Facts Meet Freedom: On the Air in Afghanistan
It will be an unpleasant future if history says that. And it won’t be RFE/RL’s fault. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcasts information to Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East in twenty-eight languages. Much of the information comes from the places where those twenty-eight languages are spoken. RFE/RL has five hundred and fifty employees in Prague—speaking the twenty-eight languages and then some—forty more back in Washington, and several hundred full- and part-time correspondents, editors, and technicians at bureaus in eighteen countries. Reporters are also working, sometimes clandestinely, in countries where RFE/RL bureaus aren’t allowed. The mission is to tell people living in those countries what is happening to them.
“I don’t know what’s happening to me” would be a statement of psychological or sociological distress in a liberal democracy, but it’s a plain statement of fact concerning the material world for anyone who doesn’t live in a liberal democracy. Government censorship of media, government influence on or ownership of media, and simple lack of infrastructure keep several billion people uninformed about the most important and intimate matters in their own lives. (And according to Radio Farda, RFE/RL’s Iranian service, the Iranian judiciary has ruled that psychology and sociology should not be taught in schools.)
The concept of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is “surrogate broadcasting”—doing the job that independent media would do if there were any or enough of it in the places RFE/RL serves. Jeff Gedmin calls it “holding up a mirror.” It’s a Cold War idea. Radio Free Europe’s first broadcast was to Czechoslovakia in 1950, as the Communists were using show trials and purges to solidify their control in Prague.
Like its sister organization Voice of America, RFE/RL is funded by the U.S. government. But Voice of America is primarily about America. RFE/RL is primarily about Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, the Balkans, the North Caucasus region, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan...
Vaclav Havel, the first president of free Czechoslovakia, said, “I learned about America from VOA and learned about my own country from Radio Free Europe.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was talk in Washington about closing down Radio Free Europe. More thoughtful policymakers prevailed. With the New World Order came a new set of world disorders. Igor Pomeranzev, a Russian broadcaster for RFE/RL, told me what a Moscow cab driver told him: “In the old days, I listened to Radio Free Europe to get news about my country. Now—I listen to Radio Free Europe to get news about my country.”
RFE/RL no longer broadcasts to Estonia, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania (though it has added service to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, the Balkans, and other places). The retrenchments may have been premature. Jay Tolson, RFE/RL’s news director, said the president of Romania told the BBC, which also had cut its Romania service, “You left too soon.”
Mardiros Soghom, RFE/RL’s deputy director of broadcasting strategy and operations, said that, in the matter of media independence, “Places like Latvia are losing ground. The trend lines are bad.” He was worried about a “reassertion of the Soviet sphere of influence” while, back in the U.S., there has been a “move toward more Middle East involvement” in concerns about media freedoms.
John O’Sullivan, RFE/RL’s executive editor, said, “Unless there’s a threat involved it’s hard to convince America it’s important.”
But there is a threat involved. O’Sullivan sees, in fact, two threats rising to replace the Cold War threat of international Communism. Jihadism is a threat of course, but so is what O’Sullivan calls “the politicized use of corruption.” Russia, most notably, has managed to harness corruption to increase the power of the state.
“Putin is combining the KGB elite with the oligarchs,” Soghom said.
The increase in state power is being used not just domestically but in foreign policy. And, O’Sullivan points out, politicized corruption and jihadism aren’t mutually exclusive. Witness the Taliban’s harnessing of Afghanistan’s opium crop.
The strange logic of jihadism and the strict solipsism of corruption are more difficult to combat, ideologically, than Marxism. Fortunately no ideology is needed. “We are carrying on an argument promoting liberty’s ideal,” Soghom said, “by just providing information.”
The most effective part of American foreign policy isn’t military or economic and it isn’t even really an ideal. It’s just an idea.
The idea is that nobody in the world thinks, “I wish I knew less. I wish other people could tell me anything, and I’d believe it because I don’t know any better. I wish other people could tell me what to do because they know what’s going on and I don’t. I wish other people could push me around.”
All the rights of freedom rest on freedom of speech, on information, on communication. Armand Mostofi, director of Radio Farda, said, “We try to provide a window to the free world.”
In return, the Iranian government spends, by the estimate of RFE/RL’s technicians, approximately $40 million a year jamming Radio Farda. This is roughly four times Farda’s annual budget. As a work-around, Farda uses shortwave, which is harder to jam, and Web sites on proxy servers, including one that was developed by Falun Gong supporters in China. Radio Farda has more than fifty thousand Facebook friends in Iran. The Iranian government has responded by buying Internet screening systems from China. The Iranian government has also responded with secret police legwork. An eyewitness phoned in a report of a demonstration against Iran’s rigged elections, and Iranian intelligence agents spent eleven months tracing the woman. She was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for giving information to Radio Farda—and for being at the demonstration. Iran’s minister of culture has written a book denouncing Radio Farda. Even the denunciation is secret. The print run was limited to three hundred—for official use only.
I asked why Iran was going to so much trouble. “What do they fear?”
“The truth,” said Mostofi, “about everything.”
Talking to Radio Farda staffers, I could understand that just the structure of the Iranian government is a truth that Iran would not like to have told. The mullahs and the leaders of the Revolutionary Guard seem to have sent themselves to night school, studying every style of totalitarianism. Mimicking the Brezhnev-era Soviet nomenklatura, they’ve created an elite on the take. The Revolutionary Guard Corps is, among other things, 125,000 bagmen skimming graft from the top posts in politics and industry. Iran’s dictators use the stratagems of theocracy with considerably more organizational skill than the Taliban. They employ the Stalinist technique of placing a “political officer”—a Revolutionary Guard member—with every military unit. Meanwhile, like the Nazi SS, they have the Revolutionary Guard as a military of their own. On the original fascist model, Iran is also organized from the bottom up, with the least employed and employable drawn into a militia force, the Basij, which has at least a nominal membership of 13.6 million. There are Basij branches within tribes, at offices, in colleges, high schools, grade schools, and summer camps. And all this is funded with petroleum reserves that allow the Iranian government to combine the “oil-archy” of Saudi Arabia with the isolationist Juche philosophy of North Korea.
Such a monumental structure of repression would seem hard to shake, but the smallest illuminations of ignorance appear to shake it. “Freedom of information for this regime is like sunshine for Dracula,” said Mostofi.
To tell “the truth—about everything” in twenty-eight languages is a lot to expect from any media outlet. And Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty doesn’t actually try to do it. I had lunch with Gordana Knezevic, RFE/RL’s Balkan service director. She kept a daily paper publishing—daily—during the siege of Sarajevo, a paper with Bosnian and Serb reporters. “Truth?” she said, “Who knows what the truth is? We broadcast facts. That’s enough.”
I sat in on news meetings—Europe desk, Asia desk, central news desk—to watch those facts be sorted. There were the usual newsroom discussions about reliability of sources, multiple verifications, what was on and off the record, who reporters did and didn’t have access to. Later I realized that what I hadn’t seen or heard were ideological arguments or even comments. Except in cases where I had prior knowledge—John O’Sullivan used to be the editor of the National Review—I emerged from my interviews at RFE/RL ignorant of everyone’s political orientation. Certainly among five hundred and fifty Americans, Europeans, Middle Easterners, and people from Central Asia, there had to be political disagreements along free market/socialist/social conservative/secular humanist lines. And I don’t think anyone was avoiding the subject. I got no sense of partisan abstemiousness. Instead it seemed people were busy with something that comes first, before the political business of liberal democracy begins. Port and cheese weren’t being served at breakfast.
Also, the close-up facts about faraway places that RFE/RL deals in are a distraction from political theory, if not a remedy for it. With so much concrete information, there’s hardly space for abstraction. For example, speaking of concrete, the heroic-scale, gold-plated concrete statue of Turkmenistan’s late tyrant, Turkmenbashi, was being demolished, pulled down the way the statues of Lenin and Saddam Hussein had been, but with one difference. The demolition was concealed behind barricades and no one was allowed near it. A symbol of secretive repression being toppled—in secret.
Eastern Orthodox priests were holding services in Belgrade, praying that the EU wouldn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence, in case anyone thinks Islam is the only religion with jihadist problems.
Moldova continues to suffer secessionist problems in the clash between Slavic-speaking and Romanian-speaking peoples in the Transnistria region. Now Transnistria is suffering secessionist problems in the clash between Ukranian-speaking and Russian-speaking peoples. This in the poorest part of Europe, a continent that has spent two hundred years vacillating between the horrors of attempted unification—Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin—and the griefs of attempted separatism—the IRA, the Basque ETA, wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, the Caucasuses.
RFE/RL’s Moldovan service has run a feature, “Why Is History Important?” And the Europe desk is working on another feature about the precisions of nationalism and the kind of countries that could be produced, “How Small Can You Get?” According to the North Caucasus service, there are a hundred and eighty tribes and ethnic groups just in Dagestan.
One hopes that there’s a twenty-ninth language—American English—in which what goes out on RFE/RL is being heard.
I had thought the problem of Tajikistan was being caught between Russia’s power in Central Asia to the north and America’s power in Afghanistan to the south. Not so, said Sojida Djakhfarova, RFE/RL’s Tajik service director. Tajikistan is caught between the power of its trade ties to the east and the power of its Persian ethnicity to the west—not squeezed by Russia and America but squeezed by China and Iran. I felt like a spectator at the Great Game who’d gotten the end zones confused with the sidelines.
Amanullah Gilzai, acting director of the Pashto-language Pakistani service, Radio Mashaal, explained the sudden emergence of the Taliban in Swat. It wasn’t so sudden. Swatis had been prepared for radical sentiments by labor exploitation. Hundreds of Swatis are sent thousands of kilometers to mine coal—with predictable work conditions at predictably minimal pay—in the Taliban-fraught Quetta region of Pakistan. And Pakistan performed a specific act of misgovernance. Swat had been a semi-autonomous state with a local Pashtun sultan. Islamabad took over the government of Swat but failed to govern it. No sufficient administrative or judicial systems were installed, leaving Swat without law. The Taliban filled the vacuum with sharia law. People who have experienced the terrors of no law can be convinced that terrible law is better.
The information broadcast by RFE/RL has effects and side effects. A story on Radio Mashaal about two Pakistanis who’d had hands chopped off by the Taliban was picked up by the Pakistani community in Canada and resulted in a group of Canadian doctors volunterring to provide free prostheses.
Hamid Karzai told Jeff Gedmin, “The first thing I do in the morning is turn on Radio Azadi”—Azadi being RFE/RL’s Afghan service—“to figure out what people are thinking.” Those people may be better attuned to Radio Azadi than they are to Hamid Karzai. Afghan Service Director Hashem Mohmand said Azadi’s Prague office has received some two hundred messages from Afghans in Kabul asking to be referred to responsible Afghan government authorities for problems ranging from corruption and missing persons to a school that doesn’t have books and a letter sitting on Karzai’s desk waiting to be signed.
Afghans send their appreciations to Radio Azadi. Often the appreciations are written on illuminated scrolls. The longest so far has been sixty meters. One I looked at, a modest thirty meters, had been written by two high school boys. I asked for the translation of a random passage: “The rightful man in society is the man who gives rights to others.”
The value of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty would seem to be self-evident. It is to a shepherd in a remote part of Kerman Province in Iran. He called while I was in Prague just to say that he would miss Radio Farda. His cell phone was still charged, but his radio batteries were running low and it would be a week before anyone would visit him.
However, this is a period of un-self-evidence for America abroad. The direction of our foreign policy is not clear to anyone, especially not to those holding the compass of foreign policy. Both the current administration and its Tea Party–oriented Republican opponents are more engaged with domestic than international issues. Each side is united in certainty about its domestic agenda and divided internally about the role America should have overseas.
In a way, the current confusion about foreign policy goals in America would seem to be a perfect moment for RFE/RL, where no foreign policy goal is put forth except cultivating respect for those freedoms that everyone in American politics claims to treasure. Yet at a time of ugly budgetary problems when the attention of the body politic is turned elsewhere, one fears for any worthwhile program our government has that isn’t someone’s legal entitlement.
Never mind that RFE/RL is cheap. Its budget is $95 million a year—four Apache helicopters in a country with a foreign policy that causes one Apache helicopter to crash nearly every week—half the annual expenditure of WNET, the PBS station in New York, a city where, judging by the tone of the debate over the proposal to put an Islamic center near Ground Zero, they’ve got more free speech than they know what to do with.
In fairness, the Obama administration has been so far so good with government-funded international broadcasting. There’s a variety of it. Radio/TV Marti is aimed at Cuba. Radio Free Asia goes out to that continent in nine languages. The Middle East Broadcast Network, in Arabic, includes Al Hurra TV and Radio Sawa. Plus there’s Voice of America, founded as the broadcast media arm of the U.S. Information Agency, and RFE/RL. (RFE was originally intended for Soviet satellite countries, while RL went to the Soviet Union itself. They merged in 1976.)
All these entities are now supervised by the U.S. government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors. President Obama appointed, as chairman, Walter Issacson, the former editor of Time, head of the Aspen Institute bipartisan foreign policy think tank, and an ardent internationalist. Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, is ex officio a member of the board. She’s been steadfast in support of RFE/RL, visiting Prague and taking calls on the air during a Radio Azadi panel discussion about the Taliban. (After eighteen years of noisy personal opposition to Hillary’s politics, I hereby confess that she stands as a mighty oak in a pantsuit among the swaying reeds of foreign policy.) RFE/RL’s president, Jeff Gedmin, who came to office during the Bush years, previously headed the Aspen Institute in Berlin, and before that worked on the American Enterprise Institute’s New Atlantic Initiative, trying to reestablish the bonds of the North Atlantic Alliance that led to NATO—bonds everyone agrees could use some reestablishing.
The Broadcast Board of Governors’ organizational chart is a mess. But one should never ask for rationalization when government is doing something effective—the effectiveness will be rationed.
A greater danger to an operation like RFE/RL than the government that funds it is the public that forgets it. Shortly after I’d visited RFE/RL, I gave a speech to a group of American business executives. Their business having its political issues, they were politically well informed. I polled maybe a dozen of them. The younger executives weren’t quite sure what RFE/RL was. The older executives remembered Radio Free Europe well, but not one of them knew it was still broadcasting. They thought of Radio Free Europe not as an idea from the Cold War, but as one of its relics.
The war we’re fighting in Afghanistan is not cold. I flew to Kabul to see what part Radio Azadi plays in the most serious example of America’s foreign policy conundrums. I was met at the airport by Radio Azadi’s bureau chief, M. Amin Mudaqiq.
There’s no doubt about Afghans understanding the importance of communication freedoms. The second most impressive feature of Kabul is the array of billboards, posters, placards, and signs advertising cell phone and Internet services.
The most impressive feature of Kabul is that prerequisite of communication freedoms—staying alive. Soldiers, policemen, and private security forces swarm a city were every important public function is protected behind great lengths and tall heights of reinforced concrete blast walls, and entering even a fast-food restaurant entails a TSA-like experience of metal detectors and pat-downs.
Radio Azadi was protected by a roadblock on its cul-de-sac, a guardhouse, and a barbed wire-topped cinderblock wall around the pleasant, ’70s-style suburban residence that houses its studios and offices. But, in fact, the security at RFE/RL’s Afghan bureau was less intense and less evident than the security at its headquarters in Prague.
There was a bomb attack on the organization in 1981, when it was based in Munich. It injured four employees, two seriously, and caused $2 million in damage. The bomb was placed by Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal), who was paid by Romania’s Ceausescu regime.
The Taliban, while hardly friendly to Radio Azadi, is more open to communication than Ceausescu or Carlos. The Taliban will call in to Azadi talk shows to argue with hosts and guests.
On the phone, a Taliban spokeman told Amin Mudaqiq, “We know you are funded by the U.S. Congress, but we judge you by your deeds.” Radio Azadi is committed enough to freedom of speech not to take this as a back-handed compliment.
Mudaqiq is a soft-spoken, thoughtful man looking a little tired from his mission, which is, in brief, to reflect everything in Afghanistan. He is, in Jeff Gedmin’s phrase, “holding up the mirror,” twelve hours a day, seven days a week.
Azadi is the number one radio station in the country. As Afghan Service Director Hashem Mohmand had told me in Prague, “They have reporters in all the provinces who are willing to take risks and know the communities.” Azadi also offers a breadth of programming that out-spans NPR, let alone American commercial radio.
News is the most listened-to, despite the huge surplus of news that Afghanistan produces. One would think news would be a glut on the market. Second most listened-to is a comedy program. Like many people whose lives are no laughing matter, Afghans tell good jokes. Afghanistan has been through a presidential election with all its corruption and was going through a parliamentary election with all its corruption. A fundamentalist mullah told me, “There is God—or there would have been an election.”
Radio Azadi broadcasts features on social issues—women, family, youth, culture, the economy. The most popular topic, if popular is the word, is violence against women. Afghan music is played from noon until two, and it sounds foreign and exotic until the lyrics are translated: “I thought I plucked a rose / But I grabbed a thorn.” Country music happens in every country. A twice-weekly program is devoted to sports. At a meet in Iran, Afghanistan had just won gold, silver, and bronze in, of all things, unarmed fighting—tae kwon do. The top sports in Afghanistan are soccer, cricket, and volleyball, but foremost is buzkashi, a game played on horseback where a goal is scored by dragging the headless carcass of a goat or calf into the goal. Buzkashi involves teams, but each member of both teams is also playing against every member of his own team. Afghan politics can be understood only by a buzkashi fan.
Arguably the most important programs on Radio Azadi are the call-in shows. One is devoted entirely to coping with the government—a sort of audio skein of thread to help callers find their way through the Cretan labyrinth of Afghan bureaucracy. Another, “In the Search of a Loved One,” helps reunite families separated by thirty years of Afghan displacement, exile, and forced flight. A third, hosted by doctors, gives medical advice—a reminder that Afghans face all the prosaic, as well as the sensational, problems of life. The most commonly asked questions are about heart disease. The purpose of other call-in shows is to put people in authority on the spot, in a straightforward and nonadversarial way. On a day when I was at Radio Azadi’s studios, Afghanistan’s ministers of communications and the interior were in a cramped, stuffy broadcast booth answering listener inquiries about a new national ID card. I got the impression that the card-issuing process was full of screw-ups, but the callers and the ministers were patient with each other.
“The producer has only a minimum role of organizing the show,” Mudaqiq said. He told me that people in authority are willing to submit themselves to public questioning—at least some of the people in authority are. Radio Azadi hosted a program about corruption involving the aid money being given to Afghanistan. All the Afghan government officials who were invited showed up, but no foreign ambassadors or other representatives did. Eighty percent of Afghan aid is directly controlled by foreign governments.
Radio Azadi performs its surrogate broadcast duties on a budget of $5.3 million a year, and performs them in two languages, alternating hour by hour between Dari, the lingua franca of Afghanistan, and Pashto, the most widely spoken tribal language.
Azadi has a hundred and twenty full-time employees, twenty-four of whom report from the provinces, plus a number of part-time and freelance journalists. Broadcasts go out on AM, FM, shortwave, and satellite radio. Four of Azadi’s reporters also maintain a Web site that’s manned twenty-four hours a day and reaches Afghanistan’s one million online connections. It gets about two hundred thousand hits a week. “Although I have no budget for Internet,” Mudaqiq said.
Mudaqiq arranged a pen-draining, hand-cramping muster of interviews with tribal leaders, mullahs, members of parliament, journalists, activists, a provincial governor, the minister of education.
Some were opposed to the U.S. and NATO military involvement in Afghanistan. “The forward line of your policy in Afghanistan is your soldiers,” a Pashtun tribal leader said. “They form a public opinion. Think of this—all your soldiers are fighting against the poor.”
Some wanted greater U.S. and NATO commitment. “Leaving this country with the job unfinished,” a member of parliament said, “will leave more tasks and more dangerous tasks—tasks that maybe cannot be done. I hope there is not an air of impatience in the U.S. and Europe.”
Some thought Radio Azadi was getting too close to the Afghan government. “More and more interviews with the Karzai people,” complained a candidate for parliament running on a vehemently anticorruption platform. (Though the candidate admitted he’d been a frequent guest on Azadi programs and had, not long before, been named Radio Azadi “Man of the Year.”)
Some thought Radio Azadi wasn’t getting close enough to the Afghan government. “I wish you could allocate time for a C-Span in Parliament,” the MP who worried about U.S. and European impatience told Mudaqiq.
But everyone agreed on the value of more information, more communication, more talk.
All the rights of freedom that rest on freedom of speech have a firm enough foundation in Afghanistan. Firm enough for the Afghans to make fun of them. “During Communism no one was able to say anything,” a Turkmen tribal leader said. “Now no one is able to listen to anything.”
Afghanistan has a tradition of tribal meeting, or jirga, which the MP described with concision: “Everybody is equal when they sit and talk.”
“Even a poor man,” the Pashtun tribal leader said, “if he can convince people he honestly represents them, will win out.” This individual equality—siali in Pashto—is part of the ancient Pashtun moral code, which is more than can be said for the ancient moral codes of the West.
There is a religious as well as traditional aspect to siali. One of the mullahs with whom I talked said that among the most frequent topics of his sermons is leadership. As a prayer leader he tries to explain how to select a political leader. This is an easy colloquy to have with fellow Muslims. There is no generally accepted earthly hierarchy in Islam, especially not in the Sunni Islam that predominates in Afghanistan. There’s certainly no pope. A mosque is a place of worship defined as Jesus defined it, “Where two or three are gathered together.” Absent coercion, Muslims choose their mosque, and those who pray at that mosque choose their mullah. People who say the Muslim world isn’t ready for democracy ignore, among other things, that Muslims have always had it, at least as an ideal.
And Radio Azadi seems an ideal way—or, at any rate, one of the few feasible ways—for the United States to further the communication that Afghans want. The mullah who preaches about political leadership said that Radio Azadi was one of the most important sources of material for his sermons—something those who condemn “political Islam” should consider.
The minister of education, who has been criticized on Radio Azadi, said he “never had a feeling that Azadi was unnecessarily taking sides in the Afghan conflict. It has maintained its impartiality.” Meaning, I think, that all his political opponents have been criticized on Radio Azadi too.
The Pashtun tribal leader who generally opposed U.S. policy in Afghanistan said, “Azadi is doing very well because they’re telling the facts.”
A female member of parliament who was dubious about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, who felt America was ignoring human rights and human services, praised Azadi’s “diversity of opinion” and the fact that it often upset the Karzai government. She thought it was good that the Taliban feels the need to phone Radio Azadi. This shows, she said, that “Taliban power is not so great.”
The MP who wants the United States and NATO to finish their task thought it was a fine irony that the Taliban has to call a U.S.-funded radio station to bash America, an irony that isn’t missed by Afghans.
“This is a verbal society,” he said. “Communication is the easiest and cheapest way to create an atmosphere of understanding. We are not a book-oriented people. TV is too short, too slogan-oriented. In Afghanistan people need in-depth information; TV does not allow that.”
An Afghan civil society activist said that radio was important for “internalizing the issues.” Reverting from activist-speak, he said, “Radio can pass wisdom.”
“Radio is a very simple instrument,” said the anticorruption candidate for parliament. He contrasted it with other aid expenditures. “Forty billion dollars is enough to build three Afghanistans,” he said. He too was confident in radio’s ability to transmit values. He said, “Your radio, your taxpayers, our people—same interests,” and said he’d told Hillary Clinton, before she came to Kabul for the meeting of U.S. and NATO foreign ministers, “When you come to Afghanistan, don’t leave your values at Kennedy Airport.”
There are of course other kinds of U.S.-funded communication that Afghans want beside radio. “I have no feeling of direct communication with President Obama,” said the female MP. She is a leading advocate for women’s rights, human rights, and other rights dear to the heart of the American Democratic Party, and heads a faction in the Afghan parliament with the Democrat-friendly name “The Third Way.”
Her male counterpart, so strong a proponent of the United States, said, “In five years I have yet to have a meaningful talk with a U.S. official.” He is fluent in English and lived in the United States, where he worked for ten years as a commercial airline pilot.
The minister of education said he couldn’t spend U.S. aid money on his educational programs because they weren’t certified by the U.S., and he couldn’t get them certified by the U.S. because he couldn’t get the U.S. to come inspect them for certification.
Both the female MP and the anticorruption candidate said that the American government seems to do most of its communicating with only one generation of Afghans. “Just the mujahedin,” said the female MP. “They aren’t listening to the silent majority.”
“The older generation were either Islamicist warriors or Communist warriors,” said the anticorruption candidate. “American experts are thirty years out of date.” He said that talking to “even fifty members of the new generation will be enough to do something.”
The anticorruption candidate and the Pashtun tribal leader thought the United States and NATO should sit down with Afghans in a grand assembly, a loya jirga.
The anticorruption candidate thought an international loya jirga would fight corruption. He said, “Obama, Sarkozy, Merkel, and . . . ” (the name of the new fellow running Great Britain slipped his mind, as indeed it slipped mine) “ . . . and the U.K. should come to Afghanistan and organize a meeting, meet with local officials, and tell politicians they are personally responsible.”
The Pasthun tribal leader thought the loya jira would fight what he denied was a war and insisted on calling “instability.” He said, “My advice to the U.S. and the international community is to tell Afghans the truth. Sit with the grand assembly and tell them, ‘We’ve failed.’ Then listen to how they tell you to proceed. If you listen you will succeed.”
Afghans are also alert to more subtle modes of communication. I had dinner with the governor of an eastern Afghan province and his staff at a restaurant in Kabul. The governor was irate about the blast walls everywhere. He said, “They show we are more concerned with ourselves than with the people. I told the U.S. that by building big walls you are giving the impression that the enemy is at your door, also the impression that we are not very much courageous. I told a NATO general, ‘Remove those walls. If you are scared, just put the walls inside your compound. Or paint them with flags.’”
(I noticed a subtle mode of communication myself. Deep in the fortified parliamentary compound, in the window of a very small and shabby sheet metal pre-fab building that looked like a FEMA trailer was a sign reading, “Department of Complaint.”)
In the matter of communication subtlety, or lack thereof, I heard numerous complaints about the translators the United States and NATO have hired.
“They speak kitchen Dari,” said Mudaqiq.
The Pashtun tribal leader said, “Old KGB agents are in the employ of the U.S.—under instruction from their old bosses.” Given the way things have been going in Afghanistan, one wonders if he isn’t right.
“NATO needs strong cultural exposure,” the governor said. “One of the problems is the interpreters. This can harm many people.” He told a story about how, during an international aid agency visit to his province, a U.S. embassy translator had turned the sentence “We want professional doctors treating patients professionally” into “We want professional doctors to threaten patients’ professions.”
An aide to the governor told about another U.S. embassy translator who, when asked to tell locals that the events in their village would be a “news story,” said, in Pashto, that what was going on in the village was a “love story.”
A deputy minister in Afghanistan’s anticorruption agency stopped by the governor’s table. Hearing the stories of horrible translations, he laughed and said, “I was the interpreter for Dr. Najibullah”—the last Communist ruler of Afghanistan.
“That’s why he was hanged!” said the governor.
There was also concern about the people interpreting the interpreters. The anticorruption candidate said, “Change the American embassy staff. Change the American intelligence staff.” I asked why. “All reports are wrong.”
The former airline pilot MP said the same thing. “Every expert has gotten it wrong about Afghanistan.”
The Afghans are confident that they themselves can get it right. For this, the minister of education said, “Communication is the strategic weapon.”
The civil society activist said of himself and his fellow opponents of the Taliban, “We are strong because no one has logically defeated us.”
The governor said, “When the Taliban does not come to the table, it’s not because they’re strong but because they don’t have the logic for argument.”
The former airline pilot said, “Democracy is born in every person. Sometimes it’s nourished. Sometimes it’s not.”
The governor noted, however, that the principal forms of “media” in Afghanistan are still “public gatherings, mosques, and madrassas. And the Taliban is using all of these and the tribal elders—using them much better than our government is.”
I asked Amin Mudaqiq what he’d do with more money for Radio Azadi. He answered without PowerPoint chit or MBA chat. He’d install ten to fifteen more FM transmitters, especially in provincial capitals. Azadi is too AM-dependent, and AM radio has limited range in mountainous terrain. He’d add a night shift. He’d hire more correspondents. He’d increase pay and benefits.
As it is, Radio Azadi employees have no health-care coverage or pension plan. They make between $400 and $1000 a month in a place where, thanks to an influx of foreign aid and foreign aid workers, it is not cheap to live. “We train someone,” Mudaqiq said, “spending thousands of dollars, sending him to Prague. Then someone else offers him two hundred more bucks and he’s gone.”
Pay at the BBC Afghan service starts at $900 a month, plus meals, transportation, and health insurance, while Azadi covers only transportation costs.
If Mudaqiq had more correspondents, he could broadcast more daily news and produce more “packages”—five- to seven-minute features with the in-depth information that the former airline pilot said television can’t provide. At the moment, Radio Azadi broadcasts only two feature packages a week because reporters must produce the features while still covering their regular beats. And every week each reporter is also expected to participate in two on-air roundtable discussions of current events.
Radio Azadi does features on big issues like tax collection. But there are other features that Mudaqiq would like to do—not so big, but more important to listeners in a subsistence economy where there isn’t much for tax collectors to collect. He told me about one such feature in the works, on the use of hashish in exploiting carpet makers. The weaver’s children are dosed with it to keep them quiet while their mother works. It gives one second thoughts about buying an Afghan carpet—and maybe second thoughts about what to do with the kids when one can’t get a sitter on Saturday night.
That there’s too much talk and too much money in politics is an almost universal criticism. But with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty we have a case that may be unique, at least in American politics. We want the whole world to open its big mouth, and we need to spend more.
The best way to establish the idea of America is to help other people establish the idea of Afghanistan or Moldova or Tajikistan.
At RFE/RL headquarters in Prague, Sojida Djakhfarova, director of the Tajik service, put it bluntly, “If the U.S. is going to protect its position in Central Asia, it has to spend money.” Djakhfarova supports her mother in Tajikistan, sending the support in that universal medium, U.S. dollars. The last time Djakhfarova was home, her mother was examining the portrait of George Washington on a one-dollar bill. “My life depends on this man,” her mother said. “Who is he?”
Can Jeffrey Immelt Get the Job Done with Obama?By Larry Kudlow
Can GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt talk President Obama into a major corporate tax cut? Immelt has been appointed to the new Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, which replaces the disbanded Paul Volcker Economic Recovery Advisory Board. Immelt was a member of that original board. Now he has a more elevated position in the Obama 2.0, allegedly pro-business, move-to-the-center Clintonesque White House.
Regarding the new President Obama, I am still trust but verify. But yes, of course, Jeff Immelt is a businessman through and through. He is a trustee of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation board, while GE is a big sponsor of the Reagan Centennial Celebration. (Recall that the Gipper worked for GE as a spokesman and television host from 1954 through 1962.) He's also a registered Republican who contributed to both Hillary Clinton and John McCain during the 2008 campaign. And last year, he harshly criticized Obama at a dinner in Italy, where he basically said: Obama doesn't like business, and business doesn't like Obama.
But what goes around comes around. Many business people wanted senior executives in the White House, and now they have two - with GE's Immelt joining William Daley, the former banker and new chief of staff.
GE had a rough time of it during the Great Recession. But in recent quarters it has turned quite profitable; its stock just hit a 52-week high. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Immelt set out his agenda for continued economic recovery. He would focus on manufacturing and exports, free trade, and innovation.
So where's the corporate tax cut? Well, Immelt offered one short line about "a sound and competitive tax system . . ." No, not exactly a ringing call to action. But I believe he will, in fact, push for corporate tax reform.
There's nothing more important than full-fledged corporate tax-rate reduction in order to maximize U.S. economic growth. At 35 percent, our highest-in-the-world corporate tax should be knocked all the way down towards 20 percent.
And businesses taxes should be made territorial, not worldwide, in order to stop the double-taxation of foreign earnings. Business revenues held overseas, now reported to be about $1 trillion, should be repatriated to the U.S. with a 5 percent tax holiday.
Businesses also should enjoy permanent 100 percent cash expensing for new investment in plant, equipment, and research. Studies have shown that this combination by far offers the biggest bang for the buck in terms of additional GDP and job-creation.
And yes, broaden the base with loophole closers. A lower tax rate and full expensing is much more important than all those K Street credits and deductions.
At the Republican House retreat in Baltimore a week ago, I argued for a two-track, pro-growth fiscal plan. Reform the business tax (Rep. Dave Camp) and bring federal spending as a share of the economy down to 20 percent from the current 25 percent (Rep. Paul Ryan). My friend and mentor Arthur Laffer, my co-panelist at the retreat, argued strongly that reduced spending is itself a tax cut. On this point, Laffer, Alan Reynolds, and Dick Armey have all recently cited the late Nobelist Milton Friedman, who held that government spending is the broadest tax on the overall economy.
And let's add a rollback of Obamacare and a return to a reliable King Dollar (referenced to gold) as additional pro-growth measures. Finally, let's enact drill, drill, drill. More energy across the board - "all of the above" - is another great job creator.
But my former boss Jeff Immelt (GE is selling NBC Universal to Comcast) can play a key role in a hugely important corporate tax cut. This will incentivize firms to stay at home instead of going overseas. It will be a huge job-creator, reducing unemployment and playing an important part in deficit reduction. According to the Congressional Budget Office, a 1 percentage point increase in GDP above the meager 2.5 percent baseline would lower the ten-year budget gap by nearly $3 trillion.
Growth solves a lot of problems. Can Mr. Immelt get the job done?
Bernanke and Ethanol Subsidies Sink EgyptBy Larry Kudlow
Decades of autocratic government and a lack of free elections are, of course, the main drivers of the political upheaval in Egypt. But did the sinking dollar and skyrocketing food prices trigger the massive unrest now occurring in Egypt -- or the greater Arab world for that matter?
In addition to Egypt, the people have taken to the streets to varying degrees in Algeria, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, and Yemen. Local food riots have even broken out in rural China and other Asian locales.
While the mainstream media focuses on the political aspects of this turmoil, they are overlooking the impact of rising inflation, driven mainly by record food prices. For example, former Bush advisor Dan Senor notes that Egypt is the world's largest wheat importer. Yet because of skyrocketing prices, Egyptian inflation is now over 10 percent, while some experts estimate that Egyptian food inflation has risen as much as 20 percent.
So I have to ask this tough question: Is Ben Bernanke's ultra-easy QE2 money pump-priming partially to blame?
Commodities are priced in dollars, and the Federal Reserve has been overproducing dollars for more than two years. Consequently, emerging markets throughout the world -- and the food sector in particular -- are suffering from rising inflation.
The CRB food index is up an incredible 36 percent over the past year, including 8 percent year-to-date. Raw materials are up 23 percent in the past year. Inflation breakouts have occurred in China, among various Asian Tigers, and in India, Brazil, and other Latin American countries. Even Britain and Germany are registering higher inflation readings.
In dollar terms, the price of wheat has soared 114 percent over the past year. Corn has surged 88 percent. These are incredible numbers.
And let's not forget that the world's poor are the hardest hit by food-price inflation. They literally can't afford to buy bread. It brings to mind the French Revolution in the 18th century. When you see this kind of mass protest in the streets, spreading from country to country, you see a pattern that cannot be explained by local conditions alone.
The dollar is the world's reserve currency. And the rise of dollar food prices is a global phenomenon. It is a monetary phenomenon, as much as anything.
And that's why one can argue that the worldwide revolt against soaring food prices is an unintended consequence of U.S. Fed policy. That policy is aimed at reigniting inflation here at home. But unwanted dollars circulating worldwide are hitting foreign inflation rates first. We may well catch this inflation virus before long.
To be fair, not all of the food inflation can be blamed on the Fed. A good part of this problem can also be placed at the doorstep of bipartisan U.S. policies to subsidize ethanol.
According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2001, only 7 percent of U.S. corn went to ethanol. By 2010, the ethanol share was 39 percent. So instead of growing wheat, our farmers are growing corn in order to cash in on ethanol subsidies. Egyptians who can't afford to buy bread and have taken to the streets in protest might be very interested to know this.
Not even Al Gore still believes that ethanol provides any environmental benefits.
As the world watches events in Egypt play out, be mindful that if the U.S. fixed its mistaken monetary and energy policies, the forces of freedom and democratization would have an easier time of it in the rest of the world.
MALPASS: Truth or dare
Rather than admit overspending, Obama bets on the world overlending
Though President Obama mentioned the deficit in his State of the Union speech, there’s still no plan in Washington to slow the growth in spending. The private sector is on the hook for the rapidly growing national debt, so the president’s softness on spending is discouraging. That costs jobs.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) just released its new economic and budget outlook. It’s the first look at the deficit since the December lame-duck spending blowout and was markedly worse than CBO‘s August 2010 report.
Marketable national debt will rise to $24 trillion, 100 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), in CBO‘s 10-year scenario, assuming a continuation of current tax rates (including the George W. Bush cuts, Alternative Minimum Tax patch, extenders, ethanol credit, etc). The debt covered in the statutory debt limit, which counts the Treasury debt held in government trust funds, is $14.3 trillion and would rise to $31 trillion, or 130 percent of GDP, in 10 years.
As bad as these debt numbers are, they may get worse. The CBO based them on optimistic economic assumptions - fast GDP growth, no real recessions, spending growth slower than inflation and relatively low interest rates on the national debt. In short, if all goes really well, current policies lead us to a 100 percent debt-to-GDP ratio, even though economic history shows that countries almost always collapse when government debt gets that high.
Here’s how the numbers work. The current marketable debt is $9 trillion. Assuming a giant tax increase in 2013 when current rates expire, and an acceleration in GDP growth, debt would rise to $18.3 trillion in 2021, the CBO says. If current tax rates are extended again in December 2012 as they were in December 2010 - a more likely assumption given the economic and political reality - there would be an additional $5.5 trillion increase in the national debt. That results in $24 trillion in marketable debt, more than 100 percent of the CBO‘s forecast of $23.8 trillion in GDP.
In its new outlook, CBO also increased its near-term deficit projections. It now looks for a $1.5 trillion deficit in 2011, up from $1.1 trillion, and, if all goes very well, a decline in the deficit to $1.1 trillion in 2012.
These are staggering debt and deficit numbers, showing the rapid deterioration in the U.S. fiscal situation. There’s no sign in Washington of a legislative strategy to improve the fiscal course, although some cuts will be made in the March spending bill and the April debt limit increase.
Fixing the spending problem is going to take a concerted national effort for years. It was unfortunate that Mr. Obama didn’t rise to this challenge. The Constitution was amazingly farsighted but certainly didn’t envision a world where the government it established could ever borrow $9 trillion. Article I, Section 8 now reads: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes … and to borrow money on the credit of the United States.” But there are no boundaries on this power in the Section 9 limits on Congress. If the Founding Fathers had realized that a future Congress would envision a $31 trillion national debt, they might have installed a debt limitation - that “borrowings shall not exceed half the annual output” as an example.
Absent a clear constitutional protection from excessive debt, Congress should craft one. The existing statutory debt limit is flawed because it is a set nominal dollar amount, currently $14.3 trillion, and is overtaken repeatedly by the country’s growth, inflation and the buildup in Social Security trust funds. A better limit would be based on the marketable debt-to-GDP ratio, say at 50 percent of GDP, enforced by escalating penalties on Washington’s leaders and institutions if the limit is exceeded. Like the Constitution, this type of limit might last decades or centuries.
The CBO‘s latest data is a “truth or dare” moment for the country. The truth is that spending and debt are out of control, but the president won’t admit it. The dare is to global investors. Having lent us $9 trillion over the past 222 years, will they lend another $15 trillion over the next decade so Washington can keep spending more? A better course would be to use the upcoming debt-limit increase to attach effective, enforceable limits on the debt-to-GDP ratio.
Even 'useful' regulations may be unjustified.
Despite the old saying, “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” the Environmental Protection Agency is doing just that.
We all understand why the EPA was given the power to issue regulations to guard against oil spills, such as that of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska or the more recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But not everyone understands that any power given to any bureaucracy for any purpose can be stretched far beyond that purpose.
In a classic example of this process, the EPA has decided that, since milk contains oil, it has the authority to force farmers to comply with new regulations to file “emergency management” plans to show how they will cope with spilled milk — how farmers will train “first responders” and build “containment facilities” if there is a flood of spilled milk.
Since there is no free lunch, all of this is going to cost the farmers both money and time that could be going into farming — and is likely to end up costing consumers higher prices for farm products.
It is going to cost the taxpayers money as well, since the EPA is going to have to hire people to inspect farms, inspect farmers’ reports, and prosecute farmers who don’t jump through all the right hoops in the right order. All of this will be “creating jobs,” even if the tax money removed from the private sector correspondingly reduces the jobs that can be created there.
Does anyone seriously believe that any farmer is going to spill enough milk to compare with the Exxon Valdez oil spill or the BP oil spill?
Do you envision people fleeing their homes, as a flood of milk comes pouring down the mountainside, threatening to wipe out the village below?
It doesn’t matter. Once the words are in the law, it makes no difference what the realities are. The bureaucracy has every incentive to stretch the meaning of those words, in order to expand its empire.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has expanded its definition of “discrimination” to include things that no one thought was discrimination when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. The Federal Communications Commission is trying to expand its jurisdiction to cover things that have no relationship to the reason that the FCC was created in the first place.
Yet the ever-expanding bureaucratic state has its defenders in the mainstream media. When President Obama recently mentioned the possibility of reducing burdensome regulations — as part of his moving of his rhetoric toward the political center, even if his policies don’t move — there was an immediate reaction in a New York Times article defending government regulations.
Under the headline, “Obama May Find Useless Regulations Are Scarcer Than Thought,” the Times writers declared that there were few, if any, “useless” regulations. But is that the relevant criterion?
Is there any individual or business willing to spend money on everything that is not absolutely useless? There are thousands of useful things out there that any given individual or business would not spend their money on.
When I had young children, I often thought it would be useful to have a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica for them. But I never bought one. Why? Because there were other little things to spend money on, such as food, clothing, and shelter.
By the time I could afford to buy a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the kids were grown and gone. But at no time did I consider the Encyclopedia Britannica “useless.”
Weighing benefits against costs is the way most people make decisions — and the way most businesses make decisions, if they want to stay in business. Only in government is any benefit, however small, considered to be worth any cost, however large.
No doubt the EPA’s costly new regulations may somewhere, somehow, prevent spilled milk from pouring out into some street and looking unsightly. So the regulations are not literally “useless.”
What is useless is making that the criterion.
Mubarak’s new deputy linked to CIA rendition program
WASHINGTON — The man named by President Hosni Mubarak as his first ever deputy, Egyptian spy chief Omar Suleiman, reportedly orchestrated the brutal interrogation of terror suspects abducted by the CIA in a secret program condemned by rights groups.
His role in the controversial "war on terror" illustrates the ties that bind the United States and the Egyptian regime, as an unprecedented wave of protests against Mubarak's rule presents Washington with a difficult dilemma.
With Mubarak in jeopardy, Suleiman was anointed vice president last week and is now offering wide ranging talks with the opposition in a bid to defuse the crisis.
Suleiman is a sophisticated operator who carried out sensitive truce negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians as well as talks among rival Palestinian factions, winning the praise of American diplomats.
For US intelligence officials, he has been a trusted partner willing to go after Islamist militants without hesitation, targeting homegrown radical groups Gamaa Islamiya and Jihad after they carried out a string of attacks on foreigners.
As spy chief, Suleiman reportedly embraced the CIA's controversial "extraordinary rendition" program, in which terror suspects snatched by the Americans were taken to Egypt and other countries without legal proceedings and subjected to interrogations.
He "was the CIA's point man in Egypt for rendition," Jane Mayer, author of "The Dark Side," wrote on the New Yorker's website.
After taking over as spy director, Suleiman oversaw an agreement with the United States in 1995 that allowed for suspected militants to be secretly transferred to Egypt for questioning, according to the book "Ghost Plane" by journalist Stephen Grey.
Human rights groups charge the detainees have often faced torture and mistreatment in Egypt and elsewhere, accusing the US government of violating its own legal obligations by handing over suspects to regimes known for abuse.
In the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the CIA relied on Suleiman to accept the transfer of a detainee known as Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, who US officials hoped could prove a link between Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda.
The suspect was bound and blindfolded and flown to Cairo, where the CIA believed their longtime ally Suleiman would ensure a successful interrogation, according to "The One Percent Doctrine" by author Ron Suskind.
A US Senate report in 2006 describes how the detainee was locked in a cage for hours and beaten, with Egyptian authorities pushing him to confirm alleged connections between Al-Qaeda and Saddam.
Libi eventually told his interrogators that the then Iraqi regime was moving to provide Al-Qaeda with biological and chemical weapons.
When the then US secretary of state Colin Powell made the case for war before the United Nations, he referred to details of Libi's confession.
The detainee eventually recanted his account.
By DICK MORRIS & EILEEN MCGANN
How did Obama ever think that his program would pass constitutional muster? How could he imagine that the Interstate Commerce clause could cover something that wasn't interstate (health insurance cannot be sold over state lines) and wasn't commerce (failure to buy insurance is not commerce) would stand up in court? He was so sure that he would win any constitutional challenge that he arrogantly failed to put a severability clause in the bill so that it would survive even if parts were stricken down.
The decision of the Florida District Court may or may not prevail in the Circuit Court. But who can doubt that the Supreme Court, as currently constituted, will strike it down?
So where does this leave President Obama? His stimulus package was a disaster, conceded by all to have failed. Democrats, of course, ascribe its failure to its puny size (only $800 billion)! Republicans understand that when the government spends and borrows it destroys jobs rather than create them. But, obviously, the stimulus bill didn't work.
And now his health care bill is unconstitutional.
What happens to an arch when it loses its cornerstone? It collapses. The same fate awaits Obama in 2012.
Meanwhile, he continues to peddle the fiction that "we have broken the back of the recession." His bureaucracy puts out a GDP growth rate of 3.4 percent for the fourth quarter. Baloney. The price deflator he used to discount the impact of inflation on the supposed GDP growth was a ridiculous 0.3 percent for the fourth quarter. But the Consumer Price Index rose by 2.6 percent in the same quarter. Almost all of the GDP growth is just rising prices, not a recovering economy.
And half of the new economic activity is just the build-up of inventories. We are now a nation of inventories. Businesses are sitting on close to a trillion dollars of cash they are afraid to invest. Banks are awash in capital handed out by the Fed as it tries to force-feed the economy by printing money. And consumers have taken the stimulus money and put it into reducing their debt load - good for them but not for the economy. Household debt has dropped by $200 billion in the past two years.
But nobody is spending. Nobody is buying.
Obama's economic program is in ruins. His healthcare bill is unconstitutional. His financial regulation bill (Dodd-Frank) has so harassed small and community banks that they have stopped lending to small businesses. And, on top of all that, he is losing Egypt to radical Muslim fundamentalists.
What a presidency!
China's Naval Ambitions Spur New Regional Strategic Planning
SITUATION: Defense planning efforts in East Asia have been markedly influenced by China's bellicose response to the detention of a Chinese fisherman for ramming a Japanese naval boat in disputed waters.
ANALYSIS: The detention generated vituperative reactions from Beijing, out of character from its traditional policy of quiet insistence on territorial claims while building naval capacity. This episode, in conjunction with China's continuing claim of primacy in the South China Sea as a 'core interest', is encouraging increased discussion among its regional neighbors regarding naval collaboration.
Territorial Claims: Sino-Japanese tensions regarding the detention were inflamed by the location of the incident. The Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, situated in the East China Sea, are believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves and fish stocks. The islands are also close to important sea lanes. China, Japan, and Taiwan each claim sovereignty over the islands. After the release of the captain of the Chinese fishing boat on September 24, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan that "the Diaoyu Islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times".
A similarly robust claim is being made for the South China Sea, which borders Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam among other states. A group of nine Vietnamese fishermen operating off the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea were detained by Beijing for four weeks. The fishermen were released on October 11, as the unresolved issue threatened to overshadow the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defense Ministers summit.
Regional Views: The inaugural ASEAN Defense Ministers '+ 8' Meeting, hosted by Hanoi on October 12 indirectly responded to Chinese naval aspirations. The summit was characterized by the ASEAN style of private consensual dialogue, rather than attempts to seek immediate conflict resolution. Attendees included the 10 ASEAN states, plus America, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, and South Korea. By involving these regional interlocutors, the new forum intends to inculcate a regional security approach that would seek to incorporate Chinese power projection within a cooperative security structure. This perspective was illustrated by the official summit theme of 'Strategic Cooperation for Peace, Stability and Regional Development'.
Meeting before the summit, US Defense Secretary Gates and Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh sought to improve their bilateral relationship and increase maritime security cooperation. Indonesia, South Korea, and the Philippines are also stepping up naval cooperation efforts with America. While in Hanoi, Gates implicitly referred to China's claim to the South China Sea in public remarks, specifying that 'the US and Vietnam, as well as other nations in the region, share a common interest in maritime security and freedom of access to the global commons.
India in particular is seeking to actively curtail Chinese naval aspirations. New Delhi sees Beijing's present interest in the South China Sea as merely a first step toward greater designs upon the Indian Ocean. New Delhi established the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium in 2008, which intends to enhance maritime security cooperation among member states. Over 25 states attended the inaugural meeting. Requests from China to attend, even as an observer state, were refused. Bilateral defense talks between New Delhi and Hanoi, concluded on October 14, also resulted in agreement for India to assist Vietnamese naval modernization.
New Naval Technologies: China is investing heavily in naval development to buttress its territorial claims. Its emerging Jin-class nuclear-armed submarine fleet is stationed on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. Regional uncertainty regarding its patrol routes further exacerbate tensions surrounding Chinese naval ambitions.
China is believed to be developing its first indigenous aircraft carrier. A Chinese newspaper editorial in March prepared the ground for its introduction by recalling the soothing cooperative language of ASEAN joint statements: "The Chinese navy equipped with aircraft carriers and other advanced weaponry would be able to better help maintain regional stability and world peace." It is difficult to find such a justification for Beijing's anti-ship ballistic missile program, overtly intended to block American access to contested naval zones, such as the Taiwan Strait, in the event of a conflict. Beijing is fielding new military frigates and destroyers designed to launch such missiles.
BOTTOM LINE: The Sino-Japanese fisherman episode has served to promote increased regional defense collaboration efforts. These intend to hedge against the possibility that China will seek to support territorial claims in such an aggressive manner again. The dispute, and the corollary Chinese detention of Vietnamese fishermen, served as the backdrop to the inaugural ASEAN Defense Ministers '+8' Meeting. In its intention to develop a cooperative regional security structure involving America, India, Japan, and South Korea among other powers, the new forum seeks to minimize diplomatic room for China to dictate the terms of its rise to neighbors on a strict bilateral 'divide-and-conquer' basis.
Moves from several summit member states to improve naval collaboration with America illustrates the extent to which the US Pacific Fleet plays an indispensable role as the backstop of regional security. These new defense cooperation efforts should suggest to China's leaders that multilateral confidence-building, rather than aggressive brinkmanship, represents a better way to advance its regional interests.
By George Friedman
* The Egypt Unrest: Full Coverage
It is not at all clear what will happen in the Egyptian revolution. It is not a surprise that this is happening. Hosni Mubarak has been president for more than a quarter of a century, ever since the assassination of Anwar Sadat. He is old and has been ill. No one expected him to live much longer, and his apparent plan, which was that he would be replaced by his son Gamal, was not going to happen even though it was a possibility a year ago. There was no one, save his closest business associates, who wanted to see Mubarak’s succession plans happen. As his father weakened, Gamal’s succession became even less likely. Mubarak’s failure to design a credible succession plan guaranteed instability on his death. Since everyone knew that there would be instability on his death, there were obviously those who saw little advantage to acting before he died. Who these people were and what they wanted is the issue.
Let’s begin by considering the regime. In 1952, Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser staged a military coup that displaced the Egyptian monarchy, civilian officers in the military, and British influence in Egypt. Nasser created a government based on military power as the major stabilizing and progressive force in Egypt. His revolution was secular and socialist. In short, it was a statist regime dominated by the military. On Nasser’s death, Anwar Sadat replaced him. On Sadat’s assassination, Hosni Mubarak replaced him. Both of these men came from the military as Nasser did. However their foreign policy might have differed from Nasser’s, the regime remained intact.
The demands for Mubarak’s resignation come from many quarters, including from members of the regime — particularly the military — who regard Mubarak’s unwillingness to permit them to dictate the succession as endangering the regime. For some of them, the demonstrations represent both a threat and opportunity. Obviously, the demonstrations might get out of hand and destroy the regime. On the other hand, the demonstrations might be enough to force Mubarak to resign, allow a replacement — for example, Omar Suleiman, the head of intelligence who Mubarak recently appointed vice president — and thereby save the regime. This is not to say that they fomented the demonstrations, but some must have seen the demonstrations as an opportunity.
This is particularly the case in the sense that the demonstrators are deeply divided among themselves and thus far do not appear to have been able to generate the type of mass movement that toppled the Shah of Iran’s regime in 1979. More important, the demonstrators are clearly united in opposing Mubarak as an individual, and to a large extent united in opposing the regime. Beyond that, there is a deep divide in the opposition.
Western media has read the uprising as a demand for Western-style liberal democracy. Many certainly are demanding that. What is not clear is that this is moving Egypt’s peasants, workers and merchant class to rise en masse. Their interests have far more to do with the state of the Egyptian economy than with the principles of liberal democracy. As in Iran in 2009, the democratic revolution, if focused on democrats, cannot triumph unless it generates broader support.
The other element in this uprising is the Muslim Brotherhood. The consensus of most observers is that the Muslim Brotherhood at this point is no longer a radical movement and is too weak to influence the revolution. This may be possible, but it is not obvious. The Muslim Brotherhood has many strands, many of which have been quiet under Mubarak’s repression. It is not clear who will emerge if Mubarak falls. It is certainly not clear that they are weaker than the democratic demonstrators. It is a mistake to confuse the Muslim Brotherhood’s caution with weakness. Another way to look at them is that they have bided their time and toned down their real views, waiting for the kind of moment provided by Mubarak’s succession. I would suspect that the Muslim Brotherhood has more potential influence among the Egyptian masses than the Western-oriented demonstrators or Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who is emerging as their leader.
There is, of course, the usual discussion of what U.S. President Barack Obama’s view is, or what the Europeans think, or what the Iranians are up to. All of them undoubtedly have thoughts and even plans. In my view, trying to shape the political dynamics of a country like Egypt from Iran or the United States is futile, and believing that what is happening in Egypt is the result of their conspiracies is nonsense. A lot of people care what is happening there, and a lot of people are saying all sorts of things and even spending money on spies and Twitter. Egypt’s regime can be influenced in this way, but a revolution really doesn’t depend on what the European Union or Tehran says.
There are four outcomes possible. First, the regime might survive. Mubarak might stabilize the situation, or more likely, another senior military official would replace him after a decent interval. Another possibility under the scenario of the regime’s survival is that there may be a coup of the colonels, as we discussed yesterday. A second possibility is that the demonstrators might force elections in which ElBaradei or someone like him could be elected and Egypt might overthrow the statist model built by Nasser and proceed on the path of democracy. The third possibility is that the demonstrators force elections, which the Muslim Brotherhood could win and move forward with an Islamist-oriented agenda. The fourth possibility is that Egypt will sink into political chaos. The most likely path to this would be elections that result in political gridlock in which a viable candidate cannot be elected. If I were forced to choose, I would bet on the regime stabilizing itself and Mubarak leaving because of the relative weakness and division of the demonstrators. But that’s a guess and not a forecast.
Whatever happens matters a great deal to Egyptians. But only some of these outcomes are significant to the world. Among radical Islamists, the prospect of a radicalized Egypt represents a new lease on life. For Iran, such an outcome would be less pleasing. Iran is now the emerging center of radical Islamism; it would not welcome competition from Egypt, though it may be content with an Islamist Egypt that acts as an Iranian ally (something that would not be easy to ensure).
For the United States, an Islamist Egypt would be a strategic catastrophe. Egypt is the center of gravity in the Arab world. This would not only change the dynamic of the Arab world, it would reverse U.S. strategy since the end of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Sadat’s decision to reverse his alliance with the Soviets and form an alliance with the United States undermined the Soviet position in the Mediterranean and in the Arab world and strengthened the United States immeasurably. The support of Egyptian intelligence after 9/11 was critical in blocking and undermining al Qaeda. Were Egypt to stop that cooperation or become hostile, the U.S. strategy would be severely undermined.
The great loser would be Israel. Israel’s national security has rested on its treaty with Egypt, signed by Menachem Begin with much criticism by the Israeli right. The demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula not only protected Israel’s southern front, it meant that the survival of Israel was no longer at stake. Israel fought three wars (1948, 1967 and 1973) where its very existence was at issue. The threat was always from Egypt, and without Egypt in the mix, no coalition of powers could threaten Israel (excluding the now-distant possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons). In all of the wars Israel fought after its treaty with Egypt (the 1982 and 2006 wars in Lebanon) Israeli interests, but not survival, were at stake.
If Egypt were to abrogate the Camp David Accords and over time reconstruct its military into an effective force, the existential threat to Israel that existed before the treaty was signed would re-emerge. This would not happen quickly, but Israel would have to deal with two realities. The first is that the Israeli military is not nearly large enough or strong enough to occupy and control Egypt. The second is that the development of Egypt’s military would impose substantial costs on Israel and limit its room for maneuver.
There is thus a scenario that would potentially strengthen the radical Islamists while putting the United States, Israel, and potentially even Iran at a disadvantage, all for different reasons. That scenario emerges only if two things happen. First, the Muslim Brotherhood must become a dominant political force in Egypt. Second, they must turn out to be more radical than most observers currently believe they are — or they must, with power, evolve into something more radical.
If the advocates for democracy win, and if they elect someone like ElBaradei, it is unlikely that this scenario would take place. The pro-Western democratic faction is primarily concerned with domestic issues, are themselves secular and would not want to return to the wartime state prior to Camp David, because that would simply strengthen the military. If they win power, the geopolitical arrangements would remain unchanged.
Similarly, the geopolitical arrangements would remain in place if the military regime retained power — save for one scenario. If it was decided that the regime’s unpopularity could be mitigated by assuming a more anti-Western and anti-Israeli policy — in other words, if the regime decided to play the Islamist card, the situation could evolve as a Muslim Brotherhood government would. Indeed, as hard as it is to imagine, there could be an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood designed to stabilize the regime. Stranger things have happened.
When we look at the political dynamic of Egypt, and try to imagine its connection to the international system, we can see that there are several scenarios under which certain political outcomes would have profound effects on the way the world works. That should not be surprising. When Egypt was a pro-Soviet Nasserite state, the world was a very different place than it had been before Nasser. When Sadat changed his foreign policy the world changed with it. If the Sadat foreign policy changes, the world changes again. Egypt is one of those countries whose internal politics matter to more than its own citizens.
Most of the outcomes I envision leave Egypt pretty much where it is. But not all. The situation is, as they say, in doubt, and the outcome is not trivial.
Left unprepared for ObamaCare ruling
Liberal pundits who have consulted liberal law professors about liberals' great achievement -- ObamaCare -- are pronouncing the ruling by Judge Roger Vinson to be much to do about nothing. The ruling is. . . um. . . thinking of a case liberals hate. . . um. . . just like Bush v. Gore ! (Except it has nothing to do with the Equal Protection Clause or any other aspect of that case.) It is, we are told, "curious," "odd," or "unconventional."
These are complaints, not legal arguments. And they suggest that the left was totally unprepared for the constitutional attack on their beloved handiwork. After all, the recent mocking by the left of conservatives' reverence for the Constitution suggests they are mystified that a 200-year old document could get in the way of their historic achievement. They are truly nonplussed, and so they vamp, not with reasoned analysis but with an outpouring of adjectives.
Liberals are particularly perturbed by Judge Vinson's ruling on severability, the determination as to whether the individual mandate is so central to the law as to make the law unrecognizable and unenforceable without it. But here, the left has only the administration and the Democratic Congress to blame. From the opinion (the defendants are the Obama officials):
Having determined that the individual mandate exceeds Congress' power under the Commerce Clause, and cannot be saved by application of the Necessary and Proper Clause, the next question is whether it is severable from the remainder of the Act. In considering this issue, I note that the defendants have acknowledged that the individual mandate and the Act's health insurance reforms, including the guaranteed issue and community rating, will rise or fall together as these reforms "cannot be severed from the [individual mandate]."
Oops. Not some crazy judge, but the administration was the source of the notion that the individual mandate can't be severed from the rest of the law.
But it's not just the administration; it seems Congress did its part to contribute to the invalidation of the whole statute. Judge Vinson observes that "the Act does not contain a 'severability clause,' which is commonly included in legislation to provide that if any part or provision is held invalid, then the rest of the statute will not be affected." He observes that this defect is not necessarily determinative. However, "The lack of a severability clause in this case is significant because one had been included in an earlier version of the Act, but it was removed in the bill that subsequently became law." Oh, now, there's a problem.
That is no small matter, the judge explains:
The absence of a severability clause is further significant because the individual mandate was controversial all during the progress of the legislation and Congress was undoubtedly well aware that legal challenges were coming. Indeed, as noted earlier, even before the Act became law, several states had passed statutes declaring the individual mandate unconstitutional and purporting to exempt their residents from it; and Congress' own attorneys in the [Congressional Research Service] had basically advised that the challenges might well have legal merit as it was 'unclear' if the individual mandate had 'solid constitutional foundation.'"
As the opinion goes on, the judge makes clear that the Obama team dug its own grave on the severability point:
To be sure, the words "protection" and "affordable" in the title of the Act itself are inextricably tied to the health insurance reform provisions (and the individual mandate in particular), as the defendants have emphasized throughout the course of this litigation
Ezra Klein cherry picks one line from the case ("This is not a situation that is likely to be repeated") as evidence the court is doing something untoward. But a cursory reading of the the preceding pages explains why this outcome is not likely to be repeated. Congress in removing the severability clause, the Obama lawyers in repeatedly arguing the individual mandate was essential to the statute and, finally, the interlocking pieces of the statute itself are such that it's hard to imagine a similar case arising.
The only thing "odd" about the ruling is the left's response. The cheerleaders for ObamaCare better hope the Obama legal team has some better arguments in the upcoming rounds of litigation.
The Historic Dilemma in EgyptBy Tony Blankley
Whatever may happen in the hours after I write this column, two things are certain: The next chapter in the magnificent and ancient civilization of the Nile is yet to be known. The role that America plays in Egypt's great, unfolding story also remains in doubt.
I well understand the Obama administration's uncertain message in the first week of the Egyptian tumult. We have always been conflicted in such moments. America's founding idea has pointed to our ultimate objective - domestic and foreign: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."
This founding principle of liberty was intended - when it was written - not just for Protestants of English ancestry, but for all men of all faiths - white, black, brown and yellow.
Yet, as America emerged into the world, the practical considerations of protecting our freedom and interests have often driven us to refrain from championing those principles for others.
Sometimes we have fought magnificently for the rights of others; sometimes we have backed the local strongman to advance our vital interests. And one would have to be conspicuously naive about the ways of the world to condemn - as an absolute - the propriety of American foreign policy when it acts expediently for American interests.
The historic dilemma presents itself vividly now in Egypt.
Revolutions - French, Russian, Chinese and Iranian - have a typical trajectory. They are won on the street with the masses calling for freedom; they are stolen afterward by the best-organized, usually most malicious thugs (Napoleon, Lenin, Mao and the mullahs).
Once in a while - as in our Revolution - the cry of the street slogans becomes the principle of the government that follows - but usually not.
If the revolution in Egypt results in the fall of the existing governmental order, what are the chances that the people will be governed subsequently by a more just system? And what are the chances that America's interests will be advanced by that result?
Will the Suez Canal no longer be open and safe for its vast commerce?
Will the Middle East tilt further in the evil direction of radical Islamist forces? Will our ally Israel be further isolated from its neighbors and its right to exist?
If the Suez Canal is threatened by an anti-Western regime, is it likely that we will find ourselves forced to occupy and protect the canal for world commerce?
Whither to go on Egypt is not so much an ideological or partisan matter. There are former Reagan, Bush (1 and 2) and Clinton foreign-affairs officials on both sides of the divide. Even hardheaded realists recognize the political implications of a people's ideas and faith. And even some idealists recognize that certain laudatory goals are not yet attainable.
The big questions on Egypt are mere factual ones: What will follow?
Can we influence the decision? Can we avoid paying a price for not acting now?
Presidencies, kingly reigns, premierships, dictatorships - even if they last for decades - often are remembered in history for one decision or one phrase uttered in a moment of confusion and doubt. ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.") Some men get it right; others get in wrong.
President Obama may be facing one of those fateful moments now. Of course, if the path were obvious, it would not be fateful. But history and current conditions would suggest that the odds of the revolution resulting in a Western-oriented democracy that serves the interests of the Egyptian people are slim.
Providing public and private support of President Hosni Mubarak and helping to keep some semblance of the status quo (perhaps in the form of an army-led regime) is likely to serve both our immediate geopolitical interests and our ability to shape that regime in the interest of the Egyptian people.
Mr. Obama had a chance in 2009 to respond with strong support for Iran's Green Revolution - but his near silence crushed the hope of many young Iranians and surely aided (inadvertently) the hated enemy Iranian regime.
Now the president risks getting it wrong in the other direction: undercutting a friendly regime by sincere but ill-considered support for a revolution that is more likely to result in a government adverse to our - and the Egyptian people's - interests. Note that a recent Pew poll of the Egyptian public disclosed that they preferred "Islamists" over "modernizers" by 59 percent to 27 percent (cited by Barry Rubin at the Gloria Center website). Instant democracy, anyone?
Also, and importantly, if America undercuts its ally of 30 years, we would be seen as feckless - and thus we would undermine the value of our support for allies current and future.
As Ari Shavit wrote in Israel's leading liberal paper, Haaretz, the failure to support Mr. Mubarak "symbolizes the betrayal of every strategic ally in the Third World. Throughout Asia, Africa and South America, leaders are now looking at what is going on between Washington and Cairo."
"Everyone grasps the message: America's word is worthless; an alliance with America is unreliable; American has lost it. A result of this understanding will be a turn toward China, Russia and regional powers such as Iran, Turkey and Brazil. The second result of this insight will be a series of international conflagrations that will result from the loss of America's deterrent power."
So, for both our reputation and our interests in the Middle East and beyond: Support Mr. Mubarak. Down with the revolution. Up with orderly progress.
By Richard Cohen
Things are about to go from bad to worse in the Middle East. An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is nowhere in sight. Lebanon just became a Hezbollah state, which is to say that Iran has become an even more important regional power, and Egypt, once stable if tenuously so, has been pitched into chaos. This is the most dire prospect of them all. The dream of a democratic Egypt is sure to produce a nightmare.
Egypt's problems are immense. It has a population it cannot support, a standard of living that is stagnant, a self-image as leader of the (Sunni) Arab world that does not, really, correspond to reality, and it lacks the civic and political institutions that are necessary for democracy. The next Egyptian government -- or the one after -- might well be composed of Islamists. In that case, the peace with Israel will be abrogated and the mob currently in the streets will roar its approval.
My take on all this is relentlessly gloomy. I care about Israel. I care about Egypt, too, but its survival is hardly at stake. I care about democratic values, but they are worse than useless in societies that have no tradition of tolerance or respect for minority rights. What we want for Egypt is what we have ourselves. This, though, is an identity crisis. We are not them.
It's impossible now to get a fix on what is happening in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood seems to be lying low. Is this a reflection of weakness or canniness? The Brotherhood remains the only well-organized institution in Egypt other than the military. It has been underground for generations-- jailed, tortured, infiltrated but still, somehow, flourishing. Its moment may be approaching.
Under a different name (Hamas), the Muslim Brotherhood runs the Gaza Strip. Hamas' charter states unequivocally that it wants to eradicate Israel. It mentions the 1978 Camp David accords and not with admiration. ("Egypt was, to a great extent, removed from the circle of the struggle through the treacherous Camp David Agreement.") No doubt that in an Egyptian election, the call to repudiate the treaty will prove popular -- as popular as the peace with Israel has not been.
The Muslim Brotherhood's most influential thinker was the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb. He was hanged in 1966, but not before he had managed to turn out a vast amount of writings. He showed almost super-human courage and was, in many respects, a formidable man. But he was also a racist, a bigot, a misogynist, an anti-Semite and a fervent hater of most things American. As if to prove that familiarity breeds contempt, he had spent about two years in the United States.
The Egyptian crisis has produced the usual blather about the role of America. The U.S. remains powerful and important, but it has already lost control of events -- not that it ever really had it. Moreover, it hardly matters what Washington now says. The Islamists of the Brotherhood do not despise America for what it does but for what it is. Read Qutb's purplish alarm at the dress and appearance of American women. Read his racist remarks about blacks. The Islamic state Qutb envisioned would be racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Christian as well. It would treat women as the Taliban now do -- if only because the Taliban, too, revere Qutb. He rejected a clemency offer, saying his words would matter more if he was dead. He was right.
Majority rule is a worthwhile idea. But so, too, are respect for minorities, freedom of religion, the equality of women and adherence to treaties, such as the one with Israel, the only democracy in the region. It's possible that the contemporary Islamists of Egypt think differently about these matters than did Qutb. If that's the case, then there is no cause for concern. But Hamas in the Gaza Strip, although recently moderating its message, suggests otherwise. So does Iran.
Those Americans and others who cheer the mobs in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, who clamor for more robust anti-Mubarak statements from the Obama administration, would be wise to let Washington proceed slowly. Hosni Mubarak is history. He has stayed too long, been too recalcitrant -- and, for good reason, let his fear of the future ossify the present. Egypt and the entire Middle East are on the verge of convulsing. America needs to be on the right side of history. But it also needs to be on the right side of human rights. This time, the two may not be the same.