Friday, February 24, 2012

What About CNN's Role John?

There was an odd moment at Wednesday's Republican Presidential Debate (number 386 in the series, I think), moderator John King of CNN posed a question by beginning with the statement: “The American people don't often pay attention to what's going on in the world until they have to…”  Politico picked up on the comment and wrote this brief piece that included this photo illustration of the covers of different regional editions of Time magazine from two different weeks:

Time Covers USA vs. The World

The US version is clearly out-of-sync with the rest of the world, and focuses on “fluff” pieces while the global editions feature hard-news stories.  While it would seem to bolster John King's point, there is a certain chicken-and-egg quality to this story: does the US media tend to shy away from coverage of international affairs because Americans don't care that much about them, or do Americans not closely follow international affairs because the US media gives them so little coverage?

It wasn't always this way, historically, and especially in the post-World War II era, major media outlets would maintain bureaus in major cities around the globe with full-time staff dedicated to providing coverage of their particular region.  CNN, the world's first cable news network (hence the name “CNN”) made its mark by providing in-depth, intensive coverage of global events.  But times have changed, budget-cutting has meant that outlets like the Associated Press, New York Times and even CNN have drastically cut back on the number of foreign bureaus they operate.  The result has been a corresponding drop in the amount and quality of international affairs reporting in the American media.  We can infer that this has also led to Americans being less informed about the world outside their borders.

And this brings us back to John King.  He's likely right about Americans lacking knowledge about international affairs, but what about his own role in the affair?  King is one of CNN's featured personalities.  This is the same CNN that spent a solid week of doing almost wall-to-wall coverage on the death of Whitney Houston, a pop singer whose career, for all intents and purposes, ended over a decade ago.  Perhaps Mr. King, Americans wouldn't be so poorly informed if CNN had actually dedicated some of the time and coverage wasted on Houston to actual global events that matter: unrest in Syria, possible conflict with Iran, elections in Russia, take your pick, there's not a lack of stories out there, that is if you're willing to look for them. 
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US Politics: Zambian Soccer and Gingrich's Gas Fantasies

I realized that I've been terribly remiss in shamelessly promoting my recent writing on other websites.

You've probably heard Newt Gingrich's claim that if elected president, he'll give everyone $2.00/gal gasoline.  I take on Newt's latest political flight of fancy over at PolicyMic and explain why market dynamics show that Newt's moonbase idea is more likely to happen than his $2.00/gal gasoline promise.

Meanwhile, over at The Mantle we take a look at the unlikely pairing of Zambian soccer and US politics.  Zambia's national team recently won Africa's Cup of Nations continent-wide tournament.  In their piece about the victory, CBS threw in some tidbits about Zambia's government.  Zambia is engaging in a series of social/economic reforms, reforms that are so sensible they don't have a chance of occurring in the United States.  See why over at The Mantle.
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Thursday, February 23, 2012

So Why Can't Iran Have The Bomb?

Let's cut to the chase on the whole mess surrounding Iran.  It is looking like a conflict in the Persian Gulf this spring/summer is becoming more of a possibility; the “crippling sanctions” the United States is trying to impose on Iran are leaky enough not to be “crippling”.  India, China and Turkey are all balking at joining in on the isolation, which means that Iran is unlikely to just give up on their nuclear research program.  That kicks the ball back into the court of the US/Israel, both of whom have insisted that Iran not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon, and leaves US and Israeli leaders with two options: back down or follow through on their threats of military action.
The spectre of Iran with a nuclear weapon is driving the march to war, but what does Iran having a nuclear weapon really mean?  So far there are several arguments as to why this is such a terrible idea that war would be necessary to prevent it, but taking a look at each argument shows that they are all fairly weak.  Here they are, in no particular order:

A nuclear Iran is a threat to the United States.  Not really.  Consider that if Iran were to tomorrow announce that they had successfully built a nuclear bomb, the US arsenal would outmatch theirs by a factor of about 3,000-1.  Even if Iran would decide to use this weapon and could deliver it to the United States (a big if), it would be a devastating attack, but not one that would destroy the country, not even close.  Of course it would ensure a retaliatory strike that would destroy Iran.  No country is suicidal, therefore this is not a real threat.

Iran might give the bomb to terrorists!  It is an idea that makes for a great spy thriller, but one that makes no sense in real life.  Do we really think Iran would spend billions of dollars, decades of research and turn themselves into a “rogue state” (at least according to the US) in pursuit of a nuclear bomb, only to give it to a terrorist?  It makes no sense.  Besides, if you want to worry about terrorists getting a bomb, then worry about them stealing one from Pakistan, where nuclear security is particularly weak, or buying one outright from North Korea.

The nuclear dominoes will fall.  Saudi Arabia has said publicly that if Iran gets the bomb, they may be compelled to embark on their own nuclear weapons program.  Of course the Saudis say a lot of things and in the past have threatened to start working on a bomb in response to Israel's nuclear arsenal, but never have.  And even if the Saudis do start work on their own bomb, who will that be a threat to besides Iran?

A nuclear Iran is a threat to Israel.  We're at least getting to the semi-plausible reasons here.  Israel is a much smaller country that the United States, so a much smaller nuclear strike could be devastating to them.  But the Israelis are keenly aware of this and will have prepared a second-strike capability (the ability to retaliate if hit without warning).  Israel's nuclear arsenal is somewhere between 200-400 weapons, meaning that they could likely hurt Iran a lot worse than Iran could hurt them, which makes an Iranian first strike highly unlikely.

That leaves us with something I'll call the Yom Kippur Scenario.  In 1973 Israel fought its last great war when a coalition of Arab states launched a surprise attack during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.  Part of the Arab motivation was revenge for the solid defeat they had suffered in 1967 during the Six-Day War.  The Yom Kippur War started badly for the Israelis, for awhile it seemed as though the Arab forces might be victorious, before Israel rallied and pushed the Arabs back crossing into both Egypt and Syria in the process.

Israel has never forgotten this lesson.  The Israeli nuclear arsenal is to ensure that such a scenario does not again occur.  Basically, if there were to be a repeat of the Yom Kippur War, and if this time Israel were about to be defeated by a coalition of Arab states, they could use their nuclear arsenal to devastate the lands of their attackers, giving the Arabs a true Pyrrhic Victory.  Israel has made this intention clear to their Arab neighbors, and it is an effective deterrent - so long as no one else in the neighborhood has their own nuclear arsenal.  Iranian bombs, and the ability to deliver them, changes this equation, and robs Israel of this deterrent.

Of course a second Yom Kippur War is highly unlikely.  Israel has had calm, if not cordial, relationships with their neighbors for 40 years now.  The Israeli military is by far the most powerful and most capable in the region, since the militaries of most of their neighbors are designed to suppress domestic unrest rather than to campaign beyond their borders.  Yet this is the real motivation for the current standoff with Iran: to prevent a challenge to Israel's military hegemony in the region.

But is this justification for a conflict that will cause upheaval across the region and be a severe blow to an already shaky global economy?  That is the question that we should be discussing. 
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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Paris vs. Putin

Are wealthy urban elites the latest group to turn against Russia's Vladimir Putin?  That’s the takeaway from a few articles recently discussing an unusual new phenomenon ahead of Russia's March 4 presidential elections.  It seems that well-heeled socialites are among the groups turning out in street protests against the Era of Putin in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  According to this report from Reuters, white ribbons – the symbol of the protest movement – are the hot new fashion accessory, and, in the  right social circles, there is a need to explain why your absence from the most recent public protest.  Among Russia's nouveau riche, there is perhaps no bigger socialite than Ksenia Sobchak – a model, media personality, host of the reality TV show Dom-2 (Russia's answer to Big Brother), now an unlikely addition to the anti-Putin brigade.

Sobchak's appearance at an anti-Putin rally would be like Paris Hilton pitching a tent at an Occupy Wall Street encampment, a point The Guardian hammers home in their lengthy piece on Russia's radical socialite.  But there is an important subtext to Sobchak's new-found political activism: Sobchak's father Anatoly was the mayor of St. Petersburg during the 1990s and started the political career of a young former intelligence officer named Vladimir Putin; Putin and the Sobchaks became and remain close personal friends, making Ksenia’s defection a quasi-family affair.  For her part, Ksenia Sobchak says that Putin is, at heart, a good person.  But like many other Russians, Ksenia seems to have been angered by Putin's decision to run for a third term as president after failing to deliver on promises of reform and to fight Russia's culture of corruption for the past 12 years.

Ksenia Sobchak's career as Russia's most-unlikely political radical began with a televised debate with one of the founders of the rabidly pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi (Russian for “Ours”).  Ksenia then traded in her hostessing gig on Dom-2 to become the moderator on a youth-oriented current affairs program on Russia's MTV channel called Gosdep (a Russian abbreviation for “Department of State”).  The first episode, entitled Where is Putin Taking Us? set the tone for the series by featuring a panel of figures from the political opposition typically barred from Russia's Kremlin-friendly television landscape.  That first episode proved to be Gosdep's last, despite good ratings.  Ksenia's decision to feature anti-Putin blogger and one of the de facto leaders of the opposition movement, Alexei Navalny, seems to have also been a factor in the show's cancellation.  Ahead of the March 4 election, the Kremlin is widely being blamed for a shake-up of management at Ekho Moscow the radio station which has been one of the few independent outlets on broadcast TV or radio.

Ksenia Sobchak may have lost her current affairs TV program, but she hasn't lost her fame and public persona, two factors that should make her difficult for the Kremlin to marginalize, while her desire to speak out against the failures of the Putin regime are a sign of just how deeply the anti-Putin sentiment is running in Russia today.
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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Bill Gates' Brilliant Plan To Doom Humanity

I was just getting to the point where I kind of liked Bill Gates.  He'd left behind the arrogant persona he wore like a badge of honor during the 90s when Microsoft seemed like the monolithic company with designs of controlling every aspect of our lives, in favor of guise of the humanitarian, happy to humbly use his remaining years and billions of dollars to eradicate disease in the third world.  And then he goes and backs something like this and you remember how much you hate the guy.

Gates is part of a clique of the rich and powerful, which includes his fellow plutocrat Richard Branson among others, who have come up with a plan to fight the problem of global warming called geoengineering.  In simple terms, Gates, the computer genius, esentially wants to hack the environment. 
Geoengineering involves pumping huge amounts of sulfur dioxide particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect a portion of the sun's solar energy back into space.  The idea is that this reduction in solar energy hitting the Earth's surface where it would naturally warm the planet, would offset the concentrations of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, which act like a blanket wrapped around the Earth, preventing heat from naturally radiating off into space and thus causing global warming.  To offset future GHG emissions, you just pump more sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere. Simple, right?

There are only two things wrong with this daft plan.  The first is that even geoengineering advocates admit that a side-effect of the sulfur dioxide plan is a “permanent whitening of day-time skies,” or as they go on to explain a “washed-out sky would become the norm.”  In other words, if you like sunsets and blue skies, you'll need to find yourself another planet.  The second little problem is that once you start pumping sulfur dioxide particles into the sky, you can never, ever stop.  The particles naturally settle out of the atmosphere, meaning they have to be replaced to maintain the reflective shield.  If you don't maintain the reflective shield, then there will be no offset to the now GHG-laden atmosphere, meaning global temperatures could suddenly spike up dramatically.

And these are just the whopping side-effects geoengineering advocates talk about.  You have to assume that none of these scientists, or Gates, Branson, et. al., have ever watched The Matrix (or Highlander II for that matter, which featured its own sky-scorching plan) or Jurassic Park, since the takeaway message from all of these films is that screwing with Mother Nature never works out well for us humans, something “unexpected” always goes wrong.

Members of the environmental community have a more mundane critique to level at the geoengineering clique – they say that the money and prestige men like Gates bring to the table could be better harnessed in crafting policies, legislation and techniques to reduce GHG emissions into the atmosphere in the first place, and that by touting a crackpot idea like geoengineering, they are taking money and attention away from theories and prototypes that could actually fight climate change without denying future generations the chance to see a blue sky.  Thankfully there's a United Nations moratorium in place to prevent any large-scale experiments into geoengineering, let's just hope that it stays in place and that Gates and his merry band of plutocrats are kept from dooming us all while in the safe and certain knowledge that they know better than the rest of us and Mother Nature put together.
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Monday, February 6, 2012

You Can't Be Syria-ous

The big international affairs news of the weekend was the veto in the United Nations Security Council by Russia and China of proposed sanctions against the regime of Syria's Bashar al-Assad, who is continuing a bloody, months-long crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators protesting against his brutal regime.  US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice was utterly beside herself following the vote, telling China, but more directly Russia, that they would now be responsible for the continuing deaths among Syrian civilians.

On the face of it, you wonder how anyone could vote against a resolution meant to try to prevent a dictator from murdering his own citizens.  From a practical level, part of Russia's rationale for vetoing the UNSC resolution was simply driven by recognition of the deep, long-standing ties between their country and a loyal client state.  It has been mentioned in media reports that Syria is a major buyer of Russian military exports; but Syria also hosts one of the few remaining foreign ports-of-call for the Russian Navy at the Mediterranean port of Tartus, without Syria, Russia would largely be shut out of the Middle East, a region in which the old Soviet Union enjoyed a fair level of influence.  It's possible that any follow-on regime to Assad's might be willing to continue this historic relationship, but that is a risk that Russia does not want to take.

But the Russian/Chinese veto of the Syrian resolution was more than just a comment on UN policy towards Syria, it was also a symbolic line in the sand draw for the US-led “Western” community of nations that they were not going to be allowed to pick and choose which regimes stayed in power, at least as long as China and Russia had a say in the matter.  Russia has been openly skeptical about last year's intervention in Libya, saying that the stated humanitarian mission was a cover story for the real goal of ousting a long-standing irritant to the West, Moammar Gadhafi.  And when you look at the uneven way that the humanitarian military operation was conducted – with the US/NATO coalition overlooking rebel atrocities committed against pro-Gadhafi towns for example - there is something to this notion.  Taking a look at the recent actions promoted by the United States, you can see a similar narrative shaping up against Iran (at least from the Russian/Chinese point-of-view), where the United States is pushing the global community to adopt a harsh sanctions regime targeting Iran's oil industry, meant to cripple the country economically by denying them revenue from their main export commodity.

That regime scheme is likely doomed to fail, in large part thanks to the Chinese – the largest buyer of Iranian oil exports – who are refusing to go along with the embargo.  Part of the Chinese rationale, and also the reason cited by countries like India and Turkey, is that the Iranian sanctions lack the blessing of the United Nations.  Saturday's vote makes it clear that such a blessing, either for more strict sanctions or ultimately military action against Iran, won't be coming thanks to the Russians and the Chinese.  Both countries are concerned about American influence in their backyards – for Russia, the former Soviet Republics and Satellites in Eastern Europe and Central Asia; for the Chinese in the Pacific Rim and, again, Central Asia – changing the regime in Iran would be a real feather in the foreign policy cap of Pres. Barack Obama, a move he could parlay into gains in the Russian/Chinese spheres of influence.  Russia and China therefore have a vested interest in making sure that such an event doesn't happen in Iran, Saturday's UN vote was just a small reminder of where things stand in this larger struggle.
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Friday, February 3, 2012

Putin and the Riot Grrrls

One thing is for sure, the developing protest movement in Russia is taking some interesting turns, case in point the all-female punk outfit called Pussy Riot, who have gained a fair bit of notoriety in recent months thanks to a series of impromptu performances and biting lyrics aimed squarely at Vladimir Putin.

The Guardian published this fairly in-depth piece about Pussy Riot, which acts more like a collective rather than a band, and whose members strive for total anonymity – wearing brightly colored balaclavas during performances and interviews to hide their faces.  Their most recent, and boldest, show was two weeks ago on a platform in front of the iconic St. Basil's Cathedral across from the Kremlin where they sang: “revolt in Russia – the charisma of protest / revolt in Russia, Putin's got scared!” – quite a change from just a few years ago when a Russian girl pop band sand about how they wanted “a man like Putin!”  Pussy Riot also sang atop the jail holding blogger and one of the de facto heads of the Russian protest movement, Alexey Navalny, after his arrest during the massive street protests on December 4; their lyrics that night included the lines: “death to prison / freedom to protest!”   

According to The Guardian, the average age of the members of Pussy Riot is 25, they describe themselves as feminists and say that most studied the humanities in college.  What I found really interesting though – beyond the mere idea of a feminist punk protest collective in Russia – is that they seem fairly savvy about the American punk/alternative scene from the 1990s.  Pussy Riot cited the iconic alternative act Sonic Youth as one of their references, along with Bikini Kill, a 90's-era, all-female punk outfit based out of Olympia, Washington who were one of the driving forces of the “riot grrrl” movement.  The lyrics in riot grrrl typically have a feminist bent, while the bands take on an in-your-face attitude.  It seems a good match for Pussy Riot's approach, it’s just surprising when you consider that the main influence on most contemporary female Russian bands are saccharine Europop outfits and that when riot grrrl was having its heyday, Pussy Riot's members were about eight years old and living on the other side of the globe. 

Pussy Riot say they plan to continue protesting, noting the historic role that women have played in Russia's many political upheavals. “There's a deep tradition in Russia of gender and revolution – we've had amazing women revolutionaries,” said a member of Pussy Riot, who in the spirit of anonymity went only by the name of Garazhda. 
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Thursday, February 2, 2012


Be afraid, be very afraid...

That was the message coming from Capitol Hill on Tuesday following a meeting of the Senate Intelligence Committee (an oxymoron of a name if there ever was one), where US intelligence chief Gen. James Clapper (ret.) was grilled on the current standoff with Iran over that country's supposed nuclear weapons program.

According to Clapper, there is no credible intelligence of Iranian plans to stage terror attacks within the United States, yet the takeaway from the Committee meeting was that Iran has plans to stage terror attacks within the United States.  The one item offered as proof of Iranian subterfuge within the United States was last year's comically bad alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington DC.  If you recall, this was the plot that used an Iranian-American used car dealer with a sketchy past to hire a hitman from Mexico's Zetas drug cartel to blow up a DC restaurant where the Saudi ambassador was dining.  The plot was discounted by most experts as not being an official Iranian operation simply because it sounded like the plot of a bad spy movie and because the Iranian intelligence agencies pride themselves on being a professional and efficient organization.

Still, that didn't stop the Senate Intelligence Committee from buying into in on Tuesday.  They presented the specter - based on no credible information - of a network of Iranian sleeper cells waiting in America, ready to launch terror attacks if the US followed through on threats of military action against Iran's nuclear research sites.  The threat of retaliatory terror attacks was then used as evidence in favor of military action against Iran. 

And at this point my head really starts to spin at the circular logic being employed by our esteemed Senators.  To quote the great Yogi Berra, this is really starting to seem like deja vu all over again.  It all recalls the tortured logic that led up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Then we were told we had to act because of the threat of a “mushroom cloud” erupting over an American city.  Even though there was no evidence that Iraq had a nuclear program (and after the war we learned definitively that they did not), the Iraqis could not prove that they did not have a nuclear program, which to our leaders at the time was proof enough of a threat.  Once again we are tying ourselves up in logical knots as we rush headlong to what would be our third war in the region in just over a decade.  Considering that we've arguably gone 0-2 in regional conflicts, you'd think we wouldn't be in such a hurry.
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Iran Plays The Oil Card

Speaking of Iran (see the previous post), they may be turning the tables on the whole US-proposed, European-backed sanctions regime.  The United States is championing an idea to strangle the Iranian economy by banning the sale of Iranian oil globally, with the hope being that the loss of their main revenue stream will convince the Iranians to give up their nuclear research program and perhaps as a bonus bring down the Iranian government.  For the United States, the sanctions are no big deal since the US basically imports no oil from Iran, for the Europeans though it is a different matter – Europe accounts for roughly a quarter of Iran's oil export sales.  Because Europe gets so much oil from Iran, the European version of the sanctions have a six-month phase-in period to allow European countries to find  alternative supplies of oil.

But the Iranians are going them one better by discussing their own boycott of oil sales to Europe, meaning that shipments to Europe could stop immediately.  To make matters worse for the European Union, some of the countries that are the most dependent on Iranian oil are also the European economies in the worst shape, namely Greece and Italy.  The six-month phase-in was designed to put as little stress as possible on their economies, but if Iran halts shipments immediately, both countries will need to replace the volumes of missing Iranian crude on the more volatile, and more expensive, spot crude oil market, or face the prospect of massive fuel shortages; two conditions that could push their already teetering economies over the edge.

So far Iran has held off on making their embargo official, the Iranian parliament was suppose to debate the embargo bill last Sunday, but postponed action.  Other Iranian officials though are saying that the European sanctions are not a question of if, but rather when.  And in another blow to the US-led efforts, both China and India have publicly stated that they will be happy to buy up any excess Iranian crude leftover from the embargoed European sanctions.  Both countries will likely force Iran to sell them crude oil at a discount, but vast sums of money will continue to flow into Iran, severely undermining the whole point of the US-led sanction regime.
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