Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Could the Republicans wag the dog?

Global markets tumbled again yesterday after the US House of Representatives shot down the US President George W. Bush administrations’ US$700 billion bailout plan in a rare show of unity among Republicans and Democrats. For weeks now, we have been hearing rumors of a recession, and in the last few days analysts have begun referring to the financial crisis as the worst since the Great Depression of 1929. The world is now holding its breath to see whether the US Fed will submit a revised bailout scheme — hopefully one that, unlike its stillborn predecessor, isn’t so skewed in favor of the wealthy.

What will make matters more complex are the US presidential elections on Nov. 4, which could very well lead to ostensibly “irrational” behavior in the House as Republicans and Democrats seek an advantage over one another on the last leg of the campaign. With the Democrats standing to gain as many as 30 seats in the House — a clear repudiation of the Bush administration, if ever there was one — some Republicans could stoop to a new low in already acrimonious relations between the two parties and seek to create conditions that would advantage the Republicans. Ironically, doing this could well involve behavior that would further undercut the economy (yes, US politics have gotten this dirty)..

Now what would this be? What is the area in which the Republicans believe they have the upper hand over the Democrats, that could rescue their dwindling fortunes?

During his campaign, Republican candidate Senator John McCain has repeatedly argued that his party is stronger on foreign policy and that, conversely, the Democrats under Senator Barack Obama lack experience in diplomacy, are mere “amateurs,” or that they are “soft” on terror and “rogue regimes” like Iran and North Korea.

What, therefore, could reinvigorate the Republican Party and put it back in the race than some crisis involving North Korea (which has already provided the gunpowder by threatening to pull out of the nuclear disarmament talks), Iran (the likeliest candidate), Venezuela or even a “resurgent” Russia weeks before Americans hit the polls? Nothing would work better to distract frazzled Americans worrying about their jobs and their retirement packages, or bolster the country’s slumbering industry, than a new conflict. History is replete with examples of countries going to war after the economy had soured, both as a means to deflect domestic criticism but also because, sadly, war is good for business. Behind the scenes, things could therefore be done to precipitate conflict, or other countries’ policies interpreted in a way that would provide a more “irritable” or less patient Washington with a casus belli.

The Great Depression culminated in World War II, and the stock markets only dropped (ashamedly) after hostilities had come to an end. Ever since, numerous other conflicts that on the surface seemed the result of political brinkmanship turned out to have been partly engineered by, or in response to, market forces, as William Engdahl convincingly argues in his revealing A Century of War. Such a scenario would be especially likely if, whatever comes next, a bailout package were seen by the Wall Street-Washington nexus as not meeting the needs of the corporate superrich (in other words, one favored by the Democrats), in which case some influential individuals (in and outside government, or straddling both worlds, as is frequent in Washington circles) could pull strings and engineer a convenient crisis.

Watch for the headlines in the coming weeks. Should financial instability prevail, trouble abroad could emerge, right on cue.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Beijing's 'North Korea' card no ace

A problem that haunts many “experts” in academia and government is that, by virtue of their expertise on a subject, they tend to lose sight of the bigger picture, as if events in one area could somehow operate in a vacuum and separately from external factors. So ingrained is specialization in academia and intelligence agencies, where topics (“terrorism,” “counter-proliferation,” “China” and so on) are put into boxes, that school often feel compelled to offer courses on regional analysis, as if to remind students that connections exist between the principal subject under observation and the rest of the world.

It was with such thoughts in mind that I wrote "Beijing's 'North Korea' card no ace," published today in the Taipei Times. In my article, I make a case for the influence the six-party North Korean disarmament talks has had on Washington’s and Japan’s policies on Taiwan, and how Pyongyang’s apparent decision to end the talks are resume nuclear work could impact on Washington’s and Tokyo’s approach to the Taiwan Strait. I also take another step back and look at the possible implications of rising tensions between Washington and Moscow (a party to the North Korean talks), the election of conservative Taro Aso as Japanese prime minister and the November elections in the US — all of which point to the conclusion that the era of diplomacy in Northeast Asia may soon come to an end, which is certain to have implications, beneficial or detrimental, for Taiwan.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

They still don’t get al-Qaeda

Top US counterterrorism officials on Monday once again demonstrated how little they understand “terrorism” as a tool or the various organizations that fall under its descriptive umbrella. Seven years have elapsed since al-Qaeda struck at the heart of the United States and about twice as much since the organization first popped up on intelligence agencies’ radar screens, which should have given intelligence "experts" plenty of time to understand the phenomenon and its root causes. And yet...

Dell Dailey, the US State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, claims that after years of killing civilians in acts of terror, al-Qaeda is losing its appeal and now faces a possible implosion. He points out that vastly more Muslims than Westerners are killed by al-Qaeda suicide and car bombs — especially in Iraq, where, we are told, local tribes have turned against al-Qaeda in the past two years.

Sadly for Dailey, his understanding of al-Qaeda is flawed on at least two fundamental aspects. First, since Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda has undergone an important transformation and is no longer the vertical, corporate-like organization that it was in the 1990s and early 2000s. Rather, it has turned into a lateral organization with little hierarchy or even structure. In fact, so loose has it become that referring to it as an organization is probably misleading. In the past five years or so, al-Qaeda has instead transformed into a philosophy, an ideology that does not require top-down decisionmaking to resist the opponent.

What this means, of course, is that while “resisting Western encroachment” is al-Qaeda’s overarching ideology, al-Qaeda-ism has become localized. Resistance in, say, Pakistan, differs markedly from resistance in Morocco, or Algeria or the Philippines, where the guiding ideology becomes mixed with very local sets of grievances, political objectives, economics and so on. To claim that al-Qaeda is “imploding” or losing its appeal worldwide is to put all those countries that are facing “Islamic” insurgencies — which includes the Philippines, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Bosnia, Russia, China, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, to name some — in the same basket.

Dailey’s second mistake stems from the Bush administration’s blunders in Iraq and the fabricated truths it relied on post-facto to justify the illegal invasion of the country. Every day, US official refer to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), as if Iraq were a new front in the US’ war against Osama bin Laden and his organization. The truth is, AQI isn’t an extension of OBL’s war against the West; it is Sunni resistance to US occupation by groups and individuals who subscribe to al-Qaeda-ism, with its own set of local variables. By claiming that al-Qaeda is active in Iraq, the US is merely trying to justify the invasion as part of the “war on terror” and to legitimize the claim, made before the invasion, that there existed an Iraqi-AQ connection. OBL and his henchmen may have issued videotapes calling on Sunnis in Iraq to resist the US, but this was mere rhetoric. The resistance is very local, and no one is calling the shots from some AQ Central in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

These two flaws — which certainly are not Dailey’s alone but remain widespread within the intelligence community — then make it possible for US Undersecretary of State James Glassman to miss the point altogether, when he says that he is “skeptical” al-Qaeda is changing its ways in a matter that would make it resemble other “terrorist” organizations such as Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah, which combine local services, governance, schools and politics with extremism. In Glassman’s view, al-Qaeda is a “cult of death” and ergo it is unlikely to turn into an organization with popular appeal. Of course, were he cognizant of the fact that AQ is not, as we have seen, a monolithic organization, he would have realized that rather than being fixed and imploding, AQ is, by virtue of its many local iterations, the very epitome of transformation, which could easily include forms that resemble Hezbollah and Hamas, also movements of resistance that have “matured” into political parties.

This therefore makes Glassman’s prediction that an al-Qaeda than can adapt would be a far more dangerous al-Qaeda a moot point. It already is.

Ironically, as the State Department “experts” were exposing their lack of understanding of AQ, US intelligence was once again making the now-familiar claim that al-Qaeda had “regenerated” its leadership and continued to represent the greatest threat to the US.

From claims of “implosion” to “regeneration,” those in charge of fighting terrorism remain as blind as they were on that pristine morning in September seven years ago.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Where Tsai Ing-wen should not go [UPDATED]

The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) announced yesterday that its chairwoman, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), would embark on a three-day visit to the US today. Her schedule includes a speech at her alma mater, Cornell University, and meetings with representatives of the Democratic and Republican parties. While in Washington, Tsai will also be paying a visit to the Heritage Foundation.

The Heritage Foundation is part of a small circle of right-wing conservative US think tanks that includes the Project for a New American Century and the American Enterprise Institute, all of which are connected, financially and ideologically, to the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Richard Pearle, William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney, and serve the interests of big oil, the US defense industry, and US hegemony, while restlessly attacking multilateralism and the UN. (Among other things, the Heritage Foundation supported the Contras in Nicaragua and sees former US president Ronald Reagan as something akin to the Second Coming. It is also part of the same circle that advocated war in Iraq and would welcome one against Iran.)

Sadly for Taiwan, for historical reasons the majority of its allies or supporters in the US have come from that side of the establishment, likely a leftover of the US military’s close ties to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government under Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) during the Cold War. As I have written before, the repercussion of this unholy alliance, or Faustian deal, for Taiwan is that it gives credence to Beijing’s contention that Washington supports Taiwan not because it believes in its sovereign right to exist as a democratic nation, but rather because Taiwan (much like Georgia, come to think of it) serves Washington's purpose in its strategy to encircle China and perpetuate US empire. By failing to establish strong links with the other side of the US establishment — or other countries — Taiwan has put itself into a straightjacket, with only two options to choose from: (a) support from right-wing US conservatives whose institutional reasons for supporting Taiwan are less than honorable (allowing, in all fairness, for a few individual exceptions) and have far more to do with maintaining or strengthening US hegemony; or (b) find itself defenseless and in no position to stand up to China.

This is doubly ironic as the DPP, a party that advocates democracy and freedom and which is rooted in the long struggle against tyranny, willingly continues to seek help and advice from the Heritage Foundation and its likes, as Tsai’s visit this week demonstrates. By embracing the conservative establishment so early in her tenure as chairwoman, Tsai will be giving ammunition to those in China who, rightly or wrongly, see the DPP not as a voice for Taiwanese freedom, but rather as an instrument, or an outpost, of US empire, much like the “democracies,” like Israel, that Washington arms and protects.

UPDATE: It is unfortunate that Tsai currently finds herself in the US, as President Ma Ying-Jeou (馬英九) has basically admitted he will not be able to deliver on any of his “6-3-3” economic goals — annual 6 percent GDP growth, average national per capita income of US$30,000 by 2016 and less than 3 percent unemployment — anytime soon. In fact, he said he would need eight years — or two terms, which he assumes he will get — to realize those objectives.

Tsai and the DPP leadership should be screaming murder right now and leading Taiwanese into opposition to the KMT’s policy of deception.