Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Netanyahu Approaches

Benjamin Netanyahu is due here in DC shortly to address Congress and talk with President Obama. While some see the U.S. as hamstrung on the Israeli-Palestinian process and distracted by the Arab Spring, I see Israel itself as in its weakest position in years, and thus badly in need of a friend:
  • Relations with Turkey, Israel's counterweight to Syria, have been cooling for years.
  • Amidst its instability, Syria has rattled Israeli nerves by letting its Palestinians be Palestinian: ticked off and marching toward Palestine.
  • Fatah and Hamas have somehow forged a unity government.
  • Egypt's new government could really care less about keeping Gaza sealed off.
  • The EU is distracted and the Obama administration cool since Israel's refusal to stop West Bank settlements.
The U.S. has some large fish to fry and shouldn't have to care much about non-existential threats to Israel; but Israel has to care very much about everything, and might be in the mood to deal. While Netanyahu will undoubtedly talk tough and receive his usual adoration in Congress, now might be a very good time for U.S. negotiators to bring up those West Bank settlements again.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Post Goes for Its Pulitzer

The Washington Post has anted up for a 2011 Pulitzer Prize with a sprawling, days-long series titled "Top Secret America." Its stories, written primarily by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, attempt to describe the size and scale of the American intelligence community, taking as a starting point the 854,000 or so people who hold top-secret clearances.

The series documents how the U.S. intelligence community's explosive post-9/11 growth has created waste and redundancy, and may now lie beyond any single person's ability to grasp. The series has started out well, focusing on the government's role Monday and contractors' role today, and while I don't know much about Arkin, I'll read anything Dana Priest writes the moment I come across it.

But the Post stories also describe how the sheer size of the national-security community causes it to have some banal, clock-punching characteristics, as in these grafs from Monday's article:
In Elkridge, Md., a clandestine program hides in a tall concrete structure fitted with false windows to look like a normal office building. In Arnold, Mo., the location is across the street from a Target and a Home Depot. In St. Petersburg, Fla., it's in a modest brick bungalow in a run-down business park.


In all, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11. Each has required more people, and those people have required more administrative and logistic support: phone operators, secretaries, librarians, architects, carpenters, construction workers, air-conditioning mechanics and, because of where they work, even janitors with top-secret clearances.
While the Hollywood idea of intelligence agencies as tightly knit teams of supersleuths and assassins has particles of truth, the reality is that the agencies also contain huge numbers of workaday cube dwellers who look forward to each Thursday, when the cafeteria within their heavily secured installation serves that delicious carrot cake.*

* Ongoing thanks to Jack Boulware for lodging this enduring image of quiet desperation in my mind.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Exporting Their Way to Prosperity


In April I wrote about the pointlessness of the U.S. leading in the production of "specialty" steel when it's a loser in manufacturing nearly everything else that people around the world want.

In this morning's Post, columnist Harold Meyerson takes up this refrain and explains that Germany's and China's coherent industrial policies give them an edge in the manufacturing and export wars. Here he looks at the German example:

Germany has increased its edge in world-class manufacturing even as we have squandered ours because its model of capitalism is superior to our own. For one thing, its financial sector serves the larger economy, not just itself. The typical German company has a long-term relationship with a single bank -- and for the smaller manufacturers that are the backbone of the German economy, those relationships are likely with one of Germany's 431 savings banks, each of them a local institution with a municipally appointed board, that shun capital markets and invest their depositors' savings in upgrading local enterprises. By American banking standards, the savings banks are incredibly dull. But they didn't lose money in the financial panic of 2008 and have financed an industrial sector that makes ours look anemic by comparison.
Depressed yet?

Meyerson also notes that despite the self-perception of the U.S. as a high-tech leader, it's actually running annual high-tech deficits that reached $61 billion in 2008, quoting Clyde Prestowitz's new The Betrayal of American Prosperity. See Simon & Schuster's promo page for that book and notice the first stat: China's number-one export to the U.S. is now computer equipment, while our number-one export to China is waste paper and scrap metal.

Not rice, not aircraft parts, not Levi's, not Coca-Cola, not financial services. Junk.

Silver linings, anyone?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Prepping for the Pain, Part I


For very different reasons, Britain and Iran were in the news this week for macroeconomic decisions that cause their citizens pain in the near term while positioning each country better to face looming hazards.

In Britain, the Conservative-led unity government unveiled a budget that will cut nearly all public spending by a quarter over the next five years while re-jiggering the country's tax structure to spare the poorest and squeeze the wealthiest. The lone bright spot is a reduction in corporate taxes to encourage job creation in the hope of not sending the country spilling back into recession. The move helps soothe bond-rating agencies chary of a Greece-style meltdown in northern Europe, and puts the country onto a more solid financial footing in the future.

Meanwhile Iran has been rationing gas and increasing its refining capacity in response to potential U.S. sanctions targeting fuel imports. The new sanctions would probably have little effect on Iran, and none at all on Iranian leadership, but workaday Iranian citizens are undoubtedly grumbling. (The story above notes that Tehran may even use U.S. sanctions as an excuse to remove an economically inefficient fuel subsidy, which will turn the grumbles into screams, but will still improve Tehran's economic posture in the long run.)

Britain's moves may still hurt its poorest citizens while Iran's help continue the country's outlaw nuclear program, but both countries are acting to ensure their longer-term good.

One can only hope U.S. federal government—which like the UK is laden with debt, legacy wars and an aging workforce—will somehow find a way to take unpopular but necessary economic steps to get out of debt and right its sagging balance sheet.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Love Letter to Northern China


Saw the remake of Karate Kid over the weekend. The plot is the same as the 1984 original: Young Jaden Smith, fresh off the plane from Detroit, embarks on a coming-of-age slash hero's journey after being bullied at his new middle school in Beijing. He needs to learn self-defense and who better to teach him than the gracefully aging, universally popular Jackie Chan?

Doubts are overcome, skills learned, discipline inculcated etc. with a merciful lack of the soundtrack-driven montages parodied so viciously in Team America: World Police.

But as Chan leads Smith hither and yon to learn the True Meaning of Kung-Fu, the movie's uncredited costar emerges: northern China.

Visually, the movie is a love letter to the north; the credits should have a notice from the China National Tourist Office thanking you for watching. A half-hour into the movie we've already seen Beijing's modern airport in all its glory, the Olympic "bird's nest" stadium, daring new buildings, construction cranes dotting the skyline, idyllic crowd scenes of Beijing residents doing tai chi, playing ping-pong and otherwise looking both peacable and industrious, and a potential Chinese love interest for 12-year-old Jaden.

Now, though, Chan and Smith take a train journey that leads them past rice paddies hemmed in by dramatic mountains, to training atop the Great Wall of China, to drinking from a "dragon fountain" at a mountaintop temple that's so photogenic you want to put down your popcorn and walk into the frame.

Combine those beautiful visuals with the movie's ending, where Smith's tormentors turn out to be okay guys--they not only present him with the winner's trophy but pay respect to Jackie Chan's character, implicitly renouncing their current, cruel sensei--and you've got a very nice boost for PRC soft power around the world.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Old Recipe: European Muslim Stew

Perhaps I was a bit hasty last December when I wrote that France is eager to welcome everyone.

While the country's official face is still welcoming, country officials are not, especially Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux. He wants to amend France's constitution to make it easier to strip (Muslim) welfare cheats of their French nationality and send them back to wherever they came from.

The recipe for coverage of European Muslims always, always, always starts with either a veil, a hijab or a minaret, and this morning's story in the Post is no exception. Throw in what reads like a green-card marriage and a healthy dose of polygamy, and you've got a meal.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Powers That Beijing


Yesterday's Post brought the occasionally tragic, occasionally hilarious "From China's Mouth to Texans' Ears," which documents Texan reaction to Chinese international broadcasting from a station in Galveston:

Cruise southeast out of Houston, past the NASA exits and toward the Gulf of Mexico, and you pick up something a little incongruous on the radio, amid country crooners, Rush Limbaugh, hip-hop and all the freewheeling clamor of the American airwaves.

"China Radio International," a voice intones. "This is Beyond Beijing."

Way, way beyond Beijing.

Sandwiched between a Spanish Christian network and a local sports station, broadcasting at 1540 on your AM dial, is KGBC of Galveston, wholly American-owned and -operated, but with content provided exclusively by a mammoth, state-owned broadcaster from the People's Republic of China.

Call it KPRC. Or as the locals quip: Keep Galveston Broadcasting Chinese.

The little Texas station may be modest, but it is part of a multibillion-dollar effort by the Chinese government to expand its influence around the world. As China rises as a global force, its leaders think that their country is routinely mischaracterized and misunderstood and that China needs to spread its point of view on everything from economics to art to counter the influence of the West.

Tragic because China is essentially using U.S. consumers' money to influence them (I know, I know, Hey Paul, enough already about Chinese economic dominance and trade surpluses) and hilarious because the PRC isn't exactly nimble about competing in the home of the First Amendment.

In their inimitable, Five Year Plan fashion, the powers that Beijing have decided to use coastal Texas as the springboard for achieving information dominance in the U.S. (What is it about superpowers wanting to influence oil-rich desert nations, which is how at least west Texans might characterize themselves?)

It's good to hear that someone besides the U.S. is having difficulty getting their foreign-influence story straight. Turns out that AM broadcasts from Galveston don't really reach metro Houston, which was the PRC's intention, and it also turns out that the tension between following the Party line in Beijing and reporting anything that anyone in the U.S. actually wants to hear is rather high, all of which sounds familiar to those who follow U.S. international broadcasting.

Friday, April 09, 2010

"Specialty" Steel and Economic Recovery


As I emerge from beneath a pile of work, I see I'd set aside "Geithner Asserts 'Critical Role' of Manufacturing" from last Thursday's Post. In it, the Treasury secretary visits Allegheny Technologies Inc., which makes specialty metal products in Pennsylvania and elsewhere for aerospace, automotive and other applications.

The story quotes Geithner thusly:

"This is a sector that will play a critical role in helping to spur our economic recovery and contribute to our long-term prosperity."

The story then notes that the company has remained profitable through the economic downturn.

All well and good, but Allegheny is profitable not because it makes things everyone wants and can use, but because it makes relatively exotic items that other countries can't produce yet; for example, titanium is notoriously difficult to work in anything more complex than a mountain bike and if other countries can't use it to make aviation parts, Allegheny has pricing power and thus profitability for the time being.

But this doesn't change the fact that, as the article also notes, there has been

"a steady loss of jobs as the production of textiles, consumer electronics and other products has shifted overseas."

This is a polite way of saying that the U.S. is permanently, completely non-competitive in making things that everyone wants, from t-shirts and shoes to cell phones and TVs to my Apple laptop ("designed in California" its packaging whines, as if that matters).

Try this experiment: Find a parking meter near you and read what's written on the steel post holding the meter up. If it was installed 20 years ago, the steel is probably from Korea; 10 years ago, from Thailand.

The U.S. can't settle for just being the best at making things no one else makes (yet); it needs to find ways to be the best at making things everyone else makes and thus everyone wants. This is what will actually contribute to U.S. prosperity in the long term: a decades-long reindustrialization where the U.S. turns the tables on its foreign competitors and uses their technologies as the basis for building new, even more efficient factories in the U.S.

Monday, March 15, 2010

U.S. Consular Official Killed Returning from Mexico


I'd worried in print three weeks ago about Mexican traffickers retaliating against U.S. targets, now that the U.S. is becoming more involved in Mexican efforts to target the gangs. Now it appears that a U.S. consular official, Lesley Enriquez, and husband Arthur Redelfs were intercepted by an armed gang and shot dead on Saturday afternoon.

The couple were returning home to El Paso from a child's birthday party across the border in Ciudad Juarez; the attackers spared the couple's own infant.

Random violence? Could be, except that a Mexican man driving a similar car--the husband of a Mexican national who also works at the consulate in CJ--left the same party that afternoon and he, too, was shot dead. His two kids are wounded.

The FBI is investigating. President Calderon will come by to show the flag on Tuesday, brimming with American support. The consulate will be closed the same day for a period of mourning. Meanwhile, folks at U.S. consulates in Mexico would be advised to stop driving white SUVs for the duration.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Philip Seib Critiques State's New PD Plan


USC CPD head Philip Seib describes State's new PD roadmap as "so lacking in imagination, so narrow in its scope, and so insufficient in its appraisal of the tasks facing U.S. public diplomats that it is impossible to understand why its preparation took so many months."

And he's just getting warmed up. Ouch.
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