At Large

At Large

Six Years and Counting

By 3.4.14

Twenty years ago, Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates, decided to reinvent itself as the financial and business hub of the Middle East — a latter day Hong Kong and Singapore rolled into one.

The leaders planned a frenzy of building activity, but lacked skilled managers to oversee the projects. They found expatriates to do the job, Americans and other Westerners. Zack Shahin of Ohio was one of them. He joined Deyaar, a developer formed by local investors. He became its CEO and oversaw several major projects. The board was so pleased it awarded him a $100,000 performance bonus.

Then, on March 23, 2008, undercover agents walked into a meeting and took him away without explanation. He was kept in solitary confinement for days and finally ordered to sign a document in Arabic (which he could not read) confessing to misappropriating company money.

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What Will Putin Do?

By 2.26.14

“Fluid” is the one word that describes the rapid flow of events in Ukraine over the last five days. The unpopular President, Viktor Yanukovych, decamped from Kiev for parts unknown; the parliament appointed a new government; finance officials kept telephone lines busy talking with European and U.S. Treasury counterparts to try to put together a $35 billion aid package needed to bail out the country’s damaged economy.

The bailout would take weeks and, put through the International Monetary Fund, would require unpopular reforms such as currency devaluation and reductions of state subsidies of natural gas (which comes from Russia).

That, in turn raises a very big question: What will Putin do? To keep his plans to himself, he has stood aside, letting Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expand the Russian narrative to the effect that the months of protest were the work of paid “foreign” agents; that Yanukovych’s ouster was a “coup” and the new government is “illegitimate.”

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Afghanistan Realities

By 2.24.14

Has anyone asked what exactly the United States seeks to have in a post-Karzai Afghanistan? Presumably Washington has given up on the idea of a traditional Western democracy. The country is just not culturally disposed in that manner. Pashtun tribal councils dominate in their primarily south and eastern regions and similar socio-ethnic situations exist in the northern and western areas of Tajiks, Hazara, and Uzbeks. Smaller ethnic groupings spread around the nation. For the ordinary American citizen footing the bill, there has been no explanation as to why Afghanistan is strategically important to the U.S. There are no dominoes to fall; there is no great energy wealth to protect or seaways to dominate.

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Afghanistan: No Reason for Retreat

By 2.14.14

Two American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan. By two soldiers of the Afghan National Army.

It’s happened again. Another “green on blue” tragedy. Two soldiers who, wearing their flag on their sleeves, left their families to help the Afghan people. Two soldiers who now return home in flag-draped coffins.

Nevertheless, even amidst the anger of another brutal betrayal, it’s crucial that we keep strategic perspective. We must recognize that there are a number of reasons for “green on blue” incidents. That for all their horror, these attacks constitute a tiny minority of Afghan-ISAF interactions.

For all the doubt that these Judas-soldiers foster, the situation in Afghanistan is improving. If we’re sensible, we’ll reject the false choice between Afghanistan’s stability and bringing our troops home.

We can do both.

At Large

These Amazing Olympics

By 2.12.14

The Olympics are supposed to be a joyous time of patriotic celebration, coupled with the exotic trappings of faux international cooperation, peppered with the excitement of possible infection from foreign bacteria — and Sochi has not disappointed.

American athletes have excelled at the “extreme sports,” which, frankly, require a uniquely American obliviousness to massive internal injury. Vladimir Putin has taken only underhanded swipes at Barack Obama. Bob Costas has taken to drinking his host country’s signature libation on-air as a direct result of a double eye infection.

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Mexico Every Way But Loose

By 2.10.14

There was a time when Morelia, the capital of Michoacán State, would be a tourist destination for anyone visiting Mexico City just over 300 miles away. Morelia was the still preserved colonial city of quaint shops and fruit stalls — all dominated by the town’s rose-colored baroque cathedral. This was the quiet and quaint Mexican city that the tourism ministry wanted all foreigners to perceive as representing true Mexico. Today this beleaguered town may still represent Mexico, but in a very different manner.

The physical charm of Michoacán remains the same with its Pacific coastline matched against alternating rocky heights and green fields. The verdant fertility of the countryside often carried the perfume of citrus groves and avocado crops. Now the same green fields dominate but also hold rivaling stretches of marijuana planting and hidden meth labs. It’s definitely not a good tourist destination: Every inch is being fought over by the large landowners and the dueling drug traffickers who have raped the countryside.

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Another North Korean Crossroad

By 2.3.14

There has been a well-defined pattern to negotiations pursued over the decades by North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — DPRK). It may be wishful thinking, but that pattern appears to have just changed and it looks like the Obama White House and John Kerry’s State Department have either missed it or chose to ignore the alteration.

The South Korean president, Ms. Park Geun-hye, sensing something different in the diplomatic climate, took the necessary first step in reconciliation on January 6, 2014 by again offering the possibility of resuming the reunion of relatives from North and South suspended since 2010. After a pro forma rejection Pyongyang quickly shifted ground in a few days and returned the same offer. The possibility of the effectively mutual gesture long had been available, but the timing now was right. The reason for the change in the position of the DPRK is what is most important.

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Corruption Haunting China

By 1.26.14

There is a practice in China that has been going on for many generations, but most prominently since the expansion of trade with the West in the 1800s. It has become accepted that whenever an advantageous exchange occurs a material or monetary “grateful thanks” will be offered. This is called a cumshaw, a foreign bastardization of the Mandarin, and it can be anything from a hotel gratuity to some special “additionality” to a multi-million dollar industrial deal. Under recent communist governments officials at all levels, including generals, have become rich by receiving cumshaws after approving certain civilian contracts and military purchases. What originally was a custom expressing thanks to an impoverished servant has led to high-level corruption — and China’s new president wants it rooted out.

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Fact-Free Liberals: Part IV

By 1.24.14

One of the things that attracted me to the political left, as a young man, was a belief that leftists were for "the people." Fortunately, I was also very interested in the history of ideas -- and years of research in that field repeatedly brought out the inescapable fact that many leading thinkers on the left had only contempt for "the people."

That has been true from the 18th century to the present moment. Even more surprising, I discovered over the years that leading thinkers on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum had more respect for ordinary people than people on the left who spoke in their name.

Leftists like Rousseau, Condorcet or William Godwin in the 18th century, Karl Marx in the 19th century or Fabian socialists like George Bernard Shaw in England and American Progressives in the 20th century saw the people in a role much like that of sheep, and saw themselves as their shepherds.

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Fact-Free Liberals: Part III

By 1.23.14

Since this year will mark the 50th anniversary of the "war on poverty," we can expect many comments and commemorations of this landmark legislation in the development of the American welfare state.

The actual signing of the "war on poverty" legislation took place in August 1964, so the 50th anniversary is some months away. But there have already been statements in the media and in politics proclaiming that this vast and costly array of anti-poverty programs "worked."

Of course everything "works" by sufficiently low standards, and everything "fails" by sufficiently high standards. The real question is: What did the "war on poverty" set out to do -- and how well did it do it, if at all?

Without some idea of what a person or a program is trying to do, there is no way to know whether what actually happened represented a success or a failure. When the hard facts show that a policy has failed, nothing is easier for its defenders than to make up a new set of criteria, by which it can be said to have succeeded.

That has in fact been what happened with the "war on poverty."