Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Has Moammar Qadaffi Left the Building?

Normally, I don't pile on when it comes to ridiculing dictators.

In the Western media, mockery is the flip side of the coin of vilification and demonization, usually exercised in direct proportion to the strongman's position as an obstacle to American interests.

Dictators are often intelligent, determined, and wily men who have devoted a lifetime to successfully crushing domestic opposition, keeping hostile foreign powers at bay, and dividing and conquering internal rivals. 

To depict these skilled practitioners of the blackest political arts as delusional stooges may be misleading, dangerously so when media dehumanization enables policies that are inhumane and reckless.

I may be about to break this rule in the case of Moammar Qadaffi.

When I saw this picture (Mr. Qadaffi discussing some oil bidness with David Cameron Gordon Brown, post-[reputational] rehab, 2009):

I involuntarily thought about this famous picture (the most requested picture from the National Archives, by the way):

In 1970, Elvis flew to Washington to request credentials as "Federal Agent at Large" to help the government deal with the illegal drug problem.  Beatle envy--resentment that the drugged-out Fab Four had eclipsed the King--has been cited as the underlying motivation.  In any case, Elvis, an avid police badge collector, sought out President Nixon because the Bureau of Narcotics and Drugs had denied him the precious tin.

A George Washington University website documents the meeting and includes a PDF of Elvis' letter to Nixon setting up the meeting.  It states, in part:

"I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing..."

The punch line is that Elvis was allegedly stoned at the meeting.

However, Elvis, by his own standards, was not part of the drug problem.  He did not use illegal drugs, and only took legal drugs prescribed by his doctors, albeit in enormous, abusive quantities and mixtures.

A transcript of Moammar Qadaffi's recent speech reveals that Qadaffi shares Elvis's apprehension about the treasonous antics of drug-abusing youth:

You rats were given pills, to raid barracks and they also burned their crimninal records, but I don’t blame these youths, they 16 or 17, they are emulating what they saw in Tunisia. [Foreign agents] are giving money and hallucinogenic tablets to young people. the people who were killed are members of the police, but those who did it are outside the country, and they are encouraging your children to slaughter each other...

Shame on you, are you gangsters? It’s impossible. Surrender your weapons to the authorities. Drugged young people with machine guns. Arrest the troublemakers and turn them over to the security people. Drugs are harmful: they are bad for the heart.

One has to wonder if Qadaffi, like Elvis has done "an in depth study of drug abuse".

When one looks at Qadaffi's bleary eyes and puffy face, listens to his emotional speeches, and parses his anxiety over illegal drugs, one gets the distinct impression that he, like Elvis, has definitely left the building.

Friday, February 18, 2011

In the Valley of the Clueless

America’s Problematic Internet Strategy

I have an article up at Asia Times, US Internet Declaration Bugs China, about Secretary Clinton’s “freedom to connect” speech and its implications for China.

In this context, it is interesting to recall how middle class priorities can get repackaged as legal rights and essential human freedoms.

Back in 1996, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, AOL rolled out its $19.95 per month “all you can eat” dial-up service. It was quickly overwhelmed by users who dialed up and never hung up, tying up AOL’s modems and exposing other AOL customers to the dreaded busy signal for hours on end. For newbs out there, I feel compelled to point out that in 1996 there was no broadband; virtually all connectivity relied on copper phone lines, and connections were made at 56Kbaud by “modems”—analog chirp machine on the user's and AOL's end of the line.

America felt the agony of AOL’s 8 million subscribers (less than 4% of the population, skewed toward the better-off computer owners, for those keeping score), and lawsuits were filed in New York, Wisconsin, and other states, not only by customers but by state attorney generals, bringing the wrath down on AOL (then yclept “Always Off Line”; now “Arianna’s Overpriced Lemon”).

I wonder if state AGs were equally swift in filing lawsuits on behalf of poor neighborhoods that couldn’t get a patrol car on site an hour after a 911 call. For that matter, I wonder how quickly “freedom to connect” will translate into the provision of universal broadband to America’s poorest neighborhoods today.

Anyway, “freedom to connect” is now a universal right to be extended to Chinese citizens through the efforts of the United States.

Funding of Internet circumvention technology has turned into a political football. The Republicans apparently feel Psiphon and Tor (proxy networks that allow Chinese users to surf blocked sites and access forbidden keyword searches) are key to knocking down the evil empire(s), and they blame the State Department for excess timidity in funding and deploying the servers that enable them.

In this context, I was interested to learn that the U.S. Internet censorship circumvention portfolio is in the reliable hands of the spiritual sect i.e. religious cult Falun Gong, which received $1.5 million dollars from the State Department last year to fund its open Internet initiatives.

The Clinton speech actually had little to do with China or even Iran and a lot to do with US “freedom to connect” conundrum i.e. that it’s knocking down U.S. authoritarian allies instead of U.S. authoritarian enemies (Iran and China).

I draw on Evgeny Mozorov’s The Net Delusion to argue that the U.S. strategy is essentially flawed: it is too heavily skewed toward censorship circumvention and doesn’t pay enough attention to a major focus of authoritarian regimes in their sophisticated Internet strategies: using the Internet for surveillance, and flooding it with pro-government propaganda.

[I put a buy button for The Net Delusion at the end of the post.  The best deal is to load the free Kindle application onto your PC and buy the e-book for $9.99, instead of spending $18.45 and cluttering up your bookshelf with the hardcover of a book that, though excellent, is already teetering on the brink of events-driven obsolescence.]

Mozorov also argues that the Internet is perfectly equipped to implement a key authoritarian countermeasure—distraction through mass media.

He tells us that the seductive, corrosive effects of Western culture on the communist ethic (what Chinese communists call the West’s “sugar coated bullets”) may be overrated.

Mozorov cites the interesting case of East Germany. Under communism, most of the GDR was exposed to an incessant barrage of Dallas and Dynasty and other subversive US programming via West German TV. However, there was one part of East Germany, out by the Polish border, that was out of range of the broadcasts. It was mockingly called “Tal der Ahnunglosen”: the Valley of the Clueless.

Mozorov cites a study by two German academics that studied East German youth and concluded:

...those East German youth who could receive Western television were, overall, more satisfied and content with the regime; the ones who could not...-those in the Valley of the Clueless—were much more politicized, more critical of the regime, and, interestingly, more likely to apply for exit visas...Western television made life in the East more was in the Valley of the Clueless that dissent began brewing; its residents were clearly more dissatisfied with life in the country than those who found a refuge in the exciting world of The Denver Clan [as Dynasty was known in Germany].

Apparently the Russian government has studied the lessons of East Germany and is big on supporting the rollout of Internet sites that offer largely apolitical entertainment for young people to keep their minds off Color Revolution-style hijinks.

The Kremlin’s youth wing is heavily involved in a well-financed media site According to Mozorov, it has some light political content, but its signature video offerings are gun/military/video game/movie/car guyfotainment and something called “The Tits Show” a.k.a. Сиськи Шоу.

Сиськи Шоу is an interesting window on that mysterious commodity, the Russian soul. It follows fitness-challenged host, Dennis Ch., on an alcohol-soaked stumble through Moscow’s skank-rich nightclubs in search of girls who will show him their Сиськи. It plays more like a Dostoevskian howl into the existential void of sweaty desperation, self-loathing, and exhaustion than sexy romp.

Unlike the Kremlin, China’s Internet masters are still loath to unleash the unimaginable power of the female nipple through state-approved media. However, they have done the next best thing—lax and uneven blocking of overseas porn websites. Chinese in search of the full range of distracting content can also turn to Falun Gong’s proxy servers.

Given that the vast majority of Chinese users are getting the vast majority of content they want, scaling up “freedom to connect” or “all you can eat” initiatives may not be the best use of our tax dollars.

On the “freedom to connect” issue, beyond the hypocrisy of the US government on the issue (see Wikileaks) and the overall trend toward Internet monitoring and control by democratic as well as authoritarian regimes, I’m not a big fan of the U.S. habit of clothing its foreign policy priorities in the dazzling raiment of universal values, core principles, and global norms.

The Chinese have been trying without success to switch the terms of US-China debate away from unilaterally declared “universal core principles” to potentially conflicting but practically sustainable “national core interests” (a framing that allows for compromise in consideration of Chinese priorities).

However, US rollout of “freedom to connect” reinforces the “US arbiter of orthodoxy vs. Chinese pariah” narrative that makes negotiation unnecessarily difficult (unless you feel that “freedom to connect” is a magic bullet for regime change that renders engagement irrelevant, which Mozorov argues is unrealistic).

One topic I didn’t go into in the Asia Times article was the slippery slope from “freedom to connect” to US government funding of Internet circumvention technology to cyberwar.

On a range of cyberissues from employing Stuxnet to sabotage the Iranian centrifuge array at Natanz to using Falun Gong to pierce the Great Firewall, the U.S. attitude seems to be Fair Game: it’s “good guys vs. bad guys”, “freedom vs. oppression”, “core principles trumping core interests” and a studied obliviousness to the issues of sovereignty, international law, national interest, and blowback.

I don’t think it’s prudent to in effect establish unrestricted cyberwar against China’s Internet infrastructure as an American right, instead of trying to establish some mutually-agreed ground rules.

Laura Rozen linked to an interesting article at Financial Times by Roula Khalaf and James Blitz , The Sabotaging of Iran, that addresses the same concern in the context of the Western campaign against the Iranian nuclear program.

It’s a good article, though it includes some rather asinine speculation that the Iranian govenment might have murdered its own top nuclear scientists (using bombs delivered by motorcycle riders!) in order to remove security threats. I’m assuming this charade is meant to innoculate the Financial Times from the dangerous charge of humanizing the Iranian bogeyman.

Indeed, when you read about scientists being blow up in their cars next to their wives, or a country’s infrastructure being subjected to an undeclared, extralegal sabotage, one might feel a twinge of sympathy.

Also, the FT article raises an issue I’ve thought about: cyberwar blowback.

I would think there is a good possibility that Iran is allowing Chinese scientists to participate in the Stuxnet forensics, which means that China is familiarizing itself with the characteristics and capabilities of this kind of weapon for offensive as well as defensive purposes.

The article concludes:

For some experts, moreover, the sabotage campaign comes at a cost. Stuxnet may have concentrated its efforts on Natanz but it has also proved expensive for many industrial companies. And should Iran choose to respond, it could prove just the beginning of a dangerous cyberwar, to which neither the US nor Israel are immune. US civilian and military officials have noted that America’s key infrastructure – such as power and water plants – is frighteningly vulnerable to cyberattack. “It’s a dangerous technology,” says Frantz, the expert on the CIA’s sabotage efforts, referring to Stuxnet. “Releasing it does two things: it spreads the danger but it also opens the door for retaliation. And I think that cyberwarfare is the next big front.”

The new type of covert war that has ensnared scientists, unleashed dangerous viruses and sought novel ways of exporting faulty equipment takes the nuclear stand-off into uncharted territory. If effective, it buys the US and its partners time, postponing the day when they might have to decide between a conventional strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, with all the risks that it engenders for the Middle East, or acceptance of Iran becoming a nuclear-capable state. But every war has a cost, and in this mysterious world of intrigue and sabotage, no one knows yet what the real price will be. “There’s too much happening behind the scenes with black programmes, assassinations, sabotage of equipment, cyberattacks,” says Albright of Isis. “There’s a loss of accountability … There’s a sense that a green light has been given on hitting the Iranian nuclear programme. But who is going to take the lead on establishing ground rules on what is too much? Where does it end?”

Picture of Iranian nuclear scientist Majid Shahriyari's car after he was assassinated in November 2010.  Photograph by Morteza Yarahmady.

Friday, February 11, 2011

China Profits From India's Karmapa Blunder

I have an article up on Asia Times, China Profits From India's Tibet Bungle.

Compared to China, India gets a free ride from world opinion concerning its handling of its borders and ethnic fissures.

But India's record is largely one of arrogance and ineptitude in its dealings with Sri Lanka (supported Tamil separatists and helped ignite civil war); Nepal (engineered the deposition of the king, inadvertently put the Maoists in charge, a mistake it is working mightily to undue); Sikkim (subverted and annexed ); Kashmir (a dismal record of occupation and massacre).  Of course, Pakistan still holds a grudge over India's only major geopolitical success: its active assistance to pro-independence forces that split off East Pakistan and created Bangladesh.  It remains to be seen if India's efforts to surround Pakistan by deepening ties with Afghanistan brings a rare victory or, as is more likely, yields more catastrophic blowback.

Add relations with Tibetan emigres and the Tibetan communities of the Himalayan belt to the list of New Delhi's cockups.

The precipitating factor: India's decision to go after Ugyen Trinley Dorje, the Karmapa of the Kagyu (Black Hat) sect.  The current seat of the sect is at Rumtek, in Sikkim.  It reputedly holds a hoard of earthly and heavenly treasure, including the sect's eponymous black hat, a crown woven of goddess hair.  When the Karmapa wears it (which he hasn't, since possession of Rumtek is tied up in a thirty-year old dispute), he has to keep one hand on top to keep it flying off to heaven.  If he is wearing it, you can't see it.  It's invisible to the unworthy.  On public ceremonial occasions, he wears a replica prepared for him by the Ming emperor.  But he doesn't wear it now, because it's also locked up at Rumtek.

India doesn't like Ugyen Trinley Dorje.  To be more accurate, India doesn't like his patron, Tai Situ Rinpoche.  The Indian government considers Tai Situ to be excessively close to the Chinese. It restricts the movements of Tai Situ and Ugyen Trinley Dorje, refusing to allow them to go to Sikkim and enter Rumtek.  The theory is apparently that control of Rumtek would entrench a pro-Chinese force in Sikkim.

Ugyen Trinley Dorje-related anxieties are mightily exacerbated by the fact that Ugyen Trinley Dorje has been adopted by the Dalai Lama as his heir apparent, not as the leader of Tibetan Buddhists (they come from different sects) but as the face of Buddhist religion and culture in the emigre Tibetan community in dealing with the West, and with the secular younger generation of Tibetan activists inside the diaspora.

The Indian authorities refused Ugyen Trinley Dorje permission to travel either to Europe or the United States in 2010, apparently fearing the contacts, prestige, influence, and access to funding he might garner in the West

At the end of January, police raided Ugyen Trinley Dorje's residence near Dharmsala and found a roomful of cash, about $100,000 of which was in Chinese RMB, which appeared to place him in violation of Indian currency laws.

It's unclear if the local, xenophobic BJP administration of Himachal Pradesh conducted the operation on its own kick.

However, it's clear that the central government decided to jump on the situation, dispatching representatives of RAW, the Intelligence Bureau, and the Enforcement Directorate to put Ugyen Trinley Dorje through the wringer.

At the same time, there was a barrage of reportage in the Indian media accusing Ugyen Trinley Dorje of being a Chinese agent of influence.

Local Indian media management is apparently less sophisticated and more straightforward than its equivalent in the West.

Instead of going on background, the local Director General of the Police went Glenn Beck on the issue, treating the Indian papers to an on-the-record session of innuendo, accusation, and conspiracy theorizing concerning Ugyen Trinley Dorje, Tai Situ Rinpoche, and a host of other characters going back decades.

The result has been a public relations debacle for the Indian government within the Tibetan communities of India. 

Support for Ugyen Trinley Dorje on this issue has been well-nigh universal, from the Dalai Lama and the parliament of the government in exile to the secular, anti-Chinese NGOs, to the monasteries.

Beyond the issues of Indian arrogance and insensitivity, there is the nagging reminder that India treats Tibetan emigres as second-class citizens, closely restricting their right to own property (Ugyen Trinley Dorje was accused of hoarding cash so he could buy land illegally through proxies).

Actually, Tibetan emigres aren't even treated like second class citizens.  The local government reacted to its difficulties with protesting Tibetans by pointedly asking the central government, "Are the Tibetans exiles or guests?".  If guests, the idea is apparently that the central government should bear more of the cost of maintaining them.  If exiles, the implications seems to be, they are mainly a political, security, and budgetary headache.  The Hamachal Pradesh government also announced it was setting up an intelligence unit to monitor the activities of the emigres more closely.

All in all, a PR trainwreck.

One of the key mudslinging elements in the affair has been the washing of dirty linen concerning the Karmapa controversy.

This is a long-running dispute as to whether Ugyen Trinley Dorje is the real Karmapa, or an impostor foisted on the Kagyu Sect by Tai Situ Rinpoche.

Attacks on the legitimacy of Ugyen Trinley Dorje have been spearheaded by a senior Rinpoche in the Kagyu sect, Sharma Rinpoche, who has been openly at loggerheads with Tai Situ Rinpoche since the 1990s.

Sharma Rinpoche identified his own candidate for Karmapa, Trinley Thaye Dorje.

I don't have a dog in the Karmapa fight.  Both candidates seem to be equally fine young men, supported by equally indefatigable and calculating patrons.

However, Sharma Rinpoche does have one advantage.

He identified his Karmapa through a prophetic dream.

Tai Situ Rinpoche, on the other hand, rests his claim on a secret note discovered long after the previous Karmapa's death.  He has refused to submit it to forensic inspection, fueling allegations that it is not in the previous Karmapa's handwriting and, indeed, is littered with spelling and grammatical errors.

When Sharma Rinpoche unveiled his revelation, maybe Tai Situ Rinpoche said to himself:  "A dream?!  An undocumented, unverifiable, dream?!  Why didn't I think of that?"

In any event, this case looks like a nightmare, another self-inflicted wound for the Indian government.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

China's Media: Reportin’ Tahrir Square Like It’s 1989

More along the lines of "Reportin’ Like It’s 1989” theme referred to in the previous post is a fine photoessay from Tahrir Square by Xinhua’s Yin Dongxun.

For me, the subject matter evokes comparisons to Tian An Men Square in 1989.

Here’s a few samples.

The rest are here, on Xinhua’s English-language service:

Perhaps Al Jazeera's spectacular growth in viewership thanks to its Egyptian coverage is forcing Xinhua to raise its game.

At least in English.

Couldn’t find the essay on Xinhua’s Chinese language service.  Maybe it’s me.  Maybe not.

I expect there are some interesting debates going on between China's media, censorship, and propaganda barons as to how to cover the popular movement in Egypt.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Mubarak’s Parting Gift to Dictators (and the United States)

Autocrats around the world can thank Hosni Mubarak for showing some counter-revolutionary backbone.

The United States, I think, is secretly grateful he's hanging on.

Now, anti-government activists won’t believe that all it takes is a Facebook page and an ecstatic pro-democracy dogpile in the main square to chase a dictator out of his palace.

On one level, I’m being sarcastic.

It takes considerable courage to join demonstrations in an autocratic state, even if the regime’s ramparts appear to be crumbling.  The threat of violence and reprisal is always implicit; when the hammer does drop, it takes guts to stay the course.

But at the same time, Chinese media can point to the violence, the chaos, the economic losses, and widening political, confessional, ethnic, and social fissures exacerbated by Mubarak’s divide and conquer strategy and assert that bottom-up democracy is not a pain and cost-free absolute good: it is a political option with advantages and disadvantages, like all the other options.

As Xinhua’s English edition  frames it, it’s not democracy vs. autocracy.  It’s “Stability or chaos, Egypt at crossroad after 10-day unrest”.

Implicitly, the article invites its readers to ponder, what’s more important: democracy or stability? and what’s worse: autocracy or chaos? 

The article wrapped with intimations of democracy fatigue that China’s leaders no doubt hope will prove contagious:

The MB and the National Coalition for Change led by Mohammed ElBaradei, both insisted no dialogue without the stepping down of the president.

This stance has been highly criticized by many Egyptian protesters who say that they are trying to seize the opportunity to get what they want.

"Both ElBaradei and the MB should go out of our country after Mubarak," said a protester, sitting in a cafe relieving from the day's work.

People’s Daily Chinese language coverage—a link buried three quarters of the way down its miserably cluttered homepage, the rest on the International---News Briefs—Africa page -- is slanted to characterize the Egyptian government and army as as reasonable and reaching out, but facing ambivalent or obdurate opponents.

One article is titled, New Egyptian Government Begins Dialogue with Opposition Faction

It states that the dialogue will be completed within ten days; that the government has invited the Muslim Brotherhood to participate (thinking about it) and ElBaradei and his national reform alliance (refused).

Here’s the full Chinese text, which also bemoans the cost of the “protests and rioting” to Egypt’s tourist industry.






苏莱曼说,9天来的抗议和骚乱已使埃及旅游业遭受10亿美元的损失,有100万外国游客离开埃及。他呼吁抗议者回家,给政府时间和机会解决问题。(记者李来房 冯康)

Another article is Egyptian military calls on protesters to end demonstrations.

In a television broadcast on February 2, an army spokesperson called upon the masses to end demonstrations so that society could return to normal as soon as possible...”Your message has been transmitted, your demands are known...”





埃及总统穆巴拉克1日晚发表电视讲话,说自己无意竞选下届总统,将在本届剩余任期里努力保证政权平稳过渡,并敦促议会修改宪法中有关总统竞选人条件和任期的条款。(记者朱俊清 冯康)

This is an interesting media strategy, which shows a certain level of Chinese self-confidence.

“Government dialogue with protesters in a big square; army urges demonstrators to stop demonstrating” inevitably awakens memories of Tianan Men in 1989.  The Chinese government seems to be cautiously calculating that twenty years of economic growth has buried the ghosts of Tianan Men deep enough that Chinese public opinion will not automatically and positively connect with the aspirations of the activists in Tahrir Square.

Mubarak’s determination to hang on for the rest of his term is, I think, also something of a relief to the Obama administration.

If it became the consensus view that dictators were helpless before the onslaught of information freedom and demands for democratic reform championed by the United States, we’d have a lot fewer dictators (and allies).

Now, with Mubarak dug in and the democratic forces losing a certain amount of unity and momentum, it is easier for the United States (like China) to regard popular democracy as just another ingredient in Egypt’s stomach-churning political stew.

With popular democracy assigned to the category of “contested terrain”, the United States can continue to pursue objectives which run at cross current to the democratic fervor.

  • trying to identify and promote a viable, pro-US strongman successor;
  •  maintaining the prestige of the armed forces as the final arbiter of Egyptian politics;
  •  finding a way to keep the Muslim Brotherhood (which is cannily downplaying its Islamic agenda while acting as shock troops for the pro-democracy demonstrators during the riots in Tahrir Square) from putting in a strong showing in any upcoming elections;
  • and sustaining the Egypt-Israel peace (that underpins Israel’s hardline stance against the rest of its neighbors).

Given this slate of challenges, maybe the Obama administration, in its heart of hearts, isn’t really eager to see Mubarak bail out of the presidential palace today and head off to Saudi Arabia or wherever.

Of course, China can also can point to the spectacle of the Obama administration caught on the democracy vs. diplomacy cleft stick as it seeks to balance its information freedom and democracy agenda with its great power interests (contrasting Washington’s anxious rush to catch the democracy bandwagon with China’s sedate and consistent support for stability and autocracy) for the benefit of America’s anxious clients (and potential future allies of China):

In an appointed reference to Washington's call for an immediate transition of power, [new Egyptian prime minister] Shafiq said the transition should be in a civilized and courteous fashion, reiterating Mubarak will not seek another term when his presidential term ends in September.

Democracy ain’t simple or easy, is the message China hopes its citizens will extract from the Egyptian experience.  The longer Mubarak hangs on--and the more damage he does--the stronger the Chinese argument looks.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

So Long, Stuart Levey

To commemorate Stuart Levey’s resignation from Treasury, I send him off into the sunset with an affectionate slap on the rump in the Asia Times article, Good-bye Mr Insubordination.

I’ve been an interested observer of Mr. Levey’s activities as Assistant Secretary of State for the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence ever since the OTFI’s designation of Macau’s Banco Delta Asia as an institution “of money laundering concern” froze $25 million in North Korean deposits in 2005.

After the North Koreans detonated their atomic bomb in October 2006, the U.S. State Department said it would “resolve” the issue so the denuclearization talks could resume.

After Secretary of State Rice and Under Secretary Christopher Hill announced the agreement in February 2007, there was a concerted effort to sabotage the unfreezing of the BDA funds by John Bolton and hard-liners in the House of Representatives.

Amazingly, the effort was abetted by Stuart Levey’s office, which found myriad reasons not to “git ‘er done”.  It took four months (instead of the promised thirty days) and a Rube Goldberg arrangement involving the Fed, the Russian central bank, and a Russian commercial bank to return North Korea’s ill-gotten gains to Pyongyang.

Literally, ill-gotten.  Something I don’t get to in the article is the fact that half of the money were deposits of irreproachable provenance belonging to North Korean joint ventures of British American Tobacco and a European banking operation that had nothing to do with Kim Jung Il and his alleged forex shenanigans and shouldn’t have ended up in the DPRK’s coffers.

Unless you read China Matters at the time, you were probably unaware of this, since the general reporting on the issue was pretty craptacular.

The Asia Times piece provides a neat and persuasive summary of the whole fiasco.

One thing that always puzzled me was that there was no reckoning for Stuart Levey.  Nobody called him out for defying the State Department; he not only kept his job under Bush, he continued to do the same job under Obama.

Which leads me to believe that there was more going on in sabotaging the BDA transaction than a last ditch effort to torpedo engagement with North Korea by unrepentant hardliners (many of whom had left the Bush administration by 2007) acting under the aegis of Vice President Cheney as part of his war against the Condoleezza Rice’s State Department.

(Dick Cheney, it is probably forgotten, was at the time trolling through Asia at the time trying undercut State Department diplomacy by cobbling together an anti-China united front out of Australia, India, and Japan; I reproduce a post on the issue below as a matter of historical interest.)

However, for the BDA travesty to drag on as long as it did, thereby revealing President Bush’s favorite cabinet officer, Secretary Rice, as a powerless cipher, I would have to think that President Bush acquiesced to Vice President Cheney’s insistence that the humiliating BDA agreement wither and, if possible, die, taking the restart of the Six Party Talks with it.

There would be persuasive geopolitical reasons for doing so.

The left-leaning regime of President Roh was an unwilling partner to American diplomacy, especially of the confrontational type traditionally espoused by the Bush administration.

It was very likely that the conservative and actively pro-US Grand National Party would be in the saddle come December 2007.

So killing or at the very least slowwalking the BDA affair pending a re-set in 2008 might have enjoyed the tacit approval and back channel encouragement of a broad range of executive and national security opinion in the Bush administration.

And Stuart Levey, instead of being Mr Insubordination was actually Mr Virtuous Conspirator, working with the informal network of Bush era foreign policy enthusiasts that trampled over the chain of command and institutional checks and balances to execute policies whose success they considered to be of paramount importance—at least more important than the niceties of fact-based decision-making or consideration of the possibly catastrophic consequences of reckless adventurism.

As to why President Obama decided to keep Mr. Levey on, he had ample reasons starting with the Obama administration’s fondness for smart power and the strong support Mr. Levey enjoyed in hardline constituencies on North Korea and Iran.

Perhaps it was also thought that Mr. Levey’s demonstrated independence of State Department diplomacy contributed to the intimidating aura of OTFI’s activities.

I am rather skeptical of Mr. Levey’s achievements. 

It seems to me that the sanctions campaign against North Korea, beyond denying Western energy and fuel aid to North Korea that might be exploited by its army (or possibly find its way to North Korea’s citizens), and driving Pyongyong into Beijing’s arms, has little to show after five years of effort.

As Lee Myung-bak enters the last years of his term, it appears that China, North Korea, and factions within South Korea itself are positioning themselves for a shift to a policy with a bigger dose of engagement and less emphasis on sanctions.

So, as I say in the article, this might be the best time for Mr. Levey to depart with his legend intact.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Circular Gratification: Vice President Cheney’s Most Recent Effort to Contain China

Vice President Cheney recently visited Asia to lend his prestige and power—two increasingly devalued commodities--to two faithful and embattled allies in his global campaign of confrontation and containment, Japan and Australia.

Japan, in particular, needed bucking up, since the Abe regime is reeling from the perfunctory US abandonment of the abductee issue in the rush to conclude the Six Party Agreement on North Korea.

The abductee issue was at the core of Abe’s North Korea policy and, indeed, Abe’s entire political identity as a principled and valued core member of the US effort to assert its interests and agendas in North Asia through confrontation-based diplomacy.

With realists in ascendance at the State Department and negotiation, conciliation, and compromise at the heart of U.S. Asia policy, Vice President Cheney brought with him a rather contrarian and dubious gift—an effort to singlehandedly will into existence another coalition of the willing, centered on Japan, Australia, and India, to take on the unenviable and almost impossible task of presenting an effective, united front against China.

The Marmot’s Hole looks at a proposal for an anti-Chinese alliance midwifed by Dick Cheney and sees an iron ring of democracies containing China.

I look at the vision of an American, Japanese, Australian, and Indian security quadrilateral and see a regional circle j**k characterized by shared press conferences, private fantasies, and shamefacedly selfish gratification.

Australia is blundering through its self-made neocolonial quagmires in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Fiji. It can’t even handle its back yard (where China is cautiously but productively fishing), let alone contribute effectively to the Ant-Chinese Superhero League that’s supposed to take the fight to the Yellow Peril.

All India wants is to play off the United States, China, and Russia against each other and reap concessions and aid from each while it concentrates on its economic development and energy security.

Indeed, Mr. Cheney's hasty initiatives in ad hoc coalition building are probably a direct response to a conspicuous piece of footsie between New Delhi and America's strategic competitors: the Russian/Chinese/Indian mini-summit in Delhi in February.

Which leaves the United States and Japan...well, maybe just Japan.

The money grafs in the story in the Australian:

The Japanese Government and US Vice-President Dick Cheney are keen to include the growing economic and military power of India in the already enhanced "trilateral" security arrangements, locking together the three most powerful democracies of the Asia-Pacific region.

Mr Cheney gave the Japanese proposal new life on his recent visit to Japan and Australia after sections of the Bush administration rebuffed the plan.

Ah, yes...emphasis added.

With the neocons in retreat on Washington and on the North Korean issue, it seems that Japan provides the vital function to Dick Cheney of providing political cover and scope for strategic initiatives that are foreclosed at home.

In this context, I am tempted to describe Japan as our “Israel in the Pacific”, exploiting relationships inside the US government to develop foreign and domestic policitical synergies that go beyond US official policy, in a manner similar to Tel Aviv's.

Now more than ever, Israel is openly and unapologetically working with elements in the Bush administration to advance a particular policy toward the Middle East—and elements within the US national security establishment are utilizing allies within the Israeli government to assist them in promoting their preferred agenda in the policy battles inside the U.S. government.

The estimable Laura Rozen, in profiling Secretary Condileezza Rice’s yearlong struggle to gain control over the Bush administration’s Iran policy, related a similar kind of back-channel initiative that, if it didn’t involve the politically sacrosanct state of Israel, might be unkindly regarded as colluding with a foreign power against the policy of the United States:

Rice knows how the system works. In February, she traveled to Jerusalem to attempt to restart the Middle East peace process. But while she was en route the neoconservative NSC adviser Elliott Abrams was, according to news reports, using contacts in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to arrange a phone call between Olmert and Bush. After the call, Olmert announced that Israel would not recognize the Palestinian unity government as a legitimate negotiating partner—an essential precondition for productive talks—and that Bush supported Israel’s stance. Her position fatally undercut, Rice returned to Washington empty-handed.

It’s one thing for a small-time erstwhile felon like Elliott Abrams to use a foreign government to promote his virtuous conspiracy against the Palestinian peace process.

But when Big Time, America’s shadow president, has to outsource his anti-China agenda to Japan and two weak and/or unenthusiastic partners in South Asia and rely on them to whipsaw the State Department, that’s a sure sign that it’s going nowhere.

Or better yet, in circles.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Al-Jazeera: It's Not Just for Arabs Anymore

James Wolcott points out with some amusement that Fox News has deigned to take note of Al-Jazeera's fearless coverage of the Egyptian mass movement:

I noticed a change in media tone yesterday that made me blink thrice at the screen to make sure I was watching the channel I thought I was.

And I was. On Fox News yesterday afternoon, words of praise were being heaped on Al-Jazeera for its coverage of the demonstrations in Egypt.
Here's a piece I wrote back in 2008 on Al Jazeera's struggle to go mano-a-mano against the mighty anchors of Fox and the other media barons in North America:

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


Al Jazeera International in America

Don’t Think Twice It’s All Rat

Via the China media and politics site ESWN I came across a link to an interesting interview the Columbia Journalism Review did with Dave Marash.

Marash is the U.S. reporter who left Al Jazeera International because of what’s described in journalistic shorthand as emerging “anti-American bias” at the network.

Marash’s explanation is somewhat more complicated and interesting--and revealing, in an inadvertent way.

Marash was offended when the Al Jazeera’s Doha desk (the network’s mother ship, in Qatar) sent a film crew into America without his knowledge to gather material for what he saw as a crude and clueless piece of agitprop about American poverty:

Then they went to South Carolina and found a town that—I know this is going to shock you, Brent—had very rich people and, on the other side of the railroad tracks, very poor people. And the wretchedness of the poor people’s living conditions was enumerated. In fact this memorable question and answer exchange occurred: Q: What’s it like to live with rats in your home? A: Bad. [laughs]

It’s rather amusing in a sad way how easily Marash slips into pompous anchorspeak to inform us that, even if people are dirt poor and there are rats in their houses in America, it's only must-see-teevee if the proper journalistic rules of detachment, objectivity, and even-handedness are followed.

The economic divide is a story and the reasons why, over a long period of time in this South Carolina town there should be very little transmigration across the line between rich and poor, is a story. The sources of wealth of the rich may be a story. The lack of opportunities for the poor may be a story. But again, you gotta report all these things.

Yeah, and how do the rats feel about being forced to live with all those poor people? Where's their side of the story?

I won’t cheap-shot Marash any more on this issue.

He’s an intelligent, experienced, quintessentially American newsman with the objective, both sides of the story outlook who recognizes that a top team would have come up with a more illuminating coverage.

You know, like Rat: It’s What’s for Dinner; South Carolina Families Employ Determination, Ingenuity—and Barbeque Sauce--in their Struggle With Adversity.

OK, now really no more cheap-shotting.

The poverty piece was apparently well below Al Jazeera’s normal standards of professionalism.

Marash speaks quite highly of Al Jazeera’s standards, quality, and pre-eminent position outside of the United States, particularly in the southern hemisphere. Africa, in Latin America, in the Middle East, in Asia, on Al Jazeera [you] see state-of-the-art, world-class reporting, and south of the equator I don’t think anyone will give you much of an argument that Al Jazeera has become the most authoritative news channel on earth.

He attributes the decline in US coverage to a conscious decision by the headquarters in Qatar in 2007 to draw closer to Saudi Arabia as part of a trend toward regional independence from the United States in foreign affairs especially vis a vis Iran.

I’m suggesting that around that time, a decision was made at the highest levels of [Al Jazeera] that simply following the American political leadership and the American political ideal of global, universalist values carried out in an absolutely pure, multipolar, First Amendment global conversation, was no longer the safest or smartest course, and that it was time, in fact, to get right with the region. And I think part of getting right with the region was slightly changing the editorial ambition of Al Jazeera English, and I think it has subsequently become a more narrowly focused, more univocal channel than was originally conceived.

... BC: This doesn’t bode well for AJE as a credible journalistic operation.
DM: If the goal is to be true to the idea of multipolar transparency, then this is very bad news. And I admit that I find that to be a higher goal than being a thoroughly respectable, thoroughly professional, but somewhat regional or region-specific voice.

The phrase “American political ideal of global, universalist values carried out in an absolutely pure, multipolar, First Amendment global conversation” caught my eye.

It’s interesting that nowhere in the interview is it mentioned that Al Jazeera International is virtually unavailable in the United States.

It’s carried on two satellites and four other platforms: Globecast (French satellite provider) Fision (95000 viewers; going out of business) , JumpTV (internet TV), VDC (small , maybe even non-existent provider of video to desktop services). And you can watch it on Youtube.

The right-wing media watchdog site, Accuracy in Media, in a press release hailing Marash’s departure as vindication of its anti-Al Jazeera stance, stated:

AIM’s campaign had prevented Al-Jazeera from finding a major U.S. cable or satellite company willing to carry it. “We tried from the beginning to expose Al-Jazeera English for what it is – an anti-American, Arab government-financed propaganda operation,” Kincaid said. “Now, hopefully, more people will take note.”

In 2006, Variety reported that US cable companies and DirectTV weren’t interested in allowing Al Jazeera English on the big show, and were only interested in offering the English-language service either on the Arab language slate or in regions with significant Arab-American viewership:

The Associated Press last week reported Comcast had pulled out of talks but, in fact, negotiations continued, with Comcast offering to roll out the channel regionally. Comcast is the dominant operator in the Detroit area, which has one of the nation's largest Arab-American populations. But AJI execs were holding out for a full rollout across all of Comcast's 12.1 million digital subscribers (Comcast has 24 million digital and analog subs), and they believed a deal was imminent.

"We thought we were just awaiting signatures. We feel like we've been led down the garden path. It's a setback for us in the States, but I don't want this to overshadow the fact we've had phenomenal figures in the rest of the world," said one AJI employee who insisted on anonymity.
Sources within AJI speculated the reasons for the pullout had to do with U.S. uncertainty about Al-Jazeera's editorial agenda. Negative portrayals of the situation in Iraq are widely thought to have contributed to the Democratic sweep of the midterm elections.

But Comcast denied the decision had anything to do with politics. "It comes down to a capacity question. We're not adding a lot of new channels," said Comcast spokeswoman Jenni Moyer.
Bear in mind, in Marash’s chronology, in 2006, when this article was written, Al Jazeera International was still committed to the whole high quality, global conversation thing—and running the North American operations from the Washington desk with Marash happily ensconced in the anchor slot.

But remember, the story isn’t about the rat—the political pressure to keep Al Jazeera out of American homes.

It’s about the economic divide, those reasons over a long period of time, the sources of wealth/lack of opportunity transmigration stuff. There were no channels! You gotta report all those things!

OK, this time the cheap-shotting’s really over.

The “American political ideal of global, universalist values carried out in an absolutely pure, multipolar, First Amendment global conversation” is clearly pretty much a one-way street as far as the U.S. market is concerned. Arabic media companies need not apply.

On one level, it could be said that Dave Marash didn’t leave Al Jazeera; Al Jazeera left us.

It made the decision that the effort to become part of the U.S. elite political discourse by hiring our anchors, playing by our rules, and adhering to our standards of journalism and our definition of who and what was important and worth reporting was simply futile.

And, in the iron law of the media business, the least important market gets the fewest resources, the shallowest coverage, and the shoddiest product.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Twittering America’s Allies to Death...While Iran and China Take Notes


A Useful—if Inadvertent—Demonstration of the Power of the Information-Freedom Death Star

[Counterpunch kindly ran this piece on its website.  However, the formatting gremlins attacked them and some of the quotes I made from Mr. Rogin's article weren't displayed properly, making them look like my words instead of his.  This was completely inadvertent and I've asked Counterpunch to correct the error.  If necessary, please refer to this post and the e-mail notification for the proper formatting of the piece. CH 2/2/11]

Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin has an interesting post on how the U.S. State Department has been working energetically with Twitter, Facebook, Google et. al. to keep the information pipelines open in Tunisia and Egypt.

The Tunisian government responded by hacking massive amounts of Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail accounts and targeted other sites where protestors were convening or communicating.

Facebook contacted the State Department soon thereafter, another State Department official told The Cable, asking for assistance and to help coordinate the response. Facebook then created an encrypted option for accessing the site from Tunisia...

In addition to encouraging technical workarounds, the State Department effort includes jawboning Ben Ali and Mubarak to back off on information control:

Rogin writes:

... the State Department convoked the Tunisian ambassador in Washington to complain about the government's tactics.

In the case of Tunisia, the State Department mixed a strategy of working with companies and third party groups with a series of private and public communications between the Obama administration and the government of now-ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.


State Department officials told The Cable that their efforts paid off, given that Ben Ali -- before stepping down -- said that he "heard the Tunisian people" and removed the blocks on the Internet and social media sites, although he had never cut off the entire country from communication.

I’m sure that Ben Ali, with the wreckage of his regime crashing down around his head, appreciated taking the time out to discuss his social media policy with the United States.

At least he could jet to exile with the consolation that he would not be remembered as the despot who was too mean to Twitter and Facebook.

Mubarak, on the other hand, will have to deal with the shame of having presided over “the worst shutdown in Internet history”.

The situation is rather awkward for the State Department.

After all, Ben Ali and Mubarak were U.S. allies.  Helping their opponents evade information controls in order to overthrow their governments is a rather un-allied thing to do.

In Rogin’s article, the State Department makes two rather unconvincing arguments:

1. Hey, Twitter, Facebook, and Google are American companies whose business should not be disrupted!

As Rogin’s source put it, "These tactics were used against American companies, so we have equities on multiple fronts.”

It’s not particularly persuasive to say that the U.S. State Department needed to work actively to abrogate the sovereignty of these two countries in order maintain the usual volume of tweets, eyeballs, and clickthroughs from Tunisia and Egypt on behalf of American corporate entities

2. Hey, these networking services didn’t overthrow the government by themselves!

The State Department official said that while technology was an accelerant for the protests and a way for the protesters to get unvarnished information, it did not spur the movement.

With all due respect, that’s bullsh*t. 

It happens that I believe that dissent will find a way to communicate and organize: pancakes at the fall of the Yuan dynasty, pamphlets during the American revolution, chapatis in India during the Sepoy Rebellion, cassette tapes in Iran at the fall of the Shah.

Sooner or later.

Well, Facebook, Twitter, and Google made it sooner.

The events in Egypt and Tunisia illustrated an American strategy: the U.S. State Department views free communication as a strategic weapon against authoritarian adversaries whose governments are vulnerable to organized popular dissent:

Ever since the State Department intervened during protests by the Iranian Green movement in June 2009, convincing Twitter to postpone maintenance so opposition protestors could communicate, the U.S. government has been ramping up its worldwide effort to set up a network of organizations that could circumvent crackdowns on Internet and cell phone technologies by foreign governments. That effort faced its first two major tests over the last few weeks and the State Department has been working with private companies, non-governmental organizations, and academic institutions to activate this network and put it to use in real time.

"Our mission is to provide a lifeline of protection when people get in trouble through a range of support for the activists and the people on the ground," Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) Michael Posner said in an interview on Friday with The Cable. "I think there will be an increase in contacts on several levels in the coming days and weeks."

Even before the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt, the State Department was working to drastically increase its activities with the internet freedom organizations, many of them using State Department funding provided through a grant program administered by DRL. This month, State announced it would spend another $30 million on this project.

For Posner, the drive to create an "open platform" for Internet communications is part of the overall drive to protect the universal rights the administration has been trumpeting in recent days and that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid out in her speech on Internet Freedom

Rather ironically, the first successful instances of the policy were classic cases of blowback, taking down two American allies in the Middle East while Iran and China are taking notes on the sidelines.

Rather significantly, the State Department has doubled down.

Ben Ali and Mubarak are history anyway; and their demise can serve a useful demonstration of the power of the information-freedom death star.

The anxieties of the Saudis and King Hussein of Jordan are apparently an acceptable price to pay for declaring to the Iranian and Chinese leaders—and their citizens—that America will continue to apply its ingenuity, energy, and advantages to promote information freedom openly and covertly to apply potentially destabilizing pressure against these regimes.

China is rather anxiously scrubbing the Chinese Internet of stories and comments that emphasize the popular mass-movement character of the risings in Tunisia and Egypt. Published reports focus instead on local chaos and the efforts of the Chinese government to evacuate Chinese nationals.

Global Times took the bit in its teeth and weighed in with a “color revolutions are bad” editorial; the rest of the official media appears to be doing its best to ignore the issue and possible consequences for China.

However, Hu Jintao probably isn’t packing his bags for Switzerland just yet.  The Chinese government seems to have enough wealth, time, and legitimacy to apply itself to the serious problems of corruption, income inequality, and the fundamental pig-headedness of one-party states when it comes to managing and channeling dissent.

Also, China has an important advantage.

It has the U.S. as an unmistakable, threatening adversary that serves as a focus for patriotic and nationalistic sentiment.

This probably puts China in a better situation than the governments of Tunisia and Egypt, which have—all information freedom triumphalism aside—found the U.S. as an equivocal, ultimately fatal ally.

Finally, it should be pointed out that the U.S. is all for information freedom—as long as it isn’t Wikileaks.

In other words, The Truth Shall Set You Free......Unless It’s My Truth.