Sunday, December 16, 2007

Irresponsible fearmongering at the NSB

As if the build-up to the presidential election next year were not chaotic enough, National Security Bureau (NSB) chief Shi Hwei-yow (許惠祐) revealed last week that the bureau had become aware of a “threat” against Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). In and of itself, there was nothing wrong with the revelation — except that it was altogether irresponsible of the NSB to make the information public before it had completed an assessment of the credibility of the threat by so-called “radical elements.”

Intelligence services the world over prepare what are formally known as “threat assessments” — reports, based on intelligence collected from various sources, that address threats to, among others, the security of the nation, its citizens at home and abroad, critical infrastructure, the economy, visiting foreign diplomats and the domestic political leadership.

Part of the responsibilities of analysts involved in the preparation of threat assessments is to sift through the daunting quantity of material that comes their way, from undigested, or “raw,” intelligence to assessments provided by agencies both domestic and foreign. The secluded world in which these analysts operate — after all, their very purpose of the unit is to think of threats — makes the task of telling signal from noise an onerous one at best.

This is why dependable threat assessments are based on “threat matrices,” which take both “threat” and “risk” into consideration, as well as whether the information regarding the threat is “single thread” — from one source alone — or has been corroborated by other means, such as human sources, signals intelligence and intercepts. The reliability of the source(s) is factored into the final evaluation, which, under their different guises, usually provide a “threat level” (e.g., a scale of one to 10, or “low,” “medium,” “high”) or an assessment of probability.

As a responsible and professional intelligence service, we can expect that the NSB goes through a similar process before it delivers a threat assessment to its customers in government. But in this instance, to openly discuss a threat in such a way that it becomes public — the news appeared in newspapers the very next day — before all the necessary steps involved in the production of a threat assessment have been made (“We are evaluating whether [the threats] are real,” Shi said on Monday) is either the result of gross incompetence or the willful utilization of fear to exacerbate tensions in an already charged political environment.

Government transparency is welcome and there should be more of it. But sensitive information such as a possible threat to assassinate a political figure should be handled with caution and should never be shared before its veracity has been ascertained. After all, threat assessment units receive, on a daily basis, dozens if not hundreds of leads, most of which turn out to be groundless, noise, and thus duly discarded.

But such malpractice is not without its precedents. For some time after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US, global intelligence agencies, in their renewed sense of siege, tended to seize on every threat and to report them before their credibility had been assessed. That practice eventually tapered off as the credibility of the Cassandras broadcasting the threats to both government and the public came under question. Facing the very real risk of numbing clients to the possibility of credible threats in future, those agencies had no choice but to become a little more discerning in what they would share.

We can perhaps forgive the NSB and other security agencies for being in a heightened sense of awareness as the elections approach, but if they want to retain their utility and avoid needlessly draining finite resources, they must refrain from feeding noise to the government and the public and not cry wolf before the semblance of a howl has been heard.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The NSB wasn't at fault over '101gate'

Although security at Taipei 101 may have been put to shame by Austrian base jumper Felix Baumgartner's successful — albeit uninvited — spectacular* on Tuesday, people and the media have made too much of the event. After all, no one was hurt, Toyota received more publicity than it could ever have hoped for when it placed its circular ads on the tower, and everybody has had a good laugh. Except, perhaps, the National Security Bureau (NSB), which has been accused of failing to catch the man before he could flee the country on a flight to Hong Kong. "If the NSB can't put its fingers on an individual who commits such an ostentatious act, how can it ever unmask the much more secretive spies Beijing has dispatched to Taiwan?" they ask.

At face value, the argument would seem to be a sensible one, were it not for the fact that it bespeaks a total lack of understanding of how security intelligence actually works.

First of all, about two hours after he jumped off Taipei 101, Baumgartner was boarding an aircraft for Hong Kong. As the stunt was unannounced, the authorities had no a priori knowledge and could not possibly have mobilized their forces in time to intercept him at the airport. Like any other government institution, the NSB is not meant to react quickly to events; in other words, before it can commit to a course of action, a long and slow process of decision-making involving a number of people of different ranks has to be completed. (This may seem counterintuitive, but all the red tape is there to prevent rash decisions and provide the necessary paper trail should something go wrong during an operation.)

Following upon that is the fact that — again like any other government institution — the NSB has a finite budget and limited resources, which means that to maximize performance it must prioritize. The belief that intelligence services "see and know everything" is nothing but a myth perpetuated by US genre movies. In reality, they can be surprisingly blind when it comes to "threats" that emanate from outside their pre-selected areas of focus. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, sadly, were a deadly demonstration of that.

Now, given the regional context, it shouldn't be too difficult to imagine what the NSB's priorities would be: Chinese espionage and, perhaps, various proliferation-related issues involving North Korea and Iran. As such, a great proportion of its resources, both human and electronic, would be aimed at serving those needs.

What the NSB probably isn't looking at, however, are Austrians, who pose no threat whatsoever to the security of Taiwan — even less so the type that seeks nothing other than to wow the public and get an adrenaline rush in the process.

In light of this — a "target" of no priority and a slow chain of command inherent to government institutions — it is perfectly understandable for Baumgartner to have managed to slip through the fingers of the authorities once he had committed his stunt.

The NSB and police authorities can be faulted for a number of things, but on this one, they certainly don't deserve the criticism they have received and the nation would be in much greater danger if they did, indeed, target the Baumgartners of this world, however irresponsible their deeds might be.

* Baumgartner managed to smuggle a parachute past Taipei 101 security and jumped off the building.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The many whys behind the ‘Kitty Hawk’ incident

In “The method in Beijing’s madness,” an article I published today in the Taipei Times, I explore the number of reasons why Beijing may have decided last month to deny entry into Hong Kong harbor to a series of US sea vessels. While most of the analysis to date has either focused on Beijing seeking to send the US “a message” regarding its displeasure with Washington selling Taipei military equipment or on the leadership being somehow “irrational,” I propose that rather than the latter, Beijing’s decision was based on Realist calculations of balance of power with the ultimate aim — one it has stated repeatedly in recent years — of forcing the US out of the region.

There is no small irony in the fact that on this incident defense analysts and political pundits, all raised on Kissingerian Realism, have mostly failed to make that point in their assessments.

Readers can access the full article by clicking here

(Note: References to Taro Aso in the article should instead have read former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. My apologies for the error.)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

“A blow below the belt”

The issuance on Monday of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a consensus document involving the 16 intelligence agencies in the US, arguing that, based on evidence, Tehran had very likely ended its nuclear weapon program in 2003 came as a bit of a surprise. More so, it gave one hope that the US intelligence community hasn’t entirely become politicized.

But for those who are now crossing their fingers and hoping the document will prevent sanctions or military action against Iran, cautious skepticism might be in order. Not 24 hours after its release, Israeli officials and the press were attacking the report, calling it “a blow below the belt.” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak even said that despite the findings (but providing no evidence whatsoever), Iran “has probably since revived it [its nuclear weapons program].” As deplorable was US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley’s almost immediate public interpretation of the NIE, which with Orwellian skill he managed to portray as meaning that Tehran must continue to be pressured, isolated and threatened, thus leaving the door open for further sanctions and even military action, although for the moment it would be more difficult to argue for the latter.

In an op-ed piece titled The Iranian test of possibility on Wednesday, Ha’aretz demonstrated Israel’s irrational streak whenever Iran is concerned by, among other things, dissecting the difference between the terms “high certainty” and “moderate confidence” used in the NIE and arguing that a 10 percent chance that Iran would develop an atomic weapon by 2009 may not mean much to the bigger and distant US but makes a world of a difference for smaller and more proximate Israel. The article then puts the entire US intelligence community into doubt by hinting that it once again has been deceived by Iranian “pranks.” The author uses a number of examples, including failure by the US to punish Iran for the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, to make this point. Ironically, by using this example the author underscores his own politicization of intelligence, as it has never been proven with “high certainty” that Tehran had anything to do with the bombing, which in fact intelligence organizations (including Israel's) have, depending on political needs of the time, also blamed on the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Saudi Hezbollah (not connected to the former) and al-Qaeda. It would seem that when it comes to defending oneself against accusations, Ha’aretz will lower its standards and just cannot be bothered with distinctions between “high certainty” and “moderate confidence.”

The op-ed then commends Bush for his commitment to “preventive action” and not “passive[ly] waiting for the enemy to give in.” In other words, Bush, the article says, will likely continue on his mission to isolate Iran despite the shackles of intelligence, and moreover he will receive all the help (and pressure) he needs from Israel. That pressure, in turn, will result in part from Israel’s own failure to distinguish between “threat” and “risk” assessment and to fashion its policies accordingly.

During my years at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), I had a “chance” to read many reports by the Israeli Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS) and Israel's domestic agencies. In every case, the failure to weigh “threat” against “risk” always struck me. The documents would be marred by a lack of criticism that turned what should have been an apolitical product (the very nature of intelligence) into a policy statement. In other words, rather than provide the raw data upon which CSIS could make its own assessment, Mossad was prescribing action and doing so in a way that prevented critical thinking. We can expect that in the wake of the NIE, US and intelligence services worldwide will soon be bombarded by “intelligence” from Israel, which in and of itself constitutes a political statement. For those of us who have already forgotten, this is exactly what Israel did when US interest in striking Iraq prior to 2003 was perceived to be flagging; the Israel lobby shifted into high gear and the intelligence started pouring in. Immediately after the Saddam Hussein regime had fallen, Jerusalem embarked on a relentless program to pressure the US and its allies into taking action against Tehran.

By focusing on the “threat” and ignoring the diminished risk, no matter what Tehran does (or is said to have done, as the NIE just did), Jerusalem will always cry foul. If this leads to further sanctions and isolation of Tehran — or, though less likely, in independent Israeli military strikes in Iran — good behavior, rather than be encouraged by engagement and reciprocity, will instead lead to punitive action, which in the long run can only but create a self-fulfilling prophecy and compel Tehran to go down the nuclear path. No good can come out of a “damned if you don’t, damned if you do” treatment of Iran.

Monday, December 03, 2007

On condition of anonymity

In an article published in the Taipei Times today, I look at the factors behind the growing presence of "anonymous sources" in today's news — a trend that, since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US, is now threatening the very foundations of newsmaking.

Tracing its origins to the Vietnam War, I find two principal themes that could explain this new phenomenon — new in the sense that its use is now customary — (a) lack of protection for government dissidents and corporate whistleblowers; and (b) a growing reliance by governments on secrecy and deniability.

I conclude by arguing that the use of secrecy, of which anonymous sources are but a new expression, is adding distance between governments and the people and making it more difficult for people to make their own informed judgments about events.

Readers can access the full article by clicking here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Language and the Middle East 'peace' talks

Readers of this Web site are by now aware that an issue I keep revisiting is that of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, partly as a result of my past profession but also because how the media reports on it epitomizes how language creates our reality, something that has long been an interest of mine. Another reason why I often come back to this particular conflict is that, as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt so aptly put it in their quite useful The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, as a purported Western democracy, Israel should be judged by higher moral standards than the supposed “radicals” and “extremists” and “terrorists” who oppose it.

The fact that it is not, that the media and the Jewish state’s Western allies continue to give it a moral carte blanche no matter what, underscores the reason why the new round of “peace” talks in Annapolis is, as the Palestinian “radicals” put it, “doomed to failure.”

The Associated Press wire agency, whose reporting I have dissected in previous postings, continues to systematically editorialize its news on the conflict. As AP is carried by newspapers the world over and its credibility assumed by most, how it represents the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is bound to influence — oftentimes subconsciously — people’s understanding of the issue. AP’s bias, constant though it is, doesn’t stem from a Zionist plot or a deliberate attempt to demonize Palestinians. Rather, it is symptomatic of a Western way of storytelling, in which there must be a “good” party and a “bad” one. The latter has all the mysteriousness and irrationalism of religion and violence attached to it, the “unknown” that creates fear among the civilized “us.”

A perfect example of this can be found in AP’s coverage of the demonstrations yesterday against the Middle East "peace" conference in Annapolis. The story, datelined Gaza City, opens with “Tens of thousands of Palestinians in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip demonstrated Tuesday against the Middle East peace conference in the US,” then spends the next 25 of 27 paragraphs describing Palestinian violence, threats of the “destruction of Israel” by Hamas and crowds chanting “death to America,” and so on.

Only the last two paragraphs — two out of the story’s total 28 — describe Israeli opposition to the peace talks, stating that “[m]ore than 20,000” Israelis gathered to demonstrate against the talks and that “hard-line” (a more neutral term that also conveys a sense of being part of the ‘acceptable’ political spectrum) opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu had “denounced” the conference.

The imbalance could not be any more stark. Ninety-two point five percent of the story focuses on “militants” using “vitriolic” language to attack the “peace” talks, even quoting a 37-year-old Palestinian mother of eight, “[d]ressed in a black robe and black and green headband,” (again, sustaining the image of the unknown, which otherwise does not serve any journalistic purpose) who adds that the failure of the talks “will be an advantage for the resistance.” Only 7.5 percent of AP’s report addresses Israeli opposition to the talks, and furthermore readers are given a more precise number of demonstrators — more than 20,000 — than what we are told about Palestinians, which is no more precise than in the “tens of thousands,” a convenient quantity blur that encourages the view of swarms of irrational Palestinians against the more scientific, knowable Israelis.

Why couldn’t AP open its story with a Jerusalem dateline and represent the two demonstrations with more balance, perhaps by quoting Israelis who use a language of intolerance as "radical” as that used by the Palestinians quoted in the story? By failing to do this and by disproportionately reporting on Palestinian demonstrations, the latter are once again portrayed as opposing peace. If and when the talks in Annapolis fail — for they will — it will once again be the Palestinians who are blamed, irrespective of the fact that it is quite apparent that, like all its predecessors, the Israeli leadership is coming to the negotiating table less than willing to make the concessions that would open the way for a viable Palestinian state.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

‘Brothers so sorely tired’

The Red Cross and the Red Crescent estimate that 900,000 Bangladeshi families are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance and that between 5,000 and 10,000 people were killed by Cyclone Sidr last week (at this writing, the official death toll stands at above 3,000). On Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI appealed for international solidarity and to “help these brothers so sorely tired.” Given the severity of the situation, one would think that Dhaka is hardly in a position to turn down assistance from anyone who offers.

And yet, that is just what it did.

It is true that numerous countries, including the US, Japan, China, Canada, Kuwait, Germany and the EU, have already either sent aid or have promised to do so, and some, like Saudi Arabia, have made well-publicized offers of not insubstantial amounts of money for relief assistance, while the Islamic Conference has called on its 57-member body to send urgent aid. All must have been welcomed with open arms by Bangladeshi authorities.

Taiwan, too, has offered aid, via its representative office in Dhaka, but Bangladeshi authorities have refused to acknowledge the offer, giving as a reason the fact that the two countries do not have official diplomatic ties — the usual euphemism for one’s reluctance to deal with Taiwan because of the likelihood that doing so would anger the backdoor bully Beijing (China has pledged US$1 million in emergency assistance to Bangladesh).

Although this time round Taiwan’s offer came via Taiwan International Health Action, a governmental organization under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, rather than through NGOs — thus making accepting the offer a little more complicated — one would think that in a time of great need such as now, capitals would put politics aside and genuinely focus on the needs of their people. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case and a wealthy country in a good position to offer immediate help when it is needed most — now, when lives can be saved — is being told to stay home.

History has taught us that pledges of humanitarian aid following a natural catastrophe rarely translate into the full sum promised, and oftentimes the bureaucratic process adds layers of red tape — and precious days — to the actual delivery of aid on the ground. In other words, the millions of dollars that countries have pledged in recent days will not all end up where they are needed, and some of that help will arrive late. As such, there is no such a thing as too much on offer, and all help should be welcome.

I’m pretty sure Bangladeshis wouldn’t mind Taiwanese money, blankets or food and would probably even risk Beijing’s "wrath" when everything around them has been turned into a devastation zone, or “a valley of death,” as one relief worker put it, with water-borne diseases and the promise of more deaths lurking just on the horizon.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Our moral nakedness: a response

Adar Primor’s piece in the Nov. 6 edition of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz does a good job analyzing the underlying strategy of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) bid to join the United Nations under the name “Taiwan.” Primor is fully aware that Chen’s chances of success in this endeavor are, at least on the surface, rather quite slim, as Taiwan is confronted to the harsh realities of Realpolitik and “international hypocrisy.”

Beyond the attempt itself, however, Primor sees a second — and perhaps even more important — bid to expose the moral nakedness of the international community, which continues to deny “the freest country in Asia” the place it deserves under the sun. Primor spares no one; the US, European countries, even Israel, the author says, have been “going with the flow,” meaning that China’s lure trumps the so-called “shared” values that, as he rightly puts it, are by no means reflected in the Chinese leadership.

Sadly, the author concludes with a flawed analogy by comparing Taiwan with Israel, “two small and effervescent ‘real democracies’ engaged in their own security-existential troubles, exposed to threats from a huge external enemy and dependent on American protection and aid.” Foreign editor at Haaretz, a newspaper with a long, enviable tradition of even-handed reporting on Israeli politics (see Amira Haas’ clear-eyed columns on Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, for example), Primor should know better than to equate Taiwan’s struggle for survival with Israel’s, as the “David of the Far East,” as he puts it, does not face “a huge external enemy” because of its long history of colonialism and military adventurism, at least not since dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) left the scene.

Unlike Israel, Taiwan does not threaten its neighbors, does not invade their airspace or bomb capital cities back to the stone age. Nor does it hold millions hostage in Apartheid-like submission — all misguided policies that (a) most Israelis do not agree with and (b) are largely responsible for that “huge external enemy” in the first place. Beijing denies the very existence of Taiwan; most Arabs do not deny Israel’s right to exist and those who do certainly do not have the means to bring about such a reality. If it wanted, Beijing could raze Taiwan to the ground (It would help if Israel stopped selling military technology to China). Conversely, given its tremendous military (largely the result of US “carte blanche” military transfers and billions in annual aid, as well as its nuclear arsenal), it is Israel, what with its unconditional support from Washington, that is in a position, if it wanted, to annihilate its enemies — not the other way around.

What this means, therefore, is that no policy “correction” on Taipei’s part would bring about a cessation of hostilities. No matter what it does, Beijing will continue to threaten it — at least as long as it struggles for sovereignty. With a corrective in how it manages its conflict both with Palestinians and its neighborhood, Israel can appease “Goliath,” fix its “security-existential struggle” and sideline the remaining lunatics who call for its destruction.

Primor’s piece is a most welcome one that shows Chen’s efforts to publicize Taiwan’s cause are not in vain. But by conflating Taiwan’s struggle with that of Israel, sadly, he undermines the power of his argument.

In fairness to the author, I subsequently learned that the “David of the Far East” analogy was picked up by Mr. Primor during his interviews with Taiwanese and, furthermore, that it is often used by Chinese-language media in Taiwan. As I argue above, this analogy not only misinterprets the roots of Israel's security challenge but, ironically, misrepresents the underlying causes of Taiwan's predicament.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

To war, one step at a time

The timing of the Interpol general assembly voting on whether to put five Iranians and a Lebanese on “red” notice — the international police agency’s “most wanted” list — suspected of involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires (seen left) could not be more conspicuous, coming as it does at a time when the US and some of its allies are putting unprecedented pressure on Tehran to cease its alleged military nuclear work. Despite Interpol’s assertion that the decision to vote on the matter was not, as Tehran alleges, the result of pressure from Washington (or Israel), one wonders why the agency, which has had 13 years since the bombing, would decide to act now, knowing fully well that doing so will only add fuel to an already dangerously unstable political brew.

To its merit, Tehran decided to abandon trying to block the vote, but irrespective of that decision, the vote confronts it to a lose-lose situation, in which (a) refusal would give the impression it is trying to hide something, that it supports terrorism or is simply a “rogue” international actor, while (b) the responsibilities attendant to the “red” notices could result in pressure to arrest or hand over the suspects in Iran (although states are not obligated to do so).

Whether the decision to hold the vote (a majority suffices) was indeed the result of political pressure remains to be determined, but regardless, its timing could not have been worse. Not only will this further isolate Iran at a time when it needs to be embraced, but the sixth suspect, Imad Mugniyeh (right), also happens to have intimate ties to the Lebanese Hezbollah, an ally and sometimes proxy of Tehran. Given the instability in Lebanon — fueled by the US/Israel/Syrian power play there as well as internal sectarian fault lines — pressure on the Lebanese government to hand over Mugniyeh (although he is unlikely to be in Lebanon) or on Iran to do so would inevitably result in linkage and thereby render both the Iranian "nuclear" problem and the Lebanese one all the more unsolvable.

By accident or design, independent decision or one brought about by pressure, the decision at this specific point in time to target those six suspects takes us ever closer, down the long succession of small things adding up, to war with Iran.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Foreign nationals threatened

In a short opinion piece published today in the Taipei Times, I argue that China's insistence that health-related information from the World Health Organization (WHO) and its subsidiary agencies be relayed to Taipei via Beijing rather than directly from the WHO to Taiwan represents a threat not only to the 23 million Taiwanese whose safety, as recent events have shown, could be compromised, but also to the tens of thousands of expatriates who live in Taiwan. By giving Beijing control over health information, I argue, the WHO would simply be giving China an additional tool with which to blackmail Taiwan.

My piece is a call on foreign governments to let Beijing know, in no uncertain terms, that hostage-taking of expatriates in Taiwan — as the willful or neglectful withholding of health-related information or the failure to disseminate it in a responsible and timely fashion certainly represent — is unacceptable behavior.

Readers can read the full article by clicking here.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The turn of the screw

The Israeli government (readers will notice that I do not refer to Jerusalem to designate the state, as one would use Washington or Beijing, given that the switch of the capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem a few years a go has been largely successful in turning a contested geographical area into shorthand for the Jewish state and exclusion for Palestinians) has upped the ante by announcing it would cut off electricity to Gaza in increasing fashion every time Palestinian militants fire rockets into Israeli territory.

Note that in its report, the Associated Press vaguely refers to Israeli “territory,” without distinction between Israel proper and Israeli settlements.

The first cut, we are told, will last 15 minutes.

Yet again, the Israeli military will be resorting to “retaliatory” (again, AP at its best, which depicts the Palestinians as instigators without providing any background into the reasons why they feel the need to fire the rockets in the first place) measures that not only treat Palestinians like children who need to be brought into line but that punish the majority for the actions of the few, a clear violation of the laws of war. Even the usually meek UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon could not help but criticize the plan last month when it was first unveiled.

Stranger, even, is the fact that the “barrage” of rockets, which has allegedly “severely disrupted” life in the “area,” has only killed 12 Israelis in six years. That’s two Israelis killed every year killed by the supposedly dangerous Palestinian rockets. Car accidents, drinking, drugs, lightning, food poisoning, high cholesterol, attacks by dogs — all, and many more, are far deadlier everyday occurrences than those crude Palestinian rockets. And yet, cars are not being taken off the roads, alcohol and drugs are not being taken off the streets and pet dogs are not being culled. But the 1.5 million people who live in Gaza, however, will be made responsible.

Many, many more Gazans have died as a result of Israeli violence, but we don't see Palestinians cutting off energy supplies to Israel. That's because they can't, as the power dynamics in the conflict are very much in Israel's favor, with control not only over most of the electricity Gaza recives, but also water, goods, airspace, and so on.

Meanwhile, there is nothing in the AP report about how this illegal turn of the screw will “severely” disrupt the lives Palestinians, whose lives have already been severely disrupted by the fact that people have been crammed into a non-viable state whose survival is at the mercy of the Israeli state.

Friday, October 19, 2007

KMT shows its true allegiance

If anyone had doubts about the true allegiance of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), those should have been dispelled yesterday when it announced it was blocking the special budget set aside for the Ministry of National Defense to develop the Hsiung Feng (“Brave Wind”) IIE missile, a multiple-platform cruise missile capable of reaching Chinese cities that would have given Taiwan retaliatory capabilities it did not possess.

Already, with the US refusing to sell critical component parts for the development of the missile, the program was facing challenges, compelling the Taiwanese government to search for other markets for the parts or to seek to develop them indigenously. But now, with the budget facing a complete freeze by the KMT, its survival is at stake.

Granted, as belligerents add offensive weapons — and the Hsiung Feng is such a weapon — to their stockpiles and start deploying them, the risks of error increase, and with them the likelihood that wars could be launched by mistake. But as I have argued before, no defense is complete without a deterrent, and this is what the Hsiung Feng would have provided.

The KMT rationalizes its decision to block the budget by saying the missile could have “provoked” Beijing — again, as always, it is Taiwan that is provoking Beijing, never the other way around — and that it was therefore safer to halt its development. But this fails to take stock of reality and starkly shows in whose camp the KMT really is. In the process, it irresponsibly puts the security of the nation at risk.

The only way the KMT could have won the “provocation” argument would be for it to set preconditions for freezing the budget. Those would be, at modicum: (a) the dismantling or de-targeting of the odd-1,000 missiles China is aiming at Taiwan and (b) the renunciation of the use of force to annex Taiwan. China’s continued — and increasing — threat to use force against Taiwan is the true provocation, and yet the KMT remains silent on that issue, a silence that tacitly acknowledges Beijing’s right to break international law by threatening the use of force against another nation.

What’s next? Perhaps the KMT, realizing that the very existence of Taiwan is “provocative” to China, should freeze agricultural, social, health and other budgets that allow for the state to exist in the first place. After all, and if we follow the party’s logic, only when a free, democratic Taiwan ceases to exist will the so-called provocation completely vanish.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A parade not for all

Last week on Oct. 10, the Republic of China (ROC) celebrated its National Day with the biggest military parade in 16 years. The practice of showcasing one’s armaments — at least to such an extent — had been abandoned in 1991 for fear it might provoke Beijing. Although the reasons for the resumption of massive military parades have yet to be known, it is not difficult to imagine that nationalism, riding the winds of Taiwan’s bid for UN membership, has something to do with it, as is the fact that this was the last such event with President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) as leader of the country.

Sold on the promise of seeing a wide array of the nation’s military equipment, from an Air Force flyby to armored personnel carriers to various missiles, I, and many others, headed for the Presidential Office, in front of which said parade was to begin. It soon became evident, though, that reaching the Presidential Office proper would be impossible, as every artery leading to it had been blocked with gates, barbed wire and rows of police officers, some of whom were equipped with the body shields so prominent at WTO summits while others held long hardwood staves that, if used, promised much pain. So, like water we gathered up at the dam, vying for positions from which, we hoped, we could see some of the parade as it passed by. Around us, rows of ROC flags beat to the breeze.

And we waited. And waited.

With the parade scheduled to begin at 9:19am, many among us began showing signs of impatience when, one hour later, we still hadn’t seen or heard anything, except for the occasional shift in police deployment. Many pictures were taken of the police officers who stood impassively behind the barbed wire, many of whom appeared to be much younger than me.

At one point a woman began shouting something incomprehensible, whereupon three or four police officers, prompted into preventive action, seized her and carried her away. That was the end of the momentary disturbance. Then, walking solitarily on the boulevard, with media and a few security officials in his wake, strolled Shih Ming-teh (施明德), former chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party and, since last year, the leader of an anti-Chen movement, looking very much as if he were going to a golf game. Some people near me shouted words of support, but quickly the eerie quietness — quite unusual for the usually rowdier national day celebrations I am accustomed to — descended upon us once again, with people chatting calmly, taking pictures (mostly of themselves and their friends) and placing calls on their cell phones.

Then, all of a sudden, the skies above us were pierced by rolling thunder, the crowd cheered, and the flyby began, with dozens of helicopters, followed by F-16s and Mirage-2000s, training aircraft and transport aircraft. No sooner had they shot above our heads, though, than things once again quieted down and the waiting resumed.

I approached a police officer and showed him my press card, hoping it might allow me to reach a better vantage point, but it turned out I didn’t have the proper pass. So I waited with the rest of the crowd, a mix of Japanese and Philippine tourists, Taiwanese and curious expatriates. Come 11:30am, I decided to leave, knowing by then that the parade wasn’t coming our way and confident that, once back in the office, I would have access to all the wire pictures taken during the day.

Follow-up inquiries showed that the military parade was a closed event and that people (and even there not the average Joe) who wanted to attend needed to obtain a special pass from the Government Information Office beforehand. In other words, this was not an event for public consumption — at least not one in which ordinary Taiwanese could participate. So, I wondered, aside from the dignitaries and reporters who did have the special pass, who was this massive display of military technology intended for?

The answer is fairly simple. This was a signal, sent via the media, to (a) the nation’s allies — in other words the US — who frequently have criticized Taiwan for not doing enough to defend itself, especially in the wake of the drawn-out, KMT-stalled efforts to purchase armaments from the US, and (b) China, in a flexing of muscles intended to make it think twice about embarking on a military course to gain control over Taiwan, a message that was emphasized by recent news on the development of surface-to-surface missiles capable of hitting cities in China — the first time in years Taiwan had developed offensive military technology.

So as an exercise in nationalism, the parade cannot be deemed a success, for it did not generate the “cheer on the street” and flag waving where national dreams are born. For those who viewed the parade in the news, the emotional reaction of pride, if we can characterize it as such, was more distant. One, obviously, does not obtain from an image on TV or in a newspaper the same chill one gets from experiencing the real thing.

As a signal to the US and China, it may have worked, but the effects have yet to be felt. One thing is sure, however: the Taiwan Strait conflict is getting increasingly militarized.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Whose parliament is it?

Anyone who, against all reason, had managed to retain a strand of belief that the UN Security Council — and the UN in general — was a functional body that could speak in the name of humanity must have felt like hiding in a basement in the past weeks.

Day after day, starting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s arrogating powers that aren’t his on Taiwan’s UN membership bid, followed by a succession of heads of state achieving nothing of substance during the 62nd General Assembly meeting other than vying to see who would manage to make this year’s most unorthodox, media-grabbing diatribe against the leader of another state (to think that last year’s “sulfur” comment is already passé) and, finally, by the Council’s failing, on Tuesday, to agree on a formal condemnation of the attack on African Union troops in Darfur simply because Council members could not reach consensus on whether the attack by rebels constituted a “terrorist” attack or not — day after day, indeed, the UN has proven without doubt that its utility is waning, and fast. Oh, and one should not omit mentioning UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari’s visit to Myanmar, a meek, beggarly attempt (no offense, Mr. Gambari) that seems, at the most, to ask the junta to refrain from terrorizing its population too much while the envoy is in the country.

Underscoring all this, no sooner had the General Assembly closed its Babel-like exercise in futility than heads of state, from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, to name but two, were making bilateral declarations whose ramifications will far outpace whatever was achieved at the UN.

Not to be unfair (and to rehash an old saying), the UN is but the sum of its constituents — member states — and some of its branches, such as the IAEA, have managed to function. But irrespective of what it is, as a decision-making body it seems to have reached a point in its history where it cannot do anything, a situation that has a lot to do with the cynical coterie of world leaders, elected and not, we have today, many of whom seem to see the body as nothing more than a podium where one slams a shoe on a table, brandishes a marijuana plant, speaks of the devil, lies about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in another country, berates the body for picking on Israel and so on, ad nauseam, until their antics are pushed off the front page as news develop elsewhere in the world. So far removed has the body become from reality that it now draws comparisons with the so-called ivory towers of academia — an unfair allusion, perhaps, as universities and think tanks come nowhere near the level of cynicism one encounters at the UN, and the destitute do not place their hopes and trust in them.

One must wonder why, aside from the recognition it would grant it, a country like Taiwan has worked so hard to obtain membership at the UN, given that it probably can achieve far more working outside that institution than it would once inside its antediluvian walls.

It would be a great loss to humanity if the UN — as a concept — were to bring about its own demise through sclerotic turpitude, and every effort should be made to ensure that this does not happen. But in its current form, its disappearance would not be of great consequence.

It is with some trepidation that I write this, as I once harbored great admiration for an institution that, sixty years ago or so, was founded on principles that should have served us all and made the world body a true parliament of man[kind]. To this day and the above notwithstanding, I remain a strong believer in the superiority of multilateralism to ameliorate the lot of humanity.

How Canadian of me.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Ahmadinejad at Columbia

Like him or hate him, there is no denying the fact that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a master at making people uncomfortable. His presence in New York these days, where he is set to address the UN General Assembly, was accompanied by an invitation by Columbia University for him to deliver a speech, which he did last night amid high security and thousands of rowdy protesters. The invitation for the head of a so-called “state sponsor of terrorism” to visit a bastion of the country’s higher-learning institutions was not without controversy, and Columbia’s president received a fair amount of heat from US representatives and citizens for opening the university doors to a man who has been dubbed anything from a “tyrant” to “cruel dictator” to “super-terrorist.”

But the fact of the matter is, despicable or not, honest in his skepticism of the extent of the Holocaust and his messianic calls for the “destruction of Israel” or a mere political opportunist, Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia was necessary, as it came at a time of great tension between Iran and the US and within the region as a whole. Aside from the longstanding accusations by Washington and its allies that Tehran is attempting to acquire and develop nuclear weapons, in recent weeks the US has accentuated its accusations that Iran is meddling in the affairs of, and arming militants in, Iraq and Afghanistan. A great part of the saber rattling on those issues is the result of miscommunication — or worse, the absence of any communication — between the two states, something that has long characterized US-Iranian relations.

So here was the occasion, in an institution of learning, for people to hear first-hand, without media distortion, what Ahmadinejad had to say about the US, Iraq, Palestinians, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and other topics. There was ample material in his speech to disagree with (including his farcical assertion that there are no homosexuals in Iran), and to be honest the former engineer lacks the charisma and moral suaveness of his predecessor, Mohammed Khatami, whose own presence in the US years ago, when he called for “dialogue between civilizations,” also sparked controversy. But all that notwithstanding, only when leaders can express their opinions without the countless filtering layers of diplomacy and biased media and exchange those ideas with students and professors, in collegial fashion, will nations that make it a tradition to talk past each other manage to see eye-to-eye. For all in attendance yesterday saw a man, faults and all, before them — not the devil some media have portrayed him as incarnating, not a nuclear-weapons wielding, religiously deranged mullah posting checks left and right to Hezbollah and the Taliban and Iraqi Shiite rebels — a man, who even smiled as his host welcomed him with a barrage of accusations.

Irrespective of whether one agrees with the content of Ahmadinejad’s speech yesterday, at the end of the day his presence at Columbia University will probably have accomplished more for Iranians and Americans than his address before the General Assembly, which like that of other leaders there, will be wordy but ultimately less than pithy.

(An aside: For reasons that are all too obvious, Ahmadinejad was prevented from visiting the World Trace Center site to pay his respects to the victims of 9/11 — this despite the fact that Iran had absolutely nothing to do with those attacks. And to those US politicians who shook with indignation at the thought that the Iranian leader could be allowed to step on US soil, well, what can one say but to point out that, after all, he is responsible for far less deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan than his US counterpart.)

So kudos to Columbia University, which took a not inconsiderable risk inviting the Iranian leader. And congratulations to those who attended — from the angry crowds to the academics — for, unlike the occasion in 2002 when former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Concordia University in Montreal, sparking such unruliness and violence by protesters that his speech had to be canceled, they greeted the controversial leader with commendable maturity.

One would hope that universities the world over would do this more often.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Slanted Time reporting on Taiwan's UN bid

Kathleen Kingsbury’s piece “Taiwan’s War of Words with the U.S.” published in the Sept. 17 issue of Time magazine was replete with the one-sidedness and bias of the kind that Robert Fisk (Pity the Nation, The Great War for Civilization), Edward Said (Covering Islam), Richard Falk and Howard Friel (Israel-Palestine on the Record) have deplored in reporting on the Middle East. Not only does it completely fail to provide counterarguments to the overtly pro-Beijing position, but its portrayal is entirely predicated on the views of an old Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) hand past his prime as well as on recent comments by a handful of US administration officials who, despite their rhetoric, can hardly be said to be democracy’s best.

The allusion of Taiwan as a child used in the article plays right into Beijing’s hands, which has always portrayed Taiwan as a youngling that needs to be smacked (as are the Palestinians in the equally biased reporting on their struggle). It is disheartening to see that an otherwise reputable magazine like Time would choose to treat a democracy as an unreasonable child while painting a repressive authoritarian regime as a responsible father figure.

The voices of millions of Taiwanese and their supporters all over the world were completely silenced by the report, an omission — intended or otherwise — that can only but harm a worthy and by no means lost cause.

The article also contains a few inconsistencies regarding Taiwan and the UN. First, while a vote did take place at the UN to give the People’s Republic of China (PRC) a seat in 1971, the Republic of China (ROC) was not expelled; Chiang Kai-shek pulled the ROC out of the UN because he could not stand dual PRC-ROC representation in the world body.

Secondly, Kingsbury writes that “Taiwan has tried — and failed — to regain membership,” (my italics) in the UN, which would mean that (a) at one point in the past Taiwan (not the ROC) was a member of the UN; and (b) that given (a), Taiwan must be a country, as membership (which it is trying to regain) is contingent on that precondition being met.

Time would do itself and its readers a great service by publishing a corrective on the matter, one that tells the other side of the story.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Letter to the Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations

Readers who agree with the contents of the following letter, sent today to the Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations, are encouraged to copy and paste, sign and send it to the address below, or alter it so that it will reflect whichever mission they would like to send it to. If a response is received from the Permanent Mission, I will post it here.

Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations
One Dag Hammarskjold Plaza
885 Second Avenue, 14th Floor
New York, NY 10017

Monday, September 17, 2007

Ever since the creation of the United Nations in 1945, Canada has prided itself in — justly so — being an active participant at, and promoter of, this most indispensable of international institutions.

Through its unflinching dedication to multilateralism as a means to tap into the greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts ingenuity of civilization and its having taken a leading role in UN endeavors ranging from peacekeeping to environmental protection to human rights, Canada has demonstrated, beyond any doubt, its commitment to inclusiveness and universality, two principles that constitute the very foundations of the international body. Canada’s favorable image abroad, which opens doors to its citizens wherever they go, is in part the result of its longstanding commitment to the UN.

And yet, when it comes to the ongoing repression of the 23 million people of Taiwan, which against all odds turned into a vibrant democracy in the1990s, Canada, like other UN members, has been conspicuously silent — a situation that, sadly, has only deteriorated since Ban Ki-moon assumed his position as UN Secretary-General last year.

Despite what it claims, Beijing does not represent the interests of Taiwanese. Rather, for years it has threatened to use force against Taiwan (the “Anti Secession” law, passed in 2005, along with the odd 1,000 missiles bristling Taiwan-wards, attest to this). Unable to be a responsible stakeholder when it comes to the health of its own population, as it clearly demonstrated, among other instances, by hiding the severity of its SARS outbreak in 2003 and arresting those who tried to make the threat public, China certainly cannot be expected to represent — though it says it does — the 23 million people of Taiwan at international institutions. As for human rights, the daily news speak for themselves, with activists thrown into jail by the thousands and far more expelled from their homes as China builds its economy.

Beijing continues to pressure, blackmail and threaten UN member states into ignoring the rights of Taiwanese, and has been so successful doing this that on numerous occasions Taiwanese representatives have been discriminated against and humiliated whenever they sought to represent Taiwanese at such bodies as the World Health Organization, the World Health Assembly and, just recently, the Basel Convention on Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.

Every UN member state that, at modicum, fails to raise the issue — on moral grounds or for the sake of international cooperation of the kind that is so needed to address the plentiful challenges facing humankind in the 21st century — can but be accused of being complicit in Beijing’s repression of Taiwanese and of choosing to ignore a continued aggression that is diametrically opposed to everything the UN stands for.

True, the UN and the international community face more immediate and serious problems, such as continuing genocide in Darfur, security challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan, the AIDS epidemic, global warming, poverty and so on. But the presence of these challenges should not by any means obviate the need to fight for justice whenever a situation arises that calls for intervention, as in Taiwan’s case. Failure to do so would be tantamount to buying the argument, voiced by some, that world powers should not have intervened to stop ethnic cleansing and mass murder in Bosnia/Croatia because simultaneously a genocide was going on in Rwanda. Greater emergencies do not necessarily mean that we must abandon other worthy causes.

As such, we, citizens of Taiwan and expatriates who have come to love this nation, call upon the Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations to reflect the spirit of the UN, of Canada and of humanity by raising a voice of opposition to Beijing’s unforgivable isolation of Taiwan at the UN and its affiliated institutions. Just as it has done in the past, Canada should take the lead and defend the values of humanity it, and the UN, supposedly stand for.

Respectfully yours,


Thursday, September 13, 2007

For once, Tehran's response to the US may be right

In an article published today in the Taipei Times, I turn to a US court decision last week to allow the families of the 241 US marines killed by the Lebanese Hezbollah organization in the 1983 bombing of the marines barracks in Beirut.

By arguing that families of soldier victims can sue individuals, groups or governments responsible for killing soldiers while the latter are in the line of duty, District Judge Royce Lamberth is not only turning military duty into a fantasy — where, against logic, killing a soldier who is occupying your country means breaking the law — but he is also opening a can of worms Washington had fain make sure remained closed. For if, as in the case at hand, a government (Iran) that is suspected of sponsoring an otherwise independent organization (Hezbollah) can be sued by a third party (the US), then it would follow that the families of, say, an Iraqi man killed by the US-trained Iraqi military could seek reparations from the US — or, for that matter, the families of slain Palestinians could sue the US government for its support and arming of the Israeli Defense Force, and so on, ad absurdum, from Colombia to Indonesia to wherever else the US is propping up security forces in the name of security, an endeavor that, sadly, is only intensifying (for more on this, see, among others, Robert Kaplan's Imperial Grunts and Dana Priest's The Mission).

Sad as it is for soldiers meaning good to be killed in the line of duty, and howsoever their mission is regarded back home, using terms such as peacekeeping or liberation or stabilization, the truth of the matter is, being a soldier in a foreign land entails a series of risks — deadly risks — that cannot, ex post facto, be questioned in the court of law. Unless, that is, the families of the victims are (a) suing their own government for sending soldiers into a situation that was illegal in the first place; (b) the means utilized to kill said soldiers were deemed illegal by the Geneva Convention — e.g. chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear; or (c) the victims were not military but rather civilians, in which case said attack would indeed constitute terrorism and justify prosecution in court.

Readers can access the full article, titled “For once, Tehran’s response to the US may be right,” by clicking here.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Bias and mythmaking in the news

Though accusations of bias in the news, or of government censorship, since Washington launched its campaign against terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have reached a strident level, those phenomena — antipodes locked in a perpetual dance, if you will — are anything but new. In fact, they have haunted the business of reporting since its inception.

Anthony DePalma’s The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba, and Herbert L. Matthews of the New York Times takes a shot at untying that Gordian knot by following the controversial travails of the famous, or, to some, infamous, reporter who in 1957 went to Cuba and interviewed a young rebel named Fidel Castro, who until then had been believed killed, in the Sierra Mastra. The series of three articles that emerged from that fateful meeting, all published in the New York Times, became part of the myth that enshrouded Castro — and, as the leader’s image of a principled savior of Cuba soured with time, Matthews’ undoing.

Part history, part biography and part essay on history and revisionism, DePalma’s relentlessly captivating narrative describes not only the complex lifelong relationship that developed between Castro and Matthews, but also those that sprung between the US State Department, US ambassadors to Cuba, the CIA, the FBI (which put Matthews on its index over J. Edgar Hoover’s suspicion that he was a closet communist), the editorial staff at the Times, which as public and political pressure mounted failed to stand by its seasoned reporter, other journalists, and Cuban expatriates who at times hailed him as a hero while others (pro-Bastista or anti-communists) sent him hate mail and even death threats.

Throughout all this, the increasingly isolated Matthews never yielded to the growing criticism that his romantic coverage of the Cuban Revolution, and of Castro, had allowed a monster to emerge, contending throughout his life that he had always been right and that Castro, rather than having been a communist all along, only to deceive the world, had instead used the Soviet Union to maintain his hold on power. Later in life, in books and articles revisiting the revolution, Matthews did criticize Castro, especially over his dangerous gamble during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But enamored as he was of powerful figures, he never failed to balance his criticism with admiration for Fidel’s qualities. Accused of disrupting the truth, Matthews defended himself with the claim that he had never reported anything he did not believe was true.

But regardless of what he wrote later on, the damage had been done, and the public never abandoned the view that Matthews, if perhaps unintentionally, had been complicit in a political heist of global strategic proportions. Just as the Castro myth had been born in 1957, so was Matthews’, and to this day those illusions would be extremely hard to dispel.

Aside from shedding important light on this moment in Cold War history, DePalma’s book also asks important questions about the responsibilities of newsmakers and editorialists. Here again, the author uses Matthews — who through a special arrangement did both at the Times — to guide the reader. Under ideal conditions, reporters are supposed to be neutral in their coverage of events, while by virtue editorialists are expected to be opinionated, to “disturb the peace [...] to challenge accepted ideas and principles if they seem outworn or unsuited,” as Matthews himself once put it. What happens, then, when an individual is asked to wear both hats? Can he or she reasonably be expected to keep the two separate at all time, or is there not a risk that the lines will eventually blur until newsmaking becomes editorialized, with the author’s biases “polluting” the news item? Or is pure, unbiased news itself, as Martha Gellhorn, the future wife of Ernest Hemingway, who during the Spanish Civil War befriended Matthews, once famously put it, nothing but “objectivity shit,” something altogether impossible to achieve, given human nature?

Being an editorialist myself for a leading English-language newspaper in Taiwan, those questions were of special interest, especially as newspaper editorials are in fact not the author’s opinion but rather reflect an institutional position, that of the paper. The conflicts that arise — and there are many — stem from the eternal tug-of-war between the individual’s biases and those of the publisher, which do not necessarily always dovetail. In Matthews’ case, these differences led to a conflicted relationship with the editorial board, which toward the end of his career virtually shut him out (the news department had done this much earlier, on one occasion even barring him from visiting Cuba at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis).

Political editorials are especially troublesome and Matthews, writing about Cuba and Latin America, experienced more than his share of angst writing them for the Times. Aside from the views of the newspaper itself, the context of the Cold War (much like today) and the ongoing witch hunt for supposed communists led to tremendous pressure from the White House on the media to toe the line, and the Times was not impervious to this. (Taiwan, being no less political than Cuba and the US were at the time, presents a daunting challenge to editorialists, as every word is weighed, with the assurance that whatever one writes will create anger in the opposite camp, such as exists in Taiwan’s overly polarized politics.)

In all, The Man Who Invented Fidel is a superb piece of reporting on an issue that remains much alive today. Without falling into an apology for Matthews, it nevertheless manages to portray him as a complex individual — much like el Jefe Maximo — in a way that defies the Manichean inflexibility of the imagination that sadly characterizes much of the reporting we encounter in the news, back then and in contemporary times.

With the benefit of hindsight and knowing what we know about Castro today, there is no question that with our without Matthews’ reporting, Castro would have found his way to power, and DePalma’s essential book does us all a tremendous service by dispelling the belief that Matthews is to blame for all the ills that befell US-Cuban relations. Matthews may have played an early role in helping create the image in the US — and to a similar extent in Cuba, despite the heavy censorship that prevailed there at the time — but in the end, Fidel did not need Matthews to achieve his objectives as much as Matthews needed Fidel to attain his as a reporter.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

It won’t be spooks, but it’s coming

As the presidential election in Taiwan approaches, the US will likely increase pressure on the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government in a manner that is tantamount to a coup d’etat. The reason is that as it has tried to make Taiwan’s presence on the international scene more felt — through such means as writing a new constitution and applying for UN membership under the name “Taiwan” — the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration has created a set of problems for Washington at a time when it would fain concentrate its resources elsewhere (hint: where oil resources are more bountiful).

Going back into history, starting with the overt, CIA-led coups against Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954 through the less-obvious but equally successful interference in the domestic politics of Canada in 1963, one can trace a long, if oftentimes misguided, tradition in Washington of pressuring governments — foes and enemies alike — in order to achieve what it believes is in its interest.

Troublesome Taiwan, which continues to fight for its rights as a democracy, is now causing Washington enough of a headache, especially as the latter cozies up to Beijing, to warrant some form of intervention, which I argue will not come in the form of a CIA covert operation, but rather as a barrage of criticism and misinformation through communiqués and the US media. For too long, Chen and the DPP have, through their actions, exposed the lie that underpins the US’ alleged support for democracy, and this is making Washington increasingly uncomfortable.

The end goal, therefore, is to bring back the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to power, a party that is less likely to rattle the Taiwan Strait cage and force the US to act on its avowed values if and when push comes to shove.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Authoritarianism with a friendly face

Usually reviled for the harsh and overt manner in which it represses dissidents at home, the Chinese government this week turned to an unusual tactic to ensure it maintains its grip on power: cuteness. Starting on Saturday, Web sites registered with portals in Beijing will begin featuring animated cartoon police officers — in all fairness male and female — that every half hour will pop up on screen and remind users, in an ostensibly friendly manner, smiles and all, of the limits to their freedom.

Though news of the ploy has circulated round the world and been treated with mild amusement (the officers are indeed appealing, in a Manga sort of way), the truth of the matter is that there is nothing mild, or cute, about the new device, as it masks a relentless control of access to information and cynically disguises repression as an object of admiration.

In an article published today in the Taipei Times, I argue that Beijing's reliance on cute cartoons is anything but innocuous and poses a renewed danger to Chinese — especially children, whom the new tactic seems to be targeting — as it renders the repressive banal and portrays something fundamentally evil as an object of seeming harmless beauty.

Readers can access my article, titled “Authoritarianism wears a new face,” by clicking here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Canada’s Achilles’ heel

Private Simon Longtin, Master Warrant Officer Mario Mercier and Master Corporal Christian Duchesne, the last three Canadian soldiers to die in Afghanistan, had one thing in common: they all came from the French-speaking province of Quebec, a province that historically has always been more reluctant to participate in wars abroad than the rest of Canada.

A Canadian Press-Decima Research survey conducted in July showed that 67 percent of Canadians viewed Canadian casualties in Afghanistan as unacceptable. In Quebec, that number was 76 percent — and that was before the three soldiers killed on Aug. 19 and Aug. 22. Judging from the coverage those deaths received in Quebec newspapers (I happened to be in that province when the deaths occurred) and the soul searching that ensued, it can be expected that opposition to Canada’s participation in Afghanistan will increase in Quebec. And casualties from that province could grow as well, as its Francophone Royal 22nd regiment — known as the Vandoos (a corruption of “vingt-deux,” or 22 in English) — took over the lead of the battle group in Kandahar earlier this month. Within weeks, three of its soldiers had already fallen.

From the looks of it, the killing of those three soldiers — one by improvised explosive device and two by landmines — was random and was not the result of specific targeting by the Taliban or other Afghan rebels. But if I were a Taliban intelligence officer bent on pressuring the Canadian government to pull out its troops before the mission ends in 2009, I would ensure that future attacks focused on soldiers from that regiment. The more soldiers from the 22nd Regiment are injured or killed, the greater the outrage in the province of Quebec will be and, consequently, the greater the pressure on the Conservative government — whose survival relies to a large extent on Quebec votes — will become to pull the troops out or shift their role from a combat mission back to support, as was initially the plan, for provincial reconstruction.

With Canadian soldiers dying at more than three times the rate of soldiers from other countries in Afghanistan — including troops from the US and the UK — the Taliban could now break Canada’s back by turning to a war of polls. All they need to do is kill or injure as many Quebec soldiers as they can and then log on the Internet, or contact friends back in Canada, to get the latest polls. Should the Taliban adopt this strategy, it won’t be too long before the growing opposition in Quebec becomes politically untenable for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

Monday, August 27, 2007

A flash

The sudden flash of light occurred in mid-flight on the China Airlines flight from Vancouver to Taipei, just as the main character in the Spiderman 3 movie first confronted his evil alter ego. All as one, the occupants of the cabin looked in stupefaction toward the source of light, waves of palpable fear rolling through the plane. Partaking of that recoil, I, too, could only think back on the scenes of the China Airlines aircraft going up in flames in Okinawa a little more than a week ago. It took me — and I would say most passengers — a good minute to calm down after realizing that the source of light was not something that had gone terribly wrong with the plane, but rather a kid who, caught in the action of the movie, could not refrain from taking a picture of the large screen in front of us.

Air accidents — even those than do not result in loss of life — continue to awaken nightmares in people’s imagination, especially so when, as with other catastrophes, the images are repeated over and over again in the media. This barrage of images in the past week turned an innocuous event — a child seeking a shot of his favorite cartoon — into a source of dread.

Not that I want to play film critic or anything, but that moment when the flash went off was, for me, the only source of excitement throughout the whole movie.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

On the road

This entry is being composed from back home, in Canada, on my first visit there since I relocated to Taiwan two years ago. Having traveled from Vancouver, and thence to Toronto, Montreal and now Quebec City, what strikes me most is, of course, the vastness, the space. And to be honest, the air quality in Quebec City is worlds apart from that in Taipei.

Another thing that hit me was how security at Canadian airports has tightened, especially in Vancouver. To give but one example, as passengers from my China Airlines flight awaited our luggage, customs officers would walk round us like vultures and question anyone who looked different (which means anyone with tattoos, long hair or a beard). If this is the treatment reseved Taiwanese and East Indians when they come to Canada, I cannot imagine what it must be like when the plane is from the Middle East.

Another shocker, which found its way into the editoral that I published today, was the ignorance of the customs officer who processed my entry into Canada. According to this misinformed individual, Canada is, hum, liberal enough to have solved the Taiwan issue by making it coterminous with China. And no amount of explanation would persuade him to change his views. So, upon being asked how long I had been in China, I replied: three days, in Hong Kong, in May last year. Obviously, this sense of humor did not go down too well with the official, but to my surprise I was nevertheless spared the expected search through my luggage. (Metal detectors and checks on electronic devices, even on domestic flights, were also much more thorough than what one is subjected to in Asia.)

All that being said, this response by the first-line officer - and therefore first person of contact for visitors to Canada - got me thinking about how Taiwan needs to change its approach to how it advertises itself to the rest of the world. In my editorial, I suggest that the prevailing top-down approach, with Taipei seeking recognition at the UN and other world bodies, is turning logic on its head, and that it stands a better chance of gaining the emotional response it needs by connecting from the bottom up, with individuals, who can then pressure their governments to give Taiwan the space it deserves on the international stage. I also call on expatriates living in Taiwan to lend a hand - or their voices, that is - in that endeavor, by becoming emissaries for Taiwan whenever they visit home.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Beijing caught in a lie

A little while ago I wrote about Beijing’s increasingly aggressive intelligence-collection program in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games, activities which could compel foreign governments to assist the authoritarian regime by sharing intelligence with it.

The picture became even uglier this week when police in Beijing clamped down on a group of foreign journalists and Reporters Sans Frontieres advocates who were calling Beijing’s bluff and accusing it of not respecting the commitment it had made to ensuring press freedom in China. Given the long list of precedents set by Chinese authorities on human rights across the spectrum, one wonders how anyone could have taken that pledge seriously. In fact, the indelible blotch behind all this is the fact that the Olympic Committee and the international community gave Beijing the games despite knowing fully well that they were being lied to, fully cognizant of the fact that China would continue to repress its people and bar reporters — domestic and foreign alike — from painting a complete picture of what’s going on in China.

Sadly, China has so far been able to get away with the lies and has been rewarded diplomatically and economically as if it were a responsible, law-abiding stakeholder.

But there might be hope. Foreign reporters in China may turn out to be worthier adversaries to the authoritarian regime than the diplomatic pushovers Beijing is used to dealing with — or, for that matter, the Chinese activists and reporters whom it can crush with impunity. Judging by some of the reactions, a number of foreign journalists did seem to believe things would improve in China and that they would have the liberty to do their job. Gullible as this might have been, their disillusionment and the attendant anger could put Beijing in an uncomfortable position, as they are unlikely to accept being censored. Moreover, Beijing would be hard pressed to imprison them, for unlike Celil Husayin, a Uighur rights activist with dual Canadian citizenship who was jailed in April (see “Why Celil doesn’t stand a chance,” April 27, 2007), the great majority of reporters are not Chinese. In other words, if those were to be thrown in jail, foreign governments responsible to those foreign nationals would, in contrast to how the Canadian government responded to Mr. Celil’s case, be hard pressed not to come to their assistance.

All in all, Beijing is caught between a rock and a hard place: either it clamps down on foreign reporters and thereby risks sparking an international incident, or it throws them all out, which would be detrimental to the image it is trying to conjure as the games approach. Its last option is to give foreign reporters the rights it promised to give them, with the result that the dire human rights and environmental situation — the rottenness underneath the veneer — will be exposed.

Beijing sought glory by hosting the games, but just as the mythical Icarus, it may see that the glare is just too hot for its own good.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Olympic games for the hollow men

As it prepares for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, the Chinese government has launched an unprecedented intelligence-collection operation targeting individuals and organizations it perceives as a threat. In an article published today in the Taipei Times, I weigh Beijing's security-related efforts against the precedent set by other Olympics, with special focus on the Salt Lake City games, which, following on the heels of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US, were unequalled in their militarization; and the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics, in which I played a small role as one among many analysis who, every morning, read intelligence reports about and wrote threat assessments on the games.

My brief study reveals something very alarming about Beijing's preparations for the games, as it threatens to force a great number of international intelligence services to participate into China's repression of dissent. Furthermore, in the coming months and as the games approach, Beijing's foreign intelligence agencies are certain to accelerate their collection of intelligence abroad, with targets as varied as Taiwanese, environmentalists and human rights activitsts, to name but a few of Beijing's areas of interest.

Readers can access the full article, titled "Olympic games for the hollow men," by clicking here.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Fixed in time

Whether history is taught well or not, its use never fails to determine the kind of world we live in. In places like Serbia, to name but one, the stubbornness of some to not let go of ancient history — or rather, an ancient interpretation of history — has long given rise to conflict, which even to this day, after long years of intervention by NATO, the UN, the EU and others in the alphabet soup of interveners, remains as unresolved as it was on the day before NATO dropped its first bombs on Slobodan Milosevic and his cronies. Without a complete abandonment of a certain view on history, namely that on Kosovo and Milosevic’s justification for doing what he did to reclaim it, it will be impossible for that country to move on.

Similar phenomena exist the world over, with people being taught things about events and people that, upon scrutiny or with the outsider’s advantage of distance, would seem ludicrous. Through reverence for Mao Zedong (毛澤東) to that for Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Robert Mugabe, Yasser Arafat, Napoleon Bonaparte, Joseph Stalin or Adolph Hitler — all, by various versions of history alive today heroes to some — people remained fixed in the past, unable to see events and motivations with enough emotional distance to make judgments of their own. Of course, a pre-digested version of history, which is what is given adherents of the “fixed” historical model, also requires less effort than reaching one’s own conclusions through the study of it.

This is the power of myths and why they manage to survive down the ages, as the ideas and concepts that lie at their core remain untouchable, cannot be questioned. And they are easy. Dangerously easy, bereft of the complexities, of the grey areas, that true history is made of.

When, for example, Palestinian children who can barely walk are taught to hate Israelis and, wearing those cute little military uniforms or explosive belts or mock AK-47s, to revere mass murderers before the camera, or, on the other side of the fence (palpable and metaphorical), when same-age Israelis are taught hatred for Palestinians and instilled admiration for “heroes” with hands as bloodied as those of their Palestinian counterparts/nemeses, it becomes nigh impossible to break the vicious circle of violence because those views, once perpetuated, do not allow for the progression of history, for a fresh take on events ancient and recent. When such history is taught children, it robs them of the possibility of a better world, as if parents were unable to accept that their offspring should be spared the calamities they had to go through.

Sadly, Taiwan is no exception from this rule, and many are those today (including children the same age as the young Israelis and Palestinians mentioned above) who are taught that dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), whose responsibility in the 228 Incident, where tens of thousands of Taiwanese were killed (see “Remembering the 228 Incident,” February 28, 2007) is becoming clearer (to some) by the day and whose role in the subsequent regime of White Terror and thirty-eight years of Martial Law, during which people were imprisoned, disappeared or killed by the thousands, is undeniable, was a savior of the people. Whose savior he was, exactly, is unclear, as he mismanaged China, lost the Civil War to the communists and for all intents and purposes invaded Taiwan, where he imposed a foreign regime on a people, whom he ruled with an iron fist while dreaming of retaking China. This is not to say that the generalissimo did not make a contribution to history, for he certainly did — and under the direst of circumstances, facing both Japanese invasion and communist guerrillas. Heaven knows what would have happened to Taiwan if it had been Mao, and not Chiang, who fled there in 1949. But mythmaking and undue reverence for a very flawed and ultimately morally compromised man does everybody a disservice and in the end robs him of his humanity, of the tremendous moral struggle he faced — and eventually succumbed to, turning him into a tyrant.

It was with those questions in mind that I wrote an article, titled “Revisionism is Taiwan’s big enemy,” published today in the Taipei Times. Readers can access it by clicking here.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A dirge for our time

Not since my review of David Kaplan's excellent Fires of the Dragon more than a year ago have I chosen to write about a book for The Far-Eastern Sweet Potato, but having just finished reading Salman Rushdie's most recent novel, Shalimar the Clown, I felt compelled to write one.

As with his previous novels, Rushdie's convoluted and idiosyncratic storytelling in Shalimar may be challenging, if not daunting, for readers accustomed to a more standard style. My first attempt at reading it took place days after its North American publication, sometime in the fall of 2005. Back then, weeks after my resignation from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), where I had worked in counterterrorism, Rushdie's angered take on our times proved too much emotionally and I found myself unable to go beyond the very vivid scene of a decapitation.

It was only two years later, with emotional distance and a book about my experiences at CSIS between me and that institution, that I could pick it up again — and what an experience it has been.

Shalimar the Clown is nothing less than a fable for our troubled times, where politics and religion interact, with devastating effect, with the sometimes destructive power of love. It presents Rushdie at his angriest and most unsparing, who offers us scene after scene of the ravages of war, from World War II Strasbourg to the paradise-turned-hell of Kashmir as it gets caught between the Indian-Pakistani war, followed by its own divisive conflict and descent into madness.

Out of this emerge characters — Noman Sher Noman, also known as Shalimar the Clown, and Max Ophuls — who are done and undone, made and unmade, by the defining storms of time eternal: war and love. Rushdie, with the surgeon's expert hand, brings his characters, with all their suffering, anguish and fears, to all-too-real life and allows us to draw our own conclusions about what it is that animates them, that forces them to act in the cruelest of manners. When the opportunity is ripe, those who are shaped by history will, in turn, shape history — or so we think. Ultimately, however, Rushdie presents us with a landscape of inevitable devastation, with parallels between Kashmir and the Philippines, Afghanistan and Los Angeles, making for a very pessimistic plunge into human nature, one in which the very hope of redemption through love is crushed at the very last moment, where the terrorists of the future are formed not by politics — or politics alone — but also by matters seemingly much more simple, such as a wife, seeking unknown, illusioned liberty, running off with the charismatic former Resistance Francaise hero (at times frighteningly reminiscent of real-life John Kenneth Galbraith, whom in the story he actually replaces, before real-life Chester Bowles does so) turned US ambassador to India turned US counterterrorism czar.

The beauty — and, simultaneously, terrible ugliness — of Rushdie's dirge is that it shows the numerous paths leading to madness, from the occupation of one's land by a foreign army to the torturing of loved ones to the lure of intransigent religion to cold, hard politics to matters of the heart. Nothing, mind you, is necessarily teleological and many are those who, even in the face of atrocities, will adopt more peaceful ways to cope, only to die of old age while youth are blowing themselves up for a cause. Some, like Shalimar, become "terrorists" by proxy, drawn not to the cause itself, which takes him down a path familiar to anyone who has read about terrorism in Southeast Asia, but rather to the need to inflict violence, a corridor that leads him to his ultimate act of terror in the US, before the very eyes of a daughter.

Although the novel takes place before the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US (the backdrop to the end of the novel is the 1993 bolbing of the World Trade Center), the undertones of the road there, the seeds of future history being sown, are ever-present, and it is unlikely that this novel, in this form, could have been written absent 9/11 and everything else that ensued. As the novel progresses, as chaos envelops Kashmir, we can see emerge, in the shadows of coalescing networks, the future headline-makers. One can also feel the anger, the fear generated by the religious edict — or fatwa — made against Rushdie himself by Ayatollah Khomeini following the publication of The Satanic Verses, yet another iteration of violence against the individual. Anger at the US, at its creation of an inevitable future of violence that should have been anything but inevitable, is also palpable, as epitomized by Max Ophuls himself, who is animated by goodness and evil, with the all-too-human capacity for stupidity and mistakes.

Shalimar the Clown is about violence, is violent itself, and despite its gazing deep into the pit of man's inhumanity to man for the multifarious reasons that we have created for ourselves, it leaves it to the reader to answer the question that Max, pondering the cycle of violence that we have created following the death, in an IRA bombing, of a friend, asks us all. "Perhaps violence showed us what we meant, or, at least, perhaps, it was simply what we did." We can attempt to intellectualize, to comperend the reasons why a person chooses to go down the path to violence, and sometimes the plainness of truth, as he writes, suffers by comparison with paranoid scenarios, but in the end it doesn't mean that we can, or will, forgive.