Friday, December 18, 2009

Weaponizing Treasury’s Financial Enforcement: Credit Suisse Rolls Over on Tehran

…While Poker Players Fight Back

From her perch at Politico, the estimable Laura Rozen reports that the U.S. government has slapped Swiss bank Credit Suisse with a “half billion dollar” settlement punishing the bank for helping Iran evade U.S. financial sanctions.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced the decision, flanked by the head of Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Bush administration holdover, and China Matters bete noire Stuart Levey.

China Matters’ response: Grrrrrrrrr.

During the North Korean disarmament debacle in the last years of the Bush administration, China Matters tirelessly documented Levey’s efforts to sabotage the State Department's negotiated arrangement with Pyongyang by throwing up countless regulatory and extra-regulatory roadblocks to the key trigger for the deal: release of $24 million in North Korea-related funds frozen at Banco Delta Asia in Macau.

I hear echoes of that fiasco in the Credit Suisse deal.

I would note that, according to the Deferred Prosecution Agreement that Politico linked to, the $536 million dollars looks like it’s not Credit Suisse’s (also, the stock price doesn’t seem to have taken much of a hit since the announcement), which makes it look like Credit Suisse got off kinda easy in return for helping drop the hammer on Tehran:

…the parties agreed that the United States could institute…forfeiture against certain funds held by Credit Suisse…


Credit Suisse hereby acknowledges that $536,000,000 was involved in transactions described in the Factual Statement…[emphasis added]

So, it looks like it’s not Credit Suisse capital or earnings at stake. Probably it’s Tehran’s money and we have another Banco Delta Asia/North Korea situation.

In other words, just as we tied up North Korea’s money in a Macau bank in order to exert political pressure in 2007, now we’re tying up Iran’s money in a Suisse Bank.

From the U.S. point of view, the situation is improved because, instead of the money frozen under the jurisdiction of a bewildered and resentful foreign monetary authority, this agreement binds Credit Suisse to hand the money over to the United States on demand or face the consequences.

The Iranians, of course, are welcome to wade into the Swiss courts to try to get their money released from Credit Suisse. Once the $536,000,000 makes it to the United States, however, fuhgedaboutit.

So I guess China Matters may have Stuart Levey to kick around a lot longer.

Levey going rogue on North Korea policy, perhaps at the behest of the Office of the Vice President or some other hardline coven inside the Bush administration was one thing.

However, my strongest objection was the use of Treasury’s ability to exploit America’s central position in the world financial system to intimidate our insufficiently aggressive friends into disrupting the international financial dealings of North Korea and Iran and who knows who else.

I realize that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are much enamored of “soft power” and feel that working the financial levers is preferable to shooting a cruise missile down someone’s throat. And keeping on a Bush appointee to run the show makes for continuity, even if Levey runs an independent and refractory bureaucratic bastion.

But my main gripe about “financial enforcement” is that it’s unilateral, utterly untransparent, and targets our allies.

Most importantly, weaponizing financial enforcement undercuts America’s stance as indispensable honest broker in the world financial system.

Considering the emerging challenges to America’s role as world reserve currency from the EU and China (though, admittedly, no one seems eager to take on the job of keeping the world awash in liquidity, any more than any nation or bloc wants to assume Uncle Sam’s role as the world’s largest debtor nation), it would not seem especially wise to give other countries more reasons to start avoiding the greenback—and dodging Treasury’s heavy-handed intimidation.

However, the Credit Suisse announcement gives me a cause for holiday cheer: the opportunity to revisit one of the most popular posts in the history of China Matters, The Worldwide Gambling Storm, whose focus was the unilateral extension of the long, costly, and rather arbitrary arm of U.S. financial enforcement into foreign jurisdictions, and update the story.

The point of departure for the post was the passing of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) in 2006, a piece of calculated political folly by a delusional presidential aspirant, Bill Frist.

Under UIGEA’s aegis, the U.S. aggressively cracked down on financial institutions that held electronic wallets or otherwise facilitated the play of American gamers on offshore Internet poker sites.

The U.S. action shaved billions of dollars off the market value of British on-line gambling companies, who relied on U.S. players for much of their revenue.

The U.S. government also threatened to compel British investors to disgorge their illicit gains from illegal poker play by Americans.

The result was near apoplexy in the British establishment, and rage at the U.S. government’s use of Treasury sanctions to intimidate foreign corporations into adhering to U.S. national and even state statutes.

The Europeans brandished their own regulatory and financial clubs in a June 2009 decision citing the U.S. for WTO violations in its jihad against online gaming:

…report made it perfectly clear that there are high costs associated with U.S. infractions, citing the losses in revenue and stock market capitalization incurred by European companies who had to vacate the U.S. market. The report also provided a projection of what U.S. online gaming revenue would have been if not for the UIGEA, which showed $10 billion of hypothetical revenue loss for 2012 alone.

The report also chastised the U.S. Department of Justice for continuing to pursue European online gambling and betting companies that left the U.S. market in 2006, stating "The report comes to the conclusion that these proceedings are legally unjustified as well as discriminatory, because the activities of EU companies took place under the cover of US WTO commitments."

The U.S. is in the process of formally withdrawing from its GATS obligations as they pertain to online gaming. While the European Commission acknowledges that this process may have some influence on the actions it may ultimately take, it also was quick to point out that the U.S. would still be culpable for all its GATS violations prior to the withdrawal.

Meanwhile, American poker players felt the claws of the government at their throats.

In keeping with the theme of politicized and selective financial enforcement with zero due process, those of us with memories of the contortions and pretexts used to tie up North Korean-related funds at ADB will have a smile at this (although the 24,000 online poker players whose funds were frozen are no doubt struggling with other and stronger emotions): can reveal that the total amount of seized monies from the two largest online poker rooms, PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker, has now reached $40 million.

Gambling911 sources informed us that a few banks voluntarily froze another $10 million in funds over the past few days following news that the US Attorney out of New York froze $30 million transferring through payment processors on behalf of PokerStars and Full Tilt.

Last week, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York instructed four banks to freeze accounts belonging to online payment processors.

In a letter dated Friday and faxed to Alliance Bank of Arizona, the prosecutor alleged that accounts held by payment processor Allied Systems Inc. were subject to seizure and forfeiture "because they constitute property involved in money laundering transactions and illegal gambling offenses."

Some of the said money was reportedly slated as $10,000 buy-ins to the World Series of Poker won by online players in satellite tournaments. The 2009 WSOP is already in progress with the main event set to begin the first week in July.

America’s poker players have found a friend in Barney Frank, who has memorably described UIGEA as “the stupidest bill ever written”, because of its impingement on Americans’ rights to lose their money quickly and efficiently as possible on the Internet, and because it mandates costly and onerous monitoring and enforcement obligations on the banking industry.

Just after Thanksgiving, Frank engineered a six-month postponement of full implementation of UIGEA to June 2010, and will try to push through a repeal of UIGEA in the next few months.

Frank, who doesn’t gamble himself but receives significant campaign contributions from gambling advocates, visited the World Series of Poker and apparently told reporters that the $40 million seizure did not represent the priorities of the Obama administration (again bringing to my mind recollections of the rogueish tendencies of Stuart Levey’s shop at Treasury):

In response to one question, Frank questioned whether [sic] the recent seizure of some $40 million connected to individual players’ online poker funds, asserting instead that it was likely Bush Administration holdovers at the Department of Justice’s Southern District of New York who initiated the action.

The expectation appears to be that President Obama, himself a poker player, will support the reversal of UIGEA and a more sympathetic stance toward online poker.

The European Union appears to think so:

The investigation has been ongoing since March 2008 and the report has been long awaited. But it might not be entirely coincidental that its release comes as U.S. Representative Barney Frank's bill, the Internet Gambling Regulation, Consumer Protection, and Enforcement Act, is in committee and looking for support. In fact, the report specifically stated that the European Commission's actions against the U.S. hinged on the path chosen by the Obama administration, asserting: "Moreover, the approach that the new US Administration takes with regard to the subject matter under investigation in this Trade Barriers Regulation examination may also be relevant for determining which subsequent acts are in the interest of the Community."

EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton said: "Internet gambling is a complex and delicate area, and we do not want to dictate how the US should regulate its market. However, the US must respect its WTO obligations. I hope that we will be able to reach an amicable solution to this issue."

In addition to Frank, the Poker Players’ Association—ostensibly one million strong—has enlisted the services of Alfonse D’Amato. Whether this alliance of opposites is able to overcome the inevitable Republican resistance to any Obama administration initiative, regardless of its merits or ideological slant, remains to be seen.

But for now, interested readers can revisit The Worldwide Gambling Storm--which covers UIGEA, Britain's big bet on online casinos, Chinese gambling, the nuts and bolts of cheating people at poker, the origin of the phrase “pass the buck”, and an amusing anecdote concerning another poker-playing American president: Harry Truman—at this link.

Happy reading and happy holidays!

p.s. In the e-mail notice for this post, I incorrectly referred to the Swiss Bank as UBS i/o Credit Suisse. It's corrected here. Sorry 'bout that.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bloody Kashmir, Bloody India, and the Bloody Deal

Western media is always on the alert for China’s insults to its Uighur and Tibetan minorities. Certainly, China’s occupation of Tibet since 1950 has been a brutal, bloody botch that killed upwards of half a million Tibetans during the rebellion in the 1950s and during the Cultural Revolution. Despite China’s determined efforts to fulfill its enlightened despot role and reduce the body count in recent decades, Tibet’s hostility to Han control is intense, justified, and seemingly terminal.

But I think the well-oiled Western outrage machine gives a free ride to India, and brushes aside New Delhi’s ongoing shenanigans in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Nepal, Jammu-Kashmir, Balochistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan as “nothing to see here” efforts by the dominant power (and vibrant democracy!) in the region to secure its sphere of influence.

Kashmir is the place where India’s democratic ideals and regional power aspirations collide with the greatest violence.

Kashmir is largely Muslim; it would have ended up in Pakistan at partition in 1947 but for the fact that its ruling Maharajah was a Hindu and something of a dingbat.

As it has clung to Kashmir for six decades, India has recapitulated Israel’s policies on the West Bank, occupying the region, ignoring U.N. resolutions calling for a plebiscite, and steadfastly resisting calls to internationalize the issue even as Kashmir’s insurgency exploded following a rigged election in 1989.

India has benefited from Western support and complacency in keeping Kashmir off the international front burner.

An EU delegation visited Kashmir in November; its statement that “Kashmir is an integral part of India” was triumphantly and extensively trumpeted in the Indian press.

The United States, as part of its pro-India tilt in Asian policy south of the Tibetan plateau, as recently as December 10 formally rejected a call by Pakistan’s president Asif Zardari to insert itself in the issue.

Kashmir is a big deal and a big problem.

Here are some numbers:

Population of India—controlled territories of Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh: 10,000,000

Muslims as % of population: 67%

Number of people who demonstrated in the Kashmiri capital of Srinigar in 2008 to protest the Indian government’s transfer of 100 acres of land (out of a total of 6000 square miles in the total parcel) to a Hindu religious board to construct shelters for pilgrims visiting the sacred cave at Amarnath in Kashmir to worship a phallus-shaped ice stalagmite known as the Shivalingam that waxes and wanes with the seasons but is, most Hindus will indignantly tell you, not a phallic symbol: 500,000

Indian troops stationed in Kashmir: 700,000

Since all Americans are by now counterinsurgency experts, we note immediately that the locals to troops ratio is an eye-popping 14:1.

That’s the sign of a major security problem. In fact, that’s the sign of a major insurgency.

If we had gone into the Iraq occupation with those kinds of numbers (instead of Donald Rumsfeld’s ratio of roughly 300,000 troops per 24 million Iraqis for a ludicrous 80:1 or the industry standard of 50:1), we would probably have been able to keep a lid on things, too.

Make no mistake: the Indian occupation of Kashmir is as bloody, expensive, oppressive, and unpopular as the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories or, for that matter, the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

68,000 Kashmiris have died in the conflict, which reached its height in 2001 and then waned, apparently because Pakistan lessened its support of Kashmiri militants under U.S. pressure after 9/11. (By way of contrast, the Israel-Palestinian struggle has claimed less than 10,000 lives over twenty years).

The conflict has produced a great deal of ugliness and cruelty as India has pursued in heavy-handed occupation and counterinsurgency strategy in Kashmir at odds with its image as Asia’s democratic paragon.

Tim Sullivan of the AP filed a report on atrocities in Kashmir that should have received wider notice.

According to Sullivan, human rights groups have discovered 2400 bodies in multiple graveyards of the estimated 8,000 Kashmiris who were “disappeared” by Indian security forces during the worst of the insurgency in the 1990s:

Two decades after the insurgency broke out, only a tiny fraction have been accounted for.

The bodies themselves give a few clues. According to villagers ordered by police to bury them, they are often of particular sorts: there is blood and shattered bone where they were shot, or they are burned beyond recognition. Many show signs of beatings. At one cemetery, police told villagers they would bring seven bodies for burials. They brought seven heads

If support for the insurgency has withered, the Indian soldiers are still widely detested. Perhaps nowhere more than in the villages forced to bury the dead.

Atta Mohammed knows all about the nameless dead. The 70-year-old Bimyar farmer has buried 235 of them. He knows their bruises and their bullet wounds. He knows if they were burned so badly their mothers would not recognize them.

"I took mud from their mouths and ears. I cleaned the blood from them," said Atta, a quiet man with rotting teeth and a neatly trimmed white beard. About 12 years ago, police began bringing bodies to be buried in a small empty field. They stopped only when there was no more room.

The West gives overwhelming weight to India’s democratic system, its role as a victim of Islamicist terror, its support for U.S. strategic goals in South Asia, and its value is an anti-China chesspiece in the great game of Asian policy.

And it may be justified to take the Chinese occupation of Tibet—instead of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank—as the standard of comparison for Indian misbehavior in Kashmir.

Indeed, I would expect there is a dark deal at work: the governments of the West have decided to turn the same official blind eye to India’s occupation of Kashmir as they do to China’s presence in Tibet so that both powers can contentedly brutalize their subjugated minorities without interference while fulfilling their assigned roles in the multi-polar, U.S.-directed 21st century world.

I can imagine that, in the continual cycle of wounded pride, horse-trading, and reassurance that goes on between New Delhi and Washington in the shadow of China’s strategic, economic, and fiscal importance, India insisted that, if human rights in Tibet was off the diplomatic table, human rights in Kashmir should be removed as well.

In fact, the first conspicuous retreat from the ideals of Obama’s election campaign to the realities of his presidency was the removal of Kashmir from the brief of Richard Holbrooke, who was expected to broker the rapprochement and grand anti-terrorism alliance between the civilian governments of Pakistan’s Asif Zardari and India’s Monmohan Singh.

Instead, India’s democracy was granted (im)moral parity with China’s single party dictatorship in the matter of how it could treat its occupied territories.

Meanwhile the Western media keeps the anti-Communist pot boiling by bashing China and coddling India.

But there is a bloody side to India that we are unwilling to confront.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Nepal in the News!


Nepal’s government has decided to notify the international community formally of numerous violations of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) by the Nepalese Maoists. The last straw was the declaration of two newly minted autonomous regional governments in Maoist strongholds in eastern Nepal.


Maybe then the world will take notice of Nepal’s slide back into civil war thanks to the calculated defiance of the Maoists and India’s uncontrollable compulsion to meddle in Nepalese internal affairs.

I have four pieces on the deteriorating political situation in Nepal, and the exacerbating effect that the regional power rivalry between China and India has had on the brinkmanship of the various political parties.

Three pieces are up at Asia Times Online (Sino-Indian Rivalry Fuels Nepal’s Turmoil, Nepal Rhetoric Warms to Violence, and Monarchy Re-enters Nepal’s Political Mix) and one on the ideological roots of the Maoists is in the Counterpunch print edition (you can subscribe here).

India is working non-stop to transplant sufficient financial, military, and diplomatic backbone into Nepal’s outgunned bourgeois democracy so that it will continue to defy the Maoists and deny China the services of a friendly regime in Kathmandu.

The Nepalese Maoists are not a bunch of grubby jungle insurgents; they are the biggest party in the Constituent Assembly and held the prime ministership for almost a year before they pulled out in response to the machinations of the democratic parties and India.

The Maoists have street muscle on tap for conventional political intimidation in the form of their Young Communist League and a hardened military force, their People’s Liberation Army, currently rusticating under UN supervision but ready to return to action.

If the Maoists resume the insurgency, it will probably be as a strategic move from strength, not desperation, and could be a bloody business.

In the previous iteration of the insurgency, from 1996 until 2006, the Maoists exploited Nepal’s vast, mountainous terrain and the Nepalese army’s lack of men and equipment to fight the government to a standstill in a conflict that claimed 16,000 lives.

I find the West’s lack of interest in this burgeoning crisis curious, particularly when contrasted with the media frenzy that greeted the Dalai Lama’s visit to another Himalayan flashpoint, Arunachal Pradesh (territory claimed by China but held by India), at the beginning of November.

The Western press, in its wisdom, has instead obsessed on three hot stories out of Nepal:

1. A female Nepal government minister vigorously slapped around a local bureaucrat for failing to arrange suitable transportation during her visit; the interesting but ignored backstory was that she felt that she had been intentionally insulted because of her membership in the aggrieved lowlander Madhesi ethnic group, which is perennially treated with condescension and suspicion by Nepal’s hilly elites;
2. The Nepalese government tried to trump the Maldives underwater cabinet meeting by strapping on oxygen tanks for a twenty-minute confab at 17,000 feet adjacent to the Mount Everest base camp to publicize global warming issues;
3. Elephant kills eleven (including one victim trying to worship it as an incarnation of Ganesh!) in rampage of terror in southern Nepal.

Meanwhile, the Nepalese Maoists helpfully provided the Telegraph Nepal with a scorecard of the thirteen autonomous districts they intend to set up, color-coded to show the two already declared and listing the scheduled dates for declaration of autonomy in the other eleven over the coming week.

That’s good. Given the level of Western coverage coming out of Nepal, we’ll need all the help we can get to follow the story.

The elephant, by the way, is still at large!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Obama’s Afghan Surge a Geopolitical Windfall for India

…and a Catastrophe for Pakistan and China

Well, I guess President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize is going to go into the record books with a big, fat asterisk next to it.

I have an article up at Asia Times Online Beijing broods over its arc of anxiety addressing the implications of the U.S. plan to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

As long-time readers of China Matters know, I’ve consistently argued that Pakistan is the collateral damage in our Afghan policy.

Under U.S. pressure, Pakistan’s army is forced to go to battle a united Pashtun insurgency that would otherwise be split into murderous factions battling each other for control of the broad plains of southern Afghanistan and using Pakistan’s mountainous FATA as little more than a secure and inaccessible redoubt for rest, recreation, and resupply.

Instead, we expect Pakistan to go to war against its own Pashtun areas for the sake of the distinctly ungrateful Hamid Karzai.

For Pakistan, it’s an extremely difficult and costly battle with few tangible benefits. The dean of South Asia journalists, Syed Saleem Shahzad analyzes Pakistan’s problems with the current U.S. Afghan strategy—and America’s attempts to address them--in his Asia Times Online article, Pakistan at odds with Obama’s vision. It’s well worth reading.

The anti-Taliban war is dangerous for Pakistan as a nation because the Pashtun/Deoband/extremist nexus has a tremendous ability to make mischief throughout Pakistan by exploiting the enormous Pashtun underclass in Karachi, the vulnerability posed by the borderline-heretical character of the dominant Baralvi Islamic observance in Punjab and Sindh, and the smoldering resentment of the tens of millions of urban and rural poor throughout the country against the corrupt, pro-Western elites that rule them.

What might push Pakistan’s military over the edge and demand that the Pakistani government be reorganized and abandon the war is the awareness that India is not only profiting from Pakistan’s misery; it is actively encouraging the Obama administration to continue its ruinous involvement in Afghanistan and deny Pakistan the relief of a prompt withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces.

India, thanks to the “world’s biggest democracy” meme and the unpopularity of China’s Communist, Tibet-and-Uighur repressing single party state, gets an undeserved free ride from the Western press.

Actually, New Delhi is a serial and callous meddler in the matters of its neighbors (see Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Sikkim). It is impossible to view India’s involvement in Afghanistan (and the anti-Taliban war) as anything other than a conscious effort to exacerbate and prolong the miseries Pakistan is suffering as a result of the U.S. policy.

It is revealing that virtually the only nation egging on the Obama administration to stay the course in Afghanistan was India. A weakened Pakistan not only diminishes Islamabad’s ability and appetite to do mischief in India and Jammu/Kashmir; it deprives Beijing of an effective ally in China’s intensifying struggle with India along their long and disputed border.

As to why President Obama chose to surge Afghanistan, I think he recoiled from the idea that, come the 2010 elections, the Republicans could make hay with pictures of Taliban dancing in the streets of a reconquered Kabul.

Since the President is apparently a decent and intelligent man, he also shrank from the idea of racking up another 500 or so U.S. fatalities over the next 18 months just so the Democrats could limit their losses in the congressional elections.

So I think all the well-publicized debating and handwringing over the Afghan policy involved in-depth consideration (and, if there are any practitioners of the Chicago school of cost benefit analysis in the White House, literal calculations) concerning the lives saved and improved that would balance the scale against the increased number of U.S. dead and maimed the surge will bring.

But even if the United States is able to defy the demographic, political, and military forces driving Afghanistan toward a Pashtun triumph and achieve victory (or a bloody stalemate) every day the Pakistan is forced to support the U.S./NATO strategy, the greater damage it suffers.

The only nation that benefits clearly and immediately from the Afghan surge, it would appear, is India.