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May, 2007

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Small Victories

I'll always remember the day Rafael Nadal won the French Open tennis tournament at the age of seventeen. Because watching him celebrate his victory, I was surprised to catch myself wondering not what it feels like to win Roland Garros at seventeen, but what it feels like to be a father whose son has just won Roland Garros at seventeen. It was, needless to say, something of a turningpoint in my life.

All of which is just to say that after two years of solid effort, the Lil' Feller earned his yellow belt in Judo this evening. And watching him kneel on the mat and tie that belt around his waist, I sure was one proud Poppa. Even better was how thrilled he was himself.

Six years old sure is grand!

Posted by Judah in:  Hoops, Hardball & Fisticuffs   

Comments (1) | Permalink



Thursday, May 31, 2007

La Méthode Sarkozy

Nicolas Sarkozy's first real moment in the national spotlight occured in 1993 when a man calling himself "HB" (which was later discovered to stand for Human Bomb) took a roomful of kindergarten children hostage. Sarkozy, as mayor of the city where the drama took place, negotiated directly with the hostage-taker. Every time he entered the classroom to negotiate he would agree to one of the guy's minor requests in return for releasing a child or two that he took out with him upon leaving. All the while, he refused to meet the guy's principal demand, which was access to the news media.

Finally, after two days, the negotiations reached an impasse and HB refused to allow any more children to leave. At which point Sarkozy sent in the elite French commando unit known as RAID, who killed HB instantly and freed the rest of the children. As a couple of anecdotes from this past week demonstrate, his negotiating style hasn't changed much since then.

Throughout the presidential campaign, Sarkozy's two major policy declarations regarding Europe were, a) his support for a streamlined "mini-constitution", passed by parliamentary vote, to replace the unreadably obtuse one rejected by referendum two years ago; and b) his opposition to the entry of Turkey into the EU. Now if you look closely at the two positions, one thing becomes clear. The first, an institutional resuscitation of the EU, is urgently needed. The second, a decades-long process that will unfold in stages, can easily be scuttled at some more convenient time in the future.

So it should come as no surprise that Sarkozy, in meeting with EU President Manuel Luis Barroso last week and Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero yesterday, was willing to withhold a French veto of a preliminary round of negotiations with Turkey in order to gather momentum for his mini-treaty.

Another example is his controversial campaign promise to require minimum service during any transportation strike. The unions have come out strongly against the measure, which would limit one of their most powerful weapons. Sarkozy has since backed off from passing a law immediately, stating that he would allow the unions and the employers' organization to negotiate the terms, with the relevant government ministers only stepping in if the two sides could not come to an agreement. Unilateral legislation would be reserved as the last option should negotiations fail.

Sarkozy is careful to never identify what he wants (mini-treaty, minimum service) without at the same time dangling the cost to his negotiating partner (Turkey veto, unilateral legislation) should he not get it. More importantly, he's perfectly willing to postpone confrontation, as long as he can leave the room with a child in his arms.

Posted by Judah in:  La France Politique   

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Gaza Goes Global

When Hamas won the Palestinian elections, the common wisdom was that the day-to-day challenges of governing would reveal the shortcomings of their militant ideology and before long the Palestinian people would return to the "moderate" Fatah fold. According to this NY Times article, the first part of that equation has been borne out. Unfortunately, instead of returning to moderate engagement, many in Gaza seem to be turning to even more extreme forms of global jihad and violence. And the on-again/off-again shooting war between Hamas and Fatah has left a power vacuum in which the increasingly radical groups can operate.

Norway has already resumed direct aid to the Hamas-Fatah coalition government. Apparently the Israeli government, under heavy pressure from the US, EU, Russia and UN, is considering releasing PA tax revenues it's been withholding, as long as they don't wind up in Hamas' hands. I think it's safe to say this will be the new "responsible" position to adopt, even though it's a sign of how desperate the situation in Gaza has become.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Iran's Iraq Strategy, And Ours

It's already clear that the War in Iraq has been a boon to the shortterm strategic interests of our two most prominent adversaries in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, al-Qaeda and Iran. As for the former, its Iraqi operations aren't likely to outlast our presence over there by very long. All indications are that they have already begun to wear out their welcome. Even if they do manage to maintain some sort of staging area in the shadows of an eventual failed state, their goal of installing a fundamentalist Sunni theocracy in Shiite-dominated Iraq doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell.

But what about Iran? Assuming that our rivalry with them will play a determinant role in regional geopolitics in the near future, and assuming that Iranian influence is essentially destabilizing and should be contained (both reasonable assumptions, in my opinion), their strategic goal in a post-occupation Iraq -- and Afghanistan -- is a question of vital importance. And yet, it's increasingly clear that it's a question that America's war planners don't have an answer for.

For good reason. The Iranian position in a post-occupation Iraq is far from certain. It's a mistake to assume that because Iraq is Shiite-dominated, Iran's influence is guaranteed. Of the two major Shiite blocks engaged in a power struggle verging on a civil war in the South, one of them, the Sadrists, are openly hostile to Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. The other, SIIC (formerly SCIRI) while heavily supported by the Iranians, has increasingly begun to align itself with Ayatollah al-Sistani, the powerful Najaf cleric who also opposes Iranian interference.

Here's how Lt. Gen. Petraeus put it in an Army Times interview last week:

As to the Iranians’ strategic goal in Iraq, Petraeus said he isn’t sure whether the Iranians themselves know for certain.

“They have to be a tiny bit conflicted,” he said. “They can’t want a failed state. This is a Shi’a democracy [and] the first Arab Shi’a-run state. They can’t want it to fail, even though they are Persian. They certainly suffered greatly at the hands of Iraq. But with the kinship and the relationships they have with so many of the Iraqi leaders, they can’t want it to completely fail.”

On the other hand, as long as American troops remain in Iraq, ie. as long as Iraq remains exclusively our problem, Iran has a clear tactical interest in prolonging the violence. Again, Petraeus:

“They don’t want us to succeed, certainly,” he said. The Iranians would prefer that the U.S. be “seized” with the war in Iraq, perhaps to divert American attention from Iran’s nuclear ambitions or its activities in the northern Arabian Gulf, he added.

The same logic holds true true in Afghanistan. According to McClatchy, despite their quiet support of the invasion that rid them of their sworn enemies, the Taliban, as well as close ties with the Karzai government, the Iranians have recently begun funneling weapons to the Taliban insurgents in the southern province of Helmand:

Iran, they said, appears to be sending a warning that it can raise the cost to the United States and its allies in Afghanistan and elsewhere if the Bush administration continues pressing Iran to halt its suspected nuclear-weapons program and its support for Shiite militias in Iraq and radical groups in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere.

"They do want to bleed the United States and its allies," said a U.S. intelligence official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "What you are seeing now is potentially only a small taste of what could be done."

Take away our presence, however, and Iran's tactical interests melt away, while its strategic dilemma becomes all too clear. Faced with the possibility of being surrounded by failed states on both sides, Iran would have little choice but to accept that for the time being, their regional interests actually converge with our own, ie. some sort of power-sharing arrangement in Iraq, and a strong central government in Afghanistan.

Just another example of how our presence in Iraq stands in the way of the goals we're trying to achieve there.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

RSS Feeds

Apparently there's been a code glitch in the Feedburner RSS feed which has kept it from updating for the past month. It doesn't seem to have been a problem if you were subscribed directly to HJ's RSS feed. It should be working now.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Time Flies

It's a detail buried in this story about Kobe Bryant asking to be traded, but one that made me do a double-take. Kobe's been in the NBA eleven years. And of course, that makes him... 28 years old.

I remember seeing the Lakers play at the Forum before the three-peat championship run. Some girl was working her way down from the nosebleed seats to courtside, talking about how she just had to get next to Kobe. And, yup, that must've been about ten years ago now. Damn.

Posted by Judah in:  Hoops, Hardball & Fisticuffs   

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"We have a whole social science literature on persuasion. It's mostly on how to get a person to buy a certain brand of toothpaste. But it certainly could be useful in improving interrogation."

-- Randy Borum, a psychologist at the University of South Florida who served as a consultant for a Defense Department report on interrogation techniques.

Posted by Judah in:  Quote Of The Day   

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Blair Stoops To Conquer

I'm all for bringing renegade regimes, like Muammar Khaddafi's Libya, back into the fold of responsible state actors. But there's something disturbing about the idea of selling him a stack of missiles, and paying him a mountain of cash for the rights to his oil fields, when he's still holding the six health workers (five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor) sentenced to death for "deliberately" infecting Libyan children with the AIDS virus. For that matter, there's something disturbing about this photo.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Say What?   

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Not So Friendly Spat

More rumblings on the border between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. According to a report from Gulf News, the Turkish army has continued its buildup on the Iraqi border, moving 20 tanks into position:

Speculation about an imminent incursion into Iraq has grown since Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said last week he saw eye to eye with the army over possible military action, despite unease in the United States, Turkey's NATO ally, about such a move.

Also, I linked to a news item yesterday about a couple of American fighter jets that "accidentally strayed" into Turkish airspace, also on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan. But according to this article in Middle East Times, it wasn't an isolated incident:

Turkey Tuesday warned its NATO ally the US against repeating (sic) violations of Turkish airspace at the border with Iraq, threatening unspecified action.

The warning followed violations by two US F-16 warplanes May 24, which some Turkish media described as a deliberate attempt at intimidation as Ankara discusses whether it should conduct a military incursion into northern Iraq to strike at Turkish Kurd rebels based there.

Turkey presented a formal diplomatic letter of protest, and Prime Minister Erdogan warned that "If this happens again ... if this takes a different dimension, what we will do is obvious." Obvious, that is, in the sense that no one's quite sure what he means.

This is really kind of mind-boggling. Turkey's been pressuring us to address the PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan for years now. There's been a shooting war on the Turkish side of the border for months. The whole area is on high alert. And our idea of an appropriate response is to buzz Turkish airspace?

Does "Keep your fingers crossed" count as an Iraq policy?

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Tale Of Two Countries

Turkey:

Turkey's first gay-lesbian hotel opens in July at a popular resort on the Mediterranean coast, its manager said Wednesday.

"There are several gay-friendly hotels in Turkey, but ours is the first to be 100 percent gay and lesbian. It will not accept guests outside this concept," Faruk Ok said by telephone. "Part of the personnel is also gay or lesbian," he added...

The gay movement has become increasingly outspoken in recent years, capitalizing in part on European Union pressure on Ankara to show full respect for human rights.

 Israel:

Some Israeli politicians have sharply criticized a campaign aimed at promoting gay and lesbian tourism in Jerusalem...

"I unequivocally reject the attempt to focus a state-sponsored campaign on a delusional minority that suffers from a normative defect," Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai said. "Jerusalem and Amsterdam are the same for these people. Therefore, those who fail to recognize Jerusalem's holiness had better stay away from it."

Yishai is the head of the ultra-orthodox, nutjob party Shas, so he obviously knows a thing or two about delusional minorities that suffer from normative defects. And yes, I'm obviously cherry-picking, but it's important to remember that religious fundamentalism unfortunately knows no national boundaries.  

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   Odds & Ends   

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Dept. Of Unintended Consequences

I'm trying to avoid too much Iraq War posting, because it's an easy rut to fall into. But here's a story from Inter Press Service that points out yet another potential pitfall of the Baghdad Surge: By deploying effective and neutral Kurdish military units to the capital, the Surge threatens to draw them into the sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis. According to the article, they've already been involved in some tense standoffs with the Sadrist Mahdi militia. The danger is that an eventual grudge match might spread to Kirkuk.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Not So Petty Crime

The Bush administration has always ridiculed the idea of fighting terrorism through police work. Too bad, because according to a study issued by the Congressional Research Service, terrorists have increasingly turned to criminal activities to finance their operations:

State-sponsorship is declining and terrorists groups are increasingly decentralized and more amateur, CRS finds, which leads the cells to crime.

Why does it seem like the Bushies are always the last to know?

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Student ID

I remember at times feeling like an imposter on the Stanford University campus. Like in the freshman physics survey course -- for engineers, not poets -- that I had the brilliant idea to sign up for. There was a kid who sat next to me who never once opened a notebook or removed a pencil from his plastic pocket-liner the entire semester. One day I saw him frown and shake his head as I furiously scribbled down the formula the Nobel prize-winning lecturer had just chalked on the board.

"Dickweed," I muttered under my breath. Until the lecturer glanced back at the board, said, "Wait a minute, that's not right," and corrected one of the Greek letters holding down a denominator. The kid's face brightened up and he nodded furiously. And I realized that I'd better start working on my iambic pentameter.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Spy vs. Spy?

On first glance, it would seem that there are really only two possible explanations for the recent rash of Iranian-Americans charged by Tehran with spying for the West. Either the charges are false, and the three amount to hostages used by Iran as leverage in a game of geo-political brinksmanship. Or else the charges are true, in which case the arrests amount to a way for Tehran to signal that they're a step ahead of the recently revealed covert CIA program to destabilize the Tehran regime.

But there's plenty of room for some gray areas in between, too. I imagine most Iranians who have taken on American citizenship are less than fervent supporters of the Iranian government. Certain political activities undertaken here to bring pressure to bear on the Iranian government might very well fall under the rubric of subversive activity over there.

Still, you'd think that the folks we're talking about, two academics and a journalist, would be savvy enough to know the kinds of things that would put them in jeopardy and either avoid doing them, or else avoid returning to Iran if they did do them.

Which brings us back to the true/false scenario.

If you're wondering what triggered this line of thought, it was the fact that the journalist detained by Iran, Parnaz Azima, is "...a reporter for US-funded Radio Farda." That's putting it kind of mildly. Here's how Radio Farda describes itself on its website:

Radio Farda and RadioFarda.com is a joint project of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America (VOA). The 24-hour, seven-day-a-week service is produced in Washington, D.C. and Prague, Czech Republic, with audio transmissions to listeners online and via AM, shortwave and satellite.

We report. You decide. 

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Dead Trees Update

Sorry for the light posting this weekend. I've been finishing off two articles for the summer issue of WAD Magazine (articles are print only, unfortunately). The first is an interview with Martha Cooper, who's best known for her work documenting the 1980's graffiti art movement in New York. Before that, though, she focused on children at play in the streets of New York. The book, Street Play, is just now being released here in France. I highly recommend it, for anyone who loves New York , children or photography. Martha's a genius, and a really cool genius to boot. (You can take a look at some more of her photography here.)

The second is also an interview, with a French rapper called Rost. You might remember the riots in the French housing projects two years ago. Rost decided to form an association to encourage the kids to register to vote, which they did in record numbers. He then organized a "citizen's tour" whereby he interviewed all the major French presidential candidates about issues affecting "les banlieues". Now he's busy organizing a political structure to keep the pressure on the politicians. Did I mention he's funding it all himself? Definitely an inspirational figure, for whom "...utopia is the reality of the future."

So if you're in Paris this summer, keep an eye out for the magazine.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Police State Revisited

Remember when I mentioned that the news page on the Army's official website has a sidebar that often links to critical or unflattering media coverage of the Iraq War? Here's what's up there today:

  • Iraq Violence Surges, U.S. IDs Body of Missing Soldier (ALJ | Story)
  • Did the U.S. Lie About Cluster Bomb Use in Iraq? (MEO | Story)
  • Five U.S. Soldiers Killed in Separate Iraq Attacks (STR | Story)
  • Spanish Judge Persists with U.S. Soldier Charges (RT | Story)

I'm not sure, but I'd be willing to wager that that compares pretty favorably to most militaries worldwide. I'm also beginning to wonder if there isn't some disgruntled programmer working in the Army's web shop.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

No Brainer

As an immigrant abroad, I've got no choice but to follow the immigration reform bill from afar. Two things I can say, though. First, inviting people to work in America while withholding the possibility of assuming an American identity (which is my understanding of what the guest worker program entails) is a mistake. That's exactly what has undermined French society which, although it offered citizenship to the immigrant laborers who rebuilt the country after WWII, never embraced them into the national identity. The result is an enormous group of people who, at the level of identity, feel that they are neither French nor of the country of origin. In other words, alienated.

Second, Tom Friedman and Matthew Yglesias have got it all wrong when they call for automatically offering visas to foreign-born PhD graduates. Yglesias responds to the obvious drawback, that it encourages braindrain from the countries of origin, by proposing an "exit tax" to be paid (presumably) by the graduate to the home country:

The economic benefits of allowing the highest-skilled people in the world to work where their skills are the most in demand would be very large -- much bigger than the benefits involved in letting low-skill people work in the first world as hotel maids and day-laborers -- so it would be both possible and worthwhile to find ways to distribute those gains relatively equitably.

Unfortunately, applying Major League Baseball's free agent compensation rules to international labor markets overlooks the fact that to a country in desperate need of an educated cadre, money is not an "equitable" substitute for know how.

Furthermore, in a time when well-paid productive labor is increasingly outsourced and poorly-paid "unskilled" labor is increasingly done by immigrants, artificially boosting the supply of PhD labor seems to be a cruel blow.

Posted by Judah in:  Domestic Policy   

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

A Toast

I'd like to invite any readers who might be in the vicinity of a round table and a full glass on this Saturday evening to raise one for my Dad, who happens to be celebrating his 79th birthday today. Happy Birthday, Dad!

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Next Best Thing

There's a lot of complicated political maneuvering going on right now among Iraqi Shiite factions, with the major poles of religious authority being Tehran (ie. Ayatollah Khameini) and Najaf (ie. Ayatollah al-Sistani), and the major firepower concentrated in the hands of SIIC (formerly the Iran-leaning SCIRI) and al-Sadr's Mahdi Militia.

Of course, by now we're all used to thinking of Moqtada al-Sadr as an anti-American agitator, ie. our enemy. But according to this analysis by Babak Rahimi on the Jamestown Foundation site, he just might be our best shot at averting a worst-case scenario in Iraq. Because while SIIC has advocated for a Federalized Iraq with a powerful Shiite region in Basra, al-Sadr used his reappearance yesterday to call for a broad Shiite-Sunni "reform and reconciliation project":

'I say to our Sunni brothers in Iraq that we are brothers and the occupier shall not divide us. They are welcome and we are ready to cooperate with them in all fields. This is my hand I stretch out to them,' he said.

His call came a few days after Shiite leaders from Sadr's east Baghdad stronghold met with Sunni tribal sheikhs from western Iraq. Both sides promised to work together for national reconciliation and against extremism.

This is the very kind of coalition that the Maliki government has been unable to create in anything but name only. Should al-Sadr succeed, he'll have managed to endrun not only Maliki and SIIC, but also Petraeus and Bush.

There's still a lot standing in his way, not least of which is al-Sistani's contempt for his firebrand style and political ambition. But keep your eyes on this. It's the next big story that could still come out of Iraq.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

"Sarkozy The Activist" Alert

Ali Larijani, Iran's chief negotiator for the nuclear dossier, discussing how to break the current impasse in today's Le Figaro:

The means consists of reopening the dialogue, without pre-conditions on either side. With that in mind, France under its new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, could play the role of an "honest broker", since France enjoys a good image among us: She never exerted neo-colonial pressure on Iran, and she sheltered the Ayatollah Khomeini while he was threatened by the Shah's dictatorship.

Rumor has it he's working on getting the blind to see and the crippled to walk.

Posted by Judah in:  La France Politique   

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Cleaning House

One of the dangers of a situation as complex as the multi-faceted Iraqi civil war is that what seems like a lethal strike might actually turn out to be a helping hand. Take this AP dispatch describing a raid on Moqtada Al-Sadr's Baghdad stronghold in which American and Iraqi forces captured the leader of a secret cell specializing in EFP attacks. From that, you might assume that the raid struck a blow against al-Sadr and his Mahdi militia.

The thing is, the description of the cell matches the one Lt. Gen. Petraeus gave in an Army Times interview the other day of a network of "Sadrist special ops" units being trained covertly in Iran:

...“The guys that did the Karbala attack are part of this network. It is a Sadr special operations attack.”

However, he said, “I don’t think we have anything that shows that Sadr approved it [or] was involved in it.” 

These cells have become a major focus of American anti-militia operations, both in Baghdad and Basra. The question is, are they Sadrist operatives? Or renegade units that Iran has lured away from al-Sadr's chain of command? Until we can answer that question, there's no way of knowing whether we're boxing al-Sadr in or simply doing his laundry for him.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Back In Austin

Wow. Texas really does do everything bigger. Including mad parliamentary power struggles. It seems that both Republicans and Democrats alike want to oust Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, a Republican, before his term expires in January. Apparently, Craddick rules the joint with an iron fist, often forcing members to line up on votes that hurt their chances back home.

To toss Craddick, all they've got to do is pass a motion to vacate. Only trouble is, a motion to vacate is considered a "privileged" motion under Texas parliamentary rules.  And to present a privileged motion, a member's got to be recognized by the House Speaker.  Which Craddick refuses to do:

By the time the House adjourned shortly before 1:30 a.m., Craddick had beaten back his opponents, lawmakers who tried to overtake the speaker's podium were physically restrained and the House parliamentarian resigned.

That's democracy in the Lone Star State. Obviously a product ready for export.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Moving The Lines

It seems to be the consensus among liberal bloggers that Congressional Democrats could have played it a lot tougher on the Iraq War funding bill, since public opinion was overwhelmingly on their side of the issue. I'm going to go out on a limb here and propose that the consensus is wrong.

Now, don't get me wrong. I think that despite areas of progress, the Iraq War is globally headed towards disaster, if it isn't already there yet. And I think that policy-wise, now's the time to get our forces out of there, despite the Iraqi bloodletting that might follow.

But even if the American public by and large agrees with that, I don't think the Democratic Party has sufficiently rehabilitated its national security image (rightly or wrongly deserved) to be able to close the deal on this one without opening itself up to a major pr backlash. Sometimes demand for the product isn't enough. You need to generate trust for the salesperson, too.

Two things will need to happen before the Democrats can safely push this through. First, they need to establish a more pro-active national security "brand identity". That means a comprehensive program that calls for more than just withdrawing troops.

And second, I'm afraid things will have to get a bit worse over there. As things stand, there are still too many (admittedly unrealistic) longshot chances for progress that have yet to be ruled out by events on the ground. Every last one of them will come back to bite Democrats on the ass should they succeed in forcing a troop withdrawal on a defiant Bush administration.

This standoff advanced the lines of the debate dramatically, and it's unfortunate that the Democratic base, disappointed as it might be, should turn on the leadership so stridently. Bush will have to request more funds come September, by which time reality will have caught up to the illusions he's trying to peddle. More importantly, the Congressional GOP will provide cover for a more forceful endgame.

Tragically, hundreds more American soldiers and Iraqi civilians will die in the meantime. But we're closer now to putting an end to the war than we were six months ago. And that's progress.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, May 25, 2007

silverlake (haiku)

leaf-scattered sunlight
lazy hammock hanging still
may   l.a.   pm

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

All Roads Lead To Tehran

In an exclusive interview with Army Times, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus categorically declares that Iran is deeply involved in training and funding Iraqi insurgents and militias, and that it's inconceivable that Supreme Ayatollah Khameini could be kept in the dark about the "massive operation".

According to Petraeus, over the past few years Iran's Quds Force has trained "secret cells" of "Sadr special ops" in Iran. One of these cells was responsible for the highly sophisticated January 20th raid in Karbala that left five American soldiers dead. In addition, Iran has funded Iraqi Shiite militias, and to a lesser extent Sunni insurgents, to the tune of "hundred of millions of dollars".

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the interview is that despite all of the intelligence we've managed to gather on Iran's covert operations, Petraeus confesses to having no clue about Iran's longterm strategic goal for Iraq. Given that by all accounts we're already engaged in a proxy war with Tehran, that would seem like an important detail to nail down.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Monetary Policy

Back in March I noticed a graphic from the State Dept's Iraq Weekly Status Report that charted the volume of American dollars sold in the Iraqi Central Bank's currency auction (denoted by the blue line). What caught my attention was the dramatic decline in dollars sold beginning in early-November 2006, a trend that didn't reverse until late-January 2007. (The pronounced "W" in the center of the graph.)

I suggested at the time that the November date corresponded to the mid-term elections that many saw as a referendum on the Iraq war, and the January date to Bush's State of the Union address where he announced the Baghdad Surge. The idea being that Iraqis might have decided to hold onto their (stable) greenbacks until America's continued presence in securing the country was reaffirmed.

Here's what that same chart looks like in this week's report

In case you're having trouble reading the fine print, volume of dollars sold has roughly halved (from $90 million to $48 million per day) in the past ten days.

It'll be interesting to see what happens to that number now that Congress has folded on including a withdrawal timetable in the Iraq war funding bill. From the looks of things, though, not much has changed in terms of Iraqi confidence in their country's ability to maintain stability in the absence of an American presence.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Running Man

I've already mentioned that Nicolas Sarkozy will be an activist President. What's become clear since the election is that he will also be an active President. And by that, I'm referring to more than just his ritual morning jog, which has become a daily photo op in the French press. More significantly, Sarkozy intends to transform the function of the French presidency to better reflect his hands-on management style.

The French presidency has traditionally served to identify the political horizon, while leaving the captaining of the ship of state to the Prime Minister. Technically, under the terms of the Constitution, the President names only his Prime Minister, who then names the government, which is subsequently referred to by the Prime Minister's name. This is more than just a technicality. When Jacques Chirac named Dominique de Villepin Prime Minister two years ago, it was considered scandalous and a 'presidential usurpation' that in the same speech, he also confirmed that Sarkozy would become Minister of the Interior. This before Villepin had officially assumed his functions.

And yet, by several press accounts, Sarkozy was so involved in the formation of François Fillon's government that on several occasions he contacted ministerial candidates to offer them positions personally. Not only did he name the ministers, though, he apparently also vetted their chiefs of staff, with whom he will also be in direct contact. By comparison with Chirac's indiscretion, today was the first time I saw a mention of it in anything but the most matter of fact terms in the French press. (And that only in a decidedly iconoclastic weekly called Marianne.)

Sarkozy has also introduced a National Security Council that works out of the presidential offices in Elysée Palace and reports directly to him, something that has never existed here. And during the campaign, he mentioned amending the Constitution to allow the President to defend legislation before the National Assembly, something that currently only ministers are allowed to do.

In fact, Sarkozy has made no secret of his intention to govern using an "Americanized" presidency, and the press has already referred to his ministers as "Secretaries of State". In other words, Sarkozy is centralizing his control over all governmental policy-making. So while the American press focused on his naming of centrists and Socialists to the government, what they missed is that it will still be Sarkozy who runs things.

Posted by Judah in:  La France Politique   

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Cheney's Follies

Dick Cheney might be something of a laughingstock to most reasonable people. But while his ability to determine policy might have waned along with his credibility, his ability to veto or sabotage it hasn't. Gareth Porter explains how Cheney's efforts to undermine the Bush administration's foreign policy "realists" (specifically Condi Rice and Bob Gates) might very well box us into a militarist corner with regards to Iran. It's a good article, well worth a look.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Politics   

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Good Money After Bad

Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq, did his best to show Iraq reconstruction some love today in Congressional testimony:

“The reconstruction program in Iraq has been fraught with challenge, a mixture of success and failure, shortfalls and successful projects achieved,” Bowen told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

He pointed to the security situation and the fact that Iraq is being rebuilt "virtually under fire" as the principle reasons for ballooning costs and missed deadlines. But Chairman Tom Lantos was having none of it:

“It is simply outrageous that we are mired in the same mud of incompetence that we got stuck in last year and the year before that,” panel Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) said. “But knowing the administration’s abysmal track record on Iraq reconstruction planning, this is no surprise.”   

Lantos also lashed out at countries that have failed to fulfill their donor pledges to Iraq reconstruction, which seems odd to me. After all, who in their right mind would hand money over to a reconstruciton project that we're running? Even we've stopped doing it. I don't see how we can expect them to start.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Instant Karma's...

...gonna getcha.

Posted by Judah in:  Say What?   

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Misdirection?

Back in March, Seymour Hersh made some waves with an article in the New Yorker titled "The Redirection", which described an American/Saudi effort to arm radical Sunni militant groups throughout the Middle East in order to contain the growing regional influence of Iran and its proxies. Among the groups Hersh mentioned was Fatah al-Islam, a Palestinian splinter group that was supposedly receiving arms and funding from representatives of the Lebanese government who hoped to turn it against Hezbollah.

Hersh's piece targeted all the usual suspects -- Dick Cheney, Prince Bandar, covert policy cabals of dubious judgment -- to guarantee a good reception among jittery liberals concerned about the administrations rumored plans for attacking Iran. (Here's my contribution, which on re-reading seems respectably restrained.) The question is, was it accurate?

At the time the article appeared, Michael Young poked some holes in it with a piece in Reason Magazine titled "A Muckraker On The Wane?":

The Fatah al-Islam story is instructive, because it shows a recurring flaw in Hersh's reporting, namely his investigative paralysis when it comes to Syria... Most Lebanese analysts believe that Fatah al-Islam, far from being aided by the Lebanese government, is in fact a Syrian plant, deployed to Lebanon to be used by the Assad regime to destabilize the country...

This week's events in northern Lebanon, where the Lebanese Army has been engaged in fierce battles with Fatah al-Islam at a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli, would seem to bear out Young's criticism. Especially since Hezbollah has expressed support for the Army, despite it's fierce opposition to the Lebanese government of Fuad Siniora.

Hersh, for his part, stands by his story, maintaining that it's just another example of an American policy that "...bit us in the rear." 

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Is Bad Publicity Really Always Good Publicity?

Did the Pentagon ban YouTube and Myspace for troops in Iraq because of bandwidth constraints, as they claimed? Or was it maybe, just maybe, because of content? You be the judge.

Via The New York Nerd.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Monday, May 21, 2007

L. Ron Hubbard Can't Save Your Life

Thanks to Tom Cruise, most people know by now that the Church of Scientology isn't fond of psychiatrists or psychotropic medications. They're not alone of course. Various other religious sects and cults, as well as most practitioners of "alternative", "wholistic" or "complementary" medicine, feel the same way, if each for different reasons.

My exposure to the psychiatric model of mental health dates back to the mid-1990's, when I worked as a non-degreed social worker with impoverished adults on New York's Lower East Side, and later with adolescent gang-bangers in Santa Cruz, CA.* And my experiences led me to believe that there are definitely valid criticisms to be made about the psychiatric model, and more specifically the ways in which it's used by public mental health authorities.

First, the use of medication, instead of being a last resort, is a first response, often consisting of trial and error "cocktails" of various psychotropics until the targeted symptoms are controlled. With the adolescent boys I worked with, it was often a "prescribe ritalin first, ask questions later" approach. Lifestyle and nutrition (specifically, the enormous amounts of sugar and caffeine the kids consumed) was quite simply never addressed, which was surprising given the clear correlation that exists between sugar, caffeine and hyperactive behavior.

Second, I was struck by how many of the symptoms and "disorders" I saw diagnosed every day were poverty-related. That, combined with the fact that the mental health team I worked with in Santa Cruz was part of a Children's Mental Health/Juvenile Probation pilot program, suggested that the psychiatric profession was being co-opted by the state to buffer the police response to social and behavioral tensions that are in large part a result of inequalities in wealth distribution. In other words, instead of being a societal condition with political responses, poverty has increasingly become a psychiatric condition with medical responses.

But I think it's important to recognize that while the psychiatric model isn't perfect, it is in many cases very effective. Especially, as studies have shown, when used in conjunction with psychotherapy and alternative treatments. And while diet and exercise can certainly contribute to a patient's well-being and should be integrated into a comprehensive mental health treatment regime, psychotropic medications have offered hope where previously none existed for treating extreme psychiatric disorders that border on or enter into psychosis.

Finally, some people just might not want to change every aspect of their diet and lifestyle in order to manage what are nevertheless debilitating symptoms. That's their right, whether Tom Cruise likes it or not. Like cancer treatment, it's irresponsible to advocate for an either/or approach to what remains a personal decision between a patient and his or her doctor. Because for all of psychiatry's faults, a good psychiatrist is still more effective than a bad guru.

*At the time, I took a much more rigid, "anti-psychiatry" position than I do today. I was one of very few people (I hesitate to say the only person) advocating for the integration of complementary health practices into the public mental health system. I remember the snickers and condescending comments I got from colleagues when I proposed Yoga, Tai Chi and vegetarian cooking classes, as well as guest lectures on acupuncture, Chinese herbalism, and meditation at the residential program where I worked. And yet, not only were the programs well-received, they were effective in teaching techniques for emotional well-being that the residents found very useful.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Cause And Effect

You'll remember last week's Whopper of the Day, wherein Tony Snow vaunted the Bush administration's "unparalleled" commitment to global warming. Here's Robert Sullivan, former associate director in charge of exhibitions at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, describing how that widely recognized commitment somehow managed to tone down the emphasis on human responsibility for global warming in an exhibit on climate-change:

"It just became tooth-pulling to get solid science out without toning it down," said Sullivan, who resigned last fall after 16 years at the museum. He said he left after higher-ups tried to reassign him...

Sullivan said that to his knowledge, no one in the Bush administration pressured the Smithsonian, whose $1.1 billion budget is mostly taxpayer-funded.

Rather, he said, Smithsonian leaders acted on their own. "The obsession with getting the next allocation and appropriation was so intense that anything that might upset the Congress or the White House was being looked at very carefully," he said.

It's funny how counterintuitive the effects of an unparalleled commitment can be.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   The Natural World   

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Dick's Got Company

Maybe it's just something inherent to the office, but it turns out Dick Cheney isn't the only Vice-President who's not so keen on the US and Iran discussing the situation in Iraq. Iraq's Sunni Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashemi, spoke out against the upcoming talks after participating in the Geneva-based World Economic Forum:

"It's not good to encourage anybody to talk on behalf of the Iraqi people on their internal and national affairs," al-Hashemi told reporters...

Al-Hashemi said he would have preferred that the subject of Iraq's stability was "tackled by Iraqis themselves."

"This is really damaging to Iraq's sovereignty," he said.

Unlike Cheney, however, al-Hashemi probably doesn't want to see the US and Iran at war over Iraq either.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Empty Audio

The DoD has just released a redacted audio recording of the Gitmo CSRT hearing for Abu Faraj al-Libi. The hearing was the first one held, back in March, and significantly, al-Libi elected not to participate. In the words of his "Personal Representative" (not to be confused with a lawyer):

Faraj al-Libi has decided that his freedom is far too important to be decided by an administrative process and is waiting for legal proceedings.

It will be interesting to see whether the more prominent hearings, such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed will be releasedin audio as well.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Monday, May 21, 2007

The Threat Of Being Disappeared

For anyone interested in the trial of Jose Padilla, I highly recommend keeping tabs on Warren Richey's reporting for the Christian Science Monitor. Everything I've read of his so far has gone beyond just the play-by-play of the legal procedure (although that's there too), to include some of the tensions the trial presents in terms of judicial handling of terrorism cases.

Today, he describes how the limitations placed on the permissible lines of questioning of a prosecution witness, one of the "Lackawanna Six" named Yahya Goba, has led to testimony more likely to further Padilla's defense than damage it. What I found more significant, though, was this background on Goba's testimony:

He is appearing at the trial under a plea agreement and is seeking to have the government reduce his 10-year prison sentence. Goba, who is married with a 4-year-old daughter, has a strong additional incentive to cooperate in every way with the government. He wants to avoid being designated an enemy combatant and diverted out of the criminal justice system into indefinite military detention. 

Now, to clarify, everything I've been able to find on Goba's plea deal suggests that he and his co-defendants indeed pleaded guilty in return for the government taking the threat of being declared an enemy combatant off the table. As part of his plea deal, he agreed to cooperate with subsequent government investigations of terrorist cases, which explains his presence at the Padillo trial. But I'm not sure if he can still be "diverted out of the criminal justice system", as Richey claims.

Still, the way in which enemy combatant status and the subsequent military tribunals have tainted even the limited number of criminal prosecutions of accused terrorists is clear. It establishes a dual track "justice" system that the government can arbitrarily manipulate, depending on the strength of its case and its public relations needs.

Another reason why American principles of justice demand that enemy combatant status be severely limited, clearly defined, and subject to the same legal guarantees the American legal system affords to criminal defendants.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Can We Afford Another Fallujah?

As a measure of how not only the situation in Iraq, but also the American military's recognition of the situation in Iraq have changed, compare and contrast these two articles regarding America's treatment of Moqtada al-Sadr.

Patrick Cockburn reports in The Independent that three years ago, the American military used an invitation to negotiate a settlement to the Najaf uprising in order to carry out an assassination attempt on al-Sadr's life. The attempt failed, and played a large role in determining al-Sadr's hostile and mistrustful stance towards the US occupation ever since:

The revelation of this extraordinary plot, which would probably have provoked an uprising by outraged Shia if it had succeeded, has left a legacy of bitter distrust in the mind of Mr Sadr for which the US and its allies in Iraq may still be paying. "I believe that particular incident made Muqtada lose any confidence or trust in the [US-led] coalition and made him really wild," the Iraqi National Security Adviser Dr Mowaffaq Rubai'e told The Independent in an interview.

Fast forward three years to the Baghdad "Surge", where the WaPo reports that the US is so concerned about not alienating Baghdad's sprawling slum known as Sadr City, it's been delicately negotiating all operations targeting militias within the neighborhood:

The U.S. military is engaged in delicate negotiations inside Sadr City to clear the way for a gradual push in coming weeks by more American and Iraqi forces into the volatile Shiite enclave of more than 2 million people, one of the most daunting challenges of the campaign to stabilize Baghdad.

So sensitive is the problem of the sprawling slum -- heavily controlled by militiamen loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- that Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, personally approves all targets for raids inside the Baghdad district, military officers said.

Clearly, this entire year of military operations in Iraq can be seen as an attempt to clean up some of the mess we've created over the course of the previous three. But if you think the military has renounced its more counter-productive knee-jerk reactions entirely, think again. From the same WaPo article:

If political avenues are exhausted, the U.S. military has formulated other options, including plans for a wholesale clearing operation in Sadr City that would require a much larger force, but commanders stress that this is a last resort.

The plan was referred to by an anonymous officer as a "second Fallujah plan." Presumably because the first one worked so well.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

One Word

Shocking.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

After The Photo Op

One of the recurring themes of all the reports and audits of Iraqi reconstruction projects I've been sifting through has been the inability of Iraqi authorities to maintain infrastructure facilities once they were completed and handed over by American contractors. The problem is so pronounced, in fact, that the Iraqi government has actually refused to take possession of the great majority of completed projects. (Only 18% had been formally turned over by last July, with very few added since then.)

In some cases, the explanation was a lack of trained personnel to manage the facilities. In others, necessary parts were unavailable. One Army report cited "... a culture of maintenance that was gradually lost during the embargo years." Another GAO report pointed to higher-order issues, like the lack of "... clear institutional, legal, and regulatory structures and adequate financial management systems." (A polite way of saying the place is crooked as a re-used nail.)

This brings us back to two points that have been made before but that bear repeating. First, the planners of this war tended to envision Iraq as they wanted it to be, rather than as it was. But that refusal to grasp reality didn't stop after the initial invasion, as evidenced by the billions of dollars that have now been spent on projects that, quite predictably, can not be maintained.

Second, there's the question of metrics, and how to assess whatever progress we might have made in Iraq. Cutting the ribbon on a school, or hospital, or electric generator plant, makes great for a great photo op. But counter-insurgency wars are won or lost on whether the building's still in operation six months later. And by that measure, there's little doubt that we're losing this war.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Fine Print

As a sign of how well the transition to Iraqi security self-reliance is going, the State Dept's Iraq Weekly Status Report points to the fact that the Iraqi army began issuing US-made M-4's and M-16's to their troops this month. As always, it's the details that sting:

In order to account for the weapons issued, a series of biometrics, such as finger printing, eye retinal scans, and voice recordings are collected. Additionally, a photograph of the soldier with his weapon is taken, showing the serial number.

If that doesn't work, they can always handcuff the rifles to their wrists.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Good News Of The Day

Ever since I was a kid, I've had a hard time with movies where the good guy (or the bad guy, for that matter) has overcome all sorts of life-threatening obstacles, and has finally gotten away with the loot, only to lose it all through some cruel twist of fate at the very last second. The bills scattering in a gust of wind. The valise loaded with cash falling out of the airplane. You get the idea. So this is a story guaranteed to bring a smile to my face.

Today's Good News: Explorers haul in deep-sea treasure worth $500 million.

Posted by Judah in:  Good News Of The Day   

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Not So Open Trial

The flaws with the military tribunals used to determine Gitmo detainees' guilt are pretty widely commented upon. But the alternative to Bush's Star Chamber courts, ie. trying the detainees in American courts, also poses some legal challenges.

Take the trial of Jose Padilla, now under way in Miami. According to the CSM's Warren Richey, a CIA agent was allowed to testify today using a pseudonym. In and of itself, that's neither unprecedented, nor unreasonable. More unusual though still not unprecedented, however, is that the jury wasn't informed at all about the pseudonym, and the defense attorneys were not told the agent's true name.

"Allowing [the CIA agent] to use a pseudonym is pretty uncontroversial, especially if it is someone who is an undercover agent," says Robert Chesney, a national-security law specialist and professor at Wake Forest School of Law. "The harder question is why is it OK for the defendants to be limited in their ability to impeach [the CIA agent's] credibility because they don't really know who the guy is."

Besides cases involving national security, mafia trials also sometimes feature pseudonymous witnesses whose identities are not revealed to the defendant. The reasons are obvious, if not necessarily unimpeachable.

As things stand, the Classified Information Procedures Act leaves a great deal of leeway to the trial judge to determine how to balance the defendant's right to a fair trial with the needs of national security, on a case by case basis. Which strikes me as somewhat arbitrary. One way to standardize the process would be to appoint a judiciary panel with the jurisdiction to review procedural issues surrounding classified information as they arise, similar to the FISA court used to authorize emergency wiretaps.

But while making the process more consistent is inherently desirable, even that won't make the issue go away. The tension between the right to an open trial and national security is an inherent one in terrorism cases. And if critics who call for the abolition of the military tribunals get their way, it will only become more prominent as trying accused terrorists in American courts becomes more prevalent.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Friday, May 18, 2007

The Sopranos, Iraqi Tribal Version

Here's another highlight from that GAO report on Iraq's oil and electricity sectors. In an effort to control rampant sabotage of the electrical grid, the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity at one point contracted with tribal chiefs to secure the power lines running through their territories, at the rate of $60-100 per kilometer:

However, in October 2006, IRMO officials reported that this scheme was flawed and did not result in improved infrastructure protection. According to U.S. and UN Development Program officials, some tribes that were paid to protect transmission lines also sold materials from the downed lines and extracted tariffs for access to repair the lines. 

 Fuhgeddaboudit.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Friday, May 18, 2007

The Post-Taliban

The frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan known as South Waziristan has gotten some attention lately. First because of the "peace deal" the Pakistani military struck back in September with "militant tribal groups allied to the Taliban and al Qaeda". Later because of an outbreak of fighting between local tribesman, led by an Afghan named Maulvi Nazir, and Uzbek jihadists who had set up shop in the area. Although it's hard to get accurate information from the area, which is beyond the reach of journalists, the Uzbeks reportedly suffered heavy losses before being driven into neighboring North Waziristan.

The Pakistanis, who took a lot of heat for their "hands off" policy, claim the development as proof that their decision to leave the job of policing the frontier badlands to the local tribesmen is bearing fruit. Not so, say Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Bill Roggio in the Weekly Standard. The fighting between Nazir and the Uzbeks had more mundane causes and doesn't represent a significant change in Waziri relations with their al Qaeda guests.

But according to this article on The Jamestown Foundation website, the campaign against the Uzbeks represents the first success  not of Pakistan's withdrawal from Waziristan, but of a covert Pakistani intelligence operation designed to re-integrate a new generation of Taliban leadership back into Pakistan's sphere of influence. The idea being that if the Taliban recognize that their alliance with al Qaeda runs counter to their political interests, they'll choose to cut the jihadists loose and focus on returning to power in Afghanistan.

Apparently the only thing wrong with the Taliban, as far as Pakistan is concerned, was the company they kept.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Hope The Brakes Don't Give Out

Here's a pretty decent summary of what's driving the tensions, and what's at stake, on the border between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. Something we often forget:

Cracking down on radical Kurdish elements, however, would be difficult for the K.R.G. [note: Kurdish Regional Government] to pursue since it is far from a unified governing force. The K.R.G. itself is divided between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (P.U.K.) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (K.D.P.), with each group commanding its own separate peshmerga forces. If the K.R.G. were to attempt to move against its own, it could result in the fracture of the Kurdish movement and the return to the violent infighting that has characterized recent Kurdish history in northern Iraq.

I'd add that the two major dissuasive influences on a Turkish military intervention, ie. US influence and EU membership negotiations, have both weakened considerably of late. The first due to Turkey's sense that America has not taken its regional interests to heart, or seriously pressured the Kurds to rein in the PKK. The second because of the growing perception (one reinforced by Sarkozy's election) that despite years of negotiations, promises, and Turkish concessions, the EU is going to welch on admitting Turkey after all.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, May 18, 2007

A Man Of Action

As an example of the kind of activism we can expect from Nicolas Sarkozy in the foreign policy arena, take the case of Ingrid Betancourt. She's the French-Colombian woman who, while campaigning for the presidency of Colombia in 2002, was kidnapped by FARC guerillas and hasn't been heard from since. She's become something of a cause célèbre here in France, to the point where I remember thinking at one point during the presidential campaign how odd it was that no one had mentioned her.

Well, apparently Nicolas Sarkozy had. And yesterday, in one of his first real gestures as president, he spent a half-hour on the phone with the President of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, in order to re-invigorate the efforts to obtain her release. Then today, before the first ministerial meeting of his newly formed government, he met personally with her family.

If Betancourt is freed soon, luck will have had something to with it: As I mentioned yesterday, a Colombian police officer who just escaped from FARC captivity claims she was kept in the same compound, which helps to pinpoint her location.

But Nicolas Sarkozy, through the strategic use of his presidential intervention, will have played a role as well.

Update: According to this French language report, Uribe has now ordered the Colombian military to liberate Betancourt. I'm not sure if this is what Sarkozy had in mind. If so, it shows the danger of activism when it veers into impetuousness (see "George W. Bush", for example), because raids on the FARC's jungle camps have normally been unsuccessful and resulted in the executions of the prisoners being rescued.

Posted by Judah in:  La France Politique   

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Friday, May 18, 2007

The Price Of Ambition

I've never been particularly impressed with Bernard Kouchner, despite him being one of the most popular political figures among the French. He's always struck me as something of a sycophant, and an ambitious one to boot. Which might explain why he was willing to campaign against Nicolas Sarkozy up until two weeks ago, and accept a position in his government as Foreign Minister today.

Sarkozy had talked about naming Socialists to his government as a way of proving his willingness to seek bi-partisan solutions. Now he's got one, but not for long: As promised last week by François Hollande, Secretary General of the Socialist Party, expulsion proceedings for Kouchner have already been initiated.

It's possible that Kouchner might last at Quai d'Orsay. But if he doesn't, he's finished politically. Quite a gamble for someone who entertained presidential aspirations as recently as last year.

Posted by Judah in:  La France Politique   

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Good News Of The Day

Today's Good News: A Colombian police officer who just escaped from the FARC in southeastern Colombia reported that he saw Ingrid Betancourt alive as recently as April 28.

Posted by Judah in:  Good News Of The Day   

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Wheels Come Off

The Bush administration's Iraq policy has been reduced to crossing its fingers and hoping that come September, General Petraeus will bail them out with an assessment of the "Surge" that can buy them another 3-6 months. In the meantime, according to a briefing paper issued by Chatham House, an English public policy think tank, "It can be argued that Iraq is on the verge of being a failed state which faces the distinct possibility of collapse and fragmentation."

A common theme of the problems the report cites is multiplicity:

  • "There is not ‘one’ civil war, nor ‘one’ insurgency, but several civil wars and insurgencies between different communities and organizations..."
  • "Iraqi nationalisms exist, but one distinct ‘Iraqi’ nationalism does not..."
  • "The Iraqi government is not able to exert authority evenly or effectively over the country... At best, it is merely one of several ‘state-like actors’ that now exist in Iraq..."

This passage on the effect of the daily violence on Iraqi youth, as reflected in blogs and YouTube postings, was especially disheartening:

The change in the content of these blogs is remarkable. Barely a year ago, young Iraqis commonly talked about their desires to see the Americans leave and for a genuinely Iraqi political process to emerge. Now, bloggers tend to fall into one of two categories: they either wish the US to stay in order to prevent the final collapse into a ‘total’ civil war; or they wish the US to leave in order to allow the civil war to erupt fully – such is the level of sectarian-based hatred in Baghdad today...

A further outlet for Iraqi sectarianism now exists on YouTube. Postings by both Shi’a and Sunnis, calling for a whole range of barbarous acts to be committed against the other exist alongside a video catalogue of the worst atrocities inflicted upon Shi’a by Saddam’s regime and the murderous activities of Shi’a government-backed ‘death squads’.

Of course, after four years of "stuff happens", "dead-enders" and "last throes", we're all familiar with the Bush administration's standard operating procedure: Push back for six months against what is obvious to most objective observers, and then come up with a half-assed course correction to paper over what's already an outdated assessment.

But as things stand, there are really only two possible courses of action in Iraq: A massive military escalation accompanied by an American commitment to spend the next 5-10 years securing the country. Or an immediate withdrawal.

The first offers no guarantees of success. The second, the likelihood of failure. And both are, for the time being, politically impossible.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Beckett, Ionesco And The GAO

More on Iraq reconstruction, this time from from a report on Iraq's oil and electricity sectors released today by the General Accounting Office. The upshot? We've spent roughly $5.1 billion on the Iraqi oil and electricity infrastructure. There's still billions of dollars of work left to be done. And the results are disappointing, even judging by the modest goals we'd set.

Among the problems cited? Corruption (between 10 and 30 percent of refined fuels are diverted to the black market), poor coordination between the oil and electricity ministries that results in inefficient electrical output, poor security conditions that increase costs and reduce production, and the Iraqi government's lack of clear legal and regulatory structures, as well as financial accounting and management systems, which serve as a disincentive for foreign investment.

As to who's going to finance the work that still needs to be done, one thing is certain: It won't be us. According to the report, we've completed 88% of our oil projects, and should wrap the rest up shortly. And with the Iraqi oil revenue-sharing law in limbo, few countries or companies are willing to invest in Iraq's lucrative but unstable oil sector (although the Kurds have managed to strike a controversial deal with a small Norwegian company).

Like every official government document dealing with Iraq, this one contains its share of memorable, Theater of the Absurd passages. Here's my favorite:

With respect to our recommendation to establish an effective metering system, State commented that the installation and reading of retail electricity meters would be difficult in the present security environment... We agree with State’s comment...

Meter readers in Baghdad. Sheesh.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Président De La République

The official changing of the guard took place today in a formal ceremony (video link) at Elysée Palace that juxtaposed the oddly poignant, regal bearing of Jacques Chirac with the agitated jumpiness of Nicolas Sarkozy. In his investiture address, Sarkozy again mentioned Europe, the Mediterranean, and Africa as priorities, and announced that he would place human rights and global warming at the heart of France's foreign policy.

Which says alot about what Sarkozy really represents for France's posture in the world. Because there's been a lot of discussion of whether, how much, and in what ways he'll represent a difference from Chirac in particular, and from traditional Gaullism in general. But it's all focused on policy. And while there will be differences in priorities and emphasis, the major change won't be in terms of policy itself.

The quality that will mark Sarkozy's foreign policy is activism (not to be confused with interventionism). Which might take people by surprise, especially Americans who are used to thinking of France as a "second-rate" power. But Sarkozy's genius is in seizing the initiative and determining what people are talking about to fit his agenda. He did it throughout his five years in the government. He did it throughout the electoral campaign.

And watching him today I realized that he intends to do it as president. How? I don't know. But one thing is certain. While he's president, France will be an actor on the global stage, not a spectator. And French influence, which Americans tend to underestimate, will most likely grow even stronger.

So in wondering how Sarkozy will align France with US policy, American analysts are missing the point. The real question is, How are we going to align ourselves with his?

Posted by Judah in:  La France Politique   

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Tactical Errors

It's no secret that the American tactical approach in Afghanistan has been, shall we say, slightly at odds with that of its NATO allies participating in the war. The Dutch, for instance, have in the past taken the approach of avoiding engagement with the Taliban insurgents, although they have recently adopted a more offensive-minded approach (even if it is known as the "amoeba model"). The British, too, have emphasized finding a working arrangement with the Taliban, going so far as to arrange a formal truce in Musa Qala, a district in southern Afghanistan they were responsible for securing.

The logic, in both cases, was to minimize the destabilizing effects of combat, both in terms of civilian casualties and infrastructure, while at the same time increasing trust and goodwill among the civilian population through reconstruction projects. As for the insurgents, the strategy was to win their allegiance, rather than kill them off.

All of which doesn't sit too well with Gen. Dan McNeill, the new American commander in Kabul:

“In its best case it might have been a tactical error. In its worst case it might have been a strategic blunder”, McNeill said of the ceasefire in Helmand province’s Musa Qala district.

He added that he could not give his full views on the British-backed truce because that “might be construed as criticizing one of our allies, and I wouldn’t do that”.

I'd sure love to hear his full views, but I think the abridged version gets the idea across pretty effectively. At any rate, he's made no secret of his favored approach, which involves more aggressive ground operations, combined with heavy air support. Resulting in, as you might imagine, increased civilian casualties.

Of course, anytime you get allies fighting a war together, you're bound to have disagreements. The history of WWII is full of them, from heads of state to theater commanders, all the way down to the grunts on the ground.

But this really shows the inability of the American military command to understand the nature of the war they're fighting. The British and Dutch know there's no way to pacify Afghanistan. It's been tried before and it's never worked. So they're trying to minimize the damage on both sides, in the hopes that the Afghans in power when they eventually leave haven't sworn an oath of eternal enmity against them.

That's the only way to win that war. And it's the one way we won't fight it.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Whopper Of The Day

This, too, might become a new feature. Or it might not. (I'm sure if I checked in some marketing textbook, I'd find that rolling out two new features in one day is poor promotional practice.) Anyway, here's Tony Snow, from today's White House press briefing:

Number one, let's make it clear about the U.S. commitment to climate change, which is unparalleled in the world in terms of financial resources, in terms of support for science, in terms of advocacy, in support for new technologies. And the President has made it clear that his view on this is, global warming exists; it has human contributions. And what we need to do is to figure a way forward that is going to enable economies around the world to grow, and at the same time, to pursue the laudable and necessary goals of cleaner air and a cleaner environment.

At least he's upfront about which one comes first.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Just In Time

Oliver Willis wonders whether the new War Czar position is necessary, pointing out that between the Commander in Chief, Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the Joint Chiefs, we should have things covered. I'd point out that he left out the National Security Advisor and Council, the Secretary of State (all reconstruction projects, including security-related ones, are coordinated out of the State Dept), and the Commanding Officer of Centcom.

That said, I think the length of that list makes more the argument for the appointment of a single-tasked coordinator of the war effort than against it. Yes, it adds a layer of bureaucracy to what is already a terribly confusing and confused inter-agency effort. But if that layer is a step above the compartmentalized moving parts, it might give a useful perspective on how to maximize efficiency.

Of course, at this point, there's very little upside to be gained from the position. It might come in handy, though, when it comes time to coordinate the disengagement and withdrawal.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Good News Of The Day

As you can guess from the title of this post, I've decided to introduce a new feature here at Headline Junky. Today's Good News: Dog bites among letter carriers slightly down.

Posted by Judah in:  
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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

That's A Relief

From an Executive Order issued today, forbidding lawyers and expert witnesses testifying on behalf of government agencies from being paid contingency fees based on the outcome of the litigation:

...it is the policy of the United States that organizations or individuals that provide such services to or on behalf of the United States shall be compensated in amounts that are reasonable... and established according to criteria set in advance of performance of the services...

Seems like a pretty sound policy. Too bad no one thought of it when it came to awarding contracts for Iraq reconstruction projects.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

It's Time To Pull The Plug

It's late here, and I'm tired, and I'd wanted to go to bed. But this WaPo article on the Iraqi prison and detention system is worth a mention, even if it is really depressing. Maybe even because it's really depressing.

Because you'd think that it would occur to the people running the surge in Baghdad that if you apply a massive security sweep, you're going to wind up with quite a few more detainees than you had before. About 6,500 more, to be precise, between the Iraqi prisons and American military detention facilities. Which means, of course, that you're going to need more holding facilities.

But apparently, no one considered that possibility, because there's an enormous overcrowding problem, with single-person cells housing up to six inmates, and some detainees being held in facilities for convicts, where they wait up to three months for a habeas corpus hearing that's legally required within 24 hours. Reports of torture, abuse, and forced confessions are widespread. And there's little possibility for oversight due to the farflung and poorly administered system itself.

But even the belated solution, the construction of a prison facility in eastern Baghdad, isn't really one:

The new prison space is part of a massive project called the Rusafa Law and Order Complex, a fortified compound near the Interior Ministry building that, when finished, will include a courthouse and dormitories for lawyers and judges, within a guarded perimeter. The goal is to create a second Green Zone-style haven where authorities can push through the growing backlog of criminal cases.

"This represents a small step forward -- and it must be emphasized that this is merely a foothold -- on two fronts: the political will to embrace the rule of law and the capacity to render justice through secure and legitimate proceedings," U.S. Army Col. Mark S. Martins, senior staff judge advocate, said in a statement.

It's like the actor reading from his script while the scenery is falling down all over the set. I'm curious to see what the vote will be on Feinberg's bill tomorrow. It's supposed to not have a chance in hell. Just like the war effort itself.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Beyond Scraping Bottom

In case you thought you'd heard all there was to hear about how perverse the Gitmo CSRT hearings are, think again. Because according to the NY Times, on at least three occasions detainees who had been cleared by an initial tribunal were later classified as enemy combatants after Defense Dept officials in Washington ordered new hearings. On at least one occasion, a detainee was cleared by two "do-over" tribunals, only to be eventually classified as an enemy combatant by a third one. As the article puts it,

If Pentagon officials disagree with the result of a hearing, they order a second one, or even a third, until they approve of the finding.

A Pentagon spokesman justified the repeated hearings by saying that some detainees had actually been re-classified as "no longer enemy combatants" on second hearing, allowing them to go free. But it doesn't take a legal scholar to understand the difference between a judicial appeal and double jeopardy. The first allows a defendant to contest their conviction. The second amounts to repeated prosecution for the same offense until a conviction is produced.

Which is why the US constitution specifically prohibits the practice. And why, according to government briefs in the lawsuit brought on the detainees behalf,

“This is just one of many areas... where it is inappropriate to compare C.S.R.T. proceedings with background principles that stem from domestic criminal law.”

The 2005 law establishing the CSRT's limits judicial oversight to determining whether the military has followed its own established procedures. So it's unlikely that this case will achieve anything more than an appeal to the Supreme Court. Until then, justice delayed is justice denied.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Facing The Music

One of the running jokes during the 2002 French presidential election was that Jacques Chirac not only had to run for president, he had to win, if he wanted to stay out of jail. Because from 1976 until his first presidential term began in 1995, as both mayor of Paris and head of the former Gaullist political party RPR, Chirac presided over an illegal patronage system whereby party hacks were offered plum municipal positions.

One of his top lieutenants and former Prime Minister, Alain Juppé, was already sentenced to a year's probation (including exclusion from elected office) for his involvement. And there's plenty of evidence that Chirac himself was perfectly aware of the system. Besides that, though, there were also a couple bid-rigging scandals, as well as an illegal party financing scheme, all dating to his years as mayor.

The only thing that's kept him from being charged to date has been the presidential immunity granted by the French constitution up until a month after he leaves office.

Which is why there was some speculation that he might decide to run for a third term this year out of desperation. His decision not to, and his subsequent endorsement (if a tepid one) of Sarkozy's candidacy caused quite a bit of whispering about a deal struck between the two. The idea being that Sarkozy would enact a law placing a ten-year statute of limitations on corruption cases, which would effectively cover Chirac on his most serious legal worries.

Sarkozy vehemently denied the rumors at the time. But it's something else to watch for during his "first hundred days".

Posted by Judah in:  La France Politique   

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Unsafe At Any Speed

Miami's drivers might be the rudest in America, but the worst drivers by far that I've ever encountered were in Dallas. Sure, in New York City, you've got to be prepared at any moment for a Yellow Cab to hang a louie from the extreme righthand lane, or vice cersa. But nine times out of ten, they do it flawlessly, so you don't even end up taking your foot off the accelerator.

Whereas in Big D, people think nothing of driving three abreast on the freeway. All at the same speed. For miles at a time. No matter how many times you flash your brights. And honk your horn. And motion them wildly to the side.

Which explains why they also think nothing of passing on the right at insane speeds. Because when there's no passing lane, you've got to take your openings where they come up.

I've also never, ever, ever seen as many people drive drunk, or drive as drunk, as the folks in Big D. God love 'em. I sure do. But keep them off the road.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Metric System

As you might have noticed, I've taken a bit of an interest in the administrative and accounting morass affectionately known as Iraq Relief & Reconstruction. Which means, among other things, sifting through some of the official State Dept and DoD publications mandated to keep tabs on the various projects that have been contracted. Here's something that caught my eye in the latest Weekly Reconstruction Report, from a description of an elementary school project in north Baghdad Province:

Lt. j.g. Robert McCharen, who is the Army Corps of Engineers officer in charge of the area, says the 23-classroom facility will be capable of handling up to 900 students, both boys and girls, ages 6 through 12. It also contains a 90-square-meter four-room guardhouse.

The gist of the article is that the new school will open "...a whole new chapter of opportunities..." for the community it serves by replacing one that was too far away to be of much use. To be fair, the story is an example of one of the better approaches to Iraq reconstruction: Relief funds made available to local military commanders to disburse according to the needs of the area under control.

And yet, there's still that four-room guardhouse, made necessary by the fact that the insurgency targets schools and teachers that "collaborate" with American forces. From a report in the Guardian titled "Iraq School Crisis":

More than 300 teachers and Ministry of Education employees were killed last year and 1,158 were wounded, the ministry reported. A U.N. report released last month said the killings continued "at an alarming level'' this year.

The attacks have paralyzed the government's plan to build 1,000 new schools this year and even forced it to close existing schools across the country, Hussein said.

The fact that these two reports appeared within two weeks of each other perfectly captures the hollow nature of our accomplishments (which are numerous) in Iraq.

One of the great failures of the Vietnam War was the use of metrics conceived not to accurately measure the war effort, but to register its every engagement as a "plus": Body counts, secured villages, controlled territory. All of them gave the illusion of progress, even while we were steadily losing any chance of victory in the theater of war itself.

The same thing has happened in Iraq. Supporters of the war, the few that remain, aren't wrong when they say that we often fail to appreciate the occupation's many accomplishments. What they fail to realize, though, is that in a realistic appraisal of the war effort, a schoolhouse built with an integrated guardroom doesn't go under the plus column.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Heads They Win, Tails We Lose

The Times is reporting that Iran has smoothed out the wrinkles in their centrifuge operation and is stepping up their uranium enrichment program. They're still a long way, and several major technical obstacles, away from nuclear weapons capacity. Specifically, they'll need to keep the centrifuges running long enough to enrich enough uranium for a bomb. Even then, they'd need to enrich it again before it would be weapons grade. And finally they'd need the capacity to assemble a small enough warhead for their missiles to carry.

Be that as it may, the logic of the American negotiating position, namely a freeze on enrichment in order to keep the Iranians from gaining the necessary technical capacity, is for all intents and purposes outdated. Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, had this to say:

“Quite clearly, suspension is a requirement by the Security Council and I would hope the Iranians would listen to the world community,” he said. “But from a proliferation perspective, the fact of the matter is that one of the purposes of suspension — keeping them from getting the knowledge — has been overtaken by events. The focus now should be to stop them from going to industrial scale production, to allow us to do a full-court-press inspection and to be sure they remain inside the treaty.”

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has backed itself into a corner with its hardline posture of "not a single centrifuge spinning" as a pre-condition to further talks. Which means that, barring an "about face" of the N. Korean variety, any compromise now will be rejected as losing face.

On the other hand, the negotiating stalemate of the past few years is largely responsible for Iran's technical advances, and will continue to play into Tehran's hands as they amass more expertise, more capacity, and more enriched uranium.

Like Iraq, this will probably be a bullet the next President will have to bite in January 2009. By then, of course, the Iranian position will be even stronger.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Monday, May 14, 2007

The Nuclear Black Market

A new report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, cited by David Isenberg at Asia Times Online, claims that some major players in the nuclear procurement network developed by Pakistan's AQ Khan have eluded arrest and could theoretically resume operations despite Khan being placed under house arrest three years back. The report also alleges that Khan's network might have supplied Iran and N. Korea with nuclear plans and components.

Less dramatic but as alarming is the fact that in the three years since Khan's network was supposedly put out of business, the structural incentives for the nuclear black market remain unchanged. Regulatory treaties force countries intent on attaining nuclear weapons to develop illegal procurement channels. Profit motives guarantee that they'll find Western suppliers.

Take Pakistan, for instance. Because they've yet to sign various international non-proliferation agreements, they are as dependent on illegally procured nuclear material, and hence Khan's network, as they were when Khan was still cutting deals.

But whether or not Khan's network is still in operation, it has already served as a model for other countries intent on attaining nuclear weapons to follow. More troubling still is the fact that due to market incentives, networks originally assembled for national procurement purposes can be expected to eventually turn to more profitable export operations.

I can't help but think, though, that all the attention we give to rogue regimes and clandestine procurement networks might be misplaced. We'll never stop certain regimes from wanting to aquire nuclear weapons capacity. Tightening the controls (and the penalties) for shipping illegal components out of Western Europe and South Africa seems like a more effective way of keeping them from getting it.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Sarkozy The Pragmatist

Kevin Drum was wondering when American conservatives were going to quit fawning over Nicolas Sarkozy long enough to realize "...that when it comes to actually dealing with the United States, he's going to be every bit the pain in the ass de Gaulle was." He thinks Andrew McCarthy over at NRO might be the first sign that the honeymoon is over.

Look for the divorce proceedings to begin should Hubert Védrine, former Mitterand chief of staff and Foreign Minister under Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, accept Sarkozy's offer of Foreign Minister. Védrine coined the term "hyperpuissance" (hyperpower) to describe America's post-Cold War international status, and was the architect of the French "containment" policy designed to pushback against American domination of global geopolitics.

For Sarkozy, the offer is part of his attempt to open up his cabinet to the left, thereby establishing bi-partisan credibility. Another prominent Socialist, Bernard Kouchner, who founded Doctors Without Borders, has also been mentioned for the same post. Le Figaro cited sources claiming Kouchner is "...ready to enter the government", although his actual post wasn't specified.

The rumors have set the Socialist hive abuzz. François Hollande, the Party's Secretary General, has already threatened any party members who accept a position in Sarkozy's government with expulsion, saying “You can’t belong to one side then join the other." Bertrand Delanöe, the Mayor of Paris and another prominent Socialist, declared, "You can't be of the left and of this government":

"I'm not going to claim that Claude Allègre has become stupid or that Bernard Kouchner has lost his appeal, but I'll simply say that whoever believes in good faith that this government can carry out a progressive program" is fooling himself, he insisted. (Translated from the French.)

At least one member of Sarkozy's team isn't exactly thrilled with the bi-partisan idea either. Patrick Devedjian, his chief campaign strategist, insisted that "...loyalty isn't necessarily the opposite of competence."

It was a not-so-thinly-veiled reply to Sarkozy's declaration last week that "...loyalty is for the sentiments, efficiency is for the government." Sarkozy's way of warning the faithful, on both sides of the Atlantic, that there would be some disappointments when the actual government is named.

Posted by Judah in:  La France Politique   

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Off On The Wrong Foot

Warren Richey's got a quiet piece in the Christian Science Monitor about the unusual press restrictions being imposed for the trial of Jose Padilla, which is set to open tomorrow:

In effect, newspaper, radio, and television reporters are being granted observer status – they may sit quietly, watch the trial, and take notes. But if during a court recess they approach a defense lawyer or prosecutor in the courtroom with a question, they risk being whisked away by security officials.

The ban on media questions also extends to the lobby outside US District Judge Marcia Cooke's courtroom and chambers.

If reporters need to ask questions for clarification or routine housekeeping matters during the trial, they must ask their questions somewhere else.

Judge Marcia Cooke's staff explained that it's a precaution against unintentionally tainting the jury with an overheard remark. Which seems like a valid enough concern to ensure that the rule falls far short of the "unreasonable restriction" litmus test needed to claim it hampers press freedom. What's odd, then, is that instead of actually issuing the rule, Judge Cooke is simply allowing the courtroom security officer to enforce an "unwritten rule" to that effect.

As Richey says, it's difficult for the press to fulfill its watchdog function in a case where so much of the evidence is classified and so much of the pre-trial litigation was off-limits to reporters. Throwing some "unwritten rules" into the equation wouldn't seem to help.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Dropping Hints

Chuck Hagel apparently talked up the merits of a third party presidential bid, saying he'd make a final decision about running by the end of the summer. If he does run, perhaps on a ticket with NY Mayor Mike Bloomberg, that could only be a good thing for the Democratic nominee. I don't see Hagel taking too many votes from any of the Democratic candidates. He would, on the other hand, probably peel off some of the sane Republican voters who believe that the Theory of Evolution might just hold some water.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Profiles In Courage

According to William Kristol, the Iraqi political class is more courageous than their American counterparts because, unlike the eleven GOP Congressmen who confronted President Bush about the Iraq War's impact on polling numbers last week, they risk assassination, not just electoral defeat. The obvious question being, Do Iraqi politicians count as part of the Iraqi political class?

Because Iraqi politicians have consistently postponed resolving just about all of the sticking points -- the Kirkuk referendum, the oil revenue distribution law, the amendments to the constitution that were promised in return for marginal Sunni participation in the electoral process -- that could potentially scuttle the entire Iraqi political experiment.

They've also managed to find the time, amidst all the last-minute planning for their two-month summer vacation, to sign on to a proposed bill calling for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

As for Kristol's evidence of how well things are going in Iraq, it basically boils down to the observation, repeated twice, that children wave, smile and ask American visitors for candy on the streets of Baghdad.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Reform Or Stalemate

This article in The Economist might just be the best one I've read so far on the implications of Nicolas Sarkozy's election as President of France. It perfectly captures the many contradictions he represents, contradictions that make it very hard to pin down just how his presidency will play out.

He uses provocative language and has a confrontational style, while emphasizing consensus in his method of governing. He is an Atlanticist (ie. sympathetic to America and England) while remaining no less a Gaullist in trade and foreign policy. He is young and dynamic, while using traditional values (work, law & order) to justify his program of change.

Sarkozy will face a lot of resistance, because while his initial reform package might seem innocuous to an American, it takes on added significance when put in the context of French politics. Particularly his declared intention to limit the power of the unions, which is very clearly a first step towards consolidating a later package of reforms.

The unions officially represent a very small minority of workers, but wield a disproportionate amount of power for two reasons. First, they are designated by statute as the official representatives of all workers in negotiating private sector contract and employment standards with the government. Second, while they represent a minority, it's a militant minority that's managed to paralyse the country through street mobilizations and transport strikes anytime a government has tried to impose reform from above.

The unions and the street have traditionally been regarded as an emergency break, protecting aquired social privileges for all French workers. In the event negotiations fail, Sarkozy will almost certainly use the classic populist tactic of making them out to be a loud but small minority that makes life difficult for the "silent majority". The outcome of that struggle will determine what direction France, and its culture, will take during his presidency.

Posted by Judah in:  La France Politique   

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Three Guesses...

...where the Multifunction Palmtop Game Machine was manufactured.

Posted by Judah in:  China   

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Bonus Quote Of The Day

"This machine contain abundant game contents:
Game A: The equation race cars
Game B: Gluttonous snake
Game C: Attack devil
Game D: Frog is over the river
Game E: To touching correctly...
Game L: Dance the machine..."

-- From the Instructional Manual of the Multifunction Palmtop Game Machine.

Posted by Judah in:  Quote Of The Day   

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"Openning the battery storehouse. Pack into 2 batteries NO. 5, there is beautiful starting shooting music. Play at this moment and enter the state of choosing."

-- Instructional Manual for the Multifunction Palmtop Game Machine that my son won this afternoon at the village's annual street fair. 

Posted by Judah in:  Quote Of The Day   

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Smoke, But No Fire

With the Bush administration, "Where there's smoke, there's fire" is a pretty reliable rule of thumb. So when I saw an executive order last Wednesday disbanding the State Dept's Iraq Reconstruction Management Office (IRMO) and replacing it with the Iraq Transitional Assistance Office (ITAO), a short week following the release of a Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) audit critical of Iraq reconstruction efforts, it caught my eye. Throw in the fact that both the White House and a Republican Congressman have initiated oversight investigations of Stuart Bowen, the head of SIGIR, and you'll see why I titled a recent post, I Smell A Rat.

But in what might be a first for the Bush administration, the appearance of impropriety surrounding the executive order turns out to be a coincidence. IRMO, as a "temporary organisation", was limited by Federal statute to a period of three years. Since it was created by a National Security Presidential Directive on May 11, 2004, its mandate expired on May 10, 2007. Hence the Executive Order of May 9 creating the ITAO.

On the other hand, as for my initial question of whether the ITAO signals a phasing out of reconstruction aid, the answer is very clearly yes. Not only that, it's a phasing out that's been in the works since at least January 2006, when the Bush administration first announced its plan to wrap up major infrastructure reconstruction projects, shifting the emphasis instead to logistical training and institutional support for "Iraqi self-sufficiency".

In fact, since the initial $21 billion appropriated for Iraq reconstruction in 2003 (of which roughly $4 billion in outstanding contracts still remains), the amount of additional, non-security related reconstruction has been limited to roughly $1 billion, split between various funding streams, appropriated in 2006.

But even the idea that we heavily funded civilian and infrastructure reconstruction and are now ramping it down is misleading. Because a good deal of what's been called "reconstruction" has been diverted into security operations, ie. military infrastructure, force training, etc. Add to that the fact that the funding streams have been multiple and diverse, with various mandates and goals, and it becomes very difficult to keep things straight.

Which is where Stuart Bowen and SIGIR come in. Bowen is a longtime Bush loyalist, who served in the White House, and before that in various capacities on Bush's staff in Texas. Unlike other Bush loyalists, though, Bowen seems to have gotten the peculiar notion that he should actually do the job he was appointed to do. And wouldn't you know it, his audits on Iraq reconstruction have uncovered enormous lapses in oversight, poor procurement methods, and shoddy results.

Apparently that didn't go over too well, because last October, a hidden clause made its way into a military appropriations bill that would have ended SIGIR's mandate altogether come October 2007. Luckily, that clause was reversed just two months later, by a bill that tied its mandate to completion of a certain percentage of reconstruction contracts, effectively guaranteeing its existence through late 2008. But now Bowen finds himself the subject of two oversight investigations for misuse of funds, one by an executive branch ethics panel, and the other by the House Government Reform committee.

Compare that to the kind of support Alberto Gonzales still enjoys in the White House and you've got all you need to know about how the Bush administration operates. As he said himself, You're either with us or you're against us.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Discreet Libertines

What a fascinating bundle of contradictions Iran appears to be. In the last month or so, I've run across articles describing the yearly spring crackdown in Tehran on "immodestly dressed" women, and a directive ordering all Iranian television dramas to show their characters praying. But then, buried in an LA Times article about the elaborate precautions that go into organizing an illegal, underground fashion show in Tehran, I find this:

Iran's government seems to mind less and less about such transgressions, so long as they remain discreet. If anything, Tehran has become more libertine under the conservative presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Hundreds of thousands of illegal satellite dishes have sprouted from the tops of buildings. Police who once violently broke up late-night parties now politely ask hosts to keep the noise down.

So, which is it? Repressive theocracy, or "look the other way" tolerance? Or both? Something tells me that if we could ever put aside our differences, we'd probably end up getting along pretty well.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Out Of The Frying Pan, Into The Fire

According to an LA County Fire Dept spokesman quoted in the LA Times, "the backbone of the fight" against the wildfires threatening Catalina Island are small firecrews from the Fire Camp program. "They're the frontline, infantry," the spokesman went on to say.

But if one of the crew members ever tries to bum a cigarette off you, be sure to say no. Not because it's a fire risk. But because the firecrews are actually made up of non-violent inmates on loan from the California Dept of Corrections and Rehabilitation. And as the Fire Camp website says:

You cannot give anything, including cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, to an incarcerated crewmember.

There's also this nugget:

The CDC (sic) supplies the workforce for each camp and the Fire Department supplies the fire crew supervisor. Both agencies benefit from this arrangement; the Department and County of Los Angeles gain an eager and willing workforce to complete a myriad of necessary projects and CDC (sic) is able to provide a structured learning environment with an emphasis on teamwork and a strong work ethic for personnel under their care.

Oddly enough, the LA Times didn't see fit to inquire as to whether and how much the inmates are paid, as well as whether the CDCR gets a cut. I did, however, and I'll keep you posted as I hear back from the CDCR.

Update: I just heard back from the CDCR. The inmates are paid $1.00/hr. while on emergency assignment, and $0.20/hr. for non-emergency work between fires. Which begs the question, Are these positions that the Fire Dept has trouble filling? Or is this just an obscene cost-cutting policy? I'll follow up on that next week.

Another Update: Something I forgot to mention: One of the Fire Camps is made up of juvenile inmates, or "wards", who are paid at the same rate. And something that occured to me after I published the post: If you're a non-violent offender in California, and you've got the dough, you can buy yourself a spot in a "soft" county jail. Otherwise, you've got to put your life on the line fighting fires for eight bucks a day if you want to avoid doing time with hardened criminals. Can we get prison reform onto the list of Democratic priorities for 2008?

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   Odds & Ends   

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Friday, May 11, 2007

I Smell A Rat

Two days ago, the President issued an Executive Order basically replacing the existing State Dept. office overseeing Iraq reconstruction efforts with a new "transitional" office, whose mandate seemed to suggest a phasing out of Iraq reconstruction funding altogether. In a telephone interview with a State Dept press officer, I confirmed that the new office does in fact represent a policy of "...moving away from large infrastructure reconstruction to facilitate Iraq's transition to self-sufficiency."

I did some digging, and found this WaPo article which describes way back in January, 2006, the Bush administration's plans to draw down Iraq reconstruction funding, leaving whatever work remains to foreign donors and the Iraq government itself.

In and of itself, that seems pretty scandalous. But it gets worse. Because Wednesday's executive order follows directly on the heels of a scathing report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) that blew holes in so-called "successful" reconstruction projects, and detailed continued "diversion" of reconstruction funds. That report was a follow-up to one last fall which documented the poor performance and lack of oversight in Iraq reconstruction assistance.

Almost by coincidence, the head of SIGIR, Stuart Bowen, is now under (a Republican-initiated) Congressional investigation for misuse of funds, and his oversight office has been scheduled to be closed come October.

So, why formally change bureaucratic structures? Why do it by executive order? Why do it now? And why the assault on effective oversight that's already brought wild abuses to light? Nothing in this administration's track record leads me to believe it's just a wild coincidence.

I'll keep digging. Stay tuned.

Update: According to the Public Affairs rep at SIGIR, the new office in the State Dept. doesn't limit SIGIR's oversight capacity or otherwise effect their work in any way. She also clarified that SIGIR's mandate is budget-determined. So according to current estimates, they will be in operation until December 2008. Finally, she had a firm and concise no comment to my questions regarding the Congressional investigation of Mr. Bowen.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

What's All The Fuss About?

The whole dustup between Moscow and Washington about the proposed anti-missile interceptors to be based in Poland and Czechoslovakia keeps getting less and less comprehensible. On the one hand, the Bush administration is in a hurry to pour cement on a still unproven missile defense system in order to counter an even more unproven Iranian ICBM threat. On the other, the Russians have thrown a Cold War-worthy hissy fit, complete with threatened counter-measures and unilaterally abrogated treaties, over a measly ten interceptor silos, despite a nuclear stockpile comprising hundreds of missiles and thousands of warheads. Luckily, the Democratic Congress is about to pull the plug on the funds needed to actually pour the damn silos, otherwise we might have had a full-blown catfight on our hands.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Here's Hoping

Griffith Park is one of the reasons I managed to stay sane while living in LA. So it's sad to read about it burning. But I remember, also, the spring after the 1996 Laguna Beach fires, walking in the hills and marvelling at all the amazing wildflowers and growth that had been freed up by the burn. So hopefully, a year from now, Bronson Canyon will be abloom. In the meantime, I imagine the smell is close to unbearable.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

After Tony... & Jacques... & Gerhardt...

The news that Tony Blair will be stepping down as Prime Minister of Great Britain at the end of June is significant for all sorts of reasons. One of them being the enormous question mark it leaves, not only in terms of British leadership, but also in terms of Western Europe as a whole. Because with Blair's departure, England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain will all be governed by relatively new heads of state. And this at a time when the United States is effectively governed without one.

Of course, these folks all know each other from conferences and summits and the like. And as far as the EU goes, the executive personnel are all seasoned pro's. But it takes some time for the balance of forces (and personalities) to settle. Time that -- considering all the sensitive dossiers on the table (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon) -- isn't necessarily available.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   International Relations   

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Veto This!

For everyone following the legislative brinksmanship going on between Congress and the White House over a withdrawal timetable for our troops in Iraq, here's one bill that President Bush can't veto:

A majority of Iraqi lawmakers have endorsed a bill calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops and demanding a freeze on the number of foreign troops already in the country, lawmakers said Thursday...

The bill would require the Iraqi government to seek approval from parliament before it requests an extension of the U.N. mandate for foreign forces to be in Iraq, al-Rubaie said. It also calls for a timetable for the troop withdrawal and a freeze on the size of the foreign forces.

As things stand, the only justification left for staying in Iraq is the very situation we caused by invading in the first place. Which I thought was the limit of pathetic. But it would be even more pathetic if the Iraqi government pulls the plug on the whole affair while Congressional Republicans are still wringing their hands and holding out for some good news come September. 

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Hold The Hysteria

Although there's every reason to be vigilant and indignant about the Bush administration's multiple infringements upon our civil liberties these past six years, it's also important to recognize how lucky we are to live in (or in my case, to come from) a country with such a strong tradition of free speech.

Take the US Army's website, for instance, and in particular it's News page. Sure, it's peppered with the kind of fluff pieces and propaganda excercises that you'd expect. But if you take a look at the righthand sidebar you'll see a box titled, "World Media News Today". Here are the headlines I found today when I checked in with the site:

  • Retired U.S. Army Generals to Make TV Commercials Criticizing Bush's Handling of Iraq War (IHT);
  • U.S. Attack Kills Iraqi School Children (Al Jazeera);
  • How Bush Sabotaged Reconstruction in Iraq (Counter Currents).

This isn't the first time that I've found highly critical articles linked to on the site. In fact, it's a pretty common occurence. It's not uncommon to hear people claim that America is slowly becomong a police state. But police states don't allow that kind of criticism to see the light of day, let alone diffuse it. By comparison, for example, it's pretty well-known that criticizing the Russian government and military these days can be dangerous to a reporter's health. So while there have been some excesses in the past six years, ones that need to be corrected, it's important to keep things in perspective.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   Odds & Ends   

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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Is The Fat Lady Singing?

I'm not sure what to make of this Executive Order, issued today, that establishes the "Iraq Transitional Assistance Office" within the State Dept. The new office will ostensibly assume any outstanding functions of the "Iraq Reconstruction Management Office". But the unmistakable emphasis is on a gradual phasing out of the "reconstruction" plank of the occupation:

The purpose of the ITAO shall be to perform the specific project of supporting executive departments and agencies in concluding remaining large infrastructure projects expeditiously in Iraq, in facilitating Iraq's transition to self-sufficiency, and in maintaining an effective diplomatic presence in Iraq. (Emphasis added.)

Now this could simply mean that American aid will from now on be channeled through the Iraqi government itself. But I doubt it, given how porously corrupt we know the Iraqi government is. At the same time I find it hard to believe that we're already preparing to ramp down infrastructure reconstruction aid.

I'll keep my eyes peeled for any coverage, but if anyone sees anything, pass it on, either through e-mail or comments.

Update: Here's a follow-up post about some interesting "coincidences" surrounding the timing of this Executive Order.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Congressional Cage Match

I suppose it would be irresponsible of me to say that sometimes I wish the US Congress operated more along the lines of the Taiwanese Parliament model. So instead I'll just say that this would make a great South Park episode.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

It's The Thought That Counts

Ecuador's new President, Rafael Correa, is an American-educated, self-proclaimed socialist reformer who has used provocative language with regard to America in the vein of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez -- with whom he has aligned himself -- and Bolivia's Evo Morales. He also just won a referendum calling for a constitutional convention to expand his power and push through social reforms, also along the lines of Hugo Chavez.

So it strikes me as very good news that the United States has decided to send a special envoy in order to reach out to his new government in the spirit of dialogue and cooperation:

"It is a clear sign that we want to engage with its government," said a State Department official who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record. "We want to have a productive relationship."

Of course, they might have found an envoy other than John Negroponte, who doesn't win any popularity awards in Latin America. But hey, why quibble?

Posted by Judah in:  Las Americas   

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Rose-Tinted Glasses

According to the latest common wisdom, the Baghdad security surge is going to have to show some positive results come September -- October at the latest -- or President Bush will face the possibility of Congressional Republicans jumping ship on the Iraq War. The logic being, as Josh Marshall points out, that it's the latest possible date that they can save their hides for the 2008 elections.

As he also notes, it's also already been agreed that General David Petraues will offer a status report on the Purge come September. So, given that the Pentagon just notified ten brigades -- or 35,000 troops -- to prepare for deployment to Iraq come the fall, any guesses as to what kind of assessment Petraeus will come up with?

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Iranian TV Doesn't Have A Prayer

I remember a discussion over at Ezra Klein's blog a few months back about whether or not Iran could be considered an autocratic or repressive regime, given the amount of political dissent that's permitted. The trigger for the post was a speech given by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that was interrupted by protesters who set off firecrackers, heckled him and burned his figure in effigy, without being arrested or even removed from the speech.

My understanding was that like most theocracies, Iran was politically permissive, but religiously restrictive, something that seems to be borne out by this article about Iranian television. Apparently, any homegrown drama program that doesn't portray its characters praying will not be aired. It's not yet certain whether the directive, announced by a director of state television known for being relatively permissive, applies to sitcoms and game shows.

That's what makes America great, of course. For all of this country's flaws, it doesn't let religion get in the way of great television programming.

Update: On a more serious note, but reinforcing my point, editors of a student paper at the very university where Ahmadinejad was heckled were just arrested last week for publishing "material deemed insulting to Islam." They claim the material was published without their knowledge in order to discredit them.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Hundred Meter Freestyle

With big-time sports racked by doping scandals, and so many of the major athletes resembling programmed machines, it's kind of refreshing to see a promising athlete completely upend her career and two national swimming federations to be with a guy she's been dating for a couple of months:

Laure Manaudou, the French swimming sensation who dominated the women's competition at the recent World Championships in Melbourne, has stunned her native country by moving to Italy to be with her boyfriend, Italian swimmer Luca Marin.

The 20-year-old Manaudou holds the world records for the 200 metres and 400 metres freestyle and is expected to be one of the biggest names in the pool at next year's Beijing Olympics with a gold medal haul at her fingertips.

However Manaudou's preparations have been thrown into disarray by her love for Marin, who is also world ranked and with whom she has been involved romantically for several months.

"My choice (to move to Italy) is based on love," Manaudou told Italian sports newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport.

"Between Italy and France, I have chosen Luca, the love of my life. I want to live with him and have a baby..."

Then again, maybe all that chlorine's impaired her judgment.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

What The American Press Left Out

The American press' analysis of Nicolas Sarkozy's victory has so far amounted to the condescending party line about France turning its back on its stifling Socialist legacy in favor of liberal reform. But while Sarkozy campaigned on a platform of rupture, it would be premature to assume that the majority he won is made up entirely of folks committed to modernizing France and liberalizing its economy.

Sarkozy won the election for two reasons. First, by taking control of the UMP in 2005, he managed to outmaneuver and eliminate his most dangerous rival, Dominique de Villepin, early on. He then proceeded to rally the Chirac loyalists behind his candidacy with an effectiveness that surprised most observers. (I, for one, was waiting for a political assassination -- Chirac's specialty -- up until Saturday evening.) By contrast, Ségolène Royal's rivals in the Socialist Party (namely Jospin, Fabius and Strauss-Kahn) never fully came on board. At best, they supported her half-heartedly, and at times they actively sabotaged her chances, mainly out of personal ambition, but also because of the way in which she broke with tradition by bypassing the party bureaucracy and establishing an independent campaign.

Second, Sarkozy tailored specific aspects of his campaign (law & order, immigration) to appeal to the supporters of the rightwing extremist, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Le Pen's Front National (FN) is the only party in France that is considered "untouchable", that is, unfit to enter into a governing coalition, and his voters are so far out on the fringe that they are not even considered part of the "republican" tradition. The strategy reduced Le Pen's first-round showing to an anemic 10 percent (compared to the 16 percent he won in 2002), two-thirds of whom went on to vote for Sarkozy in the second round despite Le Pen's call for abstention.

Sarkozy claimed that while inviting the FN into a governing majority was unthinkable, inviting its voters back into the fold was healthy for democracy. But the dirty little secret of his victory, one that the American press seems to want to ignore at all costs, is that he owes it in large part to an anachronistic element that believes, among other things, that France should withdraw from the EU, close its borders to immigration, refuse citizenship to anyone without French "blood", and give preference in jobs and entitlements to French citizens. Hardly the kind of reforms the American press had in mind.

It's the French equivalent of the Republican Party's courtship of the evangelical vote here in the States, which might make sense in terms of electoral arithmetic, but also forces otherwise intelligent candidates to reject evolution if they want a chance of winning the nomination. Unfortunately, the French Socialist Party is a mess, at risk of imploding under the weight of too many egos and not enough power to go around. So while Sarkozy's victory has a certain pyrrhic quality to it, if he manages to put together a successful five-year term, he just might get away with the gamble.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Monday, May 7, 2007

Sarkozying Up To America

A lot has been made in the American press about Nicolas Sarkozy's "pro-American" posture during the French presidential election. But the truth is, his positions have been a lot more nuanced than either his American cheerleaders, or French critics, would like to admit.

It's true that Sarkozy is not in principle hostile to a dominant America, as was Jacques Chirac. In fact, he's made a point of stating that France, and the world, needs a strong America. So while he's expressed disapproval of American unilateralism, he's unlikely to assert French influence for the sole purpose of counterbalancing it.

It's also true that in some ways, Sarkozy's style resembles that of George W. Bush. He's a "With us or against us" type of guy who believes that French and European foreign policy should be guided by Western ideals instead of realpolitik. As such, he'll fit in nicely down on the ranch in Crawford.

But his expressed idealism notwithstanding, Sarkozy is above all a pragmatist, willing to pursue whichever approach -- French, European or multi-lateral -- is most likely to achieve results. And judging by his policy declarations during the campaign, his foreign policy will most probably be a mixed bag from an American perspective, ranging from solid alignment (China, Iran and Russia), to nuanced differences of approach (Middle East policy), to direct opposition (admitting Turkey into the EU).

There's something else to keep in mind amidst all the American euphoria over finally having a powerful friend in Paris. Jacques Chirac paid a pretty steep price in the immediate aftermath of his opposition to the Iraq War. He was ostracized and humiliated by a Bush administration at the peak of its power. And for all intents and purposes, he's been hamstrung on the international stage for the past two years by the French people's humiliating rejection of a constitutional treaty he wholeheartedly supported.

Now the situation has been dramatically reversed. Sarkozy takes office at a time when the Bush administration finds itself weakened and isolated, both at home and abroad, by failed policies and a lameduck president quacking louder with each passing day.

America is no longer in any position to pursue unpopular, unilateral approaches to strategic challenges. So if French and American policy begin to overlap to a greater degree, it will be as much because American foreign policy has become more pragmatic and less arrogant, than because of the change in French leadership.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Sunday, May 6, 2007

Election Results

The results of the French presidential election are in and, as expected, Nicolas Sarkozy won with 53% of the vote according to the earliest exit polls. I've been having some internet connectivity problems for the last couple days, so any analysis will have to wait til tomorrow evening when I get back home. Suffice it to say that there was a somber mood all day among sympathizers of the left. At the same time, Royal, along with all the spokespeople of the left (with one notable exception), focused on the parliamentary elections a month from now that will determine whether Sarkozy governs with a majority, and if so, how large. That's it for now.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Friday, May 4, 2007

Dept. Of Shameless Plugs

For anyone who'd like to see the article I was working on this week, here it is over at The American Prospect. Feel free to leave any feedback here once you've read it.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Friday, May 4, 2007

The Horserace

The French presidential election is in the homestretch, and while there were a number of developments this week, none had a significant impact on the race. The debate between the two candidates was interesting for how they both played against type than for any knockout punches landed.

Sarkozy remained calm and restrained, while Royal came out swinging from her opening statement. The highlight was an exchange where Royal either showed authentic, "healthy" anger, as she called it, or lost her cool, as Sarkozy claimed. I thought the former, but her demeanor was probably more parliamentarian than presidential, in retrospect.

Afertward, François Bayrou, the "third man", announced he would "not vote for Sarkozy", but he stopped short of an explicit endorsement of Royal. Today is the last day of campaigning, followed by a moratorium on public announcements and website updates until Sunday's voting.

All of the polls point to a Sarkozy victory, by varying margins. But the trends have held consistently for months now. So barring a last-minute bombshell, and it's hard to imagine what that could look like, Sunday evening will hold no surprises. 

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Friday, May 4, 2007

What's At Stake

I've had a chance this week to cover the French presidential election in Paris, and I can't escape the feeling that something very significant will be decided on Sunday. Regardless of who wins, the election signals the end of the post-war model of social welfare in Europe. The question now is what will replace it.

Should Royal win, it will solidify a European left built on the basis of a broader Social Democrat coalition, similar to Spain and Italy. The possibilities for working with South American counterparts such as Brazil and Chile offer the hope of a global approach to tempering the excesses of globalization.

A Sarkozy victory, on the other hand, means the likelihood of very violent social fractures. His reform program will most likely be bitterly contested, including in the streets. On a gut level, I don't think he's as dangerous as many here believe. At the same time, to the French, the American social model is a viciously individualistic, precariousness system.

More importantly, if more superficially, is the spirit of Royal's campaign: Inclusiveness, co-operation, dialogue. I've really been struck by its idealism. After six years here, some spent making the same criticisms of France and the French that Sarkozy makes, I think this election has reminded me that the ideals of social solidarity, of culture, of the things in life that can't be priced don't necessarily need to be limited to personal choice. They are valid political priorities. That's the battle the French left, for better or worse, is fighting. And I hope it's one they win.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Thursday, May 3, 2007

'Night

I'm having some very serious Wifi problems tonight, so I'm going to sign off. I'll do some posting on the stretch run of the French presidential election here tomorrow, as well as try to catch up on some non-election news as well.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Thursday, May 3, 2007

See Dick Grovel

Seems odd that with Secretary of State Rice already in the neighborhood, Dick Cheney would be making another Mid-East trip already. Something tells me the idea isn't to dress anyone down like last time, since instead of Pakistan he'll be visiting Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Kind of makes you wonder... What's Cheney like when he's playing nice?

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Faceoff

Last night was the debate between Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy. I'll post some thoughts on the outcome of the debate a little later (short version: probably not too decisive), but for now I thought it would be interesting to describe how the debate was organized, to give an idea of the difference in how politics is practiced here and in the States.

The two candidates were seated across a table from each other, in a television studio with two journalists seated between them. The cameras and camera operators were screened off to avoid any "red light" distractions. There was no time limit to the candidate's answers, simply a clock visible onscreen tabulating each candidate's total speaking time. If at any time one candidate's total time exceeded the other's by more than three or four minutes, the moderators steered the floor to the other until he or she had equalized. It continued for two and a half hours, that is, half an hour longer than expected.

The result was a debate in which the candidates were forced to string together real thoughts, which could in turn be freely challenged by the other. Like debates in the States, the actual usefulness was not so much in convincing anyone on the particulars of either program as in demonstrating the personalities of the two candidates. The difference being that the format here was more likely to give rise to unscripted responses and spontaneous exchanges between the two candidates.

All of which is to say that while style matters, there is no way someone unable to form a coherent sentence, much less develop a sophisticated argument (ie. George W. Bush), could ever be taken seriously as a candidate.

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Miss Manners

Just last week, there was encouraging news following the meeting between Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, and Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator. Rumor had it that they'd found a possible way out of the logjam over pre-conditions for further negotiations. One that focused on finding a mutually acceptable definition of the word "freeze".

So it should come as no surprise that today President Bush suggested that should they run into each other at the Iraq summit later this week, the first official, direct communication between Secretary of State Rice and her Iranian counterpart might be to convey the confrontational message that Iran should freeze it's nuclear program or face further international isolation. The reason being, of course, that "She's not a rude person."

One of the reasons Iran has responded so hostilely to the sanctions already put into place by the UN Security Council is because they believe they are illegitimate under the terms of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. So threatening them with more isn't exactly the kind of thing you say if you really want negotiations to work.

Like I said, it should come as no surprise.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

May Day

The major tactical news in the French presidential election today was Jean-Marie Le Pen's announcement calling on his followers to "abstain massively" from second round voting. Many analysts had already been assuming his 11% first-round tally would go to Nicolas Sarkozy in the  second round, which I mentioned Saturday seemed premature to me. Le Pen's voters, especially the hardcore following that hasn't already defected to Sarkozy, are notoriously loyal. So this can only tighten up the race.

Something else that was clear from today's demonstrations: The common wisdom that this election will boil down to a referendum on Sarkozy, while exagerrated, is nevertheless based on a very large kernel of truth. There were anti-Sarko stickers, banners, and graffiti everywhere.

Also, while all of the unions maintained their policy of endorsing neither candidate, several of them made it clear that they were not at all enthused by Sarkozy's program, particularly his proposal to require rush hour service during any transport strike, one of the union's most potent weapons. So even if May Day is a gimme for the left (since it always falls between the two rounds during election years), this year it gave just a bit more.

Finally, Ségolène Royal held a major rally at a stadium on the outskirts of Paris, which I managed to wrangle a press pass for. I'll have more about it in an article I'm working on, but suffice it to say, the mood was impressive.

So all in all, a very good day for Royal, which I imagine puts her in pretty good position going into tomorrow's debate. She's still got to score some points, and avoid any major gaffes. But my gut feeling is that, contrary to the betting line, she's got a very strong chance of pulling this out. 

Posted by Judah in:  La Presidentielle   

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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

What Are The Odds?

From the Bureau of Unlikely Coincidences: I went down to Place de la République this afternoon to check out the May Day demonstrations, and the first group I stumbled upon -- already set up with banners, floats, and loud overdriven amplifiers two hours ahead of the scheduled start of the march -- was the PKK, the Turkish/Kurdish communist insurgency that I've spent some time covering here.

In other news, it seems like the "Legalize Pot" movement has gone international in its attempt to co-opt any and every progressive/leftist march, regardless of whether anyone invited them. 

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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