Friday, May 17, 2002

2 + 2 = 666

No doubt we're all deeply surprised to hear that a pair of Frenchmen are coming out with a book exposing the Bush administration's conspiracy to help oil companies by going to war with Afghanistan. It's called Osama bin Laden: The Forbidden Truth, by Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasique, and WorkingForChange has an article about it. Not having read the book, I'm going to chew on this article a bit.

First a disclaimer: I'm not a Bush fan; although I think the Afghanistan War was unavoidable and well conducted, I also think he and those who invested in his election are shamelessly milking 9/11. But.

Brisard and Dasique were paid little mind by the American news media. Many of their allegations were based upon conjecture, circumstantial evidence, and the words of a dead man named John O'Neill. Their argument seemed plausible enough – the interests of the Bush administration and the energy industry are, in essence, one and the same

I'm with you so far. Saying their interests are "one and the same" is a bit hyperbolic, but the ties between the two are undeniable.

I'm also with them when they talk about John O'Neill, an FBI Deputy Director who investigated the 1993 WTC attack and was killed in the 2001 attacks, having resigned from the FBI two weeks before and started his job as head of security for the WTC.

According to the article, O'Neill was frustrated with the administration's lack of progress in combatting Islamic fundamentalism.

He believed his government was actively hindering his ability to pursue dangerous Islamic terrorists because such investigations were discomforting Mideast regimes like the Taliban that were being courted by American petroleum interests. Brisard and Dasique quote O'Neill as saying, "The main obstacles to investigating Islamic terrorism were U.S. oil corporate interests, and the role played by Saudi Arabia in it."

This is plausible to me. Hell, Saudi Arabia still isn't really helping with the investigation of the 9/11 plotters. Whether the Bush administration's quiet acceptance of this is due to oil deals or strategic concerns is debatable, although I think the strategic concerns are very real.

The problem with this article is that it uses more reasonable questions such as these to lend credibility to much more dubious stuff. Apparently the American company Unocol tried to negotiate a pipeline deal with the Taliban. Our French authors, and WorkingForChange writer William Rivers Pitt, believe that the Bush administration threatened the Taliban outright with war if they refused the deal.

Pakistani news agencies reported in the weeks before September 11th that America had threatened war against the Taliban if they did not agree to the pipeline deal. "Accept our carpet of gold," the Bush administration is reported to have said, "or be buried under a carpet of bombs."

John O'Neill was a credible source, but "Pakistani news agencies" simply are not. Their allegation, and the quote backing it, is simply ridiculous. It's a blatant caricature of capitalist American values as seen by Islamic fundamentalists, rendered in poetic language more characteristic of an Islamic scholar than an American diplomat.

The article goes on to declare that the recent controversy over what intelligence was available to the White House before 9/11 "augment" the claims of the authors.

Mr. Pitt mentions a recent law suit by former FBI agent Robert G. Wright, who alleges that "the agency willfully ignored terrorist threats from Hamas". I'd like to find out more about this, it's certainly possible that Mr. Wright has valid criticisms of the FBI, but haven't found anything in the news on it. Considering the context, maybe he's just another crank.

Bush knew

The news that President Bush was warned that al-Qaeda might try hijackings doesn't seem all that shocking. It appears to have been more speculation than specific intelligence, and of course was only one of many things al-Qaeda had in mind for us; they certainly had plans to bomb more embassies, spread anthrax from crop dusters, acquire a nuclear weapon and smuggle it into the US for detonation, and who knows how many other horrible things.

Investigating what bits of information were in the law enforcement and intelligence systems relating to the 9/11 attacks is a useful exercise, insofar as it can help find ways to improve the way these systems work and improve our national security.

But the media and politicians seem to view this as another ratings-boostings scandal - have they assigned a FooGate name for this one yet? If the White House will react by refusing to turn over information to Congress, it will only increase the atmosphere of scandal. Cheney has already said that, since we are At War, Congress should shut up and march in line.

Another aspect of this that bothers me is that it's fuel for the denialists. I was just asked by a coworker whether President Bush really did know about the attack beforehand - is it in the US press, or is it just another rumor of the "CIA and jews did it" school?

How could I answer that question? I said that Bush didn't "know" about it, he just had a warning, one of many similar warnings he got and gets every week. But "he knew" is a much simpler tag to put on it, and it is especially appealing to people who see the gun barrels of the entire western world pointing at their heads because of something that was done in the name of their religion.

Thursday, May 16, 2002

Turkish Internet/media law

The Turkish parliament has passed a law on media which is getting bashed by, well, the media, as well as the EU. The part that jumps out at me is subjecting the Internet to government censorship laws, especially the requirement to send 2 copies of any Web page to the government before publishing it. The articles don't say whether publishers have to wait for approval to come back before publishing, or if there's a required lead time; so maybe you can FTP the page to the server right after dropping the printouts in the mail.

Either way, it's not encouraging for the Turkish blogging scene.

I'm really curious about how the law is written. Can they apply it to someone in Turkey who maintains a site on a server located somewhere else? (*cough*cough*) Presumably it doesn't apply to posting on foreign discussion boards (do they really want all my Slashdot and Plastic posts?). Is Istanblog a site of its own, or just a part of blogspot, and therefore more like a discussion board?

Turkish ISP's hosting discussion boards (and even chat rooms!) will be accountable for whatever gets posted there. Again, I wonder how this affects someone who sets up a board on a foreign host. Turkish ISP hosting tends to be overpriced, so most grass roots types tend to use cheaper services in the US; I wonder what'll happen to them.

Of course, passing laws is one thing, enforcement is an entirely different creature. Some big companies will probably comply, especially the kind which already have elaborate policies for internal approval of web content, but I'm sure most small fry won't bother. By and large, most probably won't get in trouble for it (of course, I'm talking out of my ass, so anyone in Turkey reading this should flout the law at your own risk!) I'd guess the law will mostly serve as a billy club to use at the whim of the police and politicians.

I should note that, although I've said before I prefer to be anonymous because I worry about these things, by and large Turkey is not an overtly oppressive place for the average person. Nobody ever seems nervous about speaking their mind. It's not like Cuba, and what I hear about Beijing is a hundred times worse than that, at least for foreigners who hang out with locals.

In Turkey the oppressive arm of the law is generally reserved for people who hang around with the Wrong Crowd, or mess with the Wrong People. I'm not up to anything the military establishment would get in a tizzy about, I'm not promoting separatist organizations, Islamic jihad, or any such, so I sleep soundly at night, untroubled by Midnight Run flavored nightmares.

Formulating the problem

Albert Einstein said "The mere formulation of a problem is far more often essential than its solution". I've been wrestling with my feelings and opinions about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict lately, and Einstein's advice strikes me as very relevant to the situation. Lots of solutions for the conflict are being suggested and debated these days, but what often gets lost is that they don't all address the same problem. One of several things which brought this home to me were a conversation with a friend who has relatives living in Israel, and Thomas Friedman's recent column Nine Wars Too Many.

The column mostly reiterates what we all know, that while some Israelis and Palestinians want peaceful coexistence with one another, many want the other side's land. Friedman lists various specific parties inside and outside the conflict, and what he perceives as their goals.

The position I take is favoring peaceful coexistence of the two as independent nations. I think most outsiders would agree that's the ideal solution: polls show that most Israelis want it as well. I don't know what polls show for the Palestinians, if there are any such polls; although popular sentiment is probably pretty negative these days, it's not too improbable to suggest that, if mutual security and prosperity were achieved, most Palestinians would be content.

So this should make a decent foundation for building possible solutions on. But it doesn't. The cracks in the foundation are those people on both sides who don't share the goal of mutual security. They are willing to sacrifice security for the cause of complete control of the Israeli/Palestinians lands by their own people.

All suggestions for a peaceful resolution, including my own, rest on the fatal assumption that those who want the whole enchilada can be forced to accept only half of it.

Sharon and Likud want it all, but we hope that foreign pressure, especially from the US, will force them to accept the "reality" that they can't have it. Alternatively, since Israel is a democracy the people, a majority of whom want peace, will check the extremists.

This is a realistic hope, but not watertight. If Sharon achieves relative stability by whipping the Palestinians and keeping them docilely penned up in Bantustans, would the Israeli public vote to give up Palestinian land, roll back settlements, etc? It doesn't seem likely. It seems more likely that the majority in favor of land-for-peace feel that way because they think it's the option most likely to get them peace and security; but if another option proves effective, they'll live with it.

And Sharon and other extremists won't stop working towards getting the whole pie. As long as the Palestinians continue using terrorism, Israeli extremists will have the mandate to continue working towards Greater Israel.

Of course the Palestinian side is very similar. Western hopes for peace rest on the shoulders of Yassar Arafat; the peace plans all assume the Chairman will crack down on terrorism and lead his people to build a solid, functional state. The flaw is that Arafat is not a leader. He is the worst kind of politician, one who only tells people what they want to hear. In order to lead his people to peace, he needs a backbone, but he can't even face a crowd of followers if there's a risk of getting hecked.

Arafat is currently telling Western leaders exactly what they want to hear. Colin Powell says he is "encouraged that Arafat, in outlining reform plans in a speech to the Palestinian parliament, used the same terms the Bush administration has been using to push for restructuring." No shinola Mr. Secretary, it shouldn't be shocking that Arafat knows what side to butter the bread on. Western leaders have been very clearly explaining what they want to hear, and the Chairman is following that script to the letter. But he's not a method actor.

Arafat hopes that he can bow and scrape enough to the US that American political and financial muscle will be put to work in his favor. But how far is he willing to go against the extremists? It doesn't seem likely that he'll go very far: he'll make arrests, but he doesn't seem inclined to shut Hamas down. Maybe he would if he thought he could, but again, he's not a leader, he's not capable of standing up to his people and telling them something they don't want to hear.

Arafat is already on shaky ground with his own people. Following the American script so slavishly, condemning terrorism and talking about reforming the Palestinian Authority, makes him look like a sellout. I linked to a story above about Arafat avoiding facing potentially rowdy crowds, but more recently he even avoided facing Palestinians at Jenin.

With aides holding both his arms, the Palestinian leader stepped gingerly onto the rubble on the edge of the camp, but turned and departed without approaching the makeshift stage or the 3,000 residents awaiting him.

"I'm very angry and very disappointed because Arafat did not visit the camp," said 43-year-old Mohammed Abu Ghalyoun. "He didn't talk to normal people, he didn't want to meet the people who lost their sons.... If he isn't interested in us, we are not interested in him."

What a pussy.

Arafat is trying to straddle the fence, and it's going to screw him. He hopes that saying what Bush and Powell want to hear will make them happy, and that failing to follow through on those words will make his people happy. Instead he's achieving the exact opposite: his people are angry at his bowing and scraping, and the Americans are unconvinced by his failure to make concrete changes.

To bring this rant back to where it started, the problem with pushing for peace is that the problem hasn't been forumulated in a way that the leaders on both sides can commit to. Mutual coexistence isn't acceptable to ultra-nationalists on the Israeli side, and on the Palestinian side, the leadership lacks the backbone to fully commit to it.

The Israeli side seems more soluable, because popular opinion is on the side of peace, so if a credible plan is presented which meets the goal of secure coexistence, Israel will probably take it. The Palestinian side is more problematic. Unlike Israel, there are no real alternatives to Arafat. Calls to ignore Arafat and find another spokesperson for the Palestinians are unrealistic until the Palestinians themselves willingly reject him and choose another leader.

Israel-related stories in Flit

He's got two criticizing suggestions that a ring of Israeli students illegally selling art in the US were actually a spy ring which knew about 9/11 before it happened. The second post is above the one I've linked. Another is about an Israeli Deep Throat mystery.

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Turkish leadership crisis

Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit has decided to stay at home for a few more days, apparently still not feeling up to snuff after his visit to the hospital a week and a half ago for an intestinal infection. I've mentioned this story before, but I thought I'd round up what's being said by various players.

Special Economy Minister Kemal Derviş is calling for new elections. He'd like this to happen because he wants to make a move into politics; the former World Bank VP isn't a politician, he was appointed to his job last year to keep the IMF sweet so they wouldn't close the money tap.

Ecevit's coalition partners, the MHP and ANAP are indignant at the call for elections. This indignation is couched as support for Ecevit, but no doubt is influenced by the polls indicating that none of the three coalition partners would get a seat in parliament if elections were held today.

Ecevit himself is also "fed up" with the rampant speculation, and particularly the calls for an election. He's saying the show must go on, and there's nobody else to take the reins if he resigns. The boat is shaky enough, quit rockin' it.

Unnamed sources in the US government are confident that the coalition will continue. This seems predicated on the assumption that Ecevit doesn't resign.

The Istanblogger agrees that as long as Ecevit doesn't resign, things will continue. None of the coalition partners would gain from elections, so they've got a vested interest in the status quo. If he does step down, all bets are off. There will be a scramble for his job, and chances are pretty good that they won't be able to agree on who gets it, which would probably trigger an election.

It's not impossible they could avoid that, though, the coalition partners would all still be better off as a junior partner in government than they would be without even a single seat in parliament, so they might be able to swallow their ambitions. The Security Council, the mixed political/military council which acts as a kind of politburo for Turkish government, might lean on the players to accept a compromise, for the Good of the Republic.

It all hinges on Ecevit. How sick is he? Stay tuned.

Carter in 2004

It takes cojones to go on live, Cuban TV, with Fidel Castro sitting in the same room, and inform the country about a grass roots democratic reform movement.

For many Cubans, it was the first time they had heard of the project and its discussion drew obvious discomfort in this closed society, where people are unaccustomed to such a public airing of opinions that differ from their government's.

There are plenty of Americans who think people shouldn't criticize the government ("my country right or wrong"), although this often depends on who's in the White House. In a country where the system discourages dissent rather than encourages it, this attitude is even more prevalent.

Carter also responded to questions from audience members who defended Cuba's system.

Hassan Perez, president of the National Student's Union, said he felt "profound indignation" at mention of the Varela Project, and said that its supporters had no support.

So there shouldn't be any harm in holding a referendum to prove the people don't support more freedom, right?

Update: The Economist has a good writeup of this.

Tuesday, May 14, 2002

Carter and Fidel debate Democracy

Go Jimmy!

"In the United States, we believe that it is very important to have absolute freedom of expression and freedom of assembly," Carter told the students Monday, citing two liberties that nearly all human rights groups find lacking in Cuba.

Apparently Mr. Carter will get the chance to expound on democracy on national TV.

President Castro's rebuttal is that Democracy originated in ancient Athens, which didn't have universal suffrage.

Noting the vast poverty of most of the world's people, Castro compared Western-style democracies to an Athens in which a minority unjustly dominates the majority and said Cuba was striving for "a society with justice" and equal opportunity. He said his country was seeking "that dream of justice, of true liberty, of true democracy, of true human rights."

I'm not sure where he gets the part about the minority unjustly dominating the majority in the West, I'd like to read a more complete account, even a transcript. And of course there's the odd, if typical, claim of seeking democracy from a guy who doesn't allow competing candidates to appear on ballots, and true human rights who doesn't allow people to criticize the government. Maybe he thinks the People aren't quite ready yet for democracy. Of course it'd be easier to get them ready for democracy if he actually practiced it.

I'd read so many news reports mentioning that Castro has been sporting a slick gray business suit, but the only photo I've seen so far is over at Tony's. He even brushed his hair! I wonder if he's making shorter speeches, too.

What about Israeli terrorism?

I've seen this article in the Star about Israeli terrorist plots on message boards.

Police have arrested four Jewish settlers from the Israeli-occupied West Bank in connection with the attempt to set the bomb, made up of two gas balloons and two barrels of gasoline.
The bomb inside was set to go off at 7:35 the next morning, when the 1,500 students at the school line up in the schoolyard for the start of the school day. Two other men were arrested later.

Of course the reaction of Palestinian sympathizers is, "see, the Israelis do it too." And the reaction of the Israeli sympathizers is "see, the Israeli police stopped them."

Although both sides will ignore the opposite argument, both would benefit from thinking about them. The Palestinians should note that the Israeli police actively prevented Israeli terrorists from blowing up hundreds of Palestinian schoolgirls. I'm not sure how many terrorist plots have been foiled by the Palestinian police, they mostly seem to arrest some people after the fact, after the international community puts pressure on Arafat.

Anti-Israelis might suggest that the Israelis did it to prevent bad PR. Israeli would lose a lot of international sympathy for their own fight on terror if they failed to prevent a horrific attack like this one. My response: that's 100% correct. And it works. The Palestinian leadership should take notes: If respect for human life isn't a compelling motivation for stopping suicide bombers, think of the PR benefits.

To the Israelis, I would suggest that riding the high horse about Palestinian terrorism has limitations. The closer you get to peace, the more likely it is that fringe groups will be unhappy with whatever concessions are to be made, and will try to undermine the peace through terrorism. This is exactly what Hamas is doing to Palestine, and settlers are bound to do the same to Israel.

Let's bomb Cuba

Joshua Marshall is blogging some information which suggests (surprise surprise) that the Bush administration's attempt to include Cuba in the League of Supervillains is bogus.

Cuba is a great place, with really great people who seem to extract a lot of fun out of a pretty meager life. I look forward to the end of the embargo, and hope the transition to a post-Fidel, and (hopefully) post-Communist Cuba is smooth and peaceful.

I don't think Fidel is great. I'm a fan of democracy, free speech, and other human rights, which make it hard to dig the way Fidel runs the place. The appeal he holds for many is that he has, for fourty years, miraculously kept Cuba from being dominated by the US economically, politically, and even culturally. But it's a cowardly sort of victory, trading the confines of American imperialism for the confines of spiteful contrarianism.

I like Cuba and the Cuban people a lot. Havana is a late 1950's American city which was abandoned and squatted by vibrant, life-loving people. The place hasn't been fixed up since then, and the people that live there don't have very much in the way of material stuff, but they enjoy the hell out of life anyway.

Some people would say that's great, it's proof that Capitalism isn't the end-all be-all, and hope it stays that way. Part of me feels that way - I don't share the desire of many Cuban exiles in Florida to overwhelm Havana with McDonalds and condos, making it into a mirror of the Florida coast.

But it's kind of crappy for people in the West to say how nice it is for those Cubans that they are free from our materialistic society; they don't have the choice. We do have the choice, but very few of us opt to join the wondeful, materialism-free Cuban society.

Mr. Castro has achieved some of the ideals of communism. Most people appear to have the basics of life: food, clothes, roof, decent medical treatment if not great access to medicine. So there's a fairly uniform standard of living. The problem is, it's a uniformly low standard of living, and there's no legal alternative (unless you can pull strings and get a job in tourism).

So you can have decent food, but if you want a special night out, you can't have it. Better clothes, nicer house, more books, CD's, computer games? Sorry. Enjoy your beans and rice. For the rest of your life.

The problem with a uniform standard of living is that it's human nature to want more for yourself and your family.

So although I don't relish the inevitable Floridization of Cuba, I do relish the prospect of normalization. Cuba is a dynamic place, which has been and hopefully will again be a major cultural center with warm and close relations with the US. When things are normalized, assuming war is avoided, there will be an explosion of cultural and social exchange, as well as economic. I don't know what exactly will happen (Disney's Cheworld?), but, to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, I believe it will be "something wonderful".

If I Were In Charge™, I'd drop the embargo. The embargo helps Fidel maintain his Revolution against the Imperialists. Nothing will topple him faster than unrestrained capitalism. The Bush administration's continuation of the policies which have failed for fourty years is worthless, and lumping Fidel in with the conspiracy of Iraq, Iran, and Korea is ridiculous.

From the Times:

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Cuban leader Fidel Castro should give his own people the same freedom to travel and speak to dissidents that he has given Carter on his rare visit there, which began Sunday.

I agree. I also think the US should give all American citizens the freedom to visit Cuba that they have given to Carter.

Monday, May 13, 2002

Paris and Turkey

The latest flap in the Turkish news is the offense taken by a mural on the floor of a Paris railway station. The mural was created by Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) to identify countries which it feels are unfriendly to the free press, for example those which put reporters in prison for political reasons. Turkey was one of the countries highlighted for this, with a picture of the military's Chief of Staff, Hüseyin Kıvrıkoğlu.

So naturally this has caused an uproar, and naturally those protesting display no understanding of what what RSF is protesting. People seem to hold the government of France responsible for allowing a picture of the Turkish general to be trod by the feet of Parisian commuters. Presumably some feel that the government should have stifled the RSF's comment, so their failure to do so shows antipathy of the French government towards Turkey. This comes from believing that a government should stifle speech that it disagrees with, which is of course what the RSF is objecting to in Turkey. Point completely missed.

To mark Mothers' Day, an association of Turkish Mothers of people who have died for their country protested at the French Consulate here in Istanbul. The head of the association apparently believes the mural was put in place due to French frustration with their historical inability to conquer Turkey.

But don't go away with the impression that this ignorance is universal in Turkey. Turkish News has an ironic column which discusses the issue (among others).

Take the case of the Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF). Whatever would prompt them to think that there are any difficulties with the Turkish press? After all, did we ever have any problem with the freedom of press? Do we have journalists in prisons or journalists beaten by the police? Who the hell remembers Metin Göktepe, a journalist beaten to death by the police while covering a riot in 1996?

Not under Arafat, nor under another leadership, not today nor tomorrow

Benjamin Netanyahu does his worst Doctor Seuss impression, as his and Ariel Sharon's Likkud party resolves never to allow the creation of a Palestinian state. Of course this is not (yet) official Israeli government policy, just that of the political party which currently has the most seats in Parliament.

This puts Ariel Sharon in the odd position of being attacked for being too soft on the Palestinians. Sharon, who has long worked for the expansion of Israel into Palestine, has had to give the impression that a Palestinian state is in the future, since that's what most people internationally and within Israel think is necessary. According to Reuters, 58% of Israelis support land-for-peace.

So now Sharon, like Chairman Arafat and President Bush, has too worry that seeking a peaceful resolution, or at least trying to appear to be seeking one, will cheese off the extremists.

What will happen if Mr. Netanyahu deposes Sharon? Will the unity of Israeli politicians hold, or will the coalition collapse?