In the interest of full disclosure, let me state that I have not worked for an intelligence agency and that my interest in the subject is that of an amateur. Since I live in DC, I’ve met a few veterans of intelligence agencies and some current employees of them, though we (obviously) don’t talk shop. My thoughts are therefore worth rather little, but since you’re getting them for free, you’re getting what you pay for.
Advocatus Diaboli has asked, “What is wrong with Western Intelligence services?” He has answered his own question thus: “The playbook of intelligence is outdated and no amount of revision, short of an almost total rewrite, can fix it. The culprit is technological progress, as is often the case.”
Advocatus Diaboli (henceforth AD) argues that we’re getting swamped under with data and that signals intelligence (SIGINT) is becoming useless and our playbook is dated. He’s partially right. SIGINT is indeed problematic, but the correct playbook is older and more difficult to use than AD seems to realize. That playbook was found difficult, and Western Intelligence agencies attempted to abridge it with SIGINT. To understand what the playbook calls for, and why it’s a miserably hard slog, we need to ask a few questions about intelligence and what we’re trying to do with it.
WHAT IS INTELLIGENCE AND HOW IS IT DIFFERENT FROM INFORMATION?
“Information” is just the facts. That the Japanese fleet was moving towards Pearl Harbor was a fact that the U.S. Government knew about before December 7, 1941. (Indeed, that’s why the aircraft carriers stationed there had been moved safely out of the way and weren’t damaged.)
“Intelligence” is an interpretation of the facts. The Office of Naval Intelligence expected sabotage to come first and expected that Japan would declare war before actually launching an attack. They had the right information and the wrong intelligence.
HOW DOES THIS TIE INTO TODAY’S INTELLIGENCE WARS?
The information we need is out there. Unfortunately, the relevant information was also out there in 1941. For intelligence agencies, the first step towards heading off a fiasco is to see the world through their enemies’ eyes. G.K. Chesterton summarized this in The Man Who Was Thursday:
“The work of the philosophical policeman,” replied the man in blue, “is at once bolder and more subtle than that of the ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime.”
It comes down to a seemingly paradoxical phrase, Applied Philosophy. People attempt to desanguinate philosophy when they push it as angels dancing on pins, but philosophy comes back in a sanguinary way when grenade pins are pulled. Understanding someone else’s philosophy is a difficult thing, particularly for people who don’t have much of one themselves. But that is precisely what the old intelligence playbook called for: seeing ourselves through our enemies’ eyes. That was difficult, and SIGINT was an attempted short cut that worked.
During World War II and the Cold War, much of the militarily important data was sent electronically by both sides, so cracking passwords and deciphering codes could substitute for outthinking the Japanese and Germans and later the Soviets. But the sheer volume of data is making this dicey. There will be a place for SIGINT, but only if we know what we’re looking for. Which is where Chesterton’s insight comes in.
In Chesterton’s day, the terrorists were the anarchists, who assassinated (among others) President William McKinley and Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The key to preventing their crimes, which eventually lead to wars, was to understand them and head them off. He published The Man Who Was Thursday over a century ago, and the intelligence playbook hasn’t changed much since then. AD is right that our abridgement isn’t working any more. But we don’t need a new playbook; we need, so to speak, to go old school.
Holmes: My dear Dr. Watson, whatever do you make of today’s vote in the Senate?
Watson: Er, peculiar. Four budgets up for a vote, all of them fail. Kind of bad legislating, isn’t it?
Holmes: Yes, quite. But look at how peculiar the loss was. Look at these vote totals:
The Ryan Budget: 57 nos, 40 ayes. No Democrats voted “aye,” and five Republicans — Brown, Collins, Murkowski, Paul, and Snowe — voted no. Paul voted “no” because the bill doesn’t go far enough.
The Obama Budget: 97 nos. You read that right. No “ayes.” It was nice of Democrats to tee up an embarrassment of their own, to go with the other embarrassments.
The Toomey Budget: 55 nos, 42 ayes. Only Brown, Collins and Snowe voted against it. Why the difference? Toomey’s budget didn’t touch Medicare, and balanced the budget in nine years through big discretionary spending cuts.
The Paul Budget: 90 nos, 7 ayes. Only Coburn, DeMint, Hatch, Lee, McConnell, Paul, and Vitter voted for this libertarian dream of a budget, which cuts (non-defense) spending to 2008 levels and levels the Departments of Commerce, Energy, Education, and Hud.
What do you make of it, Watson?
Watson: Well, that Obama budget sure didn’t look very popular. Dead last, absolutely no votes.
Holmes: Very good, Watson. A Democratic President, Obama, can’t get a single Democratic Senator in a Democratically controlled Senate to vote for his plan.
Watson: Well, perhaps he’s just not that good at government.
Holmes: The president of the United States not being good at government? Are you sure?
Watson: Well, isn’t it bleeding obvious?
Holmes: Oh, quite. But you don’t need me, Sherlock Holmes, to tell you that. There’s something more afoot here. What of the Democratic Senators that wouldn’t back their own president?
Watson: Well, they’re United States Senators. They can’t always be partisans, now, can they?
Holmes: You’re getting warmer.
Watson: I am?
Holmes: Yes. Senators are partisans, but what’s often more important to them than a president of their own party?
Watson: Money? Power? Doing the right thing?
Holmes: [Bangs head against wall] No, Watson. Reelection! That’s what’s on the mind of these Senators.
Watson: I don’t understand. How does humiliating their own president help Democratic Senators get reelected?
Holmes: If their president is sure to be reelected himself, there is no reason for them to humiliate him, and indeed there would be every reason to show some loyalty. Presidents are quite capable of punishing people who vote against them on a whim. No, Watson, something has got them spooked. They’re afraid that he’s going down, and they’re trying to put some distance between themselves and him so they don’t go down with him.
Watson: So they’re like rats leaving a sinking ship?
[T]here’s a scam being played out here, and at several levels. At the first level, conduct that isn’t really racist is sucked into that category. This increases the reach of political correctness and the ability of the likes of President Obama and Jesse Jackson to pass judgment on whites who aren’t sufficiently careful. At the second level, the useful liberal is absolved of “racism,” where the conservative would not be.
I’ve got a pretty low opinion of the Senate, and a pretty high threshold for people saying stupid crap. The comparison between Reid and Lott is useful, insofar as neither of them said anything racist, but at most said something insensitive or stupid. I liked seeing Lott lose his leadership position in 2002 mostly because I didn’t like Lott to begin with.* Reid’s comment is more directly racial than was Lott’s, but it’s main sin is using a word of questionable taste. Honestly, I think Reid’s comment that Obama has “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” is hilarious, as it attempts to describe the way that Obama changes his manner of speech depending on whether he’s speaking to a largely black or a largely white audience.** “Negro dialect” isn’t the phrase I’d use, but we all know what he meant, and it’s true.
*Knowing what we know now of how terribly the Republicans would fumble their majority in 2003-06, particularly during and after 2005, “Would we be better off if Trent Lott had remained the Republicans’ senate leader”? is the most interesting hypothetical I’ve thought of in ages. I’d actually forgotten about Trent Lott’s existence until the past day or two. But I think it’s indisputable that Bill Frist was, at best, no better than Lott. I think Lott might have done more to beat back the judicial fillibusters in 2005-06. Having a Senate majority leader whose house was destroyed in Katrina would have been a small boon during a time when small, stupid stories held sway in politics. Mitch McConnell strikes me as, more or less, Trent Lott with ever so slightly more scruples but significantly worse hair. They’re about the same, though, in terms of leading people to believe that Senate Republicans are mostly white guys who sound like Foghorn Leghorn.
**Q: Who’s the racist here – the guy who literally speaks to people of different races in different tones of voice, or the guy who points it out using a word that some don’t like? A: Rush Limbaugh. I hear he favors slavery.
Bill Kristol hypothesizes that Rahm Emmanuel is nudging the CIA in its grudge match against Speaker Pelosi:
But did Panetta simply decide on his own to send this letter? It’s almost inconceivable. Panetta is a former member of Congress and a former White House chief of staff. President Obama made him CIA director only four months ago. Even if his motivation for the letter was in part driven by an institutional imperative to defend his agency, Panetta would have understood the political implications of humiliating a House speaker of his own party. He surely at least ran the letter by White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to get clearance. It’s also possible that Panetta was encouraged to send the letter by Emanuel.
This raises the question: Does Emanuel (and, presumably, President Obama) want a chastened Pelosi to remain speaker?
It’s a clever theory, but seems too cute by half. Why would the White House use so potentially dangerous a tool as the CIA to oust a Speaker of the House from its own party? Particularly when they must surely have other weapons that are less likely to backfire? The pseudonymous Ishmael Jones thinks that the CIA is simply defending its own turf:
In recent years, CIA bureaucracy has appeared to favor the Left, while in the early decades of its existence it was perceived as a group of right-wingers dedicated to toppling communist dictators. In reality the CIA is loyal only to itself. As long as Mrs. Pelosi supported its bureaucratic lifestyle, it supported her, but when she attacked it, it fought back. The CIA may not be able to conduct efficient intelligence operations, but it knows how to survive.
I might be biased towards Mr. Jones because his thoughts parallel my own, but I also think that his is the simpler explanation—and, following Occam’s razor, more likely to be correct. Pelosi’s likely successor as Speaker, should she be pushed aside, would be Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Pelosi’s politics are probably closer to Obama’s than the more moderate Hoyer’s are. Back in the day, Pelosi beat Hoyer for minority whip because she was a better vote counter, so losing her would probably hurt the Obama-Emmanuel agenda. Further, while Presidents have attempted to abuse the CIA’s powers in the past (see Nixon, Richard M.), Obama and Emmanuel must surely know how explosive that would be if word ever got out that they’d used the CIA against a member of their own party. An abuse like that would almost certainly unite The Daily Kos with National Review against the Obama White House.
I really hope Kristol is just playing around and not basing this speculation on inside knowledge. It’s bad enough if Langley is playing games on its own, but if Obama is using the CIA against domestic opponents, the country is really in trouble.
One of Nixon’s pieces of advice to every president was to get your own people in control of the CIA and the Justice Department, because those were the agencies that could really wreck a presidency. Many of the big scandals that have damaged presidents—such as Iran-contra, Lewinsky, torture memos—bear out Tricky Dick’s advice.
The CIA’s war against President Bush was motivated by ass covering, or by political partisanship. But with President Obama, it’s personal.
Many are furious about his disclosure of explicit details of the interrogation methods used on some al Qaida bigwigs, and his waffling on whether or not those who employed them will be subject to prosecution.
Others are incensed by his decision to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and to let some of those incarcerated there (17 Chinese Uighurs) loose in the United States.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held two hush hush meetings with CIA Director Leon Panetta and Democratic members of the Intelligence Committee last week.
“Her fear and frustration have apparently given way to panic after word reached her of the CIA’s reaction to the damage she, President Obama and other Democrats have done to the spy agency in the last three months, wrote Jed Babbin, a former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, in Human Events May 1. “Pelosi learned that her actions and those of President Obama have so damaged CIA morale that the agency’s ability to function could be in danger.”
The upshot of the meetings was an unprecedented letter from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex) to Mr. Panetta, making a quasi-apology. Rep. Reyes asked the CIA director to “disseminate it to the CIA workforce as soon as possible.”
But the CYA nature of the letter, and Mr. Reyes’ pledge of more oversight are unlikely to mollify many at Langley.
Presidents come and go like morning glories, but bureaucracies are like oak trees that last. Disagreements with Obama aside, he needs to get Langley on his side, since right now it looks like it’s on its own side. If Kelly is right, the presidency—and by extension the nation—is in for a rough time. Not good.
In polling for the presidency, a generic Democrat beats a generic Republican the way Michael Phelps outswims a quadriplegic. Yet Obama is shockingly underperforming. As the prophet noted:
The winds at the Democrats’ backs are hurricane-force gales, and yet there’s Obama holding steady, like a young Dan Rather in his schoolgirl rain slicker, immobile and unmovable.
Quite a few of the explanations have focused on the voters, or the voters’ reactions to the candidates. Perhaps the problem is that Obama, on some level, doesn’t really want to be president, and is therefore self-sabotaging his candidacy.
This thought came to mind when browsing the reaction to Obama’s selection of Joe Biden as a running mate. Patrick Ruffini pulled up some of Biden’s greatest goofs, and McCain already has a puckish ad running about Obama-Biden (H/T)
Jay Nordlinger observed that Obama had a wealth of good options, the political equivalent of lobster or lamb chops, and instead went with a tofurkey. Much as we like to snark at him, Obama is intelligent. He has to know that Biden is a walking gaffe machine, the Democratic Dan Quayle. The first rule of a vice presidential pick is to do no harm to the ticket; like Quayle before him, Biden flunks. The argument that Biden is a choice that shows Obama is serious about governing doesn’t supersede this first rule, since one must win the election before selecting furniture in the oval office.
In the realm of pure speculation, let’s try to figure out his mindset if Obama, understanding that he wasn’t really ready for the presidency but wanting some practice, ran in 2008 thinking that he wouldn’t win the nomination. So his plan would be that 2008 was supposed to be a dress rehearsal for the real event in 2012. Winning the nomination would put him in the position of a dog who suddenly caught the Honda Civic. He hadn’t planned for this, and on some psychological level didn’t want to abandon his original plan of coming up short in 2008.
But an intelligent person, which Obama surely is, would try his best to adapt. He’s brought in a small army of consultants. For all his intelligence, Obama didn’t anticipate winning, and that’s scared him somewhat, made him trust his judgment less. It was one thing for him to luck into his Senate seat, where his primary and general election opponents self-destructed; it is quite another for him to luck into the White House. Expecting, quite reasonably, to lose, and then winning, would make anyone question his judgment and look for someone with a sounder grasp of affairs. Unfortunately for Obama, he’s surrounded by true believers, whose judgment is (almost by definition) lacking. My hunch is that Obama doesn’t have anybody in his inner circle who tells him the bad news, not because they’re afraid of his reaction, but because they’ve all drunk the Kool-aid.
So we have an intelligent but unsure man, isolated from dissenting opinions, who perhaps doesn’t want to do what everyone around him wants him to do. His advisers, convinced of his inevitability, probably wanted someone who could plausibly take charge of the presidency if, God forbid, something should happen to Obama. Meanwhile, Obama himself probably wanted someone intelligent and experienced, who has Washington insider knowledge and foreign policy background that he himself lacks, and who is independent of the true believers. Picking Biden—chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a senator for 36 of his 66 years on earth, a former sharp critic and rival for the presidency—fits the bill. It also satisfies Obama’s subconscious desire to lose.
I have no inside knowledge of the Obama campaign or Obama himself. I’m just speculating here. But I think I’m reasonably close to explaining what’s going on. Other Democratic politicians are Washington insiders and foreign affairs buffs and are executive branch material: former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Virginia Senator James Webb, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd. But only Biden brings a counterproductive gaffe machine. The next 70 odd days are going to be interesting—if your idea of interesting is a root canal.
Joseph Epstein is onto something when he compares Hillary Clinton to Lady Macbeth. In his hilariously twisted No Way to Treat a First Lady, Chris Buckley based a character on Mrs. Clinton, Elizabeth MacMann, who earned the nickname “Lady BethMac.” Writing about Bill Clinton, Florence King borrowed an assessment of Caroline of Brunswick: “Fate wrote her a most tremendous tragedy, but she played it in tights.”
Had he been an actor, Bill Clinton would have been perfectly suited to playing comical lugs like Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. That he’s dragged poor Hillary around on all his sordid escapades is part of why there’s a whiff of tragedy about her. Given her skills at survival and her steely determination, her cool reason and calculated bursts of emotion, I think the role she was born to play is Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter.
I don’t think it’s entirely possible to understand Hillary without understanding that on some level she always sees herself as the beleagured underdog. She was a Goldwater girl and then one of the original McGovernites, which were both spectacularly losing causes. After the healthcare debacle, she famously said, “Being a Cubs fan prepares your for life—and Washington.”
Hillary Clinton, a former Methodist Sunday School teacher, almost certainly knows this mantra of John Wesley’s:
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.
I’m sure that this is how she started off, with Wesley written on her heart.
But she wasn’t content with merely losing. She was a scrapper. After loss after loss after painful loss, she felt justified in fighting back, by any means necessary. So she did what she saw others (most notably her husband) do: spin and stretch and shade the truth. It worked for him, bought her off and much of the nation—why wouldn’t it work for her?
So she adjusted and twisted herself. Camille Paglia had a shrewd insight when comparing Hillary Clinton to a drag queen:
Hillary — whom her Wellesley College classmates called “Sister Frigidaire” — was a natural as a lawyer, but she had to learn how to be a politician, where flexibility and gladhanding cordiality are crucial. Year by year in Arkansas, especially after Bill was defeated in his first reelection bid, Hillary, a high-achieving firstborn child with two recessive brothers, taught herself how to act like a woman. The smoothly efficient First Lady we see before us, with her chameleonlike blonde hairdos and charismatic smile, is actually a drag queen, the magnificent final product of a long process of self-transformation from butch to femme.
I suspect that Hillary has sublimated her rage against Bill (his constant infidelities must have been a hideous wound) and turned it against her own enemies, which now include much of the media, many Democrats, and virtually all Republicans. Her desire to do good, which Mike Kelly noted in his Saint Hillary piece, has become twisted in her desire to win the presidency. She’s changed her appearance, ceded her home base (it’s ironically fitting that her chief rival is a transplant to her native Illinois) and became a Yankees fan. So many compromises—and for what? For a media that ridicules her every move with barely veiled sexism and old allies who’ve jumped on the Obama bandwagon, now that she’s no longer the fresh new thing.
Her road to the presidency is paved with good intentions. But she’s been hurt so many times and has justified to herself any hurtful actions she’ll take as being done for the greater good. Her life would make for a great tragedy. One can feel, as Bill Kristol does, a certain grudging respect, if not pity and fear—there will be no catharsis till it’s all over, God knows when. This psychodrama belongs on a stage, not the White House.
Back in November 2006, Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko died of Polonium-210 poisoning. At the time, Charles Krauthammer summarized well what many of us thought:
Some say that the Litvinenko murder was so obvious, so bold, so messy — five airplanes contaminated, 30,000 people alerted, dozens of places in London radioactive — that it could not possibly have been the KGB.
But that’s the beauty of it. Do it obvious, do it brazen, and count on those too-clever-by-half Westerners to find that exonerating. As the president of the Central Anarchist Council (in G.K. Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday”) advised: “You want a safe disguise, do you? . . . A dress in which no one would ever look for a bomb? Why, then, dress up as an anarchist, you fool!”
The other reason for making it obvious and brazen is to send a message. This is a warning to all the future Litvinenkos of what awaits them if they continue to go after the Russian government. They’ll get you even in London, where there is the rule of law. And they’ll get you even if it makes negative headlines for a month.
Some people say that the KGB would not have gone to such great lengths to get so small a fry as Litvinenko. Well, he might have been a small fry, but his investigations were not. He was looking into the Kremlin roots of Politkovskaya’s shooting. And Litvinenko claimed that the Russian government itself blew up apartment buildings in Moscow and elsewhere in 1999, killing hundreds of innocent civilians, in order to blame it on the Chechens and provoke the second Chechen war. Pretty damning stuff.
But even Litvinenko’s personal smallness serves the KGB’s purposes precisely. If they go to such lengths and such messiness and such risk to kill someone as small as Litvinenko, then no critic of the Putin dictatorship is safe. It is the ultimate in deterrence.
Edward Jay Epstein, as noted here before, has been busy askinghardquestions to get to the truth. Mr. Epstein has a long piece in today’s New York Sun that explains that explains the connection between Polonium-210 and arms smuggling. As it turns out, lots of of places other than Russia can produce Polonium-210: America, Britain, China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Taiwan, North Korea. This means that the exotic murder weapon didn’t necessarily come from Russia. Litvinenko, Epstein argues, may have had ties to arms dealers. This makes him a bigger fish than we realized. It also means that someone other than the Russians may have had a motive to keep Litvinenko quiet.
Another peculiarity is that Britain has refused to release the autopsy report or medical records. Admittedly, this may be Britain’s way of preventing an inquiry into its perpetually struggling National Health Services. After detailing the many tangled strands that surrounds Litvenenko, Epstein his conclusion:
After considering all the evidence, my hypothesis is that Litvinenko came in contact with a polonium-210 smuggling operation and was, either wittingly or unwittingly, exposed to it. Litvinenko had been a person of interest to the intelligence services of many countries, including Britain’s MI-6, Russia’s FSB, America’s CIA (which rejected his offer to defect in 2000), and Italy’s SISMI, which was monitoring his phone conversations. His murky operations, whatever their purpose, involved his seeking contacts in one of the most lawless areas in the former Soviet Union, the Pankisi Gorge, which had become a center for arms smuggling. He had also dealt with people accused of everything from money laundering to trafficking in nuclear components. These activities may have brought him, or his associates, in contact with a sample of polonium-210, which then, either by accident or by design, contaminated and killed him.
To unlock the mystery, Britain must make available its secret evidence, including the autopsy report, the comprehensive list of places in which radiation was detected, and the surveillance reports of Litvinenko and his associates. If Britain considers it too sensitive for public release, it should be turned over to an international commission of inquiry. The stakes are too high here to leave unresolved the mystery of the smuggled polonium-210.
Francisco Nava, a conservative at Princeton who had received threatening e-mails, got clobbered off campus (H/T). The university’s response:
A spokeswoman for Princeton, Cass Cliatt, said the university does not comment on situations involving students when they are off campus. “This is the township’s investigation,” she wrote in an e-mail.
If Mr. Nava had been gay or black, I suspect that the university administration would be doing an investigation.
According to Nava, here’s what happened:
A politics major from Texas who is a junior, Francisco Nava, was assaulted about two miles from campus in Princeton Township by two black-clad men who pinned him against a wall and repeatedly bashed his head against the bricks, he told the student newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, in an interview.
Mr. Nava told the student paper that the two men told him to shut up. The assailants did not steal his wallet, credit cards, or cell phone, he said.
No suspects had been identified yesterday, and the Princeton Township Police Department said it would not comment on the pending investigation.
The attack came two days after Mr. Nava, a leader of the Anscombe Society, a morally conservative student group that speaks out against same-sex marriage and pre-marital sex, received death threats via e-mail. Three other Anscombe leaders and a conservative professor also received the threats.
A Princeton senior who received the e-mail death threats, Sherif Girgis, said initially it didn’t concern him. “I thought this threat would go the way 99.9% of them go — which is not beyond e-mail,” he said. The text of the e-mail included an expletive, addressed every recipient by his first name, and threatened to “destroy” them. One e-mail used the word “kill.”
Odd. I see a couple basic possibilities here:
Nava and other conservatives are being threatened. There are liberal thugs at large at Princeton.
Nava was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Also creepy, but less worrisome than the above scenario.
Nava has faked the crime. Distasteful, but we’ve seen this before in Kerri Dunn.
I’d guess there’s a couple of other permutations that could happen in this case, but I think I’ve covered the basic probable scenarios. Whatever the case, I agree with Harvey Mansfield’s suggestion:
A conservative professor at Harvard, Harvey Mansfield, said he is outraged. “I hope Princeton comes down on them like a ton of bricks, and by Princeton I mean either the university or the township or both,” Mr. Mansfield said. “It should be easy for liberals to identify a case of intolerance; they’re good at that.”
I suspect that the only scenario that would prompt the “ton of bricks” response is the faked crime one. Nonetheless, Princeton University should be investigating this.
Edward Jay Epstein asks a series of questions about the Litvenenko murder. Given how improbable Polonium-210 poisoning is to start with, even his farfetched scenarios have some plausibility. Note: if you’re prone to headaches, you might want to avoid the link. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Whenever a country’s economy starts faltering, it’s often a safe bet that its government will make things worse. Oil revenue provides around 70% of the Iranian government’s finances; Iran also heavily subsidizes its people’s use of gasoline. Now, with their oil fields in decline, Tehran is compounding its problems. Forbes discusses an intriguing if predictable phenomenon that’s resulting from Ahmadinejad’s policies [my emphasis]:
Iran produced over 6 billion barrels of oil before the revolution in 1979. They now produce around 4 billion barrels a year. They are currently producing about 5% below their quota, which shows they are at their limits under current capacity. And production at their old fields is waning. The world recovery rate is about 35% from oil fields.
Iran’s is an abnormally low 24% to 27%. Normally, you pump natural gas back into an aging field (called reinjection) in order to get higher yields. Iran has enormous reserves of natural gas. Seems like there should be a solution.
However, if the National Iranian Oil Company (NOIC) sells it natural gas outside of Iran, it turns a profit. If it sells it in the country, then it can only get the lower, dramatically subsidized price. Guess which it chooses. Even so, internal natural gas demand is growing by 9% a year.
Not surprisingly, at 34 cents a gallon, gasoline demand is rising 10% a year. This week, the government moved to ration supplies to about 22 gallons a month, which does not go far in the large cars preferred by younger Iranians. There have been riots, with people chanting “Death to Ahmadinejad.” They take their right to plenty of cheap gas seriously.
There is also widespread smuggling. Ten barrels of gasoline (easily hauled in a pickup) taken into Turkey yields about $3,000 in profit in a country with about that much GDP per person.
This bit of reporting dovetails with the capital flight that Spengler discussed several weeks ago [my emphasis again]:
Ahmadinejad blames the country’s economic problems on “certain elements” . . .
“Certain elements” no doubt refers to Ayatollah Akbar Rafsanjani, his opponent in the 2006 presidential election and leader of the faction more inclined to compromise with the West. Rafsanjani continues to maintain excellent contacts in Germany, and European diplomats have placed their hopes on the prospect of his replacing Ahmadinejad. It would not be out of character for Rafsanjani and his allies to make matters more irksome for Ahmadinejad by diverting large amounts of money out of state revenues into their own pockets.
As a way of changing the Tehran regime, however, pushing Iran toward hyperinflation would be akin to cutting the brake lines of a car to spite its driver, when one is a passenger in the same car. It is easy to hasten the deterioration of Iran’s economy, for it is headed downhill in any event, but very difficult to reverse the process.
An old piece of diplomatic wisdom states that one always should give one’s enemy a way out. But I see no way out for the pocket empire of Persia. Ahmadinejad and his generation of Revolutionary Guards will fight, and cautious old men like Rafsanjani will not be able to stop them.
One wonders if the anti-Ahmadinejad elements in Tehran are quietly encouraging—or even working with—the gasoline smugglers. It would, after all, be a way for them to make money and hurt Ahmadinejad. It might be a good short term strategy, but will Iran’s collapse be peaceful like the Soviet Union? Or will the apocalyptics try something, well, apocalyptic?
I hesitated to post about the two failed car bombings in Britain; terrorist attacks in Britain could well be Irish rather than Islamist. A day later, the British papers are reporting that the suspects are Middle Eastern. According to the Times of London (H/T), the two car bombs were linked in a particularly vicious way:
One car, a pale green Mercedes, had been left outside the Tiger Tiger nightclub in Haymarket. A second, a blue Mercedes, was left a few hundred yards away in Cockspur Street, a busy thoroughfare close to Trafalgar Square. This vehicle was towed away at 3:30am on Friday to an car pound on Park Lane by unsuspecting parking officials.
Had either device gone off it would have generated a huge fireball and a shockwave spreading over 400 yards in all directions. If, as suspected, one had been primed to detonate before the other, people fleeing the first blast could have been caught by the second.
I’m sure this has already been remarked upon in the coverage of the London carbomb plot, but there’s an eerie parallel between today and the 7/7 attacks. Today was the first week of Gordon Brown’s premiership. 7/7 was the first day of the Gleneagles G8 summit. They seem to have a habit of planning to strike when Britain is in the headlines around the world.
My own hunch is that terrorists are trying to repeat the success of the 3/11 bombings in Spain. They turned the election a few days later around, and though the pro-American government of Jose Maria Aznar had been leading in the polls, they were tossed out and replaced with the pro-appeasement government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
Back to Britain. After the 7/7 bombings, we learned that Tony Blair wouldn’t chicken out. The terrorists were probably trying to test new Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Since those two bombings were blocked before they happened, and since nobody’s reported any arrests yet, I think Britain should stay on high alert. The terrorists want the kind of intelligence you can only get with a terrorist attack: how does Brown react to pressure?
Corollary to this grim theory: will terrorists attempt an attack on America in 2009 to see how the new president reacts to assaults?
Author Salman Rushdie said on Monday he was “thrilled and humbled” to be awarded a British knighthood but he had no comment on anger in Iran and Pakistan where his book “The Satanic Verses” outraged many Muslims.
The British author, who was born in India, was awarded the knighthood for services to literature in Queen Elizabeth’s birthday honors list published on Saturday.
Rushdie’s 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” prompted protests, some violent, by Muslims in many countries because they said it blasphemed their faith. Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa death warrant against him in 1989 and Rushdie spent much of the next nine years in hiding.
Iran accused Britain on Sunday of insulting Islamic values by knighting Rushdie. On Monday Pakistan’s religious affairs minister said insults to Islam were at the root of terrorism and Muslim countries should break off ties with Britain if it did not withdraw Rushdie’s honor.
Imams around the world have unsubtly attempted blackmail:
Yesterday, Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq, Pakistan’s hardline religious affairs minister, told the parliament in Islamabad: “This is an occasion for the [world's] 1.5 billion Muslims to look at the seriousness of this decision.
“The West is accusing Muslims of extremism and terrorism. If someone exploded a bomb on his body he would be right to do so unless the British government apologises and withdraws the ‘Sir’ title.”
A few thoughts and observations.
Ul-Haq’s lack of self-awareness would be funny if there wasn’t a real chance of murder. If Pakistan decided to knight, say, Richard Dawkins, I rather doubt that anybody in the West would care.
I wonder if this is Queen Elizabeth’s oblique way of taking a position in the War on Terror. She has very little formal power, but she can make a statement when she needs to about what’s going on. I’m sure the recent humiliation of the Royal Navy is on her mind. The Queen is a shrewd woman and still the head of state.
Let’s assume, for sake of debate, that the Queen is trying to ruffle some feathers. If Rushdie lives because no attempt has been made on his life, the Islamic fatwa folks look weak. If Rushdie survives an attempt or dies, the West will have a martyr to remind them why we fight. If the Queen is really thinking like this, remind me never to play chess with her.
Once a knighthood was controversial because, c’mon, what had Mick Jagger or Elton John really done? Now we’re getting geopolitics and theology mixed in. If you’re going to be controversial, this is the way to do it.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who told Britain’s Globe and Mail that he is the world’s only true democrat, has since warned that a missile defense system would turn Europe into a powder keg. He followed that with a threat to aim Russian missiles at Europe, in particular the missile shield sites in the Czech Republic and Poland, and U.S. bases in Bulgaria and Romania — two more nations that once felt the Soviet boot on their necks.
Allow us to inject some clarity into this muddled mess Putin is creating. There is no threat to Russia. The missile shield is a defensive system. The U.S. even offered to share the system with the Soviet Union, and later Russia, to reduce the risk of nuclear war.
While it’s clear there is no aggression on the part of the U.S., the Russian president is using the shield to drive a wedge in the growing alliance between the U.S. and former Soviet bloc nations. Theories that he is intent on restoring the Soviet empire to be ruled from Moscow seem to be on the mark.
Apparently my comment to this post was in part in error—America had offered to share technology with Russia rather than declining as I believed—my apologies. On the other hand, the part about Russia and Iran has some backing:
Vladimir Putin boldly stated at a Kremlin news conference on Feb.. 1 ” “We think that the people of Iran should have access to modern technologies, including nuclear ones.” What are Russia’s contributions to Iran’s nuclear program?
Russia has provided Iran, or is in the process of providing, six nuclear reactors, including a facility at Bushehr that can be used for uranium enrichment, and is leasing Iran the reactor-grade uranium for the Bushehr 1 reactor. On February 27, 2005, Iran and Russia signed an agreement to supply 70 tons of the needed nuclear fuel for the Bushehr facility. Under the terms of the agreement, Russia would provide nuclear fuel to Iran, who would in turn return the spent fuel back to Russia. While this provision limits Iran’s use of the spent fuel, if Iran were to renounce the agreement with Russia, the Bushehr reactor could produce a quarter ton of plutonium per year, which is enough for at least 30 atomic bombs.
Putin has also successfully lobbied for an exemption in the UN resolution on Iran for materials, equipment, technology used at Bushehr 1 reactor. This exemption could allow Iran to convert the lightly-enriched fuel in the light-water nuclear reactor into weapon-grade 235. It need only remove fuel rods from Bushehr, then extracting their pellets, and feed this enriched uranium into its centrifuges. The centrifuges could then produce weapon-grade U-235 in less than 2 months. (Iran could keep the operation secret by substituting dummy rods for those it removed from the Bushehr reactor.)
I still smell collaboration here. A tangent, if you will. China is busily burnishing its image in part because it plays good cop to the bad cop of North Korea: an insane, failed state with nuclear weapons. Spengler keeps arguing that Iran is falling apart and might launch attacks. But if Iran goes nuclear, and if it works with Russia, I think I see a potentially profitable situation for the two of them that allows them to avoid a war they can’t win.
Iran, with nuclear backing, can take the oil fields it envies from nearby former Soviet Republics. They also might be able to push the Saudis into surrendering some land; they can also bite off Shiite dominated parts of Iraq. Thanks to the nukes, Iran can also ward off attacks from America. If it follows the North Korean example, Iran might even be able to extort aid and advanced oil processing equipment from Europe (or gullible American presidents).
Meanwhile, if Russia sets itself up as a power Iran will listen to, it gains further clout with the west. Russia will play good cop to Iran’s bad cop, allowing the Kremlin to blackmail client states in Europe.
With the Kremlin solidly controlling Russia’s oil, and Iran in control of the Middle East’s, they can run a cartel. It’s true, as economics students know, that cartels are usually counterproductive in the long run as people develop substitutes, but in the short run they can be immensely profitable. These profits may be enough, in the short run, to prevent Iranian collapse and help rebuild the shaky Russian economy. If they somehow manage to clue in, say, Hugo Chavez, then John O’Sullivan’s fears of oil as a political weapon will be realized.
I can see why Hillary’s camp would want to trumpet the $36 million that appeared in many of the campaign fundraising stories. But I can’t understand why anyone in the media would lead a report with this number. The real story is that Obama’s take for the primary may be staggeringly close to Hillary’s, despite the fact that he is a newcomer competing against the most powerful money machine in American politics. We’ll know just how close after the Obama campaign releases its own report and the Clinton campaign discloses how much of its first quarter take is earmarked for the general campaign.
The key point?
But what was missing from the fundraising coverage was any sense about what it means in a larger context. If Hillary is such a dominant figure in the Democratic Party, with access to all the biggest donors, why is she not dominating the money game? What does that mean? One figure may hold a clue. Obama raised his money from 83,000 donors. Hillary raised hers from about 50,000. So Obama has many more donors and many more who have not given the maximum amount. In politics, the most reliable donors are those who have already given. So even if Hillary manages to come out on top in Round 1, as Drudge & Co. all have it, things may only get tougher in subsequent rounds. Is it too much to ask for someone to point that out?
In the media’s defense, I suspect that Obama is raising money so quickly because plenty of liberals just don’t trust Hillary. Mrs. Clinton almost certainly holds a plurality of the Democratic base, and the question is whether Obama can unite the anti-Clinton factions. He’s still a prettygreencandidate, so that’s an open question. Say what you will about Hillary Clinton, but she’s proven she can come back from crushing blows; Obama has yet to prove himself.
Until Obama proves that he won’t pull a Howard Dean, Mrs. Clinton remains the Democratic front-runner, and the media will reflect it.