Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Road To - And Fro- Damascus

Tribune  17 May 2013

The Road To - And Fro- Damascus
The old anecdote about the directions given to a lost traveller in Ireland often applies to international affairs, but with added force to Syria.  “If I was you, I wouldn’t be startin’ from here!”  There is almost no conceivable happy outcome to the inferno in Syria, and although there must be some happier conclusions than others, no one will ever be sure that the roads not taken might have been better.

In part, ordinary Syrians are paying the price for the maladroit handling of  the earlier intervention in Libya - and indeed in Iraq.  Blair and Bush’s great adventure in Iraq understandably soured the enthusiasm of much of the world for intervention in general. One does not have to subscribe to the crazed leftist defence of bourgeois sovereignty that would have led some people to picket the Normandy landings, nor even listen to the supporters and deniers of genocide in the Balkans, to see that the Iraq invasion was unjustified and its outcome was disastrous.

Russian evocation of Libya to justify inaction in Syria is expediently amoral. Russia agreed to NATO involvement in Libya, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian FM, with his long experience as Moscow’s man at the UN, must have been well aware of how far NATO would take it. The Russians abstained partly because the Arab League was behind the UN resolution, and also because the much unloved Qaddafi had threatened to wipe out the rebels in Benghazi. Those who point out that there was some ambiguity in the actual wording of the threat, should bear in mind that there had been plentiful evidence over the years of his willingness to eliminate enemies as his prison massacre of 1998.

While the UN Resolution on Libya did not specifically endorse regime change, in the real world, faced with a deranged and murderous dictator what other logical result was there?  However, the West clearly should have done much more to involve and thus implicate  Russia, and the failure to do so added heft and sharpness to the chip on Moscow’s shoulders that weighs so heavily on its foreign policy. After all, if the UK and France have still not got over their long-lost Superpower status, Russia certainly has a much more recent excuse for post-power peevishness.

Which brings us back to the Superpower itself. In Washington the Republican opposition could have been making hay with the administration’s failure to develop a coherent policy towards Syria.  Instead, however, they are beating a dead horse that has no interest from the electorate and little connection with the real world. In their incestuous universe, the big issue is not Damascus, but Benghazi and the killing of the US diplomat there last year.  It gives them an obsessive stick with which to beat Hillary Clinton.

To be fair, there is little that the Obama administration could do directly in Syria with the historical baggage the US has accumulated over the years. The interventions in the Muslim world, even when not malicious have tended to be maladroit and all too often counterproductive by any standards. But if not the US, who?

Enter the UN - once again as diplomatic cover. Lakhdar Brahimi, the veteran Algerian diplomat who succeeded Kofi Annan as the UN representative has been considering quitting. His reasons are obvious and honorable: firstly the UN is not a negotiator, rather as Ban Ki Moon says, it is a facilitator. It can provide the ladder for the various parties to climb down from their trees. But as Annan once said, diplomacy is very effective, when backed by the threat of sufficient force.

Currently neither the US, nor the Europeans can muster enough persuasion to get the Russians to lean on their ally Al-Assad. The Russians are providing enough diplomatic and military coverage to keep him fighting even if doing so empowers the Islamists in the opposition and increasingly imperils the position of the Alawites and other minorities.  The US is unable to stop its Israeli tail wagging, and the UN, Bank Ki Moon and Lakhdar Brahimi, without a unified global community behind them are reduced to calling for a ceasefire but have no means to enforce one.

It comes down to US. With all its faults, financially enfeebled, morally tainted and militarily entangled as it is, only the White House has the power to browbeat and cajole an international consensus that could stop the fighting, even if that implies having the strength to say pretty please to Moscow, to guarantee security to the various factions.

It needs a UN resolution, it needs  a no fly zone and eventually, probably boots on the ground - from almost anywhere except Europe and the US. One almost has pipe dreams of a joint Russian-Turkish peacekeeping operation, but more likely the conflict will just drag on until it spills over into the rest of the region.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Recent Catskill Review of Books Radio!

Latest CRoB with Bee Ridgway, re her genre bending novel!

Last week's CRoB, on the cycles of modern history in Amsterdam with Pete Jordan

CRoB podcast on wjffradio  EST Helene Wecker on her book The Golem and The Jinni

Up the IRS - Down the Spout with Tea Party!

Suddenly, hundreds of millions of dollars flow to influence elections and the anonymous donors claim tax exemptions for the organizations they use to launder the money they use to subvert Congress's clearly laid out campaign finance limits. It is of course outrageous.
But you would never guess so from this week's howls of outrage at the Internal Revenue Service for exercising due diligence and investigating the torrent of laundered political donations that flowed after the Supreme Court gave free speech to the dollar.
Almost as outrageous is how politicians once again leave conscientious public servants hanging in the wind for simply doing their job.
Unlike in Britain, where the ancient Charity Commission administers the admittedly arcane rules on what is and isn't a charity, in the U.S. this task falls to the IRS, since, after all, the main point of being a charity (a 501(c)(3)) is not to bask in a warm moral glow of do-gooding but to get the various exemptions from taxes. And technically, they do not get involved in politics.
However 501(c)(4) organizations can be more overtly involved in campaigning, albeit not for particular parties. Following the controversial ruling by the conservatives on the Supreme Court, such straw bodies can spend unlimited amounts in elections, masquerading as socially concerned quasi-educational bodies.
They do not pay taxes themselves, although their donors can't claim tax relief on the money they give but, perhaps beyond price, they can claim anonymity. It would be nice to think they were following the old Talmudic rule that an anonymous mitzvah is worth 10 times one with a name attached. But anyone who thinks that is the motivation should buy the lots I have for sale on the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
That anonymity effectively allows them to run riot through what is left of congressional attempts to ensure that people rather than money decide elections. It allows a few highly politically motivated individuals to infiltrate the political process like rats in the sewers of a city, out of sight.
It follows that the IRS should want to check that bodies claiming such fiscal privileges actually fit the bill. One can imagine the Right's outrage if the IRS let through the Trilateral Commission Fan Club without inquiry.
I have helped set up several 501 C 3 and 501 C 4 organizations, and the bureaucracy can be frustrating. But it is the IRS's job to check the credentials of organizations claiming tax privileges, and one could forgive a hapless civil servant who mistook the electoral circus round "the Tea Party" for political campaigns, since they clearly were. Some of them were actually for-profit organizations owned by individuals who were practicing the entrepreneurship they so fervently preached!
Indeed, after the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, the number of applications for such status doubled to over 3,000. Faced with a flood of new applications from organizations which, amazingly, often had Tea Party or Patriot in their titles, assiduous civil servants in the IRS scrutinized them to see if they were what they purported to be -- and whether they met the legal definitions.
As part of the familiar brush fire in the undergrowth of American politics, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called the IRS tactics "political thuggery."
He follows in the great American tradition of a media lynching for people who do their jobs, whether it is regulators at the SEC or TV people like Dan Rather for exposing the truth of George W. Bush's absentee war record, or Florida electoral officials for trying to count votes properly. And the one thing that is common is the unwillingness of leading Democrats to call out these fine examples of invisible imperial raiment because they are implicated in similar tactics themselves.
The response in Washington should not be going after public servants trying to stop adventurers avoid taxes -- but at the very least to change the law so that donors' names are made public in any organization that involves itself in the political process. In a democracy, people should stand up for their beliefs, not skulk behind anonymity.