Commentary Magazine


Topic: Turkmenistan

Hagel Sits on Board of Oil Company Accused of Human Rights Violations

Much of the criticism of Chuck Hagel has focused on his positions on Iran and Israel, and his offensive comments about a gay ambassador. But he also has a troubling record on environmental and human rights issues–and not just based on his votes in the Senate. After leaving elected office in 2009, he joined the board of the Chevron Corporation, an oil company that has been criticized for outreach to Iran’s oil sector and other authoritarian regimes, and its involvement in environmental catastrophes like the recent Campos Basin spill.

Hagel joined the board in the spring of 2010, when Chevron was reportedly in negotiations with the repressive government in Turkmenistan. Shortly after, Hagel was confronted about this at a shareholder meeting by an environmentalist group called Crude Accountability. 

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Much of the criticism of Chuck Hagel has focused on his positions on Iran and Israel, and his offensive comments about a gay ambassador. But he also has a troubling record on environmental and human rights issues–and not just based on his votes in the Senate. After leaving elected office in 2009, he joined the board of the Chevron Corporation, an oil company that has been criticized for outreach to Iran’s oil sector and other authoritarian regimes, and its involvement in environmental catastrophes like the recent Campos Basin spill.

Hagel joined the board in the spring of 2010, when Chevron was reportedly in negotiations with the repressive government in Turkmenistan. Shortly after, Hagel was confronted about this at a shareholder meeting by an environmentalist group called Crude Accountability. 

“Senator Hagel, as a new board member, you have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to raise the bar for corporate responsibility in the Caspian to a level that is in accordance with the Chevron Way, for starters, but more importantly, in accordance with international law and practice,” said Crude Accountability’s Michelle Kinman, according to a statement posted on the group’s website. “Senator Hagel, are you prepared to insist that your company take a principled stance in favor of human rights in Turkmenistan today?”

According to Crude Accountability, Hagel did not respond to the question:

Senator Hagel was not given the opportunity to respond to this question.  Instead, Chevron CEO John Watson encouraged Crude Accountability to write to Senator Hagel at a later time.  In his response, Mr. Watson confirmed that Chevron is in negotiations with Turkmenistan, adding that “I think we can do some good in Turkmenistan” even though “we may not meet your standards”. 

No word yet on whether Crude Accountability followed up with a letter, or whether Hagel wrote back. I contacted the organization and will post when I get a reply. But according to Reuters, Chevron was still pursuing a deal to develop Turkmenistan’s natural gas reserves as recently as last month.

This isn’t the first time the company has been criticized for its involvement with repressive regimes. A 2010 report by the NGO EarthRights International accused Chevron of being complicit in human rights violations in Burma, including the death of workers on its natural-gas pipeline. Other NGOs have also cited the company for involvement in human rights abuses in Ecuador.

Yet Hagel continued to sit on the company’s board. When you couple this with his opposition to Iran sanctions, a pattern emerges. Throughout his career, Hagel has shown a disturbing indifference to authoritarian regimes and human rights violators, and there’s no reason to think he’d change if he’s nominated for defense secretary.

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It’s a Gas

Why is Dmitry Medvedev now reporting himself to be losing patience with Iran? The likelihood that he is blowing hot merely as a prelude to blowing cold again is, of course, pretty strong, given his failure to demonstrate any reliable support for tougher sanctions to date. But Medvedev’s protestations to President Obama in Singapore coincided with a Russian announcement that the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, which depends on Russian technical support, will not be brought online in 2009 as previously projected. This is a material setback for Iran’s overall nuclear program – and comes on top of Moscow’s continued refusal to deliver the S-300 air-defense system Iran contracted to buy in 2007.

Nothing in Russia’s history of dealing with revolutionary Iran supports the conclusion that Medvedev wants to get tough with Iran because he shares a common purpose with the Western powers to prevent Iran’s nuclearization. But Russia is wielding bargaining chips with Tehran at the moment, and is uttering vague words that might be interpreted by optimistic Westerners as support for intensified sanctions. Is Moscow seeking to leverage something from the West – or from Iran?

The clue to this puzzle may be flowing through pipelines in Central Asia. Iran is actually the key to what is being hailed in the region as the liberation of gas-rich Turkmenistan from the stranglehold of Gazprom. Turkmenistan, with the world’s fourth-largest reserves of natural gas, is no small prize. Its gas production was second only to Russia’s in total Gazprom output, until a pipeline explosion in April prompted a cutoff by Ashgabat amid allegations that Gazprom had sabotaged the pipeline to intimidate the Turkmens. Gazprom accounts for 10 percent of Russian GDP and 25 percent of federal tax revenues, but its highest-producing Siberian fields are being quickly depleted of their recoverable gas, with production from them expected to decline to nil by as early as 2020. Control of Turkmen gas is a major financial issue for Moscow.

Turkmenistan has found pipeline partners in Iran and China, however, and next month anticipates inaugurating an increased gas flow to Iran that could ultimately connect it, through Turkey, with the Nabucco pipeline that will bypass Gazprom to bring gas to Europe. By one route or another, the pipeline through Iran promises to be a gateway to Western consumers. President Berdymukhamedov emphasized his country’s gas independence in October by replacing most of the oil- and gas-industry officials in Turkmenistan. On November 1, in a fresh start after their ugly gas-pricing dispute of 2008, Turkmenistan welcomed a delegation from Iran seeking to eliminate customs barriers, increase trade, and jointly develop oil and gas infrastructure in the Caspian Sea.

Russia has never hesitated to twist foreign arms for Gazprom, whose revenues prop up the state and make its military acquisition program possible. It’s considerably more likely that Iran is being pressured on its gas arrangements with Turkmenistan than that Russia’s government has begun seeing the Iranian nuclear problem through Western eyes.

Why is Dmitry Medvedev now reporting himself to be losing patience with Iran? The likelihood that he is blowing hot merely as a prelude to blowing cold again is, of course, pretty strong, given his failure to demonstrate any reliable support for tougher sanctions to date. But Medvedev’s protestations to President Obama in Singapore coincided with a Russian announcement that the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, which depends on Russian technical support, will not be brought online in 2009 as previously projected. This is a material setback for Iran’s overall nuclear program – and comes on top of Moscow’s continued refusal to deliver the S-300 air-defense system Iran contracted to buy in 2007.

Nothing in Russia’s history of dealing with revolutionary Iran supports the conclusion that Medvedev wants to get tough with Iran because he shares a common purpose with the Western powers to prevent Iran’s nuclearization. But Russia is wielding bargaining chips with Tehran at the moment, and is uttering vague words that might be interpreted by optimistic Westerners as support for intensified sanctions. Is Moscow seeking to leverage something from the West – or from Iran?

The clue to this puzzle may be flowing through pipelines in Central Asia. Iran is actually the key to what is being hailed in the region as the liberation of gas-rich Turkmenistan from the stranglehold of Gazprom. Turkmenistan, with the world’s fourth-largest reserves of natural gas, is no small prize. Its gas production was second only to Russia’s in total Gazprom output, until a pipeline explosion in April prompted a cutoff by Ashgabat amid allegations that Gazprom had sabotaged the pipeline to intimidate the Turkmens. Gazprom accounts for 10 percent of Russian GDP and 25 percent of federal tax revenues, but its highest-producing Siberian fields are being quickly depleted of their recoverable gas, with production from them expected to decline to nil by as early as 2020. Control of Turkmen gas is a major financial issue for Moscow.

Turkmenistan has found pipeline partners in Iran and China, however, and next month anticipates inaugurating an increased gas flow to Iran that could ultimately connect it, through Turkey, with the Nabucco pipeline that will bypass Gazprom to bring gas to Europe. By one route or another, the pipeline through Iran promises to be a gateway to Western consumers. President Berdymukhamedov emphasized his country’s gas independence in October by replacing most of the oil- and gas-industry officials in Turkmenistan. On November 1, in a fresh start after their ugly gas-pricing dispute of 2008, Turkmenistan welcomed a delegation from Iran seeking to eliminate customs barriers, increase trade, and jointly develop oil and gas infrastructure in the Caspian Sea.

Russia has never hesitated to twist foreign arms for Gazprom, whose revenues prop up the state and make its military acquisition program possible. It’s considerably more likely that Iran is being pressured on its gas arrangements with Turkmenistan than that Russia’s government has begun seeing the Iranian nuclear problem through Western eyes.

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Europe’s Energy Submission

The energy deal that Swiss energy utility company EGL signed with Iran last week has triggered criticism both inside and outside the Alpine nation. Outside Switzerland, the most forceful complaints came from the U.S. and Israel–coming as it did barely two weeks after UN Security Council Resolution 1803 was passed, it clearly sent the wrong signal to Tehran. Europeans are not giving due weight to the strategic worries behind the new round of sanctions and prefer to increase their dependence on Iranian energy than add pressure on Tehran.

Inside Switzerland, though, the criticism focused more on the outfit chosen for the occasion by Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, who was in Tehran to witness the signature alongside her Iranian counterpart, Manuchehr Mottaki. Swiss politicians were outraged by the fact that Calmy-Rey –a longtime advocate of women’s rights–chose to wear a veil and appear “submissive.” Many of her crticis later recognized she had no choice. This brings up a further question, though: why is submissiveness necessary to deal with Iran?

A look at European energy options might offer an answer: Europe’s main natural gas suppliers is Russia. Tehran, with its readiness to welcome foreign energy companies for joint ventures, is an ideal alternative. It sits on the second-biggest known reserves of natural gas in the world and, unlike other Middle Eastern countries, is willing to share profits in exchange for the technology and investments needed to develop its vastly undertapped resources.

Of course, the trade-off–quite apart from the obvious implications for the sanctions’ regime and the ability of the West to put pressure on Iran– is that Iran’s regime benefits from access to Western technology. But it may be recalled that earlier this year Turkmenistan shut off its gas supply to Tehran–a move that caused severe gas shortages inside Iran in the middle of an unusually harsh winter. Iran, in other words, despite its giant gas fields, is a net importer of gas and is thus vulnerable to external pressure. Selling Iran technology and joining its national gas and oil companies to develop its energy resources will help Iran become a net exporter and will make its regime’s economic and political fortune. Deals like the one signed by EGL, in other words, prolong this regime’s shelf life and all that comes with it, nuclear ambitions included.

Europe’s economic engagement with Iran, especially in light of Russia’s stricter oil policies, makes sense. Except for Iran’s nuclear program and the spoiling role it plays in just about every crisis Europe wishes to solve in the Middle East. The answer to the above dilemma is long term and demands. For the time being, European temptation by Iranian oil must be understood within this context: Europe is not yet in a strong enough position to forego such deals. In this sense, Swiss politicians were right to call Calmy-Rey’s choice of the veil submissive. Submissiveness might be the only option Europe has in this situation, unless Iran’s behavior–and its regime–can be changed.

The energy deal that Swiss energy utility company EGL signed with Iran last week has triggered criticism both inside and outside the Alpine nation. Outside Switzerland, the most forceful complaints came from the U.S. and Israel–coming as it did barely two weeks after UN Security Council Resolution 1803 was passed, it clearly sent the wrong signal to Tehran. Europeans are not giving due weight to the strategic worries behind the new round of sanctions and prefer to increase their dependence on Iranian energy than add pressure on Tehran.

Inside Switzerland, though, the criticism focused more on the outfit chosen for the occasion by Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, who was in Tehran to witness the signature alongside her Iranian counterpart, Manuchehr Mottaki. Swiss politicians were outraged by the fact that Calmy-Rey –a longtime advocate of women’s rights–chose to wear a veil and appear “submissive.” Many of her crticis later recognized she had no choice. This brings up a further question, though: why is submissiveness necessary to deal with Iran?

A look at European energy options might offer an answer: Europe’s main natural gas suppliers is Russia. Tehran, with its readiness to welcome foreign energy companies for joint ventures, is an ideal alternative. It sits on the second-biggest known reserves of natural gas in the world and, unlike other Middle Eastern countries, is willing to share profits in exchange for the technology and investments needed to develop its vastly undertapped resources.

Of course, the trade-off–quite apart from the obvious implications for the sanctions’ regime and the ability of the West to put pressure on Iran– is that Iran’s regime benefits from access to Western technology. But it may be recalled that earlier this year Turkmenistan shut off its gas supply to Tehran–a move that caused severe gas shortages inside Iran in the middle of an unusually harsh winter. Iran, in other words, despite its giant gas fields, is a net importer of gas and is thus vulnerable to external pressure. Selling Iran technology and joining its national gas and oil companies to develop its energy resources will help Iran become a net exporter and will make its regime’s economic and political fortune. Deals like the one signed by EGL, in other words, prolong this regime’s shelf life and all that comes with it, nuclear ambitions included.

Europe’s economic engagement with Iran, especially in light of Russia’s stricter oil policies, makes sense. Except for Iran’s nuclear program and the spoiling role it plays in just about every crisis Europe wishes to solve in the Middle East. The answer to the above dilemma is long term and demands. For the time being, European temptation by Iranian oil must be understood within this context: Europe is not yet in a strong enough position to forego such deals. In this sense, Swiss politicians were right to call Calmy-Rey’s choice of the veil submissive. Submissiveness might be the only option Europe has in this situation, unless Iran’s behavior–and its regime–can be changed.

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Libya’s Son

Iraqi Police Colonel Jubair Rashid Naief claims Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam (whose name means Sword of Islam) is sponsoring a terrorist group in Northern Iraq called the Seifaddin Regiment. This group is allegedly responsible for recent attacks in Mosul that killed and wounded hundreds. The U.S. military so far has no comment on the accusation one way or another. I’ve never heard of this group and am not even convinced it exists. But U.S. military officials believe 19 percent of foreign terrorists in Iraq come from Libya.

Robert H. Reid wrote in an Associated Press article that Seif al-Islam “seems an unlikely figure as a sponsor of terrorism. Touted as a reformer, the younger Gadhafi has been reaching out to the West to soften Libya’s image and return it to the international mainstream.”

Yes, Seif al-Islam is touted as a reformer – by journalists. Perhaps naïve government officials also believe Seif al-Islam is a reformer. His father has certainly been given a pass in the last couple of years even though he barely deserves it – if he deserves it at all.

I visited Libya as soon as the U.S. government lifted the travel ban, after Qaddafi supposedly gave up his weapons of mass destruction program. (Click here to see my photo gallery.) It is by far the most oppressive country I have ever been to. Freedom House ranks it the most oppressive of all Arab countries, lower than even Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Qaddafi’s government structure is modeled after Nicolae Ceauşescu’s totalitarian regime in Romania. His state ideology, the unexportable “Third Universal Theory,” is a merger of The Communist Manifesto and the Koran. His own infamous manifesto, The Green Book, is a daft and sinister pseudo-intellectual excuse for his own absolute power. Don’t be fooled by Qaddafi’s court jester antics and buffoonish charisma. He is only funny and entertaining to watch from abroad. Libya is an Orwellian God-state with only Turkmenistan and North Korea as peers.

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Iraqi Police Colonel Jubair Rashid Naief claims Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam (whose name means Sword of Islam) is sponsoring a terrorist group in Northern Iraq called the Seifaddin Regiment. This group is allegedly responsible for recent attacks in Mosul that killed and wounded hundreds. The U.S. military so far has no comment on the accusation one way or another. I’ve never heard of this group and am not even convinced it exists. But U.S. military officials believe 19 percent of foreign terrorists in Iraq come from Libya.

Robert H. Reid wrote in an Associated Press article that Seif al-Islam “seems an unlikely figure as a sponsor of terrorism. Touted as a reformer, the younger Gadhafi has been reaching out to the West to soften Libya’s image and return it to the international mainstream.”

Yes, Seif al-Islam is touted as a reformer – by journalists. Perhaps naïve government officials also believe Seif al-Islam is a reformer. His father has certainly been given a pass in the last couple of years even though he barely deserves it – if he deserves it at all.

I visited Libya as soon as the U.S. government lifted the travel ban, after Qaddafi supposedly gave up his weapons of mass destruction program. (Click here to see my photo gallery.) It is by far the most oppressive country I have ever been to. Freedom House ranks it the most oppressive of all Arab countries, lower than even Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Qaddafi’s government structure is modeled after Nicolae Ceauşescu’s totalitarian regime in Romania. His state ideology, the unexportable “Third Universal Theory,” is a merger of The Communist Manifesto and the Koran. His own infamous manifesto, The Green Book, is a daft and sinister pseudo-intellectual excuse for his own absolute power. Don’t be fooled by Qaddafi’s court jester antics and buffoonish charisma. He is only funny and entertaining to watch from abroad. Libya is an Orwellian God-state with only Turkmenistan and North Korea as peers.

Of course none of this means Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam sponsors a terrorist group in Iraq. I really have no idea if that’s true or not. What I do know is that he is ideologically committed to preserving his father’s prison state system, and that he wants to export that system to as many countries as possible. Gullible diplomats and journalists may sincerely believe he’s a reformer, but a close look at his own statements proves that he’s lying when he passes himself off as moderate. And he is not even a good liar.

“My father has been promoting the idea of direct democracy in Libya for almost 26 years now,” he said to New York Times reporter Craig S. Smith in December, 2004. “It’s quite rational and logical that we have to continue in that direction.”

So much for him reforming his father’s system. He is quite up front about that part of his agenda, at least. What he’s lying about is the nature of his father’s system. Libya is no more a direct democracy than the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea is a democratic republic.

In the same New York Times interview he said “We don’t have an opposition — there is no opposition.” Only “five people,” he claimed, oppose his father’s regime, and all five live in the United States.

It’s breathtaking, really, that even a totalitarian tool like Seif al-Islam doesn’t understand real democracy well enough to know that more than five people in any country will oppose the government regardless of its system or what it does. It takes real insularity from the modern world and its ways to say something like that to a reporter with a straight face. What’s even more striking is that reporters who actually live in a democratic country could take a serious look at this kid and think he’s a straight shooter. You might as well believe Saddam Hussein won 100 percent of the vote in Iraq. At least Syria’s dictator Hafez Assad only claimed to win 99.

I suppose it’s the “direct democracy” part of Seif al-Islam’s shtick that throws people off.

Here is what his father says about democracy in The Green Book: “Political struggle that results in the victory of a candidate with, for example, 51 percent of the vote leads to a dictatorial governing body in the guise of false democracy, since 49 percent of the electorate is ruled by an instrument of government they did not vote for, but which has been imposed upon them. Such is dictatorship.” His solution to the problem of “false democracy” is his version of “direct democracy” that enshrines himself as leader of 100 percent of the people rather than a mere 51. Political parties and political opposition are banned in Libya because they would divide that 100 percent. Libyan-style direct democracy is actually fascism or something very much like it. This is what Seif al-Islam is talking about when he says “we have to continue in that direction.”

The jury is out on whether he’s sponsoring a terrorist group in Iraq. I don’t have access to Iraqi Police Colonel Naief’s intelligence reports and cannot evaluate them. But the idea isn’t that much of a stretch. The Arab world has its reformers, but Seif al-Islam isn’t one of them.

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The Price of UN Membership

As noted yesterday on contentions, Libya was elected on October 16, 2007 to the UN Security Council, a position it will assume in January. Last month Syria was elected Vice-Chair of the General Conference of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. These goings-on at the UN have been presented not only as perfectly normal but as laudable. While they have provoked strong reaction in some people, they should not come as a surprise.

The UN, we are told, is an essential institution because of its unique inclusivity. The argument goes that the goals and values of democracies on the world scene are dependent on their doing business with dictators as equals. One state, one vote. Regardless of the numbers of real people being subdued in various ways back home. Regardless of the financial contribution made by each member state to the world organization. Regardless of the extent to which the founding principles and purposes of the UN are flaunted by the member state every day of the week.

So Libya and Syria join a long list of dictatorships, despotisms, and human-rights violators in UN leadership positions—positions that entail responsibilities diametrically opposed to their incumbents’ qualifications.

Here are only a few of today’s UN authority figures:

• UN Security Council: Libya
• International Atomic Energy Agency General Committee, Vice-President: Syria
• UN Disarmament Commission, Vice-Chairman: Iran. Rapporteur: Syria
• Committee on Information: China, Kazakhstan
• UN Program of Assistance in the Teaching, Study, Dissemination, and Wider Appreciation of International Law Advisory Committee: Iran, Lebanon, Sudan
• Commission for Social Development: North Korea
• Commission on the Status of Women: Qatar, Togo, United Arab Emirates
• Commission on Sustainable Development: Sudan
• Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice: Libya, Russia
• UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Vice-President: Myanmar
• UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Board: China
• UN Development Program Executive Board: Algeria, Kazakhstan
• General Assembly Vice-Presidents: Egypt, Turkmenistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo
• General Assembly’s First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, Vice-Chairman: Syria
• Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention: Seyed Mohammad Hashemi of Iran
• Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Member: Saied Rajaie Khorasani of Iran
• UN Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT) Governing Council: Zimbabwe
• UN High Commissioner for Refugees Executive Committee: Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan
• International Labor Organization Governing Body: Saudi Arabia
• World Food Program Executive Board: Sudan, Zimbabwe

In short, membership in the UN has no price tag, although, as this list suggests, Israel-bashing and anti-Americanism are its all-but universal currency.

As noted yesterday on contentions, Libya was elected on October 16, 2007 to the UN Security Council, a position it will assume in January. Last month Syria was elected Vice-Chair of the General Conference of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. These goings-on at the UN have been presented not only as perfectly normal but as laudable. While they have provoked strong reaction in some people, they should not come as a surprise.

The UN, we are told, is an essential institution because of its unique inclusivity. The argument goes that the goals and values of democracies on the world scene are dependent on their doing business with dictators as equals. One state, one vote. Regardless of the numbers of real people being subdued in various ways back home. Regardless of the financial contribution made by each member state to the world organization. Regardless of the extent to which the founding principles and purposes of the UN are flaunted by the member state every day of the week.

So Libya and Syria join a long list of dictatorships, despotisms, and human-rights violators in UN leadership positions—positions that entail responsibilities diametrically opposed to their incumbents’ qualifications.

Here are only a few of today’s UN authority figures:

• UN Security Council: Libya
• International Atomic Energy Agency General Committee, Vice-President: Syria
• UN Disarmament Commission, Vice-Chairman: Iran. Rapporteur: Syria
• Committee on Information: China, Kazakhstan
• UN Program of Assistance in the Teaching, Study, Dissemination, and Wider Appreciation of International Law Advisory Committee: Iran, Lebanon, Sudan
• Commission for Social Development: North Korea
• Commission on the Status of Women: Qatar, Togo, United Arab Emirates
• Commission on Sustainable Development: Sudan
• Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice: Libya, Russia
• UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Vice-President: Myanmar
• UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Board: China
• UN Development Program Executive Board: Algeria, Kazakhstan
• General Assembly Vice-Presidents: Egypt, Turkmenistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo
• General Assembly’s First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, Vice-Chairman: Syria
• Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention: Seyed Mohammad Hashemi of Iran
• Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Member: Saied Rajaie Khorasani of Iran
• UN Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT) Governing Council: Zimbabwe
• UN High Commissioner for Refugees Executive Committee: Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan
• International Labor Organization Governing Body: Saudi Arabia
• World Food Program Executive Board: Sudan, Zimbabwe

In short, membership in the UN has no price tag, although, as this list suggests, Israel-bashing and anti-Americanism are its all-but universal currency.

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Nine Who Fled: Kati Marton’s The Great Escape

“God protect us from the enemy without and the Hungarians within.” There’s something amusing about hearing Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, talk like this. He was referring to the construction of the hydrogen bomb, an effort he considered harmful and unnecessary, which the Hungarians in question–the physicist Edward Teller and the mathematician John von Neumann, both Jews–strongly advocated as a means of undercutting Stalinist expansion in Eastern Europe. Von Neumann had recently invented game theory, which would soon be applied to the lethal calculus known as “mutual assured destruction,” while Teller was the rumored archetype for Peter Sellers’s Dr. Strangelove.

It’s strange, in light of this anecdote, to realize that only a few books examine the preternaturally powerful impact of Hungarian Jews on the 20th century, particularly in the arts and sciences. Kati Marton’s The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World comes as a welcome entry in the field. Under the rubric of scientists, Marton examines the lives of Teller, von Neumann, Eugene Wigner*, and Leo Szilard, all of whom ushered particle physics into its eschatological own.

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“God protect us from the enemy without and the Hungarians within.” There’s something amusing about hearing Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, talk like this. He was referring to the construction of the hydrogen bomb, an effort he considered harmful and unnecessary, which the Hungarians in question–the physicist Edward Teller and the mathematician John von Neumann, both Jews–strongly advocated as a means of undercutting Stalinist expansion in Eastern Europe. Von Neumann had recently invented game theory, which would soon be applied to the lethal calculus known as “mutual assured destruction,” while Teller was the rumored archetype for Peter Sellers’s Dr. Strangelove.

It’s strange, in light of this anecdote, to realize that only a few books examine the preternaturally powerful impact of Hungarian Jews on the 20th century, particularly in the arts and sciences. Kati Marton’s The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World comes as a welcome entry in the field. Under the rubric of scientists, Marton examines the lives of Teller, von Neumann, Eugene Wigner*, and Leo Szilard, all of whom ushered particle physics into its eschatological own.

She also devotes more than half of her book to studying Hungarian-Jewish talent in literature, film, and photography. Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon stands as the most chilling and insightful anti-Communist novel ever written. Michael Curtiz directed Casablanca, the greatest anti-fascist film ever made (in the running for greatest tout court), while British movie mogul Sir Alexander Korda (né Sandor Kellner) takes the honor for having produced the best ravaged-Europe postwar story committed to celluloid, The Third Man, which he prompted his close friend Graham Greene to script. (Korda’s other notable yachting chum was Winston Churchill.) The photographers under consideration are Andre Kertesz, the leading lensman of World War I, who mastered playful reflections and light distortions well before the Surrealists, and Robert Capa, the legendary visual chronicler of the Spanish Civil War and D-Day, who went on to co-found the still-thriving photographic cooperative Magnum Photos.

Modern life owes a great deal to these thick-accented and beguiling émigrés. But what was it that made them so special? Geography and timing, according to Marton. Her collective biography is a historical and sentimental, not to say sentimentalized, monument to the “Golden Age” of Budapest, a ghetto-less medieval city that became the cosmopolitan ground zero for European Jewish assimilation. By 1900, Jews comprised approximately one-fifth of the city’s population, as a vibrant and influential minority.

“Six hundred cafes, and among the continent’s highest concentration of theaters and cabarets, changed the rhythms of the city,” writes Marton, whose parents came of age in this milieu. “There were streets as crowded at midnight as at nine in the morning. . . . Jews—whose goal was to be Hungarian citizens of the Jewish faith—and Hungarians seemed equally invested in the dream.” So well-established and confident were Budapest’s Jews in their “Zion on the Danube” between 1870 and 1910 that the Hungarian poet Endre Ady, a Gentile, was given to proclaiming his hometown “built by the Jews for the rest of us.” There’s no small irony in the fact that the most philo-Semitic city in Mitteleuropa was also the birthplace of Theodor Herzl, who would become the prophet of Jewish relocation to the Middle East.

Or perhaps no irony at all. Budapest’s scintillating period was short-lived, and the city soon found itself located on the miserable fault-line between twin despotisms, twice. Stalin and Hitler had grim dress rehearsals in the form of Bela Kun, architect of Hungary’s Soviet Republic, and Admiral Nicholas Horthy, the right-wing dictator who emerged out of the fractured Austro-Hungarian military class and revenged himself on the Jews, whom he thought of as synonymous, more or less, with Communists. Stalin’s post-World War II anti-Semitic purges in the Warsaw Pact nations had a grim precursor in Budapest: the “heroes” of 1919 became the Laszlo Rajks of 1949. Indeed, one senses that the seedbed for the 1956 revolution was actually laid almost four decades earlier.

Koestler once remarked that the Hungarian people were the loneliest on the continent because of their linguistic and ethnic solitude. To be Jewish and Hungarian meant living in a state of double exile no matter where you washed ashore (in Koestler’s case, Berlin, Mandatory Palestine, Turkmenistan, Catalonia, and London). But even great loneliness sometimes has its rewards. It seems rather likely that because Hungarian is a language virtually impenetrable to outsiders (Edmund Wilson once made a valiant effort to learn it), its brilliant Jewish speakers proved fluent in the ways of eccentric, clubbish secrecy, a characteristic that served bon vivant aristocrats like Sir Alexander Korda as well as it did the wartime scientists at Los Alamos.

* Eugene Wigner was originally misidentified.

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Crunching Freedom’s Numbers

Yesterday I reported on how the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung managed to spin the release of Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2007 as an anti-Bush story. Here are some of the interesting points that the survey highlights when read without DeYoung’s intensely ideological spectacles.

Freedom House notes that 90 countries qualify as “free,” which is 47 percent of the world’s 193 independent states. As for the remainder, 30 percent are “partly free” and 23 percent are “not free.” The percentage of “free” countries has not increased appreciably over nine years, leading Freedom House to comment that the progress of freedom is “stagnating.”

Perhaps. But Freedom House also reports that 30 years ago the number of “free” countries was a mere 42, or 26 percent of the total, and that the number of “not free” countries stood at 68, or 43 percent of the total. Compare these two sets of numbers, and the degree of transformation is startling. The number of “free” countries has more than doubled, while the number of “not free” has decreased by more than one-third. To put it another way, a mere 30 years ago, “not free” countries outnumbered the “free” ones by more than 50 percent. Today, there are fully twice as many “free” countries as “not free” ones.

In addition to its freedom scale, Freedom House also counts “electoral democracies.” This number includes all of the “free” countries plus some of those ranked “partly free,” i.e., countries where the government has been elected in an honest multiparty contest but where some of the other attributes of freedom, like a reliable court system, are lacking. The number of countries governed by rulers chosen by the people has reached 123, or 64 percent. We have, in sum, witnessed a revolution in the norms of governance in the past thirty years. Most (but not all) of this is due to the West’s triumph in the cold war. That this steep curve has flattened out over the last few years might be called “stagnation.” But it might just as well be termed a period of consolidation amidst rapid, epochal change.

A noteworthy P.S.: Only eight countries scored a worst-possible 7 on Freedom House’s numerical scores. These are Burma, Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. (Iraq was not, as DeYoung erroneously claimed, among them.)

Yesterday I reported on how the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung managed to spin the release of Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2007 as an anti-Bush story. Here are some of the interesting points that the survey highlights when read without DeYoung’s intensely ideological spectacles.

Freedom House notes that 90 countries qualify as “free,” which is 47 percent of the world’s 193 independent states. As for the remainder, 30 percent are “partly free” and 23 percent are “not free.” The percentage of “free” countries has not increased appreciably over nine years, leading Freedom House to comment that the progress of freedom is “stagnating.”

Perhaps. But Freedom House also reports that 30 years ago the number of “free” countries was a mere 42, or 26 percent of the total, and that the number of “not free” countries stood at 68, or 43 percent of the total. Compare these two sets of numbers, and the degree of transformation is startling. The number of “free” countries has more than doubled, while the number of “not free” has decreased by more than one-third. To put it another way, a mere 30 years ago, “not free” countries outnumbered the “free” ones by more than 50 percent. Today, there are fully twice as many “free” countries as “not free” ones.

In addition to its freedom scale, Freedom House also counts “electoral democracies.” This number includes all of the “free” countries plus some of those ranked “partly free,” i.e., countries where the government has been elected in an honest multiparty contest but where some of the other attributes of freedom, like a reliable court system, are lacking. The number of countries governed by rulers chosen by the people has reached 123, or 64 percent. We have, in sum, witnessed a revolution in the norms of governance in the past thirty years. Most (but not all) of this is due to the West’s triumph in the cold war. That this steep curve has flattened out over the last few years might be called “stagnation.” But it might just as well be termed a period of consolidation amidst rapid, epochal change.

A noteworthy P.S.: Only eight countries scored a worst-possible 7 on Freedom House’s numerical scores. These are Burma, Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. (Iraq was not, as DeYoung erroneously claimed, among them.)

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