State of the Union

Republicans Will Embrace Iran Diplomacy—If They’re Smart

When, after the massacres at Newtown and the Washington Navy Yard, Republicans refused to outlaw the AR-15 rifle or require background checks for gun purchasers, we were told the party had committed suicide by defying 90 percent of the nation.

When Republicans rejected amnesty and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, we were told the GOP had just forfeited its future.

When House Republicans refused to fund Obamacare, the government was shut down and the Tea Party was blamed, word went forth: The GOP has destroyed its brand. Republicans face a wipeout in 2014. It will take a generation to remove this mark of Cain.

Eight weeks later, Obama’s approval is below 40 percent. Most Americans find him untrustworthy. And the GOP is favored to hold the seats it has in the House while making gains in the Senate.

For this reversal of fortunes, Republicans can thank the rollout of Obamacare—the website that does not work, the revelation that, contrary to Obama’s promise, millions are losing health care plans that they liked, and the reports of soaring premiums and sinking benefits.

Democrats, however, might take comfort in the old maxim: If you don’t like the weather here, just wait a while.

For, egged on by Bibi Netanyahu and the Israeli Lobby AIPAC, the neocons are anticipating the return of Congress to start work on new sanctions on Iran. Should they succeed, they just might abort the Geneva talks or even torpedo the six-month deal with Iran.

While shaking a fist in the face of the Ayatollah will rally the Republican base, it does not appear to be a formula for winning the nation. Read More…

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Neocons Join Bibi’s Anti-Iran Diplomacy “Wig-Out”

On the eve of the latest round of Geneva talks, Americans told pollsters by a striking 2-1 margin they favored a negotiated settlement with Iran over war. This was in the face of a startling anti-diplomacy fear campaign waged by Israel’s Likud leaders in the U.S. and a renewed Israel lobby campaign for more sanctions. One wonders if there is soul-searching in Likud or AIPAC offices about why their messaging is falling flat.

Certainly Israel’s reaction could be fairly called “wigging out.” But Netanyahu seemed   almost measured next to some neoconservative intellectuals. Take this piece, published by Weekly Standard editor Lee Smith in Tablet. Smith essentially accuses Obama of biding his time during  his first term in order to challenge “American Jewish power” in his second. He interprets the Obama administration’s stated desire to pivot away from the Mideast as fancy language to dump Israel. Still he puts up a brave front. Rest assured, right-wing Zionists, Israel doesn’t need America. It can ally with Russia, or China or someone else:

Israel will be fine on its own—even if some of the decisions it might make, like absorbing the West Bank, or refusing to recognize the legitimacy of American Jewish marriages, or cozying up to dictators like Vladimir Putin—will leave American Jews feeling alienated and bereft. Read More…

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Why China’s One Child Policy Hasn’t Really Changed

China announced last Friday that it would change its one-child policy, offering a little more flexibility to select families: if either parent is an only child, parents are now allowed to have two children. The nation’s Communist Party leadership made these changes after seeing the damage its one-child policy has wrought demographically on its populace: the Wall Street Journal reports that China faces maturing growth, a wide wealth gap, pollution, and the world’s most unbalanced sex ratio. This policy was not changed out of a desire to grant freedom, human flourishing, or strong family structure. It was motivated by pure practicality.

While that utilitarianism isn’t bad, it is not necessarily good either. It means that many parents who want more than one child will still be banned from having them. The government will still dictate the reproductive rights of Chinese parents.

This is not to dismiss the magnitude and importance of this change. The policy has remained unchanged since its formation in 1980, and is one of the largest experiments in state-enforced demographic engineering. But if China made this choice purely out of perceived utilitarian necessity, will it ever grant parental freedom without constraints? There is a likelihood that China could swing from one controlling extreme to another: if there is a shortage of children in China’s future, might they begin mandating married adults to have at least one child? Some sort of 1+ child policy?

This change does not indicate that China’s leaders are ready to diminish their control on society. Rather, this exception to the one-child policy is yet another example of attempted population control. Throughout China, local “family planning service centers” will remain in business. And it is likely that, especially in country regions, the one-child policy will continue to have a scarring effect. The Atlantic highlighted some of these dangers in a Monday article:

…the policy has often been administered with brutal force, leaving behind a painful legacy of illegal abortions and sterilizations. The fines are far too expensive for most in rural China to pay, and a lingering preference for male offspring has led to a spike in sex-selective abortions and even infanticide.

There are several problems that may persist under China’s one-child policy, changed as it is. The aforementioned illegal abortions and preference for male offspring (thus accounting for the country’s unbalanced sex ratio) are two of these. The practice of forcing abortions is another.

In addition, the worst demographic damage has already been done—and will take time to reverse. Forbes contributor Gordon Chang wrote Monday, “China’s future demography has now been set for at least a generation. Population-boosting policies rarely work, but when they do it takes decades for them to have a noticeable effect. What Beijing officials are doing now is both too little and too late.”

The motivation behind China’s one-child policy still remains: control. The government tells only certain parents that they can have only a certain amount of children. This is not freedom. One hopes that the deleterious results of China’s one-child policy will, with time, begin to fade. But before that happens, the country’s undergirding stance on liberty and ethics will have to change.

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France Blows Up Geneva

If you visit one of the few remaining large bookstores in a big city, you will find prominent among the two dozen or so displayed new non-fiction titles at least three works about World War I.  A large anniversary looms for the summer of 1914, of course, but the subject is almost always of great interest: what combination of bad diplomacy, uncompromising small-nation nationalism, worst-case strategic fears and man-made systems too complicated for statesmen to alter or perhaps even understand  (Russia’s army mobilization schedules) combusted to plunge Europe into a civilization-altering war that no major power desired or even thought possible. One hopes the failure of the p5+1 powers and Iran to reach agreement will not be plumbed by historians a hundred years hence in the same spirit, looking for off ramps before a tragedy that were there to be used but never taken.

Some of what happened in Geneva was positive: American and European diplomats interacted cordially with Iran’s new emissaries for many hours and now have a far better understanding of how to speak to one another directly and seek common ground without rhetoric or rancor. Already, diplomatic interaction with Iran has become somewhat regularized, akin to what it became between the West and the Soviets within a decade of Stalin’s death. This goes far towards making stumbling into war by accident or inadvertance less likely. Moreover, by all accounts a deal—a preliminary agreement that would have set the stage for more detailed negotiations over the ensuing months—had already been achieved. Israel’s Netanayahu objected to it vociferously,  but not all Israeli strategists did. The neocons objected too, and their allies in Congress. But unlike 2002, they aren’t in power and Obama, Great Britain, Germany, and the large majority of the American strategic and foreign-affairs community which favors a settlement that actually puts the brakes on Iran’s nuclear nuclear quest would almost certainly have produced a political majority to finish a deal and ratify it.

Then at the last moment, France threw a spanner in the works. As a permanent and veto-wielding UN Security Council member, France is one of the “P5.” Its foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, announced his intention to go to Geneva, which he then did while raising as dealbreakers issues that had already been agreed upon or (as in the case of the non-completed and therefore non-functioning Arak reactor) been agreed to be dealt with in the subsequent detailed negotiation. One has the sense that the actual issues France raised didn’t matter as much as the fact that France was exercising, in a forum closely watched throughout the world, its veto power. In the eyes of some American neocons, and perhaps Saudi Arabia, France’s socialist goverment achieved a kind of glory. Read More…

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Smog Threatens the Chinese Security State

You can’t watch people you can’t see. That’s the lesson Chinese authorities are learning as they come to terms with an unforeseen threat to their national surveillance apparatus: smog.

As Ariel Bogle of Slate writes,

China has long been very enthusiastic about security cameras. Since 2005, the government has rolled out surveillance in public places, parks, and even on buses and in classrooms, as part of an operation called “Skynet”. … Some estimate that there are about 30 million cameras operating in China—that’s one for every 43 citizens.

Over that same period, the effects of rapid Chinese industrialization have resulted in ever-escalating air pollution, recently estimated to contribute to 1.2 million premature deaths in the country. Yesterday, AFP reported that “An eight-year-old girl has become China’s youngest lung cancer patient, reports said, with doctors blaming pollution as the direct cause of her illness.” With smog levels recently shutting down the northeastern city of Harbin, Chinese officials have been increasingly nervous about the reaction to the air pollution. So official state media has often called the pollution “fog,” according to Quartz’s Gwynn Guilford, a judgment the Chinese people had little ability to challenge.

The problem is, the South China Morning Press reports, smog is particularly threatening to the local panopticon. Cameras have traditionally had problems with regular fog from time to time as would be expected, but research has indicated possible countermeasures to beef back up the surveiling, including using infrared cameras to cut through the concentrated water vapor. Smog, on the other hand, is the result of dispersed particles, not water, and the particles are proving to have very different optical qualities. After a bombing in Tienanmen Square, Chinese officials are reportedly concerned that terrorists could use high air pollution days to conceal further attacks.

As a result, China is putting tremendous pressure on both civilian and military teams to find some way to maintain its monitoring system during the country’s famously smoggy days. One expert the SCMP talked to suggested using a radar system that wouldn’t be impeded by elevated levels of particulate matter in the air, with the only downside being exposing the population to radiation levels on top of the smog.

The Chinese predicament holds a century’s worth of progression in the dystopic tradition all within itself, as a state-run panopticon, the stuff of early 20th century totalitarian dystopias, (presumably unwittingly) titled after a post-apocalyptic nuclear dystopia out of the 1980s, is thwarted by the environmental degradation that has succeeded nukes as the 21st century apocalypse of choice. In fact, it is a reminder that the totalitarian logic that animated those earliest dystopias is still alive and well in certain parts of the world, as a government becomes truly alarmed at the growing uninhabitability of its cities only when those conditions interfere with its instruments of control.

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Is This the Golden Age of News?

Some say journalism is on the decline. Others, however, think this may be a golden age of journalism: the New York Times’ Bill Keller is belongs in the latter camp. In his Sunday column, he said he believes modern media prevents dictators from getting away with with propaganda and deception. New technology like auto-translate software has made foreign news even easier to procure. But there is a downside to this new media world, as well:

When practitioners of global reporting get together—as some of us did last week for a stimulating conference on the future of foreign news at Boston College—one question on the table is whether, for all the moaning, we are now enjoying a golden age of global news. My own view is: “yes, but.” I’ve already explained the “yes.” Now the “but.”

The problem with the cutbacks in professional foreign coverage is not just the loss of experience and wisdom. It’s the rise of—and exploitation of—the Replacements, a legion of freelancers, often untrained and too often unsupported. They gravitate to the bang-bang, because that’s what editors and broadcast producers will pay for. And chances are that nobody has their backs.

This new journalism reality is one in which freelancers risk their lives with no backing or safeguard, and often without a contract or formal assignment. Bill Keller cites Emma Beals, a British journalist, who believes that of 17 kidnapped foreign journalists being held by Syrian rebels, the majority are freelancers. This is the dangerous and unsavory side of modern reporting, Keller posits.

Keller pinpoints another disadvantage of modern media, more inhibitive to the reader: “My other caveat about this time of abundance is that while it’s great for a foreign-news junkie, I’m not sure how well it serves the passive reader. The profusion of unfiltered information can overwhelm without informing.”

But when Keller talks of a profusion of “unfiltered information” in news, he is only partly right. One of the dangers of our current news era lies in its plethora of filters. Sites like Google filter their search engines to spit out the results they think you want, according to author Eli Pariser. Sites like Facebook and Twitter have changed our ideas of “relevance” and “connection,” by letting us define those terms according to our preference. If “relevant,” in your mind, means exclusive entertainment news and no foreign policy articles, your social media sites can construct themselves in your image. It will be difficult to break through your bubble.

This is not the fault of journalists, per se, but rather the fault of those organizations that propagate news and information. If readers still pick up a print newspaper, they cannot filter out pertinent front-page headlines without concentrated effort. However, newspapers and news magazines have also increasingly supported the idea of partisan reporting: one should know that The Washington Post and The Washington Times present two different versions of our national and international landscape. Such news coverage propagates the news “bubble.”

It seems a confusing and deluding news world: the amalgamation of information renders some readers overwhelmed and others apathetic, while many retreat into their ideological news bubbles. It’s a world of endless information, but also one of endless blinders. Can we really call this a golden age of news?

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The Problem with Spying on Friends

The first reports in early May of 1960 were that a U.S. weather plane, flying out of Turkey, had gone missing.

A silent Moscow knew better. After letting the Americans crawl out on a limb, expatiating on their cover story, Russia sawed it off.

Actually, said Nikita Khrushchev, we shot down a U.S. spy plane 1,000 miles inside our country flying over a restricted zone.

We have the pilot, we have the camera, we have the pictures. We have the hollow silver dollar containing the poisoned-tipped needle CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers declined to use.

Two weeks later, Khrushchev used the U-2 incident and Ike’s refusal to apologize to dynamite the Paris summit and the gauzy Spirit of Camp David that had come out of his ten-day visit to the USA.

Eisenhower’s reciprocal trip to Russia was now dead.

A year later, President Kennedy would be berated by Khrushchev in Vienna. The Berlin Wall would go up. And Khrushchev would begin secretly to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, 90 miles from Key West.

Had there been no U-2 incident, would the history of the Cold War have been different? Perhaps.

Yet, while there were critics of launching Power’s U-2 flight so close to the summit, Americans understood the need for espionage. Like us, the Soviets were installing ballistic missiles, every single one of which could incinerate an American city.

Post 9/11, too, Americans accepted the necessity for the National Security Agency to retrieve and sift through phone calls and e-mails to keep us secure from terror attacks. Many have come to accept today’s risks of an invasion of their privacy—for greater security for their family.

And there remains a deposit of trust among Americans that the NSA, the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency are not only working for us, they are defending us.

How long Americans will continue to repose this trust, however, is starting to come into question.

Last week, we learned that a high official of the U.S. government turned 200 private phone numbers of 35 friendly foreign leaders, basically the Rolodex of the president, over to the NSA for tapping and taping.

Allied leaders, with whom America works toward common goals, have for years apparently had their private conversations listened to, transcribed and passed around by their supposed U.S. friends.

Angela Merkel has apparently been the subject of phone taps since before she rose to the leadership of Germany and Europe. A victim of the East German Stasi, Ms. Merkel is not amused.

Read More…

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Israel and the Saudis, United in Jealousy

It may be hard to pity John Kerry, but in the last couple of days, I’ve felt for the guy. America has competitors and rivals, and enemies too. But the problems posed by so-called friends are more vexing. On Wednesday Kerry was in Rome, for a scheduled seven-hour meeting with Netanyahu. Seven hours, that’s right. Three weeks ago, Netanyahu got a lengthy meeting with Obama, while the US government was on verge of shutting down. Max Blumenthal quipped that that one of Obama’s main jobs is to be the “Bibi-sitter”—for his efforts to make sure that Netanyahu doesn’t try to start a war in the Mideast or call up his minions in Congress to thwart US diplomacy.

Then there are the Saudis, the other “pillar” of the U.S. mideast alliance system. Unlike the case of Israel, no one even pretends there are “shared values” in play. It’s a pretty pure protection racket: we provide protection to the Saudi monarchy, and they use their oil wealth to aid the U.S. in other objectives, most importantly keeping the price of oil stable. This arrangement made a fair amount of sense post-1945, when keeping Arabia in the Western camp and the Soviets away from Mideast oilfields seemed of paramount importance, as it was throughout the Cold War. But the inherent problems of a close relationship dealing with a medieval theocracy with piles of money are now becoming more obvious.

One problem is that they basically don’t like us, at all; another is they seemingly prefer their women to be covered in shapeless black sacks; a third, that U.S. troops cannot be stationed there, lest Saudis feel compelled to blow up U.S. buildings in retaliation. (Most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis.) The Saudis use their vast wealth to spread their brand of Islam throughout the Muslim world, a brand which happens to be more antimodern and anti-Western than any other kind. They are upset when Obama balked at intervening in Syria on behalf of the the Saudi-backed jihadi rebels, and of course ignore the fact that the Palestinians still have no state sixty-five years after the Zionists got one. My guess is that the Saudis care far more about the jihadi forces they support in Syria than the Palestinians, who are, by regional standards, a basically secular and forward-looking group. They have shown their anger by refusing to take the seat in the UN Security Council that they spent years lobbying for.

And of course Iran. Here is where the Saudis, the other little rich gulf states, and Bibi Netanyahu are on the same page. You can see why Iran frightens them. It is governed by Shi’ite Muslims, and there are restive Shia minorities in most of the Gulf states, pressuring and sometimes demonstrating for civil and political rights. And of course Iran has a genuine middle class and a scientific infrastructure, which is why both Israel (which behaves as if it has a right in perpetuity to a regional nuclear weapons monopoly) and the Saudis, who are perhaps embarrassed by their own relative backwardness, feel threatened. Read More…

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A Military for the 21st Century: Col. Douglas Macgregor on Threats That Define It

The famously troubled V-22 Osprey.
The famously troubled V-22 Osprey. Sascha Hahn /

Col. Douglas Macgregor (retired) is a decorated combat veteran, the author of four books, a Ph.D., and executive VP of Burke-Macgregor Group LLC, a defense and foreign-policy consulting firm in Reston, Virginia. Macgregor’s groundbreaking books on military transformation—Breaking the Phalanx and Transformation Under Fire—have profoundly influenced thinking about change inside America’s ground forces. His newest book, 5 Battles in 5 Wars: 5 Essays on Transformation and War, 1914-1991, will be published in 2014.

Recently I interviewed him about America’s military needs in the 21st century:

TAC: What are the real threats the United States faces today and into the near future?

DM: There are three kinds of threats. The first threat is economic. In 1958, President Eisenhower told the American people, “The purpose is clear. It is safety with solvency. The country is entitled to both.” Eisenhower was right then and he’s right now. (See Paul Taylor, Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry, Gabriel Velasco and Seth Motel, “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs between Whites, Black and Hispanics.”) We need to send home low-skilled, uneducated people who are not Americans. At the same time, American citizens must be first in line to receive training, education, and jobs. The second relates to the first in that our borders are open and unprotected. Criminality in many forms marches hand in hand with illegal immigration across our borders and through our ports. The third involves alliance commitments that threaten to entangle the U.S. Armed Forces in conflicts that are of no interest to the American people.

TAC: How would you defend against those threats? Structure of military? Homeland security?

DM: Committing U.S. Army Forces to the Border Security Mission is the only sensible and cost-effective means of securing our borders. These Army forces need to be tightly integrated with U.S. Coast Guard, Air National Guard, and U.S. Navy elements that must secure our coastal waters. Meanwhile, conflicts beyond America’s borders are likely to resemble the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century, except that fights for regional power and influence will overlap with the interstate competition for energy, water, food, mineral resources and the wealth they create. These conflicts promise to be far more lethal and dangerous than any we’ve experienced since 1991. Fortunately, we should be able to avoid entanglement in most of them given our growing domestic energy independence and capacity for food production. Read More…

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Global Slavery Index: Measuring Millions

Kevin Bales, co-founder of Free the Slaves and well-known human trafficking expert, first estimated there to be 27 million slaves worldwide. This was an approximation offered in his 1999 book Disposable People. Since then, the topic of human trafficking has garnered international attention—yet for the past 14 years, the estimated number of slaves worldwide rested at Bales’ original approximation. But now, with a team of researchers at the Walk Free Foundation, Bales has introduced a new number: 29.8 million. The new “Global Slavery Index 2013” seeks to measure international slavery and human trafficking, and to provide informational tools for institutions fighting the problem.

Two potential weaknesses of such a report lie in its definition (how broad or specific it is, how easy to measure) and its methodology: how does one measure the global population of slaves worldwide, when slavery is an illegal and clandestine activity? The report’s authors explain their methodology, which focused primarily on secondary collection (via both governmental and non-governmental reports) and representative random sample surveys. Nick Grono, CEO of the Walk Free Foundation, told The Guardian, “Measuring a hidden crime is very challenging, but there are efforts to measure domestic abuse and drug trafficking. A lot of it boils down to taking the best data on reported issues and then looking at the scale of the unreported or ‘dark’ problems.”

The index’s definition of slavery and human trafficking has received some skepticism. Bridget Anderson, Deputy Director of the Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society at Oxford, told The Guardian this report gathers “unjust situations” around the world and labels them as “slavery.” “You have a definitional problem, everything depends on the definition and if you use tricky words like ‘forced’, you are already straying into difficult territory,” she said. Here is an excerpt from the report’s definition section:

In 2013, modern slavery takes many forms, and is known by many names. Whether it is called human trafficking, forced labour, slavery or slavery-like practices (a category that includes debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, sale or exploitation of children including in armed conflict) victims of modern slavery have their freedom denied, and are used and controlled and exploited by another person for profit, sex, or the thrill of domination … The chains of modern slavery are not always physical – sometimes escalating debts, intimidation, deception, isolation, fear or even a ‘marriage’ that is forced on a young woman or girl without her consent can be used to hold a person against their will without the need for locks or chains.

One can see Anderson’s point. Not only does this definition include a plethora of hidden, illegal criminality—it also includes criminality across a broad variety of platforms: the trafficking of persons across borders, private commercial labor, sex slavery, child soldier kidnappings, and forced marriages. Also, from reading Bales’ books and a variety of other books on the subject, I have learned “coercive labor” situations often do involve pay. But they involve pay in ridiculously minuscule amounts, offset by mountains of employer-determined debt. Thus, the “bondage” described is of a tricky and hidden nature.

The report’s definition is not necessarily wrong. It is good to have some broad (albeit sketchy) statistics on the issue. But Grono himself admitted “the data is not that strong; we want to be open about this. If a government says they don’t agree [with the data], we will say great, let’s work with a national statistics office to do a study across the country to try and analyse the scale of the problem.”

While child and forced marriage are awful human rights abuses, should they be included in the Global Slavery Index? Perhaps so—but consider, we now have a conglomeration of commercial, domestic, and sexual exploitation in the same dataset. How does one begin to parse a number so large? The index’s inclusion of basic law information for the top 10 worst countries in the index could be helpful—if one fights trafficking in Mauritania, Haiti, Pakistan or India. But this is a limited contribution.

This is not meant to be harsh—the report’s authors are working for a noble cause. But one hopes they can improve the index with time. Perhaps a next step would be to specify data according to definitional groupings. What if one was to apportion the numbers for each nation according to commercial, domestic, and sexual slavery (perhaps another category for child soldiers, as well)? It would require more work, of course, but this division would allow for more practical data offerings. 29.8 million is a horrid and shocking number. But it is also, unfortunately, a rather useless one at this point.

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