Monday, February 28, 2011

Killing Peter's Pig

The question of public employees' pensions in Wisconsin, secondary to the goal of union-busting, keeps being framed as whether those pensions should be taken away so that public employees may share the insecurity inflicted on workers in the private sector. Here's one example, but there are plenty more.

There was a time, when our government was more humane and unions were stronger, that the question would have been why private workers should be exposed to such uncertainty and how that security might be extended to them. It was, in fact, in the days of defined-benefit pensions. But that was not capitalistically competitive enough, and the poor workers were not free to invest in the stock market and make billions with their money. Many of those workers bought this fantasy and encouraged their elected representatives to make it easier for companies to slip out from under their obligations to the workers. This was in the spirit of rich and poor alike being free to sleep under bridges, but the workers didn't seem to notice.

Back in the last days of the Soviet Union, when something like free elections was taking place there, a story circulated in the United States to show that the Russians weren't quite "getting it," and bolstering our national self-esteem. I suspect, however, that the story predates the Soviet Union.

One of the candidates is campaigning in a village. "If you elect me, I will help to improve your situation. We will build roads so that you can more easily take your produce to market." And all the other good things that politicians promise.

A villager comes up after the speech and takes the politician aside. "You know Peter, down the street? He has a pig."

"Oh yes. I will work to see that everyone has a pig."

"No, no, you don't understand." The villager is now whispering urgently. "I will vote for you if you promise to kill Peter's pig."

That seems to be where our national politics have taken us here in America.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mill on Intervention

I certainly may have simply missed it, but I'm a little surprised I haven't seen John Stuart Mill quoted in discussions, statements, claims for one policy or another concerning the events in Egypt and particularly in Libya. Mill's brief essay, "A Few Words on Non-Intervention" of 1859 is one of the classics on the subject, however much it has required revision over a century and a half. It's not simply about quoting your Mill, however, but of understanding better the careful approach the Obama administration is taking towards Libya and Egypt thus far and of drawing on a deeper hope for the future of these countries. An important excerpt:
With respect to the question, whether one country is justified in helping the people of another in a struggle against their government for free institutions, the answer will be different, according as the yoke which the people are attempting to throw off is that of a purely native government, or of foreigners; considering as one of foreigners, every government which maintains itself by foreign support. When the contest is only with native rulers, and with such native strength as those rulers can enlist in their defence, the answer I should give to the question of the legitimacy of intervention is, as a general rule, No. The reason is, that there can seldom be anything approaching to assurance that intervention, even if successful, would be for the good of the people themselves. The only test possessing any real value, of a people’s having become fit for popular institutions, is that they, or a sufficient portion of them to prevail in the contest, are willing to brave labour and danger for their liberation. I know all that may be said, I know it may be urged that the virtues of freemen cannot be learnt in the school of slavery, and that if a people are not fit for freedom, to have any chance of becoming so they must first be free. And this would be conclusive, if the intervention recommended would really give them freedom. But the evil is, that if they have not sufficient love of liberty to be able to wrest it from merely domestic oppressors, the liberty which is bestowed on them by other hands than their own, will have nothing real, nothing permanent. No people ever was and remained free, but because it was determined to be so; because neither its rulers nor any other party in the nation could compel it to be otherwise. If a people—especially one whose freedom has not yet become prescriptive—does not value it sufficiently to fight for it, and maintain it against any force which can be mustered within the country, even by those who have the command of the public revenue, it is only a question in how few years or months that people will be enslaved. Either the government which it has given to itself, or some military leader or knot of conspirators who contrive to subvert the government, will speedily put an end to all popular institutions: unless indeed it suits their convenience better to leave them standing, and be content with reducing them to mere forms; for, unless the spirit of liberty is strong in a people, those who have the executive in their hands easily work any institutions to the purposes of despotism. There is no sure guarantee against this deplorable issue, even in a country which has achieved its own freedom; as may be seen in the present day by striking examples both in the Old and New Worlds: but when freedom has been achieved for them, they have little prospect indeed of escaping this fate. When a people has had the misfortune to be ruled by a government under which the feelings and the virtues needful for maintaining freedom could not develope themselves, it is during an arduous struggle to become free by their own efforts that these feelings and virtues have the best chance of springing up. Men become attached to that which they have long fought for and made sacrifices for, they learn to appreciate that on which their thoughts have been much engaged; and a contest in which many have been called on to devote themselves for their country, is a school in which they learn to value their country’s interest above their own.

Bits and Pieces - February 27, 2011

The Guardian continues the theme of the war against women:

A discussion of some of the issues I raised. Not as much depth as I'd like, but not bad.

Women on corporate boards. Not enough; we need more.

What men can do. I've been thinking about writing about this, but just haven't had time.


Fallout from the war on vaccines.

Added later: The state pension shortfall happened after 2007. It was the banksters done it, not the unions.
Whaddya know, we’re being sold a bill of goods.
Who'da thunk it?

The War on Science

Or perhaps any sort of organized thought. And the attacker is, of course, the Republican Party.

I'm not going to go through the arguments about climate change. The overwhelming evidence is that it's human-caused, and it's starting to look like our recent extreme weather is part of it.

What I'd like to focus on is why a political party, whose objective is governing a democratic republic, wants its supporters to be dumb. Or ignorant, perhaps, is a better word, although the support for Glenn Beck's antics leans toward dumb. Ignorant people lack facts. Dumb people have problems with reasoning.

It seems to be very simple: dumb or ignorant people are much more easily led. And, as I write this, it becomes obvious that "dumb" is the operative word, because the Republican followers are unwilling to question their leaders or find sources of information outside the very narrow "acceptable" range.

The media bear some responsibility. In a forum at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the following exchange took place.
Near the forum’s conclusion, Massachusetts Institute of Technology climate scientist Kerry Emanuel asked a panel of journalists why the media continues to cover anthropogenic climate change as a controversy or debate, when in fact it is a consensus among such organizations as the American Geophysical Union, American Institute of Physics, American Chemical Society, American Meteorological Association and the National Research Council, along with the national academies of more than two dozen countries.

"You haven't persuaded the public," replied Elizabeth Shogren of National Public Radio. Emanuel immediately countered, smiling and pointing at Shogren, "No, you haven't." Scattered applause followed in the audience of mostly scientists, with one heckler saying, "That's right. Kerry said it."
It can be argued that it's not the place of journalists to persuade. And scientists can be clunky or counterproductive in their communications with the public. But when journalists shuck off responsibility for their "on the one hand, on the other" presentations, even when one hand is inaccurate, wrong, or dishonest, they are persuading the public that all views are equally acceptable.

Judith Warner points out that if America is going to win the future with technology, our citizens need to have an accurate picture of what science and technology are. So we're back to my question of the responsibility of a political party that chooses to fog up that picture. Her reference to postmodern fact-denial having spread from the left to the Republican Party is something I've said and chuckled over more than once. The dreaded relativism that is to be condemned in college professors is just fine in climate denial. And it's what those even-handed journalists are indulging in, too.

And one more manifestation: the attack on Michele Obama for her campaign against obesity and for healthier foods. If your base doesn't know how to do calorie counts or much about vitamins and minerals, it makes this sort of thing easier.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The African Revolutions Will Not Be Televised

The Arab and North African revolutions are having serious effect partly because they are televised. In Sub-Saharan Africa, they are ignored.
...particularly troubled by the failure of the international media to pay due attention to events in Ivory Coast, where the UN estimates that at least 300 people have died and the opposition puts the figure at 500.

"With due deference to the bravery of the Egyptian demonstrators, protesters who gathered this weekend in Abidjan [in Ivory Coast] aren't up against a military that safeguards them - it shoots at them.

"The country's economy has been coughing up blood since November, with banks shutting by the day, businesses closing by the hour and thousands of families fleeing their homes," he continues. "And in all of this where is Anderson Cooper? Where is Nicolas Kristof? Why is Bahrain a front page news story while Ivory Coast is something buried at the bottom of the news stack?"

The journalist is equally as disappointed in world leaders. "This Friday, Barack Obama publicly condemned the use of violence in Bahrain, Yemen and Libya. When was the last time you saw Obama come out and make a statement on Ivory Coast? Or Eastern Congo? Or Djibouti, where 20,000 people protested this weekend according to the opposition?

"The problem is that most American media compulsively ignore everything south of the Sahara and north of Johannesburg. A demonstration has to be filmed, photographed, streamed live into the offices of foreign leaders to achieve everything Egypt's achieved."

Nanjala, a political analyst at the University of Oxford, suggests this journalistic shortcoming stems from journalists' tendency "to favour explanations that fit the whole 'failing Africa' narrative".
And note this, which suggests a stronger and richer conception of democratic life than I think exists at all any more in the US, despite the heritage of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Dewey.
"What people want is the democratisation of society, of production, of the economy, and indeed all aspects of life," says Manji. "What they are being offered instead is the ballot box."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Happy Independence Day, Estonia!

The first Estonian Independence Day, Tallinn, 24 Veebruar 1919.

Head Iseseisvuspäev!

[Tänan väga photost! Also from Wikipedia.]


Photo: Mgtelu

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bits and Pieces - Everything Else Edition

There's been a discussion going 'round about the lack of women writers in the big magazines. I've been following it off and on. Here's the latest (h/t Nadezhda). What's disturbing about the responses from the editors is how 1960s they are. Even more disturbing is that the female commenters seem to think that Jon Chait's invocation of the "pipeline" and "socialization issues" is somehow positive. Girls, they were talking about improving the "pipeline" and socialization issues back in the 1960s. We see how that worked out.

It's good news that the administration is going to stop supporting the Defense of Marriage Act. More from bmaz. Another judge rules that the individual health insurance mandate is constitutional. I'm wondering how the Tea Party is going to handle all the issues out there.

Reagan raised taxes in California more than any other governor.

Two big articles having to do with Arab unrest:
Congressional Research Service: Egypt: The January 25 Revolution and Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy
The Oil Drum: North African gas supplies to the European gas market

Sig Hecker interviewed by Paul Guinnessy on his latest trip to North Korea.

Kicking ass in the dinosaur world.

I've been making stuff with oatmeal lately. So has McDonald's, but I think I'm probably using more oatmeal.

Interactive maps from the Centers for Disease Control on diabetes and related factors. I'm wondering why there seems to be a correlation with right-wing politics.

Bits and Pieces - Labor Rights Edition

The Wisconsin governor takes a friendly phone call from a person he thought was David Koch. Pretty clear who the puppetmaster is. If you can't reach that link (last I heard, it was down, probably from too much popularity), try this one, which says, yeah, it really was Governor Walker telling the big guy his strategy. Ezra Klein spells out the significance of the phone call.

And a deputy attorney general in Indiana wants to take Muhamar Ghaddafi's approach to the protestors. Update: Weinstein is now reporting via Twitter that the guy has been fired. The Indiana guy, not Ghaddafi. The link is being updated.

Well. After that, anything else is going to be an anticlimax. But let's forge ahead. There are a number of pieces out there today that can almost be woven into a theory on how parts of America got as greedy and mean as we're seeing. The left got pretty weird back in the seventies, but I'm not recalling this level of trying to restructure our country. And I was more conservative back then.

Adrienne Redd has unearthed a couple of historical facts: back in colonial America and perhaps again in Andrew Jackson's 1828 campaign, the wealthy campaigned persuasively for racial identity over class identity. Governor Scott Walker's participation in the "Koch" phone call is consistent with this. It's also consistent that the middle class, to which the state workers belong, is being made a scapegoat for today's economic problems. Um, it was Wall Street, home of the wealthy, remember?

It's quite clear by this time that union-busting is the purpose of the bill that is being protested in Wisconsin and similar bills in other states, but the Wisconsin bill (and the others?) go much further, allowing many state functions to be contracted out to the Kochs and their friends, presumably so they can suck their profit out of them while campaigning to damage those who are supposed to benefit from those programs.

It's important, in the gutting of middle-class America, for the uber-wealthy to destroy unions, because the collective power of unions is a counterbalance to the money, money, money that the Kochs and friends can shower on politicians.

Another action that will damage the entire economy is the pending government shutdown over Republican budget cuts that will also damage the economy, the middle class anyway. Frank Munger interviews the director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory on how a shutdown would affect operations there. What he says applies pretty closely to any government-funded operation.

Kevin Drum on the more recent history of unions.

American-style capitalism has never been the free market of the Tea Partiers and their plutocrat overlords.

The plutocrats' department of dirty tricks.

Added later: Maybe the message is starting to get through. CBS Headline: Koch-backed group, Tea Party mobilize in Wisconsin. Maybe they'll eventually figure out that it should have been "Koch-backed groups mobilize in Wisconsin."

It appears that housing problems incurred by the financial industry have more to do with state deficits than does unionization. More support for the scapegoat theory.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Bits and Pieces - February 21, 2011

More sagging infrastructure: dams.

Arianna Huffington (HuffPo) to AOL and Tina Brown (Daily Beast) to Newsweek. Will those formulas revive old media?

NNSA tries to calm the troops in the face of a government shutdown.

Today's big stories, of course, are Libya and Madison. It appears that Colonel Gaddafi has called out air support to deal with the (according to his son) drug-crazed mobs that are flirting with drawing in invasions from other countries. The place to follow this is on Twitter, @blakehounsell recommended. A backgrounder: Libya and world oil exports.

Wisconsin seems quieter today than yesterday, judging from my Twitter stream, but Governor Walker isn't willing to compromise, and the Democratic state Senators remain out of state. Don't listen to the New York Times, which has been brainwashed by the rightwing "it's all about the budget." Here's what it's about, from the more reliable section of the NYT and from Dick Durbin. More from a graduate student on the scene. The money behind Walker. And a bit of (inadvertent) comic relief.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The War Against Women – Continued

“But we fought all those battles in the sixties,” one of my friends said. I guess this is what is meant by “A woman’s work is never done.”

A few days after the fact, we have a woman lamenting the permanent damage that has been done to poorpoorpoor Nir Rosen’s journalism career and how sad it is that just a few little tweets (even if they did reflect what he really thought, which seems to be the case) could do that to a person. But he’s such a good reporter!

He’ll get another reporting job, perhaps one of the ones they’re going to take away from women journalists to protect them. Oh yes, he said some bad things, but it was only once, and he didn’t think anyone but his friends would hear, and he’s such a good reporter! Such things never damage men permanently.

Yesterday, when I began writing this post, it looked like there had been more Internet words of sorrow for poorpoorpoor Nir Rosen and his career than there were wishing healing for Lara Logan. But today that is changing. Ta-Nehisi Coates points out that Logan did a brave and necessary thing in allowing the assault on her to be made public. Now Kim Barker and Sabrina Tavernise come forward to share their experiences.

Women are still being taught to hate themselves and other women. A lot of happy talk surrounds that hate: How brilliantly ironic, able to mock the conventions, making their own choices about femininity. But it’s the parodies of femaleness that are elevated. It’s as if the guys who leave their shirts open to display gold chains entangled in chest hair were set up as paragons of male style. Oooooh, some have much more hair than others! That one’s got no abs at all; too bad, he’s got a cute face. Sorry guys, those gold chains really draw attention to all that! How about waxing little designs into that? Your girlfriend’s initials?

Oh yeah, let’s see more codpieces! And middle-aged men really ought to realize that nobody wants to see their baggy necks. They can’t even shave them properly. A little plastic surgery would fix that right up. Hahahahahaha! No, we’re not laughing at you, just appreciating your witty postmodern irony. Or Bad Things Happen To Everyone On The Internets, as MoDo might say.

A parody must have a base reality to play against. Jon Stewart and The Onion are funny because we have real news, or something approximating it. What is the reality that these long-eyelashed, surgically sculpted parodies play against? Where do we see real women in the media?

The messages about beauty have little to do with real women, whereas men are found to be attractive, wrinkles, spare tires, and all. The standards that women are held to are damaging. Slender enough to be tiny and weak. Marilyn Monroe is fat by today’s standards. Look at those arms! Surgery always has its dangers. Not to mention the expense and trouble of dealing with makeup and uncomfortable clothing.

What’s behind the obsession with women's looks? I don’t think that anyone has really figured this out. It could be a desire to please men, or to compete with other women (for what? not at all clear it’s for men) or the influence of advertising, the purpose of which is to induce women to spend more money.

As to pleasing men, they like to look at porn stars but don’t seem to like it when the women in their lives behave like porn stars. Why, then, would they find women dressing like hookers or drag queens attractive? Or is this just another way to facilitate those fantasies that seem to be antithetical to actual human intercourse, real intimacy and interaction?

What do men want?

Much of the sexual harassment of women is men using women to display their status to other men. Eye candy on the arm. I copped a feel and you didn’t, or mine was better than yours. I am so masculine that women must cover themselves from head to toe to be safe. Or just because they can.

Maybe it’s time to say goodbye to all that. Women exist independently of male fantasies and status needs. Women’s bodies are what they are. Yes, we can make ourselves more or less attractive by the way we wear our clothes and the way we keep our skin and bodies healthy, but how much more is needed? And for what?

And it’s time to insist that men display some respect for women, whether it’s on Twitter or in the streets. Humans can choose how they behave. Golly, we said that in the sixties, too!

Update: Angella Johnson speaks out.

The Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning?

Frank Rich comes up optimistic today about the Republican Party's ability to self-immolate.

David Kaiser, not so much.

I guess only time will tell. Me, I'm more with Rich, but I have a hard time refuting Kaiser.

No New Taxes!

And this is why. Via Balloon Juice, where there are more charts and links to yet more. Notice that these figures are from 2007. From everything I've read, the distribution favors the top even more now.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

What Conservative Economic Policy Has Done for the United States

The New York Times labels this "American Shame." Click to enlarge, or go to the link.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Record Melting in Greenland during 2010

2010 was an exceptional year for Greenland’s ice cap. Melting started early and stretched later in the year than usual. Little snow fell to replenish the losses. By the end of the season, much of southern Greenland had set a new record, with melting that lasted 50 days longer than average...
When snow melts, the fine, bright powder turns to larger-grained, gravely snow. These large grains reflect less light, which means that they can absorb more energy and melt even faster. When the annual snow is melted away, parts of the ice cap are exposed. The surface of the ice is also darker than snow. Since dark ice was exposed earlier and longer in 2010, it absorbed more energy, leading to a longer melt season. A fresh coat of summer snow would have protected the ice sheet, but little snow fell.

Melting ice in Greenland freshens the seas near the Arctic and contributes to rising sea levels around the world. It is unclear just how much melting ice from Greenland will push sea levels up, largely because the melting is occurring much more quickly than scientists predicted. Current estimates call for an increase of up to 0.6 meters by 2100.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bits and Pieces - February 17, 2011

A gain for our side in the War Against Women. South Dakota's "Kill an Abortion Doctor" bill has been pulled. Meanwhile, broadcasters are considering pulling female journalists out of harm's way, a throwback to the idea that we delicate females must be protected out of interesting jobs. Texas is protecting its young women from contraception and therefore ranks among the highest in the nation in teen pregnancies. And is it true that male novelists have their books promoted more vigorously than female novelists? No, of couse not; it's just that their books are better. Mnh-hmnh.

I feel like I walked into a time warp and have emerged somewhere in the 1960s.

Steve Benen and Chris Rock both think that the Republicans are overplaying their hand, and the craziness will end soon. I sincerely hope so.

In that respect, the protests in Madison, Wisconsin, are a hopeful sign. The Republican governor wants to severely cut state employees' compensation packages. The union and its allies are responding. And the protests may spread.

Meanwhile, protests are spreading across the Arab world. The autocratic governments have watched Tunisia and Egypt and are learning some things. Gene Sharp and Serbian dissidents have been teaching the Arab dissidents. It's nice to know that we have a president who was looking ahead last August at the possibility of something breaking loose in the Arab world.

We now have some evidence that the extreme storms we've had for the past few years are related to human-caused global warming.

Buying nail polish remover while Muslim will get you surveilled.

And another bit of good news: all the NPT nuclear weapons powers (US, Russia, China, Britain, and France) will be getting together, probably in June to talk about decreasing their arsenals. As the US and Russian numbers of nukes go down, it's essential to bring in the other nuclear weapon states.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bits and Pieces - February 16, 2011

Survey of unrest across the Arab world.

WMD, WME, what's the difference? Note how "weapons of mass effect" (frequently used to indicate radiological dispersing bombs) transforms to WMD in the headline.

US Government shuts down 84,000 websites "by mistake".

Lies about regulating derivatives and the lying liars who tell them.

One more chapter in a similar story of corporate lies. This one is very complicated. Emptywheel has been covering it.

Why We Should Raise Taxes on the Super-Rich and Lower Them on the Middle Class

Why is there so much pressure right now to eliminate the national debt? Paul Krugman keeps making the same point. More specifically, this.

The War Against Women

In Egypt, we have (paid?) harassers assaulting Lara Logan.

In the United States, we have the Republican Party.

So much seemed to be going so well for feminism for a while. Although some of us elderly types were wary of the drink-all-night, sleep-with-whomever feminism of the third wave, there wasn't much we could do about it. And yes, I'm using that word, which many younger women shy away from.

The Republicans, asserting their new legislative power, have decided to address a true national problem. Jobs? No. Out-of-control women. Women who get themselves raped.

I didn't pay much attention at first, so I don't have a bunch of links or even a coherent list of the bills decriminalizing rape and even murder that have been presented in the national and state legislatures. I thought that they were one-offs from particularly fanatical rightwingers, a number of whom were elected last fall. But there have been far too many of them. Compound that with the egregious commentary by some on Logan's assault and even the commentary on Julian Assange's penchant for producing children, and we're talking about a wave of justification for the patriarchy we haven't seen in public in a long time.

When (female) representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot last month, there was some feeling that cutting back on violent rhetoric might be a good idea. I guess that didn't include decriminalization of violent acts.

There was a relatively subtle attempt by Republican lawmakers to redefine rape to "forcible rape" by the addition of that adjective to pending legislation. I'm not clear on the status. Now South Dakota wants to decriminalize murder of abortion providers. Well, not quite; it only sounds that way. (More on South Dakota here.)

Let's get clear on one thing. The purpose of the anti-abortion movement is to put women in their place, as defined by a strict patriarchy. That place is barefoot and pregnant. If the supporters of forcible pregnancy truly were concerned about the products of those pregnancies, otherwise known and children, they would support legislation to feed them and provide them medical care, good educations and jobs. But those supporters also want an end to welfare and tax cuts. So their motives have nothing to do with the children.

Why are the Republicans so ready to slam women back to kinder, kirche, kuche? In case you haven't noticed, there's a problem with unemployment that started back almost ten years ago under the low-tax, punitive policies that these folks so enjoy. What better way to focus on scapegoats. It's the women's fault, it always is. Get them back to the way things were, and we'll be okay. And that would work, sort of, if we took women out of paying jobs, which would leave more of those jobs for the men.

And yes, it's the woman's fault. The commentary on Lara Logan seems to be the inevitable "She asked for it." If she weren't a reporter, if she weren't trying to report important stories, if she would leave it to the men, she wouldn't have been assaulted. Same story the Republicans are selling. Thers has the links.

And, for the most part, Angry Black Lady's experience is the same as mine.

Update: OMG. This is just getting sicker and sicker. I've never been fond of the Huffington Post, but this is a new low.

It's Bad Enough Already - Government Shutdown Edition

Today's Perils of Pauline story is the coming Republican government shutdown. Will they? Won't they?

If you work for the government, it hardly matters.

The government's fiscal year runs from October through September. We are now mostly through half of that fiscal year, and there is no budget. Worse, House Republicans are considering ways to cut that budget. When Congress doesn't pass a budget before the fiscal year starts, it (usually) passes a continuing resolution that says "spend pretty much the way you spent last year." That's bad enough if you have a new program or one that's winding down. But if you have been working to the continuing resolution and now are threatened with cuts to this year's budget, you probably are thinking about moving to another country or, perhaps, suicide. If your project's budget is a half-million dollars, you've spent about half of that by now. If that budget is cut in half when the budget passes a month or two from now, you've overspent, and your project will be one of the ones that Congress rags your Cabinet Secretary about next year. Not to mention the question of what you're supposed to do the next half of the year.

In that case, a shutdown may be a partial blessing, because it takes the onus off of you in particular. And you get a few days off to rest your brain or maybe get thoroughly drunk, if you can afford the pay you won't get.

Of course, there's the damage done if your program is useful and the larger damage of making the country look like it can't run its affairs, but those are small change in the larger Republican program - which is what, remind me again?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bloggish Navel-Gazing

It's true that anyone with a computer can get a blog, and anyone can write things in it. So it's not surprising that there are many blogs out there with many kinds of content. There are no rules. It's an ideal medium for experimentation.

And yet, and yet...

The blog form became so popular that magazines and newspapers have sought to co-opt it. Some buy themselves people who already were blogging, like Andrew Sullivan and Kevin Drum. Others apparently tell their reporters and writers that they will now blog, in addition to their other duties, and set them up with software that they may or may not be able to use.

Some of those people get into the form, and some never do. This seems to go for public information officers too.

Although there are no rules, some things work better than others. Short form is better than long form. (I know, I violate that one from time to time.) Interaction is part of it. (Which is why I often respond to what looks like trolling.) And some, but not too many, personal touches.

Most of the normal rules of grammar, composition, narrative, and reporting apply too, although this is partly a matter of taste, and I like to allow for experimentation.

My Google Reader and Twitter follows have presented me with some things lately that show that some still don't quite get what blogging is about. There's quite an amusing fight going on at Embargo Watch. Ivan Oransky, the owner of Embargo Watch, is a Reuters writer who keeps track of retractions of scientific papers and the absurdities of journal embargoes on papers about to be published. The scientific world is learning to live with 24/7 information and commentary, and Embargo Watch documents that learning curve, pratfalls and all.

It seems that Ed Yong, well-known and respected science blogger, wanted to ask a researcher at the University of Manchester some questions, and the university's public information officer (PIO, in the jargon), Aeron Haworth, told him, "I think you have all you need for a blog." Haworth then compounds the error by participating in the comment thread at Embargo Watch, exhibiting his total unfamiliarity with common internet pitfalls. I find particularly amusing his insistence that commenters identify themselves to him with something about their backgrounds.

Then there's James Fallows, who doesn't want comments on his blog at The Atlantic* (*cough* not enough time to moderate them *cough*) but is happy to receive e-mail and excerpt it with his shaping. He's been having guest commenters on his blog the past few weeks, and some are quite bizarre. Far too many of them haven't gotten the idea of a short form. One, a producer of erotic films, had a particularly insidious trick: no sentence need have any connection to the one before, and certainly not paragraphs, most of which were one sentence long anyway. This bothered me a great deal in skimming through the Google Reader version until I actually read a couple of his posts through from beginning to end. I had to do this twice with each post, because my brain kept looking for some resolution, some connections among ideas. But there weren't any. Once I determined this, the posts became much easier to skim.

Next up is someone who apparently has had an extensive e-mail correspondence with Fallows but doesn't blog. In fact, his first post (much too long, btw) was entirely on why he doesn't blog or tweet or do any of those silly internettish things. Most of us got over the temptation to such posts in our first few months of blogging, but he only has a week.

There have been a few more, but I quickly passed over them. Most of what is annoying me about these newbies is the assumption that they have some special capability or knowledge that is so important it must be showered upon the rest of us, no backtalk please.

It hasn't been that way for some very long time now.

It's worth mentioning that Steve Clemons has been dealing with problem commenters at his blog.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Bits and Pieces - February 14, 2011

More Egypt:
Daniel Levy also thinks that a more independent Egypt can moderate Israel's behavior.

Egypt's natural gas.

Hard to say how accurate this story is of how Egypt's revolution came together, but it's completely plausible that it took some time.

In the rest of the world,
Most boneheaded interview questions ever.

Kevin Drum has all you need to know about the federal budget.

An insider says that the outcome of Mikhail Khodorkhovsky's trial was predetermined.

My favorite fractal vegetable. (See above photo.)

Read this article by substituting "Moslem" and related words in the appropriate places.

Strange doings over a museum exhibit of strange mummies. It appears that Caucasian people lived in Xinjiang at one time. If you're in Philadelphia, this is definitely worth seeing.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Egypt and Nuclear Weapons

Now that Hosni Mubarak has stepped down, the hard work begins of forming a new government for Egypt. Unless that government follows Mubarak’s closely, the already-unstable situation relating to nuclear weapons in the Middle East is about to change.

There is one nuclear weapons state in the Middle East: Israel, which has between 100 and 200 nuclear weapons and the delivery vehicles to use them. Iran seems to be building up to an implicit or explicit nuclear weapon capability to deter Israel and the United States, and to secure itself as a regional power. A number of other countries in the region, including Egypt, have looked at nuclear weapons in the past. Some of them may be looking at nuclear weapons now, in light of Iran’s apparent ambitions.

We need to consider the historical context of some of the apparent nuclear ambitions, while keeping in mind that work done in the past provides some basis for increasing future capability. Motivations change over time. For one notable example, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, in the late eighties, was pursuing nuclear weapons; its changed government, with other difficulties, has no interest in nuclear weapons just now.

Will the new government in Egypt want nuclear weapons? Highly unlikely, if only because getting Egypt’s economy into operating shape is likely to take several years to a decade, even without the enormous drain of a nuclear weapons program. Egypt currently has no enrichment facilities or plutonium production facilities.

But let’s look a little further. The bottom line of Oliver Bloom's analysis is that Egypt has considered nuclear weapons in the context of its national security. That’s likely to continue. Egypt has also been the head of the Non-Aligned Movement and has called for a Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. NTI’s country profile is also useful. (Thanks to the Armchair Generalist for these two links.) Egypt is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) but lacks an Additional Protocol, and has not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. But those things are also true of other countries in the region.

Unless Egypt’s government turns out to be fanatically militaristic, it’s likely that reasonable national security interests will continue to determine its approach to nuclear weapons. Its government has confirmed that the peace treaty with Israel still applies. A consideration in continuing the peace treaty may well be the American aid that is posited on this relationship. It would be good to see that aid turned more to supporting and developing the Egyptian economy than to weapons buys, but we are in early days yet. These factors make an Egyptian desire for nuclear weapons less likely.

The new Egypt is likely to be less willing to go along unquestioningly with America and Israel. We can expect to see more concern from Egypt about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and some in Israel feel that it will now be more difficult to attack Iran. This may help to damp down Israeli militarism and brutality toward Palestinians, which is likely to turn out to be a good thing for Israel, as well as to decrease Egyptian desire for nuclear weapons.

Egypt did some work toward nuclear weapons in the 1970s. But so did many countries before they ratified the NPT, which Egypt did in 1981. An IAEA report lists experiments from Egypt’s pre-NPT period that were not declared when Egypt ratified the NPT. The report contains some questions about activities post-1981, but overall, this is more a matter of clearing the books than evidence of a covert program.
The plutonium work seems to have been abandoned two decades ago. [NTI]
Public statements are cheap, and states without an undeclared nuclear power on their northern border have been known to make them.

The Middle East and South Asia are the world’s proliferation hotspots. They contain the three countries that have not joined the NPT, and some of the others may have ambitions toward nuclear weapons. Iran’s desire to be fully self-sufficient in nuclear matters may mask such an ambition. Israel bombed a site in Syria said to have been a nuclear reactor built with help from the North Koreans, and Syria has not allowed international inspection of that site.

A number of countries in the Middle East, including Egypt, are moving toward acquiring power reactors. It is difficult, and some would say impossible, to go from a power reactor to a bomb, but the know-how gained in operating such a reactor can help in a nuclear weapons program. So the alarm has been sounded on possible nuclear agreements between the United States and Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Those agreements do not require that those states refrain from reprocessing nuclear material, as did a similar agreement with the United Arab Emirates.

I would guess that all pending nuclear agreements with countries in the Middle East are now on hold until things settle down in the area. The disparity among countries is hard to understand. But two things interfere with more restrictive agreements.

First, the NPT’s Article IV guarantees the full nuclear fuel cycle for peaceful uses to signatories of the treaty. This means that countries buying nuclear fuel cycle technologies must submit to inspection by the IAEA to make sure they are not developing nuclear weapons. The purpose of the Additional Protocols is to increase the scope of the inspections. Jordan has an Additional Protocol, but Saudi Arabia does not.

Second, the Bush administration’s signing of a nuclear trade agreement with India has opened questions for all subsequent agreements. India has not signed the NPT and has developed nuclear weapons and therefore should not have nuclear trade with NPT nations like the United States open to it. But by a series of waivers, this trade has been opened up. India has not had to agree not to reprocess, an essential part of its weapons program, so it is not up to the United States unilaterally to go beyond the requirements of the NPT.

Finally, the question of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone has been raised for several decades, often by Arab states wanting to shine a spotlight on Israel’s nuclear weapons program. Israel’s response has been that its security must come first. The Obama administration is planning for a conference on such a Zone in 2012. With a changed government in Egypt and perhaps in other countries, more substantive negotiations than in the past may be possible. Iran’s apparent ambitions are threatening to many of those countries, and Israel may see that its military might is no longer sufficient. Both of those factors, plus new government(s) that are dealing with economic development, may lead to an agreement to engage in real talks.

The Mob at the Birdbath

Verlyn Klinkenborg has a nice piece about starlings today. Read it and look at this picture.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Bits and Pieces - February 12, 2011

Happy Lincoln's Birthday! From someone who grew up where it is observed.

Egypt, of course:
Lamis Andoni: The resurrection of pan-Arabism

Ahmadinejad hails the Egyptian revolution. Not clear that this is a smart move in advance of planned Iranian protests.

Indicators of democracy as the new Egyptian government develops from Juan Cole and Hani Shukrallah.

And in the rest of the world:
Some tough statements coming out of the Obama administration on Iran and Syria. The Syria statement is from State Department spokesman @PJCrowley via Twitter:
#Syria restores social media one moment, then conducts a secret trial of #blogger #TalAlMallouhi. #Syria is going in the wrong direction.
Uh-oh. Pro-reform Saudi activists launch political party. Not likely that anything like Egypt will happen in Saudi Arabia any time soon, though.

Roula Khalaf and James Blitz: The Sabotaging of Iran. Not a whole lot new here, but the whole story (what we know of it, that is) in one place. Frank Munger seems to be wondering whether seized Libyan centrifuges were used in the development of Stuxnet. A bit more about Stuxnet from the New York Times. Given that Stuxnet is not spread through the internet, I keep wondering who introduced it. The Times article says that it could have been spread in an e-mail message, and in the Khalaf and Blitz piece, Mark Hibbs speculates that there's a mole in the Iranian program.

Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) walked pretty much the same way we do.

John Holbo: "Originalism works rhetorically by sorting people into two piles."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Bits and Pieces - February 11, 2011

Well, Mubarak finally managed to recognize that he was what the demonstrators were unhappy with and got out peacefully. We may see lawsuits against him later on, which may have been part of his reluctance. The post-dictator life just isn't what it used to be.

But for Egypt, the difficult part starts now. There isn't a simple path to democracy. It's there, one of the many paths available, but there's a lot more to go. This post is a good reminder of that. I think I may have posted it a few days ago, but we need this reminder.

Something to keep in mind. Weapons exports are part of the US relationship with Egypt. The military-industrial complex has its interests, too. I'm wondering if it would make a useful point to refer to the defense industry as the "armaments industry," the term used before World War I.

Someday our politicians are going to have to face up to this and get real in what they say. I'm not holding my breath.

Yes, I'm tired of all the maleness in films, too.

The Atlantic's book reviews are becoming the most exciting part of the magazine. I'm wondering why last month's on the difficulties of third-wave feminism didn't get more comment. And yeah, I don't much read feminist blogs.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

It's Only Words...

I've been reading a fair bit of Russian history lately. Last night it occurred to me that because war has changed, so has the process of changing governments against those governments' will. The two World Wars of the twentieth century swept numerous governments out of power and rearranged polities wholesale, but that had been the pattern of war at various scales since at least the twelfth century. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires disappeared as a result of World War I, and World War II stripped away the colonies the various European nations had acquired, while adding colonies to the Soviet Union.

The Soviet colonies detached themselves relatively peacefully in 1989-1991. The press and others, usually not directly involved in the changes, have attached adjectives to the word "revolution" to describe those changes. But do they constitute revolutions? That gets harder to say. And, although "The Velvet Revolution" nicely encapsulated our surprise at the lack of bloodshed accompanying Czechoslovakia's transition and the Estonians love their "Singing Revolution," I've found the other adjectives forced and superficial. Does each transition need to have its own brand?

And there are legal reasons not to use the word "coup." Sorry, headline writers.

More on the Texas - New Mexico Electrical/Gas Problems

There's a very good article at The Oil Drum today unraveling some of what went into the electrical shortages in Texas last week that led to gas shortages in New Mexico.

Andy has been asking for "proof" of the effect of privatization (in which I include deregulation) on reliability of energy supplies. I'll provide some quotes from the article.
Another issue is electricity deregulation in Texas. The competitive marketplace produces a situation not all that different from the situation in which BP operated that led to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Under Texas' structure, there are many entities, each concerned primarily with its own bottom line. In this environment, cost cutting in the name of profitability is rewarded, but can lead to power outages.
Texas is one of the states that replaced the monopoly system of utilities with a system of competing sellers, under what is termed "restructuring". Quite a number of states tried this approach and abandoned it (shown in gold on Figure 2). Texas is one of the states (in green) that kept this approach. It is striking that Texas had problems during cold weather, and other states nearby without restructuring did not.
So there is a controlled experiment of sorts going on, and last week's results don't seem to favor the deregulation model.
One of the stresses under deregulation is the fact that instead of vertically integrated utilities, we now have a much larger number of independent entities, each looking out for its own profitability, but not having a great deal of concern about making the system as a whole work together well. The economic incentive for each of these units is to cut costs as much as possible. For example, units have an economic incentive to cut corners on details like making certain that the unit can operate in any kind of weather. Units cannot be expected to have much concern about how their action contributes to the smooth operation of the whole. They certainly will not spend much time looking for feedback loops among different systems, such as the ones discussed above.
The observation is made (as I implied) that gas relying on electricity relying on gas as backups may lead to unfortunate feedback loops. In summary,
We recently have experienced a period of over fifty years when the electrical grid was "up" most of the time, and almost everyone has come to take its existence for granted. I think the time has come for a much more conscious awareness of our electrical system's limits; we need to start making decisions with its integrity as a first priority. The Texas power outage fiasco has not turned into the equivalent of BP's oil spill, but if we continue down the path we are headed, we could easily find ourselves with electrical outage problems much worse than the oil spill.
As they say, read the whole thing.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Bits and Pieces - February 7, 2011

The New York Times tells its employees not to "unpublish" stories. Must have been reading my complaint on the subject.

And now, on to Egypt.

What the jihadis are saying about the demonstrations: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

The thinktanks and usual Very Serious People are not coming out with much that is helpful or interesting. They are tending toward "the future is very difficult to predict" and leaning back on rehash of what we already know they believe. There's a lot of that in this Foreign Policy compendium, although there are a few good things in some of the articles, like what to look for as things progress. I found Thomas Pickering's and Nicholas Burns's contributions the most insightful.

A small bit of insight on Iran's reaction to the events in Egypt.

Probably the boldest entry from the think tanks so far: The revolution is over, and Mubarak won. And a profile of Mubarak.

The Price of Privatization

Common wisdom for thirty years now has been that the private sector does things much better than government and that making money is the primary human motivation. We’ve deregulated the airlines and sold off what used to call public utilities – the gas, electricity, and water that we need every day, along with telephone communication.

Both political parties have been overtaken by the idea that making money (which is the purpose of the private sector) will guarantee good outcomes. In fact, this seems to underlie what many people see as morality, both for companies and individuals.

It wasn’t always that way. I can recall that a concept of working for the good of the community, whether that was your local town or the nation. And I don’t think that was my childish naiveté. There’s still community feeling around: people support volunteer fire departments, and they staff a myriad of organizations that tend to stray animals, help people find jobs, and keep the parks clean.

But privatization of so many things and the rationale of making money are doing damage that those do-gooder organizations, even the churches, can’t repair. We’ve seen two big examples over the last few days.

While snowstorms blanketed the nation from New Mexico to Vermont, a blob of intensely cold Arctic air sloshed down into the southwest. Temperatures twenty degrees colder than normal and worse were common. My outdoor thermometer read minus 12 F.

In Texas, power plant equipment froze up and shut down fifty power generating units, causing the power companies to institute rolling blackouts across the state. The natural gas generators intended as backups couldn’t operate without electrical power. And natural gas pumping stations shut down, causing outages in New Mexico. The detailed causes will be examined, but this seems to be the general outline of what happened.

It is true that the cold was extreme, but profit-making companies have no incentive to plan for the worst. Or, apparently, prepare in any rational way: backup equipment that can’t operate without electrical power? Duh! Regulation is no guarantee; the companies lobby and buy their way to as much profit as they can. Being prepared for unusual events like last week’s cold eats into profit.
Texas officials take pride in the fact that theirs is the only state with its own independently operated power grid and say federal oversight isn't necessary. [WSJ]

There’s another way to think about electrical and gas utilities. People need them to keep their houses warm and lit when Arctic air and snow hit. They are particularly needed then, because last week’s cold was life-threatening. Reliability of supply is essential. So it needs to be guaranteed in some way. That requires more and better equipment than the bare minimum arrived at by compromising with profit. So perhaps power utilities are not suited to both serving the community and turning a profit.

Less reliable power, then, is one of the costs of privatization.

The other example is quite different, but no less damaging to the idea of community. Frank Wisner, having been US ambassador to Egypt, India, and other places, would seem to be the perfect person to deliver President Barack Obama’s message to President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. And presumably he did. But then he appeared on a panel at a security conference in Munich on Saturday and delivered a message at odds with Obama’s statement on Friday. Obama was pushing for Mubarak to step down, without quite saying those words. Wisner said that the transition required Mubarak to stay. The questions were being asked quite explicitly because he had been the President’s messenger, so what he said would be taken in that light. By the end of the day, the State Department had disavowed Wisner’s statements and Vice President Joe Biden had reiterated the President’s message.

After Wisner retired as ambassador, he went on to new jobs. After all, an ambassador may have prestige and connections, but he doesn’t make as much money as an executive of Enron or AIG. Wisner is now at Patton Boggs, a Washington law firm heavily involved in lobbying. He was a cheerleader for the nuclear agreement with India, one of the firm’s clients. And you can bet he was working his connections behind the scenes to get that agreement passed.

Likewise, he knew Mubarak from his days as ambassador, and the government of Egypt and various of its wealthier families are clients of Patton Boggs. It seems to be those instincts that took over Wisner’s comments on Saturday.

There is always a problem in selecting an expert for a government mission; the connections that expertise brings are likely to present a conflict of interest. That should have been part of President Obama’s calculation in selecting Wisner.

In a system that makes money the criterion, it makes sense for a former ambassador to capitalize on his network and expertise. And, in a system that allows unlimited political participation by corporations and foreign countries, a firm like Patton Boggs is the place to be.

There have always been people who are primarily driven by money. But there will be more of them if money is seen to be the source of prestige, happiness, and all things good. A different goal might encourage an ideal of public service, companies doing patriotic things for a dollar-a-year fee, as in World War II, or public servants retiring to write their memoirs so that their wisdom might profit the country. Those things happened in a less money-driven world that America once was.

The price of the worship of unrestricted capitalism that we’ve indulged in for the past thirty years is high. Endangering citizen well-being and the loss of leaders we can look up to are part of that price.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

What Next In Egypt?

I don't much play the game of trying to predict the next few moves in a situation like that in Egypt. What I think (and what many others think!) isn't going to influence events, and in such a volatile environment, things can change rapidly and the unexpected can emerge. Plus I'm not as well informed on Egypt as other places.

But there's a longer view that can be helpful in understanding what's going on and why the US government is doing what it is doing in response to events in Egypt. I've been working on a post that would take a longer look, but I have my doubts that I'll finish it any time soon. Today some others are starting to do that kind of thing, so I'll offer their thoughts instead of mine. And it's possible I'll get around to finishing my post while it's still timely.

Aaron David Miller: Why Israel Fears a Free Egypt

Larry Diamond: How Egypt can build lasting democracy in a post-Mubarak world

David Brooks: The 40 Percent Nation

Ian Johnson: Washington’s Secret History with the Muslim Brotherhood

Doug Saunders: Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood: A Dictator’s Cardboard Menace

Secret Does Not Equal True

The Telegraph and others are getting very excited about some Wikileaks cables. It's too bad that their reporters didn't know one or two facts that might have put up a warning flag. Or call someone who might know those facts to verify.

Page van der Linden, with Stephen Schwartz, has done a good job of debunking one of those cables about which The Telegraph is so excited. There's another way to come at it. When I read a couple of The Telegraph's summaries, there were obvious problems. Here's the one Page dealt with.
In November 2007, the US embassy in London received a telephone call from a British deep-sea salvage merchant based in Sheffield, who claimed that his business associates in the Philippines had found six uranium “bricks” at the site of an underwater wreck.
Here are a few facts worth knowing:

1) The characteristic that makes materials suitable for a bomb also carries with it some hazards. If enough of a fissionable material is assembled in one place, a chain reaction takes place. That's what a critical mass does. The chain reaction releases large amounts of neutrons and radiation, perhaps even heat.

2) Water is a moderator that helps fission along.

3) Because of the hazard of inadvertently assembling a critical mass, fissionable materials are packaged very carefully, each package containing an amount of material much less than a critical mass and configured in such a way that if a number of packages come together, they won't form a critical mass.

4) Uranium metal reacts readily with water and air. It can catch fire in air.

So uranium metal is not transported in bare "bricks." It is formed into "pucks," flat and circular, far from the spherical shape that would encourage a critical mass. Like this:

And it probably wouldn't last very long under water. A stack of uranium bricks certainly wouldn't, because it would heat up from fission and would turn into oxide or dissolve.

Moving along to another Telegraph summary:
Officials in the US embassy in Uganda were approached in February 2008 by a source who claimed that a Congolese acquaintance had asked him to help find a buyer for some highly enriched pure uranium liquid.
See the facts above about criticality. And here's some more:

5) Uranium is a solid under most room temperature conditions. It has one compound, uranium hexafluoride, the one that is used in centrifuges and gaseous diffusion, that might be a liquid, but it's even more reactive than uranium metal and would need to be handled very carefully. Alternatively, some uranium compounds can be dissolved in water, but then we have to consider facts #2 and #3. Anyone handling a water solution as described would be feeling ill.

IIRC, the scrap-metal train was carrying one of the far-too-ubiquitous Soviet cesium-137 sources. It's been in the news; I don't have time just now to search for confirmation. And I think the news was that it was cleaned up.

Yellowcake isn't much good for bombs unless you've got an enrichment facility. Scratch the terrorists. Not much good for dirty bombs, except for the kind of hysteria The Telegraph and its repeaters are fomenting. Uranium isn't particularly good for you (do you chew on solder?), but it's not horrendously radioactive.

"Uranium plates from Chernobyl" - See above for "uranium plates". And not the kind of fuel used at Chernobyl.

The possibly most dangerous of these (if the reports are true, and there was anything there at all) are the sources, the cesium-137 and cobalt-60. They could be made into dirty bombs. But the fact that this stuff has been making its way around Russia and environs, combined with the lack of its use in dirty bombs, suggests that something is preventing those terrorists who so desire such things from making them.

And then there is the claim that the US is sending specs (or something) on Britain's nuclear arsenal to Russia. The article is so confusedly written that it's not possible to extract what the reporter thinks is being shared. Numbers of nuclear weapons? Russia is inspecting Britain's arsenal? Huh? Again, just knowing something about the START treaties would help, or asking someone who does. The START treaties are enormously complicated, but they do list the information that is shared betweeen the parties.

It's not surprising that diplomats would send reports on trafficking in radioactive material back to Washington. That's most likely where those reports would be checked out, and a subsequent cable (missing from The Telegraph's stash) would say "no problem," or "check out some specific and report back." It's useful to know what stories are circulating, even if they're not true. I haven't looked at the cable on Britain's nuclear arsenal, but the State Department says it's just part of the treaty. Presumably the British government knew about it. They're not getting excited about this "revelation." Unfortunately, it will probably become one of the undying, undebunkable talking points from the conservatives in the United States.

All that was needed in any of these cases was knowledge of one simple fact to raise a flag, or a telephone call or e-mail to someone who had a bit more knowledge than the reporter. What's disturbing is that some American information aggregators are repeating this without that resort to factuality.

So, Telegraph reporters, if you get an e-mail from a Nigerian banker who says his royal parents died and left a pile of uranium plates in their bank vault, and he needs your credit card number to get them out, just (please!) delete it.

[Thanks to Frank Munger for the photo.]

Update (2/10/11): Michael Levi makes the same point as the title of this post, calling it "document fetishism.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

More Egypt Links

Why Tunis, Why Cairo?

Twenty reasons why it's kicking off everywhere.

Why does Israel want to stick with Pharaoh?

Yet more links from The Arabist (author of the first article above).

Mubarak's phantom presidency (from Arabist list)

Joe Biden's cleanup in case anyone got the wrong idea from Frank Wisner's comments today.

Thanks to Nadezhda for most, possibly all, of these links. Over the course of a day, I tend to lose track of where I've gotten a link from.

Jon Kyl and Frank Wisner at the Munich New START Conference

National Security Advisor Tom Donilon won't be able to speak at the transfer of documents that marks the coming-into-force of the New START Treaty. So for some bizarre reason, the administration asked Jon Kyl, who managed to botch his opposition to the treaty, to represent the U.S. perspective, on a panel entitled, "Nonproliferation, Arms Control and Disarmament: What's next?"

Apparently Kyl was the choice of the German organizers.

The conference is being streamed on the web, so I'll liveblog Kyl's panel.(Ugh - looks like the time I was given is wrong, and the panel is in progress, so I've missed Kyl's opening statement.)

Like any liveblog, I'll be trying to capture the sense of what people say more than the exact words.

Ellen Tauscher, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, is also on the panel. She's looking good - has been under treatment for esophageal cancer.

Questions on North Korean and Iranian sanctions, primarily for Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and Tauscher all respond.

Kyl: Sanctions are next-to-last alternative. It's too bad they affect common people, but those people have an alternative: they can rise up and change the government. Slams North Korea for "bogus exports," including weapons and counterfeit money. North Korea has nuclear weapons and Iran does not - yet. [seems to be something wrong with his mike - no problem with others] North Korea also has missiles that could be effective against US. We don't have ground-based interceptors that would be effective against a mass attack, just single launches. Illustrates the importance of missile defense. Are sanctions less of a cost than possession of weapons by these countries?

[mic problems are spreading. Audio cuts in and out.]

[Multiple questions from the floor and written are taken at a time.]
Q: Spent nuclear fuel is a proliferation risk but also a potential business opportunity. Why don't we create international public-private corporations for managing spent fuel?
Q (Prince Turki bin Saud): Concerned about Israel's nukes, an existing threat and Iran, a potential nuclear threat. Security is an international responsibility. Any nuclear exchange will affect the entire area. How do we stop such a threat? Arab League proposes nuclear weapon free zone.

Davutoğlu: Turkey needs civilian nuclear power because it is the cheapest alternative. Security risks in region are due to lack of freedom.
Tauscher: Mentions 2012 conference on NWFZ. Have to recognize interrelationships among strategic, tactical, offensive, defensive weapons. [seems to be responding to Kyl] Have to be creative to find new solutions.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Chairman of the SPD Parlamentary Group, Berlin: There are proposals on the table for dealing with nuclear fuel in various ways; they are opportunities
Kyl: What is most likely threat? Russian tactical nuclear weapons, cyberattacks? [Doesn't mention spent nuclear fuel.]

Well, damn. They're winding up the session. They will have Frank Wisner and a number of other participants in the next segment, so maybe I'll tune in to that after I go to the Farmers' Market and do a bit of other shopping.

Kyl seems to be being Kyl, although he seems to have had enough sense to do it in a responsible way, rather than the extremes that he has gone to when he's back at home.

Panel on cybersecurity now. President Toomas Hendrik Ilves of Estonia asks a question. Cool that he's there. [Pardon my usual Estonian lean.] I won't liveblog this one unless something exciting happens.

Frank Wisner and a panel on events in the Arab world. I'll try to pass some of this along.

Wisner (in answer to a request to speak on what he did and saw): He spoke to Mubarak and Suleiman. The crisis is of extraordinary importance. Need to build a consensus, a national dialog, put aside emergency law, free and fair elections. Beginning to see a path forward in last day or so. Offer by Suleiman to engage in dialog, thoughtful Egyptians coming forward, Mubarak allowing steps to move forward, defense minister has gone on streets to assure people government will not turn on them. Aiming for an orderly (repeats) transition to democratic government. President, VP need to lead transition. Mubarak's role "utterly critical."

Q: Do you think those you met understand all that?
Wisner: I think they understand what is required. The conditions/flexibility/imagination are there. We are in the early stages, matters could slip off the rails, could still be violence and action by radical groups.

Q: Can they generate trust and confidence in those who want them out?
W: Will be difficult. Concrete steps are necessary - free and fair elections, constitutional changes. Agenda is clear, question is how to do it.

Uzi Arad, National Security Advisor, Jerusalem: Egyptian case is unique, but there are other instabilities in ME. Growing pressure of radical Islam in Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan for example. Orderly process is nice, but need to look at outcomes. Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could exploit the situation; other radical, anti-democratic, anti-Western groups. Of concern to Israelis are anti-peace groups which could destabilize the region. How to have free elections while avoiding an unfavorable outcome?

Q: End of peace treaty?
Arad: I don't think there would be a revocation; that would be absurd. But there could be an undercutting of security cooperation.

Javier Solana Madriaga, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (ret.), Alcobendas: There is no way back. Transition is a process; have seen this in recent times on Iberian Peninsula. Egypt is a fundamental country in the region. Outcome will determine the future of political Islam. The peace process must be maintained. Nobody in the streets has mentioned Israel; the demonstrations have nothing to do with Israel. We would like to see a secular regime that takes into consideration the aspirations of the people. Need to begin to see political structure, political parties. Unity of armed forces needs to be maintained.

Wisner: The debate in Egypt is about Egypt, the internal structure of the state. External considerations will come to the fore later. Our influence is limited, but we can help shape the future. Essential responsibility lies in the hands of the Egyptians. We have to control rhetoric. The more Egyptians hear from the outside world that the president has to go, the more things are likely to spin out of control. Practical support: Egyptian economy has been terribly disrupted, the outside world can help. Need to assure that armed forces will be maintained. At the right time, address institutional questions as responsible friends and guides. Very volatile and dangerous time.

Q: Egyptian business people met yesterday, wanted Mubarak to stay. Acceptable to Washington?
Wisner: Up to Egyptians. If president stepped down, an election would take place under current dispositions, which are unacceptable to people in streets. So the president must stay to guide the changes.

Volker Perthes, Director, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), Berlin: I am more optimistic about the ME than I have been for a very long time. We are seeing a third force beyond the governments and Islamists. Young people, secular. Not Facebook, but generation using Facebook that is making the revolution. Not attracted by old nationalisms nor the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood. MB influence will decrease as other parties are established. An orderly transition needs time, which will allow European help. Less fear of Islamists.

Human Rights Watch rep (Ken Roth?): This is not over. Arrests in Tahrir Square, harassment of journalists indicate that. Need continued pressure from outside, monitors to report on rights violations. Wisner is right that an election should not take place under current strictures. Mubarak should transfer responsibility to another person who could immediately change things. More broadly, across the region, demonstrations have been taking place for four years. Approach of West has been to prefer short-term stability rather than principled approach. President of Yemen has gone back on his word before. Reforms throughout region should be pushed. The false dichotomy has been emphasized by Mubarak's allowing the MB while outlawing secular parties.

Q: Do you believe the government has flexibility?
HRW: They are testing the waters, trying to see what they can do. Haven't made up their mind yet.
Perthes: Military has this flexibility. They serve the state rather than the government. Important for them to say that the state must maintained, decide whether that is viable under Mubarak.

Wisner: Disagree respectfully with HRW. Essential to maintain a respectful tone toward government. They must make the concessions, of course pushing toward a democratic future. Must treat them with respect and care, not hostility. Latter would destroy the ability to work with them to make changes. Has to be done with respect and engagement, not an atmosphere of hostility and punishment.

Q: How can Arab governments convince this younger generation that they are moving toward more freedom, jobs?
Perthes: This is a critical generation that has been marginalized on all counts. Europe, Turkey need to help. Tunisia is particularly well situated for this.
Roth (HRW): Corruption has impeded economic growth. A freer society would have more intellectual vigor. Back to Wisner: West needs to make clear that attacks on demonstrators will end aid. Message of severe consequences if rights are not respected.
Arad: Absence of education, role of women are problems. Interplay of cultural and institutional factors prevent better economic performance. Which do you want to promote: freedom or security? Security is perhaps more urgent. No guarantee that a freer Egyptian government would have better economic policies. The real problem in the region is Iran. Huge overlap of perception between Arab and Israeli governments.

Wisner: This is a really critical issue. Not an easy answer to improving economic conditions. What is critical going forward is that there is hope in the people in the streets that their institutions give voice to what they feel and that their governments are responsive. Egyptian government didn't listen to the people, provided economic palliatives like subsidies rather than real economic improvements. A democratic future for Arab nations will provide a framework for managing tensions and economic growth as well.

That ends the session. I'm going to have lunch.

Update: State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley says that Wisner was speaking for himself at this conference. Wisner supported Mubarak far more strongly than Obama has been doing. H/T to Nadezhda (@nadezhda04) for seeing early that this would be necessary.