Friday, May 30, 2008

how not to solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis

So apparently Palestinian Fulbright scholars can't come to the US to begin their scholarships because of the Israeli blockade. This is just mind-boggling. These are the sorts of people who will be needed to help solve this crisis 20 years down the line, the moderates who want better relations with the US, and they're being punished because of Hamas's intransigence. Hopefully now that the media are reporting on this, it will get fixed. I expect and hope that it will.

The Best National Capital Name Ever

Of all the 192 nations, which country has the most awesomely-named capital? I welcome any challengers, but here's my nomination.

thankfully, not Spurs-Pistons

I should have trusted my gut. Since the Spurs can only win the title in odd-numbered years, NEXT year is their year.

The Celtics will lose Game 6, I rather think, because they can't finish off series in less than 7 games.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Doug Collins to the Bulls

ESPN reports that Doug Collins will return to coach the Bulls.

Ambassador At Large can predict the future...
2008: with Beasley as the scoring threat they needed, Bulls jump back into the thick of the playoffs by winning 45-50 games. Ousted in the second round by Detroit.
2009: Trendy preseason pick to win the east underachieves, gets fourth again, struggles to eliminate a pesky Atlanta team, and gets bounced in the second round again, probably by Detroit.
2010: Tired of Collins's harping, team plunges to 8th seed, bounced in 5 in round 1, quite possibly by Detroit. Collins is fired/leaves and returns as an analyst, which is good because he's a great analyst.
2011: Team hires Mike D'Antoni, who should be just about finished failing to revive the Knicks by this time. Switching from slow pace to 7 second or less, team immediately doubles its ppg, wins 55 games and becomes a championship contender

We have seen the enemy and it is Sharon Stone

China has now labeled Sharon Stone "the public enemy of all mankind" and Christian Dior has been forced to drop her from its Chinese ads.

I really have nothing more to comment about this. I just think it is hilarious.

Dr. A

It's a good thing John McCain plans not to have any negotiations with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, because he has no idea how to pronounce his name.

Responsibility To Protect is not dead... yet

A useful conversation with Edward Luck, the Secretary-General's special advisor on Responsibility To Protect, served to highlight that the entire debate over what R2P is has been warped by the western media and, particularly, the French. (My opinion here, not Ed's.) Here's why: humanitarian military intervention -- the sort that many advocated in the Myanmar case, either by outright governmental overthrow or at least by an unlicensed airlift campaign a la Berlin -- is NOT the same thing as R2P. The original text for R2P that was agreed by the members states that:

1. States must protect their own citizens.
2. If a state can't protect its own citizens, the international community must help it do so.
3. If it continues to refuse to do so, the international community must work together to help its citizens anyway.

The French, and a large number of editorial pages, skipped straight from Step 1 to Step 3. (Never mind that the R2P text doesn't include natural disasters anyway, and that no developing state would have supported it if it did.) The fact is, the area where we will see R2P used most effectively is on the diplomatic front. The first use of Responsibility To Protect, as Luck pointed out, was in Kenya, where Kofi Annan negotiated a political compromise to help the state keep its own citizens safe when it could not have done so without international help. We must not view R2P through an Iraq prism, an "invade or do nothing" prism. If that's what it's about, R2P will never get off the ground. But that's not, when you get down to it, what it's about.

Which means it's time for me to explain what I meant by "Myanmar and the death of Responsibility To Protect." Whatever the Western media and Bernard Kouchner said, R2P was never put to the test in Myanmar. Because the situation was a natural disaster, it didn't even apply. R2P has been severely damaged, however, not by the fact that there was no humanitarian invasion of Myanmar, but rather by the fact that calls to do so in the name of R2P severely warped and damaged what R2P actually means. China and the developing countries are now very suspicious of the term, now that they've seen what Kouchner and company wish to do with it. It's going to take a long time to heal that loss of trust.

p.s. Professor Luck (he's also at Columbia University) also agreed with me, and with most of the Secretariat it appears, that military or coercive action against the regime would have exacerbated the problems, rather than fixing them. That was nice to hear also.

NBA to impose fines on flopping

Would that the World Cup did the same.

Meanwhile, 'Sheed weighs in on floppers:

"All that bull(bleep)-ass calls they had out there. With Mike [Callahan] and Kenny [Mauer] -- you've all seen that (bleep)," Wallace said. "You saw them calls. The cats are flopping all over the floor and they're calling that (bleep). That (bleep) ain't basketball out there. It's all (bleeping) entertainment. You all should know that (bleep). It's all (bleeping) entertainment."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

not likely to become a goodwill ambassador anytime soon

So Sharon Stone thinks that because China has not been "nice" to the Dalai Lama, the earthquake was "karma".

Amazingly, the Chinese government doesn't agree, and Stone faces a ban on her films in China. Stone also joins John Hagee, who postulated that Hurricane Katrina was punishment to New Orleans for holding a gay pride parade, under the list of people who fail to understand both causality and decency. 70,000 dead and rising. Karma? Really?

Myanmar and the death of Responsibility To Protect (update 17)

After a long weekend visit by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his humanitarian chief John Holmes to Myanmar, two things have happened:

1. The Myanmar government has pretty much opened its doors to all non-military-provided aid. A flurry of visas have been approved for virtually all UN agency employees and many NGO workers also. Planes are now coming into Yangon Airport at 10 to 15 a day. The UN itself says it's reached a million people as of yesterday (though not all of them with sufficient supplies, perhaps) in addition to the several hundred thousand more than the government itself has given aid to. Despite all this, it is not an easy job to operate in Myanmar.

2. Almost as soon as Mr. Ban left the country, the regime announced it was extending the house arrest of democracy leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi for another year. She's spent 12 of the last 18 behind bars, so this is no surprise. It does, however, send an unmistakeable signal: we're keeping politics and humanitarian aid separate.

And, in my view, that's how it belongs. Certainly, the detention of Aung Sun Suu Kyi is deplorable, as are most things about the Burmese regime. But the regime's immediate reaction to offers of aid for the cyclone victims was one of paranoia. It's taken more than three weeks to convince them that the aid workers don't want to overthrow their government. Even now they won't let in aid by military ships, so France, for example, is transferring its aid from a warship to a civilian ship. Inefficient, yes. But more effective than nothing.

The delay has doubtless cost many lives, but now the long recovery begins, and aid will continue -- possibly billions of dollars of it, according to Holmes -- to flow into the country for months. Any attempt to overthrow the government or defy it with (largely futile) aid drops would likely have led to a cutoff of all aid and a politicization of the aid process. Now, we can look forward to more open UN and NGO access to cyclone victims, both for immediate aid relief and long term recovery and reconstruction, for many months to come. For all the flack that Mr. Ban and Mr. Holmes took for their sluggish diplomacy and lack of results, in the long run it appears that they've chosen the best tack.

This is not to say we shouldn't confront the regime's laughable constitutional referendum process, its brutal suppression of democracy, its continued detention of the leader of the democratic movement. We should. (Creatively, if that's what it takes.) But we should confront it separately. That's exactly what the UN is doing. The UN has a "good offices" political mission, led by Ibrahim Gambari, and hasn't remained silent about Aung Sun Suu Kyi. Mr. Ban, along with Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbour and General Assembly President Sergim Kerim, condemned the house arrest. Granted, all of this probably won't make the political process in Myanmar any fairer, but at the very least, keeping Gambari's mission separate from Holmes's will save hundreds of thousands of people in the Irrawady Delta. At this point, I'll settle for that.


As a fan of such teams as the Suns, Jazz, and Hornets, I want to hate the Spurs. I really do. Certainly I can detest their fans after they chanted Robert Horry's name after Horry injured David West.

But I have to confess, and no denying it: the Spurs themselves have champions' class.

Freudian Slip (update)

Update: the International Herald Tribune fixed its own error (that link below doesn't work anymore either). Good thing for them that they read my blog. I'm sure I'm the only one who noticed...

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Freudian Slip?

Well, it's good to be back. I was away for vacation in London for a four-day weekend, during which time my cell phone got no reception and no working internet. Hence the no-posts-for-6-days thing. The communications blackout was actually quite peaceful. I recommend trying it sometime.

In any case, I arrived back in New York today to hear about this IAEA report on disturbing aspects of Iran's nuclear program. Now, some will point out that all of this hyping the Iranian WMD threat bears eerie resemblance to the buildup to the Iraq War. Today's story in the International Herald Tribune did nothing whatsoever to assuage those concerns when, in the headline, it referred by mistake to the IRAQI nuclear program.

Of course, the IHT is the sister paper of the New York Times, which we might recall was instrumental in building the case for war in its Judith Miller stories. So was this gaffe a simple mistake... or something far more sinister? Stay tuned...

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Shameless Music Plug No. 4

Elbow, one of my favorite active bands, does a terrific cover of Massive Attack's Teardrop.

Yes, I already recommended Jose Gonzalez for an excellent cover of Teardrop. But this one is better, and came first. Ambassador At Large will pay top dollar to anyone who has the single "Not A Job" that this cover originally came from.

Monday, May 19, 2008

brace yourselves for more Spurs-Pistons (part 3)

I believe I called this back in the first round. And after the Spurs knocked off the Hornets tonight, I am more confident than ever. One of the most thrilling NBA seasons ever will end with one of the most boring NBA Finals matchups ever. And I will not watch.

For the record, as mentioned earlier on this page, five NBA franchises have won 24 of the last 28 NBA titles. One is the Chicago Bulls. The other four are the last remaining teams alive in this year's playoffs.


The League of Extraordinary Democracies

So Jackson Diehl at the Washington Post has jumped on the League of Democracy bandwagon. Ambassador At Large has previously argued, in other fora, that this is a very bad idea. Allow me, if you will, to flesh those critiques out here.

1. It won't solve the world's problems and it will create new ones. Diehl says the presence of undemocratic powers on the UN Security Council -- China and Russia -- hamper it from taking action, thus implying that the League would have Security Council-like powers despite the fact that only a third to a sixth of the United Nations membership would be in it. This raises the question: what kind of power would the League have if Russia and China aren't involved? If the League decides to take action on Burma, what if the Chinese, and the Burmese regime, say no? As China's economic and military power increases significantly, it's worth noting that a League of Democracies could, simply put, restart the Cold War. Furthermore, not involving two of the world's great powers severely limits the League's ability to solve the world's most pressing dilemmas. What point are sanctions on an oil-rich state like Iran or Sudan if petrol-hungry China refuses to honor them? What could possibly be done on climate change without China? How can nonproliferation be enforced if at least two of the world's nuclear powers are actively excluded? And how would the League solve the problems of the Middle East if the only Middle Eastern country in the League is Israel? (Turkey, we can say, is now effectively in Europe.) How can the League solve the problem of Darfur or the African Horn when none of the countries in question has anything resembling a democracy, and when all of them will call the League illegitimate, since they are not members? And for that matter, let's not forget about African solidarity either. The Africans tend to vote as a bloc in the General Assembly and do everything they can to keep their strength in numbers to overcome their lack of power projection capacity. An attempt to divide them into "democracies" and "nondemocracies" would not go over well, especially since it's rather hard to tell the difference across much of the continent. Which brings me to my second point:

2. Who is a democracy anyway? Do democracies who are adversarial to the United Staes such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador or Nicaragua get to join? How about undemocratic US allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt? What about one-party states like Singapore? Coup-prone democracies like Thailand and Pakistan? Corrupt democracies like Nigeria? Weak ones that can't withstand a transfer of power without violence, like Kenya? Does Iraq get to play? Palestine? Do you want to be the one to decide whether to say "no" to a Liberia or a Democratic Republic of Congo following its first free and fair election? I don't. Finally, once you get them all in a room, there's this little bother:

3. How do you allocate decision-making power within the League? How would the League vote? Would every democracy get equal representation, allowing Haiti and the United States equal voting power? Would voting power be commensurate with population, a la the EU, allowing India to have greater weight than NATO? How about GDP, where the US would play second fiddle to the EU? The only way to guarantee the United States its appropriate degree of hegemony would be to base voting power on the size of the democracies' respective military budgets. I suspect that might not sit well in some quarters.

Basically, a League of Democracies is fine with me as a strategic negotiating forum among free states, but if you try to give it real power, you'll basically be dividing the world in half. The problem with that is that most of the world's problems come from failed states or autocracies, or are global in nature. All of these problems require dealing with authoritarian regimes. Pretending they don't count will not fix anything. Diehl says that those who say that the League of Democracies is a "radical neocon" idea are wrong. I say, why?

hang drum

And now, a musical interlude that is worth checking out. Man on couch with awesome drum. Sounds like a steel drum, but cooler. Watch here.

Myanmar and the death of Responsibility To Protect (update 16)

An interesting take on how Iraq affects Burma here. Kudos to Jason Rathod for pointing this one out.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Myanmar and the death of Responsibility To Protect (update 15: The British Are Coming)

Martin Jacques rips into David Miliband for favoring military intervention in Burma, calling him an imperialist. Jacques raises an interesting point: Myanmar, being a military state, has a 400,000 man army, so an intervention would not be a walk in the park like many are saying it would. It could be a fairly drawn out, brutal affair with a high humanitarian cost in its own right.

The article is a little unbalanced, accusing Miliband of being an old-school imperialist while ignoring the Foreign Minister's efforts to work with regional powers such as Malaysia and NGOs to get aid into Burma that doesn't come directly from the United Kingdom, which, um, has a bit of a history in Burma, to put it mildly.

Home Court Advantage run amok

Home teams have won 19 of 20, or 95%, of second round playoff games in these playoffs. Apart from the Utah-Houston series, road teams didn't fare much better in Round 1. This can't go on. Somebody -- Boston, New Orleans, or LA -- will close out their opponent in Game 6. It has to happen. Just don't ask me which one.

Meanwhile, word now comes that Charles Barkley owes a casino $400,000. For a big shot like Barkley, this sounds like chump change, but you never know how these guys handle their finances in retirement. Maybe he can ring up his Fave 5 buddy Dwyane Wade to bail him out. Wade made $13 million this season while missing 31 games with injury.

foie gras returns to the Windy City

Today comes news that Chicago's aldermen overwhelmingly voted to end the ban on foie gras. Animal rights activists are hot under the collar. Restauranteurs are delighted.

As for me, I'm skeptical of the ban, mostly because it's arbitrary. Some 90% of our beef, pork, and chicken, are raised in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and processed through giant facilities as part of our industrial agriculture system. On animal rights grounds, health grounds, or environmental grounds, all of this meat has at least as much of a case for being banned as foie gras.

I feel the answer on this front is consumer awareness, not legislation. Your thoughts?

Myanmar and the death of Responsibility To Protect (update 14)

More bad news from the Irrawady: turns out Cyclone Nargis landed just in time to wipe out planting season. It appears Myanmar will need food aid for many months to come.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Myanmar and the death of Responsibility to Protect (update 13)

Earlier I asked if someone could explain to me how air drops against the SLORC's will could possibly work, logistically.

Well, here's an OxFam expert saying that they wouldn't.

Back to the drawing board, intervenionist folks...

previews seen at Iron Man

Bear in mind, I hadn't been to a movie since last December, so these previews were all new to me. My take on the coming guns of summer:

You Don't Mess With the Zohan: a new Adam Sandler flick where he apparently plays an IDF supersoldier who decides to cut hair in LA, where he's pursued by vengeful Palestinian militants. Surely, this well-thought-out fish-out-of-water comedy will do for Israeli-Palestinian relations what I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry did for gay marriage. I'm almost tempted to go, just to hear Sandler, Jew that he is, attempt an Israeli accent for 2 hours.

The Dark Knight: Heath Ledger (RIP) appears to be channeling Jack Nicholson. Christopher Nolan appears to be channeling Tim Burton. Maggie Gyllenhaal, who replaced Katie Holmes, appears to be channeling Katie Holmes. I'm not sure this sequel will be as good as the original. Meanwhile, in related news, Nolan should be disallowed from writing female dialogue for his characters. He is dreadful at it. Kinda like how George Lucas should be disallowed from writing dialogue period. Surely directors of this stature can farm out this sort of menial task to subordinates, no?

The Love Guru: which should surpass National Lampoon's Van Wilder in a heated race to tap the most Indian stereotypes per minute of screen time.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: Awesome.

Myanmar and the Death of Responsibility to Protect (update 12)

Matthew Yglesias has a very good commentary about the prospects of intervention in Myanmar: namely, that it would require both legitimacy and sustainability. He has a very different, more consensual vision of R2P than Bernard Kouchner does, to put it mildly.

Myanmar and the death of Responsibility to Protect (update 11)

John Holmes was asked about the New York Times's idea of an unlicensed airlift of food to the people on the ground. His response is something that is worth considering for would-be interventionists:

"It is something that could be contemplated. The experts are pretty unanimous that this is not an effective way of delivering aid, not an effective way of reaching those who need the aid most, because by definition it's going to be pretty untargeted, and some of it may disappear altogether. But clearly if all else fails and we feel there are people who are not being reached at all, we might have to look at it. But the risks of us losing what we have already, in terms of access, however unsatisfactory it may be, that risk will be there. So the only criteria for me for considering this is whether it actually helps the people on the ground."

Meanwhile, Holmes was asked precisely the question that has been at the head of Ambassador At Large's series of Myanmar posts: is this a test, and failure, of Responsibility to Protect? His answer:

"Is this a test of R2P? Honestly I don't think it is. You can argue about whether it's applicable. It obviously wasn't designed to be applicable, particularly to these kinds of situations. But I think it would be very dangerous if this was seen as a test of R2P and R2P to have failed, because R2P is a very valuable concept which we are still developing, which we still need to operationalize more, and it's more than a question of whether there are airdrops against the wishes of the Myanmar government. It's a much more complicated issue."

Myanmar and the death of Responsibility to Protect (update 10)

Well, a little bit of good news from John Holmes, the humanitarian chief at the UN. In his brief to the press today, he said that at this time there is "no evidence" of a second cyclone (as I linked to earlier from a USA Today report, among other reports). There will instead by "heavy rain" forecast for the next few days. In the Irrawaddy, this qualifies as good news.

Meanwhile, the official death toll has risen to 38,491 confirmed dead, and 27,838 missing. Independent observers are still saying more than a hundred thousand have been killed, and that number will surely rise as international aid continues to not enter the country. Anywhere from 1.6-2.5 million people are affected.

Another debunking: so far, the UN and various national aid donors have found "no evidence" to substantiate any widespread stealing of food, as was reported earlier.

On the downside, the regime now appears to be stopping all international aid workers already in the country at roadblocks and not letting them into needy areas. Those who continue to provide aid have to do so clandestinely.

NBA tonight

Ambassador At Large's picks:

Jazz at Lakers: The worst thing for Utah is that Kobe is playing hurt. This has MJ Flu Game written all over it. Kobe goes for 35, drains a late 3 to ice it, Lakers win by 10 and we spend the next 48 hours, possibly the next 48 years, hearing about how "heroic" and "courageous" Kobe's performance was.

Cavs at Celtics: KG probably didn't like being posterized at the end of Game 4. Not one bit. He will be mad. Very, very mad. LeBron has another dreadful shooting night, as does everybody else on both teams. Boston wins. If either team scores 80 points, I'll be surprised. And this will not be a pretty game. When the Bulls-Jazz NBA Finals scores were all in the low 70s, that was because of great defense. When the Celtics score 12 points in the 4th quarter at Cleveland, and STILL almost win the game, it's because the offenses of both these teams have been completely dreadful.

Although if Bill Simmons' hysterical Doc Rivers takedown is any guide, I'm more confident about my LA pick than my Boston pick.

Home Alone 4: Lost in Vancouver

I can see the Hollywood pitch now: the Home Alone franchise meets Baby's Day Out... and best of all, it's based on a true story! I'm sure they can get Tim Allen to star in this somehow.

Iron Man

I have now contributed $11.25 to the first superhero movie since X2 that was both really good and not completely overrated (sorry, Spider-Man 2: you couldn't be taken seriously after featuring the most inane poetry since the original Superman). I know nothing of the comic book Iron Man, but the movie version works extremely well. It is also daringly topical, for a blockbuster. But mostly, it is just a very good, witty, well-paced movie that understands that the emergence of an interesting superhero makes for a vastly better story than a bland superhero doing battle with much more interesting villains (see all of the non-Christopher Nolan Batman flicks. Or, actually, don't). In any case, I'm excited for the sequels. Oh yes, there will be sequels.

Actually, come to think of it, this was the first movie I saw all year. It's been a busy year.

Next up: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull! I am so there.

Myanmar and the death of Responsibility To Protect (update 9)

So as if things were not bad enough in Myanmar, now food aid is being stolen just as a second cyclone takes aim at the ravaged country. That's enough for The New York Times editorial page, which finally weighed in:

"The Security Council should condemn the junta’s callous disregard of its own people and step up the pressure on the generals to open the country immediately to relief efforts. If the junta still resists, the United States and other countries must begin airdrops of supplies.

China — which sells arms to and has major energy investments and other deals in Myanmar — may be the only one the generals will listen to. Beijing must stop blocking Security Council action and use all its influence to press the junta to open up the country to relief efforts."

Unfortunately, the Times is still caught up in the misconception that countries like Myanmar still have any respect for the Security Council, or that the Council -- which has the explicit mandate to pursue threats to international peace and security, as opposed to natural disasters within a sovereign nation's borders -- is the appropriate forum to deal with any problem anywhere. Also, someone will have to explain to me how airdropping aid will stop it from being taken by the generals on the ground.

On the same op-ed page, Robert Kaplan gets more explicit, saying the West should threaten humanitarian invasion, and, if that doesn't get the junta's attention, should actually consider launching one. Kaplan's argument is that the threat of intervention will put pressure on Myanmar's friendly neighbors China, India, and Thailand, to nudge the regime into accepting aid. And, indeed, even now aid is being ramped up from these countries even as Western aid remains largely blocked. This aspect of his argument is compelling, especially in the face of continued nose-thumbing intransigence by Than Shwe's regime.

Kaplan's argument breaks down, however, when he gets to the proposed invasion itself. Yes, it is, as he claims, "militarily doable." But after observing that one third of Myanmar's 47 million people are ethnic minorities who dislike the Burmese majority group (of whom Aung Sun Suu Kyi is a member), and that the Burmese pro-democracy advocates are disorganized and have demonstrated no skill for running a government, and that the country, lacking much infrastructure, would quite likely completely collapse if the West invaded, he seems to conclude that all of this is acceptable as long as we are willing to commit to rebuilding the nation. The fact that this would be a monumental and quite possibly futile undertaking, even as our current nationbuilding projects in Afghanistan and Iraq are faltering and overstretched, isn't sufficient to put him off.

The telling final paragraph from Kaplan is this (emphasis mine):

"It seems like a simple moral decision: help the survivors of the cyclone. But liberating Iraq from an Arab Stalin also seemed simple and moral. (And it might have been, had we planned for the aftermath.) Sending in marines and sailors is the easy part; but make no mistake, the very act of our invasion could land us with the responsibility for fixing Burma afterward."

Granted, since he does not actually say "we should invade," the entire piece is a bit of an analytical hedge. But in the emphasized line, Kaplan reveals himself to be a member of the school that says, in effect, that invading Iraq was okay, but the postwar plan was botched, thus blaming President Bush's incompetence rather than his worldview and strategy. This school refuses to acknowledge the possibility that the original invasion was wrong, both morally and strategically. Kaplan's final line, that we may end up with an ethnogeographically divided failed state to rebuild on our hands, one with twice Iraq's population, should be a death knell for the humanitarian invasion argument. Instead, it's a cautionary throwaway line in a piece that appears to be heading in the opposite direction.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Myanmar and the death of Responsibility To Protect (update 8: "do something"!)

Today's outraged Japan Times editorial says,

"The only question now is whether friends of the long-suffering people of Myanmar are prepared to do something to end their misery or sit back and let the junta continue its abusive reign."

Which to me, is precisely the point. The interventionist crowd wants us to "do something." But what should we do? That part hasn't really been fleshed out. It's always easier to say we should "do something" than do nothing, but if the "something" involves a military invasion to overthrow the regime, I'd like the editorial to say so. Then we could have a more honest conversation.

Myanmar and the death of Responsibility To Protect (update 7)

So today's Daily Teleegraph editorial on the Myanmar crisis starts out:

"If ever there were an opportunity for the United Nations to justify its existence, then helping to relieve the untold suffering of the millions of Burmese whose lives have been devastated by Cyclone Nargis would be one. The inherent pacifism and political correctness that generally affects the organisation's decision-making process makes it next to useless when it comes to resolving international conflict issues."

For a respected paper, this is a rather shocking failure to understand the issue and the United Nations. The UN is extraordinarily, uniquely qualified in resolving international conflict issues. It is, however, extremely limited in its ability to solve internal issues within nations. The Myanmar cyclone is an internal issue. It is catastrophic for the citizens of the country, but doesn't directly imperil citizens of other nations. If Myanmar invaded Thailand, the UN Security Council and political machinery would likely prove to be extremely well-equipped to respond to this international aggression. But by design, the UN's charter largely respects the sovereignty of member states. In the wake of World War II, the UN was designed to prevent conflict between nations. As such, it's been amazingly successful. As Shashi Tharoor loves to point out, at this time, there are zero active wars between nations around the world. There are plenty of ceasefires, border disputes, proxy wars, and occupations. But no active wars between nations. That doesn't sound like "pacifism and political correctness" to me.

For a more realistic take on the situation, try this Times of London piece on the limitations of Responsibility to Protect.

North Korea

Next up: Siegfried Hecker and William Perry write a compelling piece in today's Washington Post that calls for some measure of calm with North Korea.

Beijing Olympics/Shameless Music Plug #4

Apparently, China's Olympic organizers are a superstitious lot. According to the Christian Science Monitor, "[t]he opening gala is timed for maximum good fortune, according to Chinese folklore: 8:08 p.m. on 8/8/08."

Needless to say, we fans of legendary Manchester electronic act 808 State are delighted.

Myanmar and the death of Responsibility To Protect (update 6)

So after another weekend of hemming and hawing and outright intransigence by the Myanmar junta -- as of yesterday, they'd let in scarcely a third of the requested UN staff, according to a rough estimate by humanitarian chief John Holmes -- even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took the gloves off a bit and blasted the regime's response as "unacceptably slow" while expressing his "immense frustration." In my home country of the United States, where Hillary Clinton can threaten to "totally obliterate" Iran without drawing a raised eyebrow, Ban's comments don't sound like strong stuff, but coming from the UN Secretary-General, this is a formidable escalation of rhetoric.

The French, meanwhile, are determined to bring the issue up in the Security Council, despite the fact that China won't let any resolution pass and the entire developing world is against the idea. The French Deputy Ambassador Jean-Pierre Lacroix threatened to bring a resolution DEMANDING that Myanmar be more responsive to the international aid community, putting his government squarely in the Anne Applebaum school of thought. If this transpires, Ambassador At Large can report in advance that the Chinese will take this resolution and very quietly drown it in a back-room bathtub.

brace yourselves for more Spurs-Pistons, Part 2

So, last night's Celtics-Cavs game -- taken in by the Ambassador At Large at Nice Guy Eddie's in SoHo following a scintillating 68-65 victory by his squad in the recreational urban basketball league, to which AAL contributed a sweet 18-foot contested bank shot in limited minutes off the bench -- proved what AAL long suspected: the Celtics are not championship material. 0-5 on the road in the playoffs against two teams with a combined regalar season record of .500? Not a chance. They're a hastily assembled team of 3 stars and some helpful role players. They don't have a go-to guy. Paul Pierce is probably playing hurt. They may survive Cleveland -- although I wouldn't guarantee that by any stretch at this point -- but they probably don't have the goods to outlast Detroit. They've got Kidd-era New Jersey written all over them: good enough to be in the mix, not good enough to win.

Which means that my extremely boring ratings-crashing pre-playoff pick -- Spurs-Pistons in the Finals -- is still looking very likely. Believe me, I don't WANT this to happen. Which is precisely why it will.


So I've been developing what I call the Children on a Playground Theory of International Diplomacy. The name is somewhat self-explanatory. Simply put, nations behave like children on a playground. The difference is, the impartial would-be authority figure, the Secretary-General, has no authority whatsoever.

But that doesn't stop the children from coming to him with their complaints.

This morning, for example, after the Darfur rebels launched a completely failed attack on Khartoum, both Sudan and Chad wrote letters to the Secretary-General. The Sudanese Ambassador complained of "Chad's systematic violation of the Dakar Agreement ... and of all other agreements previously signed by the two countries." He went on to accuse Chad of "continuation of its acts of destabilization," specifically of giving military aid to the Darfur rebels. The Chadian Ambassador, by contrast, complained of Sudan's "entirely baseless accusations intended to excuse Sudanese Government action to destabilize Chad," and says it has nothing to do with the Darfur rebels and is a peace-loving country.

They also broke off diplomatic relations and refused to speak to each other, choosing instead to hurl insults and epithets back and forth across the Sahel.

Bear in mind, the SG has no power to stop this conflict or to mete out punishment or judgment on either side. Furthermore, as representative of all the member states, he virtually never signals any of them out for explicit criticism, and he basically never takes sides in a dispute.

The only thing he can really do is get both sides to sign peace agreements, which he has done repeatedly. In fact, they signed the latest one in Dakar not two months ago.

Sidenote: little-noticed in the media, Sudan's Ambasasdor Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad referred to this incident as "our September 11th."

Monday, May 12, 2008

beware of bird

I fear we have all underestimated the pelican threat. I know I have.


Today's Washington Post story on spread of nuclear programs across the developing world demonstrates the real danger of Iran's program. Despite the inflammatory comments of the likes of Ahmadinejad, the Iranians themselves, were they to develop nuclear arms, would be constrained by the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, just as every previous nuclear state has been. They would not be able to use their weapons on an enemy state -- Israel, for example -- without facing massive retaliation. They would not wish to give their weapons to terrorists or militias -- Hezbollah, for example -- for the same reason.

No, the real risk is that every regional rival, from Turkey to Egypt to Saudi Arabia to even the small gulf states, will have an advanced nuclear program from which it is only a short jump to nuclear arms. Mohammed ElBaradei calls it an "insurance" policy. I call it a need to fix the going-down-for-the-third-time Nonproliferation Treaty in a way that satisfies everyone... now.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Myanmar and the death of Responsibility to Protect (update 5)

I'll leave the final word, at least until Monday, on the Myanmar issue to my colleague and muckraker extraordinaire Matthew Lee's Inner City Press. He blogs like me, but he digs for dirt and finds all sorts of stuff that I would never think to find. I have great respect, and if you want to know what's happening at the UN he'll always have something no one else has got.

That said, it now being the weekend, the Myanmar issue is sort of over for me. I'm a reporter at UN headquarters, so nothing will happen for us over the weekend, most likely, which is good because I'm going to a wedding tomorrow. Which is a whole nother story. I'm young enough — 25 — that when my peers start getting married and reproducing, it's a little jarring to say the least.

Apparently, however, the Myanmar regime feels the same way, because their embassy in Bangkok, Thailand — where most of the aid is being launched from — is similarly closed for the weekend. This is normal for embassies, perhaps, and I know it's been a stressful week in Myanmar — 100,000 dead and all — but especially given that most of the aid workers are still waiting for visas... well, in the words of OCHA chief John Holmes, "closing the embassies on the weekend in the face of an emergency doesn't seem to be a particularly helpful response."

Have a nice weekend, and be thankful you're not living in the Irrawaddy. And if any of you are, I don't know how you're reading this, since from what I hear power, electrical and phone service is still out throughout the delta a full week after the cyclone hit.


So one of my roommates has two cats. And apparently, when I'm away, they wander into my room and walk on my computer keyboard for fun.

I came home the other day to find that one of my mp3s had been renamed as follows:


For the record, I do not know how to type a ˘. Or a ¿. Do you?

Myanmar and the death of Responsibility to Protect (update 4)

So, it's been a bit of a whirlwind day on Myanmar here at the United Nations. (Or perhaps "whirlwind" isn't the most appropriate euphemism given the circumstances.)

First off, in the morning, reports came in that Myanmar seized humanitarian aid from the World Food Programme at Yangon Airport, causing the WFP to suspend flights. Hours later, the agency caved, agreeing to send more flights tomorrow. They did not achieve any concrete assurances that these wouldn't be seized either, describing negotiations with the Myanmar government as "fluid." And no, they further clarified, the aid hadn't been "seized." The planes landed, the aid workers unloaded the planes, and then the government's soldiers took the food. This is, you know, different than the food being "seized." In any event, by noon, Shawn Crispin of the Asia Times was calling for a US invasion, saying -- I'm not making this up -- that we would be welcomed as liberators.

Fortunately, sanity reared its pitying head at the OCHA flash appeal launch today in the UN Trusteeship Council Chamber. The UN requested $187 million to help 1.5 million Burmese for 6 months. They got nearly a third of it at that meeting. The Myanmar Ambassador said his country would take aid "from any quarter" including a US C-130 Hercules airplane touching down at Yangon Airport on Monday. (Sidenote: this is maybe the least likely event, short of the NY Philharmonic playing in Pyongyang, that I could have imagined happening this year. A US military aircraft landing in Yangon BY MUTUAL AGREEMENT of Washington and Napyidaw? * head explodes *) Anyway, the US, UK, and France, while firmly calling for aid to be let in, were much less confrontational in their remarks, and pledged huge reams of assistance, for which the Myanmar Ambassador was grateful. It was, to be honest, a bit of a love-fest, actually. After the French behavior earlier this week, Laura Bush's bellicose rhetoric, and the regime's despicable behavior, this was all entirely unexpected.

Of course, we have to see if any of this leads to any improvement on the ground whatsoever, but at the very least I think regime change is off the table for now, let's say. Sorry, Mr. Crispin.

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground worsens. And OCHA coordinator John Holmes called Myanmar's claim that it was only ready to receive supplies and food, not actual aid workers, "very disappointing." (Myanmar hasn't reversed that stance since this morning, by the way.) Holmes called for "open house for international humanitarian workers, whether they're from the UN or elsewhere." Open house in Myanmar? We shall see...

the best team money can buy, part 2

Major League Baseball update! You'll recall that I broke the story that Yankees sometimes-steroid-user Jason Giambi is being paid more money ($23 million) than the entire Florida Marlins team ($22 million) right?

Well, here's how they're doing:
Giambi: .157 average, 5 homers and 16 RBI, plus Yankees are .500 and in third place in the AL East, behind the Red Sox and Rays

Marlins: 20-14, first place NL East

The moral of the story is, you get what you pay for... unless you are stupid.

Myanmar and the death of Responsibility to Protect (update 3)

So, the situation changed completely in Myanmar over the past 24 hours, as the regime seized food aid, causing the UN to suspend its shipments. We now have an intractable disaster. A briefing by the UN on its next move is forthcoming and I'll have an update for the afternoon.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Myanmar and the death of Responsibility to Protect (update 2)

So today, once again, French Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert came into the Council determined to win a briefing on the humanitarian situation by OCHA director John Holmes. China once again observed that a hurricane hitting a country isn't a Council issue. Reports of China being isolated on this issue were greatly exaggerated. Fellow Council members Russia, South Africa, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Panama were also opposed, among others.

So as a compromise, Holmes will have a briefing tomorrow afternoon in the Trusteeship Council chamber next door, and any state that wants to show up can, and no one can say the Security Council weighed in.

And as I argued yesterday, with all due respect to Bernard Kouchner's head-scratching idea of delivering food aid at gunpoint, this is probably for the best. Certainly Holmes himself thinks so. Asked today if the Council should weigh in, he said, "I still do not believe that a path of confrontation with the government is likely to result in more help to the people on the ground, which as I say is the absolute priority here." Even the UK Ambassador John Sawers distanced himself from the idea, pointing out that the concept of the international community's "responsibility to protect" applies only to cases of genocide or crimes against humanity. In other words, not cyclones.

Meanwhile, according to Holmes, the government continues to prevaricate. It has allowed several World Food Programme planes with high-energy biscuits into the country, and it's generally allowing the UN's several-hundred-strong staff who were already on the ground to do as they need to. It's slowly granting visas to Asian nationals, though not to Europeans as of yet. But massive amounts of aid are just offshore in Western warships, the kind that were so necessary to the tsunami relief down the coast in Banda Aceh in 2004, and the government won't let them in because it's paranoid of Western warships. Given Kouchner's latest rhetoric, they probably should be.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Myanmar and the death of Responsibility to Protect

I find the debate about the utility and effectiveness of the United Nations Security Council is never more ignorantly foaming-at-the-mouth than when Myanmar is on the docket. Take today, for example. For starters, Bernard Kouchner, echoing the kind of wildly starry-eyed sentiment about the UN and its role in the world that is usually reserved for a Save Darfur street team, called for the UN to force the junta to accept food aid in the aftermath of a devastating cyclone. ("By God, we will MAKE THEM EAT!!!!") While OCHA director John Holmes calmly observed that being confrontational with the government would not help starving people on the ground get food any faster -- or at all, necessarily -- French Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert threw a righteous tirade at the Security Council after the Chinese and South Africans pointed out that a country's incompetent response to an internal natural disaster is not a threat to international peace and security and therefore not within the purview of the Security Council's mandate. (Amusingly the Ambassador credited Kouchner, his FM, with "inventing responsibility to protect 20 years ago." Rather like how Al Gore invented the internet.)

The problem is simple. Generally, among Western democratic powers, the left calls for greater use of the UN Security Council to authorize coercive action against problem states, while the right calls the UN useless and wants to ignore it altogether. Both critiques miss the point: when it comes to the internal affairs of sovereign nations, the Council is blocked. It cannot, and will not, act in any meaningful way on such issues ever again, not so long as China is an ascendant power and Russia maintains its veto as well.

The oversimplified Council dynamics are this: because they don't trust the General Assembly or the UN's human rights machinery, the Western powers attempt to refer every issue to the Security Council, whether it falls under the purview of the Council's mandate or not. In the post-Iraq world, however, the Russians, Chinese, and every developed country that is economically strong enough to not be bought off by the US (at the moment, that would be South Africa and Indonesia) have basically decided that the only time the Council should be engaged is if a) there is an active peacekeeping mission on the ground that all sides in a conflict are supportive of, or b) one country has directly attacked another, which, thanks largely to the Security Council's existence and George H.W. Bush's judicious use thereof in 1991, doesn't really happen anymore. In other words, the Council has no jurisdiction, mandate, or cause to intervene in the internal affairs of the Zimbabwes, Myanmars and North Koreas of the world, UNLESS they do something that DIRECTLY AFFECTS international peace and security (such as the North's nuclear detonation in 2006). I hate to say it, but looking at the Council's original function and described mandate, I think the Russians and Chinese are right. And even if they weren't, Iraq gives them the excuse to never budge on this issue again. If Myanmar doesn't accept food aid, tough. If North Korea executes political prisoners' family members in public, tough. If Zimbabwe withholds food from opposition supporters, tough. If Sudan doesn't want a peacekeeping force, tough.

The left thus faces a tough choice: either support unilateral or "coalition of the willing" action, as the militant humanitarian hawks of the latter Clinton years pretty much all did during the Iraq War (see: Holbrooke, the Clintons, the New Republic, Biden, Kerry, Blair, et al), or decide that the era of regime change is dead, that Kosovo was a fortunate anomaly, and that henceforth, unilateral action against states that are not aggressors beyond their own borders -- regardless of their detestable human rights record at home -- is to be regarded as simultaneously destabilizing to the world order, morally repugnant, and against the national interest, and thus, opposed. Applying this conundrum to a pressing international issue, Darfur, we can say that the left should either demand a NATO intervention to back up UNAMID, which is doomed to fail otherwise (largely because, as the Chinese have repeatedly observed, there is no peace to keep), or scrap UNAMID and move to purely bilateral, non-military-or-coercive diplomacy in dealing with Sudan's various schisms as Andrew Natsios recommends, fully mindful that if another bout of genocide breaks out, there's nothing to be done about it.

Where do I stand? Let's put it this way: if anyone wishes to hold a grand pompous funeral for Responsibility to Protect in the plaza outside the UN Secretariat building, I will deliver the eulogy.

shameless music plug no. 3

The Biting Tongues' final album, Recharge, is a post-punk funk acid house electronic music horn-and-guitar-laden classic. You can download it for $8 on iTunes. Highly recommended for fans of Balkan Beat Box, Tom Tom Club, Purple Rain-and-Batman-era Prince, 808 State, and acid house.

names I wish were mine

Would that my name was as cool as that of these public figures, all of whom actually exist:

- Angus Friday, Ambassador of Grenada to the UN. Because really, a guy from an island state being named Friday is sufficient to make any English major wet themselves.
- Hamish Falconer, head of the UK NGO Sudan Divestment UK, who has the nomerical cred to be a swashbuckling adventurer/professor in the tradition of Indiana Jones.
- Papa Bongo, President of Gabon. Granted, his real first name is Omar, but even so, an undeniably awesome name for an eternally-in-power autocrat.
- Max Boot, neoconservative

I'm jealous. There, I said it.

Honorable mention for tongue-twistability goes to Turkmenistan's president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, Madagascar Ambassador to the United Nations Zina Andrianarivelo-Razafy (he of the ten-syllable last name), former NFL running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, and the majority of Ukraine's political leadership.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Into Thin Air

So just a few short months after the death of Edmund Hillary (my hero), news comes out from Human Rights Watch of a new way to die while climbing Mt. Everest. Apparently, if you try to protest the Olympic torch ceremony when it goes up the mountain this month, Nepalese troops will shoot you.

a free press, to anyone who owns one

A week ago, the New York Times came out with a story on military "analysts" on major newsmedia, particular TV news, actually being part of a Pentagon propaganda wing. The response from American TV media so far? Ignore it and hope it goes away.

Heads in the Sand

I'm reading Matthew Yglesias's new book Heads in the Sand. It's a very good, quick treatise on how our foreign policy debate in this country became completely warped and confused, and how the Democratic response to Bush's foreign policy was entirely wrong-headed. So far, very good.

My major difficulty is that Yglesias is much more optimistic about past US foreign policy than I am. His breezy lauding of Cold War foreign policy as smart-headed liberal internationalist and anti-imperialist is a little tough to take. Citizens of Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the like encountered an American foreign policy that was rather different than the one described.

On a related note, Yglesias praises Truman's sensible response to the Soviet threat as an example that Bush should have followed, but of course Truman's presidency ended largely because he followed up a sensible use of American military force (saving South Korea) with a completely insensible use of force (invading North Korea) that got the United States caught up in a hugely costly intractable quagmire and at odds with a regional power. Sound familiar?

Which reminds me. McCullough's Truman is warping the middle of my bookshelf with its 1100-page girth. That's next on my reading list. Wish me luck.

shameless music plug no. 2

Elbow, a British band frequently and somewhat unfairly likened to Coldplay, is one of my favorite active groups, and you can hear clips of their material here. They're currently touring the United States. If they hit your city, you should see them. They do a great live set.

the old face of terror

Looks like today comes news that Nelson Mandela is on a terror watchlist, as are most members of the ANC. As far as our intelligence bureaucracy apparently sees it, since the Apartheid government classified the ANC a terrorist organization in the 70s, it stands to reason that they're still terrorists today, right?