all Pakistanis to refrain from joining the long march which was supposed to converge on the capital of Pakistan yesterday:

I urge all Pakistanis not to join the long march as we have credible information that enemies of Pakistan could take advantage of the situation.

Yet, despite this, people came out. They confronted the police and military who tried to break up the rallies – and the police and military turned back. According to Jane Perlez again:

The army did not stage a coup, but insisted that the government accept a compromise.

Perhaps it was this factor more than Sharif’s nerve or Zardari’s ham-handedness that prevented this from going down as power plays usually do in Pakistan – in bloody violence. Zardari agreed yesterday to meet the demands of the Lawyers Movement and Sharif – and to restore Chaudhry as Chief Justice. Sabrina Tavernise described the scene in Islamabad in the New York Times:

In the crowd, whose members included a radio announcer who was researching homosexuality and an illiterate mechanic who wore a flower pot on his head to stay cool and admitted to stealing monkeys to get by, one word was on everybody’s lips.

“Justice,” said Mr. Khan’s wife, Rubina Javed, smiling broadly. “We came for justice.”

The word was apt for the victory at hand: the restoration of the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, to his court. But others in a jubilant crowd celebrating on Mr. Chaudhry’s lawn on Monday were working from a broader interpretation…

“This movement has given an awareness to the common people in Pakistan of their rights,” said Shamoon Azhar, 26, a doctoral student at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, sitting on the lawn with a large group of his friends. “This is about awareness. It’s given people confidence. It’s shown people it can happen.”

Ashtar Ali, a corporate lawyer was quoted by Jane Perlez:

This is the first time in the history of Pakistan that the police and civil administration have defied orders by the government to control public demonstrations. The writ of the government has failed.

The big winner in all of this is – of course, Sharif, as a Pakistani columnist put it:

He understood the pulse of the country.

Yet at the same time, the basic story of the American relationship with Pakistan remains the same. Richard Holbrooke summed it up when asked whether Pakistan’s security forces were committed to rooting out terrorists:

I’ve rarely seen in my years in Washington an issue which is so hotly disputed internally by experts and intelligence officials.

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Posted in Foreign Policy, Pakistan, Politics | 1 Comment »

Congressman Pete King Wants Club Med Investigated For Human Rights Violations Just Like Guantanamo

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]He must have had a bad experience with Club Med. 

Military.com reports that:

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who led a group of congressmen to Guantanamo, told the New York Post the facility was like a Club Med for terrorists.

Club Med? The most reasonable explanation is that Congressman Pete King (my congressman and likely 2010 Republican Senate candidate) was treated very badly at this resort chain, and I’ve contacted Club Med inquiring about this. If Pete King is saying that Club Med is like Guantanamo, he is apparently alleging that they have treated their guests similar to how the prisoners at Guantanamo were treated. So, what types of things happen at Club Med, according to Pete King? Here’s a few examples:

Captives at Guantánamo Bay were chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor for 18 hours or more, urinating and defecating on themselves, an FBI report has revealed.

The Guardian.

Spc. Sean D. Baker, 38, was assaulted in January 2003 [at Guantanamo Bay] after he volunteered to wear an orange jumpsuit and portray an uncooperative detainee. Baker said the MPs, who were told that he was an unruly detainee who had assaulted an American sergeant, inflicted a beating that resulted in a traumatic brain injury…

[Pentagon] officials conceded that he was treated for injuries suffered when a five-man MP “internal reaction force” choked him, slammed his head several times against a concrete floor and sprayed him with pepper gas…

As he was being choked and beaten, Baker said, he screamed a code word, “red,” and shouted: “I’m a U.S. soldier! I’m a U.S. soldier!” He said the beating continued until the jumpsuit was yanked down during the struggle, revealing his military uniform.

The Los Angeles Times.

The top Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial has concluded that the U.S. military tortured a Saudi national who allegedly planned to participate in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, interrogating him with techniques that included sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and prolonged exposure to cold, leaving him in a “life-threatening condition.”

“We tortured [Mohammed al-]Qahtani,” said Susan J. Crawford, in her first interview since being named convening authority of military commissions…

Bob Woodward in the Washington Post.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has charged in confidential reports to the United States government that the American military has intentionally used psychological and sometimes physical coercion “tantamount to torture” on prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The New York Times.

Then there’s the fact that Khadr claims to have confessed under torture. Videos of him weeping during an interrogation surfaced last year and served only to remind the world that he was a teenager confined at Guantanamo among “the worst of the worst.” Khadr was allegedly shackled in stress positions until he urinated on himself, then covered with pine solvent and used as a “human mop” to clean his own urine. He was beaten, nearly suffocated, beset by attack dogs, and threatened with rape. In May 2008, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Canada v. Khadr that the detention of Khadr at Guantanamo Bay “constituted a clear violation of fundamental human rights protected by international law…” We need to start to make amends for the fact that children in our custody were tortured.

Dahlia Lithwick in Slate.

Mohammed al-Qahtani, detainee No. 063, was forced to wear a bra. He had a thong placed on his head. He was massaged by a female interrogator who straddled him like a lap dancer. He was told that his mother and sisters were whores. He was told that other detainees knew he was gay. He was forced to dance with a male interrogator. He was strip-searched in front of women. He was led on a leash and forced to perform dog tricks. He was doused with water. He was prevented from praying. He was forced to watch as an interrogator squatted over his Koran.

That much is known. These details were among the findings of the U.S. Army’s investigation of al-Qahtani’s aggressive interrogation at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba…

[Later h]e was interrogated for 18 to 20 hours per day [using coercive rather than sexually humiliating methods, including waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and extreme temperatures], for 48 of the next 54 days, according to an Army investigative report. On Dec. 7, 2002, he had to be revived at the detainee hospital when his heart rate fell to 35 beats per minute, according to a log of the interrogation published by Time magazine. Then the interrogation continued.

FBI agents at Guantanamo joined the opposition. A Nov. 27 FBI “legal analysis,” since reported by Newsweek, labeled several parts of the plan as “coercive interrogation techniques which are not permitted by the U.S. Constitution.” It also warned that several of the proposed tactics could constitute torture, depending on how a judge viewed the intent of the interrogator.

MSNBC.

Clearly, if Club Med is anything like Guantanamo is, it should be investigated for torture, prisoner abuse, child abuse, and various violations of international treaties. I’m awaiting a response from Morgan E. Painvin, Club Med’s listed press contact, as to whether Pete King has any substantiation for his apparent allegations of torture and human rights abuses at Club Med.

An alternate and plausible explanation would be that Pete King has been involved in sadomasochism for too long and that it has warped his sense of pleasure and pain. Of course, it’s brave of a suburban politician to admit such a fetish. So I must commend him for his honesty if this is his way of coming out.

I’m not sure I can think of any other reasonable explanations for this statement by Congressman King without calling him delusional, a liar, incredibly ignorant, or a propagandist.

[Photo licensed under Creative Commons courtesy of Ed your don.]

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Posted in Law, National Security, The Bush Legacy, The War on Terrorism | 1 Comment »

Dubya’s China Legacy

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

Isabel Hilton in The Guardian:

George W Bush’s presidency…was a pleasure for Beijing to deal with: it distracted itself with two unwinnable wars, leaving China to expand its influence, quietly contrasting Beijing’s peaceful international profile with the US’s embattled one. By playing the bad boy in international climate politics, the Bush administration eased the pressure on China to do more about its own soaring emissions. And in the most active and important aspect of Bush’s China policy, the strategic economic dialogue, set up in 2006 to strengthen ties, the US depended on China first to soak up US debt and then to help manage the consequences of the crisis.

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Posted in Barack Obama, China, Economics, Financial Crisis, Foreign Policy, The Bush Legacy, The Opinionsphere | No Comments »

Israel and Hamas

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

The furious positions of many people on this issue leave me with the feeling that I should take a definitive side. Sometimes, you must stand up and be counted – or become irrelevant. But on this issue, I have yet to hear any passionate argument that is convincing. The best arguments are microarguments, winning some small points. The best writers on this issue are reflective and nuanced, avoiding becoming apologists for either side. I have entered into arguments in which I have felt myself being alternately tugged to justify the worst actions of either Israel or the Palestinians – which I don’t want to do. Neither side has clean hands – but it is also not fair to create some kind of moral equivalence. What is needed is that rarely appreciated virtue, nuance.

In that spirit, here’s a selection of reflective takes on the current situation:

Yglesias:

By somewhat the same token, I do read in the comments section what I would regard as a disproportionate level of shock and appalledness from some quarters about Israeli activities as if this action is some kind of unprecedented outrage in human history. The real outrage is how common and banal, how unsurprising and thoroughly precedented it is.

Andrew Sullivan:

In the history of the West, the laws of war are clear enough. You do not launch a just war if it leads to greater evils than the status quo ante. There must be a reasonable proportion between means and ends. Both sides should be able to acknowledge common human values, even as they fight over territory or ideology. And yet Hamas has never done this; has no capacity for abiding by even minimal moral norms, believes it has a moral responsibility to eradicate the Jewish state, and certainly finds the universalist and liberal moral law embedded in Western and largely Christian culture meaningless outside Islamic hegemony. Israel, for its part, is on a different moral plane than Hamas. Its internal critics write op-eds; they are not taken out and shot. But, in the face of what is, essentially, a 60 year war against enemies on all sides and within, it has long since disappeared down the self-reflecting mirrors of survivalist logic and existential panic. It looks to me like a society in danger of losing its sense of restraint to the logic of violence. It is lashing out because it feels it can do no other and senses its long-term survival at stake. Even if violence does not solve the problem and may make it worse, war can seem a better option now than disappearing passively in the next couple of decades. The stunning near-unanimity of Israelis behind the Gaza attack is proof of this. In Israel, it seems, it is always America in 2002.

Carlo Stenger:

I have been a very outspoken critic of Israeli policies for many years. Nevertheless, those who…go into endless diatribes to ascribe sole responsibility to Israel for the current situation are hypocritical at worst and ignorant at best. In this age of political correctness it is always sexy to support the underdog. But political correctness does not always yield wise political judgment

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Posted in Foreign Policy, Israel, Politics, The Opinionsphere, The War on Terrorism | No Comments »

A Prophecy in the Guardian

Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

John Gray, an author of big ideas with a focus on the apocalyptic and the grand sweep of history, has a must-read article in the Guardian. He calls it “A shattering moment in America’s fall from power.” He writes as if history is already written – and his examples are often petty and overblown. His piece reeks of self-importance and schaedenfraude. His big ideas seem more glib than profound.

And yet, his piece demonstrates two things.

First, his view is, I think, broadly reflective of how much of the world sees what is happening – with regional and cultural factors leading to the emphasis of slightly different aspects of the story. The Chinese would focus on the lack of centralized government oversight of the economy; the Europeans would see the lack of regulation and welfare programs; the Arabs would see the decadance. But in every telling, the story is the same – an empire is felled by it’s arrogance; the forces that led it to worldwide domination came back to destroy it.

That is what I found profoundly interesting about John Gray’s piece – that he was able to convey to me a sense of distance from the events taking place just a few blocks from where I work – a distance that allowed him to be smug and to “see” the future – a future that is very bleak.

Second, his piece does accurately reflect one way we could go as a nation. It can serve as a warning. Not a warning like Warren Buffet who called mortgage-backed derivratives “financial weapons of mass destruction” five years ago – but a warning that, like any real prophecy, is a vague and distrubing vision. The details may be wrong – but the vision is powerful – and it is entirely plausible.

It is a piece I would reccomend partisans of both the left and right read – and the muddled pragmatists in the middle too.

The trends Gray sees are really there – even if he uses a bit of poetic license in describing them.

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Posted in Economics, Election 2008, Foreign Policy | 5 Comments »

The ultimate feelgood war

Monday, June 2nd, 2008

Simon Jenkins writing in The Guardian:

The Americans are right, that if you want something done in the world, get a nation to do it, not an inter-nation. I may be opposed to both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but there is a significant difference between them noticeable to any visitor to their capitals. In Baghdad, America is unmistakably in charge and the world follows. There is a clear line of command that leads, however misguidedly, to Washington. Things get done.

Afghanistan is the opposite, the embodiment of Tharoor’s globalism in practice. Some 30 nations piled into Kabul after 2001, under the banners of Nato and the UN. There was and remains no coherence, no agreed strategy and a perpetual feuding over rules of engagement, use of air power and policies for anti-corruption and counter-narcotics. Things do not get done.

Some 10,000 UN, Nato and NGO officials and their hangers-on fall over each other in the streets of Kabul. Command structures overlap. It is a recipe for failure. Yet because the “international community” has given Afghanistan its blessing, the intervention must be benign. It is the ultimate feelgood war.

(more…)

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Posted in Foreign Policy, Iraq, Politics | 1 Comment »

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