Farewell, Bill

William F. Buckley, Jr.

William F. Buckley, Jr. is dead at 82. He leaves behind a tremendous volume of work and a legacy of penetrating thought and refined debating. His many accomplishments include founding National Review, hosting the public affairs show “Firing Line,” and denouncing the John Birch Society and the paranoid fringe of the American right wing. Through his magazine he gave American conservatism a voice, and by repudiating the Birchers, he helped bring harmony to that voice, bringing the conservative movement into the mainstream. Consequently, it’s not a stretch to say that without Buckley, there may have been no Reagan revolution.

Though he certainly energized the GOP with his beliefs, Buckley was, unlike some on the right, a conservative first and a Republican second. As he began his slow walk down from the stage around the time Reagan left the White House, no single figure emerged to take his place. Newt Gingrich made a stab at it, but his own eccentricities brought him down. Grover Norquist has been too singularly obsessed with “starving the beast” to be a serious thinker in the Buckley mold. Rush Limbaugh, even at the height of his popularity, has been an entertainer first and foremost, and never intended to fill Buckley’s shoes. Finally, Karl Rove is in many ways the anti-Buckley: Republican first and conservative second.

In closing, Buckley’s passing is a sad time not only for conservatism but also for liberalism, since he followed a tradition of intellectual commentary that engaged opposing viewpoints in good faith through dialogue and argumentation, something our new generation of American dogmatists seems incapable of doing. And it is precisely because of this lack of engagement that bold new ideas on the left and right are few and far between. Yet conservatives should take heart: Bill Buckley is gone, but he left his shoulders to stand on, and if only they climbed up, they could see so far.

Here is a Charlie Rose special on William F. Buckley, Jr. from last year:

More thoughts on Buckley’s passing from around the web (to be updated as they they come in):

Biographer Sam Tanenhaus (h/t Ross Douthat) remembers Buckley as he responds to reader’s questions on the New York Times Papercuts blog. It’s worth quoting for the observations on race and for a strange anecdote on Buckley and the counter-culture. First, on Buckley’s progressive philo-Semitism and support for segregation:

Q: I understand that in the 1960s Mr Buckley publicly backed Southern segregationists even though he crusaded against anti-Semitism. How did he reconcile this difference in his own mind? Did he ever formally renounce or apologize for his backing of the segrationists? —John Fuller

A: In the 1950s Buckley did indeed support segregationists in the South but later changed his views. He wept when he learned of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four black children. Later he became an admirer of Martin Luther King.

And then the weirdness:

Q: William F. Buckley famously admitted to having smoked pot at least once on his boat outside U.S. territorial waters. Did he continue to smoke it after trying it? What if anything did he say about the subject? —Rich Turyn

A: If so, only seldom. But Buckley was much piqued by the counter-culture. He recently told me an amusing anecdote on this general subject. In the 1970s, Buckley and one of his mentors, the political thinker James Burnham, decided they would indulge in some current vices by smoking pot and then watching the sex-drenched film “I am Curious — Yellow.” The pot was procured by Bill’s chauffeur. It was a good plan — or seemed so, except they made the mistake of drinking alcohol first. This blunted the effects of the pot, and they both fell asleep during the film.

Clearly, the teen comedy side of Bill Buckley deserves to be explored in future biographies.

Editing note: The DeLong link write-up was originally negative, but has been edited to reflect subsequent posting by DeLong.


Lost Treasures and the Law

Besides mass-murderer and despot, we might need to add “world’s biggest art thief” to Joseph Stalin’s list of epithets. While we’ve known for years that the Soviets stole art from Germany that was originally expropriated from European countries by the Nazis, the exact scale of the theft and value of the stolen artwork hasn’t been made public.

An editorial in The International Herald-Tribune notes (h/t The Marmot’s Hole) that “From Russia,” a new art show in London, will feature these lost masterpieces on the proviso that no action will be taken to return the art to its rightful owners. So how much is this art worth?

What is at stake is approximately 10 to 15 percent of the world’s great art treasures that were well catalogued in 1939, but disappeared from sight at the conclusion of World War II.

That was the subject of a recent conference at the Harvard Law School, “Spoils of War vs. Cultural Heritage: The Russian Cultural Property Law in Historical Context.” Experts who attended agree that Russia is hiding works valued at $10 billion to $15 billion, perhaps even more[.]

The Russians assert a right to possess the art as a “spoil of war,” and have even passed a law to this effect, but according to the author, Allan Gerson, such claims are illegal:

But even assuming that Russia has a valid claim for restitution-in-kind on the grounds that what it possesses offsets the plunder of the Soviet Union by the Nazis during World War II, this argument cannot justify retention of private property.

The 1998 Russian law draws an exception for private property of victims of the Holocaust and those whose property was taken as part of the Nazi persecutions based on race, religion, or ethnic identity. But there have been no claims by Holocaust survivors or their families for the simple reason that Russia has not come forth with an accounting of what it possesses.

Moreover, beyond victims of the Holocaust, there is no justification – and the international law community is unanimous on this point – for confiscation of any privately held art property. Its continued retention is simply unlawful. Actions by museums that profit from exhibiting these works and countries that accept such exhibitions are complicit in enabling Russia to hold on to stolen art.

The immediate thought I had was that, in addition to the laws cited by Gerson, the legality of the art seizures could also be addressed in part by looking at the terms of German reparations following World War II. Was it legal at that time for the Soviets to take properties not specified as restitution or are the seizures extralegal according to terms agreed on by the Allies and defeated Axis powers?

A larger point looms in all of this. The loss of cultural treasures following conflict, and the need to reclaim them, seems more relevant today after the looting of Iraqi Museum and the secession of Kosovo, with the former an ongoing mission for archaeologists and international police alike, and the latter a new and pressing concern, as hundreds of important Serbian cultural sites face the prospect of annihilation or no hope of reconstruction* if the the new Kosovar government fails to restrain militants in the Albanian population.

In light of these situations, the Russian art dispute, as well as the Taliban’s attempt to “cleanse” Afghanistan of of its Buddhist past, perhaps the world community should work together to add some legal teeth to UNESCO’s mission to preserve our common cultural heritage. The WTO could similarly be involved, with allowances for trade-based punishments in cases of expropriated cultural treasures. For instance, if the Chinese discovered that, say, the French were holding on to Chinese artifacts, then China would be allowed to raise tariffs against France until the artifacts were returned.

* Consider this list of Orthodox churches destroyed or damaged in Kosovo since NATO’s occupation began in 1999. Will they be lost forever?

Smart URIs in Comment Forms?

Many blogs have taken to posting notices to remind commenters to use HTML to include URIs in comments rather than simply typing or pasting the full URI out in the comment box.  (For example, read the comment form at Outside the Beltway.  See also a long post on the subject at Balloon Juice.)  This is because most blogs designs feature fixed-width comment areas that “break” if the URI is too long.

Obviously, it’d be best if the commenters did use HTML when posting links, but many won’t, because most Internet users remain HTML-illiterate.  The worst way to handle this problem is to put a hold on posting all comments with a URI included and manually edit each comment to make the links correct.  Another way around the problem is to make the comment form a WYSIWYG box, thus making inserting URIs as painless as possible, but doing so increases server load, especially for highly-trafficked blogs.  A better option, which I’ve been thinking about after a couple months of miniblogging on Twitter, where short URIs are a must, would utilize the shortened URI feature of TinyURL!, Snurl, or similar services.

I got to thinking:  WordPress and Movable Type already convert simple characters to special characters after we post — two hyphens become an em-dash, straight quotes become curly quotes, and so on — so why not have “smart URIs”?  The blogging application could catch the presence of URIs, check their character length, and then automatically convert all URIs over a certain length (e.g. 25 characters) to a shortened URI using an API from one of the short-URI web applications or a custom-built app.  Ideally, the blog would combine these short URIs with a link previewing feature so that no one gets suckered into going to a non-worksafe URI, making the links created truly smart.

If someone has already done this as a plugin, then great.  But it really should be a standard feature of WordPress and Movable Type in the future.

How Does One Say Troll in Albanian?

My post on Kosovo invited thoughtful commentary from “John” (, who shares the namesake of my favorite Albanian but apparently not his sense of humor. Among other things, it convinced me that removing my comment policy from the sidebar was a mistake. As for what John actually wrote, I’m not going to litter my comment database with his “writing,” but I have reprinted the entire comment below.

John begins,

Kosova has never been Albanian dick?

At first I wondered if John was trying to call Kosovo the male member of Albania, then I realized he just forgot a comma. For his efforts, we’re sending John a complimentary copy of Eats, Shoots, & Leaves.

But wait, there’s more–

Kosovars have been there 5000 years ahead of the time Serbs came from Mongolia.

Two things here: first, in the words of Robert Plant, it really makes me wonder, when did 5,000 years become the gold standard for historical legitimacy? Those of us in Asia have heard it from Korean and Chinese nationalists for the last decade, so perhaps there was a secret meeting of hypernationalists from around the world in the late 90s — a sort of Davos for Evil — that encouraged them to all start using the words “5,000 years” in their propaganda. Anyways, it will come as news to most historians that there was anything like a “Kosovar” (read: Albanian) identity 5,000 years ago or that the Serbs came from Mongolia. (The Slavic peoples were historical victims of the Mongolians, not Mongolians themselves.)

This brings me to the second point: the ruthless way that both sides have sought to “orientalize” their enemies. For example, on the Serb side we hear such rhetoric as recognizing Kosovo “grant[s] new legitimacy to centuries of Ottoman violence,” thus making the Albanians Turks-by-association. John’s attempt to smear the Serbs as Mongol interlopers is, I suspect, a popular meme on the Albanian side, yet just as ridiculous. Though both sides are ultimately wrong, in this fight the Serbs may have the stronger side of the argument, since the Albanians really do have a link to the Muslim invaders of the region. (I eagerly await John’s next comment where he proves that “Mohamed” and “Ibrahim” have been Albanian names for 5,000 years.)

Returning to John’s correspondence, he gives us this little non-sequitir:

Do you think the whole world reads the history with your ass eyes?

I’m not sure what “ass eyes” are, but if plastic surgeons can give Asians double eyelids, they can surely correct my condition. Note that John’s use of “the history” suggests English is his second language, which, given that his ISP is in New York, makes me rethink my liberal stance on immigration.

We are left with John’s parting shot:

Don’t try to teach the world how to read idiot!

I don’t know how to read idiot but I can read English and some Chinese. Oh, wait…

Kosovo’s Dangerous Statehood

When most Americans are introduced to the international media’s chosen narrative about Kosovo, that of ethnic Albanians overcoming oppression and securing their right to self-determination, they are likely to feel proud that America served as midwife to the birth of the newest country in the world. They are no doubt doubly proud to see all the American flags being waved by jubilant Kosovar Albanians . Wow, they must think, here are some Muslims who actually love us for a change. On top of this, some Serbs had to come along and burn the US Embassy in Belgrade in response to the Kosovar independence vote, thus cementing the perception that America has truly been on the side of the angels in the Balkans.

Kosovar Albanians

My suppositions may seem exaggerated, but they have some basis in fact. The backstory of Clinton’s war in Kosovo was that of America returning to the heart of Europe to defeat a new, would-be Hitler — Slobodan Milosevic. After Milosevic’s forces retreated from the province and the bombs stopped falling in Belgrade, the story of Kosovo quickly disappeared from public consciousness. The media subsequently downplayed such developments as ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Albanian side after the war, since that would have complicated the black and white politics of the Balkans. Still, Kosovo came roaring back to the front pages this week, and it seems many young Americans still subscribe to the storyline first drafted in the 1990s.

Just consider the results of this ABC News/Facebook poll on the subject. 54% of the respondents are between the ages of 18 and 24.

Facebook poll on Kosovo

While at first I was going to chalk this result up to the overexuberance of Obama supporters who flood Facebook polls, support for Kosovar independence in the poll is in fact broad across the ideological spectrum. (A caveat: the Facebook polls do not give statistics to separate American Facebook users from foreign Facebook users, so there’s a chance, however slight, that anti-Serb foreigners could be rigging the poll.) If accurate, this poll can only mean that the media has one again downplayed the risks of supporting the Kosovar Albanians in favor of a feel-good morality play. But those risks are real, and we have only begun to feel the effects.

The most immediate fallout from Kosovo’s vote on Feb. 17 is the mortal blow dealt to the project of Westernizing Serbia proper. Paradoxically, this means that American policy, insomuch as it encouraged Kosovar independence, has utterly undermined American policy, insomuch as it supported Serbian liberalization.  After all, the US and the European powers had several key goals at war’s end: first, removal of Milosevic and his nationalist clique, and second, the cultivation of liberal values in Serbia, leading perhaps to the ultimate goal of Serbian accession to the European Union. Unfortunately, after the Kosovar vote, the Serbian tilt towards the West has ended for the foreseeable future and Pan-Slavic ties between Serbia and Russia have strengthened considerably. As Serbia’s patron, Russia can be counted on to block Kosovo’s integration into the world community, contributing to the possibility that Kosovo will be a failed state in the years to come. Beyond these troubles, there remains a very real possibility of a new war in the region.

One would have hoped that the West had learned its lessons after statebuilding experiments in Iraq and Yugoslavia — two historical fictions held together by the centripetal force of dictatorship — but our present situation suggests otherwise. Kosovar statehood, like the British creation of Iraq and the Euro-American creation of Yugoslavia, is a perfection sought at the expense of the good. Our loss will come in the form of the dangerous precedent established by the West in Kosovo, which threatens to embolden a myriad of separatist factions around the world, all of which have clamored for a state of their own, yet who, until now, have lacked the legal and political standing to make their desires a reality. However, by recognizing Kosovo, the West has unwittingly aided these factions by rewriting the rules of statehood.

Let’s now look at how the West has decided in favor of statehood for Kosovo and what that means to the rest of the world. To begin with, Kosovo meets only a few of the traditional requirements for statehood. Points in favor of Kosovar statehood include the fact that province is territorially contiguous and internationally recognized by the United States and most — but not all — of the European Union. The Palestinians will tell you that the former is a necessary but not sufficient condition for statehood. The latter, while a classical rule of international politics, is a matter of relativity; Taiwan certainly functions like a state despite the fact that few countries dare recognize it as such.

Points against Kosovar statehood are numerous and include the fact that Kosovo, in a Weberian sense, does not have a monopoly on the use of force; the fact that the territory is not economically independent from Serbia, or, in the place of Serbian ties, Western aid; the fact that the present-day population of Kosovo is the product of a relatively recent demographic shift and not a “permanent” situation; and the fact that Kosovo qua state has no prior historical reality. Taking these points one by one,

  • the Weberian criticism is the weakest, since Kosovo has, since the declaration of UN Resolution 1244, continued to be administered by NATO and the UN, and the Kosovar government has had no chance to exercise its full powers. As such, Kosovo’s stability in the absence of foreign presence remains a giant question mark.
  • Next, the poor Kosovar economic situation will necessitate either long-term support from Western powers, thrusting Kosovo into a semi-colonial situation, or else invite economic union with Albania. Neither of these options is good for Kosovar sovereignty, and a federal arrangement with Serbia would have been more conducive to economic growth and regional stability
  • Moving on, rather than being Albanian all along, Kosovo has become Albanian thanks in part to internal migration within the former Yugoslavia and World War II era Nazi policies which saw Kosovar Serbs expelled en masse and replaced by Albanian allies of the Nazi regime. Admittedly, some in the United States may be bold enough to argue that recent demographic changes deserve to be honored by new political arrangements, but few Americans would support this logic being applied to the benefit of Mexicans living in the American Southwest.
  • Lastly, the biggest strike against Kosovar statehood is that it has never historically been its own country. For hundreds of years it was either controlled directly by the Serbs or by the Ottomans (who controlled the Serbs). Unlike East Timor, Kosovo wasn’t an independent territory violently annexed by its neighbor. Nor was Kosovo part of historical Albania seized by the Serbs the way Israel seized the Sinai Peninsula. Yet historians and the media have worked together to create the fiction of Kosovar nationhood since the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, and like the story of demographic change noted above, the political history of Kosovo is rarely discussed in the Western media, much to the detriment of the public and decisionmakers alike.

Given that many of the strongest rationales for Kosovar statehood are nonexistent, Western foreign policy elites have had to invent new reasons to make Kosovo an independent country, and it’s these reasons that pose the greatest dangers to piece.

First, there is the idea — which is seemingly an outgrowth of identity politics — that ethnic homogeneity within a particular territory is enough to justify separatism. That is to say that if a country’s population is 85% group A and 15% group B, but 90% of group B is concentrated within a single enclave, then that enclave has the right to declare itself a state. Many people will accept this idea at face value without considering what it means. If, for example, group B is distributed throughout several small enclaves within a country, it may decide to engage in ethnic cleansing for the sake of unifying those enclaves and earning the “right to statehood.” In effect, this is what the Kosovar Albanians did by pushing out as many Serbians and Montenegrins as they could from 1999 to 2008. Although self-determination is a cherished right, many Westerners take for granted the fact that other cultures do not share our belief that our right to self-determination ends where another man’s face begins.

Second, it is suggested that the Kosovar Albanians be given a state thanks to their years of oppression at the hands of the Serb majority. This is of a piece with the Serb and Orthodox belief that Kosovar independence is another punishment visited upon Serbia for Milosevic’s misbehavior. (And that the US is furthermore an “enemy” of Orthodox peoples.) This idea is not objectionable outright — it is, after all, a basic tenet of Zionism and therefore a founding principle of the state of Israel — but it begs the question of just how long and how severe the oppression must be to warrant the creation of a new state as the remedy. (When the oppression happened is also an important factor to consider. Is there a statute of limitations on such grievances?) If applied equally, this principle would lead to a splintering of countless states in the international community, not to mention emerge as a grave threat to the very American concept of pluralism, which addresses the issue of oppression through the rule of law.

Lastly, many Western observers and diplomats argued that Kosovo deserved to become a state because it wanted to. (That any parties could object was inconceivable, inconceivable!) This makes sense after a fashion. If you were a diplomat tasked with bringing peace to the region, Kosovar independence would appear to be an appealingly simple solution to a complex problem, and so, like the doctor who encourages amputation instead of chemotherapy in every case of cancer, allowing Kosovar Albanians such an extraordinary degree of self-determination was the easy way for the West to get out of the Balkan morass. What they don’t take into account, though, is how exactly these three new rationales for Kosovar independence will resonate outside of the Balkans.

Starting with the ethnic Russian militants in Georgia’s Abkhazia and Ossetia regions and continuing with DPP rabble-rousers in Taipei, the recognition of Kosovo has emboldened separatists who will attempt to leverage these new standards of statehood to their own advantage. We close now with a brief survey of several internal conflicts worldwide and a look at how they will be affected by the Kosovo precedent.

regional conflicts

As the table suggests, the independence of Kosovo stands to have a strong impact on India should the Kashmiri Muslims coalesce into an effective separatist group. Likewise, the Tamil Tigers will have new strategies in their war for statehood and Tamil nationalists in India’s State of Tamil Nadu might follow suit. Overall, however, Kashmir is the most dangerous territory since, besides an internal conflict, it could lead to a regional conflagration between Pakistan, India, and China.

For its part, China will probably be minimally affected, though Xinjiang “terrorist/separatist” groups will remain a factor, and in general, China will stay “gravely concerned” about Kosovar independence. Taiwan could declare itself independent tomorrow but such a move would only further isolate Taiwan rather than invite the full embrace of the international community.

Like Taiwan, Chechen independence would likely go unrecognized owing to the resurgent strength of Russia within the international system. That doesn’t mean, however, that militants wouldn’t look to Kosovo for inspiration and begin another round of fighting.

As it stands, the Russian-dominated regions of Georgia, the Muslim regions of Mindanao in the Philippines, the Spanish Basque Country, and Kurdistan have the greatest potential to erupt into conflict. These conflicts might be civil wars and/or increased terrorism in the Philippines and Spain or they might be full-scale regional conflicts, such as a Russo-Georgian war on behalf of independence for Abkhazia and Ossetia. And if Iraq fails to make significant progress towards a stable government in the coming years, the Kurds will be extremely tempted to take the Kosovar route, and the West — specifically the US — will have to dangle a very large carrot to prevent Iraq from fragmenting.

In conclusion, as nationalist groups around the world begin to learn and apply the lessons of Kosovar independence to their own irredentist and separatist claims, they will not only renew their conflicts with increased vigor but also force the West into a corner. Will we take the hypocritical position of creating one set of rules for Kosovo while requiring other regions to play by the old rules? Will we encourage a thousand democratic flowers to bloom, or will we recognize the danger state fragmentation poses to world peace? Advisers to the next president should take a long, hard look at the Kosovo situation right now, because what they might be seeing is the next president’s war.

Exit the Dictator, Exit the Embargo?

In a quiet announcement this morning (h/t Slobokan), Fidel Castro told the people of Cuba he is finally stepping down:

HAVANA (Reuters) – Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro said on Tuesday that he will not return to lead the country as president or commander-in-chief, retiring as head of state 49 years after he seized power in an armed revolution.

Castro, 81, who has not appeared in public for almost 19 months, said in a statement to the country that he would not seek a new presidential term when the National Assembly meets on February 24.

“To my dear compatriots, who gave me the immense honor in recent days of electing me a member of parliament … I communicate to you that I will not aspire to or accept — I repeat not aspire to or accept — the positions of President of Council of State and Commander in Chief,” Castro said in the statement published on the Web site of the Communist Party’s Granma newspaper.

The National Assembly or legislature is expected to nominate his brother and designated successor Raul Castro, 76, as president. Raul Castro has been running the country since emergency surgery to stop intestinal bleeding forced Castro to delegate power on July 31, 2006.

If we can draw an analogy between Mao and Castro, then one might think of Raul as the Hua Guofeng of this story. The non-controversial Hua was chosen by Mao before his death to continue the status quo as China’s supreme leader, but was quickly outmaneuvered by Deng Xiaoping and slowly faded from political prominence at the close of the 1970s. Like Hua in China, Raul is probably not the best possible leader for Cuba, but rather an interim appointment allowed out of respect for Castro. What we should hope for now is for Cuba’s Deng Xiaoping to emerge, and, for its part, the US can do something to encourage the liberalization of Cuba by ending the embargo this year.

Like Castro, the embargo is a Cold War relic that made sense when the Soviet Union could project power through Cuba, and Castro, with Soviet money, could project power into Africa and South America. By all rights, the embargo should have collapsed at the same time as the Iron Curtain, but domestic political concerns — hey Walt and Mearsheimer, where’s your Cuba lobby book? — kept the US from taking this step. Instead, Cuba continued to grow ever-poorer in the 1990 and 2000s, and Castro could continue to point the finger at the US for Cuba’s economic decline.

This is not the same as saying the US is responsible for Cuba being an economic basketcase. It’s just that the embargo allowed Castro to continue with destructive economic policies that saw well-educated Cuban doctors and scientists taking jobs as bellboys in resort hotels. Generally speaking, embargoes only work when the population has the political power to punish their leadership in response to foreign pressures; in other words, the more democratic a nation, the more effective the embargo. This is, frankly, the most important lesson for the West to learn from Cuba as we try to deal with the regimes in Khartoum, Tehran, Harare, and Pyongyang, since in unfree countries, embargoes inevitably hurt most the people we wish to help.

There are a number of reasons why the US should end the embargo now. Just as Sino-US relations warmed as Mao grew closer to death, so too does Castro’s exit from the scene give us a chance to begin anew the Cuban-American relationship. Secondly, ending the embargo and investing in Cuba will undercut the clownish but dangerous anti-American activities of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and, arguably, warm up America’s chilly relations with South America. Finally, because he is in the last year of his presidency and has a Democratic Congress to work with, President Bush should find the political environment favorable to Cuban-American détente. Cubans in South Florida would naturally oppose such a move, and McCain, as the GOP nominee, would likely condemn it, but ironically enough Bush’s unpopularity might prove an asset in this case, since he could reach out to Cuba while his own party credibly distances itself from him, much as Republicans distanced themselves from Nixon in the early 1970s.

The specific details of policy would have to be hammered out by the wonks, though it seems safe to say that the embargo could be ended almost immediately, with investment managed to make sure that US funds aren’t channeled to political fronts — we want to subvert the regime, not prop it up — and that Americans don’t enable capital flight ala Russia in the early 1990s — we want to help the Cuban economy, not tear it down.

The question of the moment is: does Bush have the political imagination to open to Cuba now, and as a lame duck, does he have the political power to bring about such a change?

Update: So much for carpe diem. Pretty damn sneaky for Fidel to step down in an election year, don’t you think?

Bush’s Best Foreign Policy

President Bush is on an African farewell tour of sorts and the enthusiasm — whether genuine or state-sponsored — is reportedly quite prominent. Reuters correspondent Barry Moody writes,

Back home, Bush is suffering some of the lowest approval ratings in his seven-year tenure and has been buffeted by criticism of his handling of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ailing economy.

Not surprisingly he is enjoying the different reception in Africa.

Beaming repeatedly during a press conference with [Tanzanian President and current African Union head Jakaya] Kikwete, he made a point of referring to his welcome on the streets, which he described as “very moving”.

Moody’s piece does note that Muslim Africans are less than enthusiastic about the president’s trip and have even staged protests, which leads me to ask what factors are left out when explaining the praise for Bush’s accomplishments in Africa. And, in fairness to the president, they are real, noteworthy accomplishments:

Bush has spent more money on aid to Africa than his predecessor, Bill Clinton, and is popular for his personal programs to fight AIDS and malaria and to help hospitals and schools.

Bush has stressed new-style partnerships with Africa based on trade and investment and not purely on aid handouts.

His Millennium Challenge Corp. rewards countries that continue to satisfy criteria for democratic governance, anti-corruption and free-market economic policies.

Bush signed the largest such deal, for $698 million, with Kikwete on Sunday.

Because of the U.S. anti-malaria program, 5 percent of patients tested positive for the disease on the offshore islands of Zanzibar in 2007 compared to 40 percent three years earlier, the Tanzanian leader said.

Bush’s legacy in Africa would be saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of mothers and children who would otherwise have died from malaria or AIDS and enabling millions of people to get an education, he said.

So, what other factor may increase Bush’s popularity in sub-Saharan Africa?


Or rather, Bush may be unwittingly popular thanks to the perception that America under Bush is an “anti-Muslim” power. Let’s set aside the president’s “religion of peace” rhetoric or the fact that the US, wisely or unwisely, has supported Muslims in various conflicts around the world. Despite all efforts by the administration to contrary, the language of Islamic fundamentalists has colored the thinking of many in the developing world, and just as Muslim radicals on one side assail Bush, Africa’s Christians, animists, and moderate Muslims like Kikwete on the other side praise him. In fact, these two factions represent a “cold” civil war present throughout much of African society today.

Islam in AfricaThough it often goes unmentioned in the Western press, sub-Saharan Africa is undergoing a Huntingtonian struggle between the Christian and Westernized elites who represent the status quo, and the Muslim and Arabized masses that swell as Islam moves ever southward. While we do hear about the conflicts in Sudan and Nigeria, we hear less about conflicts stemming from Muslim demographic and cultural shifts in other African countries. Even in a comparatively stable multiethnic country like Tanzania, there remains a fear of fundamentalism and the real possibility of terrorist activity. (In case one forgets.) In countries where the Muslim population is a growing minority, such as Sierra Leone or the Ivory Coast, tensions are even higher.

Seen in the light of this cultural conflict, Bush’s Africa policy serves a dual purpose: promoting development and fighting fundamentalism. For example, American aid which provides for improved government services has the added benefit of undercutting fundamentalist organizations that use charity to attract the poor. Similarly, an effective mix of modern approaches to combat HIV/AIDS can rebut the fundamentalists who tout that only sharia is the answer to Africa’s AIDS crisis. Lastly, improved trade between the US and Africa can deny fundamentalism the impoverished soil it needs to grow and thrive, a point a certain would-be president ought to consider while he rails against the evils of free trade.

In conclusion, aid for Africa is, by far, Bush’s best foreign policy initiative, and the only one his successor has a moral imperative to continue and improve upon, even if the next president isn’t seen as a foe of fundamentalism.

Sarko Feels the Love

French President Sarkozy’s Hollywood-style romance has apparently cost him political capital:

[A] new poll … suggested Sarkozy’s public romancing of supermodel-turned-singer Carla Bruni was the factor that had hurt his national image most.

Sarkozy and Bruni married secretly earlier this month but his critics saw the highly-publicized affair as a distraction too early in office.

The OpinionWay poll, conducted on the Internet for le Figaro and news channel LCI, found 82 percent of respondents believed Sarkozy’s private life fell short of that of a head of state.

Funny, I thought the French were supposed to be French when it comes to the private lives of their leaders.  Oh, I get it:  he should’ve stayed married and made Bruni his mistress instead.

The Unlikeliest McCainiac

A friend pointed out Arnaud de Borchgrave’s early February UPI interview with Singapore’s elder statesman Lee Kwan-yew. It’s a fascinating piece, thanks in no part to the breadth of the issues discussed but also the frankness of the discussion. Lee’s thoughts on Taiwan, the decline of “statesmanship,” new technologies, and capitalism are sure to provoke, but I was interested in his pick for president in 2008:

Of all the candidates who will inherit the [Iraq] problem, I prefer John McCain. He will see this thing through. Walking away from it would also have disastrous consequences. If Afghanistan is a failed state, it’s not your fault. No one has ever made sense out of it. But if you leave Iraq in its present state, you will have even bigger problems throughout the entire Middle East. The Shiites will get together. The Iraqi Shia will become dependent on Iran, and the Iranians will have mastery of that critically important Gulf area.

Massive “Clash of Civilizations” headfake or a real endorsement? You tell me.

While I’m not sure of McCain’s relative prowess in building a stable Iraq, and I dislike some of his recent rhetoric on the subject, I tend to agree that we have a moral duty to try and fix Iraq and that a quick withdrawal abdicates that duty. It’s just too bad for McCain (or Obama or Hillary) that Iraq doesn’t have its own Lee Kwan-yew to run the place when we need. I’ve a feeling that Iraq will need a period of efficient soft authoritarianism (think MacArthur in Japan) before democracy can truly flourish along the Tigris and Euphrates.

Anyways, read the rest of the interview with Lee — it’s highly recommended.

Old Europe, Then and Now

A bit of weekend back-blogging: recently-released Nixon presidential papers reveal, among other things, interesting details from early Sino-US negotiations. An amusing conversation between Mao and Henry Kissinger has been making the rounds on the blogs, but the Telegraph‘s Richard Spencer turned to another aspect of the talks — mutual Euro-bashing:

… I came across this record of exchanges between Henry Kissinger and Chairman Mao yesterday, in which Kissinger’s contempt for old Europe shines through – remember his comment, when I want to speak to Europe, who do I call?

Here Kissinger decides Europe is pretty much irrelevant, and that the person he most liked dealing with was Mao, with whom he could be perfectly frank about his realpolitick. Ho-hum.


We won’t get into the whole Kissinger subject now, obviously. But can we just agree that if only there hadn’t been such contempt for Europe, we might now have Spanish and Italian cafes on every street corner, rather than Starbucks, and how much better modern China would be for it, at least in this one, small, trivial way?

Setting aside the non-sequitir that increased Sino-European political ties would’ve created commercial alternatives to Starbucks, there’s something very important missing from Spencer’s characterization of Kissinger’s (and, seemingly, Mao’s) attitude towards Europe: context. The primary rationale for détente wasn’t economic cooperation but mutual security. And in early 1970s, not only was the Soviet Union at perhaps the peak of its power, threatening both the US and China, but Europe was also in the beginnings of Eurosclerosis, politically splintered and threatened by radicalism (remember the Red Brigades?), and, save for Great Britain, militarily weak. Calling Europe irrelevant then would be harsh but close to the truth.

Regardless of whether Dr. Kissinger has made animus towards Europe a known part of his philosophy, reciting his biases isn’t enough to prove him wrong. In terms of international security, the Europe of the 1970s had little to offer the US and nothing to offer China, so there’s no wonder the Chinese chose to forge a bilateral relationship. Today, of course, China recognizes the power of the EU and will gladly play the Europeans and Americans off each other. This is the nature of a Chinese foreign policy that is ever-changing but always realpolitik.

Update:  The Time China Blog notes that the jokes between Mao and Kissinger are actually old news.

The General Election Unfolds

Reading through a post-Potomac primary write-up in the International Herald-Tribune, a short quote from Sen. Barack Obama leapt out at me:

“We are not standing on the brink of recession due to forces beyond our control,” Obama said. “The fallout from the housing crisis that’s cost jobs and wiped out savings was not an inevitable part of the business cycle, it was a failure of leadership and imagination in Washington.”

Presumably, when Barack Obama condemns Washington, he means the Bush administration. Such criticism may be deserved, but it begs the question, is a United States Senator not a part of Washington? During the three years he represented Illinois in the senate, why wasn’t Sen. Obama’s “imagination” great enough that he could offer legislation to avert the crisis? Why wasn’t his “leadership” sufficient to pass bills to soften the blows? In fact, Obama’s reaction to the subprime crisis is characteristic of his career as a national politician. On this and a myriad of other issues, the senator’s legislative history falls short of his rhetoric.

Now, it might be that Obama, like a great many of his generation, believes in an imperial presidency. (Certainly President Bush, to the nation’s detriment, has assumed himself to be this kind of president in foreign affairs and law and order.) What good, they might ask, could a single senator do? Yet that hasn’t stopped other young senators from amassing impressive legislative records, precisely because they recognize their constitutional duty: to make the laws that govern the country. And on that score — the very reason he should be a senator — Barack Obama fails to impress.

An uncharitable assessment — and as a Republican I feel it a duty to offer him one — might be that Sen. Obama has maintained a low legislative profile for the sake of running for president, which he has arguably been doing since the day he was sworn-in to replace Sen. Paul Simon and started writing The Audacity of Hope. By not taking any great stands for or against legislation, by working as a junior co-sponsor for noncontroversial legislation, and by not spending any political capital, he reduced the ammunition that opponents could use against him in the campaign. Thus, by being no walk, Barack Obama could make the focus of his campaign all talk.

Obama’s national legislative record, even on presumably friendly sources like Wikipedia, is remarkably thin. Even his great “accomplishment” of opposing the war in Iraq isn’t truly part of his record since Obama wasn’t even a senator during the votes on the war, so his criticism has the wonderful benefit of hindsight. Ross Douthat rightly calls this “Obama’s glass jaw,” but Sen. Hillary Clinton, for all her effort, has failed to land a blow there. The closest she came was during the New Hampshire debate outburst when she rightly condemned invoking change-as-rhetoric instead of change-as-action, but in that case she attacked John Edwards instead of Obama.

One would expect Sen. McCain, the likely Republican nominee, to zero in on Obama’s weakness. Instead, McCain has trotted out right-wing memes to attack Obama. From the same IHT article:

“I respect him and the campaign that he has run,” McCain said of Obama, after a question about his decision to focus on Obama and his message of hope in his victory speech on Tuesday night. “But there is going to come a time when we have to get into specifics, and I’ve not observed every speech that he’s given, obviously, but they are singularly lacking in specifics.”

“It’s not an accident that he has, I think, according to National Journal, the most liberal voting record in the United States Senate,” he said. “I have one of the most conservative.”

This sort of attack is likely to fail for several reasons.

Firstly, thanks to the dominance of conservative themes during the past 30 years, most voters under 50 have little concept of “liberal” as a “tax-and-spend” “big government” philosophy, to use a pair of Reagan-era talking points. Think about it: they didn’t suffer through the Johnson-Nixon-Carter years of liberal intervention policies, so for them, “liberal” doesn’t resonate as a negative label.

Secondly, for many people, “liberal” has actually become a positive label, not because they support high taxes and the welfare state, but because progressive politicos, especially on the Internet, have framed the term to mean being anti-Bush and anti-Iraq War. Many of my moderate friends started calling themselves “liberals” for this reason, even though actual progressive policies would leave a sour taste in their mouths. The Obama campaign is seemingly aware of this, and that’s why his speeches are stripped bare of “specifics” that could scare away the I-hate-the-GOP-now-but-I’m-not-really-a-leftist-types. (See Sullivan, Andrew.)

Finally, about those specifics: it may upset Sen. McCain that Obama talks in vagaries, but he needs to realize that he’s not running against a politician so much as a brand name. As Patrick Ruffini observed in an excellent post:

Most campaigns never get beyond talking issues. The sophisticated ones run on attributes in the foreground (cares about people like me) tied to issues in the background (a health care plan). The Obama effort seems to be something wholly different. The campaign and its marketing seems designed to evoke aspirational feelings that have virtually no political meaning whatsoever. This is what great brands do. They evoke feelings that have virtually zero connection to product attributes and specifications. … [italics in original]

Accordingly, the relative inertness of the Obama campaign is key to its marketing strength. Barack Obama equals good politics the way Nike equals good shoes, and McCain’s success will depend on getting some people to believe that McCain is Adidas to Obama’s Nike — that is to say, to prove himself an acceptable alternative to the “buyer.” However, thus far, the McCain campaign has failed to demonstrate it can properly brand the senator as a national candidate. After all, unlike the primaries, you cannot win the general election just because you’re the last man standing. You need a bigger appeal.

In conclusion, if Sen. McCain runs against Obama in the fall, he must frame the discussion as a contest between a man who brought change to American politics and a man who has merely talked about it; between a man who offers results and a man who offers hope of results; and between a man who came to Washington to work and a man who came to Washington to run for president. If, on the other hand, McCain resorts to sticking Obama repeatedly with the “liberal” label or attacking positions that have broad popular support, he will lose.

And massively so.

Site Notes

Tonight I played with WordPress.com themes a bit before settling on PressRow and uploading a header image. (The picture above the masthead should be iconic for people who’ve lived in Tianjin without being a photo that “screams China.”) Though many of the themes look great, one annoying thing is that so few of the fixed-width themes available can accommodate medium Flickr images without resizing or partially cropping the pictures. Even Youtube videos feel the pinch on some themes. Now, I’m not super-keen on flexible-width themes, but we really need themes for 800 pixel resolutions these days? A lesser annoyance, but worth mentioning, is that few themes look right when using sidebar widgets — formatting is always a little off.

That said, my choice of theme may be moot, since most of you who read this blog — if you do read it — are probably doing so through a news reader, so any aesthetic changes I make will be transparent to you. Syndication has the potential to replace most direct blog visits, and I’ve already seen some bloggers start to link using syndication links rather than direct blog links, which could diminish cross-blog connectivity. For instance, if I link to a Feedburner RSS link for someone’s blog post, then she will likely see the incoming link from Feedburner, not from me. Traffic remains the same, of course, but, what if, on top of these developments, there were also a universal way to comment blogs without visiting them? If that were the case, why would anyone directly load a URI again? That’s one ultimate direction we may take when we separate form from content.

Webby musings aside, I’ve made another small change to my blog content by adding a second miniblog powered by Fanfou, the Chinese Twitter/Pownce clone. I had initially tried to use the QQ-integrated Taotao but Tencent has annoyingly established a daily quota for registrations and I lack the patience to keep trying. Thankfully, I chose Fanfou after a pointer from a Twitter friend and found it more user-friendly (not to mention better-looking) than Taotao. As some readers will note, my Fanfou miniblog is in (bad) Chinese. Other readers will just see a lot of gibberish in the sidebar. To clean up the RSS a bit, both the Twitter miniblog and the Fanfou miniblog are syndicated through a Yahoo! Pipe* that strips out the name from the beginning of each post. The only drawback to this is that updates are a little slow.

On top of the changes listed above, I also reorganized my tags and categories to strip out some redundancy and clarify things a bit. On a professional WordPress install, the right plugins can make this task easy, but on WordPress.com, editing tags, and, to a lesser extent, editing categories, is a chore. I’m lucky my blogging output has been so light — I had to edit all of my posts manually to clean up the tags and categories. I like WordPress a lot but the lack of built-in tag management has always been a little disappointing.

* Pipes, which allows for all kinds of RSS syndication, is just about the best thing Yahoo! has done in years.

It’s Fuwa Festival Now

One of my old Spring Festival rituals has been to travel to Tianjin’s Ancient Culture Street and look at the art unveiled there. Usually, the place is decorated with three-dimensional wire-and-cloth installations representing Spring Festival themes and the Chinese zodiac animal of the given year. While there were indeed giant mice to greet visitors this year, most of the traditional art took a back seat to Olympics propaganda imagery, with the many, many Fuwa and previous mascots popping up everywhere. It was a little bit like going to the mall in Christmastime and seeing Santa shoved aside by SuperBowl merchandise.

DSC01184Are the Fuwa cute? Arguably, yes, but more so than any Olympic mascots in recent history, the Fuwa seem designed to appeal to children, and, by extension of that appeal, sell toys. (Those who would compare the Fuwa to the Care Bears phenomenon of the 1980s aren’t far from the truth. As such, I eagerly await parodies like this one.) Now the capitalist in me ought to embrace the marketing genius of actually using an Olympic mascot to sell things rather than just stand around looking embarrassingly ugly, but given the disconnect between the cutesy kiddie Fuwa and the “spirit” of the Olympic games, I wonder why we bother having Olympic mascots at all.

One could argue that the mascots are symbols of the country and emblematic of the pride that country feels at hosting the Olympics. To a lesser extent they reflect the Olympics themselves, which the Fuwa do through their colors and through our friend Huanhuan to the left, who allegedly personifies the Olympic flame. Fair enough, but aside from Jingjing the Giant Panda, which of the Fuwa can be visually connected to China by most people?* How is the pride of a great nation adequately represented by dolls?

This is an old debate, of course, and the Fuwa, in their multi-colored plush glory, are here to stay. But the Fuwa do underline two negative trends in Olympic mascots — first, making them so abstract that they have only a thin connection to the host country, and second, opting for multiple mascots** rather than a single one, which needlessly clutters up the imagery. On the latter score we can be thankful that the five Fuwa aren’t nearly as ugly as the three mascots of the Sydney games:

DSC01151Lastly, lest I be accused of needless Fuwa-bashing, I promise this is all a prelude to bashing the mascot of the 2012 London Olympics, which, if the logo for the games is any indication, promises to be spectacularly bad.

* Chinese may understand the symbolism of, say, Beibei the Fish, but foreigners won’t, and that defies the point of the Olympics as a global event.

** Arguably, this was to avoid the cliché of making the sole mascot a panda or a dragon.

Nokia Bloglets

In lieu of several small posts:

  • I’m now well into month two of using the Nokia N82 and I still have a generally positive impression of the device. Some design quirks have started to stand out, however, such as the redundancy of having a multimedia carousel button and dedicated gallery button. Also, the phone’s shiny faceplate is easier to get dirty than most Nseries phones, despite the fact that I almost always keep the phone in a pouch. I’ve had a couple of OS crashes that necessitated removing the battery to restart the phone, but for the most part the N82 remains a stable handset. (Note that I’ve decided to forgo installing the new firmware because it didn’t seem like a significant update.) Battery life is the most pleasant surprise of this initial period, since the battery seems to last longer day after day, which adds to the puzzle of why the first generation N95 had such a poor battery. Lastly, in other N82-specific news, the new black model N82 seems a healthy corrective to the shiny/glittery finish of the original model N82 I own, but I’m not going to trade my phone in just get a new color. To get the new color and Wi-Fi, though … that’d be worth it.
  • One minor drawback to the N82 as a package is that it ships with the Nokia Nseries PC Suite software, which is buggy, bloated, and strangely underpowered compared to the vanilla PC Suite. The idea of an Nseries PC Suite has been puzzling to me, since the old PC Suite, while kind of ugly, worked just fine. The Nseries PC Suite, by comparison, is missing several features from the original PC Suite, such as the ability to compose text messages on the computer, which would have aided me when I sent out 100 90 or so text messages for Chinese New Year, as well as the ability to browse your phone through Windows Explorer. (The latter feature is “there” but never works.) For some people, though, Nokia Photos, while slick, will be a dubious addition, since it performs the same functions as, and seems destined to be a replacement for, Lifeblog. Thankfully, most of these hassles can be avoided by not installing the Nseries PC Suite and going with the regular PC Suite instead.
  • As noted on my blog before, most of the N95’s software also runs nicely on the N82, which means I usually Google around for N95 software recommendations and install them on the N82. (Why don’t I Google for N82 software recommendations, you might ask? Because the N82 just doesn’t have the following of the N95.) Among recent installs, I find myself using Twibble the most. It’s not the prettiest Twitter front end around, but it works fairly well, it’s stable, and its data use is minimal. Furthermore, it feels more interactive (and less annoying) than relying on text messages to use Twitter. If someone could make a Symbian Facebook app that functioned in a similar way, I’d have all my presence needs covered.
  • I also downloaded and installed the new Nokia Share Online 3.0 beta software, and I regret doing so. I’m not sure whether it’s because I’m in China, or because I’m using an N82, but I can’t download any online services (e.g. Flickr), effectively crippling the software but leaving two annoying status graphics on the phone’s active standby desktop. What’s more — and Nokia, to their credit, warns us about this — once Share Online 3.0 is installed, you can only uninstall it with a hard reset of your phone (in computer erms, a reformat). No thanks. I can only hope the final version fixes the services bug.
  • A better product from Nokia’s beta labs is their Activity Monitor. It’s not fancy, it’s not big — it’s more an applet than full-fledged software — but it does what it sets out to do reasonably well: use the N95/N82 accelerometer (a sensor that senses movement) to record your footsteps and calculate your calorie usage. It’s not always accurate in recording movement, and it looks too much like the Sports Tracker app (so much so that the two apps ought to be paired together in one package), but it’s still fun to use.
  • The next item isn’t a software issue, exactly, but one unpleasant discovery I had recently is that Google Calendar Mobile still doesn’t work right on newer Symbian devices. I first noticed this when using the N73 last spring and you would think by now that Google would change their website to accommodate the phones, but no. This is odd because the excellent Gmail Mobile has been continually updated for new phone models and works great on the N82. One wonders why Google couldn’t have the Gmail Mobile folks turn out a Google Calendar app…
  • Finally, a bit of Google-related weirdness: whenever I surf Google in China on the phone, I get up to three different versions of the Google mobile search page. One is the old page, another is a bare-bones front end, and still another is a spiffy version that automatically reformats most websites into mobile-friendly versions (and has the side benefit of bypassing the Great Firewall). The strange thing about this is that these three variants appear randomly and all when loading http://www.google.com on the phone.