Monday, April 23, 2012

Blogging from Bali

Last day in Bali--Air Asia to Jakarta in 5 hours, then Hanoi on Thursday.  Bali was alright for 6 days, clubbing in Kuta, hiked the rice paddies in the foothills of Mount Agung, fires on the beach with poi, and too much arak.  But the Balinese are friendly too the point of exasperation, and in tourist traps like Kuta everyone is trying to make a quick buck off the honkies.  Walk down the street and you are offered 5000 pairs of rip-off sunglasses, NBA jerseys, tacky jewelry, magic mushrooms, motorcycle rentals.
One day I bought some sate for this Indonesian kid in Kuta, hung out, smoked cigarettes with him, then when I met up with him again back in Kuta he drew a nice sketch for me, signed it "Bali 2012."  I thought, gee whiz, what a kind heart, maybe I've made a new friend, only an hour later he told me i hadn't paid him for the drawing yet.  I grudgingly gave him a 5,000 RP, about 60 cents U.S. (but also half the price of a cheap dinner), and we didn't talk too much after that.  These kids are broke, but so am I, and I don't think any of them have tens of thousands of dollars of college loan debt.  I don't mind buying thing, but i miss the unnumerated generosity of American youth.  Did make some friends though, who talked to me about politics and independence movements.  Some say Independence for Bali, others not so much.

In the rural areas, it is much more pleasant, and every single child says "Hello" in a sing-songy voice when you walked by.  It reminded me of the television show Arrested Development, when the Bluth family adopts a Korean kid who always says "Anyong," the Korean word for hello.  Thinking this is his name, George Michael and co repeat it back to him--"Hello" "hello," "Hello."  You can haggle with the shop owners, and people want to talk to you without selling you anything.  Beautiful vistas, and  big plates of nasi gorerg for less than a dollar.  Plus Hindu temples out the wazoo.

I would probably come back to Bali, but avoid the population centers, filled with dumb Euro girls and Australian bros.  I met these two Dutch girls, said they were on a gap year in Bali, had an apartment and everything.  I asked them where else I should go on the island, and they said they had not yet left Kuta in 4 months.  This would be the equivalent of a foreigner moving to California for pleasure, and spending the entire time within the smog of the San Fernando Valley.  There is fun to be had, but it is empty pointless fun, the McDonald's of vacations, with mainstream American club music and watery beer.  Pleasant, but I can get the exact same experience on Main Street, Royal Oak, with the same crowd of Greek System idiots wearing tight polo shirts.  The hotels are cheap though.

Monday, April 16, 2012

What a joke: The Truman National Security Project and Foreign Policy "Progressives"

Today, the Truman National Security Project, which deems itself a "progressive" foreign policy think tank, released a series of talking point guidebooks, and they give a clear picture of the outdated and bankrupt thinking of Washington's supposedly leftist elite.

Concerning the briefing book on Iran, the Truman Project shows its true colors right from the start, by falsely claiming that Tehran has nuclear weapons, writing "Tough diplomacy can force the regime to give up nuclear weapons, and stop its program at nuclear energy that we can monitor."  Unless the desk jockeys and interns at Truman know something that the 16 government intelligence agencies don't, the above statement is a woeful misrepresentations of the facts.  Both the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran (which is unclassified), as well as a 2011 update to that NIE (still classified), state that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program, and has not since halting the program in 2003.  By trying to hide this fact, the Truman project is approaching Iraq WMD territory, and only a similar stance by the rest of the Washington D.C. establishment allows them to maintain credibility while contradicting the official government position, which was distilled from the opinions of the massive U.S. intelligence community.

The briefing book also strongly warns against diplomatic negotiations with Iran, stating that "the Iranian regime has not shown itself to be a trustworthy negotiator," and instead advocates a policy of strict sanctions.  Perhaps this is why a round a negotiations just took place in Istanbul between the world powers and Iran, and a second round in Baghdad is soon to come.  And in no way does this view reflect U.S. popular opinion, as an ABC News/Washington Post poll from March 12th showed that 81% of respondents favored "direct U.S.-Iran talks."

Moreover, the "background and context" section of the report gives one sentence to describe U.S.-Iranian relations during the 37 years that Shah Reza Pahlavi ruled the country with an iron fist, omitting the 1953 CIA coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mossadegh (a nationalist who had challenged the Shah), as well as the brutal policies of the Shah's SAVAK secret police, who engaged in indiscriminate torture and abuse.  These facts are not lost on the Iranian people and their leaders, and by ignoring America's past indiscretions, the Truman Project presents a false reality that will get policy makers nowhere when trying to make headway on the Iran front.  Even President Obama knew that admitting U.S. mistakes was necessary in dealing with Iran, when he stated in 2009 that "the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government."  You would think that a "progressive" establishment like Truman would at least have the courage to cite the President in this instance, but they did not.

Of course, none of this is truly surprising.  What amounts to official foreign policy leftists in DC, judging by the Truman Projects leadership, are former Secretaries of Defense (William Perry) and State (Madeline Albright), as well as cruise missile liberals like Anne Marie Slaughter.  They have absolutely no connection to the generation of American's who became politically active during the Bush years, a generation extremely wary of American imperialist urges.  This is similar to the growing divide on Israel between the American jewish establishment and young American jews, as described recently by Peter Beinart in his book The Crisis of Zionism (for an earlier version on Beinart's thinking, read his 2010 piece in the NYRB "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment."  Unless think-tanks like the Truman Project are able to break-free of beltway thinking, they will be stuck issuing briefing books like the one discussed above, which have little connection to reality.  And as such they will slowly drift into oblivion, as more and more of the American populous will view them with skepticism, as yet another attempt to machinate global hegemony.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Meta: Traveling, so infrequent postings

I have been visiting some family in Australia, and today am leaving for two weeks in Indonesia and then Vietnam.  Not sure the frequency with which i will be writing.  Hopefully i will manage to get something up.  Lets not invade Syria or Iran or Mali or Canada while I am gone.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

K Street and the Arab Spring

Harbour Group, a Washington D.C. lobbying firm, is soon to receive payment from the new Libyan power structure in Tripoli, after working pro-bono for the last year on behalf of the National Transitional Council (NTC).  In an article at The Hill, it was revealed that the Harbour group recently signed a new $15,000 a month contract with the Libyan Embassy.

Since April 2011, the Harbour Group has been running a successful PR operation in the U.S. for the Benghazhi-based forces who overthrew Gadhafi.  The NTC was recognized as an official government by the State Department, and was handed the substantial amount of Libyan assets in the U.S. that were seized by the Obama Administration.  Patton Boggs, another large K street lobbying group, has also been representing the new Libyan regime, with David Tafuri, a partner at the firm, taking four trips to Libya over the past year.  According to The Hill, Patton Boggs has been paid $240,000 from the NTC since signing a contract in July 2011.

However, as proof that money speaks louder than ideology, U.S. firms had no problems in the past lobbying for Gadhafi as well.  The Cambridge, Massachusetts based Monitor Group held a hefty $250,000-month contract with Tripoli, recruiting prominent American academics to praise the Libyan government.  Those who took the groups speaking fees include Bernard Lewis, Francis Fukyama, Richard Perle, and Joseph Nye.  Nye, a Harvard professor and the originator of the idea of "soft power," visited Libya in 2007, meeting with Gadhafi, and then wrote a favorable article about the trip for The New Republic.  As late as August 2011, in an incident that has yet to be explained, David Welch, a top State Department officer in the Bush Administration and current Bechtel executive, was meeting with Gadhafi government officials in Cairo, discussing with them strategies to stymie rebel advances and create a more favorable PR climate.  The meeting was uneathered when al-Jazeera reporters found government files after the NATO backed opposition militias had taken Tripoli.

More After the Jump

Boozin' it up in Bahrain

Over the weekend, the Navy Times published (h/t Politico's Morning Defense) an expose on Naval Captain David Geisler, who was fired in late 2011 from his post commanding the 5th Fleets logistical operations in Bahrain.  His crime?  Partying too hard.
The article describes the frat-house culture among U.S. officers in Bahrain, a culture championed by Commodore Geisler, who at one event in Bahrain's Floating City (a man-made island development with canals in full view of apartments and sidewalks) "spent the afternoon drinking and floating in an inner tube on the canal, removed his bathing suit and swam nude."  This was not out of the ordinary.  Going by the nickname "Hoss,"  Geisler used his government issued email and blackberry to set up weekend get-togethers and club nights, including toga parties and lingerie parties (one participant remembers Hoss wearing black silk shorts to the latter).

While there is a humorous, Sergeant Bilko-esque quality to all of this, there is also a serious side.  As the Navy Times article recounts:
Officers began to feel that an “in-crowd” had formed around Geisler and grew suspicious he was choosing his buddies for trips with him, bestowing them with awards and bailing them out when they got in trouble.
Sailors saw a double standard — they heard tales of their commodore at wild parties and rumors that he and his “crew” had been out past curfew, transgressions for which they’d be punished.
“I clearly get the feeling that our enlisted folks are beginning to resent the officer[s] because there is a perception that officers can do whatever they want,” one officer said in a sworn statement, adding that this is why they had avoided the parties. “It is clearly creating an environment of favoritism.”
The late, great sociologist Chalmers Johnson has also written about the negative effects this type of military base behavior has on host countries, often turning populations against the bases when the exploits go from rowdy to dangerous, such as sexual assaults committed by American soldiers in South Korea.  In Middle Eastern countries, where the populations are sometimes deeply Islamic and thus not in favor of alcohol or sexual proclivity, the potential for antagonism grows even larger.  The article quotes a Navy spokesman as saying they are "unaware of any host-nation impact" spawning from the Geisler's party crew, however coupled with the popular uprisings against the U.S. allied al-Khalifa regime, the situation seems like a tinderbox just waiting to be set alight.

Monday, April 9, 2012

"The Real Bashar al-Assad"

Last week, Camille Otrakji, a Syrian political and cultural expert and writer for Syria Comment, published perhaps the best article I have read to date on the political prospects of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.  Attempting to cut through both the pro and anti regime propaganda, Otrakji examines Assad's domestic popularity by looking at his performance on key issues, assessing the size the demonstrations over the past year, and looking at the various government "red lines" that any negotiations will hinge on.  Otrakji's conclusion:
Political reforms must take place, and Bashar Al Assad, far from the perfect figure his supporters see, is still the only leader that can lead Syria to free elections. Moderate, secular opposition must reclaim the revolution from the militants and those who are genuinely concerned about stability and democratic reforms in Syria should stop supporting “the opposition” and instead recognize and empower moderates from both the regime’s side and the opposition’s.
 Some highlights from the article (which is definitely worth reading in full)

-In his eleven years in office, Assad's lowest marks come on fighting corruption.  There is a definite perception in Syria that "the rich got richer, while the poor got poorer."  As the upper class benefited, hundreds of thousands of Syrians moved from the drought-stricken rural areas, where they were receiving little government assistance, to the outskirts of major cities like Damascus and Aleppo, a process that the historian Gabriel Kolko has termed "forced urbanization."  However, the Western Media claims that Assad and his family have looted the Syrian treasury to the tune of billions of dollars are also false.  When Swiss banks froze Syrian accounts last December following EU sanctions, they seized only $53 million, which was spread over 54 top officials and 12 companies.  Syria also has virtually no national debt, despite having a large military budget and a relatively successful welfare system which provides free education and healthcare for the states 23 million citizens.  If Assad and co were stealing the national wealth, it had to come from somewhere, and it is hard to see where that is.  Summing up the personal habits of the Syrian president, Otrakji writes:
President Bashar himself enjoys computers and expensive professional digital cameras. But he also lives in his father’s old apartment after renovating it and furnishing it with modern furniture and art. He drives luxury cars donated as gifts to the Presidential Palace by fellow Arab rulers of GCC countries, but never drove exotic cars and refused offers of exotic cars as gifts from his friends in Qatar, Kuwait or the UAE. When he was younger, and when his older brother was into Italian exotic cars, Bashar drove a small Peugeot sedan. He enjoys playing tennis or cycling with his family or his old friends for hours outdoors. His wife, the first lady, is well known for her expensive taste in European fashion brands but she does not wear expensive jewelry and instead wears mostly fashion jewelry. While the President likes to stay close to his old friends, the first lady tends to favor the friendship of members of leading business families from Syria and Lebanon. She is a hard worker and a perfectionist who was clearly recognized as the Arab world’s most successful first lady.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Updates on Israeli Gas fields, Iraqi-Kuwait relations

A couple updates on stories I have written about recently.

First, an Israeli government commission set up by PM Netanyahu issued its recommendations for Israel's massive offshore natural gas deposits, discovered over the past three years.  The report, authored by Energy and Water Ministry Director General Shaul Tzemach, stated that Israel should reserve half of the Tamar and Leviathan fields for domestic use, and export the other half.  This would mean maintaining a strategic reserve of 400 billion cubic meters (BCM), which Tzemach said would be enough to supply Israeli needs for 25 years.  The Tamar field, which is set to become operational in 2013, holds an estimated 240 BCM (or 8.3 trillion cubic feet), while the the larger Leviathan field, which won't come online until 2017, holds an estimated 450 BCM (or 16 TCF).  Noble Energy, a Houston-based energy corporaation, holds the largest share in both the fields.  For much more on this subject, see my writings summarizing the excellent F. William Engdahl's reports.

Second, Iraqi-Kuwait relations, historically tense, have begun to thaw in recent weeks.  Kuwait was the only GCC state to send high level representatives to the Arab League Summit in Baghdad, and now Kuwait's Jazeera Airlines has begun to offer direct flights to Baghdad and Najaf, starting at four flights to each city every week.  These are the first direct flights between the two neighboring countries since Iraq's 1990 invasion and occupation of Kuwait.  This is an example of what Iraq expert Reider Visser describes as the phenomenon of a growing number of Arab States who are "prepared to interact with Iraq as a perfectly normal Arab state," disavowing the totalizing "Shia crescent" doctrine pushed by the Saudi leaders.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A tale of two meetings, Part II

As the Arab League was meeting in Baghdad (see part I), the "Friends of Syria" conference in Istanbul was being prepared for by the Gulf monarchs and western leaders.

This was the second meeting of the group, following up on a February meeting held in the Tunisian capitol of Tunis.  The Istanbul conference was attended by representatives from over 70 countries, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.  Not in attendance, however, were leaders from Russia, China, and Iran, giving the conference a decidedly NATO-dominated tone.

The only major development to come out of the conference was an agreement that Saudi Arabia and Qatar would establish a $100 million slush fund to "pay the salaries" of anti-government fighters in Syria.  Despite the White House's reticence on arming the opposition, the U.S. made no move to quell this initiative, undertaken by two close American allies.  In fact, considering that Secretary Clinton visited Saudi Arabia only days prior to the conference, their may have been a tacit U.S. endorsement of the plan.

In Washington, the Obama administration's public Syria policy has been to aid the opposition with communications equipment and intelligence, including the use of drones in Syrian airspace, while leaving the dirtier task of providing armaments to its allies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  This did not change at the Istanbul conference, with Mrs. Clinton upping the American assistance to $25 million, which now included satellite intelligence and night vision goggles.  While the State Department euphemistically characterized this aid as helping fighters "evade attacks from government forces," Atlantic editor Robert Wright correctly surmises that the U.S. aid will in fact be used for offensive purposes--"helping Syrians kill other Syrians"--as he put it.

Part of the U.S.'s hesitance to commit full-throttle to the anti-government forces is a widespread apprehension of who exactly is participating in protests and battles with Assad's forces, as well as the concern that the opposition power structure of the SNC is entirely exile based and has no popular mandate within Syria.  As a CNN report put it, "While not abandoning the SNC entirely, senior officials say the Obama administration in recent months has begun to cast a much wider net for Syrians who can run Syria the day after al-Assad falls. The United States could no longer put all of its eggs in the SNC's basket."  The shadow looming over the SNC, is of course, the Iraqi National Congress, the exile group who heavily lobbied for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but then fell apart and had no tangible effect on post-war governance, leaving the U.S. without an established partner to help rule Baghdad.  The worry is that the SNC is of a similar stripe, and thus the U.S. would be alone in trying to hold power in a post-Assad Damascus.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A tale of two meetings

This week, two major diplomatic summits were held in the Middle East, and in sum they paint a cogent picture of the geopolitics in the region. Part 1 will deal with the Arab League Summit held in Baghdad, while Part 2 will look at the "Friends of Syria" meeting in Istanbul.

Arab League Meeting in South Africa
The Arab League held a three day summit in Baghdad's Green Zone, its first meeting since the start of last years protest movements.   It was also the first Arab League summit to be held in Iraq since 1990, before the first Gulf War.  The meetings, however, were attended by leaders of less than half of the League's 22 member-states, with the powerful Gulf monarchs absent.  From the six GCC states, only the Kuwati emir attended the meeting, the first visit from Iraq's southern neighbor since Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion and occupation of Kuwait.  Egypt and Yemen, whose longtime figurehead dictators were toppled by popular unrest, also sent low-level representatives.

The Baghdad leadership hoped that the meeting would serve as a coming out party for Iraq, held exactly nine years after the start of American invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein.  In a sign of the new times, the summit was the first to ever be headed by a Kurd, Iraqi president Jalal Talabani.  To ensure support, Iraq signed off on a number of outstanding concessions with other Arab states.  They met Saudi demands that Saddam-era Trade Minister Mohammad Mahdi Saleh be released from prison, and reduced terrorist sentences from capital punishment to life in prison.  With Egypt, they settled the issue of "yellow money orders"--worker compensation from the Saddam era that had not been redeemed.  For African leaders from Somalia, Dijibouti, and the Comoros Islands, Iraq rented presidential planes to take them to the summit.

Violence, however, marred the days before the summit, with a string of deadly bombings rocking the country on March 21st, hitting eight cities from Kirkuk to Karbala.  In Baghdad, despite the security measures in place, bombs exploded outside the foreign ministry, security buildings, and just past the walls of the Green Zone.  All together 46 people died and over 200 were wounded in less than six hours.  The Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaida affiliated group, claimed responsibility for the attacks.

The meeting itself was largely centered around the growing regional divide between the NATO-friendly governments (the Saudis, Qatar, Bahrain, Yemen, etc...) and the Tehran-centered bloc of Iran, Syria, and the Hezbollah party in Lebanon.  The absence in Baghdad of the GCC leaders, as well as leaders from U.S. allies Egypt and Yemen, only went to show which side of this divide Iraq is starting to sit on.