Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 25, 2007

Buying China

Legendary investor (and co-founder, with George Soros, of the Quantum Fund) Jim Rogers, speaking at an ABN Amro conference in Amsterdam on Tuesday, said that he hopes to sell all his assets denominated in U.S. dollars. What’s the investment legend buying? “I don’t see how one can really lose on the renminbi in the next decade or so,” he said, referring to China’s currency. “It’s gotta go. It’s gotta triple. It’s gotta quadruple.”

If it’s gotta do anything, Jim, it’s gotta collapse. Although it’s hard to argue with the guru who in 1999 correctly predicted the bull run in commodities, Rogers absolutely has to learn more about China.

It is true, as Rogers says, that the Bush administration has been trying to devalue the American currency. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson may talk about his strong-dollar policy, but he is not doing much to maintain the value of the greenback. On the contrary, he is trying to weaken it. And he is succeeding. The dollar is trading at historic lows against the euro and other currencies, including the Chinese one. Yesterday, for instance, the yuan, as the Chinese currency is informally known, broke the CNY7.5=US$1 mark—after blasting through 7.6 on July 3. The renminbi has appreciated about 8 percent against the dollar since July 21, 2005, when China unpegged its currency from America’s.

The yuan would go up about 35 percent—give or take twenty percentage points—if Beijing allowed its currency to trade freely. But these predictions of appreciation all assume that China will be able to maintain its elaborate capital controls. If they come down, so will the renminbi. Chinese businesses and citizens, if given the chance, will put some of their money abroad. When they do so, demand for the renminbi will shrink as they exchange local currency for foreign ones. China’s economy certainly looks strong with its 11.5 percent GDP growth, but its apparent success is built on government-created distortions that cannot be maintained for long. The Chinese know this.

All developing economies endure crisis at one time or another. Argentina’s, which started in the beginning of this decade, might be the template for China’s. When Beijing faces market turbulence of its own, all that Jim Rogers knows will become obsolete within minutes. If we have learned one thing from panics in the last hundred years, it’s that they follow the rapid creation of wealth. Chinese leaders have created a massive bubble in their country, and, despite repeated advice from others, have not really tried to stop the boom. China does not have a market economy; therefore, few mechanisms are in place to make necessary adjustments that minimize imbalances as they arise. When crisis comes, it will come big.

Crisis in China? It’s gotta happen, Jim, and when it does, you’re gonna lose a lot of money.

Legendary investor (and co-founder, with George Soros, of the Quantum Fund) Jim Rogers, speaking at an ABN Amro conference in Amsterdam on Tuesday, said that he hopes to sell all his assets denominated in U.S. dollars. What’s the investment legend buying? “I don’t see how one can really lose on the renminbi in the next decade or so,” he said, referring to China’s currency. “It’s gotta go. It’s gotta triple. It’s gotta quadruple.”

If it’s gotta do anything, Jim, it’s gotta collapse. Although it’s hard to argue with the guru who in 1999 correctly predicted the bull run in commodities, Rogers absolutely has to learn more about China.

It is true, as Rogers says, that the Bush administration has been trying to devalue the American currency. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson may talk about his strong-dollar policy, but he is not doing much to maintain the value of the greenback. On the contrary, he is trying to weaken it. And he is succeeding. The dollar is trading at historic lows against the euro and other currencies, including the Chinese one. Yesterday, for instance, the yuan, as the Chinese currency is informally known, broke the CNY7.5=US$1 mark—after blasting through 7.6 on July 3. The renminbi has appreciated about 8 percent against the dollar since July 21, 2005, when China unpegged its currency from America’s.

The yuan would go up about 35 percent—give or take twenty percentage points—if Beijing allowed its currency to trade freely. But these predictions of appreciation all assume that China will be able to maintain its elaborate capital controls. If they come down, so will the renminbi. Chinese businesses and citizens, if given the chance, will put some of their money abroad. When they do so, demand for the renminbi will shrink as they exchange local currency for foreign ones. China’s economy certainly looks strong with its 11.5 percent GDP growth, but its apparent success is built on government-created distortions that cannot be maintained for long. The Chinese know this.

All developing economies endure crisis at one time or another. Argentina’s, which started in the beginning of this decade, might be the template for China’s. When Beijing faces market turbulence of its own, all that Jim Rogers knows will become obsolete within minutes. If we have learned one thing from panics in the last hundred years, it’s that they follow the rapid creation of wealth. Chinese leaders have created a massive bubble in their country, and, despite repeated advice from others, have not really tried to stop the boom. China does not have a market economy; therefore, few mechanisms are in place to make necessary adjustments that minimize imbalances as they arise. When crisis comes, it will come big.

Crisis in China? It’s gotta happen, Jim, and when it does, you’re gonna lose a lot of money.

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SCHIP Games, Round 2

Three weeks ago, Congressional Democrats passed a reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which they knew the President would veto. It would have increased the program’s budget by $35 billion, eliminated a requirement that states cover the neediest eligible children before covering middle-class ones, and increased the tax on tobacco—which amounts to a tax on the poorest Americans—to give slightly more affluent Americans health care.

President Bush had proposed a more modest reauthorization that would still increase the program by about 20 percent (or $5 billion, rather than $35 billion), and would insist the funds first went to the poorest of those eligible, to keep the program from becoming a tool to prod families off of private insurance and onto government-funded health care.

Sure enough, Bush vetoed the Democratic proposal, and his veto was sustained in the House. Now, “sensing a political advantage” (as the New York Times puts it), the Democrats are rushing through another version of the bill, which they hope will peel off enough Republicans to pass. This version still suffers from basically all of the flaws that made it unacceptable to Bush last time, though some are hidden behind flimsy gimmicks.

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Three weeks ago, Congressional Democrats passed a reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which they knew the President would veto. It would have increased the program’s budget by $35 billion, eliminated a requirement that states cover the neediest eligible children before covering middle-class ones, and increased the tax on tobacco—which amounts to a tax on the poorest Americans—to give slightly more affluent Americans health care.

President Bush had proposed a more modest reauthorization that would still increase the program by about 20 percent (or $5 billion, rather than $35 billion), and would insist the funds first went to the poorest of those eligible, to keep the program from becoming a tool to prod families off of private insurance and onto government-funded health care.

Sure enough, Bush vetoed the Democratic proposal, and his veto was sustained in the House. Now, “sensing a political advantage” (as the New York Times puts it), the Democrats are rushing through another version of the bill, which they hope will peel off enough Republicans to pass. This version still suffers from basically all of the flaws that made it unacceptable to Bush last time, though some are hidden behind flimsy gimmicks.

The bill, for instance, seems on its face to cap eligibility at families that make three times the poverty rate (or about $62,000), but leaves open a loophole for states to disregard significant portions of a family’s income. It claims, also, to require states to submit plans for preventing the “crowd-out” effect, by which added federal dollars cause families to drop private insurance in favor of SCHIP coverage. But it includes no sanctions against states that fail to follow through on such plans.

Essentially, the Democrats are pushing through the same bill they did last time, and hoping for a different result. Why would they expect such a difference? For one thing, ten of the Republicans who voted to sustain the President’s veto last time are now away from Washington—because they represent southern California districts contending with wildfires. That cuts deeply into the Republicans’ margin, since Bush’s veto was sustained by only thirteen votes last time. The Democrats are insisting on a quick vote—today, in fact—before those members return. They hope, too, that the appearance of a compromise will move enough of the remaining opponents of their bill to choose to avoid the risk of being branded an enemy of children’s health care.

This gambit almost certainly will fail. The bill will pass, to be sure, and will be vetoed again. But it looks just about certain still to fail to garner the votes necessary to override the veto (which, in any case, won’t come until both houses have passed the bill and the president has vetoed it, likely allowing the absent Republicans to return). It will be closer than last time. But even with these deceptive games, and even with the cynical use of the California fires for crass political advantage, the Democrats still seem unlikely to be able to avoid a genuine compromise with Bush that will keep this important program going, while not turning it into a first step toward federalized health care.

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War at the Movies

The Washington Times reports—surprise, surprise—that antiwar films aren’t exactly conquering the box office.

In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, and Susan Sarandon, has grossed all of $6.5 million so far, and Rendition, a bigger-budget pic, is off to an equally anemic start. It tells the story of an Egyptian-American kidnapped by the CIA and transported to be tortured abroad—not exactly what audiences are seeking. As the Times notes:

Rendition, which features three Oscar winners in key roles, grossed $4.1 million over the weekend in 2,250 screens for a ninth-place finish. A re-release of The Nightmare Before Christmas beat it, and it’s fourteen years old.

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The Washington Times reports—surprise, surprise—that antiwar films aren’t exactly conquering the box office.

In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, and Susan Sarandon, has grossed all of $6.5 million so far, and Rendition, a bigger-budget pic, is off to an equally anemic start. It tells the story of an Egyptian-American kidnapped by the CIA and transported to be tortured abroad—not exactly what audiences are seeking. As the Times notes:

Rendition, which features three Oscar winners in key roles, grossed $4.1 million over the weekend in 2,250 screens for a ninth-place finish. A re-release of The Nightmare Before Christmas beat it, and it’s fourteen years old.

By contrast, The Kingdom, a thriller set in Saudi Arabia that presents Americans as the good guys fighting jihadist terrorists, has done better, if still not spectacularly. It has grossed over $44 million so far.

All films focused on the war on terrorism are handicapped, no doubt, by the desire of film-goers to be diverted from, rather than reminded of, their daily worries. I, for one, had no interest in seeing even critically acclaimed movies like World Trade Center and United 93 about September 11. Having been downtown that day, I’m not eager for cinematic reenactments of the horrors I witnessed.

But I might be willing to see a movie that dramatizes the heroics of American soldiers. There is no shortage of examples from which to choose, starting with the late Navy SEAL Michael Murphy, whose family just accepted a posthumous Medal of Honor for his actions in Afghanistan. But don’t hold your breath waiting for the antiwar crowd in Hollywood to make such a flick. Apparently they’d rather lose money than do anything that might be construed as supporting the American war effort.

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Campus Progress, Regressing

According to its website, the mission of Campus Progress, an outfit affiliated with left-of-center think tank the Center for American Progress, is “to see that the next generation of progressive leaders is better trained, better informed, more diverse, and more united than any generation before.” Irrespective of one’s political affiliation, one can appreciate the organization’s idealistic approach to getting young people involved in public life.

But a piece by Kay Steiger on the legacy of Ernesto “Che” Guevara demonstrates the jejune approach that many on the Left still take when it comes to discussing left-wing totalitarians. An earnestness afflicts the entire piece, the purpose of which is to inform liberal readers that the man they lionize on t-shirts and lighters is not exactly a progressive hero, as he’s been portrayed. Steiger writes that “[Guevara] was a man of principles, to a fault.” The same, of course, can be (and still is) said about Joseph Stalin or Robert Mugabe; in the minds of many liberals, it is not the ideas of these men that were toxic from the start, just the way they were executed.

Steiger writes of Guevara’s “impatience with governing,” which is a nice euphemism for a belief in the virtues of violent revolution over the comparatively less sexy devotion to the rule of law and individual rights. Steiger is not the first writer to employ such rhetorical sleights-of-hand aimed at whitewashing the brutality of this particular left-wing thug.

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According to its website, the mission of Campus Progress, an outfit affiliated with left-of-center think tank the Center for American Progress, is “to see that the next generation of progressive leaders is better trained, better informed, more diverse, and more united than any generation before.” Irrespective of one’s political affiliation, one can appreciate the organization’s idealistic approach to getting young people involved in public life.

But a piece by Kay Steiger on the legacy of Ernesto “Che” Guevara demonstrates the jejune approach that many on the Left still take when it comes to discussing left-wing totalitarians. An earnestness afflicts the entire piece, the purpose of which is to inform liberal readers that the man they lionize on t-shirts and lighters is not exactly a progressive hero, as he’s been portrayed. Steiger writes that “[Guevara] was a man of principles, to a fault.” The same, of course, can be (and still is) said about Joseph Stalin or Robert Mugabe; in the minds of many liberals, it is not the ideas of these men that were toxic from the start, just the way they were executed.

Steiger writes of Guevara’s “impatience with governing,” which is a nice euphemism for a belief in the virtues of violent revolution over the comparatively less sexy devotion to the rule of law and individual rights. Steiger is not the first writer to employ such rhetorical sleights-of-hand aimed at whitewashing the brutality of this particular left-wing thug.

Perhaps knowing that she will not be able to convince her left-leaning audience that Che was bad by virtue of his politics, Steiger pinpoints the man’s reactionary views towards women and homosexuals, who rank highly among the intended beneficiaries of 20th century liberalism. (She does, though, make a key factual error in her assertion that the gay Cuban novelist Reynaldo Arenas “was killed as the result of the government’s prosecution of gays.” He died in Miami, where he had fled, of complications due to AIDS. This, of course, is not to discount the Cuban regime’s incarceration of gays, along with other undesirables, in prison labor camps.) Steiger helpfully informs us that

At best, Guevara’s politics advocated for a mindless devotion of the working man (with an emphasis on “man”) to socialism, but left out other causes many progressives have worked long and hard for: equality for gender and sexual orientation. In fact, gays were persecuted following the Cuban revolution.

The precious, explanatory manner in which this is written (“Hey guys, Che wasn’t exactly a great dude”) characterizes Steiger’s entire article, seen here in the surprise she evinces towards her own discovery that Guevara was violently hostile towards homosexuals (“In fact”). But the hostility of left-wing regimes towards homosexuality is hardly a secret. The Soviet Union and its satellite states around the world viewed homosexuality as a deficiency that would be cured with the perfection of Socialist Man.

It’s nice to see a liberal website like Campus Progress explain to its readers why Che Guevara was “cruel and militantly dogmatic in ways that should make the Left squirm.” But Steiger nevertheless qualifies this already tepid condemnation with an assertion that “[t]he discussion of Guevara is still divisive and complicated, years after his death, and it should be.” There is nothing “complicated” about the moral character of Che Guevara; he was an evil man. And the only thing “divisive” about “the discussion” surrounding him is that so many on the Left persist in claiming otherwise. That an ostensibly mainstream liberal organization like Campus Progress feels the need to explain to its readers that Guevara was not the hero of their imaginations, 40 years after the man’s death, says a lot about the “next generation of progressive leaders.”

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Forked Tongues

What difference will it make now that Ali Larijani is no longer Iran’s nuclear negotiator? None, at least to Italian PM Romano Prodi. After welcoming Larijani and his successor, the ardent Mahdist Saeed Jalili, to the governmental offices in the heart of Rome, Prodi declared that,

With regard to Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran could contribute in easing tensions and finding fair and satisfactory compromises for all, confirming its ability to play a role in constructing regional stability.

Prodi has great timing! While he was complimenting Iran for its constructive role, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon was submitting his biannual report on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701, in which he reveals that Hizballah’s military capacity has climbed again to its prewar levels—an implicit admission that the UNIFIL mission has so far failed to fulfill its mandate under those resolutions. Ban Ki Moon said, in reference to the need for all Lebanese parties to disarm, that

I also expect the unequivocal cooperation of all relevant regional parties who have the ability to support such a process, most notably the Syrian Arab Republic and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which maintain close ties with the party, for the sake of both Lebanon’s and the wider region’s security, stability, and welfare.

It wouldn’t be wrong to read these two apparently very similar statements in vastly different ways. The UN is saying that Iran and Syria have rearmed Hizballah, and is warning (whatever a UN “warning” may be worth) the countries against continuing to do so. Prodi, whose adventurism made him send 3,000 Italian soldiers to Lebanon in August 2006 without the proper mandate to implement the Security Council resolutions his own government helped draft, is, yet again, ignoring the destabilizing role Iran is playing across the region.

What difference will it make now that Ali Larijani is no longer Iran’s nuclear negotiator? None, at least to Italian PM Romano Prodi. After welcoming Larijani and his successor, the ardent Mahdist Saeed Jalili, to the governmental offices in the heart of Rome, Prodi declared that,

With regard to Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran could contribute in easing tensions and finding fair and satisfactory compromises for all, confirming its ability to play a role in constructing regional stability.

Prodi has great timing! While he was complimenting Iran for its constructive role, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon was submitting his biannual report on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701, in which he reveals that Hizballah’s military capacity has climbed again to its prewar levels—an implicit admission that the UNIFIL mission has so far failed to fulfill its mandate under those resolutions. Ban Ki Moon said, in reference to the need for all Lebanese parties to disarm, that

I also expect the unequivocal cooperation of all relevant regional parties who have the ability to support such a process, most notably the Syrian Arab Republic and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which maintain close ties with the party, for the sake of both Lebanon’s and the wider region’s security, stability, and welfare.

It wouldn’t be wrong to read these two apparently very similar statements in vastly different ways. The UN is saying that Iran and Syria have rearmed Hizballah, and is warning (whatever a UN “warning” may be worth) the countries against continuing to do so. Prodi, whose adventurism made him send 3,000 Italian soldiers to Lebanon in August 2006 without the proper mandate to implement the Security Council resolutions his own government helped draft, is, yet again, ignoring the destabilizing role Iran is playing across the region.

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Catch and Release

The recent revelation that Palestinian Authority security personnel planned to assassinate the Israeli prime minister in Jericho came and went in the media without much sensation. But the incident is being viewed differently by Israeli officials, who see, in the details of the thwarted attack, the persistence of one of the PA’s most sinister practices—the catch-and-release treatment of Palestinian terrorists—and the stark reality that the current Palestinian leadership remains unserious about preventing terrorism.

In late June, Israeli security officials learned of an assassination plot among members of a Palestinian security force that was to help guard Ehud Olmert’s visit to Jericho on June 27, a visit that ended up being canceled because of the threat. The Israelis alerted their Palestinian counterparts, who arrested three members of the assassination cell (Israel detained two others). The five were all members of Fatah, and had been involved in helping to plan the route of Olmert’s convoy. The three detained by Palestinian security confessed to the assassination plot, but were released in late September. When Israel protested and news of their release leaked, all three were again detained, two by Palestinian security and one by Israeli security. Palestinian officials, true to form, averred (with mind-boggling implausibility) that the release of the would-be assassins was an innocent mistake. Right.

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The recent revelation that Palestinian Authority security personnel planned to assassinate the Israeli prime minister in Jericho came and went in the media without much sensation. But the incident is being viewed differently by Israeli officials, who see, in the details of the thwarted attack, the persistence of one of the PA’s most sinister practices—the catch-and-release treatment of Palestinian terrorists—and the stark reality that the current Palestinian leadership remains unserious about preventing terrorism.

In late June, Israeli security officials learned of an assassination plot among members of a Palestinian security force that was to help guard Ehud Olmert’s visit to Jericho on June 27, a visit that ended up being canceled because of the threat. The Israelis alerted their Palestinian counterparts, who arrested three members of the assassination cell (Israel detained two others). The five were all members of Fatah, and had been involved in helping to plan the route of Olmert’s convoy. The three detained by Palestinian security confessed to the assassination plot, but were released in late September. When Israel protested and news of their release leaked, all three were again detained, two by Palestinian security and one by Israeli security. Palestinian officials, true to form, averred (with mind-boggling implausibility) that the release of the would-be assassins was an innocent mistake. Right.

The extent to which the plot was well-coordinated or its success plausible remains unclear—it sounds to me like a lot of buffoonery. But the simple facts of the plot’s existence, of the plotters’ closeness to their target, and of the appalling incompetence or outright malfeasance of those who released the perpetrators, indicate the persistence of two major Palestinian problems.

The first is the malevolence of the PA’s bloated and corrupt “security” forces. The original formation of these militias and their continued presence have been underwritten by Western aid money since the start of the Oslo process. In theory, these forces were supposed to allow the Palestinian leaders upon whom Israel and the U.S. relied in peace negotiations to introduce a measure of law and order to Palestinian society. The “security” forces were also charged with improving the leaders’ ability to govern their territory through legitimate police powers. But the reality is that they have always been a patronage system through which Palestinian leaders have provided money and ersatz employment to hordes of restless young men in exchange for their temporary loyalty. Often, such men are terrorists and terrorism sympathizers, eager to continue the jihad against Israel (and even make a buck doing so).

The second problem pertains to the continued Palestinian refusal to end the glorification of terrorism that previous Palestinian leaders spent decades inculcating—a lust for martyrdom that continues to be taught in schools today. Instead of using the Olmert incident—in the midst of an allegedly serious peace effort, no less—to deliver an unequivocal message to the Palestinian people that terrorism is unacceptable, Palestinian leaders (including, sadly, Prime Minister Fayyad) lied, made excuses, and blame-shifted. It is thus apparent that there has not been any internal progress in reforming the Palestinian attitude toward terrorism, and it is likely that there is none underway.

An Israeli official with whom I spoke about the attempted assassination and the catch-and-release of the perpetrators as “a tip of the iceberg problem,” and noted that the recent events are “symptomatic of how problematic the security situation really is.” The only security force in the West Bank that is willing and able to thwart terror attacks and keep terrorists in jail is the IDF. This security dynamic will continue to be where the rubber meets the Roadmap, no matter how many millions of western dollars are poured into the development of Palestinian militias. Their deficiencies are cultural and ideological, not budgetary.

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Whodunit?

As has been said many times, the intelligence world is a wilderness of mirrors. In writing about it from the outside, I know that I know that I do not know what I do not know.

If that is not clear, all I mean to say is that when it comes to this terrain, one has to be on guard and critical. One typical example of the problem faced by outsiders is presented by Shadow Warriors, a book by Kenneth R. Timmerman about CIA efforts to sabotage the Bush administration. A longtime student of U.S. intelligence, Timmerman writes flatly here that “to this day, the CIA has no spies in Iran.” He attributes this information to “numerous agency insiders and other sources.”

How are we to evaluate this assertion? If the CIA did have spies in Iran, it would be logical to assume that it would want to keep that  fact very close to the vest. One way to do this would be to have “numerous agency insiders and other sources” go around telling journalists like Kenneth Timmerman that the agency has no spies in Iran with the hope that he will repeat it in a book.

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As has been said many times, the intelligence world is a wilderness of mirrors. In writing about it from the outside, I know that I know that I do not know what I do not know.

If that is not clear, all I mean to say is that when it comes to this terrain, one has to be on guard and critical. One typical example of the problem faced by outsiders is presented by Shadow Warriors, a book by Kenneth R. Timmerman about CIA efforts to sabotage the Bush administration. A longtime student of U.S. intelligence, Timmerman writes flatly here that “to this day, the CIA has no spies in Iran.” He attributes this information to “numerous agency insiders and other sources.”

How are we to evaluate this assertion? If the CIA did have spies in Iran, it would be logical to assume that it would want to keep that  fact very close to the vest. One way to do this would be to have “numerous agency insiders and other sources” go around telling journalists like Kenneth Timmerman that the agency has no spies in Iran with the hope that he will repeat it in a book.

Throughout, and on all subjects, Timmerman writes with an air of certainty, which makes me distrust him. Nonetheless, my best guess, knowing a bit about CIA difficulties in recruiting human sources, is that his claim about the agency’s non-coverage of Iran is accurate.

Even if one reads Shadow Warriors with a skeptical eye, while also taking note of Timmerman’s heavy breathing–the book is replete with polemical phrases that cloud the mirror with unnecessary vapor–it undeniably offers many fascinating details.

One such detail is Timmerman’s assertion that the authorities have a suspect  behind the leak leading to the December 16, 2005 story in the New York Times compromising the National Security Agency’s terrorist surveillance program. “As I can reveal here for the first time,” writes Timmerman, a “senior member of the Senate intelligence committee is under investigation by the FBI in connection with the leak.”

Is Timmerman right? I have no idea. But the Times first got hold of the leaked information shortly before the November 2004 elections and sat on it for a year. An important leak right before a presidential election could have had an obvious political motivation. Here are the Senators who served on the committee in the 2004-2005 time period:

Evan Bayh
Christopher S. Bond
Saxby Chambliss
Jon Corzine
Thomas Daschle ex officio
Mike DeWine
Richard Durbin
John Edwards
Dianne Feinstein
Bill Frist, ex officio
Chuck Hagel
Orrin G. Hatch
Carl Levin
Trent Lott
Barbara A. Mikulski
Pat Roberts
Harry Reid ex officio
John D. Rockefeller IV
Olympia J. Snowe
John Warner
Ron Wyden

Readers are invited to help me connect the dots.  Write to letters@commentarymagazine.com and put “Connecting the Dots” in the subject field.

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Evil Empire Symphonies

The announcement that the New York Philharmonic likely will travel to North Korea next February, at the behest of that country’s Culture Ministry, brings up memories of orchestral maneuvers during cold wars past. First Run Features has just issued on DVD the Oscar-winning 1979 documentary From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, in which the great violinist hears direct testimony of the ghastly sufferings experienced by Chinese classical musicians during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Any trip to North Korea looks likely to be just as harrowing. Kim Jong Il, according to his official biography, has written 1,500 books and six operas, “all of which are better than any in the history of music.” In 2001, the University Press of the Pacific published Kim Jong Il’s Art of Opera, which contains such gems as: “An opera singer must sing well. A stage actor’s main task is to speak well and act well. While an opera singer’s main task is to sing well.” We are also informed that an “orchestra must accompany songs skillfully.” These gross banalities are natural from a philistine who requires that all music in his country be in praise of himself and Communism.

Jasper Becker’s Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea from Oxford University Press accuses Kim and his father Kim Il Sung of responsibility for the deaths of 7 million North Koreans from famine, war, and political oppression. Becker particularly condemns politicians, from Vladimir Putin to Madeleine Albright, who returned home after trips to North Korea reporting “how rational, well-informed, witty, charming, and deeply popular Kim Jong Il is.” This kind of flattering publicity is already being churned out by the Philharmonic, whose public relations director Eric Latzky informed the New York Times that Pyongyang, based on a preliminary visit, is “clean and orderly and not without beauty, and had a kind of high level of culture and intelligence.”

Isaac Stern visited Communist China after the worst of the Cultural Revolution was already past, but North Korea is still a tragedy-in-progress. In Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform, published earlier this year by Columbia University Press, co-authors Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland point out that Kim Jong Il’s “culpability in this vast misery elevates the North Korean famine to the level of a crime against humanity.” Mismanagement, after Soviet subsidies slowly stopped in the 1980′s, was aggravated by brutal state policies like the notorious 1991 “Eat Two Meals a Day” campaign and the 1997 songun or “military first” policy, giving the army and political hacks first claim on any foreign aid. Haggard and Noland state that by 2005, around 30 percent of foreign aid had been stolen by Kim and his cronies, while the famine deaths continued. New York Philharmonic musicians might choke on their after-concert dinners if they read these books. Nero fiddled while Rome burned, but he was not a Philharmonic violinist.

The announcement that the New York Philharmonic likely will travel to North Korea next February, at the behest of that country’s Culture Ministry, brings up memories of orchestral maneuvers during cold wars past. First Run Features has just issued on DVD the Oscar-winning 1979 documentary From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, in which the great violinist hears direct testimony of the ghastly sufferings experienced by Chinese classical musicians during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Any trip to North Korea looks likely to be just as harrowing. Kim Jong Il, according to his official biography, has written 1,500 books and six operas, “all of which are better than any in the history of music.” In 2001, the University Press of the Pacific published Kim Jong Il’s Art of Opera, which contains such gems as: “An opera singer must sing well. A stage actor’s main task is to speak well and act well. While an opera singer’s main task is to sing well.” We are also informed that an “orchestra must accompany songs skillfully.” These gross banalities are natural from a philistine who requires that all music in his country be in praise of himself and Communism.

Jasper Becker’s Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea from Oxford University Press accuses Kim and his father Kim Il Sung of responsibility for the deaths of 7 million North Koreans from famine, war, and political oppression. Becker particularly condemns politicians, from Vladimir Putin to Madeleine Albright, who returned home after trips to North Korea reporting “how rational, well-informed, witty, charming, and deeply popular Kim Jong Il is.” This kind of flattering publicity is already being churned out by the Philharmonic, whose public relations director Eric Latzky informed the New York Times that Pyongyang, based on a preliminary visit, is “clean and orderly and not without beauty, and had a kind of high level of culture and intelligence.”

Isaac Stern visited Communist China after the worst of the Cultural Revolution was already past, but North Korea is still a tragedy-in-progress. In Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform, published earlier this year by Columbia University Press, co-authors Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland point out that Kim Jong Il’s “culpability in this vast misery elevates the North Korean famine to the level of a crime against humanity.” Mismanagement, after Soviet subsidies slowly stopped in the 1980′s, was aggravated by brutal state policies like the notorious 1991 “Eat Two Meals a Day” campaign and the 1997 songun or “military first” policy, giving the army and political hacks first claim on any foreign aid. Haggard and Noland state that by 2005, around 30 percent of foreign aid had been stolen by Kim and his cronies, while the famine deaths continued. New York Philharmonic musicians might choke on their after-concert dinners if they read these books. Nero fiddled while Rome burned, but he was not a Philharmonic violinist.

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Making DREAM a Reality

Mickey Kaus is gloating about the Senate’s failure to pass the DREAM Act. This legislation, which would create a new path to citizenship for minor children of undocumented immigrants who have clean records and either join the military or attend college, attracted 52 votes on a “cloture” motion, while only 44 senators voted against closing off debate. (For the vote breakdown, see here.) Most of those voting for cloture were Democrats, but they were joined by a dozen Republicans, including such conservatives as Orrin Hatch and Sam Brownback. Since 60 votes are required to end debate on controversial proposals, the DREAM Act effectively has been killed, for now.

Kaus is happy because he thinks the DREAM Act would have provided an incentive for more illegal immigration. (So does the Bush administration, which opposed this measure.) I don’t think that’s true of the DREAM Act, which applies only to those who have already lived in America for five years prior to the enactment of the law.

In any case, no extra incentives are needed for people to come here, especially from countries such as Mexico that don’t offer as much economic opportunity. They will come no matter what; the question is whether we are going to give them an avenue toward becoming tax-paying citizens or force them to remain underground. There is no better way to assimilate immigrants than through military service, one of the pathways specified by the DREAM Act.

As I’ve argued before on contentions, I think this a good piece of legislation that takes a major step toward one of my dreams: to offer American citizenship to anyone anywhere in the world willing to serve in the American armed forces. This would vastly broaden our recruiting base, allowing the armed forces to sign up all sorts of talented people who are currently prohibited from joining. They would, of course, have to pass background investigations and meet all existing criteria for military service, including English-language proficiency.

I’ve been advocating this idea for several years, and even though it’s not currently possible, I’ve gotten emails from Canadians, Chinese, Dutch, and other foreigners wanting to sign up for our armed forces. All it would take to make their dreams a reality would be for the Secretary of Defense to certify that enlisting them is in the national interest. Legislation isn’t required, although that’s another way this objective could be achieved.

Mickey Kaus is gloating about the Senate’s failure to pass the DREAM Act. This legislation, which would create a new path to citizenship for minor children of undocumented immigrants who have clean records and either join the military or attend college, attracted 52 votes on a “cloture” motion, while only 44 senators voted against closing off debate. (For the vote breakdown, see here.) Most of those voting for cloture were Democrats, but they were joined by a dozen Republicans, including such conservatives as Orrin Hatch and Sam Brownback. Since 60 votes are required to end debate on controversial proposals, the DREAM Act effectively has been killed, for now.

Kaus is happy because he thinks the DREAM Act would have provided an incentive for more illegal immigration. (So does the Bush administration, which opposed this measure.) I don’t think that’s true of the DREAM Act, which applies only to those who have already lived in America for five years prior to the enactment of the law.

In any case, no extra incentives are needed for people to come here, especially from countries such as Mexico that don’t offer as much economic opportunity. They will come no matter what; the question is whether we are going to give them an avenue toward becoming tax-paying citizens or force them to remain underground. There is no better way to assimilate immigrants than through military service, one of the pathways specified by the DREAM Act.

As I’ve argued before on contentions, I think this a good piece of legislation that takes a major step toward one of my dreams: to offer American citizenship to anyone anywhere in the world willing to serve in the American armed forces. This would vastly broaden our recruiting base, allowing the armed forces to sign up all sorts of talented people who are currently prohibited from joining. They would, of course, have to pass background investigations and meet all existing criteria for military service, including English-language proficiency.

I’ve been advocating this idea for several years, and even though it’s not currently possible, I’ve gotten emails from Canadians, Chinese, Dutch, and other foreigners wanting to sign up for our armed forces. All it would take to make their dreams a reality would be for the Secretary of Defense to certify that enlisting them is in the national interest. Legislation isn’t required, although that’s another way this objective could be achieved.

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