Commentary Magazine


Topic: Belarus

Morning Commentary

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu distanced himself from his former Mossad chief’s assessment that Iran won’t acquire a nuclear weapon before 2015: “‘I think that intelligence estimates are exactly that, estimates,’ Netanyahu said. ‘They range from best case to worst case possibilities, and there is a range there, there is room for differing assessments.’”

With the Russian and Belarusian governments cracking down on opposition leaders, the U.S. needs to figure out what steps to take now that the reset strategy has failed: “[The Carnegie Moscow Center’s Lilia] Shevtsova said the similar authoritarian direction the two countries are pursuing calls for the United States and Europe to create a coordinated policy for dealing with repressive regimes, one that could be developed for Belarus and fine-tuned for Russia.”

More information has surfaced about the strange online life of Arizona shooter Jared Loughner. A UFO website has told reporters that he frequented its Web forum, where his strange messages apparently confused the other posters: “His postings, they said, revealed ‘someone who clearly has many questions for which answers have been elusive if not outright impossible to obtain. And despite the best efforts by many of our members, it seemed there were no answers to be found here for which he was satisfied.’”

Now that the initial shock over the Arizona shooting has waned, here comes the inevitable debate over gun control: “’This case is fundamentally about a mentally ill drug abuser who had access to guns and shouldn’t have,’ [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg said at a news conference Tuesday with members of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.”

Robert Verbruggen explains why stricter gun-control laws would probably not have prevented Loughner from carrying out his attack last weekend: “If someone intends to assassinate a public official, he’s already planning to break a few laws; there is absolutely no reason to believe that one more law — a law that will presumably mete out less punishment than do laws against murder — will affect his calculations. And given how easy it is to conceal a handgun until one’s target is in sight, there’s little hope that this law will help security or police officers disarm assassins before they commence shooting.”

The four-minute video that perfectly encapsulates the hypocrisy of the anti-violent-rhetoric crowd: “Sadly, it’s never war-mongers like Palin and Beck that get shot.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu distanced himself from his former Mossad chief’s assessment that Iran won’t acquire a nuclear weapon before 2015: “‘I think that intelligence estimates are exactly that, estimates,’ Netanyahu said. ‘They range from best case to worst case possibilities, and there is a range there, there is room for differing assessments.’”

With the Russian and Belarusian governments cracking down on opposition leaders, the U.S. needs to figure out what steps to take now that the reset strategy has failed: “[The Carnegie Moscow Center’s Lilia] Shevtsova said the similar authoritarian direction the two countries are pursuing calls for the United States and Europe to create a coordinated policy for dealing with repressive regimes, one that could be developed for Belarus and fine-tuned for Russia.”

More information has surfaced about the strange online life of Arizona shooter Jared Loughner. A UFO website has told reporters that he frequented its Web forum, where his strange messages apparently confused the other posters: “His postings, they said, revealed ‘someone who clearly has many questions for which answers have been elusive if not outright impossible to obtain. And despite the best efforts by many of our members, it seemed there were no answers to be found here for which he was satisfied.’”

Now that the initial shock over the Arizona shooting has waned, here comes the inevitable debate over gun control: “’This case is fundamentally about a mentally ill drug abuser who had access to guns and shouldn’t have,’ [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg said at a news conference Tuesday with members of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.”

Robert Verbruggen explains why stricter gun-control laws would probably not have prevented Loughner from carrying out his attack last weekend: “If someone intends to assassinate a public official, he’s already planning to break a few laws; there is absolutely no reason to believe that one more law — a law that will presumably mete out less punishment than do laws against murder — will affect his calculations. And given how easy it is to conceal a handgun until one’s target is in sight, there’s little hope that this law will help security or police officers disarm assassins before they commence shooting.”

The four-minute video that perfectly encapsulates the hypocrisy of the anti-violent-rhetoric crowd: “Sadly, it’s never war-mongers like Palin and Beck that get shot.”

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Iran and the S-300: Recycling Old News for Effect

Iran’s announcement this week that it has four batteries of the Russian S-300 air-defense missile system is a media ploy. The Iranian statement mirrors precisely a line of speculation pursued by the open-source intelligence industry back in 2006. After Russia transferred S-300 systems to Belarus that year, Jane’s Defense Weekly suggested that Belarus might forward some S-300s to Iran. The deliveries to Iran were supposed to include two of the Russian batteries transferred to Belarus, along with two additional batteries from an undetermined source, which were reportedly being refurbished in Belarus.

Belarus has consistently denied that this transfer ever took place. If there was such a transfer, it almost certainly occurred several years ago. But it’s more likely that Iran has received no S-300 batteries from Belarus and is merely recycling some old speculative analysis that sounds particularly plausible. The perfect match between the August 4 announcement and the scenario postulated in 2006 is suspicious: if Iran did have S-300s today, the leadership would be much more likely to make only vague references to it, if it made any. But the Iranians come off instead as if they are trying to bolster the credibility of their claim with unnecessary details, added because they seem to bear out previous speculation.

The S-300 is a mobile system, but if the Iranians do have the opportunity to deploy it around their most important facilities, it will be very hard to hide. It’s extremely unlikely that U.S. and Israeli intelligence have missed that very detectable event. Nor is it probable that Iran has had the system for four years and done nothing with it.

Iran seems to be waging information warfare with this announcement, which appeared on Iranian TV and was probably made as much for domestic consumption as for its foreign impact. Whether it’s a bluff or a dare, it’s not what the Iranians would be most likely to do if they really did have operational S-300 batteries in place.

Iran’s announcement this week that it has four batteries of the Russian S-300 air-defense missile system is a media ploy. The Iranian statement mirrors precisely a line of speculation pursued by the open-source intelligence industry back in 2006. After Russia transferred S-300 systems to Belarus that year, Jane’s Defense Weekly suggested that Belarus might forward some S-300s to Iran. The deliveries to Iran were supposed to include two of the Russian batteries transferred to Belarus, along with two additional batteries from an undetermined source, which were reportedly being refurbished in Belarus.

Belarus has consistently denied that this transfer ever took place. If there was such a transfer, it almost certainly occurred several years ago. But it’s more likely that Iran has received no S-300 batteries from Belarus and is merely recycling some old speculative analysis that sounds particularly plausible. The perfect match between the August 4 announcement and the scenario postulated in 2006 is suspicious: if Iran did have S-300s today, the leadership would be much more likely to make only vague references to it, if it made any. But the Iranians come off instead as if they are trying to bolster the credibility of their claim with unnecessary details, added because they seem to bear out previous speculation.

The S-300 is a mobile system, but if the Iranians do have the opportunity to deploy it around their most important facilities, it will be very hard to hide. It’s extremely unlikely that U.S. and Israeli intelligence have missed that very detectable event. Nor is it probable that Iran has had the system for four years and done nothing with it.

Iran seems to be waging information warfare with this announcement, which appeared on Iranian TV and was probably made as much for domestic consumption as for its foreign impact. Whether it’s a bluff or a dare, it’s not what the Iranians would be most likely to do if they really did have operational S-300 batteries in place.

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More Peace in Our Time

Another year brings another wintertime oil dispute between Russia and an Eastern European client. In January 2009 it was Ukraine; this year it’s Belarus. Although oil has surged to more than $80 a barrel since the threats and counter-threats began on December 31, Russia is reassuring European customers that the dispute won’t affect their access to refined petroleum. Other concerns, however, are likely to surpass this one in the capitals of Western Europe if Russia’s career of subjugating Belarus continues at its current pace.

Alexander Lukashenko’s government in Minsk was a holdout last year against inclusion in Moscow’s Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), incurring painful Russian sanctions on its dairy industry with its determined resistance. But after Russia put thousands of troops in Belarus in September, for its largest military exercise since the end of the Cold War, Lukashenko changed his mind and joined the CSTO. He then committed Belarus to participation in the CSTO’s Rapid Reaction Force (CRRF), announced by Dmitry Medvedev in February 2009, as an armed counterweight to NATO. Democracy groups in Belarus oppose all these developments, taking as a given that the CRRF will be used to suppress dissent in CSTO nations. (The Belarusian KGB will, predictably, be an element of the CRRF.)

In another wearisome echo of the region’s perennial dynamics, tiny Lithuania could be effectively crippled by the current oil dispute. Lithuania closed its last 1980s-era nuclear plant on December 31 as a price of admission to the EU,and now relies for electric-power generation on Russian oil from Belarus. Foreseeing this vulnerability, Nicolas Sarkozy gamely brought up the EU’s concern about it with Medvedev in late 2008, a venture in mediation that Medvedev summarily rebuffed.

In Belarus’s eyes, however, EU leaders have done even less than that to bolster Minsk’s independence from Moscow. Granted, the EU adopted its “Eastern Partnership” initiative in May 2009, with Belarus as one of the six former-Soviet targets. But this hasn’t produced any effective EU communication on the topics of Minsk joining the CSTO in November, or Russia’s fraternal determination to form a customs union with Belarus. With both developments having substantial implications for the Partnership’s objectives – vague and underfunded though they may be – the EU’s silence on them has been more informative than its abstract policy proclamations.

I agree with Max Boot that our European allies are more resilient and resourceful than their reputation with some American pundits would indicate. But their stately-paced, ineffective responses to events in Eastern Europe suggest that they are as subject as anyone to a dangerous, bureaucratized complacency. Only one force – American military might – has ever kept Europe in stasis during periods of geopolitical perturbation like the current Russian campaign. Perhaps the unity of the EU’s major nations will survive an accelerated Russian campaign, even without the context of U.S. dominance. But we have no historical justification for believing that it will. The EU has a number of tests facing it; Russia’s peculiar concept of power and security may well be the biggest one.

Another year brings another wintertime oil dispute between Russia and an Eastern European client. In January 2009 it was Ukraine; this year it’s Belarus. Although oil has surged to more than $80 a barrel since the threats and counter-threats began on December 31, Russia is reassuring European customers that the dispute won’t affect their access to refined petroleum. Other concerns, however, are likely to surpass this one in the capitals of Western Europe if Russia’s career of subjugating Belarus continues at its current pace.

Alexander Lukashenko’s government in Minsk was a holdout last year against inclusion in Moscow’s Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), incurring painful Russian sanctions on its dairy industry with its determined resistance. But after Russia put thousands of troops in Belarus in September, for its largest military exercise since the end of the Cold War, Lukashenko changed his mind and joined the CSTO. He then committed Belarus to participation in the CSTO’s Rapid Reaction Force (CRRF), announced by Dmitry Medvedev in February 2009, as an armed counterweight to NATO. Democracy groups in Belarus oppose all these developments, taking as a given that the CRRF will be used to suppress dissent in CSTO nations. (The Belarusian KGB will, predictably, be an element of the CRRF.)

In another wearisome echo of the region’s perennial dynamics, tiny Lithuania could be effectively crippled by the current oil dispute. Lithuania closed its last 1980s-era nuclear plant on December 31 as a price of admission to the EU,and now relies for electric-power generation on Russian oil from Belarus. Foreseeing this vulnerability, Nicolas Sarkozy gamely brought up the EU’s concern about it with Medvedev in late 2008, a venture in mediation that Medvedev summarily rebuffed.

In Belarus’s eyes, however, EU leaders have done even less than that to bolster Minsk’s independence from Moscow. Granted, the EU adopted its “Eastern Partnership” initiative in May 2009, with Belarus as one of the six former-Soviet targets. But this hasn’t produced any effective EU communication on the topics of Minsk joining the CSTO in November, or Russia’s fraternal determination to form a customs union with Belarus. With both developments having substantial implications for the Partnership’s objectives – vague and underfunded though they may be – the EU’s silence on them has been more informative than its abstract policy proclamations.

I agree with Max Boot that our European allies are more resilient and resourceful than their reputation with some American pundits would indicate. But their stately-paced, ineffective responses to events in Eastern Europe suggest that they are as subject as anyone to a dangerous, bureaucratized complacency. Only one force – American military might – has ever kept Europe in stasis during periods of geopolitical perturbation like the current Russian campaign. Perhaps the unity of the EU’s major nations will survive an accelerated Russian campaign, even without the context of U.S. dominance. But we have no historical justification for believing that it will. The EU has a number of tests facing it; Russia’s peculiar concept of power and security may well be the biggest one.

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The Giants Meet

Today, Dmitry Medvedev arrived in Beijing on his first foreign trip since assuming the Russian presidency. The two authoritarian giants wasted no time criticizing American plans to create a missile defense shield. In a joint statement, Medvedev and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao said such a defensive system “harms the strengthening of trust between states and regional stability.”

Yet Medvedev did not fly all the way to the Chinese capital to make a rhetorical jab at Washington on something he can do nothing about. The Russian first wanted to remind the West that Russia has other friends. Putin’s initial foreign trip as president took him to London in 2000 to indicate that he was going to look to Europe and the Atlantic Alliance. His successor seeks to convince us that he can reverse that forward-looking orientation.

Second, Medvedev boarded a plane to make a second–and more immediate–point, this one intended for his Chinese hosts. Putin stopped off in Belarus on his way to England in 2000. Eight years later, Medvedev visited Kazakhstan before China. The former Soviet republic borders both Russia and China and represents a crucial prize in the seemingly eternal contest for Central Asia between Moscow and Beijing. Although the two large states see that their interests coincide when it comes to undermining the American superstate-hence all the talk about missile defense as well as a proposed treaty on banning weapons in space-they have plenty of differences among themselves.

The overriding reality is that both Russia and China need the West more than they need the other. Russia inked a $1 billion uranium enrichment deal today with China, and this will help bring the two nations together. Yet their bilateral trade last year was a puny $48 billion. In comparison, America’s bilateral trade with China was $386.7 billion during the same period and accounted for all but $6.2 billion of China’s overall trade surplus of $262.5 billion.

The Bush administration has allowed Moscow and China to throw darts at America, as if their growing relationship did not matter. Whether or not this passivity was justified in the past, the growing cooperation between the Chinese and Russians is now consequential. They are, for example, cooperating to block Western efforts on Iran, undoubtedly the most important matter at this moment. So, it’s about time for Washington to tell the autocrats in Moscow and Beijing that they are either with us or against us when it comes to solving urgent problems. They need us more than we need them. Now, when the international system looks as if it will fall apart, is the time to make this point in public. After all, Medvedev and Hu have no hesitancy in telling us off.

Today, Dmitry Medvedev arrived in Beijing on his first foreign trip since assuming the Russian presidency. The two authoritarian giants wasted no time criticizing American plans to create a missile defense shield. In a joint statement, Medvedev and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao said such a defensive system “harms the strengthening of trust between states and regional stability.”

Yet Medvedev did not fly all the way to the Chinese capital to make a rhetorical jab at Washington on something he can do nothing about. The Russian first wanted to remind the West that Russia has other friends. Putin’s initial foreign trip as president took him to London in 2000 to indicate that he was going to look to Europe and the Atlantic Alliance. His successor seeks to convince us that he can reverse that forward-looking orientation.

Second, Medvedev boarded a plane to make a second–and more immediate–point, this one intended for his Chinese hosts. Putin stopped off in Belarus on his way to England in 2000. Eight years later, Medvedev visited Kazakhstan before China. The former Soviet republic borders both Russia and China and represents a crucial prize in the seemingly eternal contest for Central Asia between Moscow and Beijing. Although the two large states see that their interests coincide when it comes to undermining the American superstate-hence all the talk about missile defense as well as a proposed treaty on banning weapons in space-they have plenty of differences among themselves.

The overriding reality is that both Russia and China need the West more than they need the other. Russia inked a $1 billion uranium enrichment deal today with China, and this will help bring the two nations together. Yet their bilateral trade last year was a puny $48 billion. In comparison, America’s bilateral trade with China was $386.7 billion during the same period and accounted for all but $6.2 billion of China’s overall trade surplus of $262.5 billion.

The Bush administration has allowed Moscow and China to throw darts at America, as if their growing relationship did not matter. Whether or not this passivity was justified in the past, the growing cooperation between the Chinese and Russians is now consequential. They are, for example, cooperating to block Western efforts on Iran, undoubtedly the most important matter at this moment. So, it’s about time for Washington to tell the autocrats in Moscow and Beijing that they are either with us or against us when it comes to solving urgent problems. They need us more than we need them. Now, when the international system looks as if it will fall apart, is the time to make this point in public. After all, Medvedev and Hu have no hesitancy in telling us off.

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The $40 Billion Autocrat?

How much is Vladimir Putin worth? Perhaps as much as $40 billion, according to recent reports. Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, writes in the Washington Post that the Russian president has allegedly amassed great wealth in the “velvet reprivatization” of his nation’s larger companies.

The Kremlin has essentially renationalized large industry, which has ended up in the hands of Putin’s close associates—and perhaps those of the President himself. “Putin is also a big businessman,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, a political observer with ties to the Moscow leadership. Belkovsky alleges that Putin owns a $20 billion stake in Surgutneftegaz, Russia’s fourth largest oil producer; 4.5 percent of the country’s natural gas monopoly, Gazprom; and half of oil-seller Gunvor, which had $8 billion in profits in 2006.

Do we care that Vlad may have become a one-man energy empire? For starters, if you are a Russian citizen, he has essentially stolen from you (if the allegations are true). Yet the rest of us are also affected by grand thievery on this scale. Putin knows that, like Marcos of the Philippines or Mobutu of Zaire, ill-gotten wealth can be taken from him once he no longer exercises power. So he will, in all likelihood, continue in the Kremlin, and this means Russia will maintain its increasingly hostile policies toward the West.

Last month Belkovsky argued that the Russian President would cede power and accept some minor role that will protect him from critics both at home and abroad. Now, however, we are seeing indications that Putin intends to stay at the pinnacle of power. On Monday, for instance, the autocrat announced his support for Dmitry Medvedev, a loyalist with no independent political base, to succeed him as President. On Tuesday, Medvedev suggested that Putin serve as prime minister in his administration. Moreover, the proposed union of Russia and Belarus, if consummated, could end up causing a change in the Russian constitution, and such change could create a position for Vladimir the Rich as the leader of the merged state.

There is one small consolation for the Russian people from this unfolding tragedy. There’s no such thing as tranquil retirement for kleptocrats. They remain in power or suffer at the hands of their enemies. For Putin, there will never be peace.

How much is Vladimir Putin worth? Perhaps as much as $40 billion, according to recent reports. Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, writes in the Washington Post that the Russian president has allegedly amassed great wealth in the “velvet reprivatization” of his nation’s larger companies.

The Kremlin has essentially renationalized large industry, which has ended up in the hands of Putin’s close associates—and perhaps those of the President himself. “Putin is also a big businessman,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, a political observer with ties to the Moscow leadership. Belkovsky alleges that Putin owns a $20 billion stake in Surgutneftegaz, Russia’s fourth largest oil producer; 4.5 percent of the country’s natural gas monopoly, Gazprom; and half of oil-seller Gunvor, which had $8 billion in profits in 2006.

Do we care that Vlad may have become a one-man energy empire? For starters, if you are a Russian citizen, he has essentially stolen from you (if the allegations are true). Yet the rest of us are also affected by grand thievery on this scale. Putin knows that, like Marcos of the Philippines or Mobutu of Zaire, ill-gotten wealth can be taken from him once he no longer exercises power. So he will, in all likelihood, continue in the Kremlin, and this means Russia will maintain its increasingly hostile policies toward the West.

Last month Belkovsky argued that the Russian President would cede power and accept some minor role that will protect him from critics both at home and abroad. Now, however, we are seeing indications that Putin intends to stay at the pinnacle of power. On Monday, for instance, the autocrat announced his support for Dmitry Medvedev, a loyalist with no independent political base, to succeed him as President. On Tuesday, Medvedev suggested that Putin serve as prime minister in his administration. Moreover, the proposed union of Russia and Belarus, if consummated, could end up causing a change in the Russian constitution, and such change could create a position for Vladimir the Rich as the leader of the merged state.

There is one small consolation for the Russian people from this unfolding tragedy. There’s no such thing as tranquil retirement for kleptocrats. They remain in power or suffer at the hands of their enemies. For Putin, there will never be peace.

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Cheapening Free Speech

When Columbia University invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak last month, the most common refrain uttered by the University’s defenders was that, by doing so, the University was honoring the time-tested and proudly American principle of “free speech.” This country was founded upon a resistance to monarchical authority; a corollary to that impulse is the individual’s freedom to say or publish what he thinks. No one can quibble with this understanding of a bedrock American freedom. But where Columbia’s defenders went wrong was in their contention that protesting Ahmadinejad’s presence would contradict thi fundamentally American notion.

This has always been a silly and unsophisticated understanding of what the Bill of Rights actually says, or what the “spirit” of free speech actually means. No one has denied Ahmadinejad a platform for his odious views; indeed, just the day after his rant at Columbia he was given an international soapbox at the United Nations General Assembly. And the fact that his views on matters ranging from the existence of the Holocaust to the future existence of Israel are so well known further lays waste to the claim that not inviting Ahmadinejad would strike a blow to “free speech.”

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When Columbia University invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak last month, the most common refrain uttered by the University’s defenders was that, by doing so, the University was honoring the time-tested and proudly American principle of “free speech.” This country was founded upon a resistance to monarchical authority; a corollary to that impulse is the individual’s freedom to say or publish what he thinks. No one can quibble with this understanding of a bedrock American freedom. But where Columbia’s defenders went wrong was in their contention that protesting Ahmadinejad’s presence would contradict thi fundamentally American notion.

This has always been a silly and unsophisticated understanding of what the Bill of Rights actually says, or what the “spirit” of free speech actually means. No one has denied Ahmadinejad a platform for his odious views; indeed, just the day after his rant at Columbia he was given an international soapbox at the United Nations General Assembly. And the fact that his views on matters ranging from the existence of the Holocaust to the future existence of Israel are so well known further lays waste to the claim that not inviting Ahmadinejad would strike a blow to “free speech.”

What ultimately mattered was that a distinguished University lent credence to his views. Columbia’s physics department would never host a speech by a member of the Flat Earth Society, nor should it. People who think the moon landing was a hoax or that the Holocaust never happened have every right to utter and publish these beliefs; they have no “right” to a speaking engagement at an Ivy League School.

This crucial distinction is one that has long been lost on those people who organize events on college campuses. The latest example occurs across the pond at Oxford University, where the Oxford Union—the school’s prestigious debating society that counts leading politicians, journalists, and business leaders as alumnae—has invited a rogue’s gallery to take part in a “Free Speech Forum” set for the end of November. The Union has already been excoriated by critics, as noted on contentions, for staging a debate on the Middle East conflict and loading it with anti-Israel activists.

Among those invited to the “Free Speech Forum” are David Irving (the notorious Holocaust denier), Nick Griffin (the leader of the anti-Semitic, racist, and fascist British National Party), and Alexander Lukoshenko, the dictator of Belarus. The Union’s president told the Guardian that, “The Oxford Union is famous for is commitment to free speech and although I do think these people have awful and abhorrent views I do think Oxford students are intelligent enough to challenge and ridicule them.” Indeed, one Oxford Union committee member even used Columbia’s example as a justification for the invite: “If Columbia can invite Ahmadinejad, then why shouldn’t we invite Irving?” Thankfully, Lukoshenko is under a European Union travel ban and will not be able to attend. Unfortunately, both the fascist and the Holocaust denier have indicated their eager anticipation.

The primary outcome of this invitation is the Oxford Union’s discrediting of itself. As with Ahmadinejad at Columbia, there is nothing to be “learned” from engaging in dialogue with fascists and Holocaust-deniers. Oxford students are indeed an “intelligent” bunch: all the more reason that they do not need to spend an evening listening to these men, thus granting them legitimacy. One presumes that the motivating impulse behind Oxford’s “Free Speech Forum” is to present some of the most outlandish views possible. But the purpose of freedom of speech is to elevate discussion and broaden our common understanding, not to promote lies and hate (Griffin’s and Irving’s specialty).

To honor “free speech,” ought not the Oxford Union instead extend invitations to individuals living in countries where the principle is non-existent? Why not invite democracy activists in China or exiled Zimbabwean journalists, of which there is no shortage in the United Kingdom?

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The HRC’s Failed First Year

The UN’s Human Rights Council (HRC) on Tuesday marked the end of its disappointing first year of existence by terminating independent human-rights monitoring for Belarus and Cuba. To make matters worse, the HRC adopted two measures to continue its special scrutiny of Israel.

These actions were part of a last-minute compromise. As incredible as it may seem, the final agreement could have been even more atrocious. In the days leading up to the deal, China worked hard to weaken the council’s power in selecting nations to be monitored for human-rights violations. Fortunately, Beijing did not achieve its objectives: “It is not a perfect text, but it represents the maximum common understanding,” said the Chinese representative, Jingye Cheng.

That assessment is on the mark, though not in the way Jingye intended. The 47-member council has become another battleground between the democracies of the world and their antagonists. The compromises that have been reached are “seriously flawed,” to borrow language from the State Department’s reaction to Tuesday’s deal.

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The UN’s Human Rights Council (HRC) on Tuesday marked the end of its disappointing first year of existence by terminating independent human-rights monitoring for Belarus and Cuba. To make matters worse, the HRC adopted two measures to continue its special scrutiny of Israel.

These actions were part of a last-minute compromise. As incredible as it may seem, the final agreement could have been even more atrocious. In the days leading up to the deal, China worked hard to weaken the council’s power in selecting nations to be monitored for human-rights violations. Fortunately, Beijing did not achieve its objectives: “It is not a perfect text, but it represents the maximum common understanding,” said the Chinese representative, Jingye Cheng.

That assessment is on the mark, though not in the way Jingye intended. The 47-member council has become another battleground between the democracies of the world and their antagonists. The compromises that have been reached are “seriously flawed,” to borrow language from the State Department’s reaction to Tuesday’s deal.

The U.S., in fact, initially refused to join the council, on the grounds that there were too many members with poor human-rights records, and now participates only as an observer. But Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has a better idea than limited involvement. On Tuesday, she announced that she will seek to cut off the $3 million of American funding for the council.

Her proposal, which will doubtlessly cause grave concern in some quarters, gives us the perfect opportunity to examine the assumptions that have guided Washington through the post-cold war period. During this time, the U.S. has sought to engage authoritarian regimes by bringing them into multilateral organizations. Our goal was to change them, or at least to attempt to enmesh them in the fabric of a liberal international order. But such governments have ended up changing these institutions more than these institutions have changed them. One need only look at the behavior of the HRC to confirm this.

As China and other such regimes continue to de-legitimize the UN and its various organs, it’s time to bring the world’s democracies together into an effective organization of their own. If President Bush can invite Putin to Kennebunkport, he also can ask the leaders of the free world to come down to Crawford for a little barbecue—and a talk about reinvigorating the Community of Democracies. Until the world’s free nations start cooperating, in a framework excluding authoritarian states and states with abominable human-rights records, we will see more appalling agreements like the one reached yesterday at the Human Rights Council.

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The Conference on Democracy and Security

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less




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