Yemen's transitional government is signaling that it may release Abdulelah Haider Shaye, a Yemeni journalist who was arrested in August 2010 and who U.S. intelligence officials believe supported al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Shaye was sentenced to five years in prison in January 2011 in a trial that drew condemnation from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and human rights and journalist advocacy organizations have since campaigned for his release.
In a meeting with U.N. officials on Monday, Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi told reporters that he has made plans to release Shaye, Yemen's al-Masdar reports. Al Jazeera bureau chief Saeed Thabit Saeed, who attended the meeting, wrote on Facebook, "We received a serious promise from [Hadi] that our colleague Abdulelah Shaye will be released," and Times of London correspondent Iona Craig confirmed with Hadi's office that there "is an order from the president to release Shaye soon."
This is not the first time that Shaye's release has been considered. In fact, soon after his 2011 trial, Shaye's release seemed imminent. "We were waiting for the release of the pardon -- it was printed out and prepared in a file for the president to sign and announce the next day," Shaye's lawyer, Abdulrahman Barman, told Jeremy Scahill in his new book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. But that plan fell through after a Feb. 2 phone call between then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh and President Barack Obama, in which Obama "expressed concern over the release of [Shaye], who had been sentenced to five years in prison for his association with AQAP," according to a readout of the call released by the White House.
The White House's position hasn't changed in the ensuing two years. "We remain concerned about al-Shai's potential early release due to his association with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told FP by email on Wednesday.
Nor, for that matter, is Shaye's release certain. Mohammed al-Basha, a spokesperson for the Yemeni embassy in Washington, walked back reports of the journalist's imminent release, telling FP that President Hadi had only agreed to consider ending Shaye's detention.
Shaye's investigative work drew international attention in 2009 when he reported that the United States had conducted an airstrike that killed 41 civilians in the Yemeni village of al-Majalla, and managed to interview New Mexico-born AQAP cleric Anwar al-Awlaki on multiple occasions.
In July 2010, the Yemeni government arrested and beat Shaye, and interrogators told him, "We will destroy your life if you keep on talking," according to Scahill's account. Shaye was arrested a month later, beaten again, held in solitary confinement for 34 days without access to a lawyer, and then rushed through a trial on charges that included recruiting and propagandizing for AQAP and encouraging the assassination of President Saleh and his son. By the time Obama intervened in Shaye's pardon in 2011, protesters had begun filling city streets calling for the end of Saleh's three-decade presidency; Saleh resigned in November 2011, and since then his vice president, Hadi, has governed as part of what is slated to be a two-year period of reform and transition.
The U.S. government's case against Shaye is unclear. U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein told Craig in February 2012 that "Shaye is in jail because he was facilitating al Qaeda and its planning for attacks on Americans," but did not elaborate. Before Shaye's arrest, an U.S. intelligence official, who told Scahill that he "was persuaded that [Shaye] was an agent," discouraged journalists from working with Shaye on account of "'classified evidence' indicat[ing] that Shaye was 'cooperating' with al Qaeda."
Since his imprisonment, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Federation of Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Yemen-based Freedom Foundation have campaigned for Shaye's release, and last November Yemeni Justice Minister Murshid al-Arashani publicly demanded that Hadi issue a pardon. Though it appears the Yemeni president may be preparing to meet that request, Shaye's family remains doubtful. "It's like the same as previous promises," Shaye's brother Khaled told Craig. "So far this is the fourth time Hadi has made this promise."
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The Egyptian government is promoting a new blog showcasing the work of the Egyptian Foreign Policy Forum, a state-sponsored think tank. But the target audience isn't just Egyptians -- the first few posts indicate that officials are looking for an audience abroad as much as at home.
That's because almost all of the articles are translated into English. They include big-picture think pieces with titles like "Egyptian Foreign Policy, a New Vision," and more specific policy outlines like "Egypt and Russia, Horizons of Cooperation." What's more: They're translated verbatim.
Maybe that shouldn't be a surprise. But over the past year, Egyptian officials have made a habit of saying one thing in English and something very different to their constituents in Arabic. There was the Twitter sparring last September, when the Muslim Brotherhood's English-language feed tweeted after the protests on Sept. 11, "We r relieved none of @USEmbassyCairo staff were hamed & hope US-Eg relations will sustain turbulence of Tuesday's events," while praising the protests, which breached the embassy compound, in Arabic. "Thanks. By the way, have you checked out your own Arabic feeds? I hope you know we read those too," the U.S. Embassy account shot back (the tweet was later deleted). More recently, there was the Brotherhood's consolatory message to the U.S. government in the wake of the Boston marathon bombing, and, in stark contrast, a bizarre, conspiracy-laden rant posted to Facebook in Arabic.
The blog's sole Arabic-only posts so far are on Egyptian-Sudanese and Egyptian-Libyan relations, and they don't delve into anything scandalous -- both are pretty bland discussions of border economic zones and, in the case of Sudan, water-sharing rights.
There are a couple interesting tidbits tucked away in the English articles. Specifically, "A New Vision" states Egypt's intention to achieve a position of "regional leadership and special international status," including "a permanent seat in the UN Security Council." (Egypt's been swinging for the fences lately -- in March, it proposed joining the BRICS as well.) In "Egypt and Russia," the Egyptian administration expresses its interest in "achieving balance, independence, and political influence in foreign relations," breaking free of "the shackles of subordination and occupation." "This can be realized through the development of relations with different countries across the globe including Russia," the policy paper states.
All in all, it's not that provocative (though maybe a bit grandiose). But is it sincere? There's no reason to think these bland policy pronouncements aren't expressed in good faith -- but they're just a few more data points amid Egypt's many mixed messages.
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Amid international accusations of chemical weapons use by Assad government forces in Syria's civil war, Secretary of State John Kerry told NATO members on Tuesday that the alliance should consider contingency planning and prepare for possible threats to NATO nations emanating from Syria, including chemical weapons threats (after Kerry's remarks, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen clarified that NATO is not considering intervening in Syria).
Earlier this year, however, NATO did deploy three Patriot missile batteries in Turkey, a NATO state, in response to concerns in Ankara that southern Turkish cities could be targeted by Syrian Scud missiles. Other NATO countries are acting independently to facilitate arms provisions, non-lethal supplies, and training for rebels. And earlier this month, Pentagon officials announced they were doubling the U.S. military presence in Jordan to 200 military planners, with the potential to expand that presence to as many as 20,000 soldiers in an emergency.
In Washington, meanwhile, there is a mounting policy debate about the "least bad" options for the United States in responding to the protracted conflict in Syria. In a policy speech delivered last week, Sen. John McCain, a consistent advocate of intervention in Syria, outlined potential options for U.S. involvement in the conflict:
No one should think that we have to destroy every air defense system or put tens of thousands of boots on the ground to make a difference in Syria. We have more limited options. We could, for example, organize an overt and large-scale operation to train and equip Syrian opposition forces. We could use our precision strike capabilities to target Assad's aircraft and Scud missile launchers on the ground, without our pilots having to fly into the teeth of Syria's air defenses. We could use similar weapons to selectively destroy artillery pieces and make their crews think twice about remaining at their posts. We could also use Patriot missile batteries outside of Syria to help protect safe zones inside of Syria.
So, is McCain on to something? Could his options serve as blueprints for intervention? The United States already operates a clandestine training program for Syrian rebels in Jordan, and growing the program could be a "very significant gamechanger," Jeffrey White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, told FP.
Precision strikes, while feasible, would require "something like a mini-campaign" with a dedicated effort to find targets, some of which may have to be struck multiple times, White said. "It couldn't be done in one fell swoop."
Joshua Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who has consulted for the administration, suggests on his blog, Syria Comment, that the Obama administration may be receptive to the idea of Patriot-enforced safe zones:
For some time, the language used in the White House to frame the Syria problem has been that of containment. Here are some of the oft repeated phrases I have been hearing from White House insiders:
- "Keep the violence inside Syria"
- "Prepare for Syrian failure"
- "Shore up the neighbors"
- "There are no good guys in Syria"
Adm. James Stavridis, the supreme allied commander for Europe, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that, in his opinion, Patriot-enforced no-fly zones along Syria's northern border "would be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing down the Assad regime."
"Assuming we have permission to deploy Patriot missiles appropriately in Turkey and Jordan, they could be used to implement a no-fly zone," White told FP, though he pointed out that the density of the fighting in southern Syria would limit the effectiveness of a no-fly zone in establishing a buffer zone along the Jordanian border.
There is a potential downside to establishing safe zones, though. White pointed to the potential for retaliation, saying, "If you had Patriot missiles trying to enforce a no-fly/no-missile zone, they could be targeted. There could be some risk to these forces, I wouldn't say significant risk, but some risk." Landis also cites concerns raised by David Pollock, also of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, that safe zones, depending on how they're enforced, could lead to blowback. Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch has also suggested that buffer zones could trap refugees in the war zone without access to necessary aid.
What's clear is that President Obama is now facing increased pressure to act in Syria based on comments made in Israel last month that the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line." What comes after that red line's been crossed? Well, that's far less certain.
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Sen. John McCain sounded a civil note at the beginning of his remarks at a Center for a New American Security event on Thursday, April 18. "What Republicans need now is a vigourous contest on ideas on national security and foreign policy," he told a group of military, foreign policy, and business professionals. "This contest can and should be conducted respectfully and without name-calling, which is something an old wacko-bird like me must remember from time to time."
Though he didn't resort to epithets, the rest of the speech featured a series of broadsides against isolationists and non-interventionists of both parties, but especially senators on McCain's own side of the aisle. "When it comes to the politics of national security," McCain said, "my beloved Republican Party has some soul-searching to do."
In particular, McCain singled out his "libertarian friends" who participated in Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster against John Brennan's confirmation as CIA director. "Rather than debate the very real dilemmas of targeted killing," McCain said, "my colleagues chose to focus instead on the theoretical possibility that the president would use a drone to kill Americans on U.S. soil even if they're not engaged in hostilities. As misguided as this exercise was, the political pressures on Republicans to join in were significant, and many ultimately did -- including many who know better."
As a compromise, McCain suggested revising the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which provides the legal justification for the targeted killing program, and codifying drone policy "to preserve, but clarify the commander-in-chief's war powers, while insisting on greater transparency and broader congressional oversight of how these war powers are employed."
He inveighed against the "emergence of a military-industrial-congressional complex that has corrupted and crippled the defense acquisition process," though his critique focused on the runaway costs of projects like the F-35 and Littoral Combat Ship rather than the defense budget writ large, which he has pushed to maintain. He also went after colleagues who have tried to slash foreign aid, pointing out that, "It now seems that every piece of legislation that the Senate considers faces an inevitable amendment that would cut off all our assistance to Egypt or some other critical country. And unfortunately, these kinds of provisions keep winning more and more votes." McCain sounded downright weary as he described "explaining" and "reminding people" of the purpose of foreign aid. "While foreign aid might not make its recipients love us," he noted, "it does further our national security interests and values."
McCain went after colleagues' knee-jerk opposition to the United Nations as well. When asked about the Law of the Sea Treaty, he said, "It's probably not going to come up. Not with the makeup of this Senate, that's the reality. We couldn't even do a disabilities treaty, for God's sake." The problem? Here, McCain got sarcastic. "It's just, you know, it's the 'U.N.' It's the 'U.N.,'" he exclaimed, making air quotes and shrugging.
Despite the critiques of sequestration and U.S. policies on Syria and Iran, President Obama got off pretty easy by comparison. "Right now, the far left and far right in America are coming together in favor of pulling us back from the world," McCain observed. "The president and I have had our differences, many of those differences will persist, but there are times these days when I feel that I have more in common on foreign policy with President Obama than I do with some in my party."
And while McCain seemed uncomfortable with the many rounds of nuclear negotiations with Iran, he said he didn't envy the president's decision on the use of force. "It's going to be probably one of the most difficult decisions the president of the United States has ever had to make," he argued, "and it's very rarely that I'm glad that I'm not the president of the United States, but this is one of [those times]."
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If Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin is to be believed, Russia has stopped worrying about U.S. missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. In a speech delivered Tuesday at the Russian embassy in London, Rogozin claimed that the American missile shield no longer poses a threat to his country -- a statement that contradicts years of Russian officials howling about the presence of U.S. missiles near the Russian border.
"We have solved the issue of penetrating the missile shield," Rogozin said, according to RIA Novosti. "We regret that the United States waste their money on missile defense and compel us to do the same. The missile shield is nothing for us, it's a bluff. It poses no military threat, but remains a political and economic problem."
American officials have repeatedly tried to assure the Russians that the missile defense system is intended to counter the missile threat from Iran, but this has done little to assuage the Russians. In his remarks Tuesday, Rogozin called the system "excessive" and "provocative by nature" -- attributes that made Russia feel "compelled to search for a wise and asymmetric response."
Could it be that Russia has found a way to circumvent the missile defense system?
If so, Rogozin would certainly be in a position to know. Prior to his elevation to deputy prime minister, Rogozin served as the Russian envoy to NATO and as President Vladimir Putin's special envoy to the alliance on missile defense issues. In his current role, Rogozin oversees the Russian defense industry, a position that would certainly give him the insight to comment on innovations in Russian missile technology.
While Rogozin's comments may amount to nothing more than bluster, he has previously alluded to Russia's desire to create an effective military counterweight to U.S. missile defense systems. In February, he replied to comments by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen defending the alliance's missile shield by writing on Twitter that "we also feel responsibility for protecting our population from your missile threat and will create a reliable air and space defense." In June, 2011, Rogozin wrote in the International Herald Tribune that for "Russia it is a matter of principle to remove any threat to its strategic capabilities, which guarantee our sovereignty and independence."
But until now, there has been no indication from Russia that it has found a way to counter U.S. missile defense systems through technical means.
Interestingly, when in March the United States chose to bolster its missile defense systems in the Pacific region in response to threats issued by North Korea, it effectively canceled the final phase of the missile system the Russians opposed. That development led to hopes that Russia and the United States might reach a rapprochement on the issue -- one that did not appear.
Perhaps that was because Russia has been waiting to unveil a military breakthrough to render the issue irrelevant.
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There aren't many surprises in the new WikiLeaks document dump -- the organization is calling the collection of 1.7 million documents dated from 1973 to 1976 "The Kissinger Cables" -- but there are a few interesting finds. For example, there's the request from Morocco's King Hassan II for any information the United States had on an unidentified flying object spotted along the Moroccan coast in the early morning hours of Sept. 19, 1976.
Four days after the incident, the commander of Morocco's gendarmerie requested a meeting with the U.S. defense attaché in Rabat. In their meeting, the Moroccan officer noted that there had been reports across the country of an object sighted arcing across the night sky, and that the king had taken a personal interest in following up on the incident.
"Reports from these widely separate locations were remarkably similar, i.e., that the object was on a generally southwest to northeast course, it was a silvery luminous circular shape and gave off intermittent trails of bright sparks and fragments, and made no noise," the U.S. defense attaché wrote in his cable to Washington. The next day, the attaché met with another gendarmerie officer who had actually seen the UFO. The officer "described the UFO as flying parallel to the coast at a relatively low speed, as if it were an aircraft preparing to land. It first appeared to him as a disc-shaped object, but as it came closer he saw it as a luminous tubular-shaped object."
"I frankly do not know what to make of these sighting, although I find intriguing the similarity of the descriptions reported from widely dispersed locations," the attaché wrote to Washington on Sept. 25. "In any event, I wish to be able to respond promptly to King Hassan's request for information, and would appreciate anything you can do to assist me in this."
One week later, on Oct. 2, Washington cabled back with the terse message: "Hope to have answer for you next week. Regards." Three days later, the secretary's office followed up. "It is difficult to offer any definitive explanation as to the cause or origin of the UFOs sighted in the Moroccan area between 0100 and 0130 local time 19 September 1976," the cable began, before suggesting that, based on descriptions of its trajectory and appearance, it "could conceivably be compatible with a meteor, or a decaying satellite," though U.S. officials noted that "the [U.S. government] is unaware of any US aircraft or satellite activity, either military or civilian, in the Moroccan area which might have been mistaken for such sightings."
Despite their appearance in WikiLeaks' new cache of documents, the cables aren't exactly breaking news. They were quoted at length in a 1990 book titled The UFO Cover-Up: What the Government Won't Say, in which the authors speculated that the 10-day delay between the initial cable from Rabat and Washington's reply was to allow time for secret briefings, and refuted the official narrative:
Is it impossible for a bright meteor to have been responsible for the sightings? Not really, if one examines the information very generally. A silvery, luminous object giving off a bright trail and sparks is not unlike a description of a meteor. However, the sightings were reported over a span of about an hour. The UFO, according to some witnesses, traveled at a slow speed, like an aircraft about to land. And the southwest to northeast course of the UFO would have brought it in the general direction of Iran, where other activity was ongoing. Coincidence?
Well, yes. It was a coincidence. In October 2012, Canadian amateur satellite watcher Ted Molczan (who was profiled by the New York Times in 2008) posted on a satellite interest site that the trajectory and timing of the incident matches the re-entry of a piece of space junk -- specifically a Soviet booster engine from a rocket launched two months earlier -- in July 1976. While it's true that the UFO was not of U.S. origin, it appears the cable from the State Department was either misleading or not fully informed about the incident. The Soviet rocket debris was tracked by U.S. Strategic Command and cataloged in its Space Track database, where Molczan eventually found the record. So there you go, mystery solved -- 35 years later.
(Hat tip to @arabist.)
On Wednesday we received the bizarre news that Russian President Vladimir Putin's name had mistakenly ended up on a secret criminal blacklist compiled by Finnish police. Those placed on the list face automatic detainment at the Finnish border and up to six months in prison.
Flustered Finnish law enforcement officials have been quick to apologize and remove Putin's name from the register. But what's more interesting is how Putin's name ended up alongside bosses of organized crime in the first place.
Apparently, this debacle is all thanks to Putin's ties to the Nochnye Volki, or Night Wolves -- a biker gang in Moscow that he is known to ride with on occasion (see video above). Though a biker gang and Vladmir Putin might seem like good fit, his relationship with this particular gang is more than a little ironic. Founded in the 1980s to defend rock musicians' right to perform uncensored "anti-Soviet" concerts, the Night Wolves claim to fight for freedom and reject the law. Yet Vladimir Putin, who called Pussy Riot's protest songs a threat to Russia's moral foundation and threw its members in jail, has chosen this biker gang to ride around with? How does either side justify that partnership?
It's unclear whether the Night Wolves are actually dangerous enough to warrant a place on Finland's blacklist. According to the Guardian, a member of the Wolves was involved in a shootout against a rival gang in November, "allegedly as part of a feud over the Wolves' establishment links." As the Guardian points out, it seems the Putin-Night Wolves relationship hasn't worked out too well for either party.
Is Iraq a U.S. ally? Judging by his Washington Post op-ed this morning, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seems to think so:
Iraq is not a protectorate of the United States; it is a sovereign partner. Partners do not always agree, but they consider and respect each other's views. In that spirit, we ask the United States to consider Iraq's views on challenging issues, especially those of regional importance....
The United States has not "lost" Iraq. Instead, in Iraq, the United States has found a partner for our shared strategic concerns and our common efforts on energy, economics and the promotion of peace and democracy.
Maliki paints a particularly rosy picture of U.S.-Iraqi relations, touting the potential for investment, the growth of oil production, and the country's democratization and upcoming elections. But do any experts actually believe this?
On the 10-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion last month, Post reporter Ernesto Londoño wrote that "the country is neither the failed state that seemed all but inevitable during the darkest days of the war nor the model democracy that the Americans set out to build.... The nation is no longer defined or notably influenced by its relationship with the United States." That dynamic was on display on March 24, when Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly had a frustrating discussion with Maliki about the flow of arms from Iran to Syria through Iraqi airspace -- the latest evidence of a persistent decline in U.S. influence in Iraq, as Baghdad has drifted closer to the policies of neighboring Iran.
But does that mean Iraq is not the "sovereign partner" of the United States that Maliki describes? The assessments are mixed. Speaking with Maliki as U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, President Obama declared, "Our strong presence in the Middle East endures, and the United States will never waiver in the defense of our allies, our partners, and our interests."
But a year and a half later, Iraq historian Toby Dodge sees the country backsliding into autocracy under Maliki. Liberal interventionist war advocate Kanan Makiya points to Iraq's leadership as a stumbling block, saying in a recent profile in the Boston Globe that the "Iraqi leadership proved itself capricious, greedy, selfish -- it was a failure on the part of the elites." In the New York Times, Ramzy Mardini of the Iraq Inistitute for Strategic Studies assessed the situation bluntly: "A decade since the occupation of Iraq began, Baghdad still cannot be considered an ally of the United States.... An alliance today is beyond anyone's reach."
Others are more optimistic. Former CIA director James Woolsey, for instance, told the Daily Beast, "There is much more Iranian influence than I would like to see. I don't know that it is hopeless." Former Undersecretary of Defense Dov Zakheim sees the ouster of the Hussein regime and the government that has followed as "marginally a good thing, but nowhere near as good as what we thought." Writing in Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat today, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz suggests that "it is remarkable that Iraq has done as well as it has thus far" and encourages continued engagement, noting that "it is not too late for the US and Europe and the GCC countries to engage with Iraq to help steer it on a course toward inclusive and accountable governance."
And he may be on to something. Today, for the second time in two days, Iraqi officials forced an inspection in Baghdad of an Iranian plane bound for Syria. But despite estimates that Iran is transporting as much as five tons of munitions per Syria-bound flight, Iraqi officials said they only found humanitarian supplies.
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Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy has spent the past three days in India on his first state visit to the country. Before heading to New Delhi, though, he floated an odd -- and more than a little ambitious -- idea.
"I am hoping BRICS would one day become E-BRICS where E stands for Egypt," he told India's The Hindu in an interview in Cairo published this week.
It's a bold proposal. The Kremlin has acknowledged the comments but didn't seem particularly enthused about the idea, and it's unclear whether Morsy broached the subject in his meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The BRICS -- that's Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa -- are an economic alliance of top-tier rising powers, the crème de la crème of the developing world. Egypt? Not so much.
Let's put this in perspective. The average GDP of the BRICS countries in 2011 (in current U.S. dollars, according to the World Bank) was $2.78 trillion dollars. Egypt? $230 billion. The country's development isn't exactly in high gear, either. The instability of the revolution has dealt a blow to Egypt's economy, and its estimated growth rate for 2012 is a meager 2 percent, which places it behind four of five BRICS countries. Even as Morsy was meeting with Singh, he was sharing the front page of Egyptian dailies with the news that BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Hyundai are planning to withdraw from the Egyptian market as new customs laws take effect.
Morsy knows this, and clarified that he hopes "the E-BRICS would emerge when we start moving the economy." So it's something of a longer-term goal. Perhaps Morsy might consider one of these starter coalitions instead? Then again, the MIKT (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey) countries, which are moving beyond "emerging market" territory, have an average GDP of $973 billion, so it might still be a stretch. In the same interview with The Hindu, Morsy expressed a desire to be more active in the Non-Aligned Movement. It's probably a good place to start; the NAM is far less discriminatory.
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It was widely reported last week that this year's Aipac conference, which ends tomorrow, will culminate in a mass lobbying effort by attendees to persuade law makers to officially designate Israel a major strategic ally of the United States, a designation that until now has never been awarded.
So does the bill, the "U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act," actually make a new class of alliance for Israel? Is the House about to name Israel a super-best-friend-for-life ally of the United States?
No. They're not.
The bill, which can be accessed online here, simply states that, "Congress declares that Israel is a major strategic partner of the United States." Nowhere in the bill does it define or codify this terminology; it doesn't grant special privileges like, say, being the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid or being permitted nuclear weapons without pressure to sign conventions regulating them, both of which are already part of U.S.-Israel policy. It is just a "declaration of policy," much in the way that last year's "U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act of 2012" stated:
It is the policy of the United States to reaffirm our unwavering commitment to the security of the State of Israel as a Jewish state. As President Barack Obama stated on December 16, 2011, "America's commitment and my commitment to Israel and Israel's security is unshakeable." And as President George W. Bush stated before the Israeli Knesset on May 15, 2008, on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, "The alliance between our governments is unbreakable, yet the source of our friendship runs deeper than any treaty."
The new legislation, which extends existing legislation on military, cyber, and energy cooperation, does not alter Israel's formal designation as a "major non-NATO ally" of the United States (other major non-NATO allies make for some strange bedfellows, including Egypt, Afghanistan, and Pakistan). At this point, in other words, there's no need for other U.S. allies to start getting jealous about new official labels -- there aren't any.
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We hear plenty about drugs and conflict diamonds; but the international black market for timber -- a global trade that has been plaguing the forests of South America, Central America, and Asia for years, and one that is estimated to be worth anywhere from 30 to 100 billion dollars a year -- gets a lot less attention.
Illegal wood had a rare moment in the spotlight on Feb. 19, when Interpol reported the results of its first international operation to target timber trafficking. "Operation Lead," which brought together law enforcement agencies from twelve Latin American countries, was carried out over a month late last year and resulted in the seizure of the equivalent of 2,000 truckloads of timber (worth millions of dollars) and the arrests of more than 200 people.
While individual countries in the region, such as Columbia and Brazil, have cracked down on the illegal trade in the past, the transnational nature of the crime makes it difficult for domestic law enforcement agencies, which are limited in their jurisdiction, to be very effective. An international approach has the potential to be more successful. According to the head of Interpol's Environmental Crime Program, Operation Lead has laid the foundations for future efforts to combat the global trade.
So why timber? It is not as lucrative as the drug trade, but it still brings in a fair amount of cash. According to a recent Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) report, in Laos, rare rosewood logs can fetch $18,000 per cubic meter. The EIA also notes that traffickers can earn $1,700 for a high-quality mahogany tree on the Peruvian black market, and about $1,000 for a cedar tree. In 2006, illegal logging in Peru was bringing up to $72 million in profits per year. Some estimates put the yearly profits in Columbia as high as $200 million.
In Latin America, the drug and timber trades aren't mutually exclusive. Though the extent of the connection is not yet clear, timber trafficking overlaps with organized crime and the drug trade in interesting ways in countries like Colombia and Peru.
For one, it has been suggested that timber offers drug traffickers an opportunity to invest in a new illegal market -- to "diversify their portfolios" -- as some governments become more successful (however slightly) in cracking down on the drug trade.
In Peru, where an estimated 80 percent of total timber exports are illegal, the wood trafficking network has become so sophisticated that drug traffickers are now piggybacking on the timber trade -- literally. In 2006, a U.S. State Department cable (later released by WikiLeaks) reported that drug traffickers in the Andes moving coca paste and opium "appear to be getting involved in transport of illegal timber, for both its profitability and its utility as concealment." In 2010, Peruvian police seized nearly 400 kilos of cocaine and coca base hidden in a single shipment of Sinaloa cedar.
Logging may also be viewed as a profitable way to open land for the farming of coca. According to a 2011 UN report, since 1981, more than 3,000 square miles of Columbia's forests have been cut down illegally to make way for coca crops. In 2008, then Columbian Vice President Francisco Santos Calderon announced, "If you snort a gram of cocaine, you are destroying 4 square meters of rainforest."
All considered, it isn't surprising that the illegal logging trade has taken a violent turn in some countries. Last year in Cambodia, an anti-logging activist and a reporter covering the illegal trade were both murdered. Three Brazilian activists were killed in 2011 -- just three out of dozens that have been murdered over the past several years.
It should be noted that illegal logging is not entirely run by timber kingpins and "wood mafias." Local communities also cut down wood illegally (to use, not to sell), and have probably been doing so for generations.
The countries affected are going to have to take strong action if they want to save their forests, because the problem is not going to fix itself. The world's appetite for high-value wood is high and is only getting higher. In its report entitled "Appetite for Destruction: China's Trade in Illegal Timber," the EIA states that between 2000 and 2011, the quantity of global log imports tripled, with a value that increased fivefold. China -- with wood product exports that have increased almost sevenfold in the past decade, with new construction projects beginning every day, and with a new bourgeoisie that covets fancy rosewood lounge sets (which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars), cars with wood-embellished interiors, and yachts -- comprises a large part of that demand. According to the EIA, China is the world's top importer of illegal timber. "More than half of China's current supplies of raw timber material are sourced from countries with a high risk of illegal logging and poor forest governance," including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Madagascar, Myanmar, and Papua New Guinea.
Nicaragua in particular has seen enormous growth in its illegal timber market thanks to Chinese demand. In 2008, Nicaraguan exports of granadillo totalled about $127,000. In 2011, after other Central American countries enacted stricter wood export regulations, that number grew fifty fold, to $6 million.
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Chinese government officials considered using an armed unmanned aerial vehicle to target a drug trafficker hiding in Myanmar, according to an interview with Liu Yuejin, the director of China's Public Security Ministry's anti-drug bureau that appeared in Global Times on Monday. The target, Naw Kham, wanted for a drug-trafficking related attack that killed 13 Chinese sailors, was eventually captured last April in a joint Chinese-Laotian operation in Laos and is now appealing a death sentence in China. Yuejin's comments are an unusual glimpse into China's considerations for the use of drone strikes, a tactic that is no longer used exclusively by the United States.
The proposed Chinese strike would have occurred in Myanmar's restive north, where the Naypyidaw government has struggled to control ethnic conflicts and a thriving drug trade. Much like the U.S. official rationale as for strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, China could have either sought Naypyidaw's support or credibly claimed that the government was "unwilling or unable to suppress the threat posed by the individual being targeted," in the words of the Obama administration's white paper on its own targeted killing program. Similarly, as a violent drug trafficker tied to the deaths of Chinese sailors, China could have justified the potential drone strike under the white paper's loose definition of the "imminent threat of violent attack" against the homeland -- much as the United States justified targeting al Qaeda militants tied to the bombing of the USS Cole with drone strikes, beginning Abu Ali al-Harithi in 2002 (well before the white paper was authored).
The admission that the Chinese government considered a drone strike comes as its relationship with Myanmar has become increasingly strained amid stalled economic projects and new competition for influence with the West. China also appears to have placed special emphasis on their UAV programs in recent months, unveiling new models (that look suspiciously like U.S.-made Predator and Reaper drones) and retrofitting old Shenyang J-6 jets to fly by remote control.
Yuejin told Global Times that the drone strike option was passed over because of instructions to capture Naw Kham alive, but his comments demonstrate that China is weighing targeted killings seriously. When -- almost certainly not "if" -- China conducts its first drone strike, it will join just three other nations -- the United States, Britain, and Israel -- and place itself among the drone powers in the ongoing international assessment of the legality of these operations and whether they abridge international law and the established concept of sovereignty.
PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
As climate talks continue to grind along in Doha, food security would seem to be a major concern (especially as the U.N. issues warnings about the increasingly desperate food situation in Syria). However, the question of how farmers will feed the world's booming population while adjusting to changing weather patterns appears to have been sidelined even as this year's crippling drought in the U.S. sent grain prices to record highs.
That doesn't mean, however, that the race for food security hasn't already begun. As the authors of the recently released book The Global Farms Race argue, cash-rich but resource-poor governments have been quietly making controversial bids for the arable fields of foreign lands to shore up their own food security. Since the 2008 global food crisis, these "land grabs" -- considered an economic lifeline by supporters and neocolonialism by critics -- have been booming. The editors of the book note a 2011 Oxfam study that claimed nearly 230 million hectares of land have been sold or leased since 2001, mostly after 2008 (that's about the size of Western Europe). In one of the most publicized deals, the South Korean company Daewoo Logistics leased 3.2 million acres in Madagascar in 2008 to grow corn and palm oil so that the company could "ensure our food security." The deal, which was eventually canceled, was so unpopular domestically that it contributed to an uprising that helped to oust Madagascar's President Marc Ravalomanana.
While that deal fell apart, countless others have gone through, sparking debates over the economic, environmental, and political implications of exporting crops from food-insecure countries. As Michael Kugelman, co-editor of the book with Susan L. Levenstein, said at a book launch event at the Wilson Center on Tuesday, this development marks "a new phase of the global food crisis" -- one that may help countries importing food, but has grave implications for the countries hosting the crops. One of the disaster scenarios of these large-scale investments is that they will recreate scenes straight out of the Irish Potato Famine, during which crops were shipped out of the starving nation to feed wealthy foreigners. But equally urgent are the day-to-day economic, environmental, and political ramifications of the deals, from the effects of clearing forest to make way for new farmland to the implications of replacing food crops with biofuels.
Defenders of this type of direct foreign investment often tout the willingness of investors to share technology -- such as seeds for drought-resistant plants and satellite monitoring for crops -- with the host nation. However, corrupt governments willing to offer deals that don't benefit their own populations compromise these promises of development. (Unlike the land-grabs of yore, host governments solicit many of these deals. According to Kugelman, Pakistan offered a 100,000-strong security detail to protect the property of foreign investors and other countries have offered "fire sales" on land in the form of tax write-offs).
As the book acknowledges, these deals are most likely here to stay, so the focus is on minimizing the potential conflict over the contentious real estate. Many of the policy recommendations provided by the book lean toward community supported agriculture programs: Wealthy nations contracting directly with small-scale farmers to meet food needs while also providing them with the technology and capital to improve their yields. While that's all well and good, the willingness and ability of foreign investors to abide by these recommendations seems doubtful, especially given the difficulty of enforcing even well-established international economic rules.
The inability of the current multilateral climate talks to make meaningful headway on even a single key issue highlights the inherent problem with these arrangements. "You can have all the rules and regulations for land rights," contributor Derek Byerlee, the World Bank's former Rural Strategy advisor, said on Tuesday, "But you have to be able to implement them."
Panda diplomacy has become a pillar of China's soft power strategy, but the death of a week-old baby panda in Japan -- the first born to Tokyo's Ueno zoo in 24 years -- stands to disappoint those who hoped that its birth would motivate "people-to-people sentiment" and help overcome the strained China-Japan relationship. The unnamed cub, who died of pneumonia, had already become a national sensation. As AFP reported, "Newscasts had dedicated a nightly segment to the male cub's daily activities since his birth on July 5, with retailers unveiling a host of panda-themed products in celebration." A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said Wednesday that the country laments Tokyo's loss.
This may be a major blow, but the legacy of the 5-ounce panda is not without controversy. On June 29, Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara drew the ire of China's foreign ministry for suggesting that the zoo name the unborn baby cub after the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea controlled by Japan, but whose sovereignty is disputed by China. The Chinese foreign ministry responded with a statement calling Ishihara's "scheme to undermine China-Japan relations" a "clumsy performance" that "will only tarnish the image of Japan and Tokyo."
Hopefully, China's panda diplomacy gesture toward Malaysia will chart a smoother path.
YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
The International Criminal Court handed down its first sentence on Tuesday to Congolese war criminal Thomas Lubanga for the use of child soldiers. After over three years at trial, and following his conviction in March of this year, the court issued a 14-year sentence, with one judge dissenting on the grounds that the nature of the crimes warranted a longer sentence. The court has not yet decided where Lubanga will serve out his term.
This is the court's first conviction and sentencing after nearly a decade in existence. But others are in the works, including the first head of state to be tried, Cote D'Ivoire's former president, Laurent Gbagbo, who was transferred to the ICC for trial in November 2011. (Sudan's current president Omar al-Bashir has also been indicted but has yet to be arrested). Gbagbo is charged with crimes against humanity, including murder and rape, for acts committed after the 2010 election when electoral disputes erupted into violence as Gbagbo refused to relinquish the presidency. The next step in his trial, the confirmation of charges, is expected in August 2012.
Under the tenure of Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo -- who was replaced earlier this month by new Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda -- the court has issued open (public) indictments against 28 individuals from seven countries -- all in Africa. The list is a who's who of notorious political leaders, including Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Saif al-Qaddafi, and military officials. The Court relies on national law enforcement, Interpol and the UN to arrest those charged, and only five of those indicted are currently in custody. 15 cases are currently before the Court, though trials are only scheduled for those in the Court's custody (some pre-trial proceedings are underway in absentia).
The Court's summer schedule shows proceedings will continue against the Central African Republic's Jean Pierre Bemba accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes; Sudan's Abdallah Banda and Saleh Jerbo for war crimes, including attacks on peacekeepers, and Gbagbo. Nearly a decade elapsed between Lubanga's crimes and his sentencing by the court, so don't expect speedy proceedings for any of them.
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The first plane carrying South Sudanese "returnees" out of Israel arrived in Juba, South Sudan, on June 19.
Amidst escalating tensions over African migration to Israel, Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai described the eventual "return to their homes and countries" of [migrants] as "inevitable." Of Israel's 60,000 African migrants, the majority come from Eritrea and the two Sudans.
Greeting the plane in Juba, Joseph Lual Achuil, South Sudan's minister of humanitarian affairs, claimed that the process of return was voluntary: "People are not being deported. We have agreed with the Israeli government for our people to be peacefully and voluntarily repatriated," he said. While ‘returnees' are being offered a stipend of $1300 per adult and $500 per child by the Israeli government, the degree to which repatriation is truly a matter of choice is debatable.
While those who left Israel on the first plane volunteered to do so, the crackdown, known under the code name "Operation Going Home," has rounded up and arrested hundreds of migrants so far. The usually bustling neighborhood of ‘Little Africa' in South Tel Aviv is reportedly deserted. New laws allowing migrants to be jailed for up to three years without trial or deportation came into effect on June 3. In addition, any Israeli citizen harboring or helping migrants can now face jail time of up to 15 years.
The current government campaign to stem the flow of African migrants has begun with newly independent South Sudan -- the only one of the top three source countries which maintains diplomatic relations with Israel.
Many South Sudanese fled to Israel to escape the ongoing violence at home, often crossing the Sinai desert from Egypt by foot to reach Israel. Last week, an Israeli court ruled that 1,500 South Sudanese are no longer at risk in their homeland and can be returned home, giving the government the legal right to deport them.
Recent months have seen protests and acts of vandalism targeting African communities in Israel, an atmosphere that many claim has been instigated by the comments of some politicians. The deportation drive is also creating immense discomfort amongst many Israeli citizens, who are acutely of aware of their own identity as an immigrant nation founded by Jews fleeing persecution in Europe after World War II.
The subtext beneath the deportation process is a racial argument that cuts to the core of competing views about what Israel's identity as a ‘Jewish state' should entail. For the current government, identity is clearly framed by ethno-religious demographics. As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu argues:
"If we don't stop their entry, the problem that currently stands at 60,000 could grow to 600,000, and that threatens our existence as a Jewish and democratic state. This phenomenon is very grave and threatens the social fabric of society, our national security and our national identity."
Whether such a view can be justified as commensurate with Jewish values remains to be decided.
Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn't choose his foreign visits lightly. On May 31, Putin makes his first trip abroad since being inaugurated for a third term as president on May 7, to neighboring Belarus. The visit is highly symbolic of Russia's desire to be the leader in the post-Soviet space, as well as Putin's continued support for the authoritarian president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko (also known as "Europe's Last Dictator"). Afterwards, Putin will head to Germany and France, Russia's major trading partners in the EU. After the European visits, Putin will fly to speak with Uzbek ruler Islam Karimov in Tashkent, to Beijing, and finally to Astana, Kazakhstan, to meet with long-time ruler Nursultan Kazarbayev; countries central to Putin's vision of a Eurasian Union.
Earlier in the month, Putin suddenly declined to attend the G8 Summit in Camp David, under pretext that he was too busy forming a new Cabinet of Ministers, sending instead Prime Minister Medvedev. The move was widely seen as a snub to President Obama, as Putin avoided a meeting with the president, and sidestepped making the U.S. his first foreign visit. A few days later, Obama announced he would not be able to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Vladivostok this September, because it conflicted with the Democratic Party convention.
Putin has now also taken the opportunity to snub the UK, by announcing he will not attend the opening of the London 2012 Olympics, even though the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held on Russian territory in Sochi. Likely, Medvedev will once again be sent in his stead. Russian-British relations have been tense since the 2006 poisoning of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London. Moreover the West has been pressuring Russian officials over the 2009 death of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky while he was detained in prison. Putin's foreign trip destinations are by no means accidental.
Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng left the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Wednesday after a deal was negotiated by his American hosts, despite concern over his ultimate fate in the hands of the Chinese government and uncertainty about the circumstances of his release. However, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing seems confident enough that they can ultimately file this episode in their "wins" folder that they have released photos of Chen's stay through the embassy's official Flickr stream.
In the carefully choreographed photo above, Chen clasps hands with Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for Asian and Pacific Asian affairs, while U.S. ambassador to China Gary Locke beams in the background.
Here, Campbell gives the Chinese dissident a crushing bear hug. Campbell led negotiations for Chen's release with Harold Koh, legal advisor to the Department of State, after being dispatched by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, currently in Beijing for high-level negotiations.
While driving to the hospital where he was to reunite with his family, Chen reportedly called Clinton to thank her for her role in facilitating the release. While one senior administration official reported that Chen told Clinton he wanted to "kiss her," others have said he was saying "see her" in broken English.
In an interview with the AP, Chen claimed that he left the embassy only after he was told by U.S. officials that Chinese authorities had threatened his wife's life. However, Campbell insists that Chen left willingly.
Whether or not Chen will now be free from house arrest remains unclear. In an interview with Britain's Channel 4 from his hospital room, Chen expressed fear. "Nobody from the [U.S.] Embassy is here. I don't understand why. They promised to be here," he said.
U.S. officials say that Chen will be allowed to study at a university of his choosing as part of the release. Hopefully, the intense media interest generated by the case may help to keep him and his family safe.
Members of Turkey's Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) proposed a more decentralized Turkish government at a Brookings Institution panel on Tuesday.
"We don't believe that a centralized system of government that manages all of these different ethnic groups and communities is viable and productive," said BDP chairman Selahattin Demirtas. "We see this [decentralized government] as the most viable alternative."
Demirtas also emphasized that he is not calling for a completely independent Kurdish entity:
"We are not talking about the Kurdish people [living] in a region called Kurdistan."
Though he stressed that the BDP has no "organic relationship" with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which the Turkish government classifies as a terrorist organization, Demirtas noted that the PKK is not the problem, but a result of the problem:
"We believe the PKK is part of the reality of this conflic, and we believe that they should be communicated with.... We don't see the PKK as a problem, we see it as a result of the problem."
Ahmet Türk of the Democratic Society Party (DTP) agreed, and urged the audience to consider that the Turkish government's longstanding policy of denying its Kurdish citizens their civil rights might be the root of the problem.
"You don't provide Kurds an opportunity to express themselves, so the PKK emerged."
While Demirtas made sure to explain that his party does not condone violence, he did take issue with the Turkish government's definition of terrorism:
"This means of violence that is being used has to be understood correctly. The simple, traditional [definition of] terrorism cannot be used here. This is a 100-year-old conflict.... As long as you are unable to define it correctly, the wrong definition will cause misunderstanding."
BDP member and Turkish parliamentarian Gülten Kisanak argued that the PKK's numbers are evidence that the government must rethink its position toward the organization:
"According to data provided by the Turkish chief of staff, since 1978 40,000 Kurds have participated in the PKK and lost their life in fighting the struggle. I believe these numbers cannot be seen as terrorism in that sense."
The BDP may support President Abdullah Gül's call for a new "flexible and freedom-based" constitution, but its forward-thinking notions about the PKK isn't going to win it many points with Ankara.
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Is China through with North Korea? That's the Guardian's takeaway from the exchanges between American diplomats and their Chinese and South Korean counterparts in the first batches of State Department cables released by Wikileaks on Sunday and Monday. "China has signalled its readiness to accept Korean reunification and is privately distancing itself from the North Korean regime," Simon Tisdall writes, and goes on to note evidence of "China's shift:" Nods of approval from Chinese officials for a single Korea governed from Seoul, expressions of alarm from Beijing about Pyongyang's 2009 missile tests, and a Chinese official's complaint that Kim Jong-il's regime is behaving like a "spoiled child."
It's all in there -- but sifting through the Wikileaks cables, that reading strikes me as a bit breathless. It's true that there are a couple of significant nods toward the idea of reunification. One comes in a 2009 meeting between Richard E. Hoagland and Cheng Guoping, respectively the American and Chinese ambassadors to Kazakhstan, at a hotel restaurant in the capital city of Astana. (Hoagland, incidentally, is a great reporter -- his account of the meeting is some of the best reading in the Wikileaks files.) "When asked about the reunification of Korea," Hoagland writes, "Guoping said China hopes for peaceful reunification in the long-term, but he expects the two countries to remain separate in the short-term."
The other is some intelligence relayed from South Korean then-Vice Foreign Minister Chun Yung-woo, who told U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens that Chinese officials "would be comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a ‘benign alliance' -- as long as Korea was not hostile towards China." The breaking point, Chun reportedly told Stephens, was North Korea's 2006 nuclear test, after which Chinese officials were increasingly willing to "face the new reality" that North Korea had outlived its usefulness as a buffer between Chinese and American forces. Chun (in Stephens's paraphrase) notes that the "tremendous trade and labor-export opportunities for Chinese companies" in a newly opened North Korea might would make reunification easier to swallow, and points out that in any case, "China's strategic economic interests now lie with the United States, Japan, and South Korea -- not North Korea."
Otherwise, Beijing's sharpest words -- such as Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei's remark that the Kim regime is acting like a "spoiled child" trying to get the attention of the "adult" United States -- came mostly in the wake of Pyongyang's April 2009 missile test, in the context of Beijing's efforts to engage Washington in bilateral talks with Pyongyang, Kim Jong-il's principal diplomatic goal at the time. Beijing's emissaries mostly just seem to be trying to keep the Americans at the table.
David E. Sanger's take in the New York Times better captures the essence of the cables, which is to say their ambiguity -- based on the selective evidence here, Beijing seems only somewhat less in the dark about what exactly is going on in Pyongyang than North Korea's enemies. Other corners of the Wikileaks trove are rich in plot and detail: the Obama administration's slow disenchantment with Turkey, byzantine Azeri-Iranian money laundering schemes, Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh's entanglements with the U.S. military. The North Korean cables are mostly a lot of chatter around the edges of a giant question mark. As Sanger writes, they "are long on educated guesses and short on facts, illustrating why their subject is known as the Black Hole of Asia." The dominant mood of the Chinese diplomats who appear throughout them is exhaustion -- a sense, plenty familiar in Washington and Seoul, that no one really knows what to do next.
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In his new book, George W. Bush writes that he was under pressure not just from hawks in the United States to invade Iraq, but from Arab statesmen as well.
In a revealing passage, Bush writes that President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt "told Tommy Franks that Iraq had biological weapons and was certain to use them on [American] troops," a VOA article highlights. Bush goes on to say that Mubarak "refused to make the allegation in public for fear of inciting the Arab street."
Additionally, Saudi Arabia's Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who served as the influential Saudi ambassador to the United States for over 20 years and who Bush calls "a friend of mine since dad's presidency" also wanted a "decision" to be made -- although this seems less direct an indictment than "Iraq has biological weapons and will use them against you."
So while the Arab street was firmly opposed to American intervention in Iraq, Arab heads of states were quietly and secretly either encouraging or tacitly endorsing allegations that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, a fact that was directly being used as the principal justification for invading the country.
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Gallup's annual Governance survey finds 57% of Americans expressing a great deal or fair amount of trust in the U.S. government to handle international problems. That is down from 62% a year ago, but remains higher than the percentage trusting Washington to handle domestic problems, now at a record-low 46%.
In some sense, this result is a very strange one during the bloodiest year of an unpopular, decade-long war. Especially considering that this administration actively decided to send more troops to Afghanistan -- however reluctantly -- while the economy was in sorry shape before Obama came into office.
But the polls may say less about the government's performance than where the country's attention and priorities right now. It's likely that the public gives the government decent marks on foreign policy simply because they haven't been paying very close attention to it.
Given the president that Americans' elected nearly two years ago, it's remarkable that foreign policy today seems too peripheral to the national conversation. Obama first distinguished himself from frontrunner Hillary Clinton because of his unwavering opposition to the war in Iraq and made restoring America's image in the world a major theme of his campaign, going so far as to hold a de facto campaign rally in Berlin at the height of the campaign.
As James Traub wrote last March, while most presidents are elected for their domestic plans but remembered for their handling of foreign policy crises, Obama -- at least in the first half of his term -- has often seemed like an international president forced by circumstances to focus on domestic priorities:
When the White House announced last week that Obama would postpone a planned trip to Asia to lobby for his health-care legislation, it confirmed that foreign policy would take a back seat to America's grave domestic and political problems. The economic crisis, of course, had radically reshaped Obama's scale of priorities long before he assumed office; foreign affairs took up less than a quarter of his inaugural address. And then Republican intractability sent the debate over health-care reform into one sudden-death overtime after another. The world beyond America's borders is of course no less salient, and no less threatening, than ever; but Americans are looking at it through the wrong end of the binoculars.
But with the Democratic majority in Congress likely to dwindle or even disappear in November, I wonder if foreign policy might play a larger role in the second half of this term (or at least what's left of it until the presidential election cycle overtakes events in 2011). As Peter Feaver has pointed out, there's less daylight between the White House and Congressional republicans on national security issues than on economic or domestic policy. And in any case, the president has far more leeway to act without congressional cooperation on foreign policy.
With major domestic initiatives likely stalled for the foreseeable future by an increasingly confident GOP, could we see a shift toward a more foreign policy-focused presidency? Lord knows there are plenty of neglected areas, from trade to Latin America to development policy (which Obama took on in another speech yesterday) that could benefit from some high-level attention, not to mention Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, the Mideast talks and climate change.
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Iraq is still paying the world back for Saddam's actions -- literally. The Christian Science Monitor reports that the Iraqi government has agreed to pay $400 million to American citizens who claimed to have been tortured or traumatized by the Iraqi regime following Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. With a 15-30 percent unemployment rate, ubiquitous violence, and a still lacking infrastructure, why is the new Iraqi regime paying so much money to American citizens when it was all Saddam's fault? Because the payment may help Iraq's case to end U.N. sanctions that have lasted since Saddam Hussein's rule:
Settling the claims, which were brought by American citizens, has been seen as a key requirement for Washington to be willing to push for an end to the UN sanctions.
"There was a lot of pressure on the Iraqi government to do something that gets Congress off their back," says one senior Iraqi official, adding that the settlement cleared the way for US efforts to bring Iraq out from under the UN sanctions.
That's right, Saddam is long gone but sanctions on the still rebuilding country aren't. In fact, Iraq has already paid Kuwait $27.6 billion in reparations and continues to devote five percent of its oil revenues in accordance with the U.N. sanctions resulting from Saddam's invasion. While many countries have cancelled a lot or all of Iraq's debt to them, Kuwait continues to support Iraqi reparations -- regardless of the $22 billion Kuwaiti budget surplus for the last fiscal year.
So if U.S. citizens get paid by the Iraqi government for Saddam's "traumatizing" from 20 years ago, what will the United States pay the families of Iraqi citizens that are actually killed by U.S. forces? Well, the U.S. government is trying to find ways for Iraq to pay for that too.
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Even from over 2000 miles away, Libyan leader Muammar al Qaddafi was able to fan the flames of sectarian conflict in 1970's Ireland. A staunch supporter of anti-imperialist, anti-West rebel movements, Qaddafi sympathized with the campaign of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Qaddafi acted as the group's arms supplier, smuggling over the explosives and weapons the paramilitary forces needed to escalate the struggle into all-out terror.
One year ago, Qaddafi expressly refused to accept liability for the Irish Republican Army (IRA) attacks of the 1980's, instead telling victims to "go to the court." Though he had already compensated the families of passengers aboard Pan Am Flight 103, victims of many other attacks executed with weaponry and explosives Qaddafi had supplied the IRA -- such as the Harrods bombing of 1983 and the Enniskillen atrocity of 1987 -- had yet to recieve any kind of consolation or apology. But yesterday, after nine months of negotiations between officials in London and Tripoli, the dictator made an unexpected concession: he announced that he would shell out up to 3.5 billion dollars in reparations to victims of IRA terrorism. The deviation from his previous response accompanies renewed bilateral relations with Switzerland, against whom Qaddafi had declared a holy war in February. Qaddafi has both released Swiss businessman, Max Goeldi -- detained in Libya for defying a travel ban put into effect after Switzerland authorities arrested Qaddafi's son on charges of assault -- and established an arbitration tribunal to settle the diplomatic dispute with Libya's former adversary.
These recent developments are productive, but they doubtfully signify that Qaddafi -- the principal financier of a laundry list of horrific terrorist attacks and rebel movements -- will now make a habit of letting reconciliation or reform govern his agenda.
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For those of you who don't subscribe to the bimonthly print edition of Foreign Policy, you're missing a great feature: the FP Quiz. It has eight intriguing questions about how the world works.
The question I'd like to highlight this week is:
What percentage of Americans are self-described isolationists?
a) 18 percent b) 30 percent c) 49 percent
Answer after the jump ...
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To summarize, David and I are discussing whether debt relief for Haiti is A) a good thing and B) should be a priority -- we agree on A (yes) and disagree somewhat on B. David argues that debt payments aren't going to be an issue in the foreseeable future, and that countries like Venezuela shouldn't get points for relieving relatively small sums of debt -- particularly if they aren't also providing significant aid, which is more important in the near and medium term. I say there's a short window in which to ask for countries to throw in the kitchen sink, so why not, particularly given debt's historical choke-hold on Haiti and given that three or ten years from now, Haiti will still be poor and in debt. Lots of others have good commentary on the subject, including Daniel Altman and Alex Tabarrok.
Ultimately, I still believe there's room and reason to ask for debt forgiveness -- if not now, then when? But it made me wonder about aid effectiveness -- if you're giving x dollars of aid, what provides the maximum benefit: debt forgiveness, direct governmental grants, funding specific programs, ending agricultural subsidies?
Development economists, of course, research this question, well, exhaustively. And the answer? It's now always clear -- or, there's no general rule. Academically, a dollar of debt relief is worth more than a dollar of granted aid. In reality, the level of indebtedness, degree of governmental corruption, relevant economic fundamentals, and the entities doing the lending all matter considerably.
But there's consensus on what other countries can be doing, should be doing, and are doing now. Haiti needs material support (water, batteries, medical supplies, etc.) and cash aid. But the United States, especially, should also think about remittances and immigration. Here, Michael Clemens and Amanda Taub argue for giving Haitians temporary protected status in the States. In the longer term, the United States might consider taking a close look not just at debt, but also at rice.
Very troubling reports out of Haiti this morning. The earthquake struck near the country's main population center, Port-au-Prince, and its surrounding suburbs and slums. Elisabeth Debrosse Delatour, the first lady, said much of Port-au-Prince is destroyed. Cell phone service is available on just one of the major networks; the other remains out, as do landlines and electricity. Hospitals, including the Doctors Without Borders surgical center and many other medical facilities, and essential-service plants were severely damaged in the quake.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calls it a "humanitarian emergency," and countries around the world are racing to deploy emergency aid to the estimated 3 million impacted by the quake -- a 7.0 on the Richter scale, with 13 serious aftershocks (the largest of which was a 5.8).
The quake also reportedly severely damaged the five-story U.N. mission headquarters in Port-au-Prince. As of this morning, there are reports of five U.N. staff dead and more than one hundred missing, many presumed dead, as the quake struck during the workday. Hedi Annabi, the U.N. Haiti chief, a Tunisian, is feared dead. The hotel in which much of the U.N. staff lived was also destroyed.
Update: I've seen this misreported in a few places, so just to clarify. The U.N.'s peacekeeping chief on Haiti, Alain Le Roy, is safe and speaking with the press. The U.N.'s mission chief, Hedi Annabi, has died.
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This afternoon in Shanghai, U.S. President Barack Obama held a townhall-style meeting with university students. It was an event that his staff had worked hard to include on his China trip itinerary. After a brief speech extolling the importance of core values to the success of the United States as a nation and Americans as individuals, Obama took questions from the audience and online.
It has since come to light that not all of the questions came from bonafide students. One questioner was a vice director of daily affairs for the Communist Youth League; another was a young-looking teacher. Obama's answers about Internet freedom weren't heard by most remote audiences because several networks, including CNN, mysteriously cut away for commentary at that moment. The response among expats in China was, by and large, negative -- with many complaining Obama had minced his words, talking for instance of "universal rights" rather than "human rights." If one is looking to be cynical, there's plenty of fodder.
On the other hand, from the point of view of most Chinese I've spoken, these official efforts at censorship might have been silly, or nefarious, but they didn't have much impact. The notion of a president taking questions, not a frequent occurrence in China, was itself the point. The symbolism was more arresting, to them, than the content. "Why does he want to talk to Chinese students?" one 29-year-old Chinese woman asked me, without irony. She was puzzled, impressed, and a bit amused at the spectacle.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
The World Economic Forum posted the 2009 Global Gender Gap Report today, its yearly survey of gender inequality based on economic, political, educational and health factors. For the first time, two African nations entered the top 10 rankings: South Africa at #6 position (up from #22 in 2008) and Lesotho in the #10 slot (up from #16 in 2008).
The increased ranking for South Africa is due to increases in parliamentary and ministerial positions for women under the new government. Lesotho holds its strong position thanks to its lack of gender gap in health and education services.
These advances for South Africa may come as a surprise to many who feared for women's empowerment in South Africa following the May election of President Jacob Zuma, a practicing polygamist and accused rapist.
The World Economic Forum reports that two thirds of countries surveyed have made reduction in their gender gaps since 2006. However, the United States fell four spots since last year, coming in at #31 on the list. It looks like the death of macho due to the global recession may not be occurring as quickly as some expected. In any case, the United States is not alone in its loss of gender equality; Germany, the United Kingdom and France also saw declines in their rankings since last year.
Unsurprisingly, the bottom of the list remained largely unchanged from last year with Yemen, Chad, Pakistan, Benin, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran continuing to boast the world's worst gender gaps.
ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images
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