Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Rumsfeld Torture Suit Dismissed

Fresh from the BBC News:

A US court has dismissed a lawsuit against former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld over claims prisoners were tortured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The court accepted that the nine men who sued had been tortured - and detailed the torture in its ruling.

But Judge Thomas Hogan ruled the five Iraqis and four Afghans did not have US constitutional rights, and also that Mr Rumsfeld was immune from such suits.

Not sure I have anything to add to this. Kinda speaks for itself, don't you think?
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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

7 Things You Might Not Know Bush Has Done Wrong:

  1. Acquiesced in genocide in Darfur, in order to protect valued Sudanese government witnesses in the war on terror. Don’t believe me? Read.
  2. Significantly increased aid to Musharraf’s Pakistan over a period of years, with few strings attached—even after the AQ Khan nuclear proliferation network was uncovered. Then, when finally trying to rein it in, he blamed the Democrats for asking too many questions about where the money would go.
  3. Provided military support to both side of a potential nuclear conflict. The Bush’s America didn’t just provide military aid to Pakistan. It has also provided aid, and sold weapons, to India. The two states have been to war three times since decolonisation, and are now nuclear armed. If this isn’t playing with fire, I don’t know what is (source).
  4. Pardoned a terrorist—or pretty close to it. Bush pardoned a 25 year old man for his role in a bombing that occurred in the context of a 1990 West Virginia mineworkers’ strike. While the incident was relatively small, the decision stands in sharp contrast to Bush’s usual position on political violence. It is all the more remarkable, given his willingness to hold suspected, would-be terrorists without trial, and his stubborn unwillingness to commute the sentences of the 100-plus people executed while he was governor of Texas.
  5. Bought oil from a government that is openly and personally hostile to him. Everyone knows Hugo Chavez doesn't care for Bush much, but it's easy to overlook that Venezuela supplies more than 10%, the third largest share, of imported oil to the US. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is in the habit of calling Bush the devil publicly. I don’t care for either of them much, but it hardly seems good diplomatic practice to let this go on.
  6. Bought almost as much oil from a region affected by an open insurgency. And no, it isn’t Iraq. Close to 10% of US oil imports are from Nigeria, primarily the Niger Delta region, which is inhabited by about 30 million exceptional poor people. The region has been environmentally brutalised by oil extraction, and the locals aren’t even seeing the money (source).
  7. Appointed a war profiteer Energy Secretary. Again, this isn’t in Iraq. Sam Bodman used to run Cabot Corporation, which bought the high-tech mineral coltan (aka tantalite) from sources in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, during the recent war there. Somewhere around 4 million people died in the war, which was largely financed through the minerals trade. (Bodman is also a world class polluter.)
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Conservative Coalition Building

Want to know how the current Conservative government in Canada will fair? Start by looking south.

The following passage is from a New Yorker article published some time ago (2005) on Grover Noquist, the American conservative strategist. It’s jarring enough to be worth quoting at length.

On the way back to Washington, he talked about how to build a broad coalition. "If you want the votes of people who are good on guns, good on taxes, and good on faith issues, that is a very small intersection of voters," he said. "But if you say, Give me the votes of anybody who agrees with you on any of these issues, that's a much bigger section of the population." To illustrate what he meant, Norquist drew three intersecting circles on a piece of paper. In the first one he wrote "guns," in the second he wrote "taxes," in the third he wrote "faith." There was a small area where the three circles intersected. "With that group, you can take over the country, if you start with the airports and the radio stations," he said. "But with all of the three circles that's sixty per cent of the population, and you can win politically. And if you add more things, like property rights and home-schooling, you can do even better."

Threats of armed insurrection aside, Norquist knows what he’s talking about. Coalition building has been the name of the game in the American conservative movement for decades now, and he’s about as important a coalition builder as you will find. A loose affiliation of gun owners, big business types, the very religious, and a smattering of libertarians have managed to govern the US for most of the last few decades mostly by burying their differences.

The reason this is especially important now is that the same strategy is being employed in Canada. A few years ago, a coalition of soft Quebec nationalists, Alberta conservatives, rich residents of the 905 belt and a few cantankerous Maritimers would have seemed bizarre. Now it governs the country.

The good news is that coalitions break down. This usually happens when they’re under stress. They stick together best when things are good—when they’re bad, as in the US right now, they tend to splinter. The term ‘coalition of the willing’ turns out to be have been an ironic choice in Iraq, as the Republican Party is itself one—at least insofar as it’s composed of people that shouldn’t necessarily agree with one another.

Economically marginal Christian conservatives in the Midwest shouldn’t support tax breaks for the wealthy. The wealthy shouldn’t want religious morals interfering in business. One can set this aside to win, but not to lose.

This is true of Canada as well. Quebeckers and Albertans have a rich history of not caring for one another much. Maritimes have an equally rich history of complaint about virtually the rest of the country. How long they can at hold together probably depends on how long they can keep Toronto Liberals from controlling parliament. Once they start to lose, they may well fall very much to pieces.

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Quebec Elections

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has just proven so politically adept that he's done the constitutionally impossible-- he's just won the provincial election in Quebec.

Jean Charest's Liberals were left in government, but hobbled by minority status. The Parti Quebecois has been virtually broken, and will soon eat its leader alive. The ADQ, under Mario Dumont, however ascendant it may be, can't form a government. The federal Conservative Party is the only real winner here--they get a provincial government they can work with, no risk of a referendum, and a plausible voter base for a federal election.

For those of us who call ourselves federalists (eg, more or less all of English Canada), this is a pretty good result--the sovereigntist movement has been all but crippled. For those of us who oppose the national conservatives, however, it's a worrying trend indeed.

Dumont, meantime, who the press seems to think is the man of the hour, looks a little scarier every day. His emphasis on opposing 'reasonable accommodation' is a bit scary. The practice of providing for the cultural and religious needs of minorities--eg, making pork-free baked beans available at sugar shacks--probably wouldn't raise any eyes in the rest of Canada.

Perhaps Quebec really is the most European part of North America. Language and culture aside, it appears to suffer the same sort of political intolerance towards immigrants that many Western European countries do. As such, Dumont resembles not so much other Canadian conservatives, as the populist, anti-immigrant politicians of the European far right--France's Jean-Marie Le Pen, for example.

If this is so, even Harper may find him a bit much in the long run. As he engineers a national conservative coalition, he may want to watch his step.
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Monday, March 26, 2007

Water Baiting

Wars, as it turns out, have cultures of a sort--practices, social patterns, ways to pass the time, even in the absence of social cohesion. Here's a sliver of daily Iraqi urban life under occupation and civil war.

Pretty ugly, I reckon. Maybe, at least, not how you'd want your kids treated by the prevailing authorities.
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9 Years on in Northern Ireland

"It’s the triumph of normal politics." So said a British governmental spokesman today, referring to what actually finally be a permanent settlement in Northern Ireland. And it's been almost a decade coming, after the 1998 Good Friday agreements.

There's a lesson in this, very much the same lesson we should learn from Bosnia, which has finally turned a corner over the last few years. The permanent resolution of ethic of sectarian conflict takes time. The secret, more than anything else, is patience. Wait long enough and the wounds begin to close.
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Thursday, March 22, 2007


In early- 1990s Bosnia, shortly before the war but after the onset of conflict in Croatia, they told a joke that went like this:

Q: Why has the fighting not reached Bosnia yet?

A: Because Bosnia has advanced directly to the final round.

The joke plays on the multi-ethnic nature of the Bosnian state, as an obvious source of conflict--why wouldn't there be a war there, if there was elsewhere in the region? People have been asking the same question of Kirkuk, a midsized city in Northern Iraq, for some time. Kirkuk, which has been compared to Sarajevo, has a mixed Arab, Kurdish, and Turkmen population. No one seems to know who's in the majority, but everyone is happy to tell you they are. To date, there has been relatively little violence, despite high tensions.

Looks like that's changing. Meantime, a referendum on the city's status within federal Iraq looks likely to be delayed. It has 0nce been thought to be a potential cause of ethnic conflict. Instead, conflict looks likely to overtake events and prevent the referendum from taking place.

Bad to worse, in short.
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Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Bits and bobs today... First, happy Norouz (Iranian New Year) everyone. A maybe conflict in Iran over nuclear arms is still slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. Neither American nor Iranian leaders seem all that keen to talk their way out of it. In fact, on the American end, Dennis Kucinich is talking about impeachment over this. Why this specifically, on top of everything else, is anyone's guess.

Meantime, no less august an organ of the American conservative movement than National Review has, on its blog The Corner, taken to abusing President Bush--not for his policies, but for allowing himself to be seen as a lame duck. Apparently, illegally invading a sovereign state, and demolishing America's international standing are lesser order crimes than failing to look tough about it.

Lastly, the only thing I will ever write in this space about the trial of Lord Conrad Black. His wife Barbara Amiel, once a columnist for some rag or other, publicly called a group of reporters vermin the other day. Then she called a female TV producer a slut. She managed to do it on a slow news day, too. We're not quite sure how this was supposed to aid her husbands cause. Feel free to comment with possible explanations.
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Tuesday, March 20, 2007


The left wing paranoia documentary The Power of Nightmares advances the view that American neoconservativism and radical, violent Islamism share a common, or at least parallel, set of objectives. It's entertaining enough viewing, but I'd tended to think of it as a bit paranoid.

Until now, that is. The uber-conservative author and activist Dinesh D'Souza has published a book calling for a global religious conservative movement ('theoconservatism') to include radical Islamic elements as a reaction against individualist liberalism, which he holds responsible for 9/11. We are asked to believe that we should endorse religious conservatism in even extreme forms, as a bulwark against the radical individualism of secular liberalism, with all the moral depravity it apparently causes. It's quite literally breathtaking (as is, I felt pressure on my lungs as I read about it).

Here's Andrew Sullivan's pretty good review of the book over at The New Republic. He argues that D'Souza's position is really a quite logical extension of radical American rightwing politics, generalised across cultural boundaries.
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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Bush is Finally Right

Bombs containing chlorine gas have been detonated in Baghdad, killing a number of people. Chlorine gas is, strictly speaking, is a chemical weapon. This is to say that there are finally weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The irony, needless to say, is appalling. Bush has, given several years of mindless violence to work with, managed to create roughly the situation he purported to have set out to destroy.
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Friday, March 16, 2007

The Stage Manager

"Managed democracy" is the new term of art for the assortment of election rigging, censorship, and political gamesmanship that typifies the putatively free elections of many developing countries. Variations on this occur throughout Africa and the Middle East (see 2006's Egyptian elections), but the it's perhaps most endemic in the former Soviet Union. And no one practices it as skilfully, or with as light a touch as Vladimir Putin.

The Economist has a nice gloss of the current electoral situation in Russia, covering some recent regional elections, and the run up to next year's parliamentary and presidential elections. Putin has rather elegantly stage managed the creation of an entirely fictitious two party state, complete with regional elections, and an apparent peace in Chechnya (however much it maybe sustain by state terror).

True to his constitutional role, he'll aparently step down next year on account of term limits, but he hardly has much to worry about. He gets to anoint a successor (or perhaps to rivals for the role, both loyal to him), and then quietly settle into life as head of Gazprom, the Russian state oil and gas conglomerate. Given the income this will afford him, the reduction in international attention to him personally, and a continued hand in policy at the Kremlin, it's hard to see what not for him to like.

Note: little bit of site news, I've cleaned out the (very) stale set of links in the right hand sidebar under the 'interest' expandable menu. New, and fresh, links should follow shortly.
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Thursday, March 15, 2007


The Financial Times has a nice little comment piece today on the passing of the American neoconservative movement, which seems oddly enough to have missed its own funeral. Reading--an account of a recent American Enterprise Institute gala--it I was struck by how much it resembled the last, decadent days of a failing autocracy. But then, that's roughly what we're talking about, isn't it?

While you're there, actually, they've also got a smart little editorial on hyperinflation in Zimbabwe. On the subject of which, it occurred to me the other day that Robert Mugabe, who is in his mid eighties, has more than doubled his own nations life expectancy. Zimbabwean life expectancy is currently somewhere around 37, the lowest in the world. Inflation, meantime, is 1730%. Really is about time for him to go, isn't it?
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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Kaplan on Iraq

"The mistakes made in Iraq since 2003 were so many and so serious that it is reasonable to argue that toppling Saddam Hussein was a wise decision, incompetently handled in its occupation phase." Thus begins Robert J Kaplan's rather carefully parsed reading of the Iraq Study Group's report, in The Atlantic. He's right, I suppose--one can argue the case still, if one wants. Why one would want to though, in the face of the actual consequences (not what might have happened) is beyond me.

Kaplan's argument is a magnificently careful attempt not to apologise for his own endorsement of the war. His politics seem to be elastic enough to bob and weave through a remarkably complex set of positions without actually setting out much of a plan of his own. Maybe borrow this, maybe reject that from the Study Group's report, but don't, at all costs, produce the impression that the central policy--invading a large Middle Eastern country for politically opaque reasons--was anything like a mistake. Blame the unfolding disaster on what happened next, on poor middle management in the Pentagon, dithering generals, anything but the ideologues who set the thing up.

All this policy squirming probably fits pretty well with Kaplan's political profile as a sort of neocon lite. Belonging on a spectrum somewhere between Paul Wolfowitz and Thomas Friedman, he's managed to retain remarkable ideological flexibility. Here, he pulls out all the stops. At times he seems more realist than neocon idealist, as he defends what's left of American self-interest in the Mid East. He even cites Thucydides. He will do almost anything but admit that he was wrong about viability of the most significant American military venture since Vietnam.

Anyone who's read Kaplan's travel books probably finds this sort of thing a bit disappointing. Balkan Ghosts and Eastward to Tartary are entertaining and remarkably well researched. His politics have always been a bit wonky, but he should really know better than this.
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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Go North, Young Man

Click here and scroll about two thirds down for a charming, if vague, argument that the Inuit will be the great beneficiaries of global warming. Welcome to the Wild North.
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Friday, March 09, 2007

When I was in Turkmenistan a few years ago, the only internet connection I could find (they wouldn't let me use the putatively public one at the American Embassy) was in a four-star hotel, priced well out of range of most Turkmens. The post-Niyazov government has recently set up public internet cafes--a nice move, except that they've been plagued by any number of technical problems and (more ominously) armed guards. Read all about it here.
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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Big Stuff

Let’s think big for a few minutes. What are the main challenges facing American foreign policy in the Middle East? Here’s a quick list: Iraq, Iran, Israel-Palestine, and ensuring continued access to oil reserves. One might want to add Islamist terrorism to the list, but it’s largely a side-effect of these items.

What do they all have in common? Well, they’re all losing battles, to one degree or another. Iraq is the site of a failed occupation—a losing battle of Washington’s own creation.

Iran is emboldened, trenchantly anti-American (at least at the power-political level), and potentially nuclear armed. There is very little that American can easily do about this—military options are limited to air strikes that would probably accomplish little more than enraging the government and populace.

Things aren’t much better in Israel-Palestine. The line between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River is as disputed as ever, and joint American-Israeli policy seems finally to be on the brink of destroying Palestinian political organisation in the Occupied Territories. Insofar as American interest in the conflict consists in preserving Israel, a long term solution is a far away as ever.

Lastly, comes the big one. Washington needs, perhaps above all else, to keep Saudi Arabia and the small Gulf states pumping oil. Even if they don’t always buy it themselves (they get a surprising amount elsewhere), someone always will, and the cumulative contribution to the global market helps keep the price of oil out of the stratosphere. And this is the part no one can dispute: sooner or later, the oil is running out. This is the most important part for a fairly straightforward reason: It’s the one problem the Americans can least easily opt out of.

What then of terrorism? If all these problems went away, so largely would the risk of militant Islamism to the US. While it certainly wouldn’t go away, there would be a reduced appeal to attacking America as a putatively imperial power, and this might help redirect Islamists’ rage toward targets closer to home, such as their own governments. Not a nice prospect exactly, but it might get Washington off the hook.

So what to do? Well, on at least some of these points, it looks likely that American influence will begin to wane in the region—Iran won’t be easily bullied out of its regional power ambitions, Iraq will get worse, and Israeli safety at home probably won’t be permanent for some time, barring a significant shift in Israeli policy itself (so the only solution is relatively independent of American behaviour in the region).

This is probably a good thing. The ability of the US to deal with the big one—energy security—will be largely dependent on its ability to make nice on the other big issues. The question, then, is whether or not Washington will be willing to go quietly. If it allows the region to stand, or fall, on its own two feet, it might have a relatively easy few decades of foreign policy ahead of it. If it kicks up a fight—by bombing Iran, for example—then things could get very nasty yet.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Dirty Bomb, Free to Good Home

Anyone out there know what a Gammator is? Well, why would you? Apparently, it’s device that was distributed widely by the US government in the ‘70s, as part of a nuclear education programme. All well and good, but the things themselves were highly radioactive. Never mind that they were sent to institutions as publicly open as universities. Some of these were sent to high schools.

Now, flip forward two or three decades. While the US spent the post-Cold War years bankrolling the cleanup of nuclear sites in the former Soviet Union, and has spent the post-9/11 years bribing and strong-arming emerging nuclear powers, there seems to have been some difficulty about cleaning up closer to home. Gammators are equipped with radioactive material suitable for use in dirty bombs. Seems a number of them now can’t be accounted for.

To give a sense of just how ludicrous this is, here’s a newgroup posting, albeit from 1999, wherein an academic offers to give one away free to anyone with the right licensing paperwork willing to haul it away. I’m no expert, but I gather the 200 curies referred to (they’re a measure of radioactivity) are quite a bit to work with.

One can only hope things have improved a little, but it’s hard to say. Take a look at this handy Los Alamos PowerPoint, reviewing a project to collect these things. It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry—it’s strictly duck and cover kind of stuff. By the looks of things, about a third of total units distributed had been recovered by the programme when this was issued in May of last year. (To view it through Google’s html conversion of the file, click here.)

The Gammator phenomenon, however comic, belongs to a broader problem. Radioactive materials within the US that fall outside the scope of actual nuclear weapons (eg, those useablein dirty bombs, rather than full-blown nukes) are far too broadly proliferated. One wonders also about a government more willing to endorse torture as an interrogation tactic than to put decent resources behind cleaning up this sort of thing.

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Hersh on Bush in Mid East

Seymour Hersh is as incisive and thoughtful as ever (as well as just plain scary) in this, an article on the new American policy in Iraq and the Middle East. The nut of it seems to be that the Bush admin has elected to actively encourage a broader divide between Sunnis and Shiites, so as to use the majority Sunnis of the region to hem in what they see as the more radicalised Shiites. It's a tricky argument to follow, and full of exceptions, but even with plenty of exceptions and qualifications it a) pretty frightening and b) a strategy with alarmingly little basis in fact.

On the other hand, here's pretty good evidence that regional leaders will resist any serious attempt to divide them. Perhaps--and it's an interesting thought--the region is simply to subtle, too complex to be that easily given over to foreign manipulation. Even by the most powerful country in history.
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Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Swiss Are Invading

Well, they invaded Liechtenstein at least. Apparently even the most neutral state in history can't resist kicking the proverbial little guy now and then. In this instance, the Swiss army literally wandered across the border by accident during an exercise. Might make the Vatican want to consider looking for more reliable help.
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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Gore Again?

Everything old is new again. By the looks of things, Dick Chaney may be the only dinosaur not running for president in ’08. The list of second run candidates, along with former administration officials and Washington gadflies, running is extensive on both sides: Clinton, Richardson, Biden, McCain, even the once-extinct Newt Gingrich. It’s enough to make Barack Obama look (perhaps rightly) thoroughly inexperienced.

However, the most fun one might have in American politics over the next while might be found in watching Al Gore not declare his candidacy. He looks pretty good these days, following an Oscar win, and is shorn of beard, extra pounds, and self-pity that have weighed down his post-presidential bid years. Actually, it’s hard to believe it’s been the better part of a decade since he lost (or didn’t lose) the 2000 election.

The web is flooded with draft Gore websites (here, here, here, here). James Carville has apparently been telling anyone who will listen for months that the former Vice President will jump in. Gore himself seems to have limited his ‘campaign’ to a few jokes on the Oscars and SNL. It's all far more entertaining than watching Senators Clinton and Obama spar about nothing, or Senator Biden make poor racial jokes by accident.

Given how early everyone else has gotten into the race, Gore would have to get serious pretty quickly. If he’s still joking about it six months from now, no one will be listening. Obama aside, he’d be Clinton’s only serious competition for the nomination. If he wants it. Which at this point is anyone’s guess.

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