Tuesday, September 27, 2005

China's Goal for the Internet: Xinhua Select

On a subject dear to all our hearts, the Chinese government has unveiled a new regulation on internet news providers.

There has been a certain amount of squealing in the media and blogosphere, taking the new reg as a jumping off point to grumble about Chinese attempts to clamp down on non-government sources of information and opinion.

All very true, but the intention of the new reg is primarily to create a protected class of licensed Internet news companies, incorporated, registered with the government, with certain levels of capitalization and employees (with minimum 3 years' previous experience in the news business), in other words corporatized news businesses unlikely to offend--a media style we're more than a little familiar with here in the US.

Penalties on unlicensed news purveyors--those brave bloggers, posters, and Falun Gong enthusiasts--are mentioned once Section 5 Chapter 26, for those of you who like to keep track), almost in passing, when the penalties for people who get into the news business without a license are addressed.

So the point of this new policy is not to try to resuscitate the AOL model and create the world's largest moderated chatroom, with Sohu and Yahoo dutifully pulling at the oars--though that's going on too.

What we have here is the capitalism-with-Chinese-characteristics side of the manufacturing consent equation.

The Chinese government wants to create nice, meek, risk averse Internet news businesses that will be protected from competition from lively, popular blogs and websites.

Armed with this protection--and secure in the knowledge that the Chinese government will sanction unlicensed news providers--the official news providers will grow, attract investment, and crowd out and delegitimize other information sources on the Internet.

In other words, it's a MSM Internet model, this time backed up by the clout of the host government.

Is it going to be up to the Chinese teach us the workable, profitable Internet news business model--call it Xinhua Select--based on government monopoly and corporate collusion?

Bill Keller must be envious. Imagine a world in which posting an embargoed David Brooks column is a crime against the state, and not just an offense against decency and respectable prose.

The kvetching of the print media is therefore rather ironic.

The Chinese regs--with their ostentatious paeans to professionalism, responsibility, accuracy, and accountability--sound like they are ripped from the transcript of those tedious blogger ethics panels that professional journalists are always convening to harrass the raggedy-assed purveyors of innuendo, speculation, and recycled news stories on the Internet.

In both cases, the net result is to suppress the indispensable alternate version of reality that the Internet can provide in this age of elite message management and information control.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Seymour Hersh Looks at North Korea

Now that the "bad faith" rumpus over North Korea's follow-up statements on the Six-Party Agreement have died down, and the talks are chugging along toward Vietnam peace-talk style prolonged futility, it's interesting to gain another perspective on U.S. motivations. Why did the White House allow itself to sign onto a process that promises to provide neither disarmament, peace, inspections, or civilian nuclear reactors, but to date has only yielded the Bush administration an unwanted image of Clintonesque feckless accommodation?

Speaking at Steve Clemons' conference Beyond Bullets: Economic Strategies in the Fight Against Terrorism on September 21, renowned investigative journalist Seymour Hersh stated that he had been told in August by his sources that an agreement with North Korea at any cost was in the works so the Bush administration "could clear the decks" to deal with Teheran's nuclear ambitions.

The urgency, Hersh reported, came from the need for the United States to "keep [Arial] Sharon in the game" i.e. delivering a worthy quid pro quo to Israel--dealing with the existential threat of Iranian nuclear weapons--in return for Israel's sticking with the Gaza withdrawal (and presumably providing support for a neo-con "democracy on the march" version of events in the Middle East that justifies continued adventurism vis a vis Iraq, Syria, and Iran).

It's unclear what "dealing with Iran" would mean, since the Security Council referral by a divided IAEA is expected to result in a veto from Iran's nuclear patron, Russia, despite any multilateralist, "grownups back in charge" diplomatic cred the Condi Rice team may claim on behalf of U.S. foreign policy as a result of the hastily-concluded North Korea boondoggle. One would think the world is unlikely to go along with White House efforts to gin up an anti-Iran coalition after the Iraq fiasco just because we caved on North Korea.

This is unlikely to be an outcome satisfactory to Arial Sharon. With the Bush administration's international clout at low ebb and the American public showing little appetite for escalated Middle East adventures, perhaps the best Israel can do is attempt to reprise its "consequences be damned" pre-emptive strike against Saddam Hussein's Osiraq facility, this time against Iran's Bushehr reactor and its well-protected constellation of nuclear facilities, under a U.S. diplomatic--instead of military--umbrella.

This interpretation implies that U.S. commitment to the negotiation process on the Korean peninsula is merely temporary and tactical. When Iran is dealt with--effectively, incompetently, disastrously, or indifferently--the Bush administration will turn its attention to North Korea once again with its original pre-September regime change aims and malice undiluted.

Neo-con sympathizers may draw unexpected encouragement from Hersh's remarks. After all, by this scenario, the Chinese did not extort humiliating concessions on behalf of Kim Jung Il from a politically and diplomatically neutered Bush presidency.

Instead, the North Korea agreement can be comfortably construed as a Machiavellian master-stroke: a merely tactical retreat disguising the Bush administration's resolve to deal righteously with the Mini-Me oriental leg of the Axis of Evil at a later date--after America has resolutely grasped the Iranian nettle in a reaffirmation of its implacable determination to transform the Middle East with its gun-barrel vision of democracy.

Time will tell if the advocates of confrontation with North Korea will settle on this more flattering explanation for recent events that otherwise appears to be setback for their cherished goals.

On the other hand, those of us who believe that the neo-con's "democracy by apocalypse" agenda has delivered so much disaster and so little triumph that using the word "hubris" undeservedly implies that the neo-cons actually achieved something positive before overreach revealed their incompetence, the neocons remain what they have always been: useful, complicit tools providing an ideological veneer for conservative elites working to create their "Have It My Way" super-sized self-perpetuating imperial state devoid of accountability and transparency.

North Korea--and the suffering of its people--is merely a distraction, sometimes useful and sometimes irritating, in the evolving American effort to contain and confront China. When--if ever--the United States gets the Middle East under its control and can deny its resources to China, the time may come for America to join with Japan to use the North Korean situation as a lever to destabilize and alarm the PRC. Then the neo-cons will be let slip to confound and distract opinion with their lunatic baying about Pyongyang.

But the other dangers--to American interests and American democracy--are closer to home and more immediate.

In this context, Hersh's revelation (to me) that a 1700 square foot, multi-billion dollar stack of Saddam's US currency stash has disappeared into the insatiable maw of the burgeoning "off-the-books" covert operations empire of Bush's executive branch is a sign that Kim Jung Il and his regime should not number among the greatest of the our worries.

Note: Tip of the hat to Billmon comment site Moon of Alabama for unearthing and publicizing Hersh's remarks.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

NK Talks: Fiasco, Business as Usual...or Both?

Re the fracas over Pyongyang demanding that they get their light water reactors first, there will be an understandable tendency to blame the North Koreans for screwing up the nuclear accord with another piece of last-minute brinksmanship intended to wring a final concession out of the talks.

Or, as the LA Times print edition of Sept. 20 puts it, "New Terms May Blow Up Nuclear Deal".

But consider this, from the New York Times, which did the best job of reporting the whole affair:

To break the impasse, Ms. Rice came up with a compromise during meetings on Saturday afternoon with her South Korean and Japanese counterparts. Each country, she suggested, would issue separate statements describing their understanding of the deal, with a specificity that is not in the agreement itself. The South Koreans and Japanese went along with the idea, though South Korea, one official said, complained that it would "sour the atmosphere." Russia and China issued vaguer statements that left unclear the sequence of events.

So the North Koreans, at Condi's suggestion, clarify their position on what they consider the "appropriate" time for them to get light water nuclear reactors, and get jumped on for being obstructionist jerks.

The NYT reported, in a phrase that may come back to haunt the Secretary of State, that Rice's involvement in the negotiations was characterized jokingly as "adult supervision".

The LA Times and Sonni Efron, usually reliable conduits for Condi Rice's version of events, somehow omitted this interesting nugget, which makes Condi look pretty clueless.

The actual negotiations were apparently a full-time fudge factory, according to the Washington Post:

China sought to bridge the gap, playing its leadership role as sponsor of the talks. Chinese diplomats proposed language according North Korea the right to a reactor for electricity production but implying that it could invoke that right only after dismantling its weapons program and rejoining the international nuclear inspection regime.

"Implying". As in "not stating". As in "I wonder what they actually said to the North Koreans?"

What is clear from the reporting is that the Chinese drove a hard bargain and insisted that the Bush administration, rocked on its heels by Katrina, Iraq, and Iran, had to accept that North Korea had the right to a civilian nuclear program or else face public blame for the collapse of the talks.

The Chinese, perhaps, overplayed their hand in an attempt to humiliate the U.S. into returning to the decade-old civilian nuclear reactor scheme and thereby admit that five years of fulmination, threats, and chest thumping rhetoric under Bush had done little more than return the Korean peninsula dialogue to the hated days of engagement, peace, economic carrots, and Bill Clinton-style diplomacy.

For its part, the United States might have been perfectly happy to see the agreement fall apart and not have to follow through on a concession that the upper levels of the Bush administration consider coerced and detestable.

Certainly there seems to be a disconnect between the wailing and gnashing of teeth reported today with the attitude that the Washington Post reported earlier, when the negotiating team was still trying to move things forward:

In an immediate demonstration of the difficulty ahead, the official North Korean news agency early today quoted an unnamed Foreign Ministry spokesman as asserting that Pyongyang would not give up its weapons program until it received nuclear reactors from the United States. A State Department official shrugged off the statement, saying the focus would remain on the Beijing declaration.

For the U.S., focus quickly shifted to asserting that the appropriate time for light water reactors is after complete disarmament and verification.

Re verification, the Post reported:

The administration envisions what one senior official described yesterday as a "very intrusive verification regime that will go well beyond what is required" by the IAEA.

For those of us with short memories, it is perhaps instructive to recall the experience of another member of the Axis of Evil, Iraq.

In that case, the U.S.and the U.K. pushed through an onerous inspection regime whose apparent intent was to confront and destabilize Saddam Hussein's regime to the point that it would expel the inspectors and provide a casus belli.

Whatever the reason--appeasing Bush's conservative domestic base, an inability to accept any unpleasant lessons from Iraq, or simply a failure of perspective or imagination--the U.S. is unwilling to surrender the propaganda advantages and strategic posture that come from assailing North Korea as a pariah state and subjecting its sovereignty to coercive U.S. and/or international supervision.

No doubt Kim Jung-Il remembers that Saddam Hussein acceded to full-cavity search treatment, and in return was rewarded with a duplicitous U.N. dog-and-pony show courtesy of Colin Powell, and got invaded anyway for his pains.

With that kind of history, civilian nuclear reactors will probably be operating on Mars before the Bush administration concludes its inspection regime in North Korea to its satisfaction.

So one can understand, if not appreciate, North Korea's explicit insistence that the light-water reactor program begin now, as a sign of good faith.

Failing that, what North Korea is probably hoping for is to drag the discussions out for another four years until there is a change of U.S. administration and a repudiation of the Bush "failed state" intervention doctrine that creates existential peril for the Kim Jung-Il regime whenever it comes into contact with the United States.

For a U.S. administration under siege and bereft of the credibility and will to resolve the Korean situation through negotiation and concession, the opportunity to deflect blame for the continued impasse away from itself and onto Pyongyang may be the only positive outcome it can hope for.