Tuesday, September 30, 2008

OFAC Designates 8 FARC Front-men

The U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has placed eight members of the FARC's 'International Commission' under ban as "...providing material support to a narco-terrorist organization".

The Official Notification from OFAC

One by one, cut them off from being able to act.

What part of "Rapid Reaction Force"...

...do you *not* understand?

Cameroon: The Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) vs. "Seaborne Robbers".


Major reshuffle of Pakistan Army commanders

Read this as a follow-up to The Weekly N&C for this week:

Dawn (Pak) reports a major reshuffling of assignments in the highest echelon of the Army of Pakistan, including a change at the top for the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Looks like the new management includes some serious "tigers". Bravo!

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Weekly N&C for September 29th, 2008

The Worst Place on Earth to Fight

The world is full of remote places, desolate outlands, and high mountains little touched by road or even pathways, but perhaps none is as important right now as the swath of land that sits perched along and above the South Eastern edge of Afghanistan. If one crosses the little-demarcated and often ignored Durand Line that is presumed to be the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the land rises and the clock turns back to a time before nations. Except that outside the mindset of the inhabitants, nations play at drawing lines across the map, lines of supposed sovereignty backed claims in distant capitals and cast as an essential part of easily-wounded national pride.

At issue here is in part the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and more specifically the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) of Pakistan, a place I often cite as “ungoverned and ungovernable” in its current organization. To be clear, we are not speaking of a small place, a district or a borough. It is rough, mountainous land crossed only in part by roads and those that exist were in the main built with the imagined goal of getting across the FATA to somewhere else. To attempt to travel through it by air is almost as bad, with helicopters choking on dust in the “lowlands” and starved of air for fuel amongst the peaks. To those experienced with the lands north of the Durand Line, the Hindu Kush one would know is harsher terrain, but only slightly, and the population present is far greater in number and hostility to outsiders.

The population is uncounted at this time. The Government of Pakistan last conducted any meaningful census in its 1997 estimate, and came up with roughly 5,700,000 people. A more reasonable number, albeit a guess, is that the population today is somewhere over 8 million people. Again quoting the Government of Pakistan, here are a couple of measures of the place: a Literacy Rate below 18%; only 43% of the population there has access to clean drinking water. Did I mention the place is lousy with modern small arms and support weapons from thirty years of near-constant instability in the region?

Furthermore, when looking at just how inhospitable the human terrain is there, if one is not immediately familiar with the “segmentary lineages” in the study of tribalism one had best set aside time for Philip Carl Salzman's Culture and Conflict in the Middle East or in the very least see this review thereof. Professor Salzman is a specialist in nomadic cultures, but much of that which forms the basis of his understanding is applicable to the sort of primordial tribal culture that defines the way of life in the FATA. If a small and inadequate summary would be allowed here, let it be said that so long as loyalties are determined by an individual’s proximity in the clan and that allegiances can change day for night depending on the presence of a perceived “outside” threat, it is a fool’s task to attempt to define to said populace anything like a “nation” having superseding sovereignty or authority. In some small deference to that thought, neither the British Empire nor the successor state of Pakistan has ever attempted to do anything other than loosely administer the FATA. They both depended on the threat of reprisal under the Frontier Crimes Regulations (which while contested, remains in the body of Pakistani Law) and even when Pakistan promulgated its Constitution, it expressly disallowed any Act of Parliament to be binding or enforceable in the FATA. In practice, this means that the FATA is a place where the law is defined by the Maliks (tribal chiefs). The Territorial Sovereignty of Pakistan is enforced, as it were, by the presence of a Frontier Corps of locally-recruited forces officered by Pakistani Army regular commanders. Given the obvious loyalty issues of such a force, when push comes to shove Pakistani regulars are deployed as well, but even then it is difficult at best for the government to enforce much of anything.

Don’t fault them overmuch as men in the field, however. When the confused and confusing dictates from Islamabad do come into alignment with reality, these forces are able to take some fairly decisive actions. Operations by the regular Army in the North-West in August and September have been and are substantial efforts (and seem to have engendered some substantial counterattacks as well).

Where it *is* fair to fault them is in the utter fabrication that the Army generals have engaged in when reporting casualties, and the absurd operational goals that up until this latest campaign have made the objective of military action little more than knocking a few tribal heads and then cutting deals. This latter is nothing more than Salzman’s understanding of how tribes deal with each other writ on a national scale and does virtually nil toward making the situation different the next time around. Considering that these very tribes are also the prime troublemakers in the Taliban insurgency on both sides of the Durand Line, one can well understand that such inconclusive results are utterly maddening to the Afghan and NATO commanders who are faced with the same bunch as their primary foes.

A fairly straightforward summary of the situation creating those frustrations, the Pakistani Army’s efforts to fight on that ground, and the appallingly poor results the soldiers and negotiators have gotten up to this point is presented by Bill Roggio at The Long War Journal, with a very fine map of how much control over the NWFP and FATA the Taliban and their allies have gained.

One last item of background, if one would so indulge the reminder, is that the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF; a separate American command) and NATO forces in Afghanistan are dependent to a great extent on one port (Karachi, Pakistan) and two corridors of transportation across Pakistan for all heavy transport logistics. Those two corridors (and we have spoken of the concept of corridors and their vulnerability before) pass through the NWFP and in part through the FATA. The route security for both corridors is entirely a Pakistani Army matter, so when things happen that make the Government of Pakistan unhappy with the U.S.A. or NATO it is entirely unimportant that Pakistan can not functionally defend its own sovereignty along the border with Afghanistan. If that easily-wounded national pride comes to the fore in Pakistani thinking, they just close the border crossings and withdraw route security and the corridors collapse. They don’t have to “shoot at American helicopters”, and frankly they aren’t capable of doing much of that and living to see the next dawn; they can ground most every helicopter from fuel shortages until (and if) the Americans open another corridor.

So when discussions turn to matters like *this* press conference by the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, there is a bit of pouring oil on the waters going on. When you add in an appearance on American CNN television by Pakistan’s President, Asif Ali Zardari, saying *this* then it should be pretty clear to all observers that some band-aids for wounded national pride have been delivered. Lastly, when *this* is placed out in casual Open Source, if not widely publicized, then there is a whole lot of “give the Pakistani Army (and their new national President) a chance to show things are different this time” happening.

There is talk of joint Afghani-Pakistani border patrols in the wind. Good luck with that, but if it does come to pass it would at least be a step in the right direction.

The Government of Pakistan, and the oligarchy of the rich families and the generals that really decide how things are done in the main part of the country, may yet see that what has come to be in the NWFP and the FATA is an even bigger threat to Pakistan than it is to Afghanistan. *Any* more such ill-considered “Marriott Hotel” hotel bombings anytime soon by the Taliban-and-allies would probably tip the scales that way for good.

If not, then right, wrong, or indifferently, come January of 2009 the United States of America inaugurates a new President who has said he will take the War on Terror inside Pakistan for real. If the Zardari administration doesn’t find a way to make some serious gains between now and then, it would be a fair wager that the new American Administration will have a whole lot more to talk about with the governments of Afghanistan and India than they will with that of Pakistan.

That puts this all on a timer, gentlemen. It is time to tighten up the puttees and get out hunting the enemies-within of the Land of the Pure. Pride, that glorious Sindhi and Punjabi pride, and the future of your nation likely depend on it.

End notes – none presented (links embedded).

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sunday Morning Push

There is no new discussion thread, mostly to allow me time to work on the Weekly piece.

Lots of things left to do with the existing discussion threads, and I'll be around to comment on them too. If that isn't enough, there is still this week's Open for you all to make your own fun.

We are now officially "Site Meter"'ed, which allows me to see a bit better traffic levels and referrals. My thanks to all of you, new and old, who have come to visit.

And now for a moment's comic relief:

By using Site Meter, if someone finds this weblog by a Google search, I can see what search parameters they used, which leads to this...

To the visitor who searched Google with the search string "how do iexport undocumented gold bars" -- Man, are you in the wrong place.

((big grin))

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Elections do not imply democracy.

...while the converse is not only implied, it is necessary.

The latest display of a plebiscite-as-justification-for-authoritarian-rule comes tomorrow, in Belarus. *Here* is the pre-game show as presented by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. Do read it all the way through, please, as some of the more important points fall near the end.

Extra Credit: to what other electoral experiences can the quote "...previous elections under (-insert name of leader, party, or system here-), which have been marked by barred candidates, biased media, and allegations of vote rigging." be applied? Yes, there are many, so be precise in any example, please.

-- no credit for claiming "the ongoing U.S. Presidential Election", as it has no barred candidates.

Friday, September 26, 2008

93% of the world's opium

...as of 2007 figures, comes from 7 provinces of Afghanistan, mostly in the South and West, all under serious Taliban contest.

7,700 tons.


And even in the knowledge of that figure, there is still debate amongst the NATO leaders as to what is to be done.

Here's one to ponder: If the total annual haul is 7,700 tons, that would be 38,500 camel-or-mule-back max loads (generously allowing 200kg), or 3,850 2-ton truckloads a year...

Lads, let's not be rude about it, but exactly what do you think comes *back* on those 'beasts' of burden? It sure isn't Persian Rugs.

End-Mid-Week Open

Here is your open thread for the next 7 days.

That which is not a thread topic, goes here. Also, any topic you want to bring back from the dead or any suggestions for a new topic, goes here.

caveat: the usual rules apply. play nice, please.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

September 25th discussion item

It seems the Danes are rather concerned about legal issues in their pursuit of Somali pirates...

Danish media reports pirates set free on the beach

...and the U.K. is reported to have given Rules of Engagement that do not allow actually taking on the pirates.

Foreign Office tells Royal Navy to not try to capture pirates

Key Point: legal, or legalistic arguments have become so confused regarding status of illegal combatants that national interests are being compromised.

Open Ground: Hang 'em from the yardarm, or give them court-appointed lawyers?

your thoughts?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

If you count the *other* briefcases...

...it gets up to a more respectable sum.

For any of you following the Antonini testimony in the Venezuela / Argentina / suitcase-full-of-money case being tried in Miami right now, it seems the stakes just got a little bigger.

You see, one of the mysteries of the case so far was "Why was the Chavez regime so upset about a fairly trivial effort to buy influence going wrong?" as the one 'briefcase' had only US$800,000. If in fact the total sum being delivered was US$5,000,000...

If this gets proven, Chavez and his fellow travellers are one step closer to the fate of M. Noriega.

Two More Trucks

This one files under the "sure hope it is a mistaken report" department:

Pakistani sources say that three truck bombs entered the capital

One hit the Marriott Hotel. They haven't found the other two yet.

Just to put this in perspective, the Marriott Hotel strike was roughly comparable to the Oklahoma City bombing in the U.S.A., but with far superior explosives composition.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Well then, what *is* it aimed at?

Since this seemed to be a bit of an open-ended move, I thought I would ask.

Russia denies new law is aimed at Arctic land grab

And, as long as we are on the subject,
Eagle1 has links to some very troubling matters regarding international waters in the Sea of Okhotsk.

Forgive my unwillingness to simply concede the matter.

How about: first the Russians get off Japanese soil; then get them some legal justification for their reclaiming half of Sakhalin and the Outer Kuriles by finalizing a Peace Treaty with Japan (to end World War II); and *then* we can talk about who if anyone owns the center of the Sea of Okhotsk and establish legal precedent from there?

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Weekly N&C for September 22nd, 2008

Ordem e Progresso

It means “Order and Progress” in Portuguese, and it is as fine a guideline for policy as it is a national motto. With the 5th largest land area of any country, and the 5th largest population in the world, you would think that Brazil would figure a bit higher on the international-attention scale than it does. Granted, having a nominal GDP in the 10th rank with that population gives a less-than-enviable US$10,531 per capita (PPP valuation, estimated, 2008), but in aggregate it is still nothing trivial. But until recently, unless one was a big fan of World Cup Football (soccer) or an industrialist needing iron ore pellets, one probably lumped Brazil in that category of thought that makes all things far away much less significant than they actually are.

Here’s a little intellectual exercise just to open up that thinking a bit. We’ll start with the simple things and build up:

Huge Rainforest all around the Amazon River: check

Big Christian statue on a mountain top: check

7,367 km (4,578 miles) of coastline: check

Some pretty darn nice beaches on some of that coastline: check

14 urban areas of greater than 1 million in population: sure enough… check.

They are the world leaders in sugar-cane-based Ethanol production: seems appropriate… check

The industrial base includes Vale (the former CVRD), the #2 mining company in the world: um… check.

That industrial base also includes Petrobras, a 2 million barrel per day extraction business: significant... check.

The largest Navy in Latin America: not a big surprise, so… check.

They operate their own nuclear fuel cycle and power stations: ah, so they do… check.

They have developed an aviation industry that builds world-class Airliners, including Jets: Oh really?

Did I mention that Navy has *and trains regularly with* an aircraft carrier of their own? It is a bit old, but still quite suitable for the use it is put to and has a fairly competent air wing of 1990’s refitted A4M Skyhawks.

As long as you are checking, the Brazilian Navy is in the negotiation stage right now to co-build their own nuclear-powered attack submarine as well.

Brazil might be looking a bit more significant than before in your eyes, now.

If so, that is an important first step because what matters next is what Brazil, or more precisely the Government of Brazil, thinks is significant. For a country that likes to claim it has *no enemies anymore*, there are still two things that immediately cause sabers to rattle and pride to take the foremost: Any territorial encroachments on land, especially in the distant Amazonas State which borders on Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela and brings the risk of the FARC narco-guerrillas with that, and; Any whiff of outside Imperialists coming to “steal” the wealth of the nation (especially the Yankee Imperialist kind). So when Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (“Lula”) hauls out a speech like *this* he is probably quite serious in his belief that the major threat to his nation’s future glory is… the U.S.A.

No, he doesn’t mean it the way Hugo Chavez does when he rants. That fellow is just a petty autocrat who is afraid for his own skin. When Lula says what he says about that, he is recognizing that public opinion in Brazil, in his party and in others, (Spanish language source) *is genuinely afraid* that the one power in the world with the capability to seriously threaten Brazil militarily would be willing to do so. Because, for the first time since The War of the Triple Alliance threatened the South Region, there is something important that belongs to Brazil that is exposed to a potential external threat. The places exposed are the Santos and Espirito Santo basins, and what is there is oil. Lots and lots of oil, enough oil to make Brazil a country with one of the largest known reserves of oil in the world if it all plays as it looks right now.

Lots and lots of oil is there, and all of it at great depth underground and at great depth undersea. In fact, had it even been possible to discover these oilfields before, they wouldn’t have been developable for technological reasons more than 20 years ago. Perhaps the easiest way to see what all is involved is to look at Petrobras’ own presentation on the initial efforts in those basins, *here* (pdf file). This is open-ocean work of a kind impractical until very recently, and at a depth and through a geological formation that both add to the challenge. Fortunately, Petrobras has gained a lot of experience (sometimes the hard way) in off-shore drilling and production in the last few decades, to the point where they are world-leaders in the business now.

Just as an aside, that presentation was mostly focused on the Tupi field in the BM-S-11 block, which is considered proven as productive. Just this year, you can add the huge Jupiter field (Condensate and Natural Gas) in the same block area, which if made productive would be a huge boost to both energy and petrochemical activities in Brazil. This all comes at a bit of a stunning cost as mentioned in The Economist, citing a one-hole cost of US$240 million for the first production-quality test well in the Tupi field. A huge investment is coming for Brazil, an investment of national wealth, national hope, and national pride. This is an investment that is certainly worth protecting, and one “we” should help let them protect.

When reports like *this* in Bloomberg hit the wires, the countries of Europe and North America should applaud *loudly and publicly*. When there is the opportunity to provide the material means of defense to Brazil, especially in Submarine and Anti-Submarine Warfare systems, we should continue to provide such. When there are open questions asked about matters like the U.S. Navy’s 4th Fleet re-forming, open and frank answers should be coming and not only from ChInfo (the U.S. Navy Public Affairs Office, Chief of Naval Information) but from political and military media sources all up and down the line, made available with Portuguese language translators and U.S. Department of State staffers *focused on Brazilian politics* on hand to field the fierce onslaught that can be expected from the domestic press in Brazil.

The same should be expected of the French, British, German, and other EU representatives who are already established in the armaments trade in Brazil. They should be open, cooperative with diplomatic efforts, and if they are feeling particularly noble-hearted, they should form cooperative efforts across national boundaries to provide Brazil will access to quality defense equipment and the training and integration exercises to work with any NATO flotilla that they wish to train with.

It is only by assuring the people, and the politicians that can be assured, of Brazil that the world (especially the OECD) recognizes that what Brazil has is a treasure beyond compare, that it is a boon for the economy of the entire world to see it safely developed and defended, and that it is indisputably, unquestionably, absolutely Brazilian.

Order and Progress.

End Notes:

A few easy public source items on matters mentioned. As always, check all citations on Wiki-p entries.

A general overview of Brazil

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

U.S. Navy’s 4th Fleet, past and present

Ships of the Brazilian Navy

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva: personal profile

Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), the party Lula represents (and once led).

Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB), the party of the Senators questioning the purpose of the U.S. Navy’s 4th Fleet.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sunday Morning Push

I did put up one piece of news for your information today but there is no new discussion thread, mostly to allow me time to work on the Weekly piece.

Lots of things left to do with the existing discussion threads, and I'll be around to comment on them too. If that isn't enough, there is still this week's Open for you all to make your own fun.

As always, my thanks to you all who make the time to read here!

Truth hurts, big man.

It seems the offical U.S. front organization for Hugo Chavez's regime can't take the truth about what their boss has said.

I say this because I have seen the original Spanish, and what the McCain campaign ad puts out there is almost mild compared to seeing it in the larger context.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

When they say fratricide, though, they mean it.

The best hope for the future of the Republic of South Africa, that the African National Congress (political party; ANC) fragments into bits and factions, may have just begun.

The Thabo Mbeki faction that once held party control as the heirs to Nelson Mandela's administration have lost control of the party machinery, and now are looking at mass resignations from the government because the Jacob Zuma faction that took over are demanding the resignation of the President (T. Mbeki).

The Mbeki regime was almost clueless on domestic policy, borderline kleptocrats, and gave protection to Robert Mugabe's ill-deeds in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), *but* they were not tools of the unions and in fact were moderately pro-business. The next administration, likely headed by J. Zuma, will be all of those but worse, *and* is a tool of unions and may well be anti-business.

It looks like the reprisals and score settling between the groups will be pretty nasty, and may well split the party into several pieces. The Youth Wing of the ANC (the partisan thugs now answering to J. Zuma) have promised all sorts of trouble if a Zuma administration is not formed soon.

Believe it or not, this is a good thing in the long run.

*If* the ANC comes apart, and the "New National Party" disunites from the ANC, the chance for the Democratic Alliance and the minor parties (Independent Democrats and Inkatha Freedom Party) to stand up a reasonable slate of candidates may finally break the trend toward one-party dominance that has severely weakened a country that should be a model for the world.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Shifting into Reverse

Right on schedule, it seems that North Korea no longer wants off the Terror List.

Somebody pass U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs C. Hill some antacid.

All levity aside now, this is actually a hard one for the "tea leaf readers" at DeptState. No, it wasn't hard to see something like this coming. But *why?*, *why now?*, and the money question: *who decided to do this?* are all going to be a bit of a challenge to figure out.

Here is Reuters quoting State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. Speaking of S. McCormack, here he is in a lengthy 18.September DeptState press briefing that is full of all matter of 'fun' topics.

The Key Point in that briefing regarding the Six-Party Talks on North Korea was "QUESTION: Any travel plans for Chris Hill or (director of the Korean desk of the U.S. DeptState) Sung Kim? MR. MCCORMACK: None that I’m aware of."

Bets are there won't be any travel plans, either, until there is something to talk about besides the usual North Korean gamesmanship.

End-Mid-Week Open

Friday comes, and with it, your open thread for the next 7 days.

That which is not a thread topic, goes here. Also, any topic you want to bring back from the dead or any suggestions for a new topic, goes here.

caveat: the usual rules apply.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Mayflower Hotel Speech

U.S. Secretary of State C. Rice is making another contribution today to the verbal fusillade between the American and Russian governments.

Excerpts are available and not embargoed

Key points seem to be:

A willful disconnection of mutually beneficial programs from those in areas of confrontation. (That is a good start, but coming 7 weeks into the exercise it seems well past due.)

A willingness to recognize that Russian efforts to distract attention by involving proxies in Latin America and the Middle East have been seen for what they are, and will be treated a part of the problem, not as distractions. (Her words on Venezuela are particularly cutting.)

The thing is, the situation is one of Deeds not Words. The world is watching for Deeds, no matter how small, rather than listening for Words, no matter how big, by both sides.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Machimura mishmash

This is your local political news update for the day.

You might recall in The Weekly N&C for September 1st, 2008's comments it was mentioned that former souridaijin Y. Mori, political kingmaker of the Machimura parliamentary faction, was quoted as saying "...he will decide everything from whether the faction should back a member or even vote for a specific person as one when all the candidates have announced their bids."

Well, things haven't gone exactly according to plan there, boss.

With a week to go (five days actually) before the LDP holds its Party Presidential election, he has supposedly lined up 61 of 89 members to back T. Asou and the rest are believed to be going for Y. Koike.

That is one heck of a protest vote, if nothing else.

from today's Japan Times on this

On the plus point, immensely popular former souridaijin J. Koizumi is steadfastly supporting Y. Koike and giving her other supporters the political cover they need to make this try.

Noble fellow he is, the "Lion King". Bravo, Koizumi.

You thought you had problems?

Five hundred points off the DJIA in a day sure *sounded* bad.

But not so. In fact, it is entirely recoverable (albeit at some systemic cost).

*This* is bad.

...couldn't happen to a nicer bunch, either.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

September 16th discussion item

*Here* is the latest from lovely Bolivia, land of great excitement and trumped-up arrest charges.


"Officials have said that between 14 and 28 people died in that incident in rural Pando, as well as two more in the provincial capital, Cobija."


Open Ground: Please concentrate on the charge, not the overall situation. We have lots of topics and time elsewhere to call into question E. Morales and his part in the Bolivarian Socialist Revolution. Please also remember that this is not a unique case: the first charges rolled out by the Russian when they invaded Georgia last month was that Georgians were "committing genocide".

Is it the new refuge of scoundrels in world conflicts to claim overarching legal principles (in even the most trivial of cases)? Is this misappropriation the logical extension of the long efforts to create a legal basis for (and against) war?

Just one word.

There is now a power-sharing agreement in place in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), placing several Cabinet seats in the hands of the MDC party and giving the Prime Ministry to M. Tsvangirai. R. Mugabe continues to hold the Presidency and command of the military. There have already been hopeful noises out of the "new" government that foreign aid will return.

But just to keep things in perspective, Prime Minister, I suggest you keep one word in mind as you go forth...

just one word, a Shona word...


Monday, September 15, 2008

The Weekly N&C for September 15th, 2008

There is more to this fight than meets the eye.

I’ll assert, just to set the tone, that Access to Energy has transcended most of the classic threefold concerns of States in the definition of defensible “borders”. The ancient arguments over Territoriality and Access to the Sea (or Lines of Trade) are still important, but they pale in comparison. Only Access to Sustenance (commonly called Food/Water Security now) remains a viable contender for the primary spot on the list of things that cause near-instant dread in the centers of governance when belligerency is on the horizon. The great breadbasket Nations can even toss that concern aside, and usually do. Even more, the developed economies of the world and those undergoing massive industrialization all seem to hold desperate fears, mostly rightfully, that any interruption in the availability of energy supplies will within weeks leave them in economic tatters. But does it always hold that the fears of those that demand the vital goods leave those States at the mercy of those that supply them?

The answer to that can be found in an understanding of the global availability of the vital good in question, and in the security of route available for the transportation of that good. The key to understanding global availability is to understand the meaning, and limits, of fungibility. Fungiblity, or the interchangeable nature of some goods, means in application that if one were in possession of, oh say, one ounce of gold bullion one could offer it in exchange for another ounce of gold bullion of the same grade irrespective to the present location of that second ounce. This is not a particularly useful feature if both traders are sitting in the same room, but as communication has outstripped the pace and price of transportation, it has come to be of some utility. In fact, the key enabling tools of Mail and Banking have grown steadily since the time in which one trader was in Madrid and the other in The Spanish Netherlands in the late 16th Century and both traders had need for the expenditure of said gold in the respective opposite place.

Fungibility matters even more in cases of sourcing and transport, those being the cases where a desired destination requires the delivery of a specified good. Again, were one to be in need of an ounce of gold bullion in hand to pay one’s Italian Mercenary soldiers on campaign in the Low Countries in the 16th Century, one would not particularly care as to whether the gold was from the treasures of the Americas, the hands of a Central European lending house, or was sitting in a bank in Antwerp as receipt for payment of some purchase there. One *would care* greatly as to which source was available, and what time it would take and what expense that would take to get it delivered to the camp of the soldiers, but as to the bullion itself one source is just as good as the other. We shall discuss those cares later.

Gold bullion is a simple case, intentionally arranged by the implementation of standards to make the two items virtually identical. Most cases of fungibility are cases of degree, and the common modern examples are precious metals, some currencies, electricity, and… crude oil.

There are some fairly serious concerns however, were one to be in the refining business, as to exactly *how nearly* fungible crude oil is. The myriad of grades, weights and fractionabilities of crude oil of various sources does imply that there must be a certain pairing of wellhead sources with refineries configured for that particular feedstock. But the implication there is far stronger in the case of the very heavy crude sources like most of what comes out of Mexico and Venezuela. Here is a list for example’s sake, that includes the defining terms of “Heavy”, “Medium”, and “Light”, as well as the “Sweet” and “Sour” measures of sulfur content. In the context of what we are driving at here, the most fungible of crude supplies would be those of the same weight and sweetness acceptable to the widest number of refineries. Generally, that means Light Sweet crude oil that is not so light as to be considered Condensate (very high parts of condensed petroleum gases).

There is then also a consideration, let us coin the term “needstock”, that states that a given refinery serving the needs of a given market base is obliged to produce a given variety of refined products. The primary needstock of North American and Western European refiners is the production of gasoline, followed by diesel and jet fuel products. The production of all the other products is de-emphasized by design, and even so there is often an overproduction of other less needed products. The smaller refiners serving less developed markets are often required to meet a needstock of wider variety. The technology available and the needstock requirements often preclude accepting feedstock that is out of alignment. This is one major part of why countries like Iran lack refining capacity to produce large supplies of motor gasoline from their otherwise readily available crude, or why Venezuela remains a major source of heating oil (for export) rather than having customers waiting in line to buy that particular crude as feedstock to refine it into gasoline. There are more factors in these and similar cases, but needstock requirements are a big part of the measurement of how fungible these given sources are in the world.

The total world demand (and current supply enabled, roughly) is about 85 million barrels per day of crude. Here is a reference on that demand and supply. A fair portion of that never hits the world market as it is produced and consumed in the same countries or regions. A lot more of it moves by pipelines dedicated to given markets; much of the very substantial Russian export supply is mainly tied to markets directly. Not surprisingly, the largest portion of the market supply of crude oil comes to the world via the member States of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). That fine example of a price-setting cartel is composed, as of the recent meeting, of the 12 nations of: Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela. Note that Angola and Ecuador are new members, and that Indonesia has withdrawn as it is no longer a net exporter of crude oil. In total, they are running just under 37 million barrels per day total, as of the end of the second quarter of 2008. For those of you checking your OPEC quota sheets, that would be roughly 32 million barrels per day planned, plus the unallocated but allowable 3+ million barrels per day exported from Iraq, and then about 2 million barrels per day of quota breaking…

Quota breaking, do you say? Well yes, there has always been some quota breaking by opportunist members of the cartel, and there is also the swing-producer role played by Saudi Arabia that is intended to match supply and demand. Saudi Arabia produces the most nearly fungible crude from a system that has the greatest (by far) excess of capacity in place. In fact, running even as they are, Saudi Arabia has about 2 million barrels per day of excess capacity sitting ready to pump on a few weeks notice. All of Saudi Arabia’s capacity is connected to export terminals, so any change in production immediately becomes a global market commodity.

This gets us around once again to the matters of the enabling tools of trade (Banking and Communication) and that of the time, risk and expense of transport. The Saudis are a superb example of having access to all the enabling tools, and of managing in the main the matters of time and expense of transport. They are subject to risk by their geographic location, but have gone to great efforts in both national defense capability and alliances to mitigate that risk as much as possible. If they chose to produce to capacity, or even to some expanded capacity, there is little short of an act of war that any rival can do to stop them. The same is not true of several of the “bad boy” actors in (and outside) OPEC who are currently fueling trouble by the wealth that spot market crude oil prices in the US$100~150 per barrel was bringing in.

Leaving aside Russia’s production, which is maxed out, declining month by month, dependent on foreign technology and capital flows to keep running, *but* for now assured of a market, there are two particular cases where a case can be made that the supplier is in fact beholden to the buyer, not the other way around: Iran and Venezuela. Both suffer from having crude oil that is far less fungible in market terms. Venezuela is burdened with (in the main) very heavy crude, and Iran produces (again, in the main) very sour crude. Neither have a wide variety of buyers compared to benchmark crude oils, and neither is even close to as fungible as what Saudi Arabia can pour out. Worst of all (for them), both countries have committed themselves to extremely expensive competition with rival nations while being faced with fragile economic and social conditions at home. Both countries are “forced” to become price hawks, willfully engaging with speculator interests to jack up spot market prices and ranting at their fellow OPEC members about production cuts at the first sign of world markets turning down on crude oil futures. They have even claimed victory in the latest OPEC meeting. Some victory it was, as there is more to this fight than meets the eye.

The Saudis have publicly allowed that they are not cutting back. The futures market for crude oil is even now shaking off the worries that come with hurricane season in the Caribbean region. The Brazilians are announcing another large discovery in their wonderful BM-S-11 exploration zone. More is to come, even if it is not such a massive find, as the “Drill, baby, Drill” movement is coming into its own in the United States. The oil speculations running on big money players are watching Lehman Brothers Holdings go into bankruptcy protection, tying up all sorts of capital assets and taking those players to the sidelines.

The possibility of crude oil futures hitting the US$60~70 range in the near term is real, and that scares the heck out of the theocrats in Iran and the autocrats in Venezuela and Ecuador.

It is fair to expect some desperate moves on their parts. Expect the Russians to support them. Expect every manipulator out there to try and disrupt supplies, or give aid and comfort to groups that will do it for them. So be it.

For let us give credit where credit is due: Quiet diplomacy, backed by real capability to do otherwise, has worked. The Saudi Arabian government and the UAE’s government both understand that the alternative of continuing to be complicit in letting the Venezuela-led bloc and Iran’s global ambitions be fueled by excessive crude oil prices will result in more and far worse confrontations. Just as flooding the market in the 1980’s was a key element in constraining Soviet economic options, putting the crude oil futures market into a supply excess now is the best way to defang the particularly destabilizing cooperation that opportunists in both Iran and Venezuela have chosen as their course. Neither Iran nor Venezuela can compete on a worldwide basis with easy availability of Light, Sweet, eminently Fungible Saudi Arabian crude oil.

Just imagine how bad it will get for them when Iraq gets back up to capacity.

End notes:

The information on Saudi Arabia’s off-the-record position vis a vis OPEC is also cited *here*

One hypothesis predicting Venezuela may interrupt crude oil shipments to try to panic the market is based on observations of *this* but I would caution that it is far more likely that Citgo is looking at more serious access problems at Lake Charles after the hurricanes than is currently being discussed. This is a matter worth watching, however.

One other hypothesis out there, is that speculator interests (nations *or* individuals) are fueling disorder in places like Nigeria. Here is the current Nigeria situation.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sunday Morning Push

There is no new discussion thread for today, mostly to allow me time to work on the Weekly piece.

Lots of things left to do with the existing discussion threads, and I'll be around to comment on them too. If that isn't enough, there is still this week's Open for you all to make your own fun.

One quick advisory: Thread Topics remain open for 14 days, then default into moderated commenting (basically making them "dead" threads). On occasion, I will roll-forward a topic, opening a new thread on it as circumstances require, but when I do, I post a closing comment on the old thread. In either case, so long as there is a thread available on a topic, please post relevant comments there.

Oh, and a friendly reminder: Please do read what others have already commented on a thread. It prevents one looking a bit silly reposting an identical link, for example.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Well, that clears that up.

Just in case any of you were thinking that the Government of Russia might be feeling even the slightest bit bad about precipitating a war in Georgia and then invading the country...

Medvedev says he would do it again

Oh, and he had the unmitigated gall to claim comparable circumstances to the reaction to the September 11th, 2001 attack against Western civilization.

My contempt knows no bounds as to this.

End-Mid-Week Open

That which is not a thread topic, goes here. Also, any topic you want to bring back from the dead or any suggestions for a new topic, goes here.

Thanks to All, and hope you are enjoying!

caveat: the usual rules apply.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Another Intelligence Estimate

This is a quick reminder about all the noise that hit the media when the last National Intelligence Estimate for Iran hit the U.S. political scene (and shortly thereafter the mass media of the world). That NIE claimed that it was no longer likely that Iran was doing "weaponizing" research on nuclear weapons, and it was seized on by every doubter of the Bush administration worldwide as truth incarnate.

Yeah, well.

That all be as it was, the architect of that NIE was one Thomas Fingar Ph.D., Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis. T. Fingar ran (or effectively ran) the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (commonly abreviated "INR") for a number of years before being pulled over into the DNI's office. While he was at INR, they got a heck of a good reputation for getting the intelligence "right".

So what changed?

Maybe, just maybe, it was political expediency. You be the judge, because *here* he is again out doing the political dog-and-pony show.

Forgive me Dr. Fingar, but I doubt this process is what you meant about letting the information speak for itself. In fact it looks to me like you are carrying water for that faction which passes for "Realists" these days over at DeptState.

7 years ago today, I got a phone call

I had just returned from an evening's pleasant obligation, local time. It was an old friend calling from the U.S. and the first words said were "Are you watching?".

Since then, life got a bit more interesting (again). There was and is work to be done (again). No, I am not going to go into further detail. But *this* about sums it up.

To my brothers and sisters still out there training, doing, and enduring: Vaya con Dios

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

We are Gordon Brown

It seems that there is more than a little truth in the reports of some confusion in the Brown administration of Her Majesty's Government as to who gets to use the name "Gordon Brown" on official statements.

A little communication problem

Worse, as M. Goldfarb from the McCain-Palin Campaign pointed out here, even the context of the original statement from G. Brown's office missed the truth by mile.

Way to go, Gord. You're making us all proud. again.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Somalia Update

Back on August 18th, The Weekly N&C set the table for reports of increasing troubles in Somalia. Well, here they are:

Eagle1 has lots about the *rampant* piracy and the countermeasures that are finally beginning to have some effect. Sort his posts by the labels "Somali Pirates" and "Somalia" to get the (long) story of the last month's events.

Nick Grace at Long War Journal has the grim report on the land warfare and lots of good media links and information. To summarize: al-Shabaab has almost carved out a territorial holding in Jubaland and the South, are fully in league with al-Qaeda Central, and the TFG is not able to roll them back.

Well now, this could complicate things.

It seems there is pretty good reason to believe that something ill has befallen Kim Jong Il...

...he may have suffered a stroke.

Now before one gets all excited (favorably or unfavorably), do consider that while he is reputed to have suffered chronic heart disease *and* diabetes no meaningful confirmation of either has ever been found. There is an entire cottage industry built on predicting his health, mood and rationality on any given day. There is so much nonsense out there that a story of his having died in 2003 and replaced by a body double has even gotten some traction in the media.

But still, Kim Jong Il has not been seen at public events for almost a month, including the National Celebration held Tuesday.

He has got to go some day. The question that should give you pause is "After he goes, who takes over?", because with: thousands of artillery pieces sighted in on the city of Seoul, South Korea; a strategic missile force that can at least lob 500kg+ bombs across the Sea of Japan; and a crude nuclear (or sub-nuclear) weapons capability...

...one had best hope it isn't anyone who thought the attack on Korean Airlines Flight 858 was an good opening act.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Weekly N&C for September 8th, 2008

Now is it time to panic?

With headlines such as these available recently, it seems fairly likely that one could wave them around and stir up quite the panic.

Nicaragua Supports Russia, Recognizes Georgian Rebel Regions

Russian Confirms Upcoming Naval Maneuvers with Venezuela

Talk of Cuba, Venezuela Hosting Russian Military Bases --STRATFOR (subscribers only)

Well, were one to be a resident of Nicaragua, Cuba, or Venezuela that is holding on the hope of seeing the local Communist (-inspired) regime get chased out, those would be pretty disheartening headlines. Folks living next door to such Worker’s Paradises might not be thrilled about them either. But likely as not the only people with real reason to panic about a possible return of Russian expeditionary forces to the Caribbean region are the resort hotel operators who would have paying European tourists bumped from rooms so that Russian officers could return to treating an assignment there as a standing order to vacation.

The logistical realities of operating on the opposite side of the world are a stretch for those military forces that specialize in such deployments. The Russians, who did many things very well, and still do some things very well, do not count globe-spanning logistical capability among those things. Given the lack of on-board ammunition reloads and the appallingly short endurance at sea of most modern light *surface* warships without dragging a fleet oiler around, a Russian squadron of surface vessels in the Caribbean Sea has always been an amusing conceit tied closely to the port it is based in, with pretty much a one-time utility offensively against a major power.

Conventional Air operations are actually easier and more useful, as are bases for submarine replenishment. Both are primarily defensive assets, and both vastly complicate the plans of any military activity in the area, and that seems to still be the major reason why Cuba and Venezuela are willing to keep bringing up the topic. Well, in fairness, that is why the rational actors in those regimes keep bringing it up. The less-well-balanced members of the regimes seem to take endless (and nearly inexplicable) pleasure in just doing things that make substantial parts of the American political scene howl.

Very well then, that all seems to show that the sum total of those headlines is a minor complication to U.S. military and political affairs, sufficient fighting power to potentially put the continued liberty of Aruba at risk, and a major threat to the supply of fruity cocktail drinks at any resorts open to off-base leave by the visiting team.

That is, as long as there is no significant logistical capacity or inherent ability to project force by the hosting nations. With a force structure in place of competent local capability, the Russian expedition (or any other visiting power’s) becomes a “stiffener” instead of merely a “tripwire”, e.g. they add to real offensive and defensive capabilities rather than just being a presence that must be considered by any outside intervention. The threat that one or more of the “bad boys” of Latin America gaining such ability is real however, and while the Russians may well play the enabler’s role for now, it is what those regimes are doing and how they are doing it that should be seen as grounds for very real concern. You see, the way for a regime to cement control and then expand their power is to…

…win one election.

Specifically, win one popularly contested election under some circumstances considered “fair”, at least enough to gain recognition by various international bodies as “fair”, *and then change the rules*.

Of all the Latin American states currently under some variation of Communist (-inspired) governance, only Cuba remains a product of the Revolutionary Struggle. Nicaragua’s revolution has been swept away by several rounds of functional multiparty contests, but the last such brought back the old revolutionaries. Venezuela succeeded in utterly despoiling the democratic process without any successful revolution or coup, only to install the very face of one failed coup as President by electoral means. Ecuador, Bolivia, and some might argue Paraguay have all held polls and as a result now have functional oligarchies of the Socialist ilk to replace their traditionally Aristocratic ones. Leaving aside Cuba as unique, there is one unifying step of the processes common to all the others, and the key was Venezuela. For a candidate to be able to carry a plurality in what would be considered a “fair” election in any of those counties requires that the mass of the impoverished turn out to vote, and vote in the main as a bloc. To get them out of the, for lack of a better word, slums on election day, they need to either believe the promises of state largesse, or be so afraid of something that they vote for the candidate “against” that which they fear.

In Venezuela first, and then later in the others, the promise of Socialism and the state largesse that comes with it could be made believable because of national wealth; in specific, because of Oil money. The fear didn’t even need to be an outside threat at first. All that was needed at that time was to make the entirely plausible claim that the current political aristocracy had its finger on all that wealth and that if power was not taken from them, no significant amount of that wealth would ever be distributable to the masses. A mature democracy could have found a better way to see to the betterment of the nation and populace, but no one has ever accused Venezuela of being a mature institutional democracy of any real measure. Instead, raw populism and simplistic promises of using state power to mandate redistribution carried the day and Hugo Chavez and a rather small leadership clique gained access to the national wealth.

From that beginning, some promises were indeed fulfilled (no matter how impractical those promises were in the long run) and prices were subsidized on goods, basic education was expanded and state-run exercises in employment provision were put into place. But with hands in the till, so to speak, by the ruling clique and the philosophical need to expand the “revolution”, the treasury outflow clearly outpaced the inflow. Only a persistent rise in petroleum prices kept things close to balanced for a while. But gifts of oil “in thanks” to Cuba, and that expanding “revolution” which had to find funding first Nicaragua’s old Marxists, then Ecuador’s new “reformers”, then Bolivia’s nativists-turned-socialists all taxed the currency flows. Add in the burning desire of the new regime to make themselves equal or superior to the old aristocrats (at least in greed) and the cost spiral that happens when a nation simply coins money and hands it out to the masses, and the limits of productive worth on the nation were rapidly to be exceeded.

While no one would claim that economic good sense raised its head in the Bolivarian Republic government, even the simplest member of the ruling clique could see the level of coins in the treasure chest sinking. The brains of the bunch (there are several, actually) realized that if something was not done to lock in the system as they wished it to be, when the well ran dry they would be abandoned by supporters and foreign friends alike. In a surprisingly efficient set of maneuvers, two parallel courses were set in motion.

The first came from the standard Populist-turned-Dictator playbook; Change all the rules of how the government is mandated. First, stand up some enemies of the state (and thus “the people”), so both internal and external foes had to be found. Chavez himself had by this point endured one attempted military coup, and had painted it as a creature of the former aristocracy and a foreign power. That helped things along, as no populist leader in Latin America can go wrong by blaming the rich and the Americans for something troublesome. Internal foes were also picked out. General Baduel for one, long a supporter of the Chavez regime, found himself on the outside of the clique. Next, monopolize the means of communication. Again, this too is a simple task given the history of government intervention in the media. Once those things are done (to the joy and applause of the majority of the electorate), rewrite the laws governing election rules and hold another plebiscite or a referendum on power. This, like several parts of the above steps, is an ongoing process. The Chavez faction “won” one election that was so manipulated that the opposition parties boycotted participation. For one to call that a big mistake on their part is making an understatement. The then-existing constitution of Venezuela had (and still has) very clear emergency powers and the ability of the executive to ask for dictatorial authority. If the representative Congress passes the authorization, the President can *perfectly legally* run the country by fiat for a period of 18 months. Technically, the only thing the executive can’t do in that time is change the constitution, but if the Constitutional Court is packed no challenge to laws made by edict stands a chance. This course has played out almost to perfection so far. The one and only miscalculation was an attempt at fully rewriting the constitution that was put to referendum and failed. Chavez’s last period of rule-by-edict expired at the end of July of this year.

The second course in play is to seize the means of production of everything that generates foreign exchange, manages financial movements internationally, or produces an essential resource for the economy that was held by private, especially foreign, investors. Grabbing control of the exportable resources was not difficult, as most all of them were being produced under fairly onerous national licenses anyway. Seizing the Exchange Banks was a little more difficult legally, but such expropriations can be arranged by various means. Keeping them open after one seizes them is a bit harder these days than in years before, but if a few countries willing to collaborate (for their own reasons) keep links open and no major binding financial sanctions regime falls against the effort, it all works out. Nationalizing fixed industry is the hardest of the lot, as in the case of Venezuela most of the important industries had been capitalized by foreign investments. If the owners were all locals they could just be run over legally, but to pick the example of the Cement industry, all three major producers are subsidiaries of large foreign industrial conglomerates. That effort hasn’t gone so well to date, but at least on paper all three Cement producers have now been nationalized.

So why is this second course such an important part of the scheme? No, not because it enables yet more government patronage. Instead, while it does little to help in the long run, in the short term it pours capital (the equivalent of more coins) back into the treasure chest. It was a play for time.

But was it long enough? The process of all this is being echoed down the chain. Nicaragua is inviting in Iranian-linked “investments” and the regime there is trying to revise some parts of the legal system. Ecuador is inviting in Chinese investment, at the same time moving to nationalize existing oil production and mass media, and has a constitutional referendum about to be voted on. Bolivia just went through a cleverly-run “recall” of the government, who recalled themselves as a means to capitalize on popularity after the seizure of the nation’s natural gas industry, and is now proposing a constitutional referendum. All of these efforts to lock-in the current regimes are underway, and all need more time to solidify control, and all the while they hold out their hand and money from Venezuela (and from “useful idiots” fronting a fair number of the NGO’s working the Andean region) has to be put in to keep the “revolution” going.

Was it long enough?

Inflation in Venezuela hit 22% officially as of early this year. Some judgments put it at over 30% now. Price subsidies failed, as did mandatory distribution orders for basic foodstuffs. A friend, passing along a personal letter, quotes (translated) “…Food- there is no tomato sauce, mayonnaise, rice, or coffee and it looks like these are going to (continue to) be scarce... It looks like one of the laws Chavez did is he can expropriate these to the national producers of food and he is nationalizing all he can do with force.”

Oil production infrastructure is going on 10 years with no significant re-investment.

Was it enough, or will the money and power have to come in somehow else?

Venezuela refuses to return to anti-drug cooperation pact

Was it, or will there have to be decisive measures?

"Todo ello a través del anuncio de 15 Nuevas Leyes que serán presentadas al País antes del 23 de Noviembre."

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Sunday Morning Push

There is no new discussion thread for today, mostly to allow me time to work on the Weekly piece.

Lots of things left to do with the existing discussion threads, and I'll be around to comment on them too. If that isn't enough, there is still this week's Open for you all to make your own fun.

It seems that the week after Labor Day (in the U.S.) is a pretty busy time for folks. Don't worry, I understand. I had an unplanned day away from here this week as well. On the plus point, local Ice Hockey is now in preseason play and I got to see a game.

All my best, and my thanks to all of you who have shown by comments here or e-mail letters that you are interested in what we do here.

Friday, September 5, 2008

End-Mid-Week open

That which is not a thread topic, goes here. Also, any topic you want to bring back from the dead or any suggestions for a new topic, goes here.

caveat: the usual rules apply. We play nice here.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

September 4th discussion item

Here we have an example of national mismanagement on a grand scale: Zimbabwe (Rhodesia, formerly Southern Rhodesia).

Setting aside my personal vested interests about this case, let us just put this forth as an example applicable to several countries. The post-colonial government was overturned and a single-party system rose to power on the back of the forcible elimination of any and all meaningful rivals. That government has run things for over 20 years, and has run the country into the ground. Epic population dislocations, hyperinflation, utter desolation of the means of production, and no small amount of kleptocracy have occurred. Finally, an opposition party formed (against all means and efforts by the ruling regime) and has become politically meaningful again. The opposition contested one "election" and gained a little traction, but also brought reprisals down on their supporters. They waited and regrouped, and contested a second national-level "election" that actually may have been a real election, and by all investigations, won a broad victory. That was partly overturned by semi-legal acts, and an even more vicious round of reprisals came between that contest and a "run-off" for the Presidency. Said reprisals were so devastating that the opposition chose self-protection rather than to stand in the run-off, leaving the party holding sole power uncontested and thus on paper returning their "leader" to the office of the President. All efforts to negotiate a solution have been half-hearted, or biased. As of now, the situation looks like *this*.

It is also a remote nation perceived (wrongly) by many as unimportant to the World's Economy or Society. The fact that it has been overtaken by a stridently Communist regime is also considered to be of little importance. It is certainly land-locked and only a handful of neighboring nations have significant border length with it.


Open Ground: Is this, or is this not, a case for R2P (Right to Protect) intervention? If so, upon which country or countries does the obligation of R2P fall? In the case it is not a suitable R2P case, is it in the vested interest of any nation to take illegitimate action or sponsor such as an "ends justify the means" sort of political decision?

The goal in this discussion is to look at a really hard situation, and make a reasonable case for some action (or no action). It is the making of the case that is the intent, not any specific political outcome for Zimbabwe (Rhodesia).

Very well, have at it!

One hour on the ground, one klick inside Pakistan

Lots of information now coming out on an incursion into Pakistan by a hunter-killer team.

Andrew Cochran at Counterterrorism Blog has some suppositions, some good links to reports, and the site has more links in the right-hand side bar.

If you'd prefer to see the preliminary reports, Bill Roggio at Long War Journal has had them up for a day or so.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The time has come to make a choice...

With American Vice President R. Cheney on the first leg of his Caucasia tour, it seems timely to discuss some choices that are likely on the table right now.

*Here* is the AFP report on Cheney's visit.

Choice number one is "How far to go in supporting the nations outside Russia's control in Caucasia and along the Black Sea?".

The New York Times says Pour in the money will be the method.

They also report *here* that the Republic of Georgia is looking for major support to rebuild their military capabilities.

But with: Turkey playing "straddle the fence" right now; Russia again working in Armenia to try to counter American influence in Azerbaijan; *and* the supposedly loyal party of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko having just pulled a parliamentary revolt (joining with V. Yanukovych's Russian-front-group Party of Regions) against President Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine...

...Choice number two is gaining some traction.

That would be the "horse-trading" scheme that has shown up in a couple of discussions of things by supposed "administration realists":

Give the Russians what they want in Caucasia. Get in return cooperation and accommodation on efforts to remove the nuclear threats in North Korea and Iran.


...there are people high up in Western Governments that still think that sort of thing can be negotiated, and that it is a good thing, and that it will "work".


Seems to me getting Tymoshenko to stay bought is more likely, cheaper, and more rewarding in the long run than depending on the Russians to make our problems go away.

And if the Iran issue is to be resolved, *really resolved*, that is going to take a lot more than just getting Ivan to stand aside and politely applaud.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Might explain the undocumented passengers...

...on those flights that are running direct from Caracas to Damascus, and then on straight to Tehran.

This matter is one I've been dogging for a while for a number of reasons, but when an otherwise unrelated announcement came out in Israel yesterday, first on Channel 2 TV and then in Haaretz newspaper, it caught my attention.

The story is now being second-sourced by AFP, via the Middle East Times, reporting that multiple Israeli newspapers are carrying versions of this story. *Here* is their version.

Now I've been burned before by partisan Israeli sources (yes, DEBKAfile, I'm looking at you) but this case seems clear enough: The GovIsrael has had a Travel Warning out for a month warning "its citizens living and travelling abroad to take extra precautions against possible Hezbollah attacks or abductions."

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Weekly N&C for September 1st, 2008

Changing hats, rather than changing the dynamic.

The Government of S. Harper in Canada is to hold a snap election shortly. The obstruction tactics of the opposition parties and the rather slim majority the administration can scrape together when desperate have combined to leave Canada facing legislative gridlock. But when faced with an all-too-similar problem, the Government of Fukuda Yasuo (Y. Fukuda) in Japan has chosen to “change hats” rather than risk a snap election.

Here is what has come to be in Japanese politics, again (see below). Parliamentary politics in the case of a strong majority party or bloc are almost always games of timing. Yes, the Parliament is seated for some years, but the system also allows for a “snap election” that dissolves the Parliament and places all the seats up for election. The Administration, in the case of Japan, the naikaku, or Cabinet, has this authority at will. The usual game is played so: Having control of the legislative agenda, the party in power engages in a popularity contest for a period of time. They pass popular legislation, or make policy announcements designed purely to boost poll numbers, and when the Administration and the Party Policy Chief concur that things are good enough, they call an election. Great plan, isn’t it? Make sure you can win before you play the game. Well, it is great if you can do it…

Leave us not forget the other, and in this case to topic, situation. The Administration clings to power in the face of utterly dismal approval ratings. There is but one year left before a mandatory election call and at almost every turn the opposition party or bloc plays obstructionist. In the worst case, the opposition bloc has a majority in the non-decisive house of the parliament, and can delay or derail legislation until forcibly overturned by the decisive house of the parliament “railroading” the legislation through. That is just more fodder for the opposition newspapers when that happens, so approval ratings may well go down more. The ruling party now gets introduced to Mr. Rock and Mr. Hard Place, and it isn’t a very comfortable situation to say the least.

Let us look at the particulars in the case of the Fukuda naikaku and what they are up against. The key member of the ruling bloc is the jiyuuminshutou (Liberal-Democratic Party, or LDP), the old-line “conservative” party in Japanese politics. But they can’t hold a veto-proof majority in the shuugi giinkai (House of Representatives, the Lower House) of the kokkai (National Parliament) without help from a coalition member. That veto threat, by the way, comes not from the Administration as they represent the will of the majority bloc in the Lower House, but from the power of the sangi giinkai (House of Councilors, the Upper House) to, much as the British House of Lords can do, obstruct by delay any legislative bill the majority there disagrees with. For reference, the LDP even with supporting bloc-members, does *not* have the majority in the Upper House.

To hold government, the LDP has for many years been beholden to shin koumeitou (New Komeito Party, NKP), the cat’s paw of the souka gakkai Buddhist movement, and ardently pacifist (some might add selfish). By adding their numbers in the Lower House to the LDP’s bare majority the ruling bloc can well, keep ruling. Specifically, they can force through legislation when opposed. Good thing for them too, as they are most certainly opposed.

For other than a handful of Independents and Party-in-name-only minor players, the entire remaining landscape of Japanese party politics is dominated by the minshutou (Democratic Party of Japan, DPJ), the “labor” party in Japanese politics. They catch a nearly insignificant collaboration by the fragmentary remains of the far-left shamintou (Socialists, SDP) and kyousantou (Communists, JCP) and a couple of Independents, but functionally the DPJ *is* the opposition bloc. That unity of opposition is new in the last five years, and is the handiwork of the greatest political opportunist in the modern Japanese scene: Ozawa Ichirou (I. Ozawa), currently the DPJ President. This fellow has changed parties and affiliations more times than most politicians change their clothes, it seems. If you read about him a few years back, you may recall he ran his own party called the jiyuutou (Liberal Party, now defunct) as one of his many schemes after bailing out of the LDP back in 1993. But all those plans failed, and paled, compared to his move to join the DPJ, end the senseless and divisive feuding between the original leading members, and in the process get himself elected Party President. For those of you seeking meaning in that move, what it means is that he is one successful Lower House election away from being his party’s pick to form the next government. You may insert the sound of a satisfied mastermind’s nefarious chortle here.

So, the Fukuda naikaku faces a near-unity of opposition, a general approval rate in the sub-30% range that has hit far lower on certain issues, has been reduced to Cabinet reshuffling (see topic on Competing Hypotheses of 1. Aug 2008), and still couldn’t buy a break from either the mass media or his own ruling bloc allies. If the Administration tries to “railroad” through legislation on either support for the Global War on Terror (again) or on tax reforms vital to the financial health of the nation (but awesomely unpopular), the shrinking violets of the NKP may not back the move. But even with without the NKP on board for sure, one last option remained…

While not entirely unique to the Japanese Political System, there is a tried-and-true method to blame someone who is (now) out of the government for all the problems while keeping the Party-in-power, well, in power. Have the current souridaijin resign from both that job and that of Party President. Then hold a new “election” inside the party to select a new Party President. Lastly, use the majority position (even without NKP support, the LDP still has such) in the Lower House to approve a new souridaijin, who can then form a government. That is correct; the Lower House can approve a souridaijin without any vote or participation by the Upper House.

Yes, if you followed the news last year, this is basically what happened *last* September. Abe Shinzou (S. Abe) stepped down from the government “for health reasons” on 12. September, 2007 and was replaced on the 26th of the same month, giving him exactly one year at the top. Yes, he may well have been incapacitated, and he was unhealthy. I leave it as an exercise as to whether the two features were actually related. The selection process thereafter is what gave us the Fukuda government.

So, who is up next?

It is going to be an LDP insider, of course. The man best positioned is Asou Tarou (T. Aso), who lost to Y. Fukuda last time around. But in an interesting move, the 1.August reshuffle of ranks opened a couple of seats in the LDP management not normally appointed during a naikaku reshuffle, in this particular case the Secretary-General of the LDP job and that job went to T. Aso. He may not want to give it up, but with a Lower House election required no later than September of next year, the job is as risky career-wise as that of the Party President.

Don’t be fooled by the fellow’s populist credential of being a big fan of manga (Japanese Graphic Novels and Comics), by the way. It may make some fans for him in the younger adult ranks, but the man is a *hard-core* member of the right politically, especially on foreign affairs. Any member of the electorate who thought the Fukuda administration’s “make nice with the Korea(s) and (Red) China” stance was a good idea will not be signing up to support T. Aso. He hasn’t openly declared he is in the running yet, either.

After considering him, the water gets pretty shallow for the LDP. There is still a substantial line of thought that cries out for Koizumi Junichirou (J. Koizumi) to come back out of the Lower House and return to power. Not likely to get him back though, given how long he was in power and his avowed statements that he is done at the top.

If T. Aso *doesn’t* run for the job, there is lots of room to get daring. With polling numbers in ghastly shape and the DPJ just foaming at the mouth over the next Lower House election, why not take a chance? Here’s my pick to shake things up: Koike Yuriko (Y. Koike). She is vastly more competent than her resume reflects, and served very well in two of the Koizumi naikaku. Her stay in the Abe naikaku was almost unfairly foreshortened by bureaucratic interference, and it is pretty clear now who the villain of that piece was. She has also a bit of a history of running roughshod over faction-politics, which is never a bad thing when one wants to be a reformer. It only remains to be seen if she can line up enough other good parliamentarians to have a good choice for the various Ministries.

I’d take Y. Koike at the top of the ticket, and T. Aso running the party behind her, as the best chance of reversing what could be the first outright, indisputable defeat in a Lower House election that is looming.

Start the chant, folks: “KO-EE-KAY! All the way!”

End notes:

Here’s the revised report in English from The AP:

Fukuda Resigns

Here are the Personal Profiles of the various players mentioned, from Wiki-p:

Y. Fukuda
I. Ozawa
S. Abe
T. Aso
J. Koizumi
Y. Koike

from the rush-post on this, earlier:

Topic: Japanese souridaijin (Premier; Prime Minister) Fukuda offers resignation 1 hour ago.

Story, original release, in Japanese:

From Yomiuri News Service

Story, in English:

The AP version, via NPR