Israel isn't having much luck with commercials these days. First there was the government-sponsored ad campaign late last year to persuade Israelis living in the United States to return home, which was yanked when it caused an uproar in the American Jewish community. Now, Iranian lawmaker Arsalan Fat'hipour is telling Iran's PressTV that the country may impose a ban on products from South Korean electronics manufacturer Samsung over a commercial depicting Israelis accidentally destroying an Iranian nuclear facility.
The ad couldn't come at a tenser time. Iranian leaders are accusing the Israeli spy agency Mossad of killing an Iranian nuclear scientist in January, and using increasingly heated rhetoric (just today, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Israel a "cancerous tumor" that must be "cut"). Meanwhile, the media is abuzz with reports that an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities could be imminent.
In the commercial for the Israeli cable company HOT, four characters from the HOT television series Asfur, all (poorly) disguised as Iranian women, meet a Mossad agent in Iran who's watching the show on his Samsung tablet. In checking out the device's features, one of the characters accidentally presses a button that blows up a nearby nuclear plant.
Here's the commercial:
PressTV has expressed outrage not only with the ad but also with its underlying assumptions -- that Iran is a "primitive society" and that "Israel is powerful enough to easily destroy Iran's nuclear facilities or assassinate the country's nuclear scientists." Fat'hipour, the Iranian lawmaker, argues that Samsung produced the commercial to cozy up with Israel. But a Samsung spokesperson in Iran tells PressTV that HOT -- not Samsung -- produced the ad, which promotes a cable deal offering subscribers free Samsung tablets. HOT has informed CNN that it has no comment on the controversy.
Of course, in the Middle East, any ad that veers toward the political is likely to be controversial. In 2009, for example, the Israel cell phone company Cellcom aired a commercial in which a soccer ball kicked by unseen Palestinians hits an Israeli military jeep patrolling the security barrier with the West Bank. The soldiers kick it back over the fence, only for the ball to return, sparking an impromptu soccer game among Israeli soldiers. "The ad has caused outrage among Palestinians and left-wing Israelis who accuse it of whitewashing the negative effects of the wall," ABC News noted at the time, adding that the ad agency that produced the commercial claimed that the spot was intended to show "how people can overcome obstacles between them to build friendship."
Iran's tough words for Samsung, however, may be about more than just HOT's incendiary ad. Last month, the Korea Herald reported that the Iranian government had retaliated against South Korea's support for Western sanctions of Iranian oil imports by demanding that Korean companies remove their billboards in the capital. One of the targets of Tehran's wrath? Good old Samsung.
The news gods have apparently decided it's time for yet another round of Washington's favorite parlor game: "Will Israel attack Iran?"
The latest round of speculation was kicked off by a mammoth New York Times magazine article by Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, who concluded, "After speaking with many senior Israeli leaders and chiefs of the military and the intelligence, I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012."
Veteran Iran hand Gary Sick ably dispensed with Bergman's argument here, noting that his reporting actually points toward the opposite conclusion:
Like virtually all other commentators on this issue, Bergman slides over the fact that the IAEA consistently reports that Iran has diverted none of its uranium to military purposes. Like others, he focuses on the recent IAEA report, which was the most detailed to date in discussing Iran’s suspected experiments with military implications; but like others, he fails to mention that almost all of the suspect activity took place seven or more years ago and there is no reliable evidence that it has resumed. A problem, yes; an imminent threat, no.
Bergman also overlooks the fact that Iran has almost certainly NOT made a decision to actually build a bomb and that we are very likely to know if they should make such a decision. How would we know? Simply because those pesky IAEA inspectors are there on site and Iran would have to kick them out and break the seals on their stored uranium in order to produce the high enriched uranium needed for a bomb.
Would Israel actually attack while these international inspectors are at work? No, they would need to give them warning, thereby giving Iran warning that something was coming. The IAEA presence is a trip wire that works both ways. It is an invaluable resource. Risking its loss would be not only foolhardy but self-destructive to Israel and everyone else.
But Bergman's article isn't the only recent bite at this apple. Foreign Affairs hosted a debate between former Defense Department officials Matthew Kroenig and Colin Kahl on whether the United States should bomb Iran itself; Foreign Policy's Steve Walt went several rounds with Kroenig; defense analysts Edridge Colby and Austin Long joined the discussion in the National Interest. Many others weighed in.
Today, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius threw another log on the fire when he reported that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta "believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June" and that the Obama administration is "conducting intense discussions about what an Israeli attack would mean for the United States." He added: "U.S. officials don’t think that Netanyahu has made a final decision to attack, and they note that top Israeli intelligence officials remain skeptical of the project." (Reuters notes archly that Ignatius was "writing from Brussels where Panetta was attending a NATO defense ministers' meeting.")
There have also been a number of items in recent days about Iran's murky ties to al Qaeda, including this Foreign Affairs article by Rand analyst Seth Jones and what appeared to be a follow-up report in the Wall Street Journal (never mind that the information was nearly two years old), as well as a steady drumbeat of alarmist quotes from top Israeli officials -- all reminiscent of the run up to the Iraq war. Add to this mix Iran's threat to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, an ongoing congresssional push for tougher sanctions, and the heated rhetoric coming from Obama's Republican challengers, and you have a recipe for a media feeding frenzy.
Most likely, the real drivers of this latest round are the Western attempts to persuade Iran's Asian customers -- China, India, Japan, South Korea -- to stop buying Iranian oil by persuading them that the only alternative is war. Those efforts are probably doomed, despite Israel's increasingly convincing ambiguity about its ultimate intentions. Asian countries simply don't care all that much about the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon -- they care about their own prosperity above all.
So, is Israel going to attack Iran, despite all of the doubts many have raised? There are only two people who know the answer to that question -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Ehud Barak -- and I don't think they'll announce their decision in the New York Times. The smart money's still betting against an Israeli strike, but the odds do seem to be getting shorter.
"The conditions of the Soviet Union and the Stalinist regime are back in Ukraine," said Yevgenia Tymoshenko in a meeting with reporters in Washington today.
The daughter of imprisoned former Ukrainian prime minister and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko is in Washington this week trying to raise awareness of her mother's condition and the deterioration of democracy in Ukraine. Yesterday, she testified on Capitol Hill and met with Vice President Joe Biden.
In today's briefing, she described the conditions in which her mother has been kept since she was sentenced to seven years in prison last October:
When I see my mother, her health is not getting better. They’ve equipped the investigation room with a special bed where she can lie down because she cannot stand up or sit down or move without pain,. That’s where they continue interrogating her for a few hours every day while she’s lying down...
Her cell is always lit 24 hours a day and she’s under video surveillance, which they say is for her own safety but it’s obviously just to put more psychological pressure on her. Recently they stopped allowing normal food to her. Just bare food. Just bread with no necessary nutrients. She didn’t receive medical treatment, although authorities keep promising all the time that it will be possible for an independent doctor to come and see her, but we haven’t seen the result. No hopefully, next week, independent doctors from Canada and Germany will be able to see her.
Tymoshenko's prosecution in a chaotic, circus-like trial last year involved a 2009 negotiation with Russia over a natural gas sale, which authorities say harmed Ukrainian interests. Her colleagues Yuri Lutsenko -- the former interior minister -- and Valery Ivashchenko --the former acting minister of Defense -- are also currently on trial.
While several governments and organizations including the European Union have condemned Tymoshenko's prosecution as as a politically-motivated campaign against the country's most influential opposition figure, officials from President Viktor Yanukovych's government have maintained that the trial was carried out by law enforcement officials with no interference from the executive branch. Yevgenia, however, believes Yanukovych is directly responsible for her mother's treatment:
He says in interviews ... that all the branches of government are independent and he doesn't have any influence on them. It’s funny, when there was pressure on him and he said 'okay, tomorrow she will be taken to the hospital,' the next day she was taken to the hospital. Obviously, we know that the high council of justice that was created after his judicial reforms, that the majority of this council are presidential people, and they can hire and fire judges and start criminal cases against them.
Until her mother's sentencing, Yevgenia -- who returned to Ukraine in 2005 with her husband, a British rock singer, after nine years living in London -- was never involved in politics. "I’ve never wanted to be a politician," she said. "My mission is just to help my country’s democracy and obviously to help release these political prisoners."
While she says she does not fear for her safety, she believes that her phones are tapped and that she is monitored by state security forces. Her father, Oleksander, fled Ukraine fearing his own prosecution and has been granted asylum in the Czech Republic.
Tymoshenko believes her mother's fate has had a chilling effect on the Ukrainian opposition, with many potential activists thinking, "if this can happen to [the former] leaders of this country than what can happen to me?"
I asked her is she believes there could be a repeat of the kind of anti-government uprising her mother helped lead in 2005, or even protests like those seen in Moscow in recent weeks. "If my mom is out of prison, it's possible," she replied. "That's the reason she will not be freed unless the course of action is changed."
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Put your phones and personal electronics away in North Korea, or risk a messy ending. The Telegraph reported this morning that cell phone users in North Korea will be deemed "war criminals," as part of the new rules being implemented for the 100 days of mourning following former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's death.
Of course, it's easy to see why the regime is becoming so antsy about cell phone usage. The Arab Spring protests were energized by Twitter and Facebook via cell phones, and other mass movements including the Occupy protests were spread through this medium as well. But the more pertinent question is, how effective will this crackdown actually be?
As Peter Beck wrote in 2010, there were over 300,000 cell phone users in North Korea, all on a network developed by Egyptian telecommunications firm Orascom. Reuters reported last November that the number has since grown to nearly a million people on the 3G capable network. Analysts at the time said that the network posed little of a threat to the regime, mainly because officials had controlled outside information so tightly. Additionally, severe limitations on the internet restrict access to any domain except a handful of historical sites that are accessible to a select few people. However, as the Nautilus Institute's Alexandre Mansourov said in a report, "The DPRK mobile communications industry has crossed the Rubicon and the North Korean government can no longer roll it back without paying a severe political price."
Of course, its not to say that the North Koreans won't try their hardest to ban the technology. They did it in 2004 following the explosion of a passenger train, which officials suspected was due to a bomb controlled via a cell phone. To the regime's chagrin, cell phone usage continued to grow in the expanding North Korean black market, with relay stations set up on the Chinese border that connected North Koreans with their counterparts in the South.
Feng Li/Getty Images
This author cannot answer the question posed above from experience. But space sex has been a kind of final frontier for mankind (and a bonanza for headline writers: See "Houston, We Have a Problem"). And Newt Gingrich's contribution to this grand (dare we say grandiose?) quest has resurfaced in the wake of his pledge yesterday in Florida to establish an American colony on the moon by the end of his second term.
In the mid-1990s, Gingrich predicted in his book To Renew America that "space tourism will be a common fact of life during the adulthood of children born this year, that honeymoons in space will be the vogue by 2020." Then came the subtle sex allusion: "Imagine weightlessness and its effects and you will understand some of the attractions," Gingrich mused.
But is this really an attractive proposition? Empirical evidence is in short supply, since it's unclear whether -- beyond the fantasy worlds of Isaac Asimov and Moonraker -- anyone has actually had sex in space. Rumors of astronaut intercourse or weightless sex experiments -- fueled by hoaxes such as a fake NASA report cited in Pierre Kohler's The Final Mission -- have never been proven. In 2010, NASA commander Alan Poindexter responded to a question about space sex by saying that he and his fellow crew members were "professionals" who didn't have personal relationships. Last April, a Russian expert told the Interfax news agency that "there is no official or unofficial evidence that there were instances of sexual intercourse or the carrying out of sexual experiments" in the history of Russian space exploration.
All this hasn't stopped journalists and researchers from investigating the subject. And the consensus appears to be that space sex would be supremely difficult -- and pretty lousy -- for a variety of reasons:
We may not know how humans would respond to these daunting challenges, but we do know how rats have. In 1979, Russian scientists placed male and female rats into a "mating chamber" separated by a partition and sent them into orbit. The rats didn't mate when the doors opened two days later, though it was never entirely clear whether it was low gravity that killed the mood.
There are potential solutions, of course. Future space travelers could create artificial gravity. Or there's the Velcro-outfitted "2Suit," which sci-fi novelist Vanna Bonta invented to facilitate weightless intimacy. For a sense of just how difficult space sex might be, check out this clip from a History Channel documentary on space sex in which Bonta and her husband struggle to kiss in their 2Suits (begins at 6:15):
But don't let these obstacles deter you, Newt! America, as you noted last night, is a country of big, bold ideas. A future of space tourism and sexless honeymoons beckons.
NASA via Getty Images
Look at all of those $1 and $5 (and $2?) bills! It's a bold statement from the 14-year-old daughter of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. But Venezuelans aren't exactly finding Rosinés Chávez's antics cute.
This week, Rosinés posted the picture above on the photo-sharing app Instagram, drawing instant ire from Venezuelans who contrasted the message with her father's critiques of U.S. capitalism or have struggled for years to change local currency, bolívares, into dollars.
In 2003, Chávez imposed tight currency restrictions in an effort to limit capital flight. The unpopular government agency CADIVI now prevents individuals from purchasing more than $3,000 for travel and $400 for web purchases a year -- all at the fixed rate of 4.3 bolívares per dollar (of course, Rosinés could just be flaunting her annual allotment of greenbacks). According to Bloomberg, those who don't receive state approval and are essentially blacklisted from the system seek refuge in the black market, where they pay roughly 8.5 bolívares per dollar. Importers often turn to a currency market run by the central bank that offers a rate of 5.3 bolívares per dollar.
Rosinés has been in the public eye before -- posing on the arm of teen prince Justin Bieber and dutifully uploading it to her Bieber-crazed Twitter account -- but this time her father, whose approval rating is hovering around 55 percent, is running for reelection. And as Foreign Affairs explains today, the opposition, led by the 39-year-old lawyer-turned-governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, is gaining momentum.
Rosinés has her defenders -- in particular her mother Marisabel, who divorced Chávez in 2003 and recently tweeted, "I told her that her mistake wasn't to take [the picture] but rather to upload it to a medium where there are ignorant people who don't respect others." But the photo has also given birth to a Tumblr -- #Rosinesing -- featuring people mocking Rosinés with other items that are hard to find in Venezuela such as cooking oil, medicine, and, well, Rosinés:
Yes, if there's one thing that's not in short supply in Venezuela, it's satire.
Given the CIA's history of intrigue in Latin America, it may not be particularly surprising that the region's leaders are sensitive to signs of U.S. meddling in their countries' internal affairs. But sometimes the conspiracy theories seem pretty outlandish. In July, for example, Bolivian leader Evo Morales expressed concern that U.S. authorities would plant something on his presidential plane when he traveled to New York for the U.N. General Assembly in order to link him with drug trafficking.
Well, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has previously accused the United States of fomenting coups against him, topped Morales' claim today. Reflecting on Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's recent diagnosis of thyroid cancer, Chavez noted that it was "strange, very strange" that he, Kirchner, Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, and Rousseff's predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, had all battled cancer in recent years.
You can see where this is going. Citing revelations this year about the United States carrying out medical experiments in Guatemala in the late 1940s in which subjects were deliberately exposed to sexually transmitted diseases, Chavez wondered whether it would come to light in 50 years that America had developed technology to spread cancer and brandish it as a weapon against its enemies, according to Bloomberg. "Evo take care of yourself, Correa, be careful," Chavez added, in reference to the leaders of Bolivia and Ecuador.
Chavez also said that Cuba's Fidel Castro had warned him of this very scenario. "Fidel always tells me, ‘Chavez be careful, they've developed technology, be careful with what you eat, they could stick you with a small needle,'" he explained.
But, after all the insinuation, Chavez made sure to clarify that he had no proof for these charges. "I don't want to make any rash accusations," Radio Nacional de Venezuela quoted the Venezuelan leader as saying.
Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images
Although Americans haven't cried over the passing of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, funeralized today with great showmanship in Pyongyang, it has been a sad time for groups like the Congolese Socialist Party, who "will continue their mourning until the day of the ceremony of bidding farewell to his bier." The Korean Central News Agency repoted that Syria's Baath Arab Socialist Party sent condolences that "the world movement for liberation and peace lost the most prominent fighter who had defended the people's right from highhanded practices and supremacy by the world imperialists;" and the former Deputy President of the Nigerian Senate, who also happens to be co-chairman of the (get ready for it) International Preparatory Committee for Commemorating the Centenary of Birth of the Great Leader President Kim Il Sung, sent a wreath.
North Korea is obsessed with showing the outside world the level of respect its leaders command. Kim Il Sung's memorial palace features an honorary degree from the fraudulent Kensington University, and Kim Jong Il's "International Friendship Exhibition" proudly showcases hundreds of thousands of gifts he received as tribute, including a basketball Madeleine Albright brought, signed by Michael Jordan, and a coffee table from Robert Mugabe, made from the leg of an elephant.
Other than the Chinese leadership, those offering condolences have been mostly D-list political celebrities, from the chairman of the National Democratic Party of Mongolia to the president of the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist). But at least it means that the KCNA, the only source with a full report of these tributes and one of the world's least dependable news agencies, is probably telling the truth.
The official mourning period for late leader Kim Jong Il has begun in North Korea, which will culminate in a state funeral on Dec. 28. Foreign representatives have been banned from visiting Pyongyang to pay their respects. I can't imagine the guest list of world leaders would be particularly long, but China and Russia might want to send mid-level functionaries and Hugo Chavez may want to say a final farewell to his dear "comrade." It seems like an odd decision, but then again, this is North Korea.
Not that there aren't any foreign VIPs on the invite list. Japanese magician Tenko Hikita, better known as Princess Tenko, has reportedly been invited:
Ms Hikita, who has performed several magic shows in North Korea, received the invitation over the phone and via e-mail from one of Kim's relatives, the manager said, adding that the magician has not yet decided whether to attend.[...]
The magician was invited to North Korea in 1998 and 2000 to perform magic shows and attend Kim's private dinners, the manager said.
Kim was apparently a big fan of her act, and there are even (totally unsubstantiated, most-likely complete British tabloid fantasy) rumors of a romantic relationship between the two. Of course, Kim had some magical powers of his own. North Korea's official news agency has been reporting strange natural phenomena including landslides and an eerie glow around Mt. Paektu -- Kim's supposed birthplace -- since the Dear Leader's death.
If you're interested, here's Princess Tenko's famous water tank escape (Don't try it at home kids!):
Chinese cultural authorities may have thought they pulled off a coup by getting Christian Bale, the Dark Knight himself, to star in Zhang Yimou's epic retelling of the rape of Nanking, the Flowers of War, China's Oscar entry for best foreign-language film. But they got more then they bargained for when the notoriously short-tempered British actor,* in the country for the film premiere, attempted to pay a visit -- along with a CNN crew -- to human rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who has been under house at his home in Shandong province. In case you missed the story, here's what happened:
A foreign ministry spokesman fired back at Bale today:
"If anyone should be embarrassed it's the relevant actor, not the Chinese side," Liu told a daily news briefing, in the country's first reaction to Bale's actions.
"What I understand is that the actor was invited by the director Zhang Yimou to attend the movie premiere. He was not invited to any village in Shandong to create news or make a film," he added.
"If he wants to create news, I don't think that would be welcomed by China."
Chen, a blind self-taught lawyer, has been under house arrest since his release from prison last year, having accused authorities of carrying out forced abortions on villagers in rural China.
It's all well and good for Bale -- who got his first big break playing an orphan in wartime China in Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun -- to bring publicity to this issue. If nothing else, it will make China's international promotion of the new film, in which Bale plays a priest who protects a group of Chinese women from the invading Japanese, a little more awkward. (U.S. critics are mostly panning the film as a "gauzy tearjerker.") Though, given his political beliefs, one wonders why be got involved in this project in the first place.
The person I'm actually interested in hearing from is Zhang Yimou, China's most famous film director. Zhang is known globally for martial arts epics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, the arthouse hit Raise the Red Lantern, and for directing the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies. (Unfortunately, he doesn't address the controversy in an interview posted today with the New York Times' Larry Rohter.
Though he attended film school with Ai Weiwei, Zhang has never been a political artist, which is perfectly legitimate. But given his affiliation with state-sponsored prestige projects like the Olympics and Flowers of War, on which he acknowledges he received substantial official support, he's running the risk of being dismissed internationally as a propagandist. Here's a description from the L.A. Times of the film's Beijing premier:
Director Zhang Yimou’s epic new film "The Flowers of War" doesn't open in the United States until Dec. 23, but the movie, starring Christian Bale and set amid the 1930s Japanese occupation of the Chinese city of Nanjing, premiered Sunday in the People’s Political Consultative Conference, an imposing government building in central Beijing.
After the screening came an hourlong event in which the film’s cast appeared onstage in costume and made short speeches celebrating the film’s achievements. The band of actors that played the Chinese soldiers held their prop rifles high in the air and shouted “Chinese soldiers!” eliciting a smattering of applause from the mostly native crowd.
In the Times interview Zhang says he'd like to make a film about the Cultural Revolution, during which he was sent to the countryside to work on a collective farm as a child. " Of course this is a very sensitive topic, but I am hoping that before I pass on I can actually make these movies," he says. This seems to be an acknowledgement that there are some subjects he'd like to tackle, but can't in today's political climate. That's unfortunate for a director of Zhang's talent, but as long as he continues to prosper by making state-sponsored kitsch, it's a little hard to take him seriously.
*Correction: This post originally stated that Christian Bale is Australian. He is British.
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Ali Tarhouni, Libya's former minister of finance and acting prime minister, has had a busy year. He began 2011 as a professor of economics at the University of Washington, only to rush back to his home country, from which he had been exiled for decades, as the revolution gained steam. He was charged with establishing some semblance of order over the Benghazi-based government's finances during the war, and then took the first steps to incorporate the rebel militias into a national army in the capital of Tripoli.
Now out of government, he was in Washington last week to deliver a personal letter of thanks from Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), to top U.S. policymakers for standing with Libya's rebels in their war to oust Muammar al-Qaddafi.
"That stand -- that moral courageous stand -- changed dramatically the kind of relationship that the United States can have with this part of the world, with Libya," he told Foreign Policy. "The door is wide open ... to build a more strategic relationship between the two countries."
One aspect of that relationship will certainly be cooperation on developing Libya's extensive energy reserves. Tarhouni noted that Libya's oil production had recently reached 1 million barrels a day - a figure that had even shocked both Libyan officials, he said, who initially hadn't expected to reach 500,000 barrels a day by the end of the year.
"There are no foreign companies there, no kind of consulting ... all this is done by Libyan hands and minds and brains and bravery," he said. "The difference is that now people feel that they own these institutions, and that feeling of ownership is what made this revolution successful."
None of this is to say that it's all smooth sailing for Libya from here. As the country witnessed so painfully under Qaddafi, the massive influx of oil revenue can be used to concentrate power in the hands of a few just as easily as rebuild the country. Tarhouni, however, said that the NTC had learned its lesson from the Qaddafi era -- he pointed to the website for Libya's National Oil Company, which lists all the oil contracts signed and shipments sold, as a step forward for transparency.
"Will it be a perfect story? No," he said. "[But] it will not be the same sad story as before."
The interim government's struggle to establish control over the many militias operating in the country has also caused it to clash with its erstwhile ally, Qatar. Abdel Jalil slammed the oil-rich emirate last month for undertaking actions in Libya "that we as the NTC don't know about" -- a criticism that Tarhouni expanded on.
"I think what they have done is basically support the Muslim Brotherhood, and I think that's an infringement on the sovereignty of the country," he said. "They have brought armaments, and they have given them to people that we don't know -- I think paid money to just about everybody. They intervened in committees that have control over security issues."
So, what's next for Tarhouni? He said he will found a new political party, which he describes as a movement that can bring ordinary Libyans into the political process. Without such an option, he fears, the political space could be seized by Islamist movements.
"There's a political vacuum in the country," he said. "The only organized group is the Muslim Brotherhood. They're small, but they're well-organized and financed."
Sounds like it's going to be another busy year.
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
It may be hard to imagine a silver lining in S&P's decision to downgrade Belgium's credit rating from AA+ to AA, but the move may have had the unintended consequence of pressuring Belgian leaders to finally get around to forming a government. The country hasn't had a permanent government since April 2010 -- and hasn't really had a stable one in more than four years -- but an agreement on a budget deal this week may have paved the way for a more permanent arangement, with the king calling on chief negotiator Elio di Rupo to form a coalition. It seems like the downgrade may have finally lit a fire under the country's divided linquistic factions:
Elections were won by Flemish nationalists who demanded wide-ranging reform of the federal government, including more autonomy for its regions. Wallonia, whose economy has lagged behind that of Flanders, has resisted devolution amid fears that will result in lower redistributive payments.
Failure to resolve the conflict has thus far prevented the emergence of a new government, leaving Mr Leterme and his team as a limited-powers “caretaker” administration.
The 580-day political squabble was one of the reasons given by Standard & Poor’s on Friday when it downgraded Belgium’s long-term debt outlook, from double A plus to double A.
The downgrade, after several weeks of Belgium bond yields rising steadily as investors fretted about its creditworthiness, revived stalled negotiations between leaders of the main political parties looking to form the next coalition.
It would certainly be good for Belgium to have a government at a time like this. But like the removal from power of Silvio Berlusconi and George Papandreou, this could also be seen as an example of an international financial entity -- in this case S&P rather than the European Central Bank -- forcing the hand of a sovereign government when the democratic process failed to do so. We'll see how long this newest arrangement can last.
You know that classic trick of telling your only daughter that she's your favorite daughter? The U.S. appears to be employing similar linguistic cunning with its allies. America, you see, is rather promiscuous when it comes to professing best friendship.
On Wednesday, for example, as President Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard (pictured above) finalized a deal to deploy American Marines to Australia's north coast, Obama declared that "the United States has no stronger ally" than Australia. Obama expressed similar sentiments in March after tossing an Australian football around with Gillard in the Oval Office, and prior to that in November 2010 after sitting down with Gillard for the first time (the Australian prime minister, for her part, said the two countries were "great mates").
But, alas, Gillard isn't America's only BFF. During a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the White House in January, President Obama enraged some Britons by proclaiming, "We don't have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy, and the French people." The statement "is by far the strongest indication yet that the current White House has little regard for the Special Relationship" with Britain," fumed Nile Gardiner, whose U.S.-based Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom seeks to advance that very relationship. "Quite what the French have done to merit this kind of high praise from the U.S. president is difficult to fathom." The Daily Mail‘s Tim Shipman warned that Obama "risked offending British troops in Afghanistan" and even speculated that Obama's attitude toward the British may "stem from his Kenyan family's history during colonial rule."
Yet Gardiner and Shipman would have found solace had they only cast their gaze back to the spring of 2010, when Obama declared on two separate occasions that the United States had "no closer friend and ally than the United Kingdom" and "no closer ally and no stronger partner than Great Britain." Or they could have traveled back to 2009, when Obama informed India that it had "no better friend and partner than the people of the United States" and told Canada that "we could not have a better friend and ally."
These diplomatic turns of phrase, of course, didn't start with Obama. President George W. Bush used similar language to describe countries such as Japan, Canada, Great Britain, and, yes, France. In 2006, the New York Times noted that then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had used the ''no better friend'' refrain with no less than Australia, Britain (and the United Kingdom as a whole), Greece, Italy, Japan, Jordan, and Singapore.
While the "no stronger/closer/greater/better ally/friend" formulation has bred cynicism ("our strongest ally is the world leader visiting that day," National Review's Jim Geraghty scoffed in March), it's also a stroke of semantic genius. By avoiding superlatives like "strongest" or "greatest," U.S. leaders appear to shower their most-valued allies with favoritism without actually picking favorites. Or, as the Independent put it in the wake of the Sarkozy/Special Relationship flap, "President Obama merely put France into the Premier League -- or rather the National Basketball Association -- of America's friends. You the French, he said, are part of an ‘A-list' of America's pals, alongside -- but not necessarily ahead of -- Canada, Japan, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and Britain." In other words, it's a seven-way tie for first place.
If "no stronger" denotes the top echelon of American friends, one wonders whether the "one of" designation (as in "one of our best friends") is interchangeable or a kind of subtle diplomatic downgrade. Obama has bestowed the "one of our strongest allies" on a number of countries including Israel, Italy, Japan, Poland, and South Korea, but other government officials have used the "no stronger" language to describe some of these countries. When President Obama visited Germany in June, he praised Germany as "one of our strongest allies" and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as "one of my closest global partners." But Merkel went the more effusive route:
Mr. President, dear Barack, in Berlin in 2008, you spoke to more than 200,000 people. And in your address, you said America has no better partner than Europe. And now it's my turn to say Europe and Germany have no better partner than America.
Will America return the favor? If Germany saves Europe from its debt crisis, the U.S. very well might.
Rick Rycroft/Getty Images
The Confucius Prize -- the award established last year by a Chinese Think Tank to compete with the Nobel Prize -- has been awarded to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin this year:
It praised his decision to go to war in Chechnya in 1999.
“His iron hand and toughness revealed in this war impressed the Russians a lot, and he was regarded to be capable of bringing safety and stability to Russia,” read an English version of the committee’s statement. “He became the anti-terrorist No. 1 and the national hero.”So went the announcement by a group of 16 patriotic scholars awarding what they call their second annual “grass-roots” peace prize.
The sponsors also cited Putin's opposition to the NATO intervention in Libya and "for being selected to join the K.G.B. while in college, “which made true his teenage dream of joining the K.G.B.,” and for “acting as the propagandist of current political events” while in high school.""
The first awarding of the prize was a bit of a catastrophe last year, when the winner, former Taiwanese Vice President Lien Chan, was never informed that he had won, and the statue and prize money were instead handed to a little girl with no relation to him. No word yet on whether Putin will be on hand to pick up his award.
Putin was also due to receive a prize for democracy promotion from a German foundation this year, but it was eventually canceled after a media uproar. He beat out Bill Gates, Angela Merkel, Jacob Zuma, Kofi Annan, and the (Beijing-approved) Panchen Lama for the Confucius Award.
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images
As Europe continues to be roiled by the ongoing effects of the debt crisis, another situation is quietly gripping Greece. Reuters reports that the number of new cases of the virus detected in the first five months of this year was 50 percent higher than the same period last year. These include the country's first-ever cases of mother-child transmissions:
In 2009, the year the baby was born, Greece had detected not a single case of a mother transmitting the AIDS virus to her child, according to the Hellenic Center for Diseases Control and Prevention, a public health agency funded by the Health Ministry. The mother's infection was apparently missed by a nationwide screening program for pregnant women.
"How was it possible for an HIV-positive child to be born in Greece? That is my question," asked the woman's social worker, Anna Kavouri, head of social services at The Center for Life, which helps people living with HIV/AIDS. Kavouri is working with the woman to try to find out what happened and what options she may have for legal redress.
With tough austerity already taking a toll on the Greek economy, the social safety nets that many had become used to, including testing for sexually transmitted diseases, are gradually eroding away. Rising poverty has been linked to increases in prostitution and drug use amongst the population. As Reuters noted, the Greek healthcare system is due for a 36 percent budget cut next year, which will undoubtedly reduce the scale and quality of services.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
Sometimes it takes a phenomenally dumb statement to bring much-needed attention to an important issue. When talk radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh took to the airwaves last week to describe the mass-murdering Lord's Resistance Army as "Christians...fighting the Muslims in Sudan" that the Obama administration was intent of wiping out, it brought widespread condemnation, including from Limbaugh's political allies, and created an opportunity to discuss the crimes of the LRA.
In particular, a video appeal to Limbaugh made by 22-year-old Evelyn Apoko, who was abducted by the LRA when she was 12 and escaped after years in captivity, was widely circulated online. You can read more about her frankly incredible story here. Apoko now lives in the United States, where she has had several rounds of reconstructive surgery to repair the damage done to her face by shrapnel and is a fellow at the Strongheart Group, an international rehabilitation and education program for young people affected by war.
Yesterday she testified before Congress at a hearing on the Obama administration's decision to send 100 troops to assist local efforts to capture LRA leader Joseph Kony. After her testimony, she was kind enough to answer a few of my questions.
Foreign Policy: The video you made recently got a lot of attention. Can you tell me why you thought it was so important to respond to what Rush Limbaugh said?
Evelyn Apoko: When I read about what he said -- I don't know where he got the information, I don't know where he got it from -- and it really hit me hard. How can you say the LRA are Christians? I'm not trying to judge, but it's which I experienced and I witnessed it and it's totally different.
I heard that a lot of people here like to listen to him, you know, and I said well I am going to do something about it. I cannot keep quiet about it because I know that, there's many children still in Congo, still being abducting right now by Joseph Kony. A Christian would no want to do such things to people: try to kill people try, to take children away from their families to become something horrible, you know, brainwash those kids. So that's why I made that video to let you know that the LRA was not Christians and aren't what he thinks they are.
FP: So now the United States is becoming at least somewhat more committed to this fight against the LRA. Do you think that if Joseph Kony is either killed or captured, that's the end of the LRA or are there people who will continue fighting even if he's taken out?
EA: I think it will make a huge difference if they take Joseph Kony away from the field because all the foundation is built on him. He is like the root of it, and all the other commanders, they follow whatever he says, whatever he offer to the commander they have to do it.
FP: What do you think is the most important first thing that a former child soldier needs in those early days and weeks after they're taken out of the battlefield?
EA: You know, those kids are, they are real, they are all like us, you know? I never knew that I was the person that I always wanted to be, you know? It wasn't until I escaped and came back home, I found people who were willing to be my mentor to show me what the right thing to do.
Those kids will need a lot of therapy and a mentor guiding them. I think, in few months they completely can change. Most of them say, "I never knew I was going to turn into this person. I never knew I was going to be the wonderful person who I always want to be. Because all that I've been doing in the bush they forced me to do. I didn't mean to do it." So I think in most cases, they are very young, they can still change.
The Daily Beast runs a very odd excerpt from Condoleezza Rice's new autobiography, describing her meeting with Qaddafi in Libya in 2003. Here's the best bit:
It was Ramadan at the time of my visit, and after sundown the “Brother Leader” insisted that I join him for dinner in his private kitchen. Colby Cooper, who had overseen the arrangements for the trip, protested that this hadn’t been the plan. My security detail did as well, especially when they were told to stay outside. I thought I could take care of myself and went in. At the end of dinner, Qaddafi told me that he’d made a videotape for me. Uh oh, I thought, what is this going to be? It was a quite innocent collection of photos of me with world leaders—President Bush, Vladimir Putin, Hu Jintao, and so on—set to the music of a song called “Black Flower in the White House,” written for me by a Libyan composer. It was weird, but at least it wasn’t raunchy.
There was a lot more bickering at last night's debate than in previous rounds, and the short section on foreign policy was no exception. To the highlights!
MICHELE BACHMANN decscribed 100 non-combat U.S. miltiary advisors in Uganda as a historic "fourth conflict in a foriegn land." She might want to have a look at this list. We're at war with Diego Garcia!:
And don’t forget, this was a historic week when it came to American foreign policy. We saw potentially an international assassination attempt from Iran on American soil. That says something about Iran, that they disrespect the United States so much that they would attempt some sort of a heinous act like that.
Then we saw the president of the United States engage American troops in a fourth conflict in a foreign land. This is historic.
Then on Sunday we heard the reports that now that in Iraq that the 5,000 troops that were going to be left there won’t even be granted immunity by Iraq. This is how disrespected the United States is in the world today, and it’s because of President Obama’s failed policies. He’s taken his eyes off the number-one issue in the world. That’s an Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. That makes all of us much danger — (applause) — and the president of Iran is a genocidal maniac. We need to stand up against Iran.
NEWT GINGRICH made some sense on defense cuts and had a good line:
Now the idea that you'll - the idea that you'll have a bunch historically illiterate politicians who have no sophistication about national security trying to make a numerical decision about the size of the defense budget tells you everything you need to know about the bankruptcy of the current elite in this country - in both parties.
The fact is, we ought to first figure out what threatens us. We ought to figure out what strategies will respond to that. We should figure out what structures we need for those strategies. We should then cost them.
I found - helped found the Military Reform Caucus. I'm a hawk, but I'm a cheap hawk. But the fact is - (laughter) - the fact is, to say I'm going to put the security of the United States up against some arbitrary budget number is suicidally stupid.
RON PAUL did his Ron Paul thing. The crowd liked it:
There’s a lot of money spent in the military budget that doesn’t do any good for our defense. What — how does — how does it help us to keep troops in Korea all these years? We’re broke. We have to borrow this money. Why are we in Japan? Why do we subsidize Germany, and they subsidize their socialized system over there because we pay for it. We’re broke.
And this whole thing that this can’t be on the table, I’ll tell you what. This debt bubble is the thing you’d better really worry about, because it’s imploding on us right now; it’s worldwide. We are no more removed from this than the man in the moon. It’s going to get much worse.
And to cut military spending is a wise thing to do. We would be safer if we weren’t in so many places. We have an empire; we can’t afford it. The empires always bring great nations down. We’ve spread ourselves too thinly around the world. This is what’s happened throughout history.
And we’re doing it to ourselves. The most recent empire to fail was a(n) empire that went into, of all places, Afghanistan.
HERMAN CAIN: Yes, I stand by what I said and what I believe is the opposite of that thing I said (By the way, good question from the Twitter guy):
ANDERSON COOPER: We do have a Twitter question. Given that Israel has just negotiated with Palestine for a soldier, would any of you negotiate for a hostage? Herman Cain, let me ask this to you. A few hours ago you were asked by Wolf Blitzer, if al-Qaida had an American soldier in captivity and they demanded the release of everyone at Guantanamo Bay, would you release them? And you said, quote, "I could see myself authorizing that kind of a transfer." Can you explain?
MR. CAIN: The rest of the statement was quite simply you would have to consider the entire situation. But let me say this first: I would have a policy that we do not negotiate with terrorists. We have to lay that principle down first. (Applause.)
Now, then you have to look at each individual situation and consider all the facts. The point that I made about this particular situation is that I'm sure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to consider a lot of things before he made that. So on the surface, I don't think we can say he did the right thing or not. A responsible decision-maker would have considered everything.
MR. COOPER: But you're saying you could - I mean, in your words, you said that, "I could see myself authorizing that kind of a transfer." Isn't that negotiating with, in this case, al-Qaida?
MR. CAIN: I don't recall him ever saying that it was al-Qaida- related.
MR. COOPER: Yeah, he did. He said -
MR. CAIN: Well, I don't - I - my policy would be we cannot negotiate with terrorists. That's where we have to start as a fundamental principle.
I'd seriously like to hear RICK SANTORUM provide an example of a war that didn't have political objectives:
It is the first duty of the president of the United States, is to protect us. (Applause.) And we should - we should have the resources and we should have all the resources in place to make sure that we can defend our borders, that we can make sure that we - we - when we engage in foreign countries, we do so to succeed. That's been the problem in this administration. We've had political objectives instead of objectives for success, and that's why we haven't succeeded.
And as Michele said and correctly said, the central threat right now is Iran - the disrespect, yes, but it's more than that. They sent a message. The two countries that they went after was the leader of the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia, and the leader of the, quote, "secular world," the United States. This was a call by Iran to say: We are the ones who are going to be the supreme leader of the Islamic world.
We are going to be the supreme leader of the secular world. And that's why they attacked here. And by the way, they did it in coordination with Central and South Americans, which I had been talking about and writing about for 10 years.
RICK PERRY: We should de-fund the United Nations because of the Palestinian membership bid. (Despite the fact that U.S. membership is what's preventing Palestine from being recognized.):
I think it's time for this country to have a very real debate about foreign aid. Clearly, there are places - as a matter of fact, I think it's time for us to have a very serious discussion about defunding the United Nations. When you think about - when you think about the Palestinian Authority circumventing those Oslo accords and going to New York to try to create the conflict and to have themselves approved as a state without going through the proper channels, it is a travesty. And I think it's time not only to have that entire debate about all of our foreign aid, but in particular, the U.N. Why are we funding that organization?
MITT ROMNEY: Get the Chinese to pay for foreign aid:
Foreign aid has several elements. One of those elements is defense, is to make sure that we are able to have the defense resources we want in certain places of the world. That probably ought to fall under the Department of Defense budget rather than a foreign aid budget.
Part of it is humanitarian aid around the world. I happen to think it doesn't make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give it to another country for humanitarian aid. We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people that are - that are - and think of that borrowed money (today ?).
And finally, there's a portion of our foreign aid that allows us to carry out our - our activities in the world, such as what's happening in Pakistan, where we're taking - we're supplying our troops in Afghanistan through Pakistan.
But let me tell you, we're spending more on foreign aid than we ought to be spending.
BACHMANN: Make the Iraqis pay us back:
No, we should not be cutting foreign aid to Israel. Israel is our greatest ally. The biggest problem is the fact that the president - (applause) - the biggest problem with this administration and foreign policy is that President Obama is the first president since Israel declared her sovereignty put daylight between the United States and Israel. That's heavily contributed to the current hostilities that we see in the Middle East region.
Cutting back on foreign aid is one thing. Being reimbursed by nations that we have liberated is another. We should look to Iraq and Libya to reimburse us for part of what we have done to liberate these nations.
PAUL, SANTORUM, and GINGRICH get into a snappy argument about Ronald Reagan that the candidates who have a shot at the nomination wisely stay away from:
REP. PAUL: As a matter of fact, I don't want to make a statement, I want to ask a question. Are you all willing to condemn Ronald Reagan for exchanging weapons for hostages out of Iran? We all know that was done.
MR. SANTORUM: Well, that's not - Iran was a sovereign country, it was not a terrorist organization, number one. That's -
REP. PAUL (?): Well, they were our good friends -
MR. : They're a sovereign country - just like the Palestinian Authority is not good friends of Israel.
REP. PAUL: He negotiated for hostages.
MR. SANTORUM: There's a role - we negotiated with hostages - (inaudible) - the Soviet Union. We've negotiated with hostages, depending on the scale. But there's a difference between releasing terrorists from Guantanamo Bay in response to terrorist demands than -
REP. PAUL: But they're all suspects, they're not terrorists. You haven't convicted them of anything.
MR. SANTORUM: - than negotiating with other countries where we may have an interest.
And that is certainly a proper role for the United States - (inaudible).
MR. COOPER: We've got to take a quick break. I do want to give Speaker Gingrich thirty seconds and then -
MR. GINGRICH: Just very straightforward. (Inaudible) - did a film on Ronald Reagan, there's a very painful moment in the film when he looks in the camera and says: I didn't think we did this; I'm against doing it. I went back and looked. The truth is, we did. It was an enormous mistake. And he thought the Iranian deal was a terrible mistake.
The first foreign-policy-centered debate will be held on Nov. 15. The other Josh has some great suggestions for questions over at The Cable.
Update: Almost forgot this low blow from BACHMANN:
Well, I think the person who really has a problem with illegal immigration in the country is President Obama. It's his uncle and his aunt who are illegal aliens who've been allowed to stay in this country despite the fact that they're illegal.
When an unknown entity, most likely some combination of Western and Israeli intelligence agencies, created Stuxnet, the mysterious computer worm widely thought to be targeted at Iran's nuclear program, cybersecurity experts warned that a new digital threat had been unleashed, with potentially dangerous and wideranging consequences.
David Hoffman wrote about Stuxnet for FP back in March:
The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which has closely monitored the Iranian nuclear effort, reported that in late 2009 or early 2010, Iran decommissioned and replaced about 1,000 centrifuges in its uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz. If the goal of Stuxnet was to "set back Iran's progress" while making detection of the malware difficult, an ISIS report stated, "it may have succeeded, at least for a while."
But there are risks of blowback. Langner warns that such malware can proliferate in unexpected ways: "Stuxnet's attack code, available on the Internet, provides an excellent blueprint and jump-start for developing a new generation of cyber warfare weapons." He added, "Unlike bombs, missiles, and guns, cyber weapons can be copied. The proliferation of cyber weapons cannot be controlled. Stuxnet-inspired weapons and weapon technology will soon be in the hands of rogue nation states, terrorists, organized crime, and legions of leisure hackers."
Industrial control systems that were the target of Stuxnet are spread throughout the world and vulnerable to such attacks. In one 11-year-old Australian case, a disenchanted employee of the company that set up the control system at a sewage plant later decided to sabotage it. From his laptop, the worker ordered it to spill 211,337 gallons of raw sewage, and the control system obeyed -- polluting parks, rivers, and the grounds of a hotel, killing marine life and turning a creek's water black.
According to Symantec, "Duqu's purpose is to gather intelligence data and assets from entities, such as industrial control system manufacturers, in order to more easily conduct a future attack against another third party. The attackers are looking for information such as design documents that could help them mount a future attack on an industrial control facility."
Nobody knows who created Duqu, or why. (Says F-Secure: "Was Duqu written by US Government? Or by Israel? We don't know. Was the target Iran? We don't know.")
But Symantec reports that "the threat was highly targeted toward a limited number of organizations for their specific assets. ... The creators of Duqu had access to the source code of Stuxnet, not just the Stuxnet binaries. The attackers intend to use this capability to gather intelligence from a private entity to aid future attacks on a third party."
So are we seeing another attempt by the same crowd that brought us Stuxnet in the first place? Or disturbing evidence that the predictions of Langner and others are coming true -- that a tool intended to cripple Iran's nuclear enrichment efforts has now been repurposed, possibly by another foreign government or a criminal syndicate?
We may find out in short order. F-Secure's Mikko Hypponen, who has adopted the hashtag #Stuxnet2, warns on his Twitter feed: "If Duqu was indeed an information gathering operation, we should expect the real attack soon."
A.G. Sulzberger reports from Topeka:
Three arms of government, all ostensibly representing the same people, have been at an impasse over who should be responsible for — and pay for — prosecuting people accused of misdemeanor cases of domestic violence.
City leaders had blamed the Shawnee County district attorney for handing off such cases to the city without warning. The district attorney, in turn, said he was forced to not prosecute any misdemeanors and to focus on felonies because the County Commission cut his budget. And county leaders accused the district attorney of using abused women as pawns to negotiate more money for his office.
After both sides dug in, the dispute came to a head Tuesday night.
By a vote of 7 to 3, the City Council repealed the local law that makes domestic violence a crime.
Decline-o-meter: Thankfully, this doesn't actually mean domestic violence has been decriminalized in Topeka. The move was a ploy to force the District Attorney to prosecute the offenses, which remain illegal under Kansas State law. But it's a scary sign of the times and highlights the fact that the prosecutor's office has recently been cut by 10 percent at a time that the city has seen a “recent uptick in violent crime.”
Also worth a read is Michael Lewis' new Vanity Fair dispatch from California, which makes the case that state and municipal governments are the real ticking time bomb of the crisis:
The market for municipal bonds, unlike the market for U.S. government bonds, spooked easily. American cities and states were susceptible to the same cycle of doom that had forced Greece to seek help from the International Monetary Fund.
Lewis' piece sketches out what this will mean for public-safety services like police and firefighting in debt-wracked cities like Vallejo.
There are few signs of the Amerislump in Stockholm. U.S. economists Thomas Sargent and Christopher Sims were awarded this year's Nobel Prize for Economics. This is the 11th straight year that at least one of the recipients of the economics prize has been American. All three of the physics winners this year and one of the medicine winners were also American.
In terms of total, all-time Nobel wins, the United States has more than twice as many as any other country and as this chart from Flowing Data shows, that dominance has only increased in recent years. The glaring exception is the literature category, which no American has won since Toni Morrison in 1993.
China is something of a Nobel underperformer. While there have been dozens of Nobel winners of Chinese descent, and Chinese birth, the only one who actually made his career in China was last year's Peace Prize winnder Liu Xiaobo, one that Beijing is not exactly proud of.
Decline-o-meter: The U.S. has a formidable lead on this one. But keep in mind that this is something of a lagging indicator since, in the science categories, as opposed to the Peace Prize, awards are typically given for work done several years in the past rather than in the previous year.
Also, the large number of immigrants and dual citizens who have won awards in the sciences suggests that the U.S. edge may be its ability to attract talent as much as its ability to produce it. The U.S. will need to continue to be a desirable destination for the best and the brightest if the streak is to continue.
Correction: The website mentioned in the below post is owned by James L'Angelle, a supporter of the Syrian National Council but not an official spokesman for the organization. As such, the images posted on the site -- which L'Angelle said that he took from another blog -- cannot provide insights into the workings of the SNC. The official website of the SNC is www.syriannc.org. We regret the error.
The Syrian National Council (SNC), which was formed on Sunday as an umbrella coalition of groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad's regime, hinted strongly that it was in favor of a no-fly zone over the country by publishing maps of Syrian air defenses on its website.
The SNC's web page on the implementation of a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians, similar to the one that exists over Libya, does not explicitly endorse such an option. It argues that while "the situation itself might warrant an air defense blanket," practical considerations make the creation of a no-fly zone more difficult.
But the pictures on the website tell a different story. Four detailed maps (1,2,3,4) show the placement of Syrian air defenses -- specifically the Soviet-designed S-25, S-75, S-125, and S-200 surface-to-air missiles, and the 2K12 "Kub" air defense system -- that an international force would presumably need to destroy to implement a no-fly zone. Another chart compares Syria's total number of anti-aircraft weapons, which it lists at 3,310, those of other nations.
SNC Chairman Burhan Ghalioun affirmed yesterday that the council "rejects any outside interference that undermines the sovereignty of the Syrian people." SNC members, however, have interpreted that statement to rule out the presence of foreign boots on the ground in Syria -- but not necessarily a no-fly zone.
Syrian National Council
Saudi King Abdullah has had a busy week. First was his slow-motion legalization of women's suffrage this past Sunday. Today, there's news that the sentence of 10 lashes for a woman convicted of the crime of driving while female has been revoked by the king.
The AFP reports:
Saudi King Abdullah has revoked a sentence of 10 lashes imposed on a woman for breaking the ban on women driving in the conservative kingdom, a Saudi princess said Wednesday on her Twitter account.
"Thank God, the lashing of Sheima is cancelled. Thanks to our beloved King. I'm sure all Saudi women will be so happy, I know I am," said Princess Amira al-Taweel, wife of billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.
"In tough times we stand together; in good times we celebrate together," the princess said. "I'm proud to be Saudi. To all Active Saudi women thank u for ur efforts."
Several months ago, a video surfaced on the Internet of a woman protesting the ban by driving and posting her commentary as she did it. While that did not cascade into the wider changes that have been associated with the Arab Spring, the subsequent protests were a cultural earthquake that had many within the kingdom questioning the meaning of this movement. As FP's Simon Henderson reported on Monday, Saudi Arabia is facing multiple challenges in the coming future, one of which is the cultural direction of the country.
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
The Iranian president just wrapped up his speech. In contrast to other years, he kept the esoteric Twelver theology to a minimum, but it was still a classic Ahmadinejad speech -- sweeping and conspiracy minded, with few references to current events. He made one interesting reference to the increase in illicit drug trafficking from Afghanistan under NATO's watch. There was a long section on the responsibility of Western nations for the global financial crisis, including a somewhat unexpected endorsement of the gold standard.
Interestingly, despite some perfunctory shots at the "Zionists" and their western supporters, he didn't have much to say on the topic dominated discussion this week -- Palestinian statehood.
This passage is likely to get the most headlines:
By using their imperialistic media network which is under the influence of colonialism they threaten anyone who questions the Holocaust and the September 11 event with sanctions and military action.
Last year, when the need to form a fact-finding team to undertake a thorough investigation concerning the hidden elements involved in September 11 incident was brought up; an idea also endorsed by all independent governments and nations as well as by the majority in the United States, my country and myself came under pressure and threat by the government of the United States.
Instead of assigning a fact-finding team, they killed the main perpetrator and threw his body into the sea.
Would it not have been reasonable to bring to justice and openly bring to trial the main perpetrator of the incident in order to identify the elements behind the safe space provided for the invading aircraft to attack the twin world trade
Why should it not have been allowed to bring him to trial to help recognize
those who launched terrorist groups and brought wars and other miseries into the region?
Is there any classified information that must be kept secret?
Ahmadinejad didn't mention to the recent upheavals in the Middle East by name, but there were a few subtle references. Likely referring to Libya, Ahmadinejad asked, "Can the flower of democracy blossom from NATO’s missiles, rockets or guns?"
Here's how he closed:
Today nations have been awakened. With the increase in public awareness they no longer succumb to oppressions and discriminations.
The world is now witnessing more than ever, the widespread awakening in Islamic lands, in Asia, Europe, and America. These movements are ever expanding their spirit everyday and influence the pursuit of the realization of justice, freedom and the creation of a better tomorrow.
Our great nation stands ready to join hands with other nations to march on this beautiful path in harmony and in line with the shared aspirations of mankind.
The latest tempest in a teapot in this season of austerity? Congressional outrage over the Justice Department's spending on food and beverages at one of its conferences in 2009. An inspector general's audit report found that the department paid $4,200 for 250 muffins and $2,880 for 300 cookies and brownies.
"By itemizing these costs, with service and gratuity, muffins cost over $16 each and cookies and brownies cost almost $10 each," the report reads.
Never mind that this analysis is not necessarily accurate. Chuck Grassley, the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, issued a statement decrying the muffin-spending: "The Justice Department appears to be blind to the economic realities our country is facing."
Frank Wolf, whose committee oversees the Justice Department in the House, chimed in with his own letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder:
"It is clear that while American taxpayers were tightening their belts and making difficult financial decisions, the department was splurging on wasteful snacks and drinks as well as unnecessary event planning 'consultants.'"
OK, let's stipulate that spending $16, or even $10, for a muffin is excessive, and a waste of taxpayer money. But give me a break -- this kind of spending is hardly the problem.
Not only are spiraling health-care costs the real cause of America's long-term budget woes -- something Congress has done hardly anything to address -- but defense spending is by far the biggest chunk of annual discretionary spending. The Pentagon can't even pass an audit, and won't be able to do so until 2017, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's Senate testimony today. With the enthusiastic patronage of Congress, the U.S. military spends tens of billions of dollars on weapons systems that either don't work as adverstised (Future Combat Systems, anyone?), cost far more than budgeted (all of them), or are wholly unnecessary (remember the Kafkaesque fight over the Joint Strike Fighter's "alternate engine"?).
The Justice Department's entire budget request for 2012 is $28 billion -- less than what the U.S. spends in Iraq and Afghanistan in three months. Before it was cut to only $200 million in July, the Pentagon's budget for military bands was $325 million. Military bands!
But by all means, rant about the muffins...
It turns out Mexican President Felipe Calderon's statements on U.S. television hinting at drug legalization this week were a preview of his UNGA speech, in which he suggested "market alternatives" to drug interdiction and singled out the United States specifically. A full text isn't posted yet so these quotes are all from my rushed transcription.
After discussing the Arab Spring, Calderon pivoted, saying, "We have to be aware that organized crime today is killing more people and more young people than all the dictatorial regimes in the world."
"More than ever, consumer countries, where drugs are consumed, must take effective action to radically cut demand. I will be told that this is not possible. That the demand for drugs continues to rise, as indeed is the case here in the United States, where nearly 30 percent of young people consume drugs. What is the solution?[...]
Consumer countries are morally obliged to reduce the vast economic demand. If you can’t cut it, cut the economic profist. You have to find how to staunch this this demand. Seek out all possible options, including market alternatives, so that drugs trafficking ceases to be a source of violence in Latin America and the Carribean and several African countries.
As if noted before, Latin American heads of state including Calderon's predecessor Vicente Fox tend to become born-again legalizers after they leave office, perhaps since they're no longer feeling the pressure from up north.
A sitting, center-right Mexican president making a speech in New York calling for "market alternatives" to combating drug trafficking would seem to be a pretty major development.
Not a particularly eventful speech, and one that seemed tailored toward avoiding controversy during an election season. Obama called for Security Council sanctions on Syria, which are unlikely to happen. He called for a "peaceful transition of power from President Saleh" in Yemen. He described America as a "close friend of Bahrain," but called for further reform.
Here's the section on Israel/Palestine that everyone was waiting for:
Now I know that for many in this hall, one issue stands as a test for these principles – and for American foreign policy: the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
One year ago, I stood at this podium and called for an independent Palestine. I believed then – and I believe now – that the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own. But what I also said is that genuine peace can only be realized between Israelis and Palestinians themselves. One year later, despite extensive efforts by America and others, the parties have not bridged their differences. Faced with this stalemate, I put forward a new basis for negotiations in May. That basis is clear, and well known to all of us here. Israelis must know that any agreement provides assurances for their security. Palestinians deserve to know the territorial basis of their state.
I know that many are frustrated by the lack of progress. So am I. But the question isn’t the goal we seek – the question is how to reach it. And I am convinced that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN – if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians – not us – who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and security; on refugees and Jerusalem.
Peace depends upon compromise among peoples who must live together long after our speeches are over, and our votes have been counted. That is the lesson of Northern Ireland, where ancient antagonists bridged their differences. That is the lesson of Sudan, where a negotiated settlement led to an independent state. And that is the path to a Palestinian state.
We seek a future where Palestinians live in a sovereign state of their own, with no limit to what they can achieve. There is no question that the Palestinians have seen that vision delayed for too long. And it is precisely because we believe so strongly in the aspirations of the Palestinian people that America has invested so much time and effort in the building of a Palestinian state, and the negotiations that can achieve one.
America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable, and our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day. Let’s be honest: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile, persecution, and the fresh memory of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they were.
These facts cannot be denied. The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors. And friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this truth, just as friends of Israel must recognize the need to pursue a two state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine.
That truth – that each side has legitimate aspirations – is what makes peace so hard. And the deadlock will only be broken when each side learns to stand in each other’s shoes. That’s what we should be encouraging. This body – founded, as it was, out of the ashes of war and genocide; dedicated, as it is, to the dignity of every person – must recognize the reality that is lived by both the Palestinians and the Israelis. The measure of our actions must always be whether they advance the right of Israeli and Palestinian children to live in peace and security, with dignity and opportunity. We will only succeed in that effort if we can encourage the parties to sit down together, to listen to each other, and to understand each other’s hopes and fears. That is the project to which America is committed. And that is what the United Nations should be focused on in the weeks and months to come.
Not much news there.
As for the wars America doesn't talk about, the military effort in Iraq and the "transition" in Afghanistan got only glancing mention. China and India were never mentioned. The president reaffirmed U.S. commitment to tackling HIV/AIDs, climate change, the global financial crisis, and famine in the Horn of Africa, but no new initiatives were announced.
It's hardly a new point to make, but this speech combined with Amb. Susan Rice half-jokingly saying she's spent "a hundred percent" of her time on Israel-Palestine issues this week, underscores the degree to which this conflict continues to suck attention away from nearly every other pressing global issue.
Given his normal man-of-the-people schtick and weekly telethons, Hugo Chavez's international appearances are notable for his habit of recommending books. He sent sales of Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival skyrocketing with his 2006 UNGA speech and did the same for author Eduardo Galeano when he gave a copy of Open Veins of Latin America to Barack Obama. This year, with Palestinian issues on the agenda, Chavez is plugging the work of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and Spanish poet Juan Goytisolo in a letter to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon:
In his memorable essay The Grandeur of Arafat, the great French philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote with the full weight of the truth: The Palestinian cause is first and foremost the set of injustices that these people have suffered and continue to suffer. And I dare add that the Palestinian cause also represents a constant and unwavering will to resist, already written in the historic memory of the human condition. A will to resist that is born of the most profound love for the earth. Mahmoud Darwish, the infinite voice of the longed-for Palestine, with heartfelt conscience speaks about this love: We don’t need memories/ because we carry within us Mount Carmelo/ and in our eyelids is the herb of Galilee./ Don’t say: If only we could flow to my country like a river!/ Don’t say that!/ Because we are in the flesh of our country/ and our country is in our flesh.
Against those who falsely assert that what has happened to the Palestinian people is not genocide, Deleuze himself states with unfaltering lucidity: From beginning to end, it involved acting as if the Palestinian people not only must not exist, but had never existed. It represents the very essence of genocide: to decree that a people do not exist; to deny them the right to existence.In this regard, the great Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo is quite right when he forcefully states: The biblical promise of the land of Judea and Samaria to the tribes of Israel is not a notarized property contract that authorizes the eviction of those who were born and live on that land. This is precisely why conflict resolution in the Middle East must, necessarily, bring justice to the Palestinian people; this is the only path to peace.
Stephen Chernin/Getty Images
Over the past six months, Syria has erupted into chaos. As protesters took to the streets to demand the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian army and police responded with deadly force: The United Nations now estimates 2,600 people have perished in the violence.
But what the protest movement has lacked so far is a unified front that could express the Syrian opposition's vision for the country's future, and press for international action against the Assad regime. While Syria's historically fractious opposition groups have been unsuccessful in overcoming their differences, a new coalition has an opportunity to establish a united front. On Thursday, a group of 140 dissidents announced the establishment of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the first organized effort to challenge the ferocity of Assad's "killing machine."
Foreign Policy exclusively obtained a document that lays out the SNC's structure, membership, and goals. It also received the SNC's "National Consensus Charter," which describes the principles that will guide the council's actions.
The first document says that the council is currently made up of 140 members. It provides the name of 71 members, but states that the rest have been kept secret "for security reasons." 60 percent of the SNC's membership resides inside Syria, while 40 percent lives abroad. A slim majority -- 52 percent -- of the council's membership is made up of representatives of the grassroots movements that have driven the recent protests, while the rest includes members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the Kurdish National Bloc, the Damascus Declaration group, and other prominent opposition figures. The SNC will be divided into eight main offices, including bureaus to undertake tasks such as media relations, policy planning, and legal affairs and human rights.
SNC's charter describes the formation of an anti-Assad umbrella coalition as "a pressing necessity and its absence is an offense against the revolution." It details three main principles: a unified effort to overthrow Assad's regime, the desire to maintain the peaceful nature of the revolution, and a national initiative to create a democratic state that respects the equality of Syria's diverse ethnic and religious groups. The council also asserted its aim to develop a roadmap for democratic change within Syria.
Ausama Monajed, a member of the newly created council and the executive director of the Strategic Research and Communication Centre, detailed what the council hopes to accomplish in a conversation with FP.
Foreign Policy: What message do you want to send the Syrian people, and the rest of the international community?
Ausama Monajed: The Syrian National Council aims to present the reality of Syria to international media outlets and policy makers, to be able to have an impact on global policies by providing governments with the right information and analysis; to draft roadmaps for a just Syria; and to boost the morale of Syrian demonstrators by presenting them with a unified body that will support their activities.
FP: Why does the council oppose military and foreign intervention in Syria?
AM: Syrians oppose military intervention because of the negative experience countries in the region have had. The council only reflects the demands of the Syrian street.
Assad's regime is built on self-interest, not on a minority, as perceived. Alawites [Assad's religious sect] are starting to peel away from the regime and many are starting to oppose it, realizing that Assad will flee, leaving them to deal with the aftermath of his sectarian actions. A coup is a possible scenario, a sudden collapse is also a possibility.
FP: What groups are represented in the council? How will the council, made up of so many voices, effectively form a united oppositional front to Assad?
AM: All Syrian groups. The differences in views of the council members are insignificant at this time, as all parties involved - or actually all Syrians -- agree on certain principles, such as that the Syrian revolution should remain peaceful, national unity is to be stressed and all sectarian or exceptionalist tendencies are to be extricated, while foreign military intervention will be rejected.
The charter added that all minorities and parties in Syria will have their rights guaranteed without any discrimination -- and that includes recognition of the Kurdish identity, and reaching a fair solution to Kurdish issues within the scope of national unity.
FP: Who will lead the council? Will the names of the council members still within Syria be released? Is there a formal list of the dissident members residing outside of Syria? Will more members be chosen in the near future?
AM: Leadership elections will take place in a few days. While the names of some of the members have been revealed, we did not reveal the rest of the names for security reasons.
FP: Ahmed Ramadan, a council member, has spoken of the possibility of a TV channel being launched to address the demands of the Syrian people. Is this true?
AM: Everything is possible.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
According to a number of blogs, for a brief period today there was an app/game available in Apple's iTunes store illustrating some of the more controversial aspects of the iPhone's supply chain. Here a description from the website of producer MolleIndustria:
Phone Story is a game for smartphone devices that attempts to provoke a critical reflection on its own technological platform. Under the shiny surface of our electronic gadgets, behind its polished interface, hides the product of a troubling supply chain that stretches across the globe. Phone Story represents this process with four educational games that make the player symbolically complicit in coltan extraction in Congo, outsourced labor in China, e-waste in Pakistan and gadget consumerism in the West.
Keep Phone Story on your device as a reminder of your impact. All of the revenues raised go directly to workers' organizations and other non-profits that are working to stop the horrors represented in the game.
Remarkably, the game made it past Apple's initial review, but was removed today. Kyle Orland at Gamasutra writes:
But shortly after the game was announced and made available for purchase on the App Store earlier this morning, MolleIndustria tweeted that it had been removed for violating four separate app store review guidelines (as noticed by sister site IndieGames.com).
The cited guidelines prohibit apps that "depict violence or child abuse," "present objectionable or crude content," "contain false, fraudulent of misleading representations" or fail to "comply with all legal requirements."
Maybe they could produce a spin-off for Android market, where the requirements are less stringent? It's not like Apple's the only company using African coltan and FoxConn labor to make its phones.
Hat Tip: Several folks via Twitter
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