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20 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
03:34 pm

Huge Bombing at Islamabad Marriot

At least 40 dead — with the number likely to increase significantly.

You can find additional photos here.  It looks like the entire hotel went up in flames.

The New York Times quotes one of the leaders of the democratic opposition that helped push out Musharraf:

A prominent Pakistani lawyer, Athar Minallah, said: “It’s the 9/11 for Pakistan. It’s an attack on Pakistan, an attack on the people of Pakistan.”  Mr. Minallah, a leader of the lawyers’ movement that protested against the rule of President Pervez Musharraf, said the extremists “have crossed the limits. . . . There cannot be any justification for this,” he said. “It is for the people of Pakistan to join hands and sort out this menace. They are enemies of Pakistan.”

Back when I regularly traveled to Pakistan (almost 15 years ago), that’s where I stayed in Islamabad.  If memory serves me, security at the hotel was pretty extensive, so I have to wonder whether this was an inside job.  I also can’t help thinking about the fact that most of the people on the lower floors would have been local staff, not foreigners.

This is the second major terrorist attack in three days (the other was the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen).  There’s a good chance that this was undertaken by an al Qaeda affiliate.  I think it’s important to ask whether the two attacks’ proximity in time was planned or merely a coincidence.

Our thoughts go out to the victims and their families.

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17 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
08:45 am

While You Were Filing for Bankruptcy: Pakistan

Has Bush just gotten us into another war?  According to a number of press reports today, the Pakistani Army has orders to fire on American troops should they cross the border from Afghanistan:

Pakistani troops have been ordered to fire on U.S. forces, if they launch another raid across the Afghan border, an army spokesman tells the Associated Press.

“The orders are clear,” Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas  said in an interview. “In case it happens again in this form, that there is a very significant detection, which is very definite, no ambiguity, across the border, on ground or in the air: open fire.”

And they’re our ally.  Led by the guy we wanted to succeed Pervez Musharraf.

It looks like Adm. Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has suddenly decided to vacation in Islamabad.

Meanwhile, Jeff Stein over at SpyTalk suggests some troubling parallels to an earlier American conflict:

Pakistan is beginning to remind me of Cambodia.

Just as Pakistan gives shelter to the Taliban attacking us in Afghanistan, not to mention Osama Bin Laden, Cambodia in the 1960s provided a haven for the North Vietnamese Army, which was killing us across the border.

Just as in Pakistan, we “secretly” bombed Cambodia to get the North Vietnamese, killing innocent peasants.  When Cambodia’s prime minister resisted American pressure to oust the North Vietnamese, he was overthrown by U.S.-backed generals.

When we next sent combat units into Cambodia, there was a quantum leap of death, havoc — and radicalization — in the countryside, just as in Pakistan today.  Cambodia’s communists now found the peasants to eager to sign up, just as Muslim extremist leaders are finding today in Pakistan. . . .

Is something like that in Pakistan’s future? Nobody can be sure.  We do know that the escalation of U.S. (and some Pakistani) military operations there, much ballyhooed here for killing a few al Qaeda captains, is turning more and more Pakistanis against us.  And that’s a quandary for which there are no immediate answers, much less easy ones.

But we do know there’s one big difference between Cambodia and Pakistan.

Pakistan has nuclear weapons.

The analogy isn’t perfect.  We fomented the coup that brought Lon Nol to Cambodia, but in Pakistan, our guy got overthrown.  And there’s a big difference between a massive bombing campaign and a few cross-border incursions.  But it does make you think.

Undip reader Midwest McGarry, who raised similar concerns, also asks why American incursions don’t trigger the War Powers Act.  One reason is that both the U.S. and Pakistan officials are pretending none of this happened:

. . .the Pakistani and United States military publicly denied any such incident on Monday, and a Pakistani intelligence official said that an American helicopter had mistakenly crossed the border briefly, leading Pakistani ground forces to fire into the air. . . . On Tuesday, American officials repeated their denials that such an incident occurred.

If there were no incursions, there is no need to inform Congress as required by the War Powers Act.

But there’s another, more important reason.  Back in 2001, shortly after September 11, Congress passed a S.J. 23, Authorization for Use of Military Force:

[T]he President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons. . . .

SPECIFIC STATUTORY AUTHORIZATION- Consistent with section 8(a)(1) of the War Powers Resolution, the Congress declares that this section is intended to constitute specific statutory authorization within the meaning of section 5(b) of the War Powers Resolution.

So you see, Midwest, the President already has the authorization he needs.

Am I the only one not comforted by that?

Maybe the October Surprise came a bit early this year.  So far, no new statements by either campaign.

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15 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
11:45 am

How China Views Us

Basically, they’re laughing at us.  From an editorial in China Daily, via the World-China Bridges blog:

With the clout of China and India rising on the international arena, some people in the West, who are concerned over the already fragile, US-dominated unipolar world political structure or the Western hegemony, have rushed to offer a variety of recipes for inter-power relations in the 21st century and for the world’s new power structure.  These recipes include multi-polar, non-polar or collective power models, a “democracy value alliance”, a new trans-Atlantic union, and even a joint China-US governance idea.

All these concepts are in essence changed versions of the new US or Western hegemonic model that proposes maintaining the world’s established power structure through absorbing some emerging powers. The model also proposes carrying out reforms of the new power structure. In all this the idea is to keep the US and Western hegemonic position intact as much as possible. The new situation emerging from the very beginning of the 21st century indicates that neither the US nor the Western hegemony will last for ever, and there will not be a transfer of the old hegemony to a new one. In the 21st century, the world will see the end of not only the US-dominated hegemony, but also of the hegemonic model that allows a few world powers to control global affairs.

The decease of the US and Western hegemony will not be caused by the challenge from such rising powers as China or other countries. It will be caused by the world’s irreversible efforts for a hegemony-free political structure. As the result of this situation, we can expect a hegemony-free and harmonious world in the 21st century in which big countries will fulfill their responsibilities and obligations and small ones can enjoy equality, democracy and assistance from each other.

In the 21st century, the United States, the protagonist of the current unipolar world, will gradually evolve into a common power because of accelerated efforts of many countries which will advocate an end to the unipolar power pattern. Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, a “balance of power” has come into being among the major countries. Despite its sole superpower status, the United States cannot always succeed in solving some global issues. It is even incapable of handling some domestic issues such as the subprime crisis. All these transmit to the world a strong signal that the US hegemony and Western dominance are now in an irreversible process of decline and final disappearance.

In dealing with some global issues, today’s United States not only needs substantial support from staunch allies, but also needs understanding, participation and cooperation from other key world or regional players. Sometimes, it even has to give up its leading role to other big powers in finding settlements of some intractable issues.

The title of the piece is “The Coming Collapse of the Hegemonic World.”  I may not like the ChiComs very much, but it looks like they understand our declining role in global affairs better than we do.

Just whatever you do, don’t send this to John McCain and Sarah Palin.  They may threaten to start yet another war.  We’re going to have our hands full enough with Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Russia without adding China to the list.

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10 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
08:15 pm

Department of Things They Should Have Thought of Seven Years Ago

From the BBC today:

US to focus on Pakistani border

Adm Mike Mullen said he had asked for a “a new, more comprehensive military strategy for the region that covers both sides of that border”. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff has called for a new strategy in Afghanistan which will deny militants bases across the border in Pakistan. The US must work closely with Pakistan to “eliminate [the enemy's] safe havens”, he told Congress.

. . .Mullen was giving evidence to the House Armed Services Committee months before the seventh anniversary of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan to overthrow the Taleban and pursue al-Qaeda.  He argued that militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan were waging a common fight.

“In my view, these two nations are inextricably linked in a common insurgency that crosses the border between them,” he said.  “We can hunt down and kill extremists as they cross over the border from Pakistan… but until we work more closely with the Pakistani government to eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the enemy will only keep coming.”

You think?

Um, pardon the impertinent question, but shouldn’t you have freaking done this seven years ago????

Our earlier incompetence in Iraq is going to look like a walk in the park compared to what we’re now trying to do in Afghanistan.

Heckuva job, Dubya.

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10 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
07:15 pm

Russia: Anything You Can Do I Can Make Worse

A few weeks back, Dubya sent a ship to visit Georgia.  The Russians were outraged.  Now we have their response:

Two Russian strategic bombers landed in Venezuela on Wednesday as part of military maneuvers, the government said, announcing an unprecedented deployment to the territory of a new ally at a time of increasingly tense relations with the U.S.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said the two Tu-160 bombers flew to Venezuela on a training mission. It said in a statement carried by the Russian news wires that the planes will conduct training flights over neutral waters over the next few days before heading back to Russia. . . . In Moscow, Defense Ministry spokesman Alexander Drobyshevsky refused to say how long the Venezuela deployment will last or say whether the planes carried any weapons. . . .

Earlier this week, Russia said it will send a naval squadron and long-range patrol planes to Venezuela in November for a joint military exercise in the Caribbean.

Everyone keeps saying it isn’t a new Cold War.  I certainly hope that’s true.  But let’s look at the evidence:

  • The U.S. and Russia are no longer cooperating on reducing nuclear arsenals.
  • Cheney just spent the past week running around Europe and warning against Russia (more on this later).
  • The EU is looking into ways to reduce its dependence on Russian gas and oil.
  • Russia is developing close relations with a Latin American neighbor of the United States, and has potentially sent strategic assets within striking range of the continental U.S.
  • U.S.-Russian space cooperation appears to be a thing of the past.
  • Both the Bush Administration and the McCain campaign no longer talk of Russia as an ally, but as a rival.
  • Russia and China have become more and more friendly since Putin came to power.
  • Russia has supported the establishment of two nascent organizations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), either of which could evolve into a rival to the United States/EU/NATO.

Is it me or is it getting chilly in here?

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10 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
12:45 pm

So Much for Mars

Further proof of the absolute inability of this Administration — and its allies in Congress — to think through the consequences of its actions:

NASA is about out of options for keeping U.S. astronauts in space after 2011.  Unless President George Bush intervenes, or whoever succeeds him in January immediately steps into the space arena, the dismantling of the space shuttle program will be too far along to reverse course. . . .

The three-ship fleet is scheduled for retirement in 2010. NASA wants to use the shuttle’s budget for developing replacement ships that can go to the moon as well as to the International Space Station. The new vehicle, called Orion, won’t be ready until 2015 — five years after the shuttle stops flying.

NASA had counted on buying Russian Soyuz capsules to transport crews to the space station during the gap. But in recent interviews, NASA administrator Michael Griffin said he has no hope Congress will pass the legislation needed for NASA to keep the Soyuz assembly lines running. . . .  “My guess is that there is going to be a lengthy period with no U.S. crew on (the space station) after 2011,” Griffin wrote in an email to top NASA managers that was posted on the Orlando Sentinel’s Web site.

The agency cannot purchase Russian rockets unless it receives an exemption from a trade sanction Congress levied in 2005 after Russia reportedly helped Iran develop nuclear weapons technology. Griffin has said the exemption to the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act, needs to be in place by early 2009 to keep U.S. and partner astronauts in orbit.  U.S. outrage over Russia’s handling of a dispute with neighboring Georgia has pretty much nixed any chance Congress will lift the trade ban again, Griffin said.

“Exactly as I predicted, events have unfolded in a way that makes it clear how unwise it was for the U.S. to adopt a policy of deliberate dependence upon another power for access to ISS,” Griffin wrote.

When I was growing up, there was nothing more exciting or romantic than the space program.  John F. Kennedy’s challenge to land on the moon by the end of the decade was both a great achievement and a wonderful example of what we as a nation could do if we put our minds to it.

In contrast, our policy today, as Griffin notes, is “deliberate dependence.”

Here’s the thing.  I think it would be cool for us to go back to the moon or to Mars.  But I also think that there are other things that are more important and more worthy of funding if we have to make difficult choices.  I’d love for us to do all the things we’d like to do, but those days are gone, at least for a while if not forever.

But if we are going to have a space program, is it too much to ask that it not be completely half-assed, utterly dependent on unreliable “third parties,” and hopelessly unrealistic about the gap between what we want to do and what’s possible with the money we plan to spend?

Ask not what the Bush Administration can do for you.  Ask the Bush Administration whether they can screw things up any more than they already have.

Maybe we can beg the Chinese to let us hitch a ride.

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9 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
11:15 am

While You Were Away: Pakistan

Third in an ongoing series on important stories you might have missed as a result of Conventionspalooza.

When we last looked at Pakistan, it already was a huge mess.  President Pevez Musharraf was on the verge of being impeached, the multi-party coalition was squabbling about everything except getting rid of Musharraf, and the Inter-Services Intelligence Service had been implicated in the bombing of India’s embassy in Pakistan.

One month later, things are even worse.  The good news is that Musharraf is no longer President, having resigned before he was impeached.

Now the bad news.  Where to start?

1.  The two largest parties in the ruling coalition, the Pakistan People’s Party (the late Benazir Bhutto’s party, now led by Asif Ali Zadari) and the Muslim League-N (led by Nawaz Sharif, who was Prime Minister when Musharraf staged his coup back in 1999), continue to fight one another.  The most recent conflict was over the reinstatement of Supreme Court justices fired by Musharraf back in November of last year.  Those firings were the first in a series of events, including the assassination of Bhutto and the resignation of Musharaf, that have largely restored democracy in Pakistan but have done little to actually give the new rulers the authority or ability to rule.

On the day after Musharraf resigned, the conflict over whether to reappoint all of the fired justices came to a head.  ML-N leader Nawaz Sharif told the PPP that if it did not agree to reinstate former Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry within 72 hours, the ML-N would leave the government.  PPP leader Zadari refused, in part because he believes that Chaudhry would reopen the numerous investigations into his alleged personal corruption.  In the end, the ML-N quit the coalition and on September 5, the PPP reinstated three of the four justices.  The one exception was Chaudhry, who the PPP argued had become too political a figure because of his vocal opposition to Musharraf’s rule.

The end result?  One of Pakistan’s most important advocates for democracy and transparency has been sidelined because of his willingness to support investigations into past corrupt practices by. . .

2.  . . .the new President of Pakistan.  On September 6, Zadari was elected President by the National Assembly, Senate, and four provincial assemblies, as required under the Constitution.  Zadari won, in part, by pledging to support the elimination of a constitutional amendment giving the President the power to dismiss parliament.  In response to his election, the ML-N called on him to step down as head of the PPP.

Zadari is regarded as friendly toward the United States, in large part because he appears willing to pursue those elements of Al Qaeda and the Taliban currently in control of sections of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province.

His election was not without controversy:  he is known as “Mr. Ten Percent” because he allegedly demanded 10 percent of all foreign contracts signed while his wife was Prime Minister (these are the allegations that led Zadari and the PPP to oppose the reinstatement of Chaudhry as Chief Justice).

In addition, there was this report:

Asif Ali Zardari, the leading contender for the presidency of nuclear-armed Pakistan, was suffering from severe psychiatric problems as recently as last year, according to court documents filed by his doctors.  The widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was diagnosed with a range of serious illnesses including dementia, major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder in a series of medical reports spanning more than two years.

In court documents seen by the Financial Times, Philip Saltiel, a New York City-based psychiatrist, said in a March 2007 diagnosis that Mr Zardari’s imprisonment had left him suffering from “emotional instability” and memory and concentration problems. “I do not foresee any improvement in these issues for at least a year,” Mr Saltiel wrote.  Stephen Reich, a New York state-based psychologist, said Mr Zardari was unable to remember the birthdays of his wife and children, was persistently apprehensive and had thought about suicide.

Mr Zardari used the medical diagnoses to argue successfully for the postponement of a now-defunct English High Court case in which Pakistan’s government was suing him over alleged corruption, court records show.  The case – brought to seize some of his UK assets – was dropped in March, at about the same time that corruption charges in Pakistan were dismissed. However, the court papers raise questions about Mr Zardari’s ability to help guide one of the world’s most strategically important countries following the resignation last week of Mr Musharraf, under whose rule the corruption cases against the PPP leader and his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, were pursued.

In other words, Zadari, who may be corrupt, mentally unstable or both, is now the leader of a state with nuclear weapons.  Of course, it could have been worse — there was an attempt to get A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and leader of a smuggling ring responsible for selling nuclear technology to North Korea and Libya, to run.

3.  It is not yet clear whether the ISI and the Pakistani military will actually take orders from President Zadari.  The chances of a military coup are lower than they were a month ago, but it would be inaccurate to suggest that they have receded completely.  Meanwhile, the ISI has not yet been held accountable for their role in the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul.

4.  The war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda is not going well — despite the fact that the government of Pakistan officially “outlawed” the Taliban two weeks ago.  The two groups control large swathes of the NWFP, and have the support of locals.

Last week, American special forces mounted a raid into Pakistani territory in order to take out a “moderately important terrorist target.”  They followed that up Monday with a unmanned drone attack on a compound believed to belong to Jalaluddin Haqqani, a senior Taliban commander.

The first response from the Pakistani government came not form elected officials but rather the army:

A Pakistan army spokesman warned that the apparent escalation from recent foreign missile strikes on militant targets along the Afghan border would further anger Pakistanis and undercut cooperation in the war against terrorist groups.

On Saturday, Pakistan closed the Torkham Border Crossing in the Khyber Pass in response to the incursion.  Torkham is the main supply route for NATO forces operating in Afghanistan; roughly 70 percent of NATO materiel comes in via that route.  On Monday,  the Pakistani army spokesman issued the following statement:

Border violations by US-led forces in Afghanistan, which have killed scores of Pakistani civilians, would no longer be tolerated, and we have informed them that we reserve the right to self defense and that we will retaliate if the US continues cross-border attacks.

As Sean-Paul Kelley over at The Agonist noted, is anyone in Washington paying the least bit of attention to all this?

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about. Hey, I got a great idea, let’s accidentally start a war with Pakistan, a very unstable country, with no real leader and nukes. Great idea!

Also last week, thirty-five people were killed in a suicide bomb attack in Peshawar, and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani was the target of an assassination attempt in Islamabad.

In sum, the departure of Musharaf has done nothing to slow Pakistan’s descent into chaos.  And once again, the United States remains unwilling or unable to develop anything resembling a coherent policy.

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9 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
08:45 am

Russia-Georgia: The Other Shoe Drops

This isn’t good:

Statement by Secretary Condoleezza Rice

Washington, DC

September 8, 2008

The President intends to notify Congress that he has today rescinded his prior determination regarding the U.S.-Russia Agreement for Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation (the so-called ‘123’ Agreement). As a result, there is no basis for further consideration of the Agreement under the Atomic Energy Act at this time.

The U.S. nonproliferation goals contained in the proposed Agreement remain valid: to provide a sound basis for U.S.-Russian civil nuclear cooperation, create commercial opportunities, and enhance cooperation with Russia on important global nonproliferation issues.

We make this decision with regret. Unfortunately, given the current environment, the time is not right for this agreement.

We will reevaluate the situation at a later date as we follow developments closely.

For those not familiar with 123 agreements, they are named after Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which requires that the U.S. government negotiate and sign an agreement with a given country before commerce in nuclear materials can be established.

Although 123 agreements can be controversial in and of themselves (as is the case with the U.S.-India pact), they also offer a way to help promote nonproliferation and the reduction of nuclear stockpiles.

The era of U.S.-Russian cooperation on nukes may have just come to an end.

Hope Saakashvili is feeling more secure now — because something tells me that a few of those missiles are now pointed his way.

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9 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
07:45 am

Cuba and the United States: Politics over Principle

As I’ve noted before, I despise the Castro regime (both its Fidel and Raul editions).  I spent a year in the early 1990s documenting its use of psychiatric institutions to detain and torture human rights advocates and regime critics.  But I also oppose the U.S. embargo — I agree with the position held by many of the brave human rights and democracy activists on the island, who believe that it is one of the few things propping up the current regime.

So I have to say I was not surprised at the following report:

After days of pressure by certain Cuban exile leaders on the Bush Administration to temporarily lift travel and money remittance restrictions to Cuba to aid storm victims, the State Department has finally delivered a response.  The answer is no, the federal government will not lift restrictions that limit Cuban exiles to visiting close relatives in Cuba once every three years and sending up to $300 every three months.

In a statement issued Friday, the office of the State Department spokesman had this to say in direct response to the pleas for lifting restrictions: “We do not believe that at this time it is necessary to loosen the restrictions on remittances and travel to Cuba to accomplish the objective of aiding the hurricane victims.Non-governmental organizations on the ground in Cuba are already mobilizing to provide such assistance.”

The issue arose last week when three prominent members of the Cuban exile community, Ramon Saul Sanchez of the Democracy Movement and congressional Democratic Party candidates Raul Martinez and Joe Garcia called on President Bush to lift the restrictions. Then Democratic Party presidential candidate Barack Obama endorsed the exile appeals. A bipartisan group of congressional leaders, four Republicans and three Democrats, issued a separate statement urging the U.S. government to send aid directly to storm victims. The Republicans included the two incumbents Martinez and Garcia are challenging: Lincoln and his brother Mario Diaz-Balart.

So let me get this straight.  The Cuban exile community supports the temporary lifting of the embargo to facilitate the delivery of relief to the victims of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, but the Bush Administration refused — in all likelihood because they’re trying to placate the Cuban exile community.

The ongoing stupidities of this Administration will never cease to amaze me.

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5 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
02:04 pm

While You Were Away: Russia-Georgia

Map of South Ossetia

The last two weeks have been nuts, what with the Clinton and Obama speeches, Hurricane Sarah, and all other things political.  And things are unlikely to slow down anytime soon, given the fact that the election is only sixty days away.

While Americans focused on the conventions (and Hurricane Gustav), world events didn’t just grind to a halt.  Over the past two weeks, there have been a number of important developments that are not only important in their own right but also may have a significant impact on the next President’s ability to govern.

Over the next few days, I’m going to try to highlight someJ of them.  Let’s start with Russia-Georgia.

In the past two weeks, the Russia-Georgia conflict has increasingly turned into a proxy (cold) war between the United States and the Russian Federation.  Russian President Medvedev has demonstrated a particular affection for Bushian bluster, making grandiose nationalistic statements about reestablishing a Russian sphere of influence that were meant as much for internal consumption as for global politics.  Meanwhile, the Bush Administration has taken several steps to bind the United States even more closely to the fate of Georgia — including a pledge of more than $1 billion in new (non-military) foreign assistance and a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney.

John McCain’s protestations notwithstanding, most Americans still do not understand what is going on or why the conflict is relevant to their lives.

For all the jokes about Cheney being sent out of the country during the Convention, the reality is that his trip was deadly serious, designed to show the Russians that the United States would not be cowed in the face of its aggression.  But it also showed Cheney’s unbelievably blinkered view of the world:  in the end, the reason the U.S. is backing Georgia is because of the latter’s decision to send troops to Iraq.

The Administration’s actions are going to make it much harder for the next President to pursue a more rational, interests-based policy while at the same time defending Georgian sovereignty.  Of course, if McCain is President, that will not be a problem.

The bottom line:  this has become a game of low-intensity chicken, with both sides acting like 12-year-old boys.  And neither side really cares to behave like adults.  Georgia, which is largely (though not entirely) the victim here, is stuck in the middle, with little hope of serious support from the West or complete withdrawal of Russian forces.  The real fear is that some further incident will cause one side or the other to ratchet up the rhetoric in a way that we’re suddenly looking at Bosnia 1914 all over again — except this time, it will be with thousands upon thousands of nukes on both sides.

For those interested in the specifics, you can find a straightforward report on the events of the past two weeks after the jump.

Read the rest of this entry »

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3 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
08:45 am

Our Lame Foreign Policy in Action

So the White House put out a little press release today that probably escaped your attention:

President George W. Bush today announced the designation of a Presidential Delegation to Lusaka, Zambia to attend the Funeral of His Excellency Levy Patrick Mwanawasa, President of Zambia, on September 3, 2008.

The Honorable Tevi Troy, Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services, will lead the delegation.

Members of the Presidential Delegation are:

The Honorable Jendayi Frazer, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Department of State

Rear Admiral R. Timothy Ziemer, Coordinator, President’s Malaria Initiative

Mr. Michael Koplovsky, Chargé d’Affaires, United States Embassy in Lusaka, Zambia

What, was Mike Leavitt at the convention?  I know the timing was inauspicious, happening on the same day as Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech and the day before the Giants-Redskins game and the start of the NFL season John McCain’s speech, but jeez, you think they could have spared a Cabinet Secretary — or at the very least an actual Ambassador — to attend the funeral of one of the only African leaders to stand up to Robert Mugabe.

Don’t think the Zambians won’t notice.  And next time, don’t be surprised if they aren’t as forthcoming.

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28 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
07:45 am

The World’s Most Powerful Women

Forbes Magazine has put out its list of the world’s most powerful women.  As you would expect from Forbes, there’s a strong emphasis business leaders.  Here’s the top ten:

  1. Angela Merkel, Prime Minister of Germany
  2. Sheila Blair, Chairman of the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation)
  3. Indra Nooyi, Chairman and Chief Executive, PepsiCo
  4. Angela Braly, Chief Executive WellPoint U.S.
  5. Cynthia Carroll, Chief Executive, Anglo American U.K.
  6. Irene Rosenfeld, Chairman and Chief Executive, Kraft Foods
  7. Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Secretary of State
  8. Ho Ching, Chief Executive, Temasek Holdings, Singapore
  9. Anne Lauvergeon, Chief Executive, Areva France
  10. Anne Mulcahy, Chairman and Chief Executive, Xerox

At first I was surprised that I had only heard of three of those in the top ten:  Merkel, Nooyi, and Rice.  But then I saw how Forbes had determined its rankings:

We measure power as a composite of public profile — calculated using press mentions — and financial heft. . . . The economic component of the ranking considers job title and past
career accomplishments, as well as the amount of money a woman
controls. A chief executive gets the revenue of her business, for
example, while a Nobel winner receives her prize money and a U.N.
agency head receives her organization’s budget. We modify the raw
dollar figures to allow comparisons among the different financial
realms so that the corporate revenue that an executive controls, for
instance, is on the same footing as a country’s gross domestic product,
ascribed to prime ministers.

Well, no wonder it’s all business executives.  But what isn’t clear is exactly how both Merkel and Rice, who have little “financial heft” made the top ten, while Hilary Clinton, who Forbes said was the woman with the highest public profile, is only #28, behind the Director of the Centers for Disease Control, for crying out loud.

Another interesting contrast is that of Shelia Blair (#2) and Nancy Pelosi (#35).  Isn’t control over U.S. government’s purse strings greater financial clout than managing the U.S. banking insurance system? And what financial heft does Laura Bush (#44) have?

Their methodology doesn’t make much sense.  But it does make interesting reading.

Other figures of note in the top 100: 

  • Cristina Fernandez, President of Argentina (13);
  • Yulia Tymoshenko, Prime Minister of Ukraine (17)
  • Sonia Gandhi, President of the Indian National Congress (21);
  • Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile (25);
  • Oprah Winfrey (36)
  • Aung San Suu Kyi (37)
  • Gloria Arroyo, President of the Philippines (41)
  • Tzipi Livni, Israeli foreign minister (52)
  • Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand (56)
  • Queen Elizabeth II (58 — profession listed as “Queen.”  Heh.)
  • Meredith Vieira, co-host “The Today Show,” NBC (61 — higher than Katie.  That’s gotta hurt.)
  • Katie Couric (62)
  • Barbara Walters (63)
  • Diane Sawyer (65)
  • Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia (66)
  • Tarja Halonen, President of Finland (71)
  • Ruth Bader Ginsberg (72)
  • Mary McAleese, President of Ireland (74)
  • Christiane Amanpour, CNN (91)

I’m sorry, but I have a hard time taking seriously any list that thinks that the foreign minister of Greece is more powerful than Angelina Jolie.

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27 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
02:00 pm

Controlympics: Schadenfreude Medals (#4 of 4)

We’re taking one last look back at the most discussed — and controversial — Olympics since Berlin 1936. Previously, we looked at the winners, the losers, and winners who in fact lost.

Now it’s time for the medal winners in the schadenfreude competition.  These are the top three moments where an individual or country did something bad that made people feel good.

Bronze:  The French 4×100 men’s freestyle relay team. Before the race, the French team trash-talked, suggesting they would crush an American team that included Michael Phelps.  After 350m, the French had nearly a body length lead and Alain Bernard, the world-record holder in the 100m freestyle, in the pool.  And Jason Lezak somehow caught him.  After the race, the French looked like they had been hit by a truck.

Silver:  American swimmer Amanda Beard. After posing nude for a PETA protest against the Chinese export of fur, Beard failed to make the finals in any of her races.  And along the way, 41-year-old Dara Torres took away her title as America’s hottest swimmer.

Gold:  former Cuban President Fidel Castro. When the Cuban Olympic team did not meet expectations — and a Cuban taekwondo athlete kicked a refugee referee in the face after being disqualified from a bronze medal match — Castro managed to blame corporate interests, the mafia, European chavinism, dirty referees (including the one who got kicked in the face), the United States — basically everyone already on his enemies list.  He also preemptively attacked officials at the 2012 games, in the apparent assumption that Cuba would not perform well there either.

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24 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
08:45 am

Controlympics: What Happened to Cuba?

Has anyone noticed the decline of Cuba as an Olympic power?

Communist countries have long used a factory system to create large numbers of successful Olympic athletes: identify young people who are athletically gifted, force them to learn a particular sport, and ruthlessly cull until you identify as many Olympic champions as possible.  Cuba was perhaps the best example of a small country using the system to its advantage.

This is what Fidel Castro once said about the Cuban Olympic program:

What has Cuba’s role been in the Olympic Games? What has it achieved? What has been the fruit of our efforts to promote healthy clean sports? At the 1972 Olympics, we finished 14th among 122 countries. At the Montreal Olympics in 1976. . . we finished 8th among 88 participating countries. In 1980, in Moscow we finished 4th among 81 countries; in 1992, in Spain we finished 5th among 169 countries; and in Atlanta, in 1996 we finished 8th among 197 countries. Could anyone refuse these figures?

The Cubans boycotted the 1984 and 1988 games, which is why Castro does not mention those years.  So given their history, I wondered what they’ve been doing this time around:

Cuba’s Angel Matos deliberately kicked a referee square in the face after he was disqualified in a bronze-medal match, prompting the World Taekwondo Federation to recommend Matos be banned for life. Matos was winning 3-2, with 1:02 left in the second round, when he fell to the mat after being hit by his opponent, Kazakhstan’s Arman Chilmanov. Matos was sitting there, awaiting medical attention, when he was disqualified for taking too much injury time. . . . Matos angrily questioned the call, pushed a judge, then pushed and kicked referee Chakir Chelbat of Sweden, who required stitches in his lip. Matos spat on the floor and was escorted out.

You can find the photo of Matos kicking the referee’s face here.

In fairness to Cuba, this could have been an athlete from any country.  But it’s clear that we’ve not seen Cuban athletes play a prominent role this time around.  Certainly no superstars like Alberto Juantorena or Teofilo Stevenson.  So I wanted to see where they were in the medal count compared to past years:

The 2008 figures are through last night (Saturday).  If you use the Chinese (gold medals count) system, the Cubans are tied for 27th out of 79 countries that have won medals.  If you use the American (total medals) system, they are ranked 12th.

What strikes me here is that while the total number of medals is not that far off their previous average, the number of golds is down significantly.  Their only two champions are Mijain Lopez in the 120 kg men’s Greco-Roman wrestling and Dayron Robles in the men’s 110m hurdles.

Cuba has suffered from a large number of defections over the past sixteen years, so that may be part of the what’s happened.  But I think it’s something deeper than that.  With Fidel’s decline, has sports become less important?  What are the official government organs making of this?

Something tells me that Fidel isn’t going to be bragging about these numbers.

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18 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
03:46 pm

Checkpoint Capitalism

George Santayana famously said that “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  But in our consumer-driven culture, another aphorism is equally true:  those who market history turn it into a farce:

Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall crossing place that came to symbolize the Cold War, has denigrated into a seedy tourist trap which uses actors posing as border guards in a failed attempt to recreate its legendary past. . . .

[A] key historical site that in the 1960s witnessed the only direct confrontation ever between American and Soviet forces. . .Checkpoint Charlie was the scene of a number of escapes from Communist East to capitalist West Berlin.  In one of the most dramatic and tragic incidents, an 18-year-old East German man was shot by Communist border guards and left to bleed to death in no man’s land.  It was also the spot where Soviet and American tanks faced each other, engines running and muzzle to muzzle, for six days in 1961 only weeks after the building of the Berlin Wall.

Yesterday the site was awash with tourist buses. Street vendors proffered what they claimed were authentic chunks of the Berlin Wall, and remarkably new looking East German memorabilia including Communist Party flags and Russian army fur hats.  Fast-food joints, including one called “Snackpoint Charlie,” lined the streets leading towards the checkpoint, where a replica wooden hut surrounded by sandbags has been erected to simulate the original army checkpoint.  Actors dressed in fake American, Russian, French and East German army uniforms offered to be photographed alongside the hut or with visitors for 1 Euro per picture. . . .

Gavin Farrel, a student from Nottingham on his first visit to Berlin was not amused: “It’s a bit of a disappointment,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. ” I expected Checkpoint Charlie to look like something out of a Cold War spy novel, but it is more like a grotty Disneyland.”

Twenty years ago, I spent a summer in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania working for the local paper.  The same phenomenon existed there:  kitschy tourist traps and uniformed “reenactors”** right down the road from monuments to war dead.  Making things even worse, a number of faux museums operated as fronts for useless trinkets.  The effect wasn’t so much a “grotty Disneyland” as it was a particularly bad midway at a county fair.

Over the past decade, however, the town has worked with the National Park Service and a private foundation to tear down a few of the worst offenders and create a new visitors center that doesn’t happen to sit smack in the middle of the Day Three Union lines (the ones targeted by Pickett’s charge).  The town’s residents and the battlefield’s stewards (who have not always been on the best of terms) have a long way to go, but it’s a good start.

Maybe the citizens of Berlin could benefit from a visit.

Photo:  Planeta Roig on Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.

**Before I get mail on this, let me make clear that I am not referring to those folks who spend their weekends dressing up in period costumes and recreating civil war battles.  It’s definitely not my cup of tea, but whatever blows your hair back.

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18 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
01:46 pm

The Sad, Slow Decline of the U.S.A.

We have become the decadent society our Cold War enemies used to think we were.  Via (and hat tip to) Andrew Sullivan:

The pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism, has induced a condition of dependence on imported goods, on imported oil, and on credit. The chief desire of the American people is that nothing should disrupt their access to these goods, that oil, and that credit. The chief aim of the U.S. government is to satisfy that desire, which it does in part of through the distribution of largesse here at home, and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad.

Emphasis added.  From Andrew Bacevich, in The Limits Of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.  I’m ordering it today for this quote alone.

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18 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
10:55 am

Failed State

Every summer, Molly and I vacation in Michigan, where I was born and she spent her childhood.  Our main reason for coming back is that we still have family here, mostly in the thumb area.  Each time we leave, I’m sorry to go.  It’s a great place, with many wonderful people.  And the northern half of the Lower Peninsula, along with the Upper Peninsula, includes some of the most beautiful and unspoiled places in the continental United States.  We always make sure to spend at least a few days exploring it.

But sadly, much of Michigan is beginning to resemble a failed state.  Its primary economic engine, the Big Three automakers, is in free fall.  The mayor of its largest city, Detroit, is under multiple indictments and recently seems to be having a difficult time avoiding jail.

Last Wednesday, The Detroit News ran the following story:

One dollar can get you a large soda at McDonald’s, a used VHS movie at 7-Eleven or a house in Detroit.

The fact that a home on the city’s east side was listed for $1 recently shows how depressed the real estate market has become in one of America’s poorest big cities.

And it still took 19 days to find a buyer.

In fairness, the house was abandoned, foreclosed, and then gutted by looters.  But according to the story, two years ago it was the “nicest house on the block.”

One of the things I collect on Flickr are photos of Detroit’s current perilous state.  What follows are a few of the most striking and depressing ones.  All are via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.  Photographers identified under each pic.

Detroit Book Depository (tedguy49)

Tiger Stadium (Derek Farr)

Lee Plaza Hotel (Derek Farr)

Michigan Central Train Station (Derek Farr)

American Beauty Electric Irons (Derek Farr)

New Employee Entrance, Packard Plant (Derek Farr)

There are many, many more — abandoned Detroit is a popular topic on Flickr — I urge you to explore the subject further.

I know that I am guilty of parachute journalism here — I haven’t lived in Michigan (except for a year in college) since 1976 — and that I’m being somewhat skewed in my choice of photos.  I could just as easily have shown the Renaissance Building and other structures in the few blocks of downtown Detroit that are coming back.  But given the widespread devastation, those are more Potemkin Village than progress.

People have no idea just how much of a shell Detroit is these days. The city is still staggering from the ‘67 riots, which led to one of the worst white flights anywhere and decimated the economic base.  There are good people trying to make things better, but there are also lots of not-so-good people profiting from its misery.  Sadly, one, Kwame Kilpatrick, is the current Mayor.  That’s a tragedy, because when he first took office, it looked like he would start turning things around.  But in fairness to Kilpatrick, it’s not clear that he could have made a difference even if he had avoided getting in trouble.  With a rapidly shrinking tax base (although not many homes sell for a dollar, there are quite a few available for less than $500) and the Big Three in decline (and even if they survive, it’s likely not to be in Michigan), it’s going to be hard for anyone to succeed.

But it’s not just Detroit.  Michigan’s rural areas have some of the worst poverty north of the Mason-Dixon line (and just happen to be the only part of the United States outside the Appalachian corridor where Hillary got more than 60 percent of the white vote).  Some of its cities — Flint, Saginaw, Benton Harbor, Ypsilanti, Pontiac — are little more than rusted hulks.  In fact, with the exception of Grand Rapids, East Lansing/Lansing, Ann Arbor, Traverse City and perhaps Bay City and a few Detroit suburbs, most of the larger cities are a mess.

When I was a kid, my dad was the editor of The Saginaw News.  When we moved there (the summer of 1966), Saginaw was still a fairly prosperous city, with two major plants — Saginaw Steering Gear and Gray Iron Foundry (later Central Foundry) — providing a large number of people the chance to live a middle-class existence.  It was a tradition that everybody worked in one or the other at some point. My brother spent several summers working at one, and my then-brother-in-law started on the line and eventually ended up as an executive after GM helped put him through college.

But the automakers weren’t the only source of prosperity:  Wickes Lumber, a legacy of the years when Saginaw was one of the great lumber processing towns, remained a major employer, and several other large companies contributed as well.  The downtown was in fairly good shape, with several large department stores, including Morley Brothers and Heavenrich’s, as well as the Saginaw Hotel and the newspaper, serving as anchors.

By the time we moved to Ann Arbor (August 1973), the rot already was evident  There were multiple causes:  the 1967 Detroit riots (and 1968 riots elsewhere) caused many whites in the city to flee to the surrounding township; the first mall (Fashion Square) opened outside the city, leading many businesses to move out of downtown and leading those that tried to stay to fail; Wickes consolidated its offices elsewhere; and, of course, the energy crisis, which, combined with competition from Japan, began the Big Three’s long, slow decline (Central Foundry relocated in 1977).

Today, downtown is almost completely empty, most industries are gone, and only the continued presence of Saginaw Steering Gear keeps the city going.  That’s only one story.  Despite its occasional exaggerations, Michael Moore’s Roger and Me is a fairly accurate picture of Flint’s decline.  And there are far too many others.

Is there hope?  I don’t know.  Grand Rapids is prosperous thanks to a thriving office furniture industry (Steelcase, Herman Miller, etc.), and Ann Arbor remains not only a great college town, but also a burgeoning tech center.  Northern Michigan has some of the more prosperous areas in the state — Petoskey, Traverse City, Charlevoix, and Mackinac and Les Cheneaux Islands.  But those are mainly summer playgrounds for what’s left of the state’s super-rich.  Much more common are towns like Three Rivers, where the largest employer recently offered buyouts and relocation incentives in an attempt to significantly reduce its workforce.

There’s an old truism that if you want to know what the rest of America will be like in ten years, go to California.

But what if the real answer today is that you should instead visit Michigan?

Photo at top:  Derek Farr via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license

| posted in globalization, politics, world at home | 1 Comment

17 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
10:45 am

Diplospeak Translator: The Condi in Crawford

I think The Condi has been spending too much time down on the ranch with Dubya.  Yes, I know she just got back from a whirlwind trip and everything, but sheesh, it’s like she caught a case of the Cold Warrior pneumonia and the malapropism flu.

Yesterday, she spoke to the press after briefing her husband the commander-in-chief.  Time to break out the Diplospeak Translator.  Once again, we bring you only the choicest cuts.

THE CONDI: I think everybody understands that Russia had a choice to make over the last several years, and it was a choice that should have been opened to Russia, which was a choice to act in a 21st-century way, fully integrate into the international institutions. I think it’s very much worthwhile to have given Russia that chance.

DIPLOSPEAK TRANSLATOR: It really stinks that they followed our lead in ignoring international institutions like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court.  Didn’t they hear the part where we said, “do as we say, not as we do”?

THE CONDI: Now, I think the behavior recently suggests that perhaps Russia has not taken that route, and either that they have not taken that route or that they would like to have it both ways — that is, that you behave in a 1968 way toward your small neighbors by invading them and, at the same time, you continue to integrate into the political and diplomatic and economic and security structures of the international community. And I think the fact is, you can’t have it both ways.

DIPLOSPEAK TRANSLATOR: As opposed to behaving in a 2003 way, where you invade small countries on the other side of the world while continuing to dismantle the political and diplomatic and economic and security structures of the international community.  There’s a big difference — as soon as I can figure out what it is, I’ll let you know.

THE CONDI: Now, we’ll take our time; we’ll evaluate. But already, the consequences for Russia of its behavior is that it has rallied people to — against them, and many of the small states, which were once captive nations, have rallied to the side of Georgia. That in and of itself is a very different circumstance than we might have faced several decades ago.

DIPLOSPEAK TRANSLATOR: Is the Cold War on again?  Pretty please?  Because I spent half my freaking life studying the Russkies and haven’t been able to contribute anything useful for about twenty years.

THE CONDI: I have to assume for now that the word of the President of Russia to the presidency of the EU is going to be respected.


THE CONDI: The Georgians have very often offered substantial autonomy to these two regions. We have pressed very hard for there to be recognition of minority rights in these regions. So there’s a lot of groundwork that has been laid here, but what has to happen now, when these international discussions intensify over the next period of time after this — after the cease-fire is in place, is that it all has to proceed from where it proceeded from before, which is the territorial integrity of Georgia be respected; that these regions, as the President just said, are within the internationally recognized boundaries of Georgia; and that the Security Council resolutions, which have been passed numerous times, will be respected. And there will have to be a negotiated solution on that basis.

DIPLOSPEAK TRANSLATOR: Please, please, please please don’t mention Kosovo.

REPORTER:  But Russia has said explicitly that they are not prepared to return to the status quo. I mean, how do you get around that?

THE CONDI: Well, then, Russia would be in violation of extant Security Council resolutions.

DIPLOSPEAK TRANSLATOR: You know, just like they said we were doing back in 2003.

REPORTER:  I mean, is there really serious discussion about kicking them out of the G8, or is there really serious discussion about the WTO?

THE CONDI: We’ll take our time and look at further consequences for what Russia has done. But I would just note that there are already consequences. There has been universal concern within the European Union, the United States, et cetera, about the way Russia has done this. I think that you will start to see reports come out about what Russian forces engaged in.

DIPLOSPEAK TRANSLATOR: Look!  Over there!  Human rights violations!  Whew!  I wasn’t sure that old trick still worked given everything we’ve done in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.

THE CONDI: The — already you have the states that are — were former captive nations, like Poland, the Baltic states, even states like Ukraine speaking out against this kind of behavior.

DIPLOSPEAK TRANSLATOR: I knew if we kept banging that old captive nations drum, it would become useful again.  And what a perfect regurgitation of Cold War rhetoric!  Ah, I feel complete again.

THE CONDI: [I]t’s not just talk, it is about Russia’s standing in the international community. I want to go back to the point. In 1968, when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, it occupied the capital, overthrew the government, and paid no consequence. And one reason it paid no consequence is that the Soviet Union actually didn’t care about its status in the international system. It didn’t want to be member of the WTO; it didn’t want to be in the OECD; it didn’t want to be seen as a responsible player in international politics.

DIPLOSPEAK TRANSLATOR: In 2003, when we invaded Iraq, occupied the capital, and overthrew the government, we had no idea we would still paying for it more than five years later.  And nothing annoys us more than seeing someone else get away with something we tried to do ourselves.

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16 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
06:30 pm

Controlympics: Hu’s Unhappy Now?

From Time’s China blog

Traditionally, women’s volleyball has been one of the country’s strengths, and part of the reason for that strong tradition is a woman name Lang Ping, one of the best women volleyball players ever. Known as the “Iron Hammer” during her playing days, she led China to the gold medal in the LA Olympics 24 years ago, where they defeated the United States in the finals.

Now, Lang Ping (known in the US as “Jenny” Lang Ping) is the coach of the US women, and last night, in an extraordinarily dramatic match, she led them to a five set victory over….China. This was a huge upset. The US women’s team hasn’t been in the top tier internationally in the last few years. And for the home team, the stakes were huge. China was one of the favorites, and they in particular did not want to lose to a US team coached by their former super star. How big was this match for China? Hu Jintao was there to watch. The US came from two sets to one down, on China’s home court, to win.

I have to admit that my initial emotion upon hearing this is not pride but rather schaedenfreude.  I wouldn’t want to be in the Chinese coach’s shoes right now.

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16 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
03:37 pm

Helping Padma

Anna at Sepia Mutiny has a heart-wrenching post about the lives and deaths of what sounds like a truly wonderful family — and the challenges faced by the sister left behind to care for two disabled younger brothers.

I urge you to go to the site, read their story, and learn how you can help.

| posted in world at home | 0 Comments

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