...Views from mid-Atlantic
10 May 2006

Sorry to have been so brief this morning. My neighbourhood ISP in Beirut shut my connection down when I was in the middle of posting, without explanation or warning. When I paid him a visit to find out what was wrong, he said he'd had to shut me down because I was using so much bandwidth, his cyber cafe was going out of business!

It was supposed to be an unlimited cable connection - and I used it as I would elsewhere - switch it on and leave it on (generally tuned to KPLU in Seattle). But, I guess there's a limit to unlimited where some people are concerned. The elderly owner seemed to think the internet was only for checking email. I'm going to try to find another ISP, one with the nous and the kit to give me what I need. Bear with me a little.

Switching ISPs is impractical if I'm leaving in a week. I'm going to take the easy way out and stop blogging for a week or ten days. See you on the other side.

A big demonstration is planned for Beirut today, ostensibly to show opposition to a new Government plan to stimulate economic growth. Beirut's Daily Star feels the plan is a good one, and the demonstration therefore unnecessary. The buzz I'm picking up, though, is that opposition to the economic package is less important to demonstration organisers than creating an opportunity to try to breathe new life into the flagging spirit of the cedar revolution.

09 May 2006

There has been a lot of speculation about what is behind Porter Goss's departure from the CIA. An English newspaper suggested, as English newspapers are wont to do, that he was getting out before a poker, booze and broads scandal broke (a story which has since jumped the Atlantic). A Washington Post columnist, Eugene Robinson, in a jarringly shallow analysis published this morning, seems to think it's all about the need for good intelligence on Iran. He says: "The CIA should at least tell him (President Bush) the truth, not what he wants to hear. This means that Hayden, if he is confirmed, will have to do two things. First, he will have to rebuild an agency that saw too many of its most experienced managers and spies driven out by Porter Goss, who, as director, seemed to value political loyalty over dispassionate analysis. Then he will have to be courageous enough to make the amateurs in the White House acknowledge the views of the professionals in Langley."

I don't know where Mr Robinson has been hiding for the last little while, but I'd like to suggest he read this summary by the editors of the Weekly Standard of the CIA's increasingly bizarre recent behaviour: "The CIA has always had a leftist bent, well represented in its upper echelons even under directors of staunchly anti-Communist and pro-national-security orientation. During the Bush presidency, however, the agency has not been content with subtly pushing its own agenda while underperforming its nominal mission. It has run amok. In fact, it worked assiduously - though unsuccessfully - to depose the administration in the 2004 election, and since then has continued brazenly undermining Bush's foreign policy."

Forget Iran, forget Iraq, forget politics, forget President Bush. It is simply unthinkable - let's not not mince words, it is a dangerous threat to the stability of the US Government - for one of its agencies, especially one dealing with intelligence, to behave in that way. Any President who allowed it continue without taking measures as drastic as they need to be, would be guilty of gross mismanagement.

President Bush's approach seems to have had two prongs - first, create a supervisory body under John Negroponte to take control of all agencies involved with intelligence to coordinate and oversee the delivery of a good intelligence product to the government as rapidly as possible. Second, put a tough reformer in as head of the CIA to do what needs to be done to change its internal culture as rapidly as possible. What can be inferred from recent developments is that Negroponte is achieving his aim, in the view of the White House, but Porter Goss was not, and the reasons for that are really neither here nor there. There's no room for screwing around with problems of this magnitude - intelligence plays much too important a role in the conduct of the US. Out goes Goss, and in comes General Michael Hayden.

The important thing about him is not that he is a military man (he wouldn't by any means be the first with such a background to run the CIA), but that he is Negroponte's deputy, and therefore a trusted, known quantity. They want him because they know he can get the job done.

This Washington Post analysis has some good, cogent detail, including the fact that Hayden is going to be able to get a key CIA man, Stephen R. Kappes, who resigned after a dispute with Porter Goss's chief of staff, to return to the agency to be his deputy. The Post says that can be seen "as another indication that Negroponte and Hayden believe that experienced spies are the key to strengthening the CIA's ability to track down terrorists and go after other difficult targets. Kappes... had slowly begun to put his ideas, gained through 23 years of experience around the world, into action. Part of that plan called for deepening ties with foreign intelligence services."

The story also mentions that as Negroponte's deputy, Hayden had already had hands-on CIA experience, by helping reshape the CIA's directorate of operations into the National Clandestine Service, an effort that many CIA officers applauded.

Aleksander Boyd, a Venezuelan writer living in Britain, is upset that the Mayor of London is going to have Cesar Chavez to dinner when he comes to England next week on what is apparently a private visit. I suspect that Ken Livingstone may not have chosen to have the man to dinner for pleasure as much as in the interest of diplomacy. It would be a problem for any British government official to entertain him, because that would raise the profile of his visit up to official status. Mr Livingstone is sufficiently senior to be an impressive host, but not so senior that he starts making the visit look as if it might be a state occasion.

Nonetheless, Mr Boyd's article is a useful reminder of just how villainous Mr Chavez has become: "Under Senor Chavez, Venezuela has ceased to be a real democracy," he writes. "It now exists instead in the murky twilight world between democracy and dictatorship, where there is still a free press and a nod to holding elections. But the opposition parties pulled out of the elections to the legislative assembly last December on discovering that the electronic voting system had been rigged; an allegation that OAS and EU observers confirmed. All 165 members of the assembly are now Chavistas.

"In contradiction to the Constitution, he appointed 12 supporters to the supreme court to give him a majority among the judges. He has done away with any resemblance of accountability or separation of powers. The confiscation of private property or the shredding of contracts are now routine occurrences, decided unilaterally and without consultation by the President. His cheerleaders claim that Senor Chavez is a 'social democrat', while conveniently brushing aside that he supports and aligns himself with some of the world's worst dictators and human rights abusers. This 'democrat' is hell-bent on inducing war in a country that hasn't seen armed conflicts in more than a century. This 'democrat' uses the State as an apparatus of persecution against his political opponents. This 'democrat' does not allow free and transparent elections. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report that the rights of Venezuelans are under chronic and systematic abuse."

The British authorities seem to have done a good job helping small investors in the drug firm GlaxoSmithKline deal with letters sent by animal rights activists, who are trying to blackmail them into selling their shares. It's the kind of thing that seems to happen every week in Britain. I don't understand why the authorities seem to cut these activists so much slack - it doesn't matter how good their cause is, they use criminal methods to advance it, and should be treated like criminals.

The Guardian says: "Police are investigating threatening letters posted to scores of small shareholders who have been told their names and addresses will be published on the internet if they do not sell their stakes in GlaxoSmithKline. An anonymous animal rights group claims to be writing to every one of the pharmaceutical giant's 170,000 small investors warning them to sell up as part of an increasingly violent campaign against the Huntingdon Life Sciences laboratory in Cambridgeshire."

08 May 2006

Remember the scoffing when Ronald Reagan first proposed a ballistic missile defense? A typical example: in 1985 an aide to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin, the Wisconsin Democrat, announced, 'Star Wars research is an imprudent use of taxpayers' dollars. By continuing it, we're essentially throwing money into a bottomless pit.'

The skepticism continues. In 2004, Eugene Habiger, who headed the U.S. Strategic Command in the mid-1990s, said, 'A system is being deployed that doesn't have any credible capability.' And the Union of Concerned Scientists - who else? - recently issued a tract claiming that there is 'no basis for believing the system will have any capability to defend against real attack.'"

They were wrong, according to the Weekly Standard. "'A robust, fully operational missile defense system is on its way to becoming a reality,' Air Force Lt. General Henry A. Obering III, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said last month. Star Wars is here, now."

EU Finance Ministers are trying to force consumers to pay more VAT on music downloads and internet telephony provided by companies operating in low-tax havens and offshore islands. They are trying to make suppliers levy VAT at the rate in the country where the consumer lives rather than where the supplier is based (what a nightmare that would be). The Guardian says the crackdown has partly been prompted by moves among internet telephony firms such as Skype and Freeserve, which is owned by Wanadoo, to register their businesses in, respectively, Luxembourg and Madeira, the Portuguese island. They levy VAT at a lower rate - 15% and 13% respectively - than, say, the 17.5% charged in the UK.

"Karl-Heinz Grasser, the Austrian finance minister, said: 'We want to adjust the VAT system to the modern era of electronic trade and there are lots of services involved, including telecoms and pay-TV. We have to ask ourselves whether it makes sense if you have the very low rates applied by an offshore island in Europe being used as a way of distorting competition.'" Distorting competition! Someone should make it a crime to distort language for profit.

Such observation as I have been able to make in Lebanon suggests that Amr Hamzawy's view (he's a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington) is quite common. In Lebanon's Daily Star, he writes: "Arab politics have transcended the legacy of Al-Qaeda. Today gradualism, participation, and democratic reform, rather than radical violence and jihad, set the agenda. Although it's uncertain whether Arab liberals will see their dream realized, Al-Qaeda's project no longer represents an alternative."

07 May 2006

Cynthia Brzak, the UN employee who alleged she was groped by the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, is petitioning the US Supreme Court, alleging that the UN behaved like racketeers in their handling of her case. She may not get very far with it, but as Claudia Rosett says in the National Review, her case does add to the public knowledge about the workings of the UN. "'There's no law applicable to these guys,' says Brzak's lawyer, Geneva-based Edward Flaherty, interviewed by telephone. The UN top brass, he adds, 'have figured out that they can do anything they want. The difference is that they do it in business suits, instead of with drawn guns.'

"He's got a point," says Rosett. "And they don't just do it in-house. They do it to American taxpayers whose good money has been turned into dirty UN procurement contracts. They do it to democratic nations - especially the US - that lend to the UN a portion of their own credibility. They did it to the Iraqis, who had billions of dollars worth of rations grafted away under the UN-designed-and-run Oil-for-Food program - for which not a single UN staff member has gone to jail, or even faced a court. Right now, in what almost qualifies as parody, the report of a UN-commissioned investigation into allegations of misconduct by the former head of the UN's own Office of Internal Oversight Services is sitting, many months late and still secret, somewhere in Annan's executive office. If it takes much longer for Annan to release the findings, it may be time to call for an inquiry into the investigation of the former investigator. But at the UN, that still wouldn't guarantee the-whole-truth-and-nothing-but (let alone justice). For Cynthia Brzak's complaint, the Supreme Court may not be the answer; but the rest of Washington would do well to take up this case."

The Guardian's Mel Gooding calls John Hoyland Britain's greatest abstract painter, "with his huge canvases and genius for colour..." He's new to me, but interesting. I couldn't, in the shortish time I had to try, find a page of his pictures.

UPDATE: Britgirl provides a good link to more of Hoyland's work. Proportion must be important, I guess.

The Weekly Standard says the nomination of Swiss national Jean Ziegler, to membership on the UN Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights "illustrates in a nutshell (and a nut) why there is so little hope for meaningful reform of the world body.

"The subcommission should not be confused with the UN Commission on Human Rights, which has just held its last meeting. The commission has been abolished at the initiative of Secretary General Kofi Annan, who lamented that it had become a stain on the UN's reputation. However, the subcommission, which is a body of 'experts' rather than diplomats, does not go out of existence with the commission. It presumably will now be linked with the new Human Rights Council, which is slated to replace the commission as part of the overall reform plan...

"The deeper corruption of the UN, however, does not consist of acts of individual venality, but of the betrayal of the principles proclaimed in the charter. Nothing has exemplified that better than the organization's tawdry record on human rights. And no individual embodies that tawdriness more exquisitely than Ziegler."

Ziegler, says the Daily Standard, is an anti-American, and a winner of the Qaddafi prize. "Winners of the Qaddafi prize have included Fidel Castro, Louis Farrakhan, and recently Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. When no individual of such luminous human rights credentials has presented himself, the award has gone to collectivities. In 1996, it went to a female member of the Cuban Communist party's central committee, a leader of a Ba'ath party women's organization in Saddam's Iraq, and a couple of other 'symbols of women's struggle for freedom.' In 1990, it went to the 'Stone Throwing Children of Occupied Palestine' and in 1991 to the 'Red Indians.' In 2002, the awardees were '13 intellectual and literature personalities,' of whom the most notable were the French Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy and (you guessed it) Jean Ziegler."


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