Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Egypt Bound

Tomorrow morning I leave for Egypt, so blogging may be slow, or more likely non-existent, for the rest of the month. I hope to be back in Jerusalem before the end of Sukkot.


The Next President?

I've fallen out of the loop on key factors like organizational strength, but for some time I've been thinking what Matthew Yglesias says here:
"My record of political prognostication is terrible, but given that Clinton already has a sizable lead and that what Team Obama is telling Marc Ambinder doesn't sound very convincing, I feel like Clinton is drawing close to checkmating her opponents. I'll have to wait and see what more expertish people have to say about this proposal, but it certainly has the look and feel of a decently ambitious proposal (indeed, probably too ambitious to be enacted, but we'll have to see how the Senate looks after the election) in a way that really undercuts some of the main arguments that have been made (including by me) against her."

Polls show that Senator Clinton's support is, contrary to expectations, quite firm. This is not the same as former VP nominee Joe Lieberman's name recognition support over a bunch of little-known Senators. A lot, I think, is actually identity-based, as the professional women who make up a substantial portion of the Democratic primary electorate identify with her the same way many elements of the Republican base identified with President Bush's persona in 2000.

In order to bring her poll numbers down, someone will have to go seriously negative, calling attention in particular to her hawkish record on foreign policy and ties to anti-labor interests. However, in what is effectively a three-way race, that could easily hand things over to the third candidate, and neither Obama or Edwards will go down that road lightly. Meanwhile, stands like this health care proposal are undercutting the case potential opponents could make against her.

Going further down the road, I think she also wins a relatively dull election in November. There's a reason "None of the above" is so competitive in GOP polls, and I think even many people who say they will never vote for her will, in fact, end up voting for her. Giuliani could be a tough nominee, but others have noted that he's been falling all month. What's left is Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson, neither of whom seem like strong national candidates. If Newt Gingrich enters the race, I can see him winning the nomination, but there again, I doubt he comes close.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Firefly Episode 8: "Out of Gas"

Many bad episodes have come out of putting ships and crews in mortal peril. Is there anyone who yearns for reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Disaster?" The problem, of course, is that you know they're going to get out of it, usually with some technobabble solution. "Out of Gas," however, is one of Firefly's strongest episodes, interspersing the relatively simple plot of Mal fixing the ship with two sets of flashbacks: one explaining how the crisis developed with an emphasis on how the characters dealt with their desperate circumstances, the other showing how each came to be aboard Serenity. The overall effect is that, as we see the role the ship plays in each of their lives, we come to feel for it as they do, and sympathize with Mal in his struggle.

Firefly's down-to-earth approach shines through in the nature of the problem itself. There's nothing that needs recalibrating in the phase coils or anything. There's just a part that's damaged and no longer fits. It's also an interesting break in conventional patterns that the drama is supplied to the process of fixing it by a physical struggle rather than a leap of technological creativity at the last minute. The immediate precursor to this sequence, the encounter with the space pirates who have the needed part, also shows a lot about life in the outer worlds.

The real backbone of the episode is the "how things got to this point" set of flashbacks. We begin with crew camaraderie, which sets the stage for the "how they all joined" sequence as much as it does the tough times to follow. Once the disaster does occur, outstanding acting conveys the seriousness of the situation long before we learn that the life support is down. Nathan Fillion brilliantly sells every scene he is in. Jewel Staite and Adam Baldwin also show great range in playing their characters outside their usual personalities, which greatly develops the mood.

There were two points I wish had been addressed. One was the possibility of fixing the auxiliary life support, which someone would have thought of, if only to have it dismissed. The other is Kaylee's warning Mal about the compression coil in "Serenity" and "The Train Job." I mean, when we've seen it come up in two of seven episodes, it seems odd for everyone to act like this suddenly came out of the blue. None of those is a major quibble, however, and the dramatic tensions of Wash's quarrels with Mal and character moments like River's encounter with Book and Simon's conversation with Inara about Serenity mean we readily forgive them.

Simon's disregard for the ship is one thing that subtly marks him as an outsider in this bunch, as most others love it, as Inara says openly. The key relationship with the ship is, of course, Mal's. On the DVD commentary, writer Tim Minear said the episode was a story of Mal's love for Serenity, but what he wrote is a little more complex than that. In introducing the ship to Zoe, he talks about freedom, which is what he's after, but there's also the "small crew" aspect that led to the family that is the show's ensemble. Wash was certainly eager to make something of it in the flashback to his hiring, while Kaylee jumped at the chance to be its mechanic. The exception here is Jayne the mercenary who joined for the profits. In any case, the scene where Mal has just been rescued by his crew and wants to make sure they'll still be there emphasizes the personal bonds that have developed from roots such as these.

In the end, though, Wash and Zoe are together, Simon and River are bonded, Jayne just goes from opportunity to opportunity, Book and Inara have professional roles, and even Kaylee is young and optimistic enough that she can find something else later. For Mal, however, after losing in the war, Serenity and its community is all he has, and he is willing to die attempting to preserve it. After all, as we learn at the end, he picked her out across a crowded, err, yard of spaceships.

At this point, Firefly had really hit its stride. Following "Jaynestown" in the originally intended viewing order, this is the second outstanding outing in a row, one I give 9/10.
Mal: "Ship like this, be with you 'til the day you die."
Zoë: "'Cause it's a deathtrap."


Olmert Up

Israelis may have no idea why their country just attacked Syria, but some are glad it did:
"Last week's mysterious air strike against Syria has boosted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's approval rating, a new opinion poll shows.

"The Dahaf Research Institute said 35 per cent of people questioned were pleased with Olmert's performance, up from 25 per cent on Sept. 7 - just after reports of the air strike emerged.

"Twenty per cent of the respondents said the operation improved their opinion of Olmert. Seventy per cent said their opinion remain unchanged, according to the poll of 441 people, which had a margin of error of 4 percentage points."

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


RIP: Robert Jordan

Robert Jordan, whose real name was James Oliver Rigney, Jr., has died of amyloidosis at age 58. The announcement from his cousin Wilson is here.


Monday, September 17, 2007

Implicating Syria: A Notion

Joshua Landis posts a bit by Trish Schuh, a reporter who actually went to check out the area Israel attacked. This paragraph is important:
"Several days ago, after the attack on Syria's 'nuclear program', I spoke to western oil company officials in Deir Ez Zor. One technician told me they routinely monitor radiation as part of the refining process. They registered no heightened levels of nuclear residue in the area as there would have been if the Israelis had hit a North Korean atomic stockpile. Operations and technical foremen put it this way: 'The nuclear claims against Syria are pure bullsh*t.'

I really don't buy the idea of a Syrian nuclear program. I was, however, unsure why Israeli military and intelligence sources would want to implicate North Korea. It's quite possible, however, that I missed an obvious point: They could want to implicate Syria, possibly as part of the Olmert government's ongoing efforts to avoid negotiations with Damascus that would result in pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights. The Israeli government actually has a great deal of deniability over what the world has chosen to make of all this, and their own silence and the intense censorship to which they've subjected the Israel-based media is definitely what allowed John Bolton, et al to fill the gap. The North Korea theorists, incidentally, were very quick off the mark, and probably had indications that an incident would occur.

Like every other theory, this is just unsupported speculation.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Iran Holocaust Miniseries

Josh Marshall takes note of an Iranian miniseries dealing with the Holocaust:
"It is Iran's version of 'Schindler's List,' a miniseries that tells the tale of an Iranian diplomat in Paris who helps Jews escape the Holocaust _ and viewers across the country are riveted...

"Yet the series titled 'Zero Degree Turn' is clearly sympathetic to the Jews' plight during World War II. It shows men, women and children with yellow stars on their clothes being taken forcibly out of their homes and loaded into trucks by Nazi soldiers...

"State media have said the series, which began in April, is popular. It has been a revelation for some Iranians and has pulled them away from more popular satellite channels, which are banned but which many watch anyway on illegal dishes. The fare on state TV is usually dry.

"'Once, I wept when I learned through the film what a dreadful destiny the small nation had during the world war in the heart of so-called civilized Europe,' said Mahboubeh Rahamati, a Tehran bank teller.

"Kazem Gharibi said he watches the series every Monday on a TV in his grocery store.

"'Through this film, I understood that Jews had a hard time in the war _ helpless and desperate, as we were when Iraq imposed war on us,' he said, referring to the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s."

I suspect in the background of this is the fact that Iran's generally sane leadership doesn't want the country to become known as Holocaust Denial Central. This also helps counter the idea that Iran's opposition to Israel is motivated by anti-Semitism. Whatever the reasons, however, this is still a great thing. In much of the Middle Eastern Islamic world, knowledge of Israeli society and the shaping of its people's political attitudes is abysmal, and its history and that of the larger Zionist movement a caricature. This is a good step toward acknowledging a central piece of the puzzle. Maybe Egypt could follow suit?

And yes, the other side is that Israeli society still hasn't come to terms with the Nakba as part of their history. It's out there in the public arena, however.

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The Boom

So that's what it was.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Mt. Carmel

This is the highest point on Mt. Carmel in Haifa. At the center right, you can see the pole holding up the cable for the cable car that takes you up. As with the Mt. of Olives in Jerusalem, it was used for polytheistic religious rituals.


The North Korea Theory Lives!

When Blake Hounshell summoned a doctor, the prognosis wasn't good, and Joshua Landis, one of its early proponents, has begun planning the funeral. This morning, however, the Sunday Times said:
"According to Israeli sources, preparations for the attack had been going on since late spring, when Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad, presented Olmert with evidence that Syria was seeking to buy a nuclear device from North Korea.

"The Israeli spy chief apparently feared such a device could eventually be installed on North-Korean-made Scud-C missiles.

"'This was supposed to be a devastating Syrian surprise for Israel,' said an Israeli source. 'We’ve known for a long time that Syria has deadly chemical warheads on its Scuds, but Israel can’t live with a nuclear warhead...'

"According to an Israeli air force source, the Israeli satellite Ofek 7, launched in June, was diverted from Iran to Syria. It sent out high-quality images of a northeastern area every 90 minutes, making it easy for air force specialists to spot the facility...

"But intelligence sources suggested it was a highly successful Israeli raid on nuclear material supplied by North Korea."

Unlike previous articles, this goes back to Israeli sources. I'm not sure why they would want to implicate North Korea in something if North Korea were not, in fact, implicated. At the very least, the connection now clearly merits maintaining as a possibility.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Coming Elections

IWPR takes a look at the Armenian Presidential election landscape in the context of speculation that former president Levon Ter-Petrosian may enter the race.


Friday, September 14, 2007

Dog Crackdown

Iran's security forces are cracking down on dogs:
"Iranian officials say that according to Islam, dogs are considered to be dirty animals, and people who own dogs are viewed as being under Western influence. Some conservative clerics have denounced dog ownership as "morally depraved" and say it should be banned.

"Friday prayer leader Hojatoleslam Gholamreza Hassani, who is known for his hard-line stances, was quoted a few years ago as saying that all dog owners and their dogs should be arrested.

"In the past, dog owners have received warnings or were forced to pay fines for having a pet dog. Despite such harassment, dog ownership has increased over the years, especially among young people in Tehran...

"The new clampdown on dogs follows a recent order by the head of Tehran's security forces, Ahmad Reza Radan, who said it is against the law for dogs to walk in public. The order has left many people baffled."


Israel-Syria: The Latest

A report originating in a Kuwaiti newspaper claims that the Turkish military supplied Israel with the intelligence which led to its September 7 air strike in northeastern Syria. According to this account, the secularist military was concerned over the Islamist government's failure to crack down on arms smuggling between Iran and Syria through southeastern Turkey. This I actually find plausible.

Meanwhile, a State Department official named Andrew Semmel is claiming that North Koreans are in Syria, and that Syria is trying to use them to develop nuclear weapons. Since I've never heard of Andrew Semmel, I have no idea where he might fit into an intra-administration battle over North Korea policy.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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AQIM Divisions

The Jamestown Foundation reports on divisions in al-Qaeda in the Maghreb:
"During an August 14 news conference organized by Algerian authorities for a select group of Algerian reporters, Benmessaoud Abdelkader, a former Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) regional commander, confirmed that there was deep disagreement within the former GSPC over national commander Abdelmalek Droudkel's decisions first to merge with al-Qaeda in September 2006 and then later to rename the group the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in January 2007 (Liberté, August 21). The split appears to have diminished the terrorist group's logistical capacity and reduced its overall size, but has also made the al-Qaeda affiliate more desperate and determined to demonstrate its continued effectiveness and relevancy. The rift in Algeria has also likely split GSPC/AQIM's numerous cells in Europe. While this means that there are probably fewer European cells supporting AQIM than previously thought, these cells have likely mutated to embrace a wider range of targets than their GSPC precursors and in that sense represent a heightened risk for European security. Similarly, possibly orphaned GSPC cells could eventually merge with other Islamist terrorist cells, such as the group behind the plot to attack the Frankfurt International Airport and the nearby U.S. Ramstein Air Base in Germany that was thwarted on September 4."

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Plugging North Korea

I don't have time to deal with this right now, but John Bolton is continuing to plug a potential North Korea tie to the air strike in Syria:
"In a telephone conversation, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, said North Korea may be using Syria and Iran as 'safe havens' for its nuclear activity.

"Bolton, now affiliated with the 'American Enterprise Institute' in Washington, served Bush in his first term as Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. In that capacity, as well as later, he clashed with other officials, most notably from CIA, regarding Syria's nuclear plans...

"According to a Washington Post report, a U.S. official talking on condition of anonymity said recent satellite images gathered over the past six months mostly by Israeli sources indicate Syria may be building such a facility.

"Access to the information has been heavily restricted to a team headed by security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, leaving many in the intelligence community unaware of the reports' significance, the U.S. newspaper quoted sources as saying."

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

American Sources

The New York Times is citing sources from Washington telling two different stories about Israel's attack on Syria. The one getting the most attention is the North Korea theory:
"One Bush administration official said Israel had recently carried out reconnaissance flights over Syria, taking pictures of possible nuclear installations that Israeli officials believed might have been supplied with material from North Korea. The administration official said Israeli officials believed that North Korea might be unloading some of its nuclear material on Syria.

"'The Israelis think North Korea is selling to Iran and Syria what little they have left,' the official said. He said it was unclear whether the Israeli strike had produced any evidence that might validate that belief.

"The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a military action by another government."

Looking just at this, I'd say the source is fighting the internal administration battle over the North Korea deal. The idea that Syria would be developing nuclear weapons seems a bit over the top. At this point I still prefer the Hizbullah theory:
"Officials in Washington said that the most likely targets of the raid were weapons caches that Israel’s government believes Iran has been sending the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah through Syria. Iran and Syria are Hezbollah’s primary benefactors, and American intelligence officials say a steady flow of munitions from Iran runs through Syria and into Lebanon."

This theory has multiple sources who say it's "most likely," whereas the North Korea idea goes to a single official who claims certainty, which is an interesting difference.

Joshua Landis, who has a source pointing him to North Korea, also shows the potential for combining the two ideas:
"(Ronin Broughman sp. ?), editor of Israel's Yediot Acharonot, indidcated that the strike was against chemical weapons and missile production in the north of Syria - Scud C and B. Nuclear weapons are not a Syrian concern because they have chemical weapons with which to respond to Israel. Even though they have received ready made scuds from Korea, Syria has begun production of its own with the help of Iran."

There's definitely something going on, as I've been told that the military censors here in Israel are really on full alert for the next two weeks. The Israelis, however, aren't the only ones who are silent:
"The firm order to keep everyone’s mouth shut on this even after it took place seems to have come from the US to its allies in the region. The synchronized silence by Saudi, Jordan, the gulf and Egypt and the fact that they did not utter a word of condemnation, solidarity, regret or even concern is indicative, but the most alerting issue here is the absolute silence of Saudi financed media in the region (ie. the majority of the Arab media). Take for example, Alarabiya, Al-Sharq Alawsat and even Future TV. Usually, these media outlets are the first to jump on any incident related to Syria and spin it in a way that Syria appears the guilty side. When it comes to incidents relates to Syria and Israel, these outlets tend to host an influx of analysts and talk shows gloating on how Syria is week and too close to Iran. This time, not a word!

"Given the coordinated Israeli-American-Saudi media black out, I’m reading this as a joint attempt to hide something that can be perceived by the Arab public as a failure on the US and moderate Arab side and might strengthen the Syrian (or Iranian) image. It can also be something that can cause an embarrassment to Arab 'moderates'."

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Yishai's Stand

Shas leader Eli Yishai has stated bluntly that his party will quit the government if Olmert agrees to give up any part of Jerusalem's Old City or withdraw from almost all the West Bank. If Olmert loses both Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu, he only has 55 seats, even if he keeps all of Kadima and Gil. In other words, getting a majority of the Knesset behind a real peace deal will require Meretz plus at least one Arab party.


The Syria Incursion

It sounds like last week's Israeli incursion into Syrian airspace was a military strike, apparently successful. I also suspect CNN's sources are correct that the target was arms destined for Hizbullah. The other major theory floating around is Joshua Landis's idea that the target was some sort of advanced North Korean weaponry. However, his only evidence for the existence of such weaponry comes from John Bolton.

Israel attacking an arms shipment bound for Hizbullah sounds far more likely than any other possibility. You might say it simply fits the feel of the situation. Charles Levinson points out that both sides seem to be minimizing the incident. In addition to the evidence he cites, we've seen an Israeli pullback from the Golan Heights. The message from Israel seems to be clear: "We don't want a war, but we will act to protect our northern border." Syria, it appears, will not respond militarily, and is probably calling it an "ammo drop" because they don't want a war, either, and are not keen on admitting they let an attack pass in their territory. The most likely consequence for Israel is a growing wedge between it and Turkey.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Popular Feeling

I'll agree with this:
"This is something we've seen several times in polls of Iraqi opinion, but it never seems to penetrate. It seems to me that even 10-25 percent of the population actively approving of attacks on American troops might make our mission there impossible. But when an actual majority support killing our soldiers, then how, exactly, are the soldiers supposed to help Iraq's population? It just doesn't make sense, on any level, to think that a giant military deployment can play a constructive role under these circumstances."


Saturday, September 08, 2007

Israel and Syria

Commenting on what happened between Israel and Syria on Thursday would be much easier if anyone had a clue what had happened between Israel and Syria on Thursday. Daniel Levy posits some ideas, but they all have flaws, which he also notes. In particular, I'm not sure what sort of reconnaissance Israel would be undertaking that couldn't be more easily and safely done by satellite imagery. I'm most tempted to believe some combination of an Israeli error combined with a Syrian desire not to be sidelined in the current peace negotiations, but it's hard to say.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Maguy Kakan

Al-Jazeera profiles Maguy Kakan, a Jewish woman heading a party women's list in Morocco's parliamentary elections:
"Kakon said she decided to run for the election because of the excellent relations she has with fellow Moroccans and her desire to serve them in parliament.

"'I joined The Social Centre Party only two years ago, but I have to say that at the age of 54, my experience and maturity qualify me to be involved in politics. I have been active in civil society, but this time I have decided to invest in politics.'

"Lahsen Madih, secretay-general of the Social Centre Party, said the Moroccan constitution grants Kakon the right to contest in an election as a Moroccan citizen as long as she abides by the laws of the kingdom.

"The choice of Kakon reflects the importance of Judaism as an important constituent of the Moroccan identity, Madih said.

"Despite their current small numbers, Jews continue to play a role in Morocco's intellectual and economic life, and Jewish schools and synagogues receive government subsidies.

"Before the founding of Israel in 1948, there were about 300,000 Jews in Morocco.

"The Six-Day War in 1967 led to increased Arab-Jewish tensions worldwide, including Morocco.

"By 1971, the Jewish population was down to 35,000; however, this time around most went to Europe and North America rather than Israel.

"At present fewer than 7,000 Jews are believed to remain, mostly divided between Rabat and Casablanca."

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Parted Friends

IWPR has a fascinating article about how friends in Armenia and Azerbaijan who were separated by the Karabakh conflict are keeping in touch. As part of that conflict, Armenians and Azeris were driven out of each other's territory and links between the two were severed. This happened despite the fact that there seems to have been very little grassroots enmity between the two groups, and when I was there last October it was striking how people on both sides emphasized those good relations which they seemed to think were only temporarily suspended by the conflict.

The internet makes the headline, and the piece talks about a BBC service dedicated to helping people get in touch with lost friends, but the article also talks about a Red Cross postal service operating in areas which don't have internet access. All of this makes it seem like the conflict really shouldn't be as divisive as nationalists and grand-standing politicians on both sides have made it. I also wonder if, at some point in the future, we could see something similar between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Rafsanjani Wins

Former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who already heads the Expediency Council, has been elected head of Iran's Assembly of Experts. The main importance of that body is to elect the surpreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i. I strongly suspect Rafsanjani wants that job for himself after Khamene'i dies.


Abusing Workers

The Christian Science Monitor reports on a rise in labor abuse in Saudi Arabia:
"According to HRW, approximately 2 million women from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and other countries work as domestic helpers here. Many of them face a slew of problems, from late payment of salaries, extended working hours, beatings, and sexual assault, during the length of a typical two-year contract.

"An indication of how bad things can get for domestic workers are the shelters for runaway maids run by both the Philippine and Indonesian diplomatic missions in Riyadh and Jeddah...

"The Indonesian Embassy has been so swamped with cases of abused workers that it has hired a full-time Saudi lawyer to deal with all of the criminal cases...

"The fate of abused workers in Saudi Arabia is further complicated by the fact that labor-exporting countries in Asia, pressured by growing populations, feel an obligation to send larger and larger numbers of workers overseas in search of work. This has caused many of these governments not to press to hard concerning abuses against their workers out of fear that protesting too much could offend Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

"When Indonesia tried a few years ago to raise the minimum age and salaries of maids sent to work abroad, a coalition of employment agencies in the Gulf threatened to look elsewhere in Asia for maids and drivers. Jakarta soon backed down on the salary front and continued to send maids to the Middle East."

This is the sort of problem the United States could easily use trade leverage to help alleviate.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Where is Brian?

The wireless connection in my apartment building is down, and the router is in the apartment of someone who is on vacation. As a result, I haven't been blogging, or doing several other things I've wanted to. She should be back any day now, though.

UPDATE: That was efficient. I got home about 6:30 to find everything working again.