Thursday, June 30, 2011

Obama's New Counterterrorism Strategy and the Afghan Taliban

Tuesday evening, armed Taliban suicide bombers attacked the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Kabul. The attack left 11 civilians dead and at least that many wounded. The Afghan government said that no foreigners were killed but some other reports suggest that Spanish, French and Turk victims may have been among the dead.
The 8 suicide bombers either blew themselves up during the attack or were killed in the hotel as the ensuing battle raged.
The Taliban were heavily armed and faced no resistance when they entered the hotel.
The suicide assault seemed perfectly times to coincide with President Obama’s announcement of the gradual withdrawal of American troops during the next year. In any event, it surely put to rest any idea that Kabul is safe or that the recent allied sweeps have seriously damaged the Afghan Taliban’s capability to strike where and when they choose. And, since Kabul is one of the cities soon to be turned over to Afghan security control, the attack raises questions about the Afghan ability to secure its civilian urban populations from the threat of a Taliban assault. The Afghan national intelligence police has said it will not allow the Taliban to undermine its security takeover.
The Taliban spokesman stated that the goals of the assault were to kill as many people as possible during the provincial governors’ conference, to disrupt the transition to Afghan security control and to prove that foreign intelligence officers are not safe anywhere in Afghanistan.
The Taliban estimate of casualties is 90.
The governors’ conference went on as planned, relocated to a government building.
The Taliban attack in Kabul may be the beginning of the uncoupling of President Obama’s counterterrorism strategy from Afghanistan. His counterterrorism chief, John O. Brennan, gave a speech yesterday outlining the strategy.
Brennan said that President Obama’s counterterrorism strategy is focused on al-Qaida and its ability to strike at America, and is “…not designed to combat directly every single terrorist organization in every corner of the world.” Brennan specifically mentioned al-Qaida in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, North Africa and Pakistan as targets of the strategy.
The Afghan Taliban must be dancing in their villages tonight, realizing that they have just been given carte blanche to retake Afghanistan, if they can wrest it from the Afghan government. America appears to be interested in other world hotspots.
This new Obama counterterrorism strategy is just about as unreal as Alice in Wonderland, and the President might have been well-served to heed Abraham Lincoln’s advice, "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Christine Lagarde Takes Over at the IMF

Christine Lagarde, the French Finance Minister, has been elected to head the International Monetary Fund.
Madame Lagarde has been the rock solid center of the Sarkozy French government since its beginning. She is a lawyer who managed one of the world's largest law firms in the United States and then took on the French financial mess when asked by newly elected Nicolas Sarkozy. She has made French finances more robust than they were in the thirty years before her tenure.
She was also in her youth a world class title-winning swimmer.
What her agenda will be at the IMF is still not clear, but if her record is any indication, she will run a tight ship with clear rules and obligations.
She has also suggested that she would like to bring into the IMF more senior management from the developing world. If this occurs, it will be the turning of the ship - slowly but inevitably.
I have personally enjoyed watching her win over the rather macho European presidents, prime ministers and finance ministers, as well as international bankers. She has done it because of her talent, skills, hard work and pleasant manners.
Let's wish her well at the IMF because, goodness knows, she's got another large mess on her hands. It's called the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Greek Case against State Terrorism

Greek citizens are demonstrating in the streets today and tomorrow against the severe economic restrictions being forced on them by their government at the behest of the Eurozone, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The restrictions, say these leaders, are needed in order to stabilize and revitalize the Greek economy. They are also the price being forced on Greece as the condition for receiving bailouts needed to pay its creditors until the end of 2011. It is Greek citizens who are paying in higher taxes, loss of jobs and social safety nets.
But, as almost all independent economists and bankers say, Greece will default in any case - with or without bailouts.
Why? Because the Greek economy has not produced growth in many years and has, therefore, relied on borrowing to pay its ever-increasing bills, including its creditors and also its citizens in the form of social programs.
Greece is a case in point against state terrorism, not for its economic problems so much as for its restless and angry citizens.
In any country in the world, when citizens are pushed to the wall, they rebel, demanding their rights as human beings. In democratic countries, the rebellion happens more quickly and governments respond more rapidly.
The Arab Spring revolts took longer because there was no democratic government. It had been replaced by dictators whose security forces terrorized their citizens.
In the Greek case, the terrorism is coming from outside, in the form of the IMF, the Euozone member states and the European Central Bank.
But, whatever form state terrorism takes, eventually it will cause a violent citizen reaction.
In Greece, the whole effort at state repression is meaningless because Greece will not be able to repay its new debts, any more than it could pay its old debts. Greece will default and leave the Eurozone. It is only a question of when.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Plato, Jefferson, Gandhi and Qadhaffi's Arrest Warrant

Moummar Qafhaffi officially became the subject of in International Criminal Court arrest warrant today. His son, Seid al-Islam was also included, as was the Qadhaffi regime’s justice minister. The three are accused of crimes against humanity during the period that began with the first marches of Libyans against the Qadhaffi regime in February 2011.  
The warrants were expected, but they are only the second issued against a sitting head of state, the other being the Sudanese president.
At the same time, a special court in Cambodia has begun the trials of the four remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge, who are also accused of crimes against humanity and mass murder during the Khmer Rouge purges they are accused of initiating when they controlled Cambodia.
Thomas Jefferson once noted that “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others?”
The question seems extremely pertinent to Colonel Qadhaffi, known for his excesses of every kind - political, sexual, terrorist. He clearly did not and cannot control himself in the manner that would be required for him to be tolerated, and even welcomed, into the world’s normal society. His excesses in defending his current position as leader of the Libyans has led to the destruction of at least one city, Misrata, the use of paid mercenaries to inflict death and terrorism against his own citizens, the use of rape as a means to subdue rebellious citizens, and the bombing of civilians around Benghazi, the freedom fighters’ capital in the east of Libya.
Governing is a very difficult undertaking. It requires impartiality, a well-developed sense of justice, and a profound understanding of human nature. Qadhaffi has proven that he lacks all of these qualities.
Plato said that “For a man to conquer himself is the first and noblest of all victories.” Qadhaffi fails the test, as do many of today’s leaders. But, if many leaders have not conquered themselves, at least they do not inflict harm and desolation on their citizens, while Qadhaffi fails utterly because of his constant use of his position of power, wrested instead of won by an honest popular election, to subdue his people and mistreat them as his possessions rather than as human beings.
But, to hold trials and convict Qadhaffi, the Khmer Rouge and the President of Sudan is only the first step.
We must also try to live in peace with each other. Try, as Mahatma Gandhi put it, “…not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Faltering American Version of Democratic Liberty

I want to continue yesterday’s thought about liberty.
The American example is the most easily accessible and America is much farther down the path than most countries of living out its dream of a democracy based on individual rights and liberty, with a government kept in check by keeping it small and making it answerable to the people at all times.
The American Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, begins with: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,....That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”
And, when the US Constitution was written in 1789, a Bill of Rights was added as its first ten amendments. The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights says. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
In the ensuing 225 years, America has changed drastically but its Constitution has endured. Some would like to modernize it, make it snappier and cool. But, there it is, challenging the consciences of Americans and the world as the struggle continues to make it fit a 21st century democracy, or rather to make a 21st century democracy fit its principles.
Thomas Jefferson asked : “Yes, we did produce a near-perfect republic. But will they keep it? Or will they, in the enjoyment of plenty, lose the memory of freedom? Material abundance without character is the path of destruction.” Jefferson’s question is still relevant.
He gave his own partial answer : “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”
Edmund Burke, the great British political philosopher who was writing when the American Revolution was getting underway, took the idea of liberty in smaller bites. He said, “The true danger is when liberty is nibbled away, for expedience, and by parts.” And, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”
That brings us to the problem in America today. Everyone wants everything and nobody wants to pay. Those who see the dangers in the path America is taking do nothing because they feel helpless to change the overall trend.
Tax and healthcare reform, stabilizing Social Security funding, increasing the government debt ceiling to safeguard the country’s financial position, reducing the federal debt - all these are major items on an agenda that is increasingly being held hostage by both Republicans and Democrats who have become so rigid in their social-political premises that compromise is no longer possible.
Robert Kennedy, the most thoughtful and articulate of the Kennedy brothers, said : “At the heart of western freedom and democracy is the belief that the individual man... is the touchstone of value, and all society, groups, the state, exist for his benefit. Therefore the enlargement of liberty for individual human beings must be the supreme goal and abiding practice of any western society.”
Somehow, America must begin again to adhere to its founding principles, to make liberty its cornerstone and to hold accountable those officeholders who do not follow those principles. Hold them accountable not by tossing out the other party or by shouting in the streets but by serious discussion and compromise concerning the best path forward - the path that will gain the most liberty for all without damaging the rights of any.
Winston Churchill was right : “…if you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed, if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not so costly, you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance for survival. There may be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no chance of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.”
This is as true of economic survival today as it was of winning a war in Churchill’s time.
Archibald McLeish, the great 20th century poet and playwright reminded America of its promise : “There are those who will say that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and mind, is nothing but a dream. They are right. It is the American Dream.”
America needs to wake up before its Dream becomes just another failed experiment in democracy and individual liberty.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Violence in Today's World and Judge Learned Hand on Liberty

There was a car bombing last night in Afghanistan. In a remote area east of Kabul, someone drove a sports utility vehicle into a hospital compound and detonated it, causing the hospital to collapse, killing at least 25 to 60 patients and wounding more than 100 others. The details are sketchy because rescue efforts are just getting underway.
In Syria’s now almost routine Friday marches yesterday, al-Assads’ security forces killed 18 and arrested 100 others. The blood bath continues despite all the words the world can throw at Syria’s dictator.
And then, late last night I was listening to Charlie Rose’s program on TV. He was talking to a New York journalist who has written this week’s Time cover story about the American Constitution. He mentioned Judge Learned Hand, a brilliant American judge and legal philosopher (1872-1961).
That, in turn, made me think of one of Learned Hand’s addresses made in New York in 1944 during the Second World War. It is short and focuses on liberty. What Hand was trying to teach us is that liberty comes from within the soul. It joins the notion of liberty found in the souls of other people, and it is this that makes people free to govern themselves as they choose, never forgetting the rights of others among them, for whom they desire the same liberty.
Here is what Judge Learned Hand had to say about liberty in 1944:

"What do we mean when we say that first of all we seek liberty? I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it. And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow. "

Most places in the world today, and I include the United States, most European countries and the rest of the world, such as the Middle East, where liberty is a concept that is breaking down in the violent confrontation of opposing ideas about what government should do. Extremes - left, right, anarchist, terrorist, totalitarian, fascist - all these concepts about how to govern seem today to believe that it is their way or no way at all, except in the annihilation of opposing ideas. Laws have nothing to say in such confrontations. Law governs those who want to be governed. Is there a way back to debate, compromise and faith in a people’s will to know what is best for them? Sometimes I wonder.
Keep Learned Hand’s commentary and read it often. It should be the guide for all of us.  

Friday, June 24, 2011

Obama Defies Congress and the Libyan People Will Suffer for His Mistake in Judgment

In my June 6th blog I wrote the following :

“3. Libya has become the subject of a US House of Representatives resolution condemning President Obama’s waging war in the country for more than 60 days without seeking congressional agreement. The American Congress, not the President, has the power to declare war, and it is a power jealously guarded. Remember President Lyndon Johnston’s problems with Congress over the Bay of Tonkin, followed by a strict congressional resolution that so tightly controlled his war-making in Vietnam that it spelled the end of the war for America? Watch this new fight over Libya because it could do more damage to President Obama than anything that has come before, even his Obamacare health care overhaul.”

Since then, the US Congress has received a letter from Mr. Obama explaining why he has aided Libyan freedom fighters and why he believes that his actions do not constitute an activity requiring congressional approval. The letter was written after Congress told him that he was operating outside the law and would receive no more funding if he didn’t comply.
Today, the House of Representatives has voted against the resolution that would permit continued open-ended funding of US military actions in Libya. The Senate, controlled by Obama’s Democratic Party, has not voted on the resolution but the consensus is that it will not pass the Senate either.
Keep in mind, please, that Congress approves of US action to help Libya free itself of Colonel Qadhaffi. Keep in mind also that had the President written and asked for congressional concurrence in the first 60 days of US military activities in Libya, the support would have been 100%.
But, now, President Obama has dug a hole for himself because he refused to accept that Congress has the prerogative to fund wars under the US Constitution. So, Congress and the President are facing a constitutional debate just when they ought to be digging in to finish the job in Libya.
House of Representatives Speaker Boehner said Congress does not “want to do anything that would undermine NATO or to send the signal to our allies around the world that we are not going to be engaged. This is primarily a fight between the Congress and the president over his unwillingness to consult with us before making this decision," the speaker said.
Mr. Obama has really made a mountain out of a molehill this time and he will suffer for it. But, the sad thing is that Libyan citizens may suffer, too, and he should have thought of that before defying Congress.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Afghanistan Withdrawal Is The End of the Pax Americana

President Barak Obama was on television last evening to announce his drawdown plan for taking American troops out of Afghanistan.
The facts are simple : 33,000 troops will be withdrawn between July 2011 and Summer 2012. Of these, 10,000 are to be withdrawn by the end of this year. The details of who will be withdrawn were not given in the President’s brief speech, probably because the US military and Obama’s civilian advisors have very different views about how to proceed.
France has already announced that it will also begin a progressive withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan. Britain has supported Obama’s decision but has not yet announced the details of its own troop withdrawal.
In the United States, some commentators are comparing it to President Bush’s speech announcing victory in Iraq. What should be understood about this comparison is that it is not flattering. The sense is that Bush declared victory and left Iraq in somewhat of a mess, and now Obama is declaring victory and will leave Afghanistan in an even greater mess.
The real news in this announcement is far more important than Afghanistan. It is about the American presence and power in the world at large.
Since it came to the rescue of Europe in the World War II, America has been the supreme guardian of the peace, or attempted peace, of the world. Its incursion into Vietnam to save Asia from Communism, after the French failed and were driven out, was the beginning of its fall from grace. America left Vietnam because it had run out of political ideas, its politicians refused to follow their military leaders’ advice, and the American public was tired of TV pictures showing the reality of guerrilla warfare’s effect on civilians.
Since Vietnam, the United States has powered its way into and out of Iraq and, now, Afghanistan, in a desire to help downtrodden people and to show those who would challenge her leadership that they are doomed to failure.
But, with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Pax Americana is over. The United States does not have the money or the popular will to continue to serve as the world’s protector of last resort.      
This does not mean that America is to be consigned to the trash heap of history. But, it does mean that the 21st century is not going to belong to America. It will be many years before we can fully know the results of this historical demarcation. However, one thing is certain. Americans will have to learn how to live in a more collegial and less America-dependent world. Their egos will suffer in the process, but their wallets may feel better if they can find the national will to use the opportunity to repair their broken economy.   

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Chinese Dissident Ai WeiWei Is Released on Bail

Chinese dissident artist Ai WeiWei has been released on bail, according to CNN. WeiWei is the designer of the Beijing Olympic Bird’s Nest Stadium. Ai WeiWei has always been an outspoken critic of the Chinese government and called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics because, he said, the Chinese government was using the Games for propaganda purposes.
He was arrested on the 23rd of April as he was waiting to board a plane for Hong Kong.
WeiWei was held without seeing his family until the 15th of May when his wife was permitted to visit him. The Chinese authorities also raided his offices and held his wife and several associates in custody for some time after his arrest.
The international community says his arrest was part of the Chinese crackdown on dissidents that occurred soon after the Arab Spring uprisings started. It was widely thought that China was moving pre-emptorily to prevent such an uprising in China.
The Chinese government’s position is that WeiWei's arrest has nothing to do with his criticism of the state, but is a result of his failure to pay sufficient taxes. He is accused of evading “a huge amount” of taxes.
At least Ai WeiWei is out of prison for the time being, but a trial will surely follow. It will also surely follow the format laid out by Russia in its “tax evasion” trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was, in reality, being set up and sent to prison because he threatened Russia's then-President Putin politically.
You can read my blog of 28 December 2010, “The horror of the Khodorkovsky Trial,” to have an idea what is probably coming for Ai WeiWei and how it will unfold and play out.
Tax evasion seems to be the new gadget being used by dictatorial regimes to prevent free speech and clamp down hard on dissidents, while seeming to be marching in the footsteps of democratic nations - because tax evasion is a Western concept. Do not be fooled. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dictators and Freedom of the Press

"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."
That is how Abraham Lincoln summed up the special temptations and traps facing politicians. On Monday, we witnessed Lincoln’s words in action as Bashar al-Assad talked to a carefully chosen audience about his plans for Syria. He offered vague comments about the need for a national dialogue, reform, returning the military to their barracks and changes to the constitution.
If these ideas sound familiar, it is because we have heard them all before - from Tunisian President Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. They gave similar speeches as power slipped away from them during massive popular demonstrations against their regimes. The effect of their words was zero. Both were soon ousted and both are now on trial for excesses committed while they were in power.
Perhaps if al-Assad had bothered to read newspapers or watch independent TV, he would have understood the futility of repeating Ben Ali’s and Mubarak’s unsuccessful ploy.
But, that’s the problem, isn’t it?
Dictators don’t read what the outside world writes about them and they don’t watch independent TV. They rely, instead, on “advisors” and “ministers” to tell them exactly what they want to hear - that the world and their people love them and that they are doing the very best job possible.
In the United States, these hangers-on would be called “Yes men.” They are people who think that their own success depends on their fawning over the person on the next rung up on the power ladder.
But, in the US, because there are independent newspapers and TV, it is hard for politicians to be sheltered for long. The truth is written and spoken and its effect is powerful and swift. That is what dictatorships lack. And it is what makes democracies work.
Nelson Mandela, after apartheid ended and he became president of South Africa, was a strong supporter of freedom of the press, “Sometimes the press get it wrong, but it is better for the press to get something wrong, than not say anything at all,” he is quoted as saying.
This is a truth that those putting their lives on the line to bring more democratic governments to the Arab World should never forget. Control of information is the handmaiden of dictators because they know that without the information provided by a free press, democracy cannot exist.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Destroying Greece Probably Equals Killing the Euro

It seems increasingly likely that the Eurozone countries will wait so long to come to Greece’s aid with the 12 Billion Euros it needs to pay its government bonds maturing in July that Greece will already be beyond help.
Beyond help, that is, if Greece is not already beyond help. Its new bonds are not finding buyers, and if anyone even bids on them, it is with the demand to receive more than 20% interest on their investment. Most countries are paying about 3 to 3.5 % these days.
At the same time, Greek citizens are continuing to protest the harsh measures (higher taxes, cutting the number of government jobs, sharp reductions in social services) required by the Eurozone members as the price for their help.
Most experts say that it is now inevitable that Greece will default on its bond payments and that this will happen even with Eurozone monetary intervention. What is happening now in the Eurozone, they say, is that the timing of the default is being negotiated. One TV commentator even suggested that the timing was meant to give European banks and the European Central Bank (ECB) a head start in cutting their future losses by off-loading their Greek bonds.
While Great Britain is not a member of the Eurozone, having kept its Pound Sterling, rumors in Europe today suggest that London banks are dumping Greek bonds and other Greek debt in an effort to avoid losses when the Greek collapse arrives. Watch for other European banks to start doing the same.
The Eurozone and the ECB are now in a real corner.
If they let Greece default, it will be their banks that will lose money and need to write it off on their accounting books. This will lead to less money being available for customer loans, as well as demands for advance payments going out to non-Eurozone banks (in the USA and China) that could cause these banks to lack capital, too. The chain reaction will have begun, with no one knowing exactly where it will end.
But, if the Eurozone and the ECB continue to support Greece financially, they will have almost no chance of being re-paid, because Greece is broke, and with the harsh measures being required by its Eurozone “saviors”, there is no possibility of Greece regaining its economic balance. So, read the last paragraph again. All roads lead to Rome, make that default.
Remember the film, “Who Killed Roger Rabbit”? Today, the question is who wants to kill the Euro.  

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Egyptian Prime Minister Calls for Delay in September's Parliamentary Election

Egypt’s new Prime Minister Essam Sharaf has joined those calling for a delay in the date of parliamentary elections now scheduled for September. Others have been saying this for sometime, fearing that if elections are held in September, the well-organized and most active political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, will easily win enough seats to control the largest block in the new parliament.
This is especially important because as things stand now, the new parliament will draft the country’s constitution.
The Prime Minister and others are calling for a delay in elections until a draft constitution can be presented to Egyptian voters without uneven input from the Brotherhood, as would occur if the new parliament drafts the constitution.
Delaying voting for the parliament would also give new political groups and parties time to form, let their views become known, and enlarge their lists of voters. This is especially true of the younger activists who led the revolution that ousted Mubarak.
These young political activists do not necessarily want to eliminate the Brotherhood but they also do not want it to take political control of Egypt before others have had a chance to get organized.
The airing of these varying opinions is a good sign that Egyptians are interested in their political future and want to be involved in its development.
Even some younger Brotherhood members are concerned that September’s election could bring them to power in a way that would alienate more Egyptians than it would attract. These members are not the older hard liners who control the Muslim Brotherhood today but younger members who want a more moderate Brotherhood to fit into a more moderate and democratic Egypt.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Three Trends to Watch in Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan and Morocco

As Abraham Lincoln said, "The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time."
There are several budding trends in the news today. Three in particular give us something to think about as we watch them become full-blown transformations, or until they are dumped on the global garbage heap where most trends end.

1. Angelina Jolie is in Syria to tour Syrian refugee camps near the Turkish-Syrian border. She is there in her role as goodwill ambassador for the Office of the United Nations Hugh Commissioner for Refugees. There are 10,000 Syrian refugees already in Turkish camps, and more Syrians are moving toward the border. Syrian troops are also reported to be moving toward the Turkish border and are near the Syrian border town, Badama, cutting off the exit routes of fleeing Syrians. This is ominous because those fleeing may become caught in the middle of a Turkish - Syrian border standoff or be starved by Syrian forces pushing them back into Syria where they are in danger. Jolie’s visit, too, may prove to be disconcerting, since almost every refugee area that UNHCR goodwill ambassadors visit is, or becomes, a long-term holding pen for thousands of displaced people and families who have nowhere to go and nothing to do but hope for someone to right the wrong they have suffered.

2. Afghan President Karzai has confirmed that the US is in peace talks with the Taliban. You can read my 11th of June blog on Henry Kissinger’s advice about a solid Afghan peace. Needless to say, the Americans, who are surely following the advice of President Obama, ought to read Kissinger’s advice, too. They would then understand that any peace with the Taliban that does not include bringing Pakistan, India and Iran to the negotiating table is the recipe for future instability in the region and has a great chance of resulting in wars, including nuclear ones.

3. Moroccan King Mohammed VI made a 30-minute address to the nation last night, outlining a new draft constitution that gives sweeping powers to an elected prime minister, who will also appoint ministers and dismiss parliament. The King will keep the power to appoint ambassadors and will remain military commander-in-chief. The announced draft comes after a 3-month national consultation with political parties, trade unions and civil society groups, ordered by the King. Mohammed VI had already been liberalizing a country that is perhaps the most liberal of all Muslim states. But, the King’s unilateral powers have always been a block to real democratic government. If Moroccans accept the new constitution in a July 6th referendum, Morocco will be the first Muslim country to use the Arab Spring to modernize without wrenching civil unrest.

Friday, June 17, 2011

President Saleh Taken Out of Yemen's Future by Saudi Arabia

A Saudi Arabian official has stated, anonymously, that President Saleh will not return to Yemen. He was taken to Saudi Arabia after being badly burned in an attack while he was at prayers on June 3.  
The Saudi official said it had not yet been determined where Saleh will reside after he is fit to leave doctor’s care in the Kingdom. It is also not clear whether Saleh has agreed to quit Yemen voluntarily or whether Saudi Arabia has imposed exile on him.  
Wednesday, a Yemeni spokesman for Saleh announced he was improving rapidly and would return to Yemen soon. This has been contradicted by others in Riyadh, where Saleh is receiving medical treatment, who say that Saleh is badly injured and suffering problems in breathing caused by his burns. During the mosque attack, 11 of his palace military bodyguards were killed and 124 others injured. Many other Saleh regime officials are also in Saudi Arabia being treated for their injuries suffered in the mosque attack.
Meanwhile, Yemeni demonstrators continue their protests in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and have announced that they want to form a provisional council to provide for a transition from Saleh’s rule.
The opposition in parliament also says it will fight to keep Saleh from returning to Yemen.
Saleh, at age 69, has become a pariah in his own country and may have no real choice but to stay in exile.
The future role of the Gulf monarchies and the United States in the transition to a different form of Yemeni government is not yet clear. Their fears are for the al-Qaida unit in Yemen and its possible ability to de-stabilize not only Yemen but also the entire Arabian penninsula. With Saudi Arabia’s petroleum reserves at stake, the transition will certainly be heavily monitored and steered, if they can figure out how to do it, by the Gulf States and America.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Is Germany Forcing Greece to Join the Arab Spring

Greece is rapidly approaching a point of no return. Its government debt is well over 100% of its revenues, which are themselves falling because of a lack of jobs to generate tax income. It is estimated that more than 40% of young Greeks are unemployed.
Yesterday, tens of thousands of Greek citizens took to the streets to demonstrate against a proposed austerity package, including higher taxes, demanded by the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as the price Greek citizens must pay for the additional 50 Billion Euros in loans that will allow a nearly-bankrupt Greece to stay afloat through 2013. Twelve Billion Euros of that amount is needed so that Greece can pay the holders of bonds maturing at the end of July.
The Greek government is now paying up to 20% interest to convince banks and other investors to buy its new bonds.
The ECB and the IMF want to permit Greece to extend the due date on its outstanding loans, but Germany insists that this would be tantamount to Greek government default which could bring the rest of the Eurozone governmental loan structures crashing down.
The ECB has also suggested that Greek debt holders (primarily the banks that have lent money to the Greek government by buying its bonds) should take on much of the debt problem themselves instead of foisting it off onto taxpayers. Germany supports this, but it would also be, in effect, a Greek default.
Worse, it could cause the world’s large banks to stop lending to less than healthy governments (you may now laugh, because there have not been any healthy governments in the western world since the crash of 2008-09). This would very likely lead to massive governmental defaults and bank liquidity crises. Moody’s rating service said yesterday that it may reduce the credit worthiness rating of several large French banks because they hold a lot of Greek debt. While US banks are not major holders of Greek debt, they would be seriously affected if major European banks began to freeze up because of a lack of liquidity.
What is clear is that the longer the Greek crisis drags on, the more likely it is that the next Eurozone country to fall into the debt trap will be Spain, which has too much bond debt for the ECB and the IMF to fund.
Germany needs to understand that it has a political crisis on its hands in Greece. The time for demanding severe austerity in return for funds is past. If Germany really wants the Euro to survive, it is time to act. The time has come to abandon financial criteria and show statesmanship.
And, if Germany is playing a game that deliberately ends with the destruction of the Euro and re-establishment of the Deutsche Mark, it is sacrificing Greece, and probably Ireland, Portugal, Spain and even France, in the process.
Yesterday, members of the European Commission were reported to have said that they think the Euro may collapse. If that happens, hang on to your wallets because the fall will be swift and deep.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

John McCain, an Honorable and Serious Politician

As I noted in my June 6th blog :
Libya has become the subject of a US House of Representatives resolution condemning President Obama’s waging war in the country for more than 60 days without seeking congressional authorization. The American Congress, not the President, has the power to declare war…. Watch this new fight over Libya because it could do more damage to President Obama than anything that has come before, even his Obamacare health care overhaul.”
Well, this week the fight is underway in earnest.
The House of Representatives has sent a request to the White House to answer detailed questions about the US intervention in Libya, undertaken without seeking approval from the Congress beforehand or immediately after the intervention began. The resolution says that the House will consider President Obama in violation of the pre-existing War Powers Resolution starting Saturday. The White House says it intends to comply with the request today or tomorrow.
Yesterday, Senator John McCain appeared on CNN to speak about the battle now engaged between the President and the House.
He tried to tell the GOP in Congress to tread lightly on the War Powers Resolution in so far as it concerns President Obama and Libya, a decision which most Americans support. He noted that the War Powers Resolution gives the Congress only one power - to stop funding if a president does not comply with its requirement to get congressional authorization within 90 days after a “war” begins. He added that GOP House Speaker Boehner’s inclusion of a phrase saying that the use of ground troops would therefore be unconstitutional is dangerous, since only the president can decide when and where to place American troops. And, he added, nobody wants to put American troops on the ground in Libya anyway, so why risk a constitutional challenge to an otherwise legal request.   
McCain was magnificent, even if his advice will probably be lost on Boehner and gang. If Obama had a few more honorable and honest colleagues like Senator John McCain, and if he could bring himself to listen to them, he’d be a much better president.
Last night we watched someone with presidential stature. But, tell me, how can McCain be so eloquent now and have blown it so completely in the 2008 campaign?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ben Ali-Baba's Cave

On the 29th of June, Ben Ali, the ousted president of Tunisia, will be tried for his crimes against the Tunisian people. The trial will at least start in absentia because Ben Ali and his wife are still in Saudi Arabia under the protection of its government.
Whether the Saudi regime will release Ben Ali to the Tunisian authorities is problematic because the least one can say is that the Saudis are not thrilled with the Arab Spring. And, will America and Europe press the Saudi king to answer positively the Tunisian request for his extradition? That will undoubtedly be the subject of many twisted phrases as the West tries to have Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, too. My bet is that they will consider Saudi Arabia more valuable and let Tunisia dangle in the wind.
Certainly, one of the first lines of questioning at the trial will concern the stash of money, gold bullion, diamonds, jewelry, drugs and guns found in a two-level walk-in safe in Ben Ali's home in Tunis. This has caused many journalists to call him Ben Ali-Baba.
This may be surface funny, but it is sad to think that the Tunisian people were poor and suffering while their self-proclaimed champion was hoarding the where-with-all that could have improved their lot.
We don't know as yet exactly what the charges against Ben Ali will be, but there must be a lot more golden closets with a lot more skeletons in them.

Monday, June 13, 2011

What Do the Dallas Mavericks and Harrison Frazar Have in Common?

Harrison Frazar won! Who ? Won what ?
That just about sums it up. Harrison Frazar, a forty-year-old pro golfer who has been playing on a major medical exemption and was about to lose his PGA players card, won the Memphis St. Jude Classic yesterday. He beat Robert Karlsson, the Swedish golfer who was also seeking his first tour win, in a play-off.
Memphis was just the 4th cut Frazar’s made this year, although he has qualified for the US Open next week. It was his 355th PGA tournament and he had never won one before yesterday.
He said he was getting ready to retire and take a job on the administrative side of the PGA, because he was away from his family too much and his hip and shoulder problems were difficult to play through, even this weekend.
But, there he was on Sunday evening, almost crying as he tried to talk to the reporter about his feelings after the historic win that netted him One Million Dollars. He later thanked the sponsors, FedEx, and the rest of the golfing world that organized the tournament because he was too upset right after his win to think of doing it.
Sometimes things just seem to work out right. The good guy wins and the world seems a better place if only for a few moments.
That’s what’s so attractive about sports. It’s not the incessant Nadal-Federer battles or the Vettel wins on the Formula 1 circuit this year that count. It’s the Harrison Frazars of sports who make us feel like better human beings.
A lot like the Dallas Mavericks beating the Miami Heat to take the NBA championship this weekend. It was their first NBA title ever.
That’s what sports is all about. Never quit. Never give up. Never leave the field.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

US Defense Secretary Gates Warns NATO that America Will not Pay the Bill Forever

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates ended his farewell tour, before leaving office, in Europe on Friday. It was there that he made the biggest “waves” by telling America’s European NATO partners that it is time to “put up or shut up,” as an ordinary American might say.
His point was that the United States has paid the bills for the North Atlantic Alliance since it was formed after the Second World War. This means, according to estimates I’ve seen, that of the current US$220 Billion annual NATO budget, America pays about US$175 Billion. And, Gates said, even when the Europeans take charge of a problem, as in Libya, they run out of munitions and the USA has to provide them.
Gates said the American Congress and taxpayers have little appetite for continuing to support the Alliance almost alone, adding that this generation of Americans has no personal memory of World War II and may not fully see the importance of paying for NATO. He warned that if European members do not shoulder their responsibilities, the Alliance could become moribund.
Observers note that some European members, Germany notably, have not contributed anything in Libya. Germany denied this forcefully after Gates’ speech, saying that it contributes heavily to the support of NATO.
NATO’s Secretary General’s office agreed with Gates, issuing a statement saying that there is a long-time gap in member budget support.
A European think tank said the speech showed ignorance about recent European budget cuts. But, in London the Royal United Services Institute said that Gates delivered a speech that Europe needs to hear.
Gates said that NATO could turn into “a two-tiered alliance between members who specialize in ‘soft’ humanitarian, development, peacekeeping and talking tasks and those conducting the ‘hard’ combat missions — between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership” without paying for it.
He said that it is not too late to turn things around.
London’s Royal United Services Institute said the speech would be “very welcome” in Britain and France because “privately this is what officials have articulated for years,” saying that Gates “identified the key problem, which remains Germany. You can argue that there are many countries that do not contribute their fair share, but most of the others don’t matter, and smaller ones would likely fall into line if Germany did.”
Dear readers, my viewpoint is simple. The truth is that there is no unified European military capability. There is one aircraft carrier (French) and one planned (French and British shared). There are no adequately equipped air forces except for France and Britain. There is no unified ground force. This, despite the fact that NATO’s European members spend US$300 Billion per year on defense. But, without coordination and smarter planning and spending, Europe could not, for example, go to war successfully, if required to defend its own territories.
So, readers, let us see how Germany reacts to Gates’ rebuke. My guess is that it will be with silence and apathy, because it knows, and Europe knows, that it will not be tossed to the wolves, should the day of reckoning arrive. And, worse, Germany is on the side of the majority of Europeans, thinking that with the end of the Cold War, there is no security threat to European territory. Let us hope that the view proves to be right.  

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Henry Kissinger on the Future of Afghanistan

Henry Kissinger wrote an Opinion piece in the Washington Post on June 6th on the future of Afghanistan. As usual, Kissinger nailed the topic, giving the best advice I’ve read about how to proceed to bring stability to the region.
Kissinger said the end of the American Afghan war is similar to other American wars since the end of World War II, that is, there was a large consensus about starting the wars and then disillusionment followed by an equally large consensus (today 70% of Americans vis-à-vis Afghanistan) about getting out without real victory.
His analysis: “We entered Afghanistan to punish the Taliban for harboring al-Qaeda, which, under Osama bin Laden’s leadership, had carried out the Sept. 11 attacks. After a rapid victory, U.S. forces remained to assist the construction of a post-Taliban state. But nation-building ran up against the irony that the Afghan nation comes into being primarily in opposition to occupying forces. When foreign forces are withdrawn, Afghan politics revert to a contest over territory and population by various essentially tribal groups.”
The Obama administration then decided to use in Afghanistan the surge technique used by President Bush in Iraq - one might add the General Petraeus surge because he developed it.
The allied effort in Afghanistan is set to wind down by 2014, with the security of the country being turned over gradually to the Afghans.
Kissinger reports what I had read earlier, that negotiations are already underway between the Taliban, headed by Mullah Omar, and the United States, using Germany as the sponsor, to find an alternative solution to securing Afghanistan after the allies withdraw.
Kissinger says his concern is that the solution may lay “the groundwork for a wider conflict.” There must be, he says, “a cease-fire; withdrawal of all or most American and allied forces; the creation of a coalition government or division of territories among the contending parties (or both); and an enforcement mechanism.”
Kissinger sees enforcement as the difficulty. He expects the Taliban to overrun any regional partners as soon as the Americans and allies leave. So, the negotiation must include not only the Taliban but also others, to negotiate an enforcement mechanism, such as “a residual American force, some international guarantee or presence, or — best — a combination of both. [Because] Total withdrawal is likely to be final; there should be no illusion of re-intervention.”
Kissinger hammers home the idea that the outcome in Afghanistan is an international political problem. He sees the creation of a perception that America and its allies were driven out as “an impetus to global and regional jihadism” that would engulf Pakistan, Kashmir and the rest of northern India. “The end of such a process is likely to be a proxy war along ethnic fault lines in Afghanistan and elsewhere, especially between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan.”
He notes that if the Taliban assume total power in Afghanistan, and behave as before, “Every neighbor would be threatened: Russia in its partly Muslim south, China in Xinjiang, Shiite Iran by fundamentalist Sunni trends. In turn, Iran would be tempted by the vacuum to arm sectarian militias, a strategy it has honed in Lebanon and Iraq.”
Kissinger says that America must find at least some common ground with Pakistan and Iran in order to make any solution workable. “Without a sustainable agreement defining Afghanistan’s regional security role, each major neighbor will support rival factions across ancient ethnic and sectarian lines — and be obliged to respond to inevitable crises under the pressure of events. That is a prescription for wider conflict. Afghanistan could then play the role of the Balkans prior to World War I.”
Kissinger states that any exit strategy and long-term solution should be undertaken in the form of a regional conference, that it will take 18 months to 2 years and that the major part of American troop withdrawals should be planned for the end of this period to prevent unilateral action by the Taliban.

You can read Henry Kissinger’s Opinion piece in the on-line edition of the Washington Post of 6 June 2011. It is well worth your time.

I also refer readers to my blogs of 21 November 2010, “Getting Out of Afghanistan,” and 20 February 2011, “Massoud, Karzai and the War in Afghanistan.”

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Syria Massacres Go On

The northern region of Syria, bordering Turkey, has become the target of President al-Assad’s military forces. The town of Syrmaniya, ten miles south of Jisr-Al-Sugur, is reportedly undergoing massive artillery attack, while many in the region are fleeing toward the Turkish border seeking safety.
A Syrian government spokesperson says that the military is responding to calls for help from families in the northern area. Those living there say the attacks are unprovoked and meant to destroy the town of Jisr-Al-Sugur, a former stronghold of resistance which was attacked and had all weapons confiscated several years ago.
The Syrian government says that its military was attacked near Jisr-Al-Sugur and 120 soldiers were killed. People in the area say that the truth is that some soldiers tried to escape the military and aid the demonstrators and that it was the Syrian military who shot and killed them.
According to CNN, one of the leaders of the demonstrations has fled to Turkey and has shown cell phone video, which cannot be confirmed, of peaceful marchers about 40 miles south of Jisr-Al-Sugur being gunned down by military observers during the Friday, 3 June, demonstration. The military says the marchers were armed, while the organizers say no one in the march was armed with even a stick because everyone was searched and all weapons were forbidden.
Turkey has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan says that he talked with Assad earlier this week and explained that the current situation could not continue. Despite that conversation, Erdogan says of the Syrian regime “that they take these matters very lightly.”
Erdogan added that the northern Syrian situation is “almost an internal affair” and that “we cannot close our borders to those who run for their lives,” asking how long the Syrian situation can continue.
During today’s marches, one death in Syrmaniya has been reported.
More important, the Syrian authorities yesterday ordered the military commandant in the Hamas area and 20 of his officers to return to Damascas. They are reportedly accused of giving the order to fire on a 3 June march in Hamas, killing 20 demonstrators.
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council continues to consider the draft resolution calling for an end to the Syrian violence and “steps to address the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.” A vote is expected soon.
Groups, including Amnesty International, have visited the International Criminal Court in The Hague, with what they say is evidence of crimes against humanity committed by the Syrian government. You can read also my 2 June blog about Syrian crimes against humanity.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The World's Responsibility to help in the Aftermath of the Arab Spring

The Yemeni insurgents are threatening to form a transitional council if the government does not make President Saleh stand down.
The Syrian insurgents are preparing for another massive demonstration tomorrow as a sign that they will not end their protests until the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is driven from power.
The Libyan transitional government continues its consolidation of power in Benghazi as UN forces pound Tripoli and insurgents inch toward the west and Tripoli.
Tunisia is in the process of arranging for elections to replace its provisional government.
Egypt is also getting ready for its first elections since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime.
What is going on in the Middle East and North Africa is more and more concrete and irreversible. Only Jordan, a more modern state with a king who represents the Hashimite history of post World War II Jordan, and the Gulf states seem to have avoided regime change. One wonders how long the Saudi Arabian royalty will be able to keep a lid on Bahrain, but for the moment the region seems to have quieted down.
The next step should be coordinated efforts by the rest of the world to support the new governments. Only economic development will solidify their positions and provide the impetus needed to make democratic nation-building work.
When this effort is underway, the next step would logically be to assist them in integrating their various tribal and religious groups into functioning societies, not by suppressing the minorities but by bringing them into the system.
History suggests that these things will not happen, that the new leaders will be left to struggle alone against the almost insurmountable forces aligned against them - poverty, cultural and religious differences and intolerance, the lack of a basic understanding of how democratic states operate.
It would be refreshing if, given this unexpected and promising opportunity, the world would step up to its responsibilities and do something positive. 
Afterall, there are other groups out there who would just love to turn the Arab Spring into a mini fundamentalist revolution.      

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Romney Ties Obama in Latest Presidential Poll

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll (taken between 2 June and 5 June) shows that Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is tied with President Obama at 47% each among Americans as their choice for president. Romney is actually at 49% against 46% for the President when only registered voters are counted.
Further, 66% of Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of the American economy, including the deficit, with 57% of them stating that the economic recovery has not yet begun. Half of those polled “strongly disapprove” of Obama’s performance on the economy and deficit, while 60% “disapprove,” with 45% trusting congressional Republicans more than Obama to make progress economically.
These figures reflect a wide pessimism in Americans, who cited falling home prices, high gasoline prices and continued high unemployment figures for their pessimism. According to the Washington Post, almost 90% of Americans think the country is badly on the wrong track.
Even more worrisome for the President is the fact that independent voters favor Romney by 50% to 43%. This is the group that voted for Obama in 2008 in sufficient numbers to allow him to win the election.
Interestingly, no other Republican fares well against the President. 42% of GOP voters saying that they would not consider voting for Sarah Palin, while she is considered unqualified to be president by 66% of those polled.
If these numbers hold up into the late summer, I think it will be time for the GOP National Committee to have a heart-to-heart talk with the other Republican candidates to help them decide that it is in the best interests of the Republican Party and of the country to get behind Mitt Romney and make a real run at winning back the White House in 2012.