Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 11, 2007

More Dissent on Global Warming

Though the fear of man-made global warming has come to dominate our cultural discourse, the science behind the scare is looking increasingly uncertain. David Evans is representative of scientists who have become disillusioned with the theory that industrial carbon dioxide emissions are the root cause of global warming: as he points out, the computer models don’t seem to fit the data, while at the same time evidence is mounting in favor of alternative hypotheses, like the idea that climate change may be caused in large part by fluctuations in solar radiation. A series of articles by Lawrence Solomon, who has profiled prominent climate-change dissenters, demonstrates that Evans is hardly alone—and calls into question the often-parroted assertion that there is some sort of scientific “consensus” on the issue (whatever that might mean).

One of Evans’s interesting asides is that “the integrity of the scientific community will win out in the end, following the evidence wherever it leads.” Although this is true in the long run, it’s a bit simplistic. Once a theory gains ascendancy, it may take years or even decades before its adherents are willing to abandon it, even in the face of contradictory data. (See Thomas Kuhn’s landmark book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions for a picture of this phenomenon.) At the most basic level, scientists have their jobs and reputations to think about; it’s only natural to resist the suggestion that one has spent one’s career trying to prove, or solve, a nonexistent problem. No doubt this would be true even in the absence of external pressure. But with the political stakes now so high, scientific integrity is at a decided disadvantage.

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Though the fear of man-made global warming has come to dominate our cultural discourse, the science behind the scare is looking increasingly uncertain. David Evans is representative of scientists who have become disillusioned with the theory that industrial carbon dioxide emissions are the root cause of global warming: as he points out, the computer models don’t seem to fit the data, while at the same time evidence is mounting in favor of alternative hypotheses, like the idea that climate change may be caused in large part by fluctuations in solar radiation. A series of articles by Lawrence Solomon, who has profiled prominent climate-change dissenters, demonstrates that Evans is hardly alone—and calls into question the often-parroted assertion that there is some sort of scientific “consensus” on the issue (whatever that might mean).

One of Evans’s interesting asides is that “the integrity of the scientific community will win out in the end, following the evidence wherever it leads.” Although this is true in the long run, it’s a bit simplistic. Once a theory gains ascendancy, it may take years or even decades before its adherents are willing to abandon it, even in the face of contradictory data. (See Thomas Kuhn’s landmark book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions for a picture of this phenomenon.) At the most basic level, scientists have their jobs and reputations to think about; it’s only natural to resist the suggestion that one has spent one’s career trying to prove, or solve, a nonexistent problem. No doubt this would be true even in the absence of external pressure. But with the political stakes now so high, scientific integrity is at a decided disadvantage.

In this case, the direct evidence doesn’t support the theory of anthropogenic climate change, so proponents have clouded the issue by seizing on unrelated phenomena in a more or less desperate and blatantly opportunistic way. “Global warming” has reflexively been invoked as the explanation for everything from the devastating 2005 hurricane season (but not the barely noticeable 2006 hurricane season) to the recent proliferation of stray cats. For about two years now, it’s been possible to predict that any report of a noticeable change in the environment or in plant or animal behavior will now be chalked up to global warming, with the implication that we must therefore take some sort of radical action to atone for the sin of carbon dioxide emission.

What’s important to bear in mind is that these observations have absolutely nothing to do with the claim that human activity is causing climate change. Consider, for example, the recent report in the Washington Post that conditions in Greenland are becoming more favorable for cod fishing and agriculture due to a slight increase in average temperature. Oddly, the Post article fails to mention that Greenland must have been just as balmy when it was first settled by the Vikings more than a thousand years ago. Proponents of global warming hysteria prefer to play down this historically inconvenient medieval warm period, explaining it as a local anomaly. Whether or not this is true (and it probably isn’t), how do we know that Greenland’s current good fortune isn’t also a local trend? And, more to the point, if a warmer Greenland is indeed a symptom of global warming, how do we know that human activity is the cause? It’s troubling that questions like these are no longer even asked, because the answers aren’t at all clear.

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The Conference on Democracy and Security

With the U.S. military effort in Iraq having bogged down, with Islamists winning elections in Egypt and the Palestinian territories, with the rebirth of democracy in Lebanon thwarted by Syrian and Iranian intervention, the momentum of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, which had flowed high in the “Arab spring” of 2005, has ebbed. The Conference on Democracy and Security, which met in Prague June 4-6, grew out of former Soviet dissident and leading Israeli intellectual Natan Sharansky’s sense of the need to reinvigorate the Bush administration’s flagging project of promoting democracy in the Middle East.

Sharansky found the ideal co-convener of the conference in Vaclav Havel. The former Czech president and the circle of one-time dissidents close to him (such as deputy prime minister Sacha Vondra and the Czech ambassador to Israel Michael Zantovsky) have demonstrated an unflagging and unparalleled dedication to the cause of freedom in the eighteen years since they won their own. They have, for example, set up a committee to monitor Beijing’s human-rights record during the 2008 Olympics and have had their diplomats succor dissidents in Cuba. In addition to their unusual dedication to principle, these Czech freedom-fighters keep a wary eye on Russia, where Vladimir Putin’s success in restoring dictatorship and a bullying foreign policy has put all of the former subject states of the Soviet empire on the qui vive.

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With the U.S. military effort in Iraq having bogged down, with Islamists winning elections in Egypt and the Palestinian territories, with the rebirth of democracy in Lebanon thwarted by Syrian and Iranian intervention, the momentum of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, which had flowed high in the “Arab spring” of 2005, has ebbed. The Conference on Democracy and Security, which met in Prague June 4-6, grew out of former Soviet dissident and leading Israeli intellectual Natan Sharansky’s sense of the need to reinvigorate the Bush administration’s flagging project of promoting democracy in the Middle East.

Sharansky found the ideal co-convener of the conference in Vaclav Havel. The former Czech president and the circle of one-time dissidents close to him (such as deputy prime minister Sacha Vondra and the Czech ambassador to Israel Michael Zantovsky) have demonstrated an unflagging and unparalleled dedication to the cause of freedom in the eighteen years since they won their own. They have, for example, set up a committee to monitor Beijing’s human-rights record during the 2008 Olympics and have had their diplomats succor dissidents in Cuba. In addition to their unusual dedication to principle, these Czech freedom-fighters keep a wary eye on Russia, where Vladimir Putin’s success in restoring dictatorship and a bullying foreign policy has put all of the former subject states of the Soviet empire on the qui vive.

Spain’s former prime minister Jose Maria Aznar joined as a third sponsor of the conclave. Aznar, who lost his post in 2004 when Spanish voters succumbed to al Qaeda’s intimidation, has remained a steadfast friend of the U.S. despite the strong European trend to the contrary. (Although this trend will now perhaps change, with the ascents of Merkel and Sarkozy.)

President Bush delivered an outstanding keynote speech, notable for several reasons:

1) It was as forceful a statement of commitment to the global democratic cause as one could imagine from an elected leader, dispelling any idea of second thoughts and signaling his determination to soldier on as long as he is in office. “The most powerful weapon in the struggle against extremism is not bullets or bombs, it is the universal appeal of freedom,” Bush said. He then added a lovely line that may live on in the annals of presidential oratory: “Freedom is the design of our Maker, and the longing of every human soul.”

2) Bush’s delivery was smooth, well-paced, and confident, suggesting perhaps how comfortable he was with his audience and his subject. Not only did he avoid his trademark malapropisms, he even did a workmanlike job of pronouncing the names of Arab and eastern European dissidents.

3) In addition to its moving rhetoric, the speech contained a notable action point. The President said he had “asked Secretary Rice to send a directive to every U.S. ambassador in an unfree nation: seek out and meet with activists for democracy [and] those who demand human rights.”

4) In rattling off the names of five “dissidents who couldn’t join us because they are being unjustly imprisoned or held,” Bush mentioned figures in Belarus, Burma, Cuba, and Vietnam, all of which are easy to talk about. Then he named a tough one: Ayman Nour, the Egyptian presidential candidate currently languishing in jail. No country has been seen as more of a weather vane of U.S. determination about democracy promotion than Egypt, where Washington has so many other diplomatic interests. During Secretary Rice’s last visit to Egypt, her failure to mention Nour was widely read as a sign of American retreat. But if retreat it is, the Commander in Chief apparently hasn’t gotten the message.

Tomorrow, I’ll report on some of the other highlights of the conference.

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The Price of One Leak

Leaks of vital U.S. intelligence secrets can get Americans killed. They can also place Americans in a great deal of danger.

As of yesterday, Iran has seized four Iranian-Americans and charged them with spying. They are Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban-planning consultant associated with George Soros’s Open Society Institute; Parnaz Azima, a journalist who works for the American-financed Radio Farda; and Ali Shakeri, a “peace activist” from the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California, Irvine. In addition, Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who is reported to have traveled to Iran on private business, has been missing since March.

Do these developments have anything to do with a 2002 leak about a highly classified U.S. intelligence program?

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Leaks of vital U.S. intelligence secrets can get Americans killed. They can also place Americans in a great deal of danger.

As of yesterday, Iran has seized four Iranian-Americans and charged them with spying. They are Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban-planning consultant associated with George Soros’s Open Society Institute; Parnaz Azima, a journalist who works for the American-financed Radio Farda; and Ali Shakeri, a “peace activist” from the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California, Irvine. In addition, Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who is reported to have traveled to Iran on private business, has been missing since March.

Do these developments have anything to do with a 2002 leak about a highly classified U.S. intelligence program?

On January 15, 2002, under the headline “CIA Looks to Los Angeles for Would-Be Iranian Spies,” the Los Angeles Times disclosed on its front page that the CIA was recruiting Iranian-Americans in southern California, home to the largest concentration of Iranian émigrés in the United States. According to the paper, the agency was “offering cash for useful information” to Iranian-Americans who “have business connections [in Iran] or relatives in [a] position to provide valuable information from inside the largely impenetrable republic.” The article went on to give more details:

Former CIA officers said the agency is combing this community for “access agents,” those who may not have direct knowledge of events in Iran but can get information through connections. . . .

“What you really want is these people to get to family members still in Iran,” said a former officer familiar with the Los Angeles effort. “If family members trust each other, they’ll tell you things you can’t know otherwise, can’t get [from satellites]. If you’re really lucky, you might recruit somebody involved in the nuclear-weapons program.”

CIA officers have to disclose their identities when approaching U.S. citizens or permanent residents for information. But foreign travelers and those on temporary visas can be approached undercover.

“You can say, ‘I run a consulting firm in Los Angeles that wants to bring energy companies into Iran when it opens up,’” a former officer said. Eventually, he added, “you might get to the point where you think you can break cover,” meaning reveal CIA affiliation and simply ask the contact to spy.

A new informant might be put on the CIA payroll at $5,000 a month, the officer said. “If the spy were really good, the sky’s the limit”. . . .

The risks for informants are considerable. Foreign travelers in Iran, particularly those from the United States, are followed closely by [Iran’s] intelligence service, MOIS, former CIA officials said. Spies caught by the [Islamic] Republic face severe punishment, including execution.

What public interest was served by the publication of such a sensitive story in the Los Angeles Times, and whatever that interest was conceived to be, was it weighed against the damage that would be done, including to particular individuals? At the time, the CIA would not comment, other than to note that “disclosure of such a program ‘is not helpful to U.S. national security.’” And the revelation was promptly—and conveniently—forgotten by the rest of American press, and today it is not discussed at all.

But the leak is sure to have resonated resoundingly in the minds of the ayatollahs, who have long been obsessed with the supposedly ubiquitous threat posed by the CIA to their regime. Are four, maybe five, Americans now paying the price for our media’s reckless disregard for the imperative of secrecy in the critical realm of intelligence?

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Charm Offensive, by Joshua Kurlantzick

Joshua Kurlantzick
Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World
Yale. 320 pp. $26.00.

Across the globe, China’s diplomatic presence is growing with astounding speed. In Maputo, Mozambique, the ministry of foreign affairs—built with Chinese money—sports an elaborate pagoda roof. In Songhkla, Thailand, the building formerly housing the American consulate now houses political and economic emissaries from Beijing—a disturbing image of China’s influence waxing as America’s recedes. And in dozens of other nations, China’s power is expanding equally quickly. In Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World, Joshua Kurlantzick explains how the Chinese are increasing their reach and, in the process, helping rogue leaders, causing environmental degradation, and undermining the United States.

Readers of COMMENTARY will be familiar with this narrative. Kurlantzick, a special correspondent for The New Republic, outlined elements of this thesis in COMMENTARY’s October 2006 issue. It is, however, an important story and well worth telling in book form.

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Joshua Kurlantzick
Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World
Yale. 320 pp. $26.00.

Across the globe, China’s diplomatic presence is growing with astounding speed. In Maputo, Mozambique, the ministry of foreign affairs—built with Chinese money—sports an elaborate pagoda roof. In Songhkla, Thailand, the building formerly housing the American consulate now houses political and economic emissaries from Beijing—a disturbing image of China’s influence waxing as America’s recedes. And in dozens of other nations, China’s power is expanding equally quickly. In Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World, Joshua Kurlantzick explains how the Chinese are increasing their reach and, in the process, helping rogue leaders, causing environmental degradation, and undermining the United States.

Readers of COMMENTARY will be familiar with this narrative. Kurlantzick, a special correspondent for The New Republic, outlined elements of this thesis in COMMENTARY’s October 2006 issue. It is, however, an important story and well worth telling in book form.

Kurlantzick begins his analysis, appropriately enough, with Mao Zedong. The first leader of the People’s Republic wanted to export the Chinese revolution around the world. His attempted insurgencies, however, generally failed, poisoning relations with many nations for a generation. Even when Mao backed a winner—such as the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia—the result was disastrous for Beijing’s reputation.

Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, ended many of these counterproductive foreign policies. But he still relied overmuch on the use of force, launching a failed war with Vietnam in 1979, and retained Mao’s deep suspicion of multilateral institutions and treaties. Even after Deng passed from the political scene in 1994, Beijing had trouble making friends due to its constant threats against Taiwan, its seizure of reefs to enforce its ludicrous territorial claims to the entire South China Sea, and other hostile acts.

Then, in 1997, the year of Deng’s death, Beijing began a strategic volte-face. By choosing not to devalue their currency, the Chinese prevented a round of potentially catastrophic competitive devaluations during the Asian financial crisis of the late 90’s. “For the first time in decades,” Kurlantzick writes, “China had taken a stance on a major international issue and had banked credit as a benign force in global affairs.” Shortly thereafter, Beijing officials began to re-conceive of their country as a da guo—a great power. By the beginning of this decade, China, under the stewardship of Jiang Zemin, had turned on the charm and begun to employ “soft power” as its main diplomatic tool.

The Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power,” defined it narrowly as the passive attractive force of a nation’s culture, values, and norms. But Kurlantzick notes that Beijing has expanded the concept to include almost any non-military effort at accumulating power. Charm Offensive, accordingly, looks at soft power through China’s enlarged understanding of the phrase.

Today, Chinese diplomats and officials have dropped their old, aggressive posture. They now talk about “win-win” relations, “Peaceful Rise,” and the “Early Harvest Package.” Beijing maintains publicly that it never interferes in other nations’ internal affairs and seeks prosperity for all. It provides aid for less developed nations and joins any regional and multilateral organization it can find (and, if none exists, creates them). International agreements? Beijing signs treaties, compacts, and covenants by the dozen. China, in short, wants to be everyone’s friend. (How do you say “Kumbaya” in Mandarin?)

Yet, as Kurlantzick notes, “Beijing offers the charm of a lion, not of a mouse.” It still acts high-handedly when it thinks it can get away with it (as when it dams the upstream waters of the Mekong River) and aggressively opposes those against whom it bears a grudge (constantly blocking, for instance, Japan’s attempts to build stronger ties in Asia). Neighbors are not its only targets: all over Asia, China uses its newfound strength to exclude the United States from regional economic and political affiliations (successfully convincing the Uzbeks to end American basing rights in their country, among other policy victories).

Is this behavior, however regrettable, merely the normal rough and tumble of great-power diplomacy? Perhaps. But Kurlantzick raises a far more pertinent question: can an authoritarian state work within the existing framework of a liberal international system? Charm Offensive is loaded with evidence that suggests a potentially disturbing answer.

Kurlantzick observes correctly that China courts and champions authoritarian leaders in the arena of global politics. It sustains hostile and unstable states—like Iran and North Korea—that threaten world order. It directly intervened to keep the contemptible Robert Mugabe in power in Zimbabwe, and it is stands behind the regime in Sudan that sponsors the genocidal janjaweed militia. Name any anti-democratic government in the world today, and you will find a connection to Beijing. China’s support of the world’s autocrats is so pervasive as to be creating, in Kurlantzick’s words, an “alternative pole” to the Western democracies.

Worse, China challenges one of the principles that define the West—free markets—with visible success. By producing spectacular economic growth for almost three decades, China shows that nations do not have to follow the free-market Washington Consensus in order to advance economically. Today, dictators and strongmen of all stripes take comfort in how the Beijing Consensus permits the maintenance of anti-democratic governance in a modernizing world.

Kurlantzick ends his fine book by making suggestions as to how Washington can compete with charmingly offensive China. His prescriptions range from the tactical—stationing at least one China watcher in every American embassy—to the strategic—reconsidering our opposition to multilateral institutions. But this second, broader piece of advice presents a problem. China is now a major player in nearly every regional and international organization, and it has garnered enough power in the international community to be able to block Western initiatives and everything but lowest-common-denominator solutions. Does this not suggest that multilateralism, for the U.S., is by now a dead end, at least where China is concerned?

Kurlantzick, at several points in Charm Offensive, scolds the United States for abandoning strategic interest in the world after the end of the cold war. His book reminds us that this is no time for America to forgo its leadership position or to accept consensus management, especially when that means empowering authoritarian states—like newly, charmingly offensive China.

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