Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 29, 2007

Iran’s Long Arm

In the midst of the ongoing controversy over what role Iran plays in Iraq, military historian Kim Kagan, founder of the Institute for the Study of War, has performed a valuable public service by compiling methodically what is known publicly about Iranian activities.

Kagan notes that, among other things, the Iranian government began plotting to undermine coalition forces in 2002—before the U.S. and its allies even entered Iraq. That effort has expanded so much over the years since then—now encompassing aid not only to Shiite but also to Sunni militants—that, according to Kagan:

Coalition sources report that by August 2007, Iranian-backed insurgents accounted for roughly half the attacks on Coalition forces, a dramatic change from previous periods that had seen the overwhelming majority of attacks coming from the Sunni Arab insurgency and al Qaeda.

Meanwhile, the New York Post ran an enlightening interview, conducted by Ralph Peters, with Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq. Odierno has a lot of interesting things to say, but this point jumped out at me: “There are some signs that Syria’s doing a bit more to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, but their efforts are off and on. The airport in Damascus remains a major conduit for terrorists. The Syrians clearly still believe that instability in Iraq is to their benefit.”

So much for the contention of some critics that those of us who express alarm about the role of Iran and Syria are, well, alarmists. In this case, our concern appears well-justified.

In the midst of the ongoing controversy over what role Iran plays in Iraq, military historian Kim Kagan, founder of the Institute for the Study of War, has performed a valuable public service by compiling methodically what is known publicly about Iranian activities.

Kagan notes that, among other things, the Iranian government began plotting to undermine coalition forces in 2002—before the U.S. and its allies even entered Iraq. That effort has expanded so much over the years since then—now encompassing aid not only to Shiite but also to Sunni militants—that, according to Kagan:

Coalition sources report that by August 2007, Iranian-backed insurgents accounted for roughly half the attacks on Coalition forces, a dramatic change from previous periods that had seen the overwhelming majority of attacks coming from the Sunni Arab insurgency and al Qaeda.

Meanwhile, the New York Post ran an enlightening interview, conducted by Ralph Peters, with Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq. Odierno has a lot of interesting things to say, but this point jumped out at me: “There are some signs that Syria’s doing a bit more to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, but their efforts are off and on. The airport in Damascus remains a major conduit for terrorists. The Syrians clearly still believe that instability in Iraq is to their benefit.”

So much for the contention of some critics that those of us who express alarm about the role of Iran and Syria are, well, alarmists. In this case, our concern appears well-justified.

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Fidel’s Favorite

Fidel Castro, who has long been too ill to appear in public, apparently is healthy enough to share his thoughts with us. His most recent contribution to the global political dialogue came yesterday in an editorial in Granma, the Cuban Communist Party’s mouthpiece. He grabbed headlines in America by handicapping its 2008 presidential election—he thinks Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are “seemingly invincible.” But Fidel’s most interesting thoughts are his evaluations of past American presidents.

Castro’s favorite? That would be “James Carter,” as Cuba’s ailing revolutionary calls him. El Maximo Lider gives a number of reasons why he chose the Georgia Democrat. He notes that Carter “was not an accomplice to the brutal terrorism against Cuba” and that he promoted a maritime agreement with Cuba. Yet he did not mention the most important reason. Castro is most likely so fond of the 39th President because he delegitimized the American embargo of Cuba—but he did not end it.

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Fidel Castro, who has long been too ill to appear in public, apparently is healthy enough to share his thoughts with us. His most recent contribution to the global political dialogue came yesterday in an editorial in Granma, the Cuban Communist Party’s mouthpiece. He grabbed headlines in America by handicapping its 2008 presidential election—he thinks Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are “seemingly invincible.” But Fidel’s most interesting thoughts are his evaluations of past American presidents.

Castro’s favorite? That would be “James Carter,” as Cuba’s ailing revolutionary calls him. El Maximo Lider gives a number of reasons why he chose the Georgia Democrat. He notes that Carter “was not an accomplice to the brutal terrorism against Cuba” and that he promoted a maritime agreement with Cuba. Yet he did not mention the most important reason. Castro is most likely so fond of the 39th President because he delegitimized the American embargo of Cuba—but he did not end it.

For Castro, that would be the Daily Double. He has made a career of blaming the embargo for Cuba’s ills, but has always acted up whenever it looked as if Congress actually might get rid of it. Carter is not only our worst ex-president, as Joshua Muravchik has labeled him, he is possibly (in competition with James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson) our worst serving leader as well. But as wrong-headed as he has been on most everything, Carter understands something that has somehow eluded recent commanders-in-chief: the embargo in its present form serves Castro’s interests more than it does ours.

Today, Castro is viewed more as a pest than a threat. Yet despite his illness he is providing inspiration to a whole new generation of leftists in Latin America, from Hugo Chavez to Evo Morales to Daniel Ortega. So, now is an excellent time for Washington to summon the political will and do something effective: either tighten the embargo or get rid of it entirely. We are reaching the point at which, if we fail to take decisive action, we may soon look south and find a new Red Sea.

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“The Republic of China”

Reports are circulating this morning that Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte has taken the unusual step of publicly warning Taipei not to hold a referendum on whether to apply to the United Nations using the name “Taiwan.” This is very unusual: the State Department usually declines comment on such matters. The story is widely reported in official Chinese media, but the most thorough report comes from Charles Snyder and Ko Shu-ling in the Taipei Times:

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said that the bid to enter the world body under the name “Taiwan” would be a move to change the “status quo”. . . . The U.S. has signaled a major intensification of its campaign against President Chen Shui-bian’s plan for a referendum seeking membership in the UN under the name “Taiwan,” warning publicly for the first time that it sees the referendum as a move toward independence.

Snyder and Ko go on to quote Negroponte:

“I would recall that in the past President Chen has made commitments to the American president, to the international community, and to the people of Taiwan not to take any kind of steps that would represent a unilateral alteration of the status quo, such as a change in the official name of Taiwan,” Negroponte said.

But what is Taiwan’s “official name”? I consulted the CIA’s World Factbook: only “Taiwan” is listed. The Factbook entry follows the usage we have insisted on for decades, referring to the island only as Taiwan. But given that we use the name Taiwan, why would we object to the Taiwanese following our example?

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Reports are circulating this morning that Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte has taken the unusual step of publicly warning Taipei not to hold a referendum on whether to apply to the United Nations using the name “Taiwan.” This is very unusual: the State Department usually declines comment on such matters. The story is widely reported in official Chinese media, but the most thorough report comes from Charles Snyder and Ko Shu-ling in the Taipei Times:

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said that the bid to enter the world body under the name “Taiwan” would be a move to change the “status quo”. . . . The U.S. has signaled a major intensification of its campaign against President Chen Shui-bian’s plan for a referendum seeking membership in the UN under the name “Taiwan,” warning publicly for the first time that it sees the referendum as a move toward independence.

Snyder and Ko go on to quote Negroponte:

“I would recall that in the past President Chen has made commitments to the American president, to the international community, and to the people of Taiwan not to take any kind of steps that would represent a unilateral alteration of the status quo, such as a change in the official name of Taiwan,” Negroponte said.

But what is Taiwan’s “official name”? I consulted the CIA’s World Factbook: only “Taiwan” is listed. The Factbook entry follows the usage we have insisted on for decades, referring to the island only as Taiwan. But given that we use the name Taiwan, why would we object to the Taiwanese following our example?

The answer is that Taiwan has, in fact, another name, “The Republic of China,” which was imposed on it when the troops of Chiang Kai-shek arrived in 1945. But after we broke off independent relations with Taiwan in 1979, we expunged “Republic of China” from all official usage—even from the World Factbook (which, curiously, does list “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” for North Korea, a country we do not recognize diplomatically).

Yet the name “Republic of China” has not really vanished: Negroponte was referring to it when he spoke of an “official name.” “The Republic of China” is the last, slender thread by which one can argue that Taiwan is somehow linked to China. Washington and Beijing do not want it to perish entirely—though they themselves publicly repudiate it. (Although Negroponte insists, indirectly, that the Taiwanese continue to use it, whether they like it or not. He even opposes a democratic referendum on the question.)

Our government takes this position, very much at odds with fundamental American beliefs about people and their rights, for one reason: pressure from China. If Beijing ended its diplomatic blockade of Taiwan, the United States would not continue it alone. Now, as Taiwan considers its application to the UN, it may be time for us to end that blockade without waiting for Beijing.

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What is Behind the Chinese Cyber-Offensive?

Is a Chinese cyber-war against the West underway? Let us connect the dots.

In the most recent episode, earlier this month, Chinese hackers, operating out of Guangzhou and Lanzhou, two regions that are strongholds of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), invaded the computer systems of key German-government ministries in Berlin.

Last November, the United States was hit, and not for the first time. Chinese hackers entered the network of the Naval War College, the Navy’s school for senior officers, forcing the closure of its internal network and the temporary suspension of all email accounts.

That followed an attack in June on the computer systems at Taiwan’s defense ministry and also the American Institute in Taiwan, the de-facto U.S. embassy there.

Then there is Titan Rain, the U.S. codename for an entire series of attacks on U.S. facilities from 2003 to 2005, that included raids on the U.S. Army Information Systems Engineering Command at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, the Defense Information Systems Agency in Arlington, Virginia, and the Naval Ocean Systems Center in San Diego. All are thought to have originated in China.

The British parliament was also attacked in 2005 by hackers believed to be located in China.

What is behind all these episodes?

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Is a Chinese cyber-war against the West underway? Let us connect the dots.

In the most recent episode, earlier this month, Chinese hackers, operating out of Guangzhou and Lanzhou, two regions that are strongholds of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), invaded the computer systems of key German-government ministries in Berlin.

Last November, the United States was hit, and not for the first time. Chinese hackers entered the network of the Naval War College, the Navy’s school for senior officers, forcing the closure of its internal network and the temporary suspension of all email accounts.

That followed an attack in June on the computer systems at Taiwan’s defense ministry and also the American Institute in Taiwan, the de-facto U.S. embassy there.

Then there is Titan Rain, the U.S. codename for an entire series of attacks on U.S. facilities from 2003 to 2005, that included raids on the U.S. Army Information Systems Engineering Command at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, the Defense Information Systems Agency in Arlington, Virginia, and the Naval Ocean Systems Center in San Diego. All are thought to have originated in China.

The British parliament was also attacked in 2005 by hackers believed to be located in China.

What is behind all these episodes?

According to “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2006,” a U.S. Department of Defense publication, China has been “experimenting with strategy, doctrine, and tactics for information warfare.” The report notes that during a conflict, “information-warfare units could support active PLA forces by conducting ‘hacker attacks’ and network intrusions, or other forms of ‘cyber’ warfare, on an adversary’s military and commercial computer systems, while helping to defend Chinese networks.”

That the Chinese would be developing such a capability is unsurprising. We are developing similar capabilities, as are all advanced military powers. Computer networks are essential to warfare. and the ability to disrupt the enemy’s network while protecting one’s own has become an equally essential task.

Intelligence gathering via illicit entry into computer networks has become an important tool in the espionage toolkit. There are lots of secrets residing in both government and private-sector computers, and it should hardly come as a surprise that the Chinese have been developing techniques for extracting such secrets by clandestine means.

What does come as a surprise are all the recent hacking incidents. We are not at war with China. Neither is Germany or Britain or, arguably, Taiwan. If the hacking is part of a coherent strategy, it would seem to be self-defeating, prompting victim countries to develop countermeasures that make their own systems far more difficult to penetrate in the kind of crisis when the Chinese would really want to turn on their computer-sleuthing and disruption capabilities.

One possibility is that the attacks are being carried out not at governmental direction but by private hackers in China or elsewhere, who are routing their activities through Chinese networks. That is what the Chinese government maintains with some supporting evidence.

Another possibility is that the PLA is operating on its own, without the blessings of Beijing, to hone its capabilities and to test Western responses. Again, there is some evidence to support this theory.

Yet another possibility is that there is less to these incidents than meets the eye. They may in fact reflect the ineptitude of certain ill-prepared sectors of Western governments.

It is useful to keep in mind that major brokerage houses, banks, investment banks, and government central banks use computer networks to move billions of dollars around the world every day. These would be a ripe target for hackers, both inside adversary governments and in the criminal sector. But we seldom hear of any successful attacks against these institutions. Why not? Probably because, given what is at stake, they all put huge resources in computer security. Surely, if they were paying sufficient attention, governments could erect the same kinds of barriers to unauthorized entry.

Finally, there is the possibility that the Chinese government, acting on the basis of motives that are not apparent to us, has opted for short-term at the expense of long-term gain. Governments can do irrational things, and Communist governments, accountable to no one but themselves, doubly so.

In the end, the ongoing Chinese cyber-warfare remains a puzzle. Before we massively retaliate with a cyber-war of our own, it would be useful to get a firm fix on what we are up against.

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Counting the Uninsured

The annual Census Bureau report on income, poverty, and health insurance coverage was released yesterday, and set off the usual flurry of confusion and bad ideas on the last of those three subjects. The number of Americans without health insurance increased last year to roughly 47 million Americans, or 15.8 percent of the population. The raw number is less important than the percentage: in a growing population the raw number of both those without insurance and those with insurance is likely to grow (and indeed, the number of insured Americans increased by about 800,000 last year, while the number of uninsured increased by about 2 million.) But at 15.8 percent, the proportion of the uninsured matches its highest level ever (last reached in 1998).

In looking at this figure, though, a great deal of caution is warranted. As Eric Cohen and I pointed out in the February issue of COMMENTARY (and as the Census report itself notes) the number masks much nuance.

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The annual Census Bureau report on income, poverty, and health insurance coverage was released yesterday, and set off the usual flurry of confusion and bad ideas on the last of those three subjects. The number of Americans without health insurance increased last year to roughly 47 million Americans, or 15.8 percent of the population. The raw number is less important than the percentage: in a growing population the raw number of both those without insurance and those with insurance is likely to grow (and indeed, the number of insured Americans increased by about 800,000 last year, while the number of uninsured increased by about 2 million.) But at 15.8 percent, the proportion of the uninsured matches its highest level ever (last reached in 1998).

In looking at this figure, though, a great deal of caution is warranted. As Eric Cohen and I pointed out in the February issue of COMMENTARY (and as the Census report itself notes) the number masks much nuance.

For instance, a family that loses its health coverage will, on average, become insured again in about five months. Only one-sixth of the uninsured lack coverage for two years or more. In addition, about a fifth of the uninsured are not American citizens, and so could not benefit from most proposed reforms. Roughly a third of the uninsured are eligible for public-assistance programs (especially Medicaid) but have not signed up, while another fifth (many of them young adults, under thirty-five) earn more than $50,000 a year, but choose not to buy coverage.

This is not to say that there aren’t a great many Americans going without health insurance, or that their plight doesn’t merit attention and action. It does, however, mean that unqualified use of the 47-million figure as a political rallying cry is not responsible.

Health insurance is, indeed, too expensive, for too many families. But the private health insurance system does work well for the great bulk of those who can afford it (a 2006 Kaiser Foundation poll found that 88 percent of those with health insurance rated their coverage good or excellent, and almost 60 percent were even satisfied with its cost). A sensible solution to the problems of the uninsured would help them afford access to private coverage, rather than replace the entire American health insurance system with a government funded single-payer approach. This approach—if we are to judge it by the experience of many nations that have tried it—is likely to reduce doctor and patient freedom, increase wait times, hurt quality, and (as we can already see from Medicaid and Medicare) threaten to bankrupt government budgets.

The Census figures show only that the uninsured are in need of help getting access to our (mostly) free-market health care system, not that America needs a huge new health insurance bureaucracy.

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Pasqualini, Out of Print

Almost a decade ago, in October 1997, the human rights activist Jean Pasqualini died in Paris at 71. Born in Beijing to a French Corsican father and Chinese mother, Jean worked as a translator for the U.S. military and the British Embassy in Beijing until he was arrested in 1957, charged with counterrevolutionary activity, and sentenced to the nefarious Laogai system of penal colonies, also known as China’s “Gulag.” In 1964, thanks to his French background, Jean was released by Mao after France recognized China, whereupon he was exiled to France; there, some years later, I had the pleasure of getting to know him.

Jean’s 1973 book Prisoner of Mao, about his seven years in the Laogai, is a pioneering classic, although, sadly, Penguin has allowed it to go out of print. The ever-timely Prisoner of Mao should be reprinted immediately, especially as even out-of-print copies available from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com are challenging to find, detectable only by Jean’s Chinese name, Bao Ruo-Wang. An author search for “Jean Pasqualini” on both sites confusingly brings up the French edition of his book (which remains available from Gallimard).

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Almost a decade ago, in October 1997, the human rights activist Jean Pasqualini died in Paris at 71. Born in Beijing to a French Corsican father and Chinese mother, Jean worked as a translator for the U.S. military and the British Embassy in Beijing until he was arrested in 1957, charged with counterrevolutionary activity, and sentenced to the nefarious Laogai system of penal colonies, also known as China’s “Gulag.” In 1964, thanks to his French background, Jean was released by Mao after France recognized China, whereupon he was exiled to France; there, some years later, I had the pleasure of getting to know him.

Jean’s 1973 book Prisoner of Mao, about his seven years in the Laogai, is a pioneering classic, although, sadly, Penguin has allowed it to go out of print. The ever-timely Prisoner of Mao should be reprinted immediately, especially as even out-of-print copies available from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com are challenging to find, detectable only by Jean’s Chinese name, Bao Ruo-Wang. An author search for “Jean Pasqualini” on both sites confusingly brings up the French edition of his book (which remains available from Gallimard).

In a 1978 essay, the Belgian sinologist Pierre Ryckmans (born in 1935, who publishes under the name Simon Leys) called Prisoner of Mao the “most fundamental document on the Maoist ‘Gulag’ and, as such, the most studiously ignored by the lobby that maintains that there is no human-rights problem in the People’s Republic.” There, as Jean later revealed, brainwashed prisoners were forced to “reconstruct socialism with their two hands,” in order to “reform themselves.” Once safely in France, Jean remained an ardent supporter of human rights in China, despite a catastrophic series of ailments, including cancer and diabetes, caused by his imprisonment. In 1992 he co-founded the Laogai Research Foundation with the activist Harry Wu (Wu Hongda), author of the definitive Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China’s Gulag and the equally essential Troublemaker: One Man’s Crusade Against China’s Cruelty.

Jean radiated charm and humor, key tools for survival. His appetite for joy was reflected in his humorous anecdotes about how he worked for Columbia Pictures’ distribution branch in postwar China. Jean delighted in the most overblown Hollywood screen musicals, from The Jolson Story to Hello Dolly, as well as jokes about Columbia’s comic-villain studio boss Harry Cohn. At serious moments, Jean would confide that even after years away from the Laogai, Mao remained the most important person in ex-prisoners’ lives. As part of the “re-education” process, prisoners were driven to such mental anguish and self-recrimination for their “crimes against society” that one fellow prisoner—imprisoned for alleged sex crimes—was driven to self-mutilation as penance for his supposed offense. A brave, noble survivor whose humanity and sense of humor miraculously survived his ordeals, Jean Pasqualini deserves a better fate than to languish out of print.

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