Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 20, 2007

Polls, Polls, Polls

Another day, another set of polls. One says John McCain is now tied with Mitt Romney for the lead in New Hampshire. But that does not comport with the findings of other polls, which have Romney ahead by seven or ten or twelve points. Barack Obama has closed the gap with Hillary Clinton nationally and trails her by seven — or is twenty points back. And then there is Iowa, where Hillary is ahead, Obama is ahead, or Edwards is ahead. Huckabee might be ahead by fifteen or by two.

Results this varied are what has caused most people to begin to rely on an average of all polls being taken. The Poll of Polls most frequently cited is the one at realclearpolitics.com, which popularized it. Mark Blumenthal of pollster.com explains why a poll average works with an analogy to darts. Let’s say you’re playing darts and you don’t know where the bullseye is. You can figure it out by looking at the pattern of the holes created by other dart-throwers, which in an effort to reach the bullseye will actually create a picture of it in absentia.

The problem with that analogy is that there isn’t just one bullseye in a primary poll. There are five or six. Each candidate a pollster asks about is a bullseye. And with all these other possible bullseyes, the pattern of the holes around each one of them is not going to be anywhere near as distinct. It stands to reason that if you ask 500 people about a choice between A or B, you’re going to get a large number for A and a large number for B, and that one of the two will be larger than the other. If you ask 500 people about a choice between A, B, C, D, E, F or G, you’re not going to get big numbers for any one of them but relatively small numbers for all of them. And the pattern created by each choice — corresponding to a single dart — is more like an impression than a solid pattern.

Add to this uncertainty the fact that 14 percent of Americans now only use cellphones. Pollsters haven’t figured out how to factor in cellphones, so that’s 14 percent of the potential electorate missing from their sample to begin with. Add further the fact that many people — no one has a number, but it is significant — now hang up on people they don’t know or don’t answer the phone when their Caller ID offers an unknown phone number, and you have another segment of the population that is offline.

Now consider Iowa and New Hampshire. These are states whose residents are being bombarded daily by phone calls from campaign volunteers, campaign staffers, and recorded messages from candidates. As Richelieu, a campaign guru who posts on the Weekly Standard’s Campaign blog, puts it:

Polling right now in Iowa and New Hampshire is a technical nightmare. Every three minutes the average voter’s phone rings with somebody coaxing them to trudge out into the snow and attend an Edward’s meeting, go to a coffee with one of Romney’s sons, or sign up for a Huckabee prayer circle. Not to mention the endless pre-recorded “robo-call” phone messages from various crank interest groups grinding their axe on some issue. With your phone ringing two dozen times a day with a political call, it is not easy for the 35 different media and private pollsters each trying to get a sample done each night. Voters don’t answer the phone or refuse to play along when they do answer. Which means response rates go way down, samples tilt away from a statistically reliable random frame of the population, and results go bad.

And now for the most important part: Turnout in the Iowa caucuses is expected to be somewhere around…this is serious…five percent. That means five percent of the state’s universe of Republicans will attend a Republican caucus meeting, and five percent of the state’s Democrats will attend a Democratic caucus meeting. According to Blumenthal of pollster.com, “The historical high for turnout in the Iowa Caucuses was 5.5% of adults for the Democrats in 2004 and 5.3% of adults for the Republicans in 1988.”

Now here’s what this means. For a poll to achieve a measurable degree of scientific accuracy, a pollster “would need to screen out nine out of ten otherwise willing adults in order to interview a combined population of Democratic and Republican caucusgoers strictly comparable in size to past caucus turnouts.” Because no pollster can afford to do such a thing — to reach thousands of people and then discard the results from 90 percent of the phone calls — each polling firm has to come up with its own theory of how best to locate and identify likely voters in sufficient numbers. That’s why, Blumenthal says, the results of each poll vary so wildly.

So. People who are polled are offered six options. People use cell phones exclusively. They know they’re getting political calls and don’t answer the phone if they’re at home. And only five percent of voters in each party actually turn out in Iowa.

So. Still confident there’s a Huckabee “surge”? Or that Romney has ended the Huckabee surge? Or that Obama is gaining on Hillary? Or that Edwards can’t win? If you are, I would like to sell you this.

Another day, another set of polls. One says John McCain is now tied with Mitt Romney for the lead in New Hampshire. But that does not comport with the findings of other polls, which have Romney ahead by seven or ten or twelve points. Barack Obama has closed the gap with Hillary Clinton nationally and trails her by seven — or is twenty points back. And then there is Iowa, where Hillary is ahead, Obama is ahead, or Edwards is ahead. Huckabee might be ahead by fifteen or by two.

Results this varied are what has caused most people to begin to rely on an average of all polls being taken. The Poll of Polls most frequently cited is the one at realclearpolitics.com, which popularized it. Mark Blumenthal of pollster.com explains why a poll average works with an analogy to darts. Let’s say you’re playing darts and you don’t know where the bullseye is. You can figure it out by looking at the pattern of the holes created by other dart-throwers, which in an effort to reach the bullseye will actually create a picture of it in absentia.

The problem with that analogy is that there isn’t just one bullseye in a primary poll. There are five or six. Each candidate a pollster asks about is a bullseye. And with all these other possible bullseyes, the pattern of the holes around each one of them is not going to be anywhere near as distinct. It stands to reason that if you ask 500 people about a choice between A or B, you’re going to get a large number for A and a large number for B, and that one of the two will be larger than the other. If you ask 500 people about a choice between A, B, C, D, E, F or G, you’re not going to get big numbers for any one of them but relatively small numbers for all of them. And the pattern created by each choice — corresponding to a single dart — is more like an impression than a solid pattern.

Add to this uncertainty the fact that 14 percent of Americans now only use cellphones. Pollsters haven’t figured out how to factor in cellphones, so that’s 14 percent of the potential electorate missing from their sample to begin with. Add further the fact that many people — no one has a number, but it is significant — now hang up on people they don’t know or don’t answer the phone when their Caller ID offers an unknown phone number, and you have another segment of the population that is offline.

Now consider Iowa and New Hampshire. These are states whose residents are being bombarded daily by phone calls from campaign volunteers, campaign staffers, and recorded messages from candidates. As Richelieu, a campaign guru who posts on the Weekly Standard’s Campaign blog, puts it:

Polling right now in Iowa and New Hampshire is a technical nightmare. Every three minutes the average voter’s phone rings with somebody coaxing them to trudge out into the snow and attend an Edward’s meeting, go to a coffee with one of Romney’s sons, or sign up for a Huckabee prayer circle. Not to mention the endless pre-recorded “robo-call” phone messages from various crank interest groups grinding their axe on some issue. With your phone ringing two dozen times a day with a political call, it is not easy for the 35 different media and private pollsters each trying to get a sample done each night. Voters don’t answer the phone or refuse to play along when they do answer. Which means response rates go way down, samples tilt away from a statistically reliable random frame of the population, and results go bad.

And now for the most important part: Turnout in the Iowa caucuses is expected to be somewhere around…this is serious…five percent. That means five percent of the state’s universe of Republicans will attend a Republican caucus meeting, and five percent of the state’s Democrats will attend a Democratic caucus meeting. According to Blumenthal of pollster.com, “The historical high for turnout in the Iowa Caucuses was 5.5% of adults for the Democrats in 2004 and 5.3% of adults for the Republicans in 1988.”

Now here’s what this means. For a poll to achieve a measurable degree of scientific accuracy, a pollster “would need to screen out nine out of ten otherwise willing adults in order to interview a combined population of Democratic and Republican caucusgoers strictly comparable in size to past caucus turnouts.” Because no pollster can afford to do such a thing — to reach thousands of people and then discard the results from 90 percent of the phone calls — each polling firm has to come up with its own theory of how best to locate and identify likely voters in sufficient numbers. That’s why, Blumenthal says, the results of each poll vary so wildly.

So. People who are polled are offered six options. People use cell phones exclusively. They know they’re getting political calls and don’t answer the phone if they’re at home. And only five percent of voters in each party actually turn out in Iowa.

So. Still confident there’s a Huckabee “surge”? Or that Romney has ended the Huckabee surge? Or that Obama is gaining on Hillary? Or that Edwards can’t win? If you are, I would like to sell you this.

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Lumet’s Latest

Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead isn’t so much a heist picture as a post-heist picture, a film about the sad and deadly spiral of greed and evil that follows two brothers who plan a robbery of their own parents’ jewelry store. As a genre, this is a small one, and often overlooked; only a few films, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs among them, go after it with such gusto.

The novelty may explain the gushing critical reaction. It’s undoubtedly a strong film, gripping and tersely paced throughout, and many have compared it to Lumet’s classic, and undeniably brilliant, foray into the heist picture, Dog Day Afternoon. But though the subject matter is broadly similar—a holdup in New York goes deadly wrong—the two films are hardly of equal stature.

Dog Day earned its classic status not only though its taut pacing, but through its lovingly crafted cast of characters, and its subtle portrayal of the social frictions of 1970s New York. Rather than simply existing for their own sake, the genre elements fused into a framework by which to examine a place and an era. The film was, in other words, about more than the robbery, or even its aftershocks.

Devil, on the other hand, is content simply to wind up its ingenious little Rube Goldberg of a story and let it play out. A number of the supporting characters are flat, functional stereotypes who appear only so they can help keep Lumet’s narrative machine running. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, and the movie is still almost certainly one of the year’s best. But it’s just genre—albeit very, very cleverly constructed genre—and shouldn’t be mistaken for anything more.

Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead isn’t so much a heist picture as a post-heist picture, a film about the sad and deadly spiral of greed and evil that follows two brothers who plan a robbery of their own parents’ jewelry store. As a genre, this is a small one, and often overlooked; only a few films, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs among them, go after it with such gusto.

The novelty may explain the gushing critical reaction. It’s undoubtedly a strong film, gripping and tersely paced throughout, and many have compared it to Lumet’s classic, and undeniably brilliant, foray into the heist picture, Dog Day Afternoon. But though the subject matter is broadly similar—a holdup in New York goes deadly wrong—the two films are hardly of equal stature.

Dog Day earned its classic status not only though its taut pacing, but through its lovingly crafted cast of characters, and its subtle portrayal of the social frictions of 1970s New York. Rather than simply existing for their own sake, the genre elements fused into a framework by which to examine a place and an era. The film was, in other words, about more than the robbery, or even its aftershocks.

Devil, on the other hand, is content simply to wind up its ingenious little Rube Goldberg of a story and let it play out. A number of the supporting characters are flat, functional stereotypes who appear only so they can help keep Lumet’s narrative machine running. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, and the movie is still almost certainly one of the year’s best. But it’s just genre—albeit very, very cleverly constructed genre—and shouldn’t be mistaken for anything more.

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Sahwa

Michael Howard has a fascinating story in today’s Guardian. In his piece, Howard profiles Muhammad Rafiq (not the man’s real name):

Muhammad is one of the thousands of young Baghdadi men to have joined neighbourhood security groups, which have mushroomed over the last year and are a crucial factor in the dramatic decline in civilian deaths. U.S. soldiers call them “concerned local citizens”; Iraqis just call them sahwa (awakening) after the so-called Anbar awakening in western Iraq, which has seen Sunni tribal sheikhs take on foreign-led Islamists. There are now an estimated 72,000 members in some 300 groups set up in twelve of Iraq’s eighteen provinces, and the numbers are growing. They are funded, but supposedly not armed, by the U.S. military. “It is Iraq’s own surge,” said a western diplomat, “and it is certainly making a difference.”

It is a moving story about the reconciliation that is taking place in a nation that was traumatized by Saddam Hussein’s 35-year Reign of Terror, and the chaos and bloodshed that followed in the wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom. “We grew tired and angry about the killing, and so decided to act,” according to Muhammad. “Muhammad, a Sunni Arab, and his Shia colleagues in the neighbourhood watch group are determined to reverse the ethnic cleansing,” according to Howard.

This story is anecdotal evidence of two important trends: Iraqis are increasingly taking back their streets, and the Petraeus Plan is allowing political progress and reconciliation to take place from the bottom up. Critics of the war who insist that the surge has “only” shown progress on the security side are quite wrong. The success in pacifying Iraq is, in fact, allowing many other good things to take place.

Howard’s story comes during a week in which Major General Joseph Fil, Commanding General of the Multinational Division Baghdad and 1st Cavalry Division, reports that attacks against citizens in Baghdad have dropped almost 80 percent since November 2006, murders in Baghdad province have decreased 90 percent since November 2006, vehicle-borne IED incidents have declined approximately 70 percent since November 2006, and more than 500 shops are now open in the Dura Market in southern Baghdad, compared to less than a handful in January 2007. “Commerce has returned to many of the marketplaces in Baghdad,” Fil reports, “and many Iraqis now can shop without fearing for their lives.”

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Michael Howard has a fascinating story in today’s Guardian. In his piece, Howard profiles Muhammad Rafiq (not the man’s real name):

Muhammad is one of the thousands of young Baghdadi men to have joined neighbourhood security groups, which have mushroomed over the last year and are a crucial factor in the dramatic decline in civilian deaths. U.S. soldiers call them “concerned local citizens”; Iraqis just call them sahwa (awakening) after the so-called Anbar awakening in western Iraq, which has seen Sunni tribal sheikhs take on foreign-led Islamists. There are now an estimated 72,000 members in some 300 groups set up in twelve of Iraq’s eighteen provinces, and the numbers are growing. They are funded, but supposedly not armed, by the U.S. military. “It is Iraq’s own surge,” said a western diplomat, “and it is certainly making a difference.”

It is a moving story about the reconciliation that is taking place in a nation that was traumatized by Saddam Hussein’s 35-year Reign of Terror, and the chaos and bloodshed that followed in the wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom. “We grew tired and angry about the killing, and so decided to act,” according to Muhammad. “Muhammad, a Sunni Arab, and his Shia colleagues in the neighbourhood watch group are determined to reverse the ethnic cleansing,” according to Howard.

This story is anecdotal evidence of two important trends: Iraqis are increasingly taking back their streets, and the Petraeus Plan is allowing political progress and reconciliation to take place from the bottom up. Critics of the war who insist that the surge has “only” shown progress on the security side are quite wrong. The success in pacifying Iraq is, in fact, allowing many other good things to take place.

Howard’s story comes during a week in which Major General Joseph Fil, Commanding General of the Multinational Division Baghdad and 1st Cavalry Division, reports that attacks against citizens in Baghdad have dropped almost 80 percent since November 2006, murders in Baghdad province have decreased 90 percent since November 2006, vehicle-borne IED incidents have declined approximately 70 percent since November 2006, and more than 500 shops are now open in the Dura Market in southern Baghdad, compared to less than a handful in January 2007. “Commerce has returned to many of the marketplaces in Baghdad,” Fil reports, “and many Iraqis now can shop without fearing for their lives.”

As we reach the end of the year, there are many things for which we can (collectively) be grateful. Right at the top has to be the progress we’ve seen in Iraq in 2007. The situation remains fragile and the challenges there are enormous. The United States liberated a broken nation, and we lost crucial years while pursuing the wrong counterinsurgency strategy. Yet with all the appropriate caveats in place, we can still say the gains we have seen since the surge began earlier this year are staggering. A nation that was in a death spiral a year ago is reconstituting itself. Al Qaeda has absorbed tremendous punishment and is now scattered and on the run (if still lethal). Iraqis are now siding, in huge numbers, with a Western, “occupying” power in an effort to defeat Islamic militants. And, according to recent data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project, much of the rest of the Arab world is turning against bin Ladenism (in Lebanon, for example, 34 percent of Muslims say suicide bombings in the defense of Islam are often or sometimes justified; in 2002 – pre-Iraq war—74 percent expressed this view). And what seemed almost impossible a year ago now seems within reach. If we prevail in Iraq, the United States will have done so on a battlefield chosen by our enemies. And if we do, the war in Iraq—for all the cost in blood and treasure—will be seen as a key, and maybe even a decisive, moment in the war against militant Islam.

We’re not there yet. But we’re much closer than we were a year ago.

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Kidnap Victims & Nukes

At this moment, the monstrous state run by Kim Jong Il is holding over a thousand South Koreans against their will. Approximately 540 of them are Korean War prisoners who, in violation of the 1953 armistice, were never repatriated to the South. Another 490 or so, according to conservative accountings, have been abducted by Pyongyang’s agents since the end of that terrible conflict. Some estimate the number of kidnapped individuals is in the thousands.

Is help on the way for Asia’s most undeserving victims? As Michael Auslin noted in this forum, Lee Myung-bak scored a landslide win in yesterday’s presidential contest in South Korea. Among other things, the conservative victor has promised a tougher policy toward Kim’s regime. “I assure you that there will be a change from the past government’s practice of avoiding criticism of North Korea and unilaterally flattering it,” the president-elect said at his post-victory news conference. “The North’s human rights issue is something we cannot avoid in this regard, and North Korea should know it.”

Of course, there is no guarantee that Lee’s brand of “pragmatic diplomacy” will free South Koreans trapped in the North, yet it’s a safe bet that he will end his country’s unconscionable silence on the issue. Moreover, it’s unlikely that South Korean diplomats, especially those stationed in China, will continue to resist helping South Koreans who have escaped from the North. A state’s first responsibility is to protect its citizens, and now Seoul will live up to that for the first time in a decade.

Agents of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il abducted Japanese as well. Tokyo says that North Korea snatched 17 of its citizens from 1977 to 1983, but some believe the real number is over a hundred and others claim 400. Kim has admitted that rogue agents employed by his father—did his dad have any other kind?—abducted only thirteen Japanese citizens. In 2002, he returned five of them and claimed that the others had died. Kim also maintains that any South Koreans in the North are there of their own free will.

Shinzo Abe, the former Japanese prime minister, made the return of the Japanese abductees one of his highest priorities, but the nation’s current leader, Yasuo Fukuda, is wavering on this matter. Fukuda is wavering in large part because the Bush administration, in a mad dash to convince the North to give up its nuclear weapons, has made it clear that it considers the abductions unimportant and will not permit them to complicate the disarmament process.

Yet the abduction and nuke issues should be considered one and the same for America’s purposes. If Kim Jong Il is not prepared to make an honest accounting of the South Koreans and Japanese his government forcibly took or detained, how can we ever expect him to come clean on a matter of far greater importance to him? Sometimes, complex matters of diplomacy boil down to simple questions like this one.

At this moment, the monstrous state run by Kim Jong Il is holding over a thousand South Koreans against their will. Approximately 540 of them are Korean War prisoners who, in violation of the 1953 armistice, were never repatriated to the South. Another 490 or so, according to conservative accountings, have been abducted by Pyongyang’s agents since the end of that terrible conflict. Some estimate the number of kidnapped individuals is in the thousands.

Is help on the way for Asia’s most undeserving victims? As Michael Auslin noted in this forum, Lee Myung-bak scored a landslide win in yesterday’s presidential contest in South Korea. Among other things, the conservative victor has promised a tougher policy toward Kim’s regime. “I assure you that there will be a change from the past government’s practice of avoiding criticism of North Korea and unilaterally flattering it,” the president-elect said at his post-victory news conference. “The North’s human rights issue is something we cannot avoid in this regard, and North Korea should know it.”

Of course, there is no guarantee that Lee’s brand of “pragmatic diplomacy” will free South Koreans trapped in the North, yet it’s a safe bet that he will end his country’s unconscionable silence on the issue. Moreover, it’s unlikely that South Korean diplomats, especially those stationed in China, will continue to resist helping South Koreans who have escaped from the North. A state’s first responsibility is to protect its citizens, and now Seoul will live up to that for the first time in a decade.

Agents of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il abducted Japanese as well. Tokyo says that North Korea snatched 17 of its citizens from 1977 to 1983, but some believe the real number is over a hundred and others claim 400. Kim has admitted that rogue agents employed by his father—did his dad have any other kind?—abducted only thirteen Japanese citizens. In 2002, he returned five of them and claimed that the others had died. Kim also maintains that any South Koreans in the North are there of their own free will.

Shinzo Abe, the former Japanese prime minister, made the return of the Japanese abductees one of his highest priorities, but the nation’s current leader, Yasuo Fukuda, is wavering on this matter. Fukuda is wavering in large part because the Bush administration, in a mad dash to convince the North to give up its nuclear weapons, has made it clear that it considers the abductions unimportant and will not permit them to complicate the disarmament process.

Yet the abduction and nuke issues should be considered one and the same for America’s purposes. If Kim Jong Il is not prepared to make an honest accounting of the South Koreans and Japanese his government forcibly took or detained, how can we ever expect him to come clean on a matter of far greater importance to him? Sometimes, complex matters of diplomacy boil down to simple questions like this one.

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Jihad’s Own Patriarch

On Wednesday, longtime jihad apologist Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch and Archbishop of Jerusalem, lashed out against Israel once again. The Jerusalem Post reports:

“If there’s a state of one religion, other religions are naturally discriminated against,” Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah told reporters at the annual press conference he holds in Jerusalem before the Christian holiday.

In his address, which he read in Arabic and English, Sabbah said Israel should abandon its Jewish character in favor of a “political, normal state for Christians, Muslims and Jews.” Sabbah’s rap sheet of anti-Semitism and Islamist sympathy is long and storied, and well worth reading. However, his recent claim itself demands rebuttal, lest people begin weighing in with the “he’s a bad guy, but . . .” canard.

It’s worth noting that the Patriarch himself is emissary of a state—the Vatican—the citizens of which are “subject to the sovereignty of the Holy See” as well as emissary to a state that’s declared Islam its official and sole religion. It’s this habitual blindness to contradiction that characterizes analyses of Israel, whether by interested or non-interested parties.

Israel is simply the most religiously plural state in the Middle East—by an enormous margin. Muslims and Christians have equal rights under Israeli law: they vote in elections; they hold elected positions; they enjoy religious freedoms; and so on. This is to say nothing of the humanitarian purpose served by Israel’s open-door policy for Jewish refugees.

In Egypt, Coptic Christians may be imprisoned for their beliefs. In Saudi Arabia, the practice of non-Muslim religions is illegal. In Jordan, Jews are denied citizenship. A true representative survey of the region’s discriminatory policies could fill a library, let alone a blog posting. When the head rabbi of Riyadh speaks up, perhaps the issue of Israel’s religiously exclusionary nature can be revisited.

On Wednesday, longtime jihad apologist Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch and Archbishop of Jerusalem, lashed out against Israel once again. The Jerusalem Post reports:

“If there’s a state of one religion, other religions are naturally discriminated against,” Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah told reporters at the annual press conference he holds in Jerusalem before the Christian holiday.

In his address, which he read in Arabic and English, Sabbah said Israel should abandon its Jewish character in favor of a “political, normal state for Christians, Muslims and Jews.” Sabbah’s rap sheet of anti-Semitism and Islamist sympathy is long and storied, and well worth reading. However, his recent claim itself demands rebuttal, lest people begin weighing in with the “he’s a bad guy, but . . .” canard.

It’s worth noting that the Patriarch himself is emissary of a state—the Vatican—the citizens of which are “subject to the sovereignty of the Holy See” as well as emissary to a state that’s declared Islam its official and sole religion. It’s this habitual blindness to contradiction that characterizes analyses of Israel, whether by interested or non-interested parties.

Israel is simply the most religiously plural state in the Middle East—by an enormous margin. Muslims and Christians have equal rights under Israeli law: they vote in elections; they hold elected positions; they enjoy religious freedoms; and so on. This is to say nothing of the humanitarian purpose served by Israel’s open-door policy for Jewish refugees.

In Egypt, Coptic Christians may be imprisoned for their beliefs. In Saudi Arabia, the practice of non-Muslim religions is illegal. In Jordan, Jews are denied citizenship. A true representative survey of the region’s discriminatory policies could fill a library, let alone a blog posting. When the head rabbi of Riyadh speaks up, perhaps the issue of Israel’s religiously exclusionary nature can be revisited.

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The South African Nuclear Mystery: A Reader Comments

A Connecting the Dots reader, J.E. Dyer, an extremely well-informed student of intelligence affairs, helps to fill in the picture about the mysterious attack on the South Africa nuclear facility:

South African officials are playing this close to the vest, it appears. The minimal coverage in the West is perhaps at least partly due to the lack of information in South Africa itself.

The name of one of the arrested suspects is known: Eric Nyirenda, a 20-year-old immigrant from Malawi. If there is information on his role or affiliations, it doesn’t seem to have been released to the public.

But a few comments can be made. One is that Malawi has not functioned as a breeding or training ground for Islamic terrorists, but as an occasional hideout, like other parts of Africa. Malawi is somewhere around 20 percent Muslim, but its Muslim community, by African standards, is middle-class, and engaged mostly in trade and retail — some of it no doubt extra-legal, but with little in the way of suspicious transnational associations.

With the name Eric Nyirenda, the suspect is almost certainly a black African rather than of Asian or Arab descent. (No photo of him seems to be available online.) Moreover, Malawi’s Muslims don’t usually figure among the labor immigrants to South Africa. Nyirenda is reported to have immigrated to a rural township in South Africa, which may further argue for his becoming a thug-for-hire, rather than having ideological motivations. If so, his immediate employer(s) is/are unlikely to be Islamic fanatics, of any ethnicity. Not the Islamist M.O.

South Africans report that this attack is suspected to have been an inside job, or at least to have had the cooperation of NECSA employees. (Six employees have been suspended.) However, news reports persistently indicate that the break-in team was trying to gain access to a specific computer, in order to download information from it. If there was inside cooperation, a break-in seems rather high-profile and unnecessary for that particular purpose. Smuggling the data out on e-media seems much more probable.

Since that doesn’t fully compute, I’m not convinced we are being told everything by the South African authorities.

Interestingly, the former head of security at Pelindaba was assassinated outside his home in June 2007, shortly before South Africa hosted an IAEA conference (which proximity of events caused considerable editorializing on the sub-continent). Nothing about this incident fits the patterns of either Islamists or anti-globalism/anti-nuke/eco activists. But when a head of security is taken out, and a significant security breach follows a few months later, with multiple personnel suspensions in its wake, the M.O. that leaps to mind is syndicate crime. Who might be the customer in the background is, of course, the significant question.

A Connecting the Dots reader, J.E. Dyer, an extremely well-informed student of intelligence affairs, helps to fill in the picture about the mysterious attack on the South Africa nuclear facility:

South African officials are playing this close to the vest, it appears. The minimal coverage in the West is perhaps at least partly due to the lack of information in South Africa itself.

The name of one of the arrested suspects is known: Eric Nyirenda, a 20-year-old immigrant from Malawi. If there is information on his role or affiliations, it doesn’t seem to have been released to the public.

But a few comments can be made. One is that Malawi has not functioned as a breeding or training ground for Islamic terrorists, but as an occasional hideout, like other parts of Africa. Malawi is somewhere around 20 percent Muslim, but its Muslim community, by African standards, is middle-class, and engaged mostly in trade and retail — some of it no doubt extra-legal, but with little in the way of suspicious transnational associations.

With the name Eric Nyirenda, the suspect is almost certainly a black African rather than of Asian or Arab descent. (No photo of him seems to be available online.) Moreover, Malawi’s Muslims don’t usually figure among the labor immigrants to South Africa. Nyirenda is reported to have immigrated to a rural township in South Africa, which may further argue for his becoming a thug-for-hire, rather than having ideological motivations. If so, his immediate employer(s) is/are unlikely to be Islamic fanatics, of any ethnicity. Not the Islamist M.O.

South Africans report that this attack is suspected to have been an inside job, or at least to have had the cooperation of NECSA employees. (Six employees have been suspended.) However, news reports persistently indicate that the break-in team was trying to gain access to a specific computer, in order to download information from it. If there was inside cooperation, a break-in seems rather high-profile and unnecessary for that particular purpose. Smuggling the data out on e-media seems much more probable.

Since that doesn’t fully compute, I’m not convinced we are being told everything by the South African authorities.

Interestingly, the former head of security at Pelindaba was assassinated outside his home in June 2007, shortly before South Africa hosted an IAEA conference (which proximity of events caused considerable editorializing on the sub-continent). Nothing about this incident fits the patterns of either Islamists or anti-globalism/anti-nuke/eco activists. But when a head of security is taken out, and a significant security breach follows a few months later, with multiple personnel suspensions in its wake, the M.O. that leaps to mind is syndicate crime. Who might be the customer in the background is, of course, the significant question.

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So (Don’t) Sue Me

Which is more bizarre: A rabbi of one religious movement claiming that the “reek of hell wafts” from the synagogues of another—or the latter suing the rabbi for his comments?

This is the question many people will ask upon learning that Israel’s branch of the Conservative movement is threatening to sue former Sephardic chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu for saying precisely this about their synagogues, and for adding that it is forbidden even to pass by a Conservative synagogue.

Leave aside the question of whether Conservative Jews would not prefer to have Eliyahu’s adherents steer clear of their houses of worship. It still wasn’t a very nice thing to say. Yizhar Hess, secretary general of the Conservative movement in Israel, said that

Rabbi Eliyahu crossed the border of good taste, and his hateful, malicious words scorned an entire community. It is inconceivable that a religious leader should use expressions that constitute a call for civil war. The rabbi would do well to retract his statements and apologize to the millions of Jews whose honor he impugned.

Hess is, of course, right in every word. And yet—a lawsuit? Since when do religious groups sue each other for saying that they smell like hell?

There is something weird about both sides of this battle. Perhaps they reflect their origins—the freewheeling vitriolic tradition of some Sephardic rabbis, the reflexive litigiousness of American organizations, each finding expression here in technicolor. But if the suit is brought and damages awarded, it may trigger a wave of copycat crusaders, with religious groups suing each other for all the terrible things they say about each other. Think of how clogged the courts would be with the anti-Semitic stuff that comes out of Palestinian mosques!

Which is more bizarre: A rabbi of one religious movement claiming that the “reek of hell wafts” from the synagogues of another—or the latter suing the rabbi for his comments?

This is the question many people will ask upon learning that Israel’s branch of the Conservative movement is threatening to sue former Sephardic chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu for saying precisely this about their synagogues, and for adding that it is forbidden even to pass by a Conservative synagogue.

Leave aside the question of whether Conservative Jews would not prefer to have Eliyahu’s adherents steer clear of their houses of worship. It still wasn’t a very nice thing to say. Yizhar Hess, secretary general of the Conservative movement in Israel, said that

Rabbi Eliyahu crossed the border of good taste, and his hateful, malicious words scorned an entire community. It is inconceivable that a religious leader should use expressions that constitute a call for civil war. The rabbi would do well to retract his statements and apologize to the millions of Jews whose honor he impugned.

Hess is, of course, right in every word. And yet—a lawsuit? Since when do religious groups sue each other for saying that they smell like hell?

There is something weird about both sides of this battle. Perhaps they reflect their origins—the freewheeling vitriolic tradition of some Sephardic rabbis, the reflexive litigiousness of American organizations, each finding expression here in technicolor. But if the suit is brought and damages awarded, it may trigger a wave of copycat crusaders, with religious groups suing each other for all the terrible things they say about each other. Think of how clogged the courts would be with the anti-Semitic stuff that comes out of Palestinian mosques!

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Where’s the Middle East?

Few magazine covers are more iconic than Time’s annual “Person of the Year” issue, which commemorates the individual who has had the greatest impact on world events, for better or worse. This year’s choice, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a decent one. Putin has reasserted Russia’s role in international affairs—Russia has played a frustrating role vis-à-vis Iran, and is vying for an increased role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking—while his domestic maneuvering has all but insured that he will be named prime minister upon leaving the presidency next year. For better or worse, Putin has been critically influential in world affairs, and will likely remain so for years to come.

But beyond selecting a “Person of the Year,” Time usually names a few runners-up, as well as roughly 15-30 “people who mattered.” In years past, Middle Eastern leaders have almost always fallen into these subsidiary categories. Last year—following Iran’s stubborn pursuit of nuclear weapons and critical support for terrorism in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a runner-up. Ahmadinejad was also named a “person who mattered” in 2005, shortly after being elected. Meanwhile, Ariel Sharon shared the distinction of “person who mattered” with Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in 2004, and with Hamas in 2002; Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat “mattered” in 2000; and Jordan’s Queen Noor “mattered” in 1999. If we factor in Time’s reported decision to forgo Osama Bin Laden as “Person of the Year” in 2001 in favor of Rudy Giuliani, and accept that 2003’s selection of the American soldier as “Person of the Year” was an explicitly Middle East-relevant story, 2007 is the first year in nearly a decade in which the Middle East has been entirely shutout.

While we should avoid placing too much weight on these distinctions, the absence of Middle Eastern leaders from the list of “people who mattered” suggests that the Middle East is sorely lacking in compelling figures. Consider this remarkably uninspiring roster: Ehud Olmert (severely unpopular in Israel); Mahmoud Abbas (weak and unpopular); Fouad Siniora (fears assassination and lives in his parliamentary office); King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (biggest accomplishment: brokering the failed—and costly—Hamas-Fatah truce); Hosni Mubarak (renewed crackdowns against liberal dissidents); King Abdullah II of Jordan (M.I.A.); and Bashar al-Assad (passively sticking with Iran). Indeed, none of these leaders inspires much excitement, for better or worse.

Of course, the absence of newsworthy Middle Eastern leaders is not necessarily a bad thing. One can hardly be too nostalgic for Yasir Arafat’s shared “Man of the Year” designation in 1993, or King Faisal’s “Man of the Year” designation in 1974 during the OPEC price hikes. Still, the absence of a single compelling Middle Eastern leader suggests that the region is directionless. In this way, Time’s failure to recognize the Middle East speaks volumes.

Few magazine covers are more iconic than Time’s annual “Person of the Year” issue, which commemorates the individual who has had the greatest impact on world events, for better or worse. This year’s choice, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a decent one. Putin has reasserted Russia’s role in international affairs—Russia has played a frustrating role vis-à-vis Iran, and is vying for an increased role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking—while his domestic maneuvering has all but insured that he will be named prime minister upon leaving the presidency next year. For better or worse, Putin has been critically influential in world affairs, and will likely remain so for years to come.

But beyond selecting a “Person of the Year,” Time usually names a few runners-up, as well as roughly 15-30 “people who mattered.” In years past, Middle Eastern leaders have almost always fallen into these subsidiary categories. Last year—following Iran’s stubborn pursuit of nuclear weapons and critical support for terrorism in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a runner-up. Ahmadinejad was also named a “person who mattered” in 2005, shortly after being elected. Meanwhile, Ariel Sharon shared the distinction of “person who mattered” with Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in 2004, and with Hamas in 2002; Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat “mattered” in 2000; and Jordan’s Queen Noor “mattered” in 1999. If we factor in Time’s reported decision to forgo Osama Bin Laden as “Person of the Year” in 2001 in favor of Rudy Giuliani, and accept that 2003’s selection of the American soldier as “Person of the Year” was an explicitly Middle East-relevant story, 2007 is the first year in nearly a decade in which the Middle East has been entirely shutout.

While we should avoid placing too much weight on these distinctions, the absence of Middle Eastern leaders from the list of “people who mattered” suggests that the Middle East is sorely lacking in compelling figures. Consider this remarkably uninspiring roster: Ehud Olmert (severely unpopular in Israel); Mahmoud Abbas (weak and unpopular); Fouad Siniora (fears assassination and lives in his parliamentary office); King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (biggest accomplishment: brokering the failed—and costly—Hamas-Fatah truce); Hosni Mubarak (renewed crackdowns against liberal dissidents); King Abdullah II of Jordan (M.I.A.); and Bashar al-Assad (passively sticking with Iran). Indeed, none of these leaders inspires much excitement, for better or worse.

Of course, the absence of newsworthy Middle Eastern leaders is not necessarily a bad thing. One can hardly be too nostalgic for Yasir Arafat’s shared “Man of the Year” designation in 1993, or King Faisal’s “Man of the Year” designation in 1974 during the OPEC price hikes. Still, the absence of a single compelling Middle Eastern leader suggests that the region is directionless. In this way, Time’s failure to recognize the Middle East speaks volumes.

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Cold War II

Gordon Chang’s post yesterday reveals the inroads Iran is making with anti-American elements across Latin America. This adds further credence to the belief that Iran is replicating the Soviet Union’s efforts to build global power and confront the United States on multiple fronts—and that therefore the proper response by the West is, as with the cold war, to confront and roll back Iran at every turn. Nor is it reasonable to respond that Iran is much smaller and weaker than was the USSR, and therefore should not be taken so seriously: It is through these methods that Iran becomes stronger and more powerful over time. The proper response to determined, implacable enemies (no matter how unpopular this may sound during election season) is to defeat them, especially when they are relatively weak, rather than waiting for them to become intolerably menacing. Call it a “Broken Windows” approach to international threats. For what it’s worth, here’s an essay I wrote on the subject last year, when such thoughts were still in fashion.

Gordon Chang’s post yesterday reveals the inroads Iran is making with anti-American elements across Latin America. This adds further credence to the belief that Iran is replicating the Soviet Union’s efforts to build global power and confront the United States on multiple fronts—and that therefore the proper response by the West is, as with the cold war, to confront and roll back Iran at every turn. Nor is it reasonable to respond that Iran is much smaller and weaker than was the USSR, and therefore should not be taken so seriously: It is through these methods that Iran becomes stronger and more powerful over time. The proper response to determined, implacable enemies (no matter how unpopular this may sound during election season) is to defeat them, especially when they are relatively weak, rather than waiting for them to become intolerably menacing. Call it a “Broken Windows” approach to international threats. For what it’s worth, here’s an essay I wrote on the subject last year, when such thoughts were still in fashion.

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Page 29?

News from South Africa:

Amazingly, at the same time those four men entered Pelindaba from its eastern perimeter, a separate group of intruders failed in an attempt to break in from the west. The timing suggests a coordinated attack against a facility that contains an estimated 25 bombs’ worth of weapons-grade nuclear material.

Also amazingly, this story appears on page 29 in today’s Washington Post. It should have been a banner headline on the front page. The attackers were sophisticated enough to deactivate a 10,000 volt electric fence, make their way into the emergency control center in the heart of the facility, and breach a sealed control room, where they shot an emergency-service worker.

The story continues:

had the armed attackers succeeded in penetrating the site’s highly enriched uranium storage vault, where the weapons-grade nuclear material is believed to be held, they could have carried away the ingredients for the world’s first terrorist nuclear bomb.

Three suspects have been arrested, the Post reports.

This is major news, even if it is buried by the Post. Who and what was behind this attack? Connecting the Dots very much wants to know. �

News from South Africa:

Amazingly, at the same time those four men entered Pelindaba from its eastern perimeter, a separate group of intruders failed in an attempt to break in from the west. The timing suggests a coordinated attack against a facility that contains an estimated 25 bombs’ worth of weapons-grade nuclear material.

Also amazingly, this story appears on page 29 in today’s Washington Post. It should have been a banner headline on the front page. The attackers were sophisticated enough to deactivate a 10,000 volt electric fence, make their way into the emergency control center in the heart of the facility, and breach a sealed control room, where they shot an emergency-service worker.

The story continues:

had the armed attackers succeeded in penetrating the site’s highly enriched uranium storage vault, where the weapons-grade nuclear material is believed to be held, they could have carried away the ingredients for the world’s first terrorist nuclear bomb.

Three suspects have been arrested, the Post reports.

This is major news, even if it is buried by the Post. Who and what was behind this attack? Connecting the Dots very much wants to know. �

Read Less




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