Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Bribing the Saudis with weapons = key to stability?

America is to give billions of dollars in military aid to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern states. Is it trying to buy friends using weapons as currency? Yep. Will this work out well for anyone, hold the Saudis? Nope.

History repeats itself: Bribing against extremism
This is not the first time the US hopelessly tried to get the Saudis to be a viral beacon of moderacy in a sea of extremism. As this Slate article points out, 26 years ago Reagan tried to bribe the Saudis into joining the peace process... (long quote, I know, but it's worth it):

Twenty-six years later, this rational for selling arms to the Saudis is still valid. Two weeks ago, President George W. Bush announced that the United States will host a regional peace conference in the fall, and clearly the Saudis would be the big "get."
But luring the Saudis to the peace conference is not the only reason the Bush administration wants to sell the Saudis some of the most sophisticated weaponry on the market. It's not even the main reason. The deal, officially announced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday, "will help bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of al-Qaeda, Hizballah, Syria, and Iran," according to her statement.

In short, it is meant to ensure the Saudis' commitment to the "moderate" camp, to help Washington better manage its affairs in Iraq and prepare to block Iranian expansionism in the region. The United States is practically bribing the Saudis to make them more cooperative in Iraq and more confident in light of an emboldened Iran. This is yet another manifestation of an administration that is setting its priorities anew: No more reforming the Middle East—let's focus on managing it in the old, realist way. Using friends, however reluctant, against foe; manipulating regional powers against each other; using whatever regimes are at hand to ease the pressure on the United States.

The problem with the Saudis, though, is that time and again they have proved to be unbribable and unmaneuverable. In fact, it is Riyadh that is manipulating Washington into this questionable deal, using tactics they've been perfecting for decades—never fully committing themselves, always leaving the door open to other alternatives to keep the United States on its toes. If America will not sell them weapons, they might turn to China or Russia. And as for the threat from Iran, they know that the United States knows that leaving the Saudis to their fate is not an option. Not as long as there's no real alternative to the fuel they so generously provide.
This new deal with the kingdom is no more than another down payment, an attempt to ensure its future cooperation on a number of issues on which the Saudis should have cooperated long ago. ... This is one of many instances in which the Saudis have defied U.S. interests and played the double agent: working with Syria on the fate of Lebanon, orchestrating an agreement between rival Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas, allowing Saudi businessmen to keep an open channel to al-Qaida.

So why is Saudi Arabia so bad (besides the human rights abuses and support for terrorism, and all that other jazz)?
An influential US envoy to Iraq has even said that Saudi Arabia is a driving force behind the instability in Iraq. Oops... How's that for an example of a moderate and positive Mideast actor with strong ties to America? One has to wonder: In the US-Saudi relationship, who's exploiting who?

The differences between Brown and Bush

Brown might be pro-US, but he is no Blair.

The world media still seems to be buzzing about the meeting between British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and US President George Bush. While they seemed to agree on many points, their disagreements — no matter how subtle; often on big issues — are coming to light. Bush views Iraq as the central front in the United States-led 'war on terror', whereas Brown sees Afghanistan as where the real battle against terror is and should be.

Iraq is no doubt full of terrorism, but only because of sectarian violence and foreign occupation. There are many factions, and so many battles. Terror networks via militia exist in both Afghanistan and Iraq and reach even to the national level (e.g. allegations of Saudi Arabia and Iran fueling some groups). But Afghanistan is the original site of the GWOT and the occupation there has the backing of the UN and NATO. Iraq, on the other hand, is much less straightforward and, contrasting with the reality of the occupation in Afghanistan, one can make the case that foreign soldiers being there does little in the fight against international terrorism.

Iraq is becoming a hotbed because of the war (blowback) — both the civil one and the one started in 2003 by the US and its allies; Afghanistan would be a terrorist haven regardless. Some view this blunt difference in priorities as Brown's way of appeasing Britain and wider Europe, vehemently opposed to the Iraq war.

Also on Iraq, Brown said that the United Kingdom will stick to plan and withdrawal troops regardless of whether the United States stays. However it does plan to stay there until the job is done. While the leaders are stressing unity, the fact that Britain intends to go its separate way from the US in Iraq is major. The British PM also opposes the language of a 'war' on terror and thinks a military fight against terrorism is not enough. I agree.

Another good move (away from Bush) Brown made was on terrorism. He rightly described terrorism as a "crime", compared to Bush's view that it is an act of pure evil and we must stop it even if we destroy the constitutional foundation of America in the progress and kill many. Brown is not the politicizer of terrorism his Atlantic counterpart is famous for being; I believed he handled the attempted attacks in Britain earlier this summer well, from both a political and a policy viewpoint. He also is right to be worried and want to take action on climate change; Bush couldn't care less.

In politics message, and thus language, is everything. Bush and Blair managed to illustrate their contrasting views pretty well without looking like they oppose each other absolutely.

[Bush and Brown's] words subtly illustrated, not policy differences, but their own policy priorities and approaches.

President Bush's language was, as always, full of phrases like "the war against extremists and radicals" in Iraq and around the world.

Prime Minister Brown deliberately described terrorism as a "crime", in an effort perhaps to demystify it and make it easier for everyone around the world, Muslims included, to oppose it.

And he tried to paint a more complex picture of Iraq by differentiating the factions - the Sunni/Shia split, the "involvement of Iran", the "large number of al-Qaeda terrorists".

However, as Mr Bush said, both agreed that this was "akin to the Cold War".
He called Afghanistan the "front line against terrorism," an honour normally assigned by Mr Bush to Iraq.

The British prime minister also referred a couple of times to the issue of "climate change". Mr Bush did not.

The point about Iraq and Afghanistan is that these are policies that Mr Brown inherited. This relationship has not yet been tested in the development of new ones.

The most difficult one could be Iran. Further sanctions are expected to be discussed at the UN in September but if there is no progress in getting Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, there could be pressure within the Bush administration for military action to be taken before the president leaves office in January 2009.

That would indeed be a test to see if the US and UK stayed together.

Brown also seems to be much more serious on humanitarian issues like Darfur than Bush, who limits his action on such issues to mere rhetoric (unless such issues might relate to his fight against terror, like in Somalia, then he'll even agree to indirectly work with/help the dreaded North Korea). Brown takes a special interest in world poverty and the plight of many in Africa; Bush cares only if terrorists may be involved, and even then the focus is not on the possible source of terrorism support: poverty, plight, and insecurity. Africa has plenty of that, and the Islamist extremists are taking advantage of that.

With all this talk of unity and strong ties, the leaders of America and the UK seem to have plenty of issues on which they disagree.

Monday, 30 July 2007

Bush-Brown Camp David accords

Britain's static post-Blair foreign policy with the US: same old thing (?)

On Sunday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown traveled to the United States for a meeting with President George Bush at Camp David. This if the first official meeting between Brown and Bush; it's hard to forget how close Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, was to Bush. Today Brown will address the United Nations in New York — but the bigger news, of course, is how his relationship with the US is shaping out. If it is any indicator of the possible unchanging rhetorical lip-service policy that carried over from Blair to Brown, Brown stated last night that, as the BBC reported, 'the world owes a debt to the United States for its leadership in the fight against international terrorism'. (Who exactly is the US leading?) Superficially nothing much seems to have changed, except Brown wearing a suit as compared to Blair's Chinos; policy-wise it gets more complicated.

There has been plenty of speculation lately about the shift in relations between Britain and America. A report that the UK had been basically used for questionable activity by the US in its 'war on terror' had many, including me, talking about whether the signals of the end of the "special relationship" are valid. The BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, pointed out the lose-lose issue of Brown placating both the US and his electorate (from above BBC article):

Analysts will be looking for signs of the Brown regime distancing itself from the US during the trip.
BBC political editor Nick Robinson said Mr Brown was "walking a tightrope" in his dealings with America. ["He's doing all he can to signal to people at home that the Brown/Bush relationship will be very different to the Blair/Bush partnership, whilst striving to reassure the Americans that nothing fundamental has changed.
"The Americans are likely to seek reassurances about Gordon Brown's plans for the country that dare not be mentioned."]
He needed to reassure Mr Bush of his commitment to the Atlantic relationship as well as convince British voters that links between the US and the UK would be different to those maintained by former prime minister Tony Blair, our correspondent said.

So will Brown try harder to please voters, or please the American government? Considering what he's spewed out so far, it appears he is following Blair by pursuing the latter option: kiss up to the superpower, act like the 'war on terror' is a really good thing, point out all the things going right, ignore those going wrong, and let people know how lucky we are to have a nation like America in the international community (if only America gave back... diplomatically, that is; I'm not denying that the US doesn't do a lot of good, but it does do plenty of bad).

Will Brown be frank and serious about issues like the closure of Guantanamo, Britain's role in Iraq, and the unfair (to the UK) one-way treaties his predecessor dared not speak about with his American counterpart? Probably not, but we'll see. The Guardian offered an editorial/leader on the need for Brown to 'send the right signal'. There is no need for Brown to be irrational and anti-American like, worryingly, a good amount of his fellow Britons are becoming, that's not going to happen anyways; it would also be bad for him to be exultingly pro-American, failing to put the US in its place when it strays, and giving it the upper hand in nearly all aspects of their transatlantic relationship.

On at least one issue, Iraq, Brown is following lock-step with his predecessor's stubborn, possibly in-independent view. However the UK is not in nearly as much muck there as America. Today Brown said he agreed with Bush that the UK had "duties to discharge and responsibilities to keep" in Iraq. He then moved on to talk about moving "control to the Iraqi authorities", but failed to specify, as usual, roughly when or how. Bush seems to be testing the (Brown) water, i.e. trying to gauge whether Brown will be nearly the ally Blair was.

I agree with the shadow foreign secretary that Brown really needs to make his policy on US-UK relations clear, rather than letting confusion reign. It does appear, however, that Brown's attitude towards the US and his own government differs from his predecessor's. For one thing, he is to wear a suit to the meeting at Camp David; Blair often was more casual and brought his wife along. "Sofa" government has been thrown out with Blair, it seems, and Brown is hoarding less power from the parliament he is a member of compared to Blair's often unchecked power. Parliament should have such power; the prime minister provides leadership.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Drunk flying

Wow, this cannot be good for a national space organization already tarnished by scandals, lack of public interest, decrease in funding, increase in political rhetoric, and who knows what else...

BBC News:

US astronauts were allowed to fly while drunk at least twice, a review panel set up by space agency Nasa has found.

Any good news for America's space agency? Nope.
Earlier, Nasa confirmed that a contractor had sabotaged a computer in an unrelated incident.

What ever happened to Bush's far-fetched attempt to court at least some of the scientific community by proposing a mission to Mars? Between the administration's contempt of biological research like stem cell technology (the stem cell vetoes speak for themselves) and its opposition to taking action or truly acknowledging climate change, and its embrace of creationism, not to mention funding cuts and a belief that religion trumps science, the scientist demographic is not one the White House scores well with. Realizing that, the president probably decided to drop his Mars fantasy for the most part.

Bullying the press

It's no secret: the Bush administration puts an unbelievable amount of spin on press releases, as to limit governmental transparency as much as possible. (Politicians always do that — they just take it to the next level.) But now it has sunk to a new low. On Wednesday the White House press secretary, Tony Snow, singled out a reporter and told him to 'correct' his article, which, in Snow's humble opinion, 'twisted [Snow's rhetoric] out of context'. The reporter's name was Les Kinsolving, a fairly liberal reporter and talk radio host...

The Raw Story (note: has a strong anti-Bush bent, for those of you not familiar with it; I usually don't cite it) reported that

Kinsolving asked Snow whether the President thinks it would be a good idea for all Americans to prepare an emergency survival kit for a possible terrorist attack or natural disaster.

Snow quickly said he couldn't comment, and then proceeded to take time out to lecture Kinsolving on his job, "Let me just point out," Snow said, "that you need to ask questions that bear on the President's responsibilities."

Snow continued to press Kinsolving, "I saw the piece you wrote the other day, that has been thoroughly twisting[sic] out of context." At this point Kinsolving tried to get a word in, but Snow was having none of it, "You know what I don't care, because the fact is, if someone is going to take questions about things that don't fall under the president's purview, and I answer that question, and it gets twisted, it is a disservice to this White House and the craft of journalism."

It was never clear exactly what piece Snow was objecting to, but he was annoyed enough to suggest, "that if I were you, I would pick up the phone and tell them to start cleaning up or writing corrections."

You can see the whole thing on video too in the aforelinked article. When the government's 'requesting' the press act with less criticism, it is certainly not acting in the interest of democracy. We've seen that plenty with the Bush White House and the so-called liberal news media (or SCLNM, as it is also known as on Daily Kos). Kinsolving has apparently stepped down from his post as White House correspondent.

Mr. Snow: reporters are there to let the people — and remember the US government is (supposed to be) a government of the people, by the people, for the people — know what the heck their government is doing, or at least as much as they can get out of your narrow and opinionated announcements. The Bush administration has already done enough to the press, a pillar of democracy, especially when dealing with the topics of national security, war, and executive affairs. Secretism and spin are two of the strongest traits this White House has to offer. Too bad it doesn't have more positive and constructive strong points.

No matter who's asking the questions (at least in the White House Press Corps), they often warrant an answer more revealing than the ever ubiquitous "No comment" or the loyal "The President believes...". Democracy requires transparency; it requires the people to ask the government and the government to answer to the people. In this modern age, the fact that the 24-minute-long Daily Show with John Stewart reveals more than four hours of any national news network does is worrying.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Course of action: some GWOT recommendations

This is the conclusion, for now, of "The War on Terror and the Fire Paradox" blog post series.

So how should America go about its 'war' against terrorism? The root cause of terrorism needs ample understanding, thus helping in the fight, or what could be described as a fight, more against the source of terrorism than its effects. An issue with counterterrorism efforts abroad is that cooperation — if not total coordination — with the local government at the site of the operation is needed, as well as with others who may be affected.

The 9/11 Commission, set up over a year after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks upon the United States, gave a handful of major recommendations for an American course of action in the global battle against radical Islamic terrorism. "But the enemy is not just "terrorism," some generic evil. This vagueness blurs the strategy. The catastrophic threat at this moment in history is more specific. It is the threat posed by Islamist terrorism — especially the al Qaeda network, its affiliates, and its ideology." (p.362)

The 9/11 Commission Report also states education as a major preventative effort in states susceptible to breeding or attracting terrorism, as is economic development aid (pp.377-379). In addition, the report stresses a positive image of the United States in the Muslim world in order to allow the US to be seen as a legitimate and positive force, and not hinder its operations with governments wishing to help in battling extremism (pp.376-377).

Not only does the transnational flow of terrorists and their radical movements need to be halted, but a helpful combination of good PR (but not propaganda), economic agreements (but not unreasonable concessions), and open-channel diplomacy (but not a free-for-all) should be kept with states suspected of harboring — or even directly or indirectly supporting — terrorism. Countries like Syria, which is a major hub for insurgents entering Iraq, could help in the fight against terrorism if they were not shunned by the US. In Syria's case*, good relations with America could even bring the state further from more devious states like Iran. Lest we forget, terrorism is a problem for other governments too, even 'evil' ones. Most every state in the Middle East and North Africa fears terrorism of the radical Islamic persuasion.

The US cannot fight its war alone either. It needs to be willing to reach out to friends and foes alike, observing the greater good while still keeping on the ethical side of things. Guantanamo Bay does little in helping the war on terrorism, except in political ways for the Bush administration — e.g. when a suspect 'confesses' to some sort of scary-sounding terrorist plot, it raises political support for the White House. Gitmo is a negative symbol in the war on terror and looks bad from close allies like the United Kingdom as well as disgruntled Middle Easterners who already mad enough at America — things like Gitmo may well push them over the edge and radicalize the population, thus playing into the extremists' hands. Not to mention the fact it's a legal and human rights disgrace, an example of how freedom suffers at the hands of those who fight in the name of security (freedom v. security). These extremists resort to big measures to get public opinion on their side; the US is only helping them by providing perfect rallying cries: 'the imperial occupiers, who kill your brothers and bombed your village wish to harm us further', etc.

As Joseph Nye points out in a Foreign Affairs article from May/June 2004, you cannot just use military power in the 'war on terror' — perception matters*, whether in the eyes of allies or enemies. Allies must see the United States' foreign policy as legitimate, other must see it as non-threatening. Anti-Americanism is more serious than some in Washington think, and it’s high time to take actions to limit the resent against America.


  • Ferguson, Niall. Colossus: the Rise and Fall of the American Empire. New York: Penguin, 2004.
  • Ikenberry, G. John. “America’s Imperial Ambition”. Foreign Affairs Sept/Oct 2002.
  • Nye, Joseph S., Jr. “The Decline of America's Soft Power: Why Washington Should Worry”. Foreign Affairs May/June 2004.
    ---. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: PublicAffairs, 2005.
  • United States. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. The 9/11 Commission Report. By Thomas H. Kean, et al. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.
    * = a post from this blog

  • Living up to tech hype: not an easy task

    I touched and fiddled with the Apple iPhone for the first time the day before yesterday while I was at my local AT&T store to get a new SIM card (if it gets locked, never try to unlock it yourself... lesson learned) for my mobile. It works quite well and, surprisingly, the finger-touch screen works really well, even the keyboard. Browsing the web was fairly easy — fast on WiFi, although I didn't have a chance to try the GSM/EDGE data connection — and navigation was a breeze. However there are a number of reasons outlined in this post I won't get an iPhone anytime soon.

    Apple did well this quarter (i.e. the months of April, May, and June) in profits, although it failed to meet the expectations of some over-eager analysts.

    Apple sold 270,000 iPhones on the first two days of their US launch.

    Net income was $818m (£398m) between April and June, up 73% from the same period of 2006.

    Apple shares have risen 62% since the start of the year when chief executive Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone and predicted 10 million sales in 2008.

    In the iPhone's frenzied weekend debut, analysts were hoping for half a million units sold — talk about 'raising the bar' (AT&T wireless' tagline). Keep in mind the iPhone was released on 29 June, the day before the quarter ended.

    Apple said it shipped 1.76 million Macintosh computers in the quarter, a rise of 33% from a year earlier, while shipments of iPods were 9.82 million, up 21% from the same period of 2006.

    A Macworld editor has called this quarter Apple's best ever for its Mac computers. There sure are a lot of people counting on the tech innovator to deliver the goods.

    Just in the short time I was at the store a couple of people filled out contracts for the iPhone, that is they purchased it. Let me point out that the store was not very busy nor would I expect it to be busy often, so in my book two phones sold in 15 minutes is pretty good.

    Wednesday, 25 July 2007

    Bush is bad at excuses...

    Deja vu, anyone?

    President Bush is still in denial about the reality, in scientific as well as political realms. In this case, the denial is of the validity of his decision to stay in Iraq, and the conditions there. Al Qaeda as always proves a perfect scapegoat for when things go wrong (although they are no doubt inflaming the insurgency, alarmism and exploitation of people's fears of terrorism is not the way to go to rebut anti-Iraq war critics).

    President Bush sought Tuesday to rebut critics who argue against a link between al-Qaida in Iraq and the larger terror network led by Osama bin Laden, issuing fresh warnings of possible attacks at home.

    By emphasizing al-Qaida's growing presence and influence in Iraq, Bush again tried to reframe the war in the public's mind as a matter of protecting the United States.

    Essentially he's saying what he has been saying all along: 'If you don't follow me and stick by my administration, the boogyman will come and get you and your children. Who, why, and how this terrorist will do that is secret, so I cannot tell you the specifics. Trust me, even when all rational thought and evidence is piled up against me... or else you're helping the terrorists win.'

    See this post for more on Bush's flawed excuse for occupying Iraq. In my mind the only valid excuse left is 'to repair the mess we've created by invading and instituting poor policies' — not 'to finish what we started and take out the terrorists who attacked on 9/11 by combating them'. Wrong country; wrong mentality. The terrorists are there because of the insurgency, the insurgency exists because of a mixture of the inevitability of occupation and bad policies, as well as good ol' sectarian tensions.

    Another high-ranking United States government official, Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales, is in a different kind of denial. He denies that he pressured previous AG John Ashcroft, who was hospitalized at the time, to engage in illegal wiretapping of American civilians in 2004. Isn't it amazing how Gonzales is still in office, months after he was supposed to be gone?

    The White House's 'state of denial' is alive and well — which is not a good thing.

    'Special relationship' breakup imminent?

    Britain's "special relationship" with the US looks like it's heading into another rough patch.

    BBC News:

    British concerns did not appear to "materially" affect US actions in its "war on terror", the UK's intelligence and security committee has said.

    The committee, which reports to the prime minister, was probing possible UK involvement in rendition flights.

    It said America's "lack of regard" for UK concerns had "serious implications" for future intelligence relations.

    In response, the UK government said the countries' intelligence relationship was "close" and "must continue".

    The committee said it had found no evidence that the UK was directly involved in rendition flights - the transportation of terror suspects to foreign prisons where they could face torture.

    But Britain's security services had "inadvertently" helped in one case after the US ignored caveats placed on supplied information.

    It looks like bad boy America is further corrupting its English-speaking ally across the Atlantic with its 'war on terror'. These 'extraordinary renditions' — in certain cases confirmed by the Bush administration — are legal black holes: the CIA places terror suspects in secret prisons. To do so it must transport them. It has been revealed that the UK is one of many European nations helping America in this controversial program, breaching international and national law even inadvertently so. As if the US's involvement wasn't enough in the many programs of the 'war on terror' that have tarnished its image; third parties are assisting in this mass disregard of human rights.

    Under Tony Blair, the UK and US were quite close, especially in going to war in Iraq and engaging in a 'war' against terror. Steadily many Britons got fed up with the relationship their nation shared with America, leading some to call Blair Bush's 'poodle'. However with the arrival of Gordon Brown as the new prime minister relations have cooled, no matter how much Brown's administration denies it. There have been conflicting statements by high-ranking cabinet members about a change, or lack thereof, of the UK's foreign ties to the United States.

    The Brown government's ultimate reaction to this new report might serve as an indicator of how much 'war on terror' cooperation with the US — or as some see it, exploitation by the US — Britain will tolerate. Will Gordon Brown and his foreign minister, David Miliband, move beyond the rhetoric and institute a fair but open relationship with America, or will they continue to insist things haven't changed. Things have changed and Brown must decide whether to try to continue the foreign policies of his predecessor or adapt to the new reality.

    BBC trust

    The BBC hopes to win back viewer trust with honesty after a flow of scandals ranging from fake competitions (and winners) on Comic Relief and other programs, to deceiving footage of the Queen. I find it interesting that honesty and clarity seem to be major tenants of the British entertainment industry, as they should be, because in the US it couldn't be more different. People expect deceit when they turn on most entertainment-infested TV news, or at least they should; reality television is everything but real. And many people know and understand that. Whereas in the BBC's case snowballing scandals caused largely because of the in-and-out nature of the entertainment industry (i.e. young employees there for only a short time) and an atmosphere that seems to not match corporation slogans of honesty and fairness.

    Mark Thompson, the BBC's director, is working hard to change that, and he seems to be a competent enough person to clean up all this. The BBC Trust — the body at the top of the BBC's pyramid of governance — thinks so. Thompson has outlined measures to be taken — more serious, I might add, than the typical non-BBC reaction might be — including a suspension of competitions, editorial leaders, and a promise for new staff guidelines and stricter measures to offenders of the rules that form the foundation of public trust in the BBC. Honesty is very important to the BBC, as Thompson points out.

    The BBC is a very large body with many programs on all the mediums: radio, internet, television. It has a huge amount of programming and deals with many production teams... it is, in a word, gigantic. Personally I view it's news as the standard for the news industry; Today, Newsnight and BBC News Online are examples of excellent news content. In addition their interviews are tough and to-the-point, which interviews should be like... however I do not see this kind of interviewing — which forces the interviewee to go beyond talking points and propaganda and actually lets the news consumer to get something worthwhile out of it — in the American mainstream media. Also the BBC often has the kind of reporting on global events unseen in most media circles, such as its dispatches from Burma or Iraq, as well as less bleak areas of the world.

    In a fast-moving industry and with such a large body there are bound to be plenty of problems, which is still no excuse for these deceitful scandals. At least the BBC deals with them, and, being a government-funded body (via a Royal Charter), it is forced to. Most other content isn't held to the same standards; maybe that is why the BBC is so good, at least in my opinion. If only trust and integrity instead of sensationalism and deceit and opinionizing were qualities of many of the BBC's counterparts in the entertainment and news industries.

    Tuesday, 24 July 2007

    Wisdom and superiority

    Briefly: Wisdom in superiority? The intelligentsia and anti-intellectualism in society

    Let me start out by stating I see no problem with some elitism in intellectualism as long as thinkers say practical (if theory is not the subject matter), often dare to stray from their cozy spot on the Ivory Tower, and let new, fresh, capable members of the intelligentsia in: the only requirements being interest and ability to contribute. Many intellectuals deny that they are intellectuals, seeing it as an elite and high-class club. It should not be a 'club' with conservative practices that only lead to back-treading, like dynastic practices or arbitrary and irrelevant requirements for 'membership' — sexism, racism, and class discrimination are historical examples of suppression of thinkers or potential thinkers, not to mention politics and the ever chaotic chance ('luck'): for example, the chance that the next great philosopher is hit by an astroid on his or her walk to university.

    I can only venture a guess to why the public perception stereotype of intellectuals is of an elderly white male: because that's how the major thinkers throughout Western history have been portrayed. The ability to succeed is often directly tied to how one fits into society. A black woman in 18th century Britain is unlikely to be recognized as a great thinker, even if she somehow succeeds in a way that deems her to be deservedly called so. Because of the racial and gender prejudices of the time she is unlikely to be in a higher class, less likely to be learnt, and less likely to have the time or education or money to write a thesis on emotional desire.

    The burden of the intelligentsia — the backbone of thinkers in a society — is to renew the flow of genius; to sustain their intellectual progress. The geniuses we know of of today and throughout history are only a small sample of the actual genius potential within human civilization. Put simply the conditions need to be right for one to rise to the intellectual level of an Einstein or Hobbes. One's socio-economic status also plays a role. Little Johnny may have the capacity to be the next Kant, but he needs to work in the factory to support his family, etc.

    Of course one need not be the next Kant to be an intellectual keeper of one's society, history, and culture. Some measure of elitism, as I said before, is needed to maintain a progressing society, rich at least somewhat in thought, with the intelligentsia at the forefront of that group of 'elite' intellectuals.

    They say everything has an opposite — and that goes for intellectualism too. Curiosity is an innate human aspect, varying from person to person like creativity and intelligence. We must trust for intellectuals to harness that curiosity using both creativity and rational thought. A very interesting paper I found while researching this post, “Why is there anti-intellectualism?”, had the following conclusion(s):

    * Humans are innately curious, but it is mostly a low order curiosity concerned with immediate gratification of a particular desire to know, and mostly oriented toward immediate practical results.
    * There is no persuasive evidence that any societies have ever had a high proportion of people who were deeply curious in a systematic, disciplined way.
    * The curiosity and creativity of children is very superficial.
    * Our own culture supports systematic and disciplined inquiry better than just about any other in history, but even so there is a great deal of hostility toward it by people who feel their values threatened, see it as a waste of time that could be better devoted to more immediate goals, or resent the status and power it carries.

    Whether anti-intellectualism represents the backlash to things people cannot understand, thus they choose to remain ignorant, is a fairly controversial matter. Are people so irrational they can embrace ideas like pseudoscience while rejecting the real thing? As the aforementioned paper stated,
    What possible benefit do people get from clinging to demonstrably false ideas? Why did the same society that flocked to Star Wars decide only a few years earlier that the real adventure of going to the Moon was too expensive to sustain? Given the wealth that innovation and inquiry have brought to our society, why are education and inquiry so grudgingly supported, and so often regarded with suspicion?

    If, supposedly, people so naturally love to learn, why would they reject those whose life passion is thinking?

    I hope to dive further into the matters of intellectualism, especially of its role — today and historically — in society, and of the philosophical nature of human thought that manifests itself in such topics. This post is only an outline of sorts.

    Monday, 23 July 2007

    My personal bible

    The bible:

    The Oxford Companion to Philosophy

    Philosophy is unlike any other subject. It studies the core of human understanding (philosophy of psychology) and knowledge (epistemology), but also how we reason that knowledge (philosophy of logic), and record and communicate it (philosophy of language). It explores our social fabric (social and political philosophy), but also the fabrics of the theoretical: space and time beyond what we see (philosophy of metaphysics); and then some.

    I have some fond stories of my 'bible'. Once — late last year — I was quite sick, unable to read anything. Naturally I was bored out of my mind. I eventually picked up my Oxford Companion to Philosophy and began reading. Lo and behold I read for nearly two hours and only stopped once I realized I'd been reading in an awkward position with my neck arched downward. I get lost in this tome of thought all the time. Anyways, the Oxford Companion to Philosophy is full of thought-worthy, provocative, informative, and all around interesting entries ranging from the big names to the small, the widely-known ideas to the lesser-known, and so on.

    The Companion features over 2,200 entries, including some 300 new to this 2005 edition (the first edition was issued a decade earlier), 291 contributors, and covers everything and everyone from "animal consciousness" to "David Hume" to "God, arguments for the existence of" (and an entry of "arguments against the existence of") to "zombies". There are some illustrations, and articles can be a small paragraph or several pages. There are also references and books to see for more information listed at the end of virtually every entry. Plus, diagrams chart out the various main branches of philosophy in the back of the book, followed by a complete cross-index, all being preceded by a nice chronology of philosophy.

    However not everything can fit in what is seen as the definitive one-volume philosophy reference book. I have compiled a list of entries my bible is lacking — including "negative utopia", "George Orwell", "Big Brother" (yes I like George Orwell, a lot), "A.C. Grayling", "Eric Hoffer" and more — and will email the editor and publisher once I'm sure I have thought of everything.

    The website of Oxford University Press (OUP), the book's publisher, states that the book's readership is targeted at:
    General readers interested in abstract thought, the eternal questions, and the foundations of human understanding; students and professionals in philosophy and related fields (physical, human, and social sciences, the arts and humanities).

    The book runs about US$60, but you can easily find it for cheaper (see Amazon). I keep my bible handy at all times; I take on vacation (when I can). It's a great book; anyone interested in more advanced thought than portrayed by tabloids and celebrity rags, not to mention the often shallow politics of the day, should check it out. It's one of those books that you keep for a lifetime.

    Sunday, 22 July 2007

    Farewell, Harry Potter series

    I just finished the seventh and final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows (Wikipedia), released just yesterday. Abiding by the Golden Rule, I shall not give away any spoilers. Although I haven't had time to reflect much upon the overall quality of this much-hyped novel, it was clearly a good read. (The sixth book was also good; it chronicled Voldemort's life as the new book focuses more on Dumbledore's.) The events of this book also illustrated ties to the rise of the Nazis in Germany, with the Death Eaters — followers of the Dark Lord — being the Nazis and the rebels and non-purebloods being the Jews and other hated groups. Of course that connection doesn't totally fit, but the parallels are clearly seen. For a while the story also reminded me of Orwell's epic 1984.

    It's too early to say whether this was my favorite of the seven Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling, but it is at least among them. The fourth and fifth were a bit weaker than the best; for some time I felt the sixth to be the best, now I am unsure.

    I started reading the books nearly a decade ago, when I was at a fairly young age, in a totally different mindset than I am in now. Of the many changes that have occurred in those eight or so years, one thing that hasn't budged is my interest in reading. The Harry Potter books aren't the best written books, but they flow and captivate their readers — child or adult. While they are presumed to be aimed at younger readers this series has attracted a literary following of all ages, the likes of which has brought a rare, all-ages, cultural phenomenon causing people who rarely pick up a book to read.

    As a whole this, to use the two words the inside cover flap of the US edition of Deathly Hallows uses, "epic tale" (or rather, series of epic tales) of witchcraft and wizardry will remain a classic in the eyes of mainstream readers everywhere. While I did not don a wizard's outfit and wait in front of the bookstore for three days, I did anxiously await the arrival of this book. It has brought closure to a great series in literature, in fantasy and in the art as a whole for it has made reading more accessible for the general population without dumbing the story down for the rest of us.

    At long last, the adventures of Harry Potter are now over. Closure feels good, in a way (I often get too sucked into books of fiction, which is why I'm not always reading fiction, because I would be if I didn't stop myself). The question is, what are people of all ages going to read next? I.e., will there be another Harry Potter? Will more people embrace reading because of it?...

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    Friday, 20 July 2007

    Another cop-out condemnation of torture

    President Bush has signed "an executive order banning cruel treatment of terrorism suspects during interrogation", says the BBC.

    Considering torture is already against the law — several laws in fact — this new order does little if any for helping America's tarnished image caused by its "war on terror". The administration will likely continue to turn a blind eye against operations deemed questionable in the area of human rights and will use this latest order as something to fall back on: 'the president has said he does not condone torture, he even made an executive order against it, so this case of "torture" is surely the case of a few bad apples'. Is this executive order, or EO, in fact a sort of admission that the White House has allowed torture to go on unabated? Probably not. But it has been known to use techniques and talk about them openly that it does not consider torture, but everyone else does, like waterboarding.

    The damage is already done, and this latest cop-out by the Bush administration (see below) won't really alter the fact that the United States not only looks bad to the world, but will continue to act poorly, even when supposedly championing human rights, in the name of fighting terrorism. Innocents and terrorists alike will continue to be taken, detained, and treated unacceptably. The executive order still gives much authority for discretion to the relevant authorities to define which interrogation tactics are deemed "safe".

    Here's what Marty Lederman over at Balkinization had to say about Bush's executive order on CIA torture:

    The President has finally signed the Executive Order purportedly construing Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, as required by the Military Commissions Act (MCA). It is, in a word, worthless. Last month I surmised that the E.O. would be "very cryptic and uninformative, and that the public will not learn of what techniques our government is using and deeming not to be 'cruel treatment and torture.'"
    Just as the details of the Army Field Manual are published and open to public debate, so, too, should be the legal limitations that our government has identified regarding the CIA's analogous activities. As it is, this hide-the-ball lawmaking is supremely cynical, and, after all these years of public debate, an insult to the public and to the Congress. It's not surprising, however.

    Later in the post, he points out the flaws as well as the legal questions this order puts into play. If you want to learn more on the matter from someone who knows this topic well, see the above link.

    Isn't it time for some public oversight of what is happening at Gitmo and elsewhere? Shouldn't the vagueness end and the 'government of the people' be honest with its people? Not all of that information is or should be 'top secret' and essential to be kept secret for national security purposes. Everyone can see through the hubris, and yet Congress limits itself to symbolic maneuvers when dealing with executive oversight.

    By trivializing not only national security but human rights and civil liberties — like the right to privacy and a fair trial — and politicizing what's left, the Bush administration has made a mockery of American political values still weak from the dark ages of the Cold War and the liberty-restricting times preceding it. The Military Commissions Act was a terrible law. What's worse is that only its negative aspects have seen the light of day so far, and nothing seems to be stopping them.

    Back... again

    I had a nice time in Canada but it's good to be back. At Stratford I saw the Shakespeare tragedy King Lear, the Harper Lee story To Kill a Mockingbird, and another Shakespeare, this time a comedy, The Comedy of Errors. Out of all of them I must say To Kill a Mockingbird was preformed the best.

    Tuesday, 17 July 2007


    I will be in Stratford, Ontario, Canada for the next few days to relax in a B&B and see some plays. Expect posts on Friday, or at least Saturday, because I don't know whether I'll have internet access where I will be staying.

    Note: republished at 12:45; originally posted at 12:02 but I had some free time so I posted an addition to the Ideas about Democracy series.

    The nature of pure government and the absolutes

    Pure communism looks nice on paper, and works in theory, but not practice. Not only is that kind of equality impossible, it gives the supposed-to-be-government-less state too much power — and we all know how greedy people are with power. Big governments and free markets are not compatible with communism, but the former shows up when It also only works, so far, with small isolated groups.

    Democracy, on the other hand, is not collectivized like communism and works best with less government power, bulk, and intervention and freer markets. Democracy works much better in practice than communism, but essentially guarantees that the people — or at least those who can vote — will only be absolutely equal in one aspect: the right to vote.

    Pure democracy, like pure communism, also does not work well on a large scale and can be more easily overthrown in times of war (see Ancient Greece/Athens' time of pure and direct democracy). Pure libertarianism and anarchy are very impractical, for there will always be people who want to be in charge and will rise to the top. Just as it is not our nature to fully collectivize en masse, it is not our nature to have neither leader nor government. If you put a group of people with no knowledge whatsoever on a deserted island, you can easily bet that one or two or a limited number will vie for the leadership of the group. Maybe there will be a power struggle; maybe the group will split. No matter what there is no way each individual in that group would maintain their status as equals in terms of power.

    It seems that with humans, the absolutes or pure governments — whether pure libertarianism (ie no government) or some form of ultra-authoritarianism (nearly absolute government) — can only exist on paper. Even when they are twisted in a way so those absolutes can exist in a semi-absolute manner, have their been any cases when a government supposedly providing pure 'freedom' (former example) or 'security' (latter example) worked well? No. Absolutes, like pures, are theoretical. And when there are attempts to implement them in real life — e.g. absolute good, absolute evil, pure communism — the end product is usually bad.

    This is a post in this blog's Ideas about Democracy series. Next planned topic in the series: 'What's better, and more important in a democratic society and government in general, the individual or the group? Which should be served primarily and which is more rational in political matters'

    Sunday, 15 July 2007

    N Korea... gone good?

    ...Well, not good per se, but definitely better than it was a few months ago. The world was in shock after North Korea tested its first ever nuclear weapon — though the specific details are skewed (i.e. everyone says a different thing about how the tests went, if there were any). At any rate, things did not look good. Somewhere along the road America stuck its tail between its legs and started working more closely with the international community, and China in particular, to try to defuse the North Korean nuke situation. The Bush administrations nearly militant, cowboy diplomacy was not appropriate in this situation (or most others, for that matter...). US envoy Christopher Hill did a good job; it appears that diplomacy and cooperation — not as much unilateral war — works after all.

    The North Koreans, impoverished and poor, have long been in isolation. China is the only they can turn too, but China worries that a collapse of the authoritarian state would spark a mass exodus into China, thus hurting its infrastructure and economy. After the nuke tests, a defiant as ever North Korea lost much of the foreign aid that keeps it from imploding. As negotiations inched forward the N Koreans steadily brought in the benefits as the international community conceded that to secure and eventually shut down the nuclear program they would need to give benefits — whether fuel or food — to the Stalinist pariah state, officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, quite possibly the most factually-incorrect name of any nation-state on the planet.

    The worry was not that N Korea would use the nuclear weapons, but that it would sell the resources and technologies to, say, Al Qaeda. Because of the semi-developed state of the nuclear program, North Korea has always been a bigger threat than the showy Iran, which has more ties to the outside world, not to mention resources. A February deal was the result of these negotiations.

    So, you might be asking yourself, why all this background information? Well, because another major development in the nuclear diplomacy between North Korea and others is upon us. Just recently the process appeared to be stalled following some wrangling between the United States and N Korea over a frozen bank account in Macau. After that was cleared up the next step was for North Korea to begin shutting down its nuclear reactor(s). Now...

    UN inspectors have begun verifying that North Korea has really closed down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, the top US nuclear envoy has said.

    Christopher Hill's comments come a day after Pyongyang told Washington it had shut the reactor.

    North Korea's announcement was welcomed by both the US and South Korea.

    North Korea agreed to close the reactor in February in return for economic aid. Under the deal, Pyongyang got its first heavy fuel oil shipments on Saturday.

    The nuclear team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) arrived in North Korea on Saturday to start the Yongbyon inspection.

    If confirmed, the shut-down would be the first stage in disabling the North's nuclear programme.
    N Korea to "shut down and seal" Yongbyon reactor, then disable all nuclear facilities
    In return, will be given 1m tons of heavy fuel oil
    N Korea to invite IAEA back to monitor deal
    Under earlier 2005 deal, N Korea agreed to end nuclear programme and return to non-proliferation treaty
    N Korea's demand for light water reactor to be discussed at "appropriate time"
    Mr Hill has emphasised that the closure of the Yongbyon reactor is only the first step in decommissioning North Korea's nuclear programme.

    He has said he expects a full list of the country's nuclear facilities within months - as agreed in the February deal.
    The participating countries - South and North Korea, Russia, Japan, the US - are expected to negotiate the details of the next phase of the North's decommissioning process, namely the declaration of its nuclear programme and disabling the facilities.

    North Korea isn't expected to really "up the ante", as one Columbia University expert said (qtd. from an interview on the BBC World Service), but it may look like it wants more because the February diplomatic deal with the N Koreans was "incomplete". It was hard to get all parties to agree on some essential requirements, so the deal ended up having holes in it. (Nonetheless it's better to have it than not.) As it stands the North Koreans really aren't getting much from the West in this deal. However they are complying and working towards shutting down their nuclear devises, as per the deal. We need to look beyond just shutting down the nuclear facilities, said the expert, focusing in the larger picture of totally disabling them so the nuclear program cannot be restarted with a flick of a switch — especially considering the inevitable instability in Kim Jong-il's nation. Just like in the case of Pakistan and Iran, extremists and terrorists cannot get their hands on this nuclear material, but state instability makes it all the more dangerous that they could. Unlike even the most renegade state, terrorists won't hesitate to use nuclear weapons.

    By any means the supposed shutting down of the Yongbyon reactor is a triumph for diplomacy and a testing example for future cases of nuclear diplomacy, like the one that may develop more seriously with Iran. Any kind of precedent his helpful; hopefully it won't be needed. Hint to world leaders: this is as good a time as ever to talk about nuclear nonproliferation and push it on a global scale, stop being so hypocritical on the issue — yes I'm talking to you, major powers —, and emphasize that often slow and steady, i.e. diplomacy, often wins the race.

    On a totally different note, In Perspective won the "Super Saturday" Blog of the Day award.

    Friday, 13 July 2007

    Grayling brings philosophy to life

    As I mentioned in an earlier post on my literary endeavors, I just recently got my hands on a 200-page book full of short essays by philosopher and commentator A.C. Grayling.

    The topics covered are listed in this Wikipedia article. The essays are not only philosophically and ethically relevant, but resonate personally. On several occasions I've found myself applying what was reflected in, say, the essay on "moralizing", to something that I was experiencing or thinking about. One thing is sure: the book raises more questions than it answers. Perhaps that is a measure of a good (philosophy) book. Personal reflection — not just pure rationale — is needed for one to truly embark on a journey of philosophical thought and experience.

    Out of the few professional reviews of this book, the philosophy expert at About.com sure liked the book, although I hardly warrant that as a true book review (he seems to give five stars or other generous ratings to nearly any book). The book has two editions: one, entitled Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age, is its American edition; and The Meaning of Things: Applying Philosophy to Life — a far better title, in my opinion — is the title for the British edition. It is a fairly cheap book — but worth far beyond what is printed on the price tag. If you're interested, or just in the mood for not-too-heavy, general philosophical thought, I recommend you purchase this book.

    Iraq recap

    Recap: Surging Iraq debate and a rebellious US Congress
    The past couple days, my creative — or, gasp, political — juices have not been flowing as strongly. But the debate over Iraq clamors on, from Baghdad to Washington. A number of stories have featured Iraq as their primary topic, including:

    A New York Times article on Bush's restatement of the connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda. A sad defense for keeping troops there, which is the biggest Iraq-related issue facing America.

    In rebuffing calls to bring troops home from Iraq, President Bush on Thursday employed a stark and ominous defense. “The same folks that are bombing innocent people in Iraq,” he said, “were the ones who attacked us in America on September the 11th, and that’s why what happens in Iraq matters to the security here at home.”

    It is an argument Mr. Bush has been making with frequency in the past few months, as the challenges to the continuation of the war have grown. On Thursday alone, he referred at least 30 times to Al Qaeda or its presence in Iraq.

    But his references to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and his assertions that it is the same group that attacked the United States in 2001, have greatly oversimplified the nature of the insurgency in Iraq and its relationship with the Qaeda leadership.

    There is no question that the group is one of the most dangerous in Iraq. But Mr. Bush’s critics argue that he has overstated the Qaeda connection in an attempt to exploit the same kinds of post-Sept. 11 emotions that helped him win support for the invasion in the first place.

    Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia did not exist before the Sept. 11 attacks. The Sunni group thrived as a magnet for recruiting and a force for violence largely because of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, which brought an American occupying force of more than 100,000 troops to the heart of the Middle East, and led to a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

    Alarmism is Bush's primary tool to use against a rebellious Congress. The current administration seems to see Congress as a mere, bendable, and nonexclusive constitutional technicality; a branch of government that shouldn't have the power to match the executive and one that surely should not have a say in the war — unless its in favor of Bush's policies, of course. (Maybe the 'unitary executive' people also view the Constitution itself as a technicality... "just a piece of paper")
    The president acknowledged that public opinion might be against him — he said that “sometimes the decisions you make and the consequences don’t enable you to be loved” — but suggested that Congress was overstepping its constitutional role by trying to force a change of policy on him.

    “I don’t think Congress ought to be running the war,” Mr. Bush said. “I think they ought to be funding the troops.”
    So essentially Bush thinks of Congress what old-fashioned, sexist husbands think of their supposed-to-be-submissive wives.

    Are the 18 benchmarks set by the Bush administration to review the progress in Iraq also shambolic? Yes, says Fred Kaplan of Slate. The progress report has finally been released; but everyone is talking about September as the real deadline for progress, and to see whether President Bush's troop 'surge' plan has succeeded as he insists it will. See here for a full scorecard based on the interim report.

    What do the experts think of the options the US has in Iraq? An expert at CFR explains in this interview the 'middle-ground' options, i.e. the ones besides pulling out immediately and continuing with the 'surge' status quo.
    Stephen Biddle, CFR’s top military analyst on Iraq, says none of the various “middle-ground” proposals on Iraq are feasible. He says the only analytically sound alternatives are to either pull out now, or to stick with a revamped “surge.” The U.S. policy of seeking cease-fire deals in places like Anbar is working, Biddle says, but adds that it only has a “ten-to-one” chance of succeeding.

    The New York Times issued a damning-as-usual editorial against Bush's latest Iraq decision.

    Here's an article by the Washington Post's Peter Baker on the red-hot debate still heating up in Washington on Iraq. More of that infamous gridlock on the way?

    Wil Robinson over at International Political Will points out the lack of humanitarianism resonating from the political Iraq debate... from both sides of the aisle.

    On the topic of Bush, and still sticking to Iraq, The Economist published a leader on the president's partial pardon of Scooter Libby (see post), among his other presidential mistakes.
    The past week has been a terrible one for America's embattled president. First, on June 28th, his own Republicans scuppered his cherished—and, in the view of this newspaper, enlightened and brave—plan to reform the country's broken immigration system, decisively blocking it in the Senate. Then a group of prominent Republican senators joined forces with the Democrats to speak out against his policy of reinforcing Iraq. And on July 2nd George Bush brought fresh waves of vitriol down onto his own head, by annulling the 30-month prison sentence given in June to a top White House aide, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, for perjury and obstruction of justice.
    Mr Bush's action serves to remind people of three of his weaknesses. One of them is his tendency towards cronyism, which led him to appoint a wholly unqualified friend to run the government's disaster-relief agency. The consequences were disastrously manifest during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Other examples include his failed attempt to appoint his own lawyer, Harriet Miers, to the Supreme Court. A second flaw is the hold that Mr Cheney appears to have over the man who is nominally his boss. The past few days have seen a series of articles in the Washington Post detailing the extent to which Mr Cheney has talked Mr Bush into bypassing all normal channels of debate to take questionable decisions.

    A third effect of the decision, and perhaps the most serious, is that it reinforces the perception that Mr Bush sees himself and his cronies as above the law. Sometimes he has made this explicit, attaching “signing statements” to hundreds of bills sent to him by Congress asserting his right to interpret those bills as he deems fit. Sometimes he has done so covertly, wire-tapping Americans with no authorisation or permitting the use of torture with consequences felt at Abu Ghraib and in secret CIA prisons in black holes like Uzbekistan.

    Perhaps, in the end, Mr Bush's decision came down to a simple calculation that he has little left to lose. He is not seeking re-election, his approval ratings can barely go any lower, and any hopes for legacy-polishing bipartisan co-operation with Congress seem to have evaporated. So why should Mr Bush not please his few remaining friends and placate his vice-president by springing the loyal Mr Libby? It makes a kind of sense, but a deeply troubling one. What else, one wonders, might so isolated a president do before he goes?

    And finally the major political story on Iraq — besides the White House's spin-job on time being needed for progress there. America's House of Representatives voted in favor of withdrawal from Iraq. The bill will likely either be defeated in the Senate — which has a slimmer Democratic majority but, unlike last time, has more anti-Iraq-war-leaning Republicans — or will face an impending presidential veto, like what happened in early May.
    The United States House of Representatives has voted in favour of pulling most combat troops out of Iraq by April next year.

    The new legislation calls for the Pentagon to begin withdrawing combat troops within four months.

    The vote comes despite President George W Bush's threat to veto any timetable.

    Both the House and the Senate must pass separate legislation and then reconcile their two versions for a measure to be passed to the president.

    Correspondents say the House of Representatives, controlled by the Democrats, is hoping to pressure the Senate to approve a similar timeline.

    It is the third time this year the House has voted in favour of legislation to end US military involvement in Iraq.

    One previous legislative push was vetoed by Mr Bush, while a second failed when the Senate voted twice against imposing a withdrawal timetable.

    Thursday, 12 July 2007

    How China and America match up

    Many are crying wolf with the rise of China in the political and economic spheres. And now it's making its military better. Not to worry: China is not even close to matching the world's current superpower, America, in military or monetary means. Listed below are some starkly-contrasting differences between China and the United States.

    But first, here are some telling charts and graphics from a recent assessment of American power by The Economist.

    Key military differences between China and the US

  • Less people to answer to (at home) for mistakes
  • More people to answer to (internationally) for mistakes
  • Up-and-coming global power, still emerging
  • Non-democratic, authoritarian, "communist" — but economically liberalized to an extent — state
  • Fast-growing military; seeks military, political, and economic roles in region and world
  • Known for posturing, e.g. surprisingly testing anti-satellite missile
  • Looks out for its (economic) interests
  • 2.3 million active armed forces
  • Some lay doubts to its ability to become number one
  • Over 1/20th of world GDP and about 1/5th of its population.

    United States
  • Peaceful state with a generally positive reputation, historically
  • Established world superpower, de facto
  • Democratic, representative republic
  • Government's democratic structure makes for a more cautious political policy
  • Higher military spending
  • Entangled in Iraq (especially), and Afghanistan, with troops elsewhere abroad
  • Because of stretched military, doesn't have capacity to fight another war of choice at this time
  • Web of alliances
  • Total of 1.5 million troops in the most advanced, high-tech, and strongest military ever to exist
  • Dismayed with military modernization and economic growth of China
  • Over 1/4th of world GDP and less than 1/20th of its population
  • Plenty of soft enemies and thorns on its power hold in the international community

  • Wednesday, 11 July 2007

    What I'm reading...

    The Grapes of Wrath (Wikipedia), by John Steinbeck
    It is interesting how Steinbeck's masterpiece touches upon materialism and commercialization, industrialization and the replacing of humans with machines, human emotion and plight, the idea of change and the force of movement and migration, and, of course, history: the Dust Bowl of the American Mid-West in the 1930s. I've been reading this Nobel Prize-winning American classic mostly at night — a good bedside read I guess — and make notes along the way.

    Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age (Amazon), aka The Meaning of Things, by AC Grayling
    An interesting collection of philosophical essays relating to our life and ethics. I had to get this book after I read about it online, so I picked it up at the bookstore yesterday.
    See also AC Grayling's well-penned essays on the Guardian's Comment is Free group blog.

    The Economist, 7 July edition
    I'm only at the Leaders, after already skimming through other parts of the magazine. Currently reading "Don't mention the GWOT" in reference to "language and terrorism".
    See also "The language of war" by Seth Freedman on Comment is Free.

    Prospect Magazine, July 2007 issue
    Currently reading "The cost of carbon" by Richard Barry, an article on the (pros and) cons of carbon trading as a means to effectively fight climate change.

    Foreign Affairs, July/August 2008 issue
    Currently reading Mitt Romney's presidential foreign policy essay.

    481 days 'til election

    The leading Democrat in the 2008 presidential race, Hillary Clinton, has been dwarfed by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, as the pundits go wild on America's biggest political couple. Let the gender role debate commence. The headline best summing all of this up: "Hillary's man trouble", referring not only to Clinton's attention magnet hubby but to male voters who are, well, sexist. It's sad, not just for America but for the state of our civilization, that even in the richest and one of the freest and most educated countries enough people still have problems with a black or a woman running for political office. A homosexual or atheist wouldn't stand a chance.

    I've come to the conclusion that an Obama-Richardson would be a good ticket (Dodd is not bad either, but he is all the more less known).

    However much Obama is shallow (see post), Hillary Clinton is robotic — a political chameleon of sorts whose policies seem to sometimes veer to the right, though she pleases as many as possible in her target demographics. Why, again, does she draw so much contempt from conservatives?
    Obama and Clinton — the Democratic heavyweights in the '08 race — both try to kiss up to the special interests fueling the Democratic Party and Washington as a whole while imposing a sort of populism seen often enough in campaigns (see: the irrational electorate). This race, like any other in the United States, is fueled greatly by money. Money might not be able to buy you love, per se, but it can sure help launch you into political office!

    McCain and Romney are practically bending over backwards for the GOP base(s). McCain, the senior-most member of the race, second-place to Giuliani, faces the ire of the religious right; anger from some moderates and liberals over his diehard support for the Iraq war and the Bush administration's war policy; and bad feelings from Republican Party partisans and anti-immigrant xenophobes over his moderate immigration views and ability to be bipartisan. Being able to jump across the isle and work with the other side is not always a good thing in American politics, oddly enough.

    Selling out hasn't really helped Sen. McCain, but former Massachusetts governor and multimillionaire Mitt Romney's sharp-right-turn transformation is far, far more extreme than McCain's ass kissing. Romney is behind in the polls, but has loads of money, which is more than McCain can say. Social liberal Giuliani — though he has been trying his best to please both sides on abortion — still leads the Republicans in the polls; McCain follows. Poll ratings haven't swayed much for the Democrats either. Clinton leads, then Obama, then Edwards. See this post for more.

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    Tuesday, 10 July 2007

    The final throes of the insurgency: two situations

    Firstly, a short-term operation that looks to have an end and objective: the fight against Islamic militants who have taken hold of Islamabad's Red Mosque in Pakistan.

    Pakistan's army says an operation to flush out militants from a mosque in Islamabad is in its final stages - 24 hours after troops stormed the complex

    Of course the impact the Red Mosque fiasco will have on Musharraf's already, ahem, tarnished presidency will be interesting. The end of the siege, however, is in sight.

    Secondly, Bush is asking for more time for the US military operation in Iraq as more and more Americans convert to 'defeatism' every day. Of course the 'surge' will finally start working and under Bush's wise leadership America will win the winnable "war on terror". No true benchmarks or oversight is needed — setting an "artificial" deadline would show that America has lost. It just needs more time, hmm...

    Republicans are getting very antsy. However the chance of both parties working together — which seems like a foreign idea in the polarized political climate of today's Washington — is small (at best). Iraq has become the issue, and neither party has much of a solution, yet alone unity on it.

    President George W. Bush on Tuesday brushed aside the criticism of fellow Republicans over Iraq and demanded the U.S. Congress allow his troop buildup more time to work.

    Bush ruled out an immediate change in strategy, even though prominent Republican lawmakers like Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar have broken ranks and called for him to shift course on Iraq.

    Defiant in the face of a frustrated American public and Congress, Bush said the 28,000 additional troops he ordered into Iraq have not been in place long enough to gauge results because the final wave arrived only last month.

    The president defended his policy ahead of the release as early as on Thursday of an interim report expected to show mixed progress by the Iraqi government in meeting U.S. security and political benchmarks. The report, which is due by Sunday, is bound to fuel further debate about the war.
    A new USA Today/Gallup poll showed on Tuesday that more than seven in 10 Americans favor withdrawing nearly all U.S troops from Iraq by April. Sixty-two percent said sending U.S. troops to Iraq was a mistake, the first time that number topped 60 percent in that poll.

    The surge had time to work. Hell, even I gave it a chance. But Baghdad's security situation is as dire as ever. The "green zone" — normally a US-occupied oasis of security in a sea of violence — is becoming more red by the day. However we have overlooked some of Iraq's successes. Not all of Iraq is as bad as the wider central and southern regions and that is good — American, British, and other troops have done a fine job there and it's been overlooked. But the wider picture reveals an Iraq in turmoil at a nationally and often at a local level. Conclusion: A politically/strategically bottomless, downward-spiraling war with mixed (negative) support at home and abroad.

    Oh yeah, and
    Meanwhile, the White House threatened to veto the defense policy bill senators were debating, if it is amended to set a withdrawal date. The administration also threatened a veto of the bill for a provision it already contains, giving new rights to detainees at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

    The candidates take on Iowa...

    ...and show off their millions.

    Many of the candidates for the American presidency are campaigning as heavily as ever, with the election less than a year and a half away. More than a handful — including Democrat Barack Obama (see this post) — went to Iowa for and around Independence Day.

    Recently the Q2 fundraising numbers came in, making US$10 million look like pocket change. Obama came up ahead in the first quarter of the year with over $25 million, proving to be a master of the all-important art of raising money for the election. Even though Hillary Clinton was able to raise millions by shoving her ex-president husband onto the lecture circuit, it was still not enough to catch her chief Democratic rival.

    This quarter Obama raised over $30 million. Clinton collected over $20 million for the primary, an additional $7 million or so for the general election. Edwards could barely manage $9 mil. On the Republican side the figures are more telling. Poll leader Giuliani came up with $17 or so million in total ($15 million raised for primary) this past quarter; lagging McCain got barely over $10 million ($11.2 million) and the perhaps under-polled Romney reached roughly $20 million after he gave $6.5 million to himself ($14 million raised for primary). That means the three Democratic frontrunners dwarfed the Republican presidential candidates with $68 million compared to the GOP's $42 mil.

    The Economist has a feature on the fundraising and the presidential nomination poll numbers. Clinton is polling around 37% for the Dems and her "future odds" for getting the Democratic nomination are 42%; Obama is polling 23% with odds of 38%; Edwards is polling 12% with odds of 6%. For the GOP Giuliani is polling less than he was before: 26% with future odds of 36%; McCain is polling a lackluster 17% and has the unthinkably low odds of 5% for the nomination; Romney is polling 10% with a surprising 17% odds. See here (Wikipedia) for more polls.

    Extremism hurting America

    No, I'm not just talking about the Osama bin Laden breed of extremism. Ultra-conservatives like Michael Savage are hurting the United States' image while mindlessly polarizing areas of its population. I've written about this before, but the folks over at the FP Passport blog (h/t to them) have an interesting story of how Savage's radical rants — listened to by an estimated 8 million people — are helping the view that being a hateful, anti-Muslim, irrational bigot is the norm in America. It is not. However there are plenty in the US who make it seem that way, and plenty outside America who want the world's superpower to look like an outpost for loonies. The material of Savage, Limbaugh, and others of the far-right wing is perfect for tarnishing America's image further, which is no help to the animosity felt for the US, especially in the Muslim world; this bad PR also hurts the effort against Islamic extremism and terrorism ('If the Americans are extremist, why can't we be?').

    Monday, 9 July 2007

    Delayed reaction

    According to the New York Times, the White House may be mulling over the options for the (illegal) detention center at Guantanamo Bay after years of pressure from the UN, a plethora other bodies like human rights groups, and individual nations. It was disputed over such a meeting on the fate of Gitmo ever took place, and whether it was canceled by Bush or another administration figure.

    Now the NYT is reporting that the Bush administration is rethinking its stubborn troop strategy in Iraq after unprecedented dissent from within its own Republican Party, which has led to one recent case of a congressperson switching to the opposition Democratic Party. President George Bush has denied that even any preliminary planning for a gradual troop withdrawal from the turmoil stricken Mesopotamian nation is taking place in the White House.

    The Iraqis and their government seem to not think US forces leaving is a good idea yet. I do agree, but real benchmarks — not the imaginary, temporizing ones that the Bush administration has conjured up — need to be put in place and the military should focus on the 'hearts and minds' effort, which includes reconstruction and social aid, more heavily than the fighting. Winning hearts and minds will make the hard military effort easier and allow a feasible withdrawal plan, like the Polk-McGovern one or the Iraq Study Group's outline, to be carried out. It doesn't look like America will win, per se in a traditional sense (note this is not a traditional struggle), but at least it will come out more ahead than it will if it continues to loose the support of the Iraqis and the international community while depleting its hard power.

    At the same time Bush should get off his high horse of poor Iraq policy the Democrats should stop and think about their reactionary, populist plan for withdrawal, or should I say plans: there is still no unity on Iraq except that what is happening now is not acceptable. If the people and their lawmakers really feel that way, then work out a plan, but not some political snowball to hit the other party with. The White House is far ahead of the Democratic-majority Congress. And the polls indicate that every time the Dems get into a nasty political scuffle with the White House, like with Gonzales or the current transparency and subpoena fight, and makes a big deal about the big bad White House their approval numbers tank. Congress is in more trouble than the White House, even if the latter has worse policies and is worse overall. Congress has more hearts and minds to win at home than it thinks — in that sense the Bush administration is fine. It may have low approval but its legislative counterpart is barely hanging on.

    Why don't the Democrats cut the political knifing and move on to passing some good, solid legislation? Contrary to what its political advisers have been advising, taking real action usually looks better in the eyes of the public than inflaming an inter-governmental battle. The Dems seem to be carrying out their own battle plans, not the ones they were elected on. By the time the Democrats have their delayed reaction to what the voters want and what is right, it may be too late. Bush's delayed and still sub-sub-par reactions to climate change, Iraq, and Gitmo are bad enough — it's time for the Democrats to step up, even if that doesn't change their lamentable poll numbers.

    Saturday, 7 July 2007

    Back home

    I will miss the sunsets,

    the dunes,

    the beach and its wildlife,

    and the water,


    But it is nice to see mon gatos — that means my cats, for those of you who do not speak hybrid French/Spanish — again. Plus I'm not getting too much post-vacation let-down.

    On a totally different note, but one probably not worthy of a post of its own, there's some frenzy about people getting married on 07/07/07 here in America — some stupid belief that the number seven is lucky, or unlucky for that matter. I thought it interesting that in every article I read about it (this phenomena made the front page of a number of newspapers), no mention was made about the fact that today is the anniversary of the 7/7 bombings in London. Of course the belief in luck is as irrational as it is stupid; and on top of that it's sad people have forgotten an important world event in an article one its anniversary. Stories like the 7/7/07 one belong in the Features section, not on A1. The media might do it's part in mixing in some relevant fact too, like "this day of weddings coincides with the third anniversary of the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London" instead of saying "this has left people to wonder why 06/06/06 did not get as much nuptial attention". After all, studies have shown that around a third of Americans do not even remember the year of when their "7/7" — but of course more influential and larger in scale of loss and operation — occurred: 11 Sept. 2001. All they remember is 9/11.