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Rockets fine Yao Ming for attending Special Olympics

In a truly breathtaking display of magnanimity, the Houston Rockets are fining their star center Yao Ming for missing a media day and two days of practice in order to attend ... get this ... the opening ceremonies of the Special Olympics in his native China. Brook Larmer wrote about the significance of Yao Ming in a cover story for FP's September/October 2005 issue. Yao's not just another basketball player. In the piece, Larmer stresses the extent to which China has invested its hopes and dreams in this "affable 7-foot, 6-inch giant". As Larmer puts it:

Millions of his compatriots, indifferent to his fate before, now celebrate him as a patriotic icon who smashes the stereotype of the weak and diminutive Chinese and shows how China can compete against the best in the world.... He alone among Chinese athletes is a global icon, famous both at home and abroad, an instantly recognizable embodiment of China's emergence in the world.

So this is the guy the Rockets want to fine more than $20,000 for missing a few practices? Where's the cost/benefit analysis? Barring Yao from promoting an event for mentally disabled athletes in the country where he is considered a hero seems beyond petty. At least when George Steinbrenner discouraged Yankee players from participating in the World Baseball Classic last year, there were legitimate fears of injury. Yi Jianlian should take note.

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It takes a warlord

In a harsh critique of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt of Israel lobby fame, Jeffrey Goldberg has this to say: 

Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, in an interview five years ago, was explicit about his rejection of terrorism, saying that "we could have bombed movie theaters in Baghdad and buses like the Palestinians, but we made the decision not to. It would have been wrong."
Barzani's father Mustafa with Saddam in 1974

I don't want to get into the weeds on Israeli-Palestinian history, but Goldberg sure picked a strange person to cite as a moral exemplar. After all, Barzani is the guy who, in 1996, invited Saddam's forces to help attack his rival, current Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (who got help from Iran). And Barzani is the guy whom the Turks rightly accuse of aiding and abetting the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group that the U.S. State Department has labeled a terrorist organization for its attacks on Turkish civilians. It would seem that Barzani's problem with terrorist attacks in Iraq was not that terrorism is inherently wrong, but rather that it wouldn't have been wise to provoke Saddam.

But looking for moral clarity in the Middle East is a fool's game. For all his faults, Barzani is still the man to deal with in his area of Iraqi Kurdistan. The PKK issue simply won't get solved without his involvement. He made that clear again last week when he spiked Turkey's attempt to get the central Baghdad government to agree to permit Turkish "hot pursuit" of the PKK on Kurdish territory.

A high-ranking Turkish diplomat sat down with a few of us here at FP yesterday and was unintentionally revealing on the Barzani issue. Asked if Turkey would negotiate with Barzani, the diplomat repeated Turkey's position that it won't talk with anyone but the Iraqi government. Delivering Barzani is Baghdad's problem, he said. Presumably, the Turks don't want to legitimize a possible future Kurdish state. In any case, Turkish military officials have all but said they will assassinate Barzani if they get the chance, and proposing negotiations with the Kurdish leader would probably be political suicide for any (non-Kurdish) Turkish politician. But Baghdad can't deliver Barzani—the central authorities can't even prevent the Kurdish Regional Government from signing its own oil contracts, for crying out loud. And this is why, coupled with U.S. dithering and Turkish inflexibility, the PKK problem refuses to go away.