Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 4, 2007

Burma’s Blackout

The New York Times is reporting that the military junta in Burma has shut down the country’s Internet. After nearly a month of protests—avidly covered and documented by native Burmese on the web—the regime cracked down hard on the Buddhist monks and their supporters. Many deaths already have been recorded, and some reports suggest an extremely bloody end to Burma’s push for democratic reform.

During the run-up to this massacre, Burmese bloggers provided photographs, commentary, and even YouTube clips from inside the maelstrom. Stirring photographs of monks clad in orange, and riveting hand-held footage of soldiers firing on protesters, gave the events a harrowing immediacy for Internet-users. The Internet blackout terminated this discourse, blocking the atrocities to come from cyberspace and the outside world.

Censoring the Internet has become a major component of totalitarian control, not just in Burma, but in despotic regimes the world over. The Chinese government devotes significant resources to purging their data flow of dissident material. (At the School of Informatics at Indiana University’s homepage, you can play with a brilliant search tool that compares typical Google searches with Google.cn.)

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The New York Times is reporting that the military junta in Burma has shut down the country’s Internet. After nearly a month of protests—avidly covered and documented by native Burmese on the web—the regime cracked down hard on the Buddhist monks and their supporters. Many deaths already have been recorded, and some reports suggest an extremely bloody end to Burma’s push for democratic reform.

During the run-up to this massacre, Burmese bloggers provided photographs, commentary, and even YouTube clips from inside the maelstrom. Stirring photographs of monks clad in orange, and riveting hand-held footage of soldiers firing on protesters, gave the events a harrowing immediacy for Internet-users. The Internet blackout terminated this discourse, blocking the atrocities to come from cyberspace and the outside world.

Censoring the Internet has become a major component of totalitarian control, not just in Burma, but in despotic regimes the world over. The Chinese government devotes significant resources to purging their data flow of dissident material. (At the School of Informatics at Indiana University’s homepage, you can play with a brilliant search tool that compares typical Google searches with Google.cn.)

Some American businesses, like Google and Yahoo, have been scrutinized recently for placating Beijing by slipping things down the memory hole. A Google image search for Tiananmen Square in the United States results in the iconic photograph of a man standing before a column of tanks, while the same search in China yields smiling faces and touristy long shots of the square. In other regions of the world, as well, the Internet is a battleground emblematic of larger political struggles. Bloggers in Egypt and Iran have been targeted by their governments, while, since the liberation of Iraq, the Internet has exploded in that country as a viable and democratic source of news.

The freedom and availability of the Internet has become a leading index of political freedom. It would have been much more difficult for the thugs in Burma to hide their slaughter if they hadn’t been able to purge unflattering coverage from the world’s desktops. The protection and spread of Internet freedom—and the censure or punishment of American businesses that cooperate in Internet censorship—should feature seriously in any presidential candidate’s foreign policy platform. It is a simple, cost-effective, and bloodless way to let democracy seep into the oppressed regions of the world.

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Not A Substitute

In what must surely rank as the single stupidest act of the 2008 presidential campaign, Senator Obama says he doesn’t wear an American flag lapel pin because it has become a substitute for “true patriotism” since 9/11.
In Obama’s words,

The truth is that right after 9-11 I had a pin. Shortly after 9-11, particularly because as we’re talking about the Iraq war, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security. I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest. Instead, I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testament to my patriotism.

What to say about such a reckless and disturbing statement? Let’s start with the words, “The truth is…” This is the locution of someone who is revealing something for which they are embarrassed. Once upon a time one would be ashamed of, say, burning the American flag; today, a leading presidential figure is apologizing for having worn one on his lapel.

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In what must surely rank as the single stupidest act of the 2008 presidential campaign, Senator Obama says he doesn’t wear an American flag lapel pin because it has become a substitute for “true patriotism” since 9/11.
In Obama’s words,

The truth is that right after 9-11 I had a pin. Shortly after 9-11, particularly because as we’re talking about the Iraq war, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security. I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest. Instead, I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testament to my patriotism.

What to say about such a reckless and disturbing statement? Let’s start with the words, “The truth is…” This is the locution of someone who is revealing something for which they are embarrassed. Once upon a time one would be ashamed of, say, burning the American flag; today, a leading presidential figure is apologizing for having worn one on his lapel.

It’s also ludicrous to argue that the American flag lapel pin became a “substitute” for true patriotism. Actually, it was a demonstration of unity and support for the country in the aftermath of the worst attack on our homeland in our history. It wasn’t a substitute for anything; it was a symbol of something—and symbols (like holidays) are important for a nation.

Democrats have had problems with the American flag before (see Michael Dukakis and the 1988 campaign). For those who wonder how much of a radicalizing effect MoveOn.org is having on the Democratic Party, this latest episode is worth considering. After all, it’s not a huge leap to go from smearing the commanding general in Iraq (who happens to be succeeding) to creating in the minds of candidates the notion that refusing to wear an American flag lapel pin might be a good idea.

In any event, Senator Obama is responsible for what he said. This statement will come back to haunt him, again and again and again. It shows unbelievably bad political judgment—and a deep moral confusion about the flag itself. This is the kind of thing you would expect from Ward Churchill or Noam Chomsky, not a leading contender for President of the United States.

Senator Obama has promised to be an agent of change and end the polarization of America. Disrespecting the American flag is not the way to do it.

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Victory for a Dictator

What is the point of putting sanctions on a dictator if you refuse to enforce them? This was the question that the world community faced in its dealings with Saddam Hussein, who, over a twelve-year period, violated sixteen Chapter VII Security Council resolutions with impunity. The question has come up again in the person of Robert Mugabe. In 2002, the European Union placed a travel ban on the Zimbabwean dictator and his top associates, which it has repeatedly allowed them to break. This December, a European Union-African Union summit is planned for Lisbon, Portugal, and at the insistence of African governments, the Portuguese will be inviting Mugabe. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, however, has issued an ultimatum that he would not attend the conference were Mugabe seated across the table. Now, the Guardian reports:

“It’s the working assumption that Mugabe will be coming if invited by the Portuguese as expected,” said a European Commission official familiar with the preparations for the first Europe-Africa summit in seven years.

It appears that Brown will not be in attendance, then, and that the European and African Unions have chosen a dictator over a democrat.

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What is the point of putting sanctions on a dictator if you refuse to enforce them? This was the question that the world community faced in its dealings with Saddam Hussein, who, over a twelve-year period, violated sixteen Chapter VII Security Council resolutions with impunity. The question has come up again in the person of Robert Mugabe. In 2002, the European Union placed a travel ban on the Zimbabwean dictator and his top associates, which it has repeatedly allowed them to break. This December, a European Union-African Union summit is planned for Lisbon, Portugal, and at the insistence of African governments, the Portuguese will be inviting Mugabe. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, however, has issued an ultimatum that he would not attend the conference were Mugabe seated across the table. Now, the Guardian reports:

“It’s the working assumption that Mugabe will be coming if invited by the Portuguese as expected,” said a European Commission official familiar with the preparations for the first Europe-Africa summit in seven years.

It appears that Brown will not be in attendance, then, and that the European and African Unions have chosen a dictator over a democrat.

This is not good news for Zimbabwe’s democrats, either, who have been working tirelessly, under very difficult conditions, to discredit Mugabe internationally. One would not imagine this to be a difficult task, considering the fact that the man is responsible for the deaths of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of innocent civilians and is slowly starving his own people to death. The EU invitation will send a message to other African leaders: not only are their governments able to hold European diplomacy hostage, but the Europeans respect Mugabe. According to the Guardian, “EU diplomats hope that Mugabe will come under ‘peer pressure’ from fellow African leaders.” As long as the international community acts like a high school guidance counselor when dealing with African politics, it should expect little to get done.

On the bright side, now that Mugabe is set to come to Europe, perhaps the European Union is deftly executing the plan I proposed earlier this week. One can hope.

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No More North Koreas

Today, The New York Times, after praising the Bush administration for its “mixture of diplomatic creativity, flexibility, patience and follow-through” in its discussions with North Korea, suggested that the President use the same tactics to end Iran’s nuclear program. (This week, North Korea said it would disable its only working reactor and disclose the full extent of its nuclear programs by the end of this year.) For once, it’s hard to blame the Times for an ill-considered opinion. After all, the Times borrowed this exceedingly bad idea from the President himself.

Yesterday, Mr. Bush, responding to a question about whether the United States would negotiate with Iran, held up North Korea as a “case study” for the mullahs in Tehran. The clerics either are laughing at our leader or are utterly mystified about what he means. Kim Jong Il, after all, used his talks with the United States to buy time to master bomb-building techniques. Bush has now given the Iranians the same opportunity for building nuclear weapons of their own.

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Today, The New York Times, after praising the Bush administration for its “mixture of diplomatic creativity, flexibility, patience and follow-through” in its discussions with North Korea, suggested that the President use the same tactics to end Iran’s nuclear program. (This week, North Korea said it would disable its only working reactor and disclose the full extent of its nuclear programs by the end of this year.) For once, it’s hard to blame the Times for an ill-considered opinion. After all, the Times borrowed this exceedingly bad idea from the President himself.

Yesterday, Mr. Bush, responding to a question about whether the United States would negotiate with Iran, held up North Korea as a “case study” for the mullahs in Tehran. The clerics either are laughing at our leader or are utterly mystified about what he means. Kim Jong Il, after all, used his talks with the United States to buy time to master bomb-building techniques. Bush has now given the Iranians the same opportunity for building nuclear weapons of their own.

If there is anything we should be conveying to Iran, it is that we will not repeat the same mistakes that we made—and are continuing to make—in our talks with Kimist Korea. This is what we should say to the atomic ayatollahs: We will not engage in endless discussions, we will not let you use the United Nations to create roadblocks, we will not permit you to build a nuclear weapon. You will pay a fearsome price for destabilizing the international community.

Before President Bush holds up North Korea as an example, he must first take away its weapons. This week’s deal with Pyongyang, although welcome, is only an interim step in an interim arrangement. The difficult part of the disarmament process will be getting the North actually to surrender its bombs and non-weaponized plutonium and to permit continual on-site inspections.

So until he actually disarms Kim, the President should not be boasting. America, the strongest nation in history, should never have allowed North Korea, one of the most destitute, to arm itself with nukes in the first place. And unfortunately, the Iranians are watching.

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Barak’s Back

After six years out of public life, Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister from 1999-2001, re-emerged as Minister of Defense a little over three months ago—and rarely has someone effected such a dramatic improvement, in such a short period of time, of Israel’s standing in the region. When Barak was elected Labor Party leader in June and obtained the defense portfolio, Israel was in the midst of several crises. Some of these had been exacerbated by Israeli mishandling, but all of them demanded far more in the way of self-assured and competent leadership than what the Olmert administration (and especially Barak’s feckless predecessor at Defense, Amir Peretz) were able to offer: the 2006 Lebanon War had gone badly and emboldened Syria and Iran; the Winograd Commission report had exposed a great deal of genuinely astonishing incompetence in the Israeli political and military echelon; Hamas had just taken Gaza; tensions along the border with Syria were escalating; and perhaps worst of all, there existed inside of Israel a debilitating lack of confidence in the government’s ability to handle the impending challenges.

The mood in Israel today is hardly one of wild optimism, especially regarding Iran, but Barak’s leadership has already demonstrated both to the Israeli public and to antagonistic regimes that the IDF intends to correct its blunders. According to many reports, Barak’s first priority upon returning to the government was planning Israel’s recent strike on Syria, a sophisticated and daring mission that appears to have been a perfect success on many levels—not least of which is a demonstration to Syria and Iran that the Israeli air force can easily defeat their new Russian air defense systems, and is not afraid of trying. Barak has warned Hamas that it faces a large-scale ground operation in Gaza in response to continued rocket fire, and has declared the implementation of comprehensive missile defense to be a central precondition of any IDF withdrawal from the West Bank. Read More

After six years out of public life, Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister from 1999-2001, re-emerged as Minister of Defense a little over three months ago—and rarely has someone effected such a dramatic improvement, in such a short period of time, of Israel’s standing in the region. When Barak was elected Labor Party leader in June and obtained the defense portfolio, Israel was in the midst of several crises. Some of these had been exacerbated by Israeli mishandling, but all of them demanded far more in the way of self-assured and competent leadership than what the Olmert administration (and especially Barak’s feckless predecessor at Defense, Amir Peretz) were able to offer: the 2006 Lebanon War had gone badly and emboldened Syria and Iran; the Winograd Commission report had exposed a great deal of genuinely astonishing incompetence in the Israeli political and military echelon; Hamas had just taken Gaza; tensions along the border with Syria were escalating; and perhaps worst of all, there existed inside of Israel a debilitating lack of confidence in the government’s ability to handle the impending challenges.

The mood in Israel today is hardly one of wild optimism, especially regarding Iran, but Barak’s leadership has already demonstrated both to the Israeli public and to antagonistic regimes that the IDF intends to correct its blunders. According to many reports, Barak’s first priority upon returning to the government was planning Israel’s recent strike on Syria, a sophisticated and daring mission that appears to have been a perfect success on many levels—not least of which is a demonstration to Syria and Iran that the Israeli air force can easily defeat their new Russian air defense systems, and is not afraid of trying. Barak has warned Hamas that it faces a large-scale ground operation in Gaza in response to continued rocket fire, and has declared the implementation of comprehensive missile defense to be a central precondition of any IDF withdrawal from the West Bank.

Meanwhile, the IDF has stepped up the intensity of its training, especially in reserve units and among ground forces, and has begun pouring resources into developing a multi-tiered missile defense system that will be capable of defeating every type of enemy rocket. The IDF is also developing sophisticated countermeasures for installation on its Merkava tanks to defend against the kind of advanced anti-tank missiles that proved so deadly in southern Lebanon last summer. And Barak has pursued all of these operations and goals with an uncharacteristic sense of quiet determination, bluntly warning the Israeli public in one of his few public appearances against being “deceived by the illusion of a bogus calm.”

Barak has even attempted to rescue Gilad Shalit from captivity in Gaza, with a recent mission in which the Hamas chief who was in charge of the Gaza territory from which terrorists tunneled into Israel to abduct Shalit was himself abducted by IDF special operators, apparently dressed as members of Hamas’s Executive Force. The reemergence of Ehud Barak is emblematic of one of Israel’s greatest strengths: its ability to evaluate failure, assign blame, and quickly take corrective action. During the past three months, Israel has significantly renewed the deterrence and credibility of its armed forces. And Israel’s enemies surely have noticed.

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War Profiteers?

Amid the frenzy of Blackwater-bashing in recent days, this story hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. It describes how, after Poland’s ambassador was ambushed in Baghdad, he was airlifted for medical treatment by a Blackwater helicopter. I’m told that this kind of thing happens pretty regularly, with Blackwater coming to the assistance of embattled coalition forces, sometimes by providing fire support, but more often by helping to evacuate the wounded. Blackwater operates Little Bird helicopters; these are smaller and more maneuverable than the Black Hawks favored by regular U.S. Army forces. (The U.S. Special Operations Command also uses Little Birds.) They can land in the narrow streets of Baghdad or other Iraqi cities much more readily than can a Black Hawk.

Blackwater gives its personnel, most of them military veterans, full freedom to carry out these types of missions (which they are not obligated to do under their State Department contract). Sometimes they are able to arrive more quickly than military aviators; there have even been occasions when a landing zone was judged too “hot” for a military flight—but Blackwater went ahead and landed anyway.

Is this how out-of-control war profiteers act?

Amid the frenzy of Blackwater-bashing in recent days, this story hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. It describes how, after Poland’s ambassador was ambushed in Baghdad, he was airlifted for medical treatment by a Blackwater helicopter. I’m told that this kind of thing happens pretty regularly, with Blackwater coming to the assistance of embattled coalition forces, sometimes by providing fire support, but more often by helping to evacuate the wounded. Blackwater operates Little Bird helicopters; these are smaller and more maneuverable than the Black Hawks favored by regular U.S. Army forces. (The U.S. Special Operations Command also uses Little Birds.) They can land in the narrow streets of Baghdad or other Iraqi cities much more readily than can a Black Hawk.

Blackwater gives its personnel, most of them military veterans, full freedom to carry out these types of missions (which they are not obligated to do under their State Department contract). Sometimes they are able to arrive more quickly than military aviators; there have even been occasions when a landing zone was judged too “hot” for a military flight—but Blackwater went ahead and landed anyway.

Is this how out-of-control war profiteers act?

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The Democrats’ “Peace” Wing

Last week, I wrote about the Democratic presidential candidates’ difficulty in answering the simple question regarding Israel’s right to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities if it felt its existence, never mind its “security,” were in danger. In his evasive reply, Senator Obama spoke of “carrots” and “sticks,” which seems to be an increasingly popular analogy for the Democrats.

Allegedly, Obama is now quite serious and specific about what he plans to do in order to stop the Iranian bomb dead in its tracks. In a speech Tuesday at DePaul University, Obama called for a “a world in which there are no nuclear weapons” (no word yet on whether Obama will provide unicorns and marshmallows to every American pre-schooler). Specifically, he announced a goal of reducing America’s stockpile, as this will somehow, according to the Times, “reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism.”

But it is not America’s stockpile of nuclear weapons that poses a threat to American national security. Indeed, those weapons keep us—and the rest of the world—safe. Rather, it is nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union and Pakistan, were they to wind up in the hands of terrorists, that endanger international security. It is also the weapons programs of rogue states—like Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, mercifully overthrown by an international coalition—which threaten the free world. How Obama’s call for American disarmament will convince Kim Jong Il or the Iranian Mullahs to give up their own weapons (in the former case) or their nuclear weapon ambitions (in the latter’s case), the presidential candidate does not sufficiently explain. Well, he does say something. The Times reports:

In his speech, according to a campaign briefing paper, Mr. Obama also will call for using a combination of diplomacy and pressure to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. Aides did not say what Mr. Obama intended to do if diplomacy and sanctions failed.

In this short paragraph are revealed the disastrous effects of the hijacking of the Democratic Party by its peace wing.

Last week, I wrote about the Democratic presidential candidates’ difficulty in answering the simple question regarding Israel’s right to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities if it felt its existence, never mind its “security,” were in danger. In his evasive reply, Senator Obama spoke of “carrots” and “sticks,” which seems to be an increasingly popular analogy for the Democrats.

Allegedly, Obama is now quite serious and specific about what he plans to do in order to stop the Iranian bomb dead in its tracks. In a speech Tuesday at DePaul University, Obama called for a “a world in which there are no nuclear weapons” (no word yet on whether Obama will provide unicorns and marshmallows to every American pre-schooler). Specifically, he announced a goal of reducing America’s stockpile, as this will somehow, according to the Times, “reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism.”

But it is not America’s stockpile of nuclear weapons that poses a threat to American national security. Indeed, those weapons keep us—and the rest of the world—safe. Rather, it is nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union and Pakistan, were they to wind up in the hands of terrorists, that endanger international security. It is also the weapons programs of rogue states—like Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, mercifully overthrown by an international coalition—which threaten the free world. How Obama’s call for American disarmament will convince Kim Jong Il or the Iranian Mullahs to give up their own weapons (in the former case) or their nuclear weapon ambitions (in the latter’s case), the presidential candidate does not sufficiently explain. Well, he does say something. The Times reports:

In his speech, according to a campaign briefing paper, Mr. Obama also will call for using a combination of diplomacy and pressure to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. Aides did not say what Mr. Obama intended to do if diplomacy and sanctions failed.

In this short paragraph are revealed the disastrous effects of the hijacking of the Democratic Party by its peace wing.

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