Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Juan Cole on Fox News (Radio)

So, asking John Bolton to keep up with Juan Cole in a debate on Gaza is a bit like inviting a 12th Century English peasant on Jeopardy, but Cole manages to make some good points despite the absence of a worth adversary.

Syria Edges Closer to Europe

From the Institute for War and Peace Reporting


Officials from the Syrian government and the European Union took a step closer to signing a partnership agreement when they met in Damascus at the weekend, but analysts say more reforms – political as well as economic – will be needed to clinch the deal.

On December 14, the two sides initialed a revised version of the original partnership agreement that dates from 2004 but has remained unsigned because of political differences, such as allegations that Damascus was implicated in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005.

Syria’s deputy prime minister for economic affairs Abdullah al-Dardari insisted the prospective deal would not entail Damascus making concessions on points of principle.

“We would never sacrifice any of our interests for an agreement,” he told the pro-government website Syria News on December 15.

The meeting was a sign of just how far Syria’s relationship with European states, France in particular, has warmed in recent months. French president Nicolas Sarkozy, the outgoing head of the EU, has praised recent Syrian actions such as opening diplomatic relations with Lebanon and engaging in indirect peace talks with Israel.

“Syria regards the latest step [initialing of agreement] as a political victory,” said a Damascus-based political analyst who asked to remain anonymous. “After several years’ isolation, it’s very important for Syria to become a normal partner in the international and regional community.”

The analyst warned that the final agreement, which is now expected to be signed in the first half of 2009, could be derailed because there were still many conditions that needed to be met.

The agreement is mainly about trade and economic cooperation, but it comes with certain conditions, principally progress in the area of economic reform. The analyst said it was unlikely that the EU would sign the final agreement unless reforms on the table.

“For now, Syria has done nothing obvious to make it deserving of such a deal, since it hasn’t entirely stopped intervening in Lebanese affairs, nor has it made other concessions to the international community,” said the political analyst. “But the European Union would not have taken this step unless it expected that Syria was going to make certain reforms.”

The analyst said he doubted the regime would give any ground when it came to political changes, but predicted that the EU might not press as hard on this issue.

“Europeans fear any political reform in our region, maybe more than the regimes themselves,” he said. “They believe in guaranteed stability more than the less certain results of democratic reform”.

However, an economic analyst also based in Damascus said economic reform could not take place without political changes as well.

“To apply the agreement, comprehensive economic reform is needed at all levels, but that can’t happen without political reform,” he said. “The Syrian regime has lost the last four years, perhaps not deliberately, but because it tried to pursue economic reforms without instituting political reform, in an effort to protect special interests.”

These “special interests”, he explained, were those of the lucky few who had benefited from being on the inside track of privatisation as Syria tried to shift from socialism to market economics.

“Our economy used to be monopolised by the government,” he said. “When the regime started to liberate the market, the economy became monopolised by a handful of wealthy and powerful figures. This has prevented a wider swathe of society from enjoying the benefits of a more open economy”.

Even the purely economic reforms are going to be hard to manage. The limited economic opening that has taken place so far has led to a flood of imported goods, rising inflation and falling real incomes, and mounting unemployment.

After the document was initialed, al-Dardari warned that its terms could prove a threat to some industries in Syria and weaken others, although he insisted it would lead to the creation of new industries as well.

The agreement envisages a range of measures to open up the Syrian economy, for example by lifting custom tariffs on agricultural products and creating a free trade relationship with EU member states. The economic analyst said it was hard to imagine the government doing so, and that it would be unwise to abandon protectionist measures all of a sudden.

“The European Union is a market of 430 million people and our goods have to be not only keenly priced but also of a higher quality to be able to penetrate it,” said the economist. “Many Syrians could be hurt by increased competition, and the government needs to put in place some safeguards for the Syrian people before the full agreement takes effect.”

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

The Upside of Living in the Woods

The upside of the fact that my mother lives in the woods is that she cannot get cable, which means she also can't get Fox News, which ergo means I don't have to be subjected to that drivvle (although she did admit - only to me - that she voted for Obama). My friend sent me a post from some bloggers who "Watch Fox News So You Don't Have To" which is possibly the greatest service to mankind since Prometheus.

They have some nice highlights of John Bolton's appearance on Hannity and Colmes. This man talks about major war with such flippancy that you'd think he actually seen combat himself at some point in his life. Predictably (the biggest war mongers are always the ones who sat on their asses in the National Guard during Vietnam). Bolton famously commented, "I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy." A stupid statement that would come back to haunt him as hopefully every stupid comment he has made to date will do as well.

Here's the highlights:

"I don't think there's anything at this point standing between Iran and nuclear weapons other than the possibility of the use of military force, possibly by the United States, possibly by Israel. I don't see the Bush administration doing it. So it could well come down to Israel.”

"I would use military force against Iran's nuclear program because I think that the world gets a lot more dangerous once Iran has nuclear weapons."

On Fox News radio he also calls the latest Israeli attack on Gaza (which has killed over 350 and wounded nearly 1,400) "a good start."


Sunday, December 28, 2008

Friday, December 26, 2008

Haaretz analysis of Assad

Haaretz correspondent Aluf Benn has written an analysis of the international community's recent warming to Bashar Al-Assad. Of course it's standard fare for Israeli and American journalists to point out the recalcitrance of Arab governments without a thought toward the baselessness of the actions of their own governments, and Benn offers just another example. He writes:

"Olmert depicts revival of the Syrian track as a courageous diplomatic move. It can also be seen differently: In a combination of bullying moves, cautious diplomacy and military restraint, the cunning Assad has driven a wedge between Israel and the U.S., and is being welcomed in Europe without making even one small gesture toward Israel or the U.S. The arms are continuing to flow to Hezbollah, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad command centers in Damascus are thriving."

I think the fact that Assad has pursued diplomatic channels in response to both the Israeli attack on an alleged nuclear facility, and more notably, the US bombing of Syrian territory that killed 8 people, are both major "gestures" toward both Israel and the US.

Is there a bureaucrat anywhere without blood on his hands?

In October I thought the Republicans would either assassinate Obama or rig all the Deibold voting machines to ensure a GOP victory. Then, after the Obama appointments starting rolling out, I realized they didn't have to do either. Any Republican would be happy with the figures he has named to top posts (and indeed, most Republicans are issuing statements to this effect), including the recent appointment of Admiral Dennis C. Blair as new Director of National Intelligence. Bradly Simpson (a Professor at Princeton) wrote this excellent book on the US adventure in Indonesia based on declassified government documents, in which Blair was a key figure. The book is great (I actually found it discarded in the hallway at Maryland when one of my professors was cleaning out his office) and details, among other things, the complicity of academia in the US foray into Indonesian politics and the Chilean-esque role of economists in dictating US foreign policies. Here's a brief memo he writes on Blair's appointment.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Syria doesn't appear in the City Paper too often, but when it does, you know it's gonna be good

This appeared in the "News of the Weird" section:

"Also in July, a Syrian truck driver hauling a 32-ton load from Turkey across Europe and using GPS to get him to Gibraltar, at the Southern tip of Spain, missed his destination by about 1,600 miles; he wound up at Gibraltar Point in Skegness, a bird-watching outpost in the British Isles."

Monday, December 15, 2008

Some things never change

"Though the American media occupy themselves with Assad's current shift toward moderation—Syria's participation in the peace talks, its more civilized attitude toward Syrian Jews, and its seeming abstinence from anti-Western terrorism—the question remains: Given Syria's history up to this moment, do any of these policy changes really matter?"

And the best part: this is from an article published in the Atlantic in 1993!! Could've been written yesterday.