Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bravo Dan Abrams

I know this blog is about international affairs, but I have to take a minute to commend MSNBC’s Dan Abrams for his show last night, namely his taking the media to task for their incessant pro-Obama/anti-Clinton coverage of the Democratic primary.

Over the past few weeks the media has not missed an opportunity to bash Hillary or cheerlead for Obama. Case in point (from Abrams) was the media’s coverage of the polls. If you listen to the press it seems like the nomination race is neck-and-neck. But a look at the polls in the large states that will be voting next Tuesday show that, with the exception of Obama’s home state of Illinois, Clinton is ahead, in some cases very far ahead.

And there have been the media’s repeated attempts to paint Hillary (and Bill) Clinton as racists. One oft-repeated gem was Bill “calling Barack’s campaign a fairy tale”, which sounds bad until you bother to listen to his entire quote and realize that he was talking about Obama’s anti-war stance (which is questionable). There is a fine line between reporting the news and making it. Everyone has his or her own point of view. If people in the press support Obama, that’s fine. But they should be honest about it, and not couch their cheerleading (or Hillary-bashing) in the clothing of fair and objective reporting.
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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Balkan double standard

Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of the autonomous Serb Republic within Bosnia-Herzegovina suggested on Tuesday that the Serbs wanted the right to succeed from the Bosnian federation. He wanted this right to be included in the constitution currently being written for Bosnia.

But not so fast said Miroslav Lajcak, the Slovak diplomat overseeing the implementation of the peace accords that ended the 1992-95 war between Bosnia's three main ethnic groups, and created the federal state that exists today.

"Bosnia-Herzegovina is an internationally recognized state, its territorial integrity is guaranteed by the Dayton peace agreement and its existence cannot be questioned,” Lajack said.

So internationally recognized states cannot be carved up – well except for Serbia. Members of the international community (the European Union, NATO and the United States) are actively working to split the province of Kosovo from the, to use Lajack’s words “internationally recognized” state of Serbia.

Again, the question that has yet to be answered is why its okay to dismember Serbia, yet wrong to let ethnic groups in any number of other states declare their independence?

The Guardian (UK) gave a potential answer recently in a commentary titled “It's time to end Serb-bashing.” The author, while quite clearly having a pro-Serbian point of view, puts forward the idea that as the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence dissolved in the early 1990s, the West was uncomfortable with an independent-minded Yugoslavia that resisted globalization. (Its important to remember that Yugoslavia, while socialist, pulled away from the Soviet Union and maintained itself outside of both their and the West’s circles of influence.) So, according to the author, the West set out to undermine it.

Seen in that light, the current situation in Serbia is the latest step in this process. Again, the author definitely comes at the subject with a strong point-of-view. But this doesn’t necessarily mean he is wrong. There has to be some explanation (even if its not shared with us in the public), for the actions by the West over Kosovo, which go against the standards set down in international law and have no regard for the future problems they can cause.
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A Canadian divorce?

The possibility of Quebec's leaving Canada has again been raised after publication of the results of a recent poll. The CROP/La Presse poll gave the separatist Parti Quebecois 35 percent, the most of any party in Quebec. Parti Quebecois has made separating French-speaking Quebec from the rest of English-speaking Canada their goal. They have twice sponsored referendums on leaving Canada, both have been defeated though the most recent one (in 1995) lost by only one point. Quebecois make up about one-quarter of Canada's population. Despite Canada's official policy of being a bilingual nation, some Quebecois have felt that they are an oppressed minority within Canada.

A third referendum is still a long way off. The Parti Quebecois would first need to win the largest share of seats in the next provincial election, and would then still likely need the support of another party to even put a referendum in front of the voters.
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Monday, January 28, 2008

Rival tribes trade revenge attacks in Kenya

The situation in Kenya is getting worse. Violence sparked by last month’s disputed presidential election is spreading throughout the country. Even worse, the violence is becoming a bloody clash between tribal groups.

Outbreaks of violence began in the sprawling slums of Nairobi. Early on the violence was characterized as being driven by poverty, then, as they continued it was viewed as the supporters of President Kibaki versus those of challenger Raila Odinga (who is from the Luo community).

But beneath the politics were elements of ethnic strife. Kibaki is a Kikuyu, and since the country’s independence, Kenya’s rulers have all come from the Kikuyu. Violence against Kibaki’s supporters turned into violence against the Kikuyus in general.

And now the Kikuyus are fighting back, attacking Luos where they find them. The situation is beginning to look like that in Rwanda where in 1994 the Tutsis and Hutus launched into a genocidal civil war. As many as one million people were killed in just a matter of weeks.

Negotiations between the two political factions have failed to lead to a power-sharing agreement, a move seen necessary to quell the growing violence.
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Two from the lighter side

I came across a couple of interesting stories today. The first is fairly bizarre. A Japanese woman received a reply to a request for a letter she sent out 15 years earlier. I know, so far, fairly dull. Well, she sent the request as a schoolgirl by attaching a note to a balloon. The note was found by a fisherman stuck to a fish he hauled up in a net from 300 meters below.

Odd enough now?

The second isn't entirely unexpected. Led Zeppelin’s guitarist Jimmy page has said he wants the band to reunite for a tour this fall. Led Zeppelin played a charity concert in London on December 10th, which received rave reviews. They spent weeks rehearsing for the show, in large part because a reunion performance for the Live Aid concerts in 1986 was so awful the band refused to let it be included in records and tapes sold after the show. All of the rehearsal though led many to believe that the December 10 show would not be a one-time event.

Lead singer Robert Plant has yet to weigh in on the possible tour.
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Cowboys and Indians, Soviet style

For a different perspective, I wanted to link to this story from the Moscow Times on Soviet-era Western movies (yes the cowboy and indian kind). Books and movies set in the American west were actually quite popular in the Soviet Union and its satellites. Studios in East Germany produced many movies in the genre.

Of course, like most entertainment in the Soviet era, there was also a political message. In this case it was the indians, not the cowboys, who were the heroes. The communal life of the Native Americans was held up as a living example of the socialist ideal, one that usually came to ruin in the story thanks to the capitalistic cowboys.
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BBC - Volga roadtrip: A Soviet icon

The BBC's Moscow correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes is taking a road trip.

He is traveling along the Volga River from Nizhny Novgorod in the north to Volgograd in the south. Wingfield-Hayes is taking the trip to look at the changes taking place in Russia away from the lights of Moscow. He likens the Volga to the Mississippi River in America - a long river that winds its way through the nation's heartland.

It looks like it will be an interesting series, with updates posted regularly along the way.
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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Cyber War? Maybe not...

The mystery of last spring’s “cyber war” against Estonia has been solved.

Two weeks of internet attacks shut down the websites of many of Estonia’s largest businesses and government agencies. The attacks came during a time of tense relations with Russia sparked by Estonia’s removal of a monument to Soviet soldiers who had died in Estonia fighting against the Nazis in World War Two.

Moscow was blamed for the attacks, but it turns out they were committed by an Estonian. Dmitri Galushkevich a 20-year old student and ethnic Russian committed the attacks as a protest against the Estonian government’s treatment of the country’s sizeable Russian minority (which is approximately one-quarter of the population). He was fined approximately $1,600 for his actions.

The cyber attacks were quickly blamed last year on hackers operating from the Kremlin in Moscow, and were repeatedly cited as one of the signs of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anti-Western agenda.
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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Chinese for chutzpah?

I’m not sure what’s the Chinese word for chutzpah, but this may be the definition.

Beijing’s Silk Street, a notorious market for counterfeit goods where you can find everything from ski jackets to high-end handbags, is now marketing its own line of products under the SILKSTREET brand. Products in the line will include clothing items like neckties and shirts as well as household goods like tablecloths. The kicker is that general manager of the market promises that anyone selling SILKSTREET merchandise outside of the Silk Street Market will be prosecuted. In other words, a market famous for counterfeit goods wants no counterfeiting of their products.

It’s a strange world sometimes…
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Trouble at home for Ahmadinejad

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could be losing some vital support at home.

The country’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Monday overruled Ahmadinejad, telling the parliament to go forward with a law the president opposed. Major political decisions in Iran do not happen without the blessing of Ayatollah Khamenei.

Analysts feel that a public rebuke of the president is a signal Khamenei is unhappy with the way Ahmadinejad is running the country. Ahmadinejad was elected on promises of sharing Iran’s oil revenues with the country’s poor, who voted overwhelmingly for him. But despite record oil prices, Iran’s poorest citizens have seen little of that wealth trickle down to them. Ahmadinejad’s reelection in 2009 is now in doubt, meaning that a moderate candidate could take over the presidency and look to weaken the grip on power held by the ayatollahs. Over half of Iran’s population is under 30, and many would like improved relations with the West.
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Border breaks in Gaza

On Thursday, tens of thousands of Palestinians continued to flood into Egypt from the Gaza Strip after holes were blown in the wall separating the two territories. But is there more to this story than just a hole in a wall?

First a little background. The wall between Gaza and Egypt was built by the Israelis to control access to Gaza and to prevent terrorists and weapons from entering. As a result Gaza is almost entirely dependent on Israel for its food, fuel and energy supplies. Militants have been shooting crude, homemade rockets into Israeli towns from sites along Gaza’s northern border. Last week in retaliation Israel cut off shipments of supplies to Gaza, causing food shortages and widespread blackouts when Gaza’s power plant ran out of fuel.

The holes blown in the border wall have allowed the Palestinians of Gaza to get much-needed supplies in Egypt. Israel has condemned Gaza’s Hamas-led government for the act.

Israel withdrew their security forces from Gaza in 2005. But they regularly conduct military operations in Gaza, and in the past have found and blown up tunnels (supposedly used for smuggling) dug under the wall. Which makes it hard to believe that the wall could just suddenly be blown up in a way that allows tens of thousands of people to freely cross in and out of the territory.

A clue of what’s really happening may come from Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, who has suggested that now that the wall has in effect come down, Israel may gradually turn responsibility for Gaza over to Egypt.

This would remove a major stumbling block in the Israel-Palestine peace negotiations. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, with whom the Israelis are negotiating, in reality controls only the West Bank and not Gaza, meaning any agreements made would only affect part of the Palestinian Territories.

But if Gaza is in effect turned over to Egypt, then any peace agreements could be said to only be between Israel and the West Bank portion of Palestine. Since Egypt would now be the only access point to Gaza (assuming Israel does not reopen its borders), pressure could be put on them to act against any terrorist activities coming out of Gaza since, in theory, the materials (and possibly terrorists) would have had to come from Egypt.

So far Egypt has only made limited attempts at sealing the border from their side. They are seemingly content to allow the Palestinians to enter Egypt so long as they come in no farther than the border town of El Arish.
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Monday, January 21, 2008

Poll finds Islam-West rift widening

A Gallup poll conducted for this week’s World Economic Forum finds a widening gap in relations between Islamic and Western nations. The poll of citizens in 21 countries found that people surveyed believe relations between the Islamic and Western worlds are deteriorating. The worst results came from the United States, Denmark and Israel, where more than 80% of those surveyed felt relations between the two worlds were getting worse.

Those surveyed in Muslim countries said they did not feel respected by the West, while those in Western countries felt that Muslim countries do not respect them.

Respondents though did not feel that a violent conflict was inevitable between the Western and Islamic worlds. And while most Europeans said they did not think increased contact between the Western and Muslim worlds would improve relations, a majority of people in the US and Israel believe that more interaction will lead to better relations.
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Two odd stories for Monday

There were a couple of odd stories on the wire services to start the week.

The first was a report on an al-Qaida online Q-and-A session. Their supporters were invited to post questions that would later be answered by senior al-Qaida management. The idea of a terrorist townhall meeting sounds like a Saturday Night Live skit, but analysts believe that it was legitimate since the posts bore the mark of al-Qaida’s media wing al-Sahab.

Some questions were ones you would expect like when America will be attacked again, or why Israel has not. But others questioned al-Qaida’s strategy wondering if the group still had a master worldwide plan, and some even claimed to be jihadis complaining that they had served in Iraq and their Iraqi comrades were not sufficiently dedicated to the cause of Jihad.

Then there were the odd questions like the one from a 23-year old would-be jihadi asking if he could join al-Qaida even though his mother forbids it.

Al-Qaida has yet to post its replies to the queries.

The second story involved a former Liberian warlord called Gen. Butt Naked.

His real name is Joshua Milton Blahyi; he got the nickname Gen. Butt Naked from his habit of leading his troops into battle wearing only his combat boots. The whole story would be downright hilarious if not for the 20,000 people Butt Naked claims to have killed during Liberia’s civil war.

Blahyi returned to Liberia to face the nation’s truth and reconciliation commission, which invites former fighters to tell their stories without fear of punishment. It is modeled after a truth and reconciliation commission held in South Africa in the 1990’s to give individuals the chance to atone for crimes committed during the apartheid regime. That commission is seen as greatly helping South Africa make the transition from apartheid rule.

Some in Liberia though oppose their commission, saying former fighters should pay for the atrocities they committed. Nearly 250,000 of Liberia’s 3 million citizens were killed during the civil war.

As for Blahyi, he said he became a born-again Christian in the mid-1990s. The once proud warlord now says he is ashamed of his former actions.
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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Challenges for the next president

Exactly one year from now the United States will have a new president.

One thing is clear, the new president will have a number of huge foreign policy challenges to face. Foreign policy, though, really isn’t being talked about either in the campaign speeches or the (seemingly endless) debates. Even Iraq, what we expected to be the number one topic only a few months ago, has been pushed to the back burner.

So with that in mind, I thought that I would – briefly – run through a few of the problems our next president will face.

Let’s start with Iraq, where things are either getting better or worse depending on who you listen to – the World Bank is projecting that Iraq could have economic growth of seven percent this year, while their defense minister is saying the country won’t be able to defend itself for another 10 years. The big decision for the US – whether to stay for the long-term or get out – will likely depend on which party wins the election.

Personally I think that getting involved in Iraq was a distraction from the War on Terror, prevented the US from eliminating al-Qaeda, and has put a terrible strain on our military. I think that we would be better served as a nation if we left. But leaving isn’t a simple matter. Iraq reminds me of the game Jenga – the one with the stack of wooden blocks. Pull out the wrong piece and the whole thing falls apart. Withdrawing US forces will have to be done in a careful, deliberate manner or else the country could rapidly disintergrate, putting our troops in great risk in the process.

In addition to Iraq, there are three hotspots that could explode during the next year, giving the new president a problem to deal with on day one.

First is Pakistan. The presidential elections delayed by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto will have to be held at sometime during 2008. Whether they are fair and open will be another question. There has also been an increase in attacks by terrorist forces in Pakistan in the past few weeks. Two military posts in the Northwest Frontier Province were overrun by Taliban-backed forces last week, and there are increased reports that terrorist forces sympathetic to al-Qaeda are moving into Pakistani cities, particularly Peshawar. Pakistan is far from stable.

Its also quite possible that there could be some level of conflict with Iran this year. President Bush talked tough on Iran during his visit to several Gulf States last week, saying that Iran still posed a threat to the region. Iran, meanwhile, has had several run-ins with US Navy ships in the Strait of Hormuz in the past month.

Finally, as has been discussed in a number of posts here, Kosovo should declare its inependence from Serbia sometime in February. Like with Iran, this is a tense situation that has the potential to spin out of control. Will Serbs within Kosovo become the target of violence? And if so, what will Serbia’s reaction be? And will recognition of Kosovo spark other ethnic groups in other countries to make their own declarations (like Bosnia, Georgia and Spain to name a few)?

Aside from conflicts and potential conflicts, the new president will have to deal with some tricky relationships. Our allies in Europe have never quite understood the Bush administration and have tended to view it as an aberration – America going a little nutty for awhile. They expect the next president to take a radically different tack in foreign affairs, especially if that new president is a Democrat. Among they things they expect are that America will join the International Criminal Court and will not only finally ratify the Kyoto Protocols, but will take a leading role in fighting global warming.

Even if the new president is a Democrat though, such drastic steps are unlikely. Countries tend not to suddenly change their policy, and in the case of treaties like Kyoto and the ICC, ratification by the Senate is required. In the Senate there is real reluctance on the part of some Senators to approve these treaties.
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Inflation in Zimbabwe hits 150,000%

The International Monetary Fund has estimated inflation in Zimbabwe has hit 150,000 Percent.

The last time inflation this bad was seen in the world was during the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1920's. The IMF blames Zimbabwe's financial policies for the runaway inflation, including their policy of meeting inflation by simply printing more money. Zimbabwe is now printing five and ten million (Zimbabwe) dollar notes.

It makes you wonder when does it stop being money and start becoming just really fancy toilet paper?
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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Russia could use nuclear weapons

Russia’s military chief of staff announced on Saturday that his nation could use nuclear weapons in preemptive strikes to protect themselves or their allies.

Analysts pointed out that this has been Russian military policy since 2000, and also suggested that it showed the overall weakness of the Russian military. Because of the financial instability of the 1990’s, the Russian military suffered a steep decline, though the nuclear forces were maintained at a high level of operation and supplied with modern equipment.

Russia does possess some very advanced conventional weapons systems and, thanks to increased oil revenues, has pledged to drastically increase spending on their conventional military forces. But there are still problems in producing new weapons in large numbers, meaning that Russia will continue to rely on its nuclear forces as the mainstay of their military power for some time to come.

In the past year Russia has conducted some high-profile military exercises including patrols by long-range bombers to the edge of US and European airspace, and a Mediterranean cruise by a flotilla of navy ships – both commonplace events for the Soviet Union, but ones largely suspended by Russia in the 1990s.

So why all of the military activity now? Because Russia knows that to be considered a world power you need to have certain things: the ability to project military force, a stable of nations within your circle of influence, and to perform some world class cultural or scientific events. In this context, Russia’s military actions seem like more than just idle saber rattling. They also have been trying to rebuild a network of client states like the one the Soviet Union once possessed. Russia has been trying to assert its influence in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia largely through business deals related to oil and gas industries. They are also looking to build relationships with Arab states in the Persian Gulf, particularly Iran who they have supported despite Western pressure to isolate them. Russia’s strong support of Serbia over Kosovo can also been seen as part of this attempt to rebuild a stable of friendly nations. As for the cultural/scientific part, Russia is still one of the few space-faring nations in the world, and will host the 2014 Winter Olympics (at the Black Sea city of Sochi).

Compare that to China’s actions in the past few years that have seen them also drastically increase their military spending, provide foreign aid to many nations in South America and Africa (and provide the aid without strings attached, unlike that from Western nations, which is usually tied into human rights improvements or economic reforms), launch a man into space and host the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a signature event of their economic boom.
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George Clooney as Peacemaker?

No, its not a sequel to his 1997 film, but a request from a rebel group in Nigeria.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has asked Clooney to mediate in negotiations with the government of Nigeria. For the past two years MEND has been fighting against government forces in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta region. MEND wants a greater share of oil revenues spent in the poor Delta region. As part of their campaign MEND has attacked oil production installations and kidnapped foreigners working for oil companies.

Experts believe the rebel attacks have cut Nigeria’s oil output by as much as 20%, which has driven oil prices around the world higher. Nigeria’s government has been reluctant to let outsiders intervene in the Delta region, though recently they have begun talks with the rebels.

MEND’s request for Clooney to mediate is because he was recently named a United Nations “Messenger for Peace.” Clooney received the honor for his efforts to bring international attention to the ongoing atrocities being committed in the Darfur region of Sudan.

No word yet on whether Clooney will take MEND up on their offer.
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Friday, January 18, 2008

Speaking of Texas...

Yes, this is a blog focusing on international affairs, but sometimes domestic issues stray onto the international stage. Take for example a report issued today that listed Texas as the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions among the United States.

The report went further saying that if Texas were an independent country, it would be the seventh largest greenhouse gas polluter IN THE WORLD. Refineries, coal-fired power plants and a love of large, smog-belching trucks were all cited as factors.

In response, Texas governor Rick Perry’s office issued a statement saying the world’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions was “Al Gore’s mouth.”

You have to love that Texas-style of leadership.
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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Gates slams NATO force in Afghanistan

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has managed to offend some of America’s closest allies by questioning the quality of their troops.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times Gates questioned the ability of troops currently involved in action in Afghanistan against the Taliban and other insurgent groups. "I'm worried we have some military forces that don't know how to do counter-insurgency operations," Gates told the Los Angeles Times. "Most of the European forces, NATO forces, are not trained in counter-insurgency."

Several NATO countries whose troops are fighting - and dying - in Afghanistan, took offense. The Dutch government called the US ambassador in for an emergency meeting to explain Gates’ comments, while a British official was quoted this morning on CNN as saying Gates’ remarks were “bloody ridiculous.”

I know both from reading stories in the Canadian press and talking with Canadian friends that Canada takes their commitment to action in Afghanistan very seriously, as do the other nations with boots on the ground, which makes you wonder why Gates would make comments bound to insult other nations in a public forum like an interview with a major newspaper. Why Gates chose to make these comments now when the United States is sending 3,000 additional Marines to Afghanistan, and asking NATO members to send more troops as well, ahead of what they expect to be a renewed offensive by the Taliban once spring arrives is also strange.

The fact is that America subcontracted the war in Afghanistan to NATO to free up US forces to be used in Iraq. Keep in mind that NATO was an alliance formed during the Cold War to defend Europe from a massive invasion by the Soviet Union. Anti-terrorism operations in a country half a world away from Europe strays pretty far from NATO’s original mission.

Maybe then Gates has a point that NATO countries are not trained to fight against insurgents. But if he wants to criticize rather than pointing at some of our closest allies, perhaps he should call out some of his predecessors who pulled US forces out of Afghanistan before the job was done to send them off on a dubious war in Iraq.
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Putin urges consensus on Kosovo

Vladimir Putin has weighed in on the Kosovo situation, saying that any decisions should be negotiated between Kosovo and Serbia, not imposed by outside organizations.

He is referring to stalled negotiations that were being moderated by the United Nations. The European Union and NATO though have decided that the UN negotiations were a failure and have pushed for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.

Yes, Putin’s position is self-serving – Russia has veto power in the UN and could torpedo any UN-proposed plan for Kosovo’s independence, thus making Russia an important player in any negotiations. But just because his position is self-serving doesn’t mean its also not the correct one.

Recently Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union and a much-respected voice in the West, weighed in on the situation, asking what right the European Union or NATO had in supporting Kosovo’s independence since neither Serbia nor Kosovo are members of either body. He raises a good point. It would be like the European Union telling the United States that it acquired Texas unfairly and should now give it back to Mexico.

Since countries like the US and Germany have already promised to recognize Kosovo once it declares its independence, what motivation is there for them to negotiate a settlement where they remain part of Serbia? Putin and Gorbachev are right when they say that the UN, not the EU or NATO is the proper place to decide what happens between Kosovo and Serbia since Serbia is at least a member of the UN. They’re also right when they say that a rash recognition of Kosovo is likely to spark separatist moves in a host of other nations.
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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Random Thought #2

On CNN’s “Situation Room” today Wolf Blitzer commented on the work of reporter Zain Verjee, who has been submitting some very interesting reports from Kenya. CNN didn’t send Verjee on assignment; she is a native of Kenya and just happens to have gone home for a visit when the turmoil over the presidential elections broke out. Like a good reporter would, she began filing stories, even though she was on vacation.

Wolf said they (CNN) don’t do much reporting from Africa. Maybe CNN should work on that…
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US in Iraq until 2018?

Iraq's defense minister today announced that the country would not be ready to take care of its internal security until 2012 and would not be able to defend its borders until 2018.

On one hand I appreciate the defense minister's honesty. It seems like the past five years of the Iraq war have been one rosy scenario after another. We are continually told that the situation would be remarkably better in just a few months, that “victory” will be at hand if we only stay the course, statements that now seem very far removed from the truth.

On the other hand though, the minister's statement makes you ask what about the billions and billions of dollars spent on Iraq so far? What about the divisions and battalions of Iraqi police and troops the Pentagon keeps telling us have been trained and are ready to support their country?

Iraq will be a main topic in the presidential race this year. We deserve some honesty about what is really happening in Iraq, so we as a nation can decide whether its still worth the commitment.
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Monday, January 14, 2008

Mugabe faces challenge to leadership

The BBC is reporting about a possible challenge to the rule of Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe.

Simba Makoni, once finance minister and a member of Mugabe’s own Zanu-PF party, is said to be planning a challenge to Mugabe in national elections in March. Under Mugabe all other political parties have effectively been eliminated within Zimbabwe, so the ZANU-PF is the only game in town. Makoni is described as a moderate and a reformer.

This is the best news to come out of Zimbabwe in a long time. Mugabe has basically destroyed what was once one of Africa’s success stories with his iron-fisted rule designed only to keep himself in power. Mugabe began Zimbabwe’s problems a few years ago by seizing white-owned farms under what he called “land reform.” These farms, once some of the most productive in southern Africa, wound up in the hands of political cronies and soon fell into ruin. Zimbabwe quickly went from a net exporter of agricultural products to a nation dependent on international food aid shipments. Their economy collapsed, sparking the highest rate of inflation in the world – nearly 8,000% last year alone. Mugabe, meanwhile, has used the military to crush any popular uprisings.

Makoni has an uphill fight to defeat Mugabe. But until Mugabe is gone, Zimbabwe’s future is bleak.
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Thousands protest Georgian elections

An estimated 100,000 people turned out in the Georgian capital Tbilisi to protest the recent re-election of Mikhail Saakashvili, claiming widespread fraud. The protesters are demanding a runoff election between Saakashvili and opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze who finished second in the voting.

The protesters are claiming that voters were threatened with the loss of their job or other benefits if they did not vote for Saakashvili, that votes were not counted accurately, and that opposition candidates were denied access to the nation’s television stations while the state-run station gave extensive coverage to Saakashvili.

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitored the election, said that there were a large number of violations, but called the vote a “triumphant step” for democracy in Georgia. It’s strange how an election with a wide array of problems can be looked at as a positive step, especially when OSCE questioned the legitimacy of Russia’s elections last month, citing the same array of problems.

It is important to remember that Saakashvili is staunchly pro-western, while Putin has been critical of recent American and European policy decisions.

The protesters demand for a runoff election seems like a reasonable solution. Saakashvili narrowly avoided a runoff by receiving 53% percent of the vote. Another round of votes, with extensive monitoring to insure equal media access for all candidates and to prevent voter intimidation, would truly be a positive step for democracy in Georgia.
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US poll shows Kenyan president lost election

Exit polls by a US-based foundation have provided additional support to claims that Kenya’s president Mwai Kibaki in fact lost to challenger Raila Odinga in last month’s presidential elections. The disputed election has led to weeks of violent protests in what had been one of Africa’s most-stable democracies.

Opposition supporters began to almost immediately question the election when government officials refused to release the results as scheduled. Odinga was expected to defeat the incumbent Kibaki. But after several unexplained delays, the results showed Kibaki had won a slim victory. The election commission revised the results several times, giving Kibaki larger margins of victory.

There are now news reports that exit polling conducted by the International Republican Institute show Odinga should have won by eight percentage points.

Even news of the exit poll is causing controversy in Kenya. Supporters of Odinga wonder why the results have not been officially released. Some have suggested it is because the United States wants to keep Kibaki in power because he has been a strong, and unquestioning, ally in the United States War on Terror.

Kenya shares a border with Somalia, considered to be a haven for terrorists in the Horn of Africa. The United States top diplomat for Africa has said the US did not take sides in Kenya’s recent election.

Tensions are likely to rise on Tuesday as opposition leaders are planning a series of protests to mark the opening of Kenya’s parliament.
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Monkey Business in the Gulf?

It turns out that threatening radio messages, which nearly sparked a shoot-out between Iranian boats and three US Navy ships last week, may have been a hoax.

The Navy Times is reporting that a prankster known as the “Filipino Monkey” may have been the source of radio messages threatening to blow up the American ships. Iranian boats have approached Navy ships on several occasions in the past few weeks, but in this case the radio messages made an attack seem imminent. The Navy ships were reported to be within moments of firing on the Iranian boats when they withdrew.

The voice recorded making the threats sounded like a bad “Borat” imitation, so the hoax explanation does make some sense. For the past 25 years there have been incidences of threats, insults and nonsensical radio messages being sent to ships traveling through the Persian Gulf from someone calling themselves “the Filipino Monkey.”

There have been no reports of encounters with Iranian boats since the January 6 incident.
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Friday, January 11, 2008

U.S. and Germany Plan to Recognize Kosovo

The United States and Germany have promised to recognize Kosovo once it declares its independence from Serbia and are urging the rest of the European Union to follow them.

According to the New York Times, the United States in particular is pushing for quick and widespread recognition of Kosovo saying that an independent Kosovo is vital to the security of the Balkans.

That’s a big assumption to make. Serbs within Kosovo fear ethnic violence, Serbia has not ruled out military intervention to protect them. Meanwhile Bosnian Serbs have openly discussed declaring their independence from Bosnia-Herzegovina in response to Kosovo’s actions.

And a number of European countries have voiced concerns that an independent Kosovo could lead to similar declarations by ethnic groups in their countries – the Basques in Spain for example. But with the encouragement of powers like the United States and Germany, a declaration of independence by Kosovo seems inevitable.

“The cake has been baked, because the Americans have promised Kosovo independence,” a senior European Union official said in the New York Times. “And if Washington recognizes Kosovo and European nations do not follow, it will be a disaster.”

Whether it will be a disaster if they DO recognize Kosovo remains to be seen.
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Snow falls in Baghdad

Snow fell in Baghdad today for the first time that anyone can remember. A light blanket of snow covered the city, bringing Baghdad to a halt as people enjoyed the wintry spectacle.

"For the first time in my life I saw a snow-rain like this falling in Baghdad," said one 63-year old.

Perhaps the most amazing thing though is that while the city was covered by snow, according to the Associated Press, there were no reports of violence.
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Thursday, January 10, 2008

BBC News - History of failed peace talks

The BBC has published a useful little guide to some of the main issues affecting the Israel-Palestine peace process. The guide includes a history of previous peace negotiations as well as summaries of what they identify as "the biggest obstacles to peace": water rights, status of refugees, borders, settlements and the status of Jerusalem.
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Bush strikes back?

Ehud Olmert may be learning that it’s not a good idea to insult President Bush.

As mentioned in a post yesterday, Olmert used a joint press conference to announce the expansion of Israeli settlements, something Bush specifically asked Israel to halt as part of the peace process he jump-started in December. I thought the timing of the announcement, during a high-profile press conference, was an insult to the president.

Today Bush used the strongest language he’s ever used in support of a Palestinian state. He called for an end to the occupation - the first time he used the word “occupation” in regards to Palestine. He also called for an immediate halt to settlement expansion; for the removal of illegal settlements and checkpoints; compensation for Palestinian refugees who lost land to the Israelis; and to set borders for a viable, stable and contiguous Palestinian state.

It’s surprising given how pro-Israel Bush has been in the past, that he would issue a statement loaded with terms and conditions that will displease the Israelis. Bush did call for the Palestinians to step up their efforts to prevent terrorist activities and conceded that some adjustments to the 1967 borders will be necessary. But still, it was a remarkable statement for someone that critics have said was far too overtly pro-Israel to ever be a fair peace broker. His use of the word “occupation” was sure to rub the Israelis the wrong way. As were his calls for a halt to settlement building and give compensation to refugees, two proposals the Israelis have strongly resisted in the past. And the call for “contiguous” borders for a future Palestinian state is especially interesting since a simple glance at a map shows that the only way to link the West bank and Gaza is by a corridor running across Israel.

I can’t help but wonder if the change in Bush’s position is not a direct result of his feeling insulted by Olmert at their press conference. Its well known that Bush is a proud man and a man that doesn’t forget snubs against him. Perhaps there was also a little divine intervention at play as well. Bush was scheduled to take a short flight to the West bank to meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, but bad weather grounded his helicopter. He went by car instead, getting a chance to see from the ground the checkpoints that Palestinians must deal with on a daily basis. Bush even talked about the experience during his meeting with Abbas.

“My whole motorcade of a mere 45 cars was able to make it through without being stopped,” Bush said later. “I'm not so exactly sure that's what happens to the average person.” Maybe it gave him a better appreciation for the frustration on the Palestinian side.

In reality all sides involved basically know what a final resolution to the Israel-Palestine problem, the two-state solution, looks like. Israel needs to withdraw to the 1967 borders and dismantle most of its settlements (which make the West Bank look like a piece of Swiss cheese and prevent the formation of any viable Palestinian state), while the Palestinians must give up their claims to land that is now part of Israel proper (with compensation for their loss) and take serious steps towards fighting terrorism and corruption. The United States gives billions of dollars in aid to Israel every year. Holding the money back would be a powerful tool to motivate them to make the tough steps necessary for peace (as would development aid to Palestine). The question now is if Bush finally feels it’s the time to use it.
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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

New Hampshire Primary

The subject of this blog is international affairs, but after the US presidential primaries in New Hampshire, I felt the need to write down a few thoughts.

First, after days of incredibly negative media coverage (particularly Chris Matthews, who offered some of the worst Clinton-bashing this side of Rush Limbaugh), with pundit after pundit writing the epitaph for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the media managed to do something all the consultants and spin doctors could never accomplish – they made Hillary a sympathetic figure. It made undecideds take a new look at her and breathed life back into her campaign and spurred her to victory in New Hampshire.

That Obama lost should not have come as a total surprise to the pundit class. To win he needed the support of independent voters. But so did John McCain on the Republican side. Since they both needed the support of the same pool of voters, one of them was bound to be disappointed, in this case it was Obama.

On the Republican side, it’s now a three-man race. Neither Thompson nor Giuliani can be considered a serious threat at this point, given their poor showings in New Hampshire and Iowa. The Republican nomination is still up for grabs though since each of the three candidates remaining have problems. The “capitalist” wing of the party (for lack of a better term ) doesn’t like Mike Huckabee because of his past willingness to use government funds for social programs. The social conservatives have never liked McCain. And Mitt Romney has yet to prove he can win a primary. The upcoming vote in Michigan is critical for both him and McCain.

Finally, hovering above it all is New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg. Mayor Mike keeps denying he will be a candidate while making all the moves to prepare for a run at the White House. Right now I’d say chances are 60-40 he will run. The public is fed up with both the Democrats and Republicans; Bloomberg has a successful record as mayor of the nation’s largest city and billions of dollars to spend on a campaign. I think he would likely not run if either Clinton or Giuliani were the nominees from their respective parties (the nation would probably be turned off by a “Subway Series” presidential campaign). Otherwise look for the “I Like Mike” bumper stickers in April.
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Bush insult over settlements

Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert announced during a press conference that construction on controversial settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem would continue.

While it may have been a simple statement of Israeli policy, it was also a slap in the face to his guest President George Bush.

Bush has hinged his presidential legacy in part on getting a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. The settlements are considered by the Palestinians to be a major obstacle in reaching such an agreement. Part of the accords reached in December that began this round of the peace talks were that settlement-building activities would be suspended.

Perhaps Olmert feels that expanding the settlements is vital to Israel’s future. Fine. But to announce their expansion in front of Bush shows a lack of respect both to the process and to Bush personally.

Throughout his presidency Bush has been a staunch ally of Israel. Not only has the United States backed Israel’s security measures in the Palestinian Territories (including their construction of a controversial wall that snakes through the West Bank, cutting some Palestinian towns in two), but the US also supplied Israel with weapons during their military campaign in Lebanon, and has even seemed willing to go to war with Iran for their protection (Iranian missiles cannot reach the US, but they can reach Israel). It’s puzzling then why them Olmert would choose to so publicly insult Bush.

Bush is a proud man. It will be interesting to see if his attitude towards Israel changes, if he becomes more sympathetic to the Palestinian position, because of Olmert’s slight.
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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Intel 'undermined' laptop project

Did Intel sabotage a plan to bring low-cost laptops to underprivileged children?

That is the accusation from professor Nicholas Negroponte who developed the XO laptop and has been trying to distribute them through the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project.

The XO laptop is a durable, easy-to-use, laptop designed to introduce children in the world’s poorest countries to computers. The laptop has a wind-up battery charger (so it can be used in areas that do not have electricity service), wirelessly networks with other computers automatically, and has a simple user-interface based on open-source software.

OPLC formed partnerships with a number of computer firms (including Intel) to mass produce the XO, with a goal of reducing the cost of the laptops to $100 per unit.

Negroponte has accused Intel of trying to undercut the OLPC project by selling their own product, the Classmate, at a loss to some of the same national governments XO was negotiating with.

The XO laptop has been distributed to several countries, but has not yet received the number of orders that will bring its production costs down to $100.
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France best, U.S. worst in preventable death ranking

The United States has come in last among 19 industrialized nations in a new health survey that measured preventable deaths. The survey, conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, defined preventable deaths as ones that could have been prevented by timely and effective medical treatment.

The United States had 109.7 such deaths per 100,000 people. The survey leader, France, by contrast, had 64.8 deaths per 100,000. A similar survey conducted ten years ago ranked the United States 15th out of 19, with France again finishing first.

The 47 million Americans without health insurance are believed to be a major factor in the country’s low ranking. All other nations surveyed have some form of socialized medical coverage.
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Monday, January 7, 2008

Poland Signals Doubts About Planned U.S.Bases

Poland has again signaled doubt over moving forward with a plan for United States missile defense bases on their territory, according to the New York Times.

The Polish government is concerned about the cost of both buildinmg and maintaining the bases, and fear they could be stuck with them if a future US presidential administration decides to abandon the project. They are also concerned about increasing tensions with Russia, which is strongly opposed to the bases.

Finally the Polsih government questions the need for the bases. The United States has said that the missile defense system is necessary to protect against threats from "rogue states" like Iran. Poland, however, does not feel that there is a legitimate missile threat from Iran.

Negotiations over the bases are promised to continue.
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US Navy ships harrassed by Iran

Is Iran trying to provoke a conflict with the United States?

It is something to wonder about after this weekend’s mock attack on three US Navy warships in the Strait of Hormuz. Five small boats aggressively approached the Navy ships, closing to within 500 yards before retreating. The Navy ships were preparing to fire on the Iranian boats when they withdrew.

The five boats were under the control of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who maintain an armed force separate from the Iranian military. Like the name implies, the Revolutionary Guard’s mission is to continue the spirit of the Islamic revolution that drove the Shah from power in 1979 and brought in the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Through much of 2007 it seemed like the Bush administration was making the case for military action against Iran over their suspected nuclear weapons program. But in December US intelligence agencies released a report claiming Iran suspended the weapons program in 2003, largely putting a stop to the calls for military action against Iran.

But perhaps hardliners within Iran would see a conflict with the United States as a good thing.

Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (a staunch conservative himself) is facing several problems at home. He was elected in 2005 by promising reforms that would help modernize the country and lift people out of poverty. So far he has not delivered on these promises. To make matters worse (for him at least), more than half of Iran’s population is under 25 and increasingly they look to the West for their future, rather than to the Ayatollahs of the revolution. In local elections in December of 2006, reformist and moderate candidates outpolled the ultra-conservative ones.

Its hard to see Ahmadinejad being able to institute the massive reforms he promised before his term ends, meaning he himself would likely be replaced by a more reform-minded (and less conservative) president. But a conflict with the United States could change that, prompting a “rally ‘round the flag” response from the young people and helping to turn them away from their desires to be more “western.”

Iran’s calculus could be that the United States is already overstretched militarily, and that the incoming president in 2009 will be looking to withdraw from the Persian Gulf, not become more deeply involved. A conflict then would likely be brief, the damage manageable, but successful in reigniting the spark of revolution within the hearts of Iran’s young.

It will be interesting to see if there are further “incidents” in the Persian Gulf in the next few weeks.
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News Item - Georgian president wins second term

President Mikhail Saakashvili has claimed victory in Georgia's election.

Saakashvili has been elected to a second term with approximately 53% of the vote. Georgian opposition parties though are claiming there were voting irregularities and that the results are not vaild.
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On Democracy

Winston Churchill once said that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others.

President Bush has made spreading democracy around the world one of the missions of his administration. I agree with him on this goal – the people of a country should have a say in choosing their leaders. The question is how do you reach this goal? How hard do you push a country into becoming a democracy? Is democracy something that can be imposed upon a people? And even if it is, should it, or should governments be allowed to evolve on their own?

They are tough questions and ones for which I frankly don’t have answers. But one thing I think we can do though is be even-handed in the position we take with other countries regarding their democracies. Its something we look to be failing to do when it comes to Russia and Georgia. Both countries are, supposedly, democracies that have recently held elections, elections that in each case had similar problems. The reaction of the United States and Western Europe though were quite different.

Russia’s December elections were dogged by claims of vote-rigging – students and government workers were said to have been ordered to vote for Putin’s United Russia party or risk losing their positions. Government forces broke up the rallies of opposition parties, while government-owned television stations effectively barred opposition candidates from the airwaves. Russia was roundly criticized in the West for these problems and the legitimacy of Putin’s government was called into question.

In Georgia, President Mikhail Saakashvili used riot police to break up a large, but peaceful, opposition rally in November. Leading into last weeks election there were claims that people were being told how to vote (for Saakashvili of course). The state-run television network effectively barred opposition candidates from appearing and Georgia’s main opposition television station was taken off the air for a period of time. Finally on election day there were numerous reports of voting irregularities. But while observers from the US and Europe said they were concerned about future elections, they judged this one to be fair and chalked up problems to Georgia’s status as a “emerging democracy”, with US Congressman Alcee Hastings (serving as an election monitor) saying: "I perceive this election as a valid expression of the choice of the Georgian people."

So why are circumstances that are considered a threat to democracy in Russia passed off as growing pains in Georgia? The answer probably lies with their leaders. Putin has not been shy in disagreeing with the West on issues from Iraq, Iran, Kosovo and the War on Terror. He has been aggressively asserting himself, and Russia, as a player on the world stage. Saakashvili, meanwhile, has eagerly courted engagement with the West – allowing an important pipeline to pass through Georgia to Europe, contributing troops to the war in Iraq and seeking a place in both NATO and the European Union.

And that’s the problem. If democracy is regarded as the government of choice for people all over the world, then criticism of those who fail to live up to its goals should fall equally on our friends and adversaries alike.
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Saturday, January 5, 2008

Georgia's President Headed To Victory

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili looks like he is heading to victory in the country's presidential election.

Saakashvili was the leader of Georgia's "Rose Revolution" in 2003 that swept the country's corrupt and authoritarian Soviet-era leadership from power. Since then Georgia has worked hard at building strong relations with the West. They have engaged in large-scale economic reforms, built a pipeline to bring oil from the Caspian Sea to Europe and even contributed troops to the Iraq War. But opponents in Georgia have said that the countries economic reforms have left many people behind (about one quarter of Georgia lives below the poverty level), and that Saakashvili himself has become the same kind of authoritarian leader that he deposed. In November Saakashvili used riot troops to break up several days of peaceful mass protests in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi.

Exit polls give Saakashvili approximately 53% of the vote. Opposition parties have claimed that their campaigns were interfered with and that some government employees were ordered to vote for Saakashvili. The main opposition television station was also taken off the air for a period of time. Election monitors from Europe and the United States, however, have said they have seen no evidence the election was rigged.
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Musharraf Blames Bhutto

Musharraf: Bhutto bears responsibility for death
| Reuters

I guess when all else fails, blame the victim.

In an interview to be aired Sunday on "60 Minutes," Musharraf said that Benazir Bhutto was in part to blame for her own death because she chose to waive to a crowd of her supporters though the open sunroof of her car. Musharraf also claimed that his government did everything possible to provide security for her. "She was given more security than any other person," Musharraf claimed.

Really? If you look at the video of her assassination, at the crowds of people swarming around her vehicle, and compare it to video of a the security around, say, President Bush's motorcades the differences are clear. Musharraf himself travels in a highly secure, multi-vehicle entourage. Bhutto had an SUV and no uniformed security in sight. Where then was the security Musharraf claimed his government provided.

Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, has called for the UN to lead an investigation into her assassination.
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Bush Heading to Mid-East

While the news media is focusing intensely on who will be the next president, the current president is headed for a six-nation tour of the mid-east. During the trip, which begins Tuesday, Bush will make his first visit as president to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

In his weekly radio address though, Bush seemed to downplay the Israel-Palestine peace talks he touted just last month giving only a soft statement about supporting the parties in the negotiations. Bush does look to be taking another run at building up the case for action against Iran. He promised that he "will discuss the importance of countering the aggressive ambitions of Iran" with leaders in the Persian Gulf states of Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.

In December, America's intelligence agencies issued a report that Iran likely suspended its pursuit of nuclear weapons in 2003.
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Internet Problems

No, it wasn't a New Year's hangover that kept me from posting for the past few days, I had some problems with my internet connection. But now that things have been repaired, I'll do some catching up.

Happy 08 to all.
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