Tag Archives: Foreign Affairs Ramblings

Handicapping the 2012 Field: Ben Moeling

2011 2nd Place Overall

Ben Moeling

Let’s get the necessary out of the way right away: Ben shocked everyone last year on both the rocks and the bikes, then double secret probation shocked everyone again by booking early for 2012. Eradicating opium crops in Kandasucks, Afghanistan – check. Shepherding future GOP Presidential candidates around Goat City, China – check. Spidermanning up the walls at MetroRock, Newburyport – check and mate and pour the Knot.

So we welcome Ben back, although fellow racers should be comforted by the fact that he has been eating cheese and drinking red wine for 12 months in luxurious Geneva, not wearing kevlar and ducking-n-covering in Afghanistan.

Strengths:

  • Seneca Rocks…as noted last year: three-stage climb, with Danno leading and Ben the third climber (therefore pulling out the protection), roughly 80-90 feet per stage…see this pic…but that was almost ten years ago…double but, this year, Ben’s trainer will be spending ELLT weekend at Joshua Tree. No, not some opium-induced recreation of the U2 album, but the actual Joshua Tree, a climbing mecca.
  • Per 2011, “Mad Mountain Bike Skillz…proven more than once on the single track trails around northern Virginia” and proven again at Willowdale last year.
  • Faith in the integrity of the ELLT, which is fantastic….but….see below.
  • Lastly, navigating the rough seas of ELLT has to be easier after you been dunked in the sandy and salty brine of Girl Talk: “generals gathered in their masses…get out the way!”

Weaknesses:

  • In 2011 we expected rock climber’s hoops skills and average elite mountain biker’s golf skills…we were right. Ben’s hoops and golf skills are summed up perfectly in the pictures below.
  • Spinal Tap’s drummer2nd place in 2008 failed to reach the overall podium in 2009. 2nd place in 2009 completely missed 2010. 2nd place in 2010 completely missed 2011. Ben has broken the pattern of the last two years, but 2nd place does seem a bit cursed.
  • Faith. Pure, simple, unadulterated faith in the goodness of America and the truthiness of his seven iron, his outside shot, his biking lungs, his lobstah claw climbing grip, and his 0-13 east coast elitism. No one, not even Tom McParland, brings more pure faith in his ability to win all weekend. Admirable, of course, but also a weakness when you’re five, six, seven, and eight irons suck and your outside shot resembles Detlef Schrempf boxing out than Shaq shooting a three.

Past performances:

In 2011, Ben was casually capable at soccer and then turned into Spiderman’s Stripey Pants Cousin on the rocks. In golf…no surprises. On the bike, Ben finished the time trial 12 seconds behind athletic-super-freak Chris Roy and nearly one minute ahead of the 2010 mountain bike gold medalist. Sweet Abraham Lincoln’s mother, that is a damn good ride. In hoops…whatever. Of course, as noted in 2011, “Ben has been shot at from close range and managed to, 1) not soil his khakis; and 2) avoid being hit. Ben also endured six+ months of language training with Eric Shimp, which was probably far worse than being shot at from close range.”

Expectations for 2012:

With the exception of his Chinese language training classmate, no one has done more in the last 11 months to lobby for reduced, adjusted, moderated, and qualified expectations. Ben has mentioned injuries, jet lag, language adjustments (apparently going from speaking diplomatese and Swiss German to Byfieldian Masshole is a tough transition), and age as reasons why expectations for his performance should be lower. But here is the chicken-fried truth: Ben is going to get out-climbed on the rocks by 2 or 3 racers, out-golfed by everyone except the other three in his foursome (Danno, Tom McP, and the Race Director), and picked into so many pick-n-rolls he’ll see Big Baby Davis in his sleep. But on the bikes…with Danno unqualified and Chris Roy also on the Competition Committee’s yellow card list, Ben has a shot. A surprising morning on the rocks and just one — just one — stellar golf shot, plus a top-of-the-podium mountain biking finish and Ben could hold on to 2nd place overall. If the field is a mess…maybe First Place Overall Supreme Grandmaster Champion.

(worth noting: of all the pictures in this post, only two show Ben actually competing, and one of those is on the green, where Ben is using an eight iron to putt)

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Friday Deep Smarts: Foreign Policy Edition

Just three deep smarts for this Friday (blame the kitchen and work), with two coming straight from the NYTimes Op-Ed page (revealing a dismal lack of breadth in my reading this week).

First, Senator Rubio’s foreign policy speech at the Brookings Institution, a speech heralded for its bipartisanship and a speaker heralded for making a prominent foreign policy address despite his relative youth. I hate to say this, because I’d welcome a deep thinking, sane foreign policy Republican right now, but I’d give the speech a C-, at best. Any international relations graduate student could have written it, but I am positive my own UVa professors would have bled ink all over it:

  • I know some here might disagree, and certainly the President would, but I feel like we’ve gotten precious little from Russia in return for its concessions on nuclear weapons. The reason is because Russia’s domestic politics shape its foreign policies. 
Set aside the cheap partisan shot (in this nonpartisan speech) and consider the shallowness of that insight. Not to mention the pot and kettle-ness of it. Does Senator Rubio honestly think US domestic politics don’t shape US foreign policies? He serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, doesn’t he?

After some elementary boilerplate on Iran (pressure is good, but don’t negotiate just to negotiate; everyone in the region would be better off with a tamed Iran; Israel’s security is important to the US), Rubio says,

  • “Finally, the nations in the region see Syria as a test of our continued willingness to lead in the Middle East. If we prove unwilling to provide leadership, they will conclude that we are no longer a reliable security partner and they will decide to take matters into their own hands, and that means a regional arms race, the constant threat of armed conflict, and crippling fuel prices here at home due to the instability.” 

That led me to search the speech for a country I hadn’t heard mentioned yet: Iraq. Senator Rubio gives a lengthy speech on foreign policy, including a call for US leadership in the region, and doesn’t mention Iraq. Not a nod, a mention, nothing, even when talking about freedoms in the region and/or the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Read the following and try to figure out why Rubio left out any mention of Iraq:

  •  “And even in our military engagements, the lasting impact of our influence on the world is hard to ignore. Millions of people have emerged from poverty around the world in part because our Navy protects the freedom of the seas, allowing the ever-increasing flow of goods between nations. And long after the last American soldier has left Afghanistan, God willing, there will be a millions-strong and productive and independent Afghan women, because today, they are the first girls in generations to attend school, thanks to the generosity of the American people.” 

For the gentlemanly effort of speaking on foreign policy issues, Senator Rubio gets a gentlemanly C, dropped down a half-grade for bringing nothing new to the discussion while leaving out any lessons learned from the last decade.

 Next, Tom Friedman on the Middle East, specifically Egypt:
  • “What does it tell us that a country that had a democratic revolution is jailing democracy workers and a country that has a peace treaty with Israel wants to sack its mufti for even praying in a Jerusalem mosque?…This is going to take a long time to sort out. America’s job is to let whoever wins know that their relations with us will depend on their commitment to free elections, an independent judiciary, free press, open trade, religious pluralism and the rule of law.”

Thoughtful and observant and raises the question: would a US administration ally with an Egypt led by Islamists if the Egyptian government allowed and protected the freedoms and rule of law Friedman mentions? Could a US administration withstand the domestic political pressure of an Islamist Egypt receiving US military aid? Should it matter if Egypt’s parliament is dominanted by Salafists and Egypt’s President is a Muslim Brotherhood member, but the law and the freedoms are adhered to and protected? That is maybe more a US domestic politics question (see Rubio above), but worth considering now, before the chorus begins, “who lost Egypt?”

Lastly, Patrick Cronin weighs in on China and the US in the ever-testy Asian waters. I’ll admit that as I read this, I was fully expecting a broadside against China’s naval policies and a warning shot to complacent Americans who had forgotten about the perils of the South China Sea.

  • It’s easy to see the standoff as an act of quasi-aggression, but it’s not. Because China is looking for influence rather than spoiling for a fight, it will seek a minimal show of force, as it did in the Scarborough incident by sending surveillance vessels instead of warships. Drawing attention to its rapid military modernization or its intensifying nationalist sentiment, after all, could undermine China’s core interests. The key take-away from the recent showdown is that the United States needs to remain coolheaded. Not only are such skirmishes at sea inevitable, but they are also of minor consequence — assuming they are managed shrewdly…And we would do well to remember that for all their differences, China and the United States are not the cold war ideological adversaries of old. They both benefit enormously from an open global maritime commons.”
Being naive and under-educated on China issues, I welcome any explanations for why Cronin is way off, naive, or completely missing the bigger picture/critical details. But having read Kennedy’s “Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery,” I appreciate that small changes in naval issues can signal a turning tide.
  

Friday Deep Smarts #6: Missed goals, tweeted crashes, ocean depths, and Ron Artest

Bring your cleats to ELLT 2012: every week, something from the futbol world that you can expect to see at ELLT 2012 (and proof of the coaching nugget that you can’t score if you don’t shoot)…and something else you’ll probably see, too (honestly awful…even Eric Lapham could have made that goal). And see below…

Twitter and Turning Left: if you’re not already looking at Jalopnik at least once a week, using Twitter, and checking in for a NASCAR race or two every season, you’re a poon. And if you’re still un-clued about NASCAR by ELLT 2012, talk to Eric Gundrum.

Hansel’s Sister Gretel was a Cinderella: My kids are growing up with some weird stories about a pair of brothers named Hans and Franz (they have no idea where those names come from) and instructions to only shoot at kneecaps (when playing with Nerf guns…again, they don’t know where the kneecaps part comes from). But at least they’re not learning to be pretty and submissive or bake their enemies in an oven.

Photo break (and the rest of these are wicked cool):

Ron Artest Shouldn’t Nap During Games: One impressive element of the Pacers-Pistons 2004 brawl (the highlight here, the long story here) is how SportsCenter reported it that first night. Detailed, thorough, and without too much grandstanding, high-horsing, demanding to stake out an opinionated position on sports and life and goodness based on one (bizarre and unfortunate, but not tragic or monumental) event. I suspect coverage of a similar incident today would start with Stephen A Smith screaming about everything that is wrong with sports.

Shamrock Mojo: I don’t need to read more people who seem to be aligned with or agree with my own basic positions, but this guy is intriguing…I wonder if he spent a few hours with Moeling and Shimp if he would see things differently with respect to China. And “Shamrock Mojo” is in contention with “Nacho Dojo” to be my new fantasy baseball team name.

The BBC goes deep: worth sharing with the kids…only thing missing is how deep the Red October is (they sunk that sub, right?). And the DC-based Newseum goes worldwide, which is even cooler.

Manufacturing a unique, beautiful snowflake…or a smart tax code: During an election year that includes high unemployment and a sluggish economy, some basics on taxes mixed with some smarts about the way the economy actually works is far preferable to the partisan-loaded crap that comes from both parties these days (although decidedly more from the Republicans debating about who can better bitch about Obama). Snippet of smarts: “If it’s true that manufacturing is disproportionately involved in R&D, then that’s an argument that manufacturing firms would benefit disproportionately from R&D subsidies—not that manufacturing subsidies are a smart way to promote R&D.”

While we’re on smart economic policy and taxes: consider whether the following argument make sense: “Economists often argue that subsidizing clean energy and other environmental “goods” can be just as effective as penalizing harms. We disagree. Price signals give companies a clear incentive to change their behavior and to invest in new technologies that avoid environmental harm. Therefore, we propose an emissions charge that would directly attack damaging market failures and spur clean-energy innovations. Emissions charges are administratively straightforward and transparent. Subsidies, by contrast, are hard to deploy productively and are often subject to political influence. Moreover, the U.S. government has a poor track record when it comes to picking winners. For these reasons, we would couple an emissions charge with the elimination of most energy and technology subsidies.”

and if you don’t recognize this guy, wake up before July

ELL Pic of the Day (#151)

so here’s the story, if you haven’t heard it…..January, 1997, Cairo, Egypt. The head of the African Soccer Federation invites me and a friend to the finals of the Africa Club Cup, conveniently in Cairo and conveniently between two Egyptian teams, Al Ahly (the Yankees) and Zamali (I wish I could say the Red Sox, but more like the Orioles). The match was set for February 14th, Valentines’ Day. Being wicked smart, I hatched a plan. Valentines’ Day that year was a Friday, the first day of weekend. Which meant Saturday the 15th was like a Sunday, except for us, working at US Embassy Cairo, it wasn’t, because of President’s Day or some holiday, meaning a long weekend. So I consulted with friends and found a chef (Brian Keener) and a sous chef (David Greene)  (this was pre-NES-PTA days, so I couldn’t cook) and a drink mixer/fellow honey badger (Michael Corbin, currently US Ambassador to the UAE) and concocted a perfect evening: the ladies would enjoy a cocktail, then a carriage ride (to pick up the 4th lady, Mary Ellen Hickey, best boss I ever had), then a gourmet meal (beef wellington, so delicious my heart occasionally scolds me for failing to cook something so good), and many delicious drinks. On February 15th. The day AFTER  Valentines’ Day.

So, the day before, on Valentines Day 1997, Randy Berry and I went to the soccer match, which was decided by penalty kicks and Randy and I, along with about 20 of our new best friends, the grand poobahs of African soccer, had to be escorted under a safety net out of the stadium. Good game, better day-after dinner, perfect picture….

Russian, Syria, and the US

Imagine a chart with three lines, three measures. One is Russia’s price for supporting the murderous regime in Syria. Not political or moral costs, but actual ruble costs to Russia as the Kremlin signs off on arms shipments and other material support. From today, that line goes up or down based on Russian decisions. A second line is the probability that Bashar al-Assad will stay in power. Maybe it starts at 70% today, but it will end at 0%, either when he leaves office or dies. That first line – Russia’s support – can extend that second line, but not forever. And since the first line is already above zero, those lines will eventually cross, with Russia’s costs exceeding al-Assad’s ability to stay in power.

The third line is also a probability: that Russia’s long-term interests in Syria — such as port privileges, military contracts, and a voice in the Middle East – are sustained. If today those interests are 100% protected by the Syrian regime, the other end of that line is a new regime blaming Russia for extending the civil war, adding to the death toll, feeding the al-Assad beast as it murdered its own people. At that point, Russia’s interests are decimated.

As with the first, Russia has complete control over the third line. The Kremlin can influence how Syria’s incoming government views Russia’s actions, but that influence diminishes every day. What Russia needs to determine immediately is where it wants to be when those lines start to cross. On the far right side, Russia’s costs are high, Bashar al-Assad is deposed, and Russia has lost everything it had in Syria.

What the US needs to do right now is have this conversation with the Kremlin and with the Russian representatives at the UN: the US is willing to work with anti-al-Assad forces to see that Russia’s interests are protected in a post-al-Assad environment. That’s not a guarantee, that’s a promise to do some heavy diplomatic lifting with entities the Russians can’t even talk to right now. Second, the US will remain silent when Bashar al-Assad seeks asylum in Moscow or some small Russian outpost city. And should Russia persist in her current course, the US will take one specific, measureable, and highly public steps:  the US will continue developing detailed assessments of the Russian companies engaged in arms shipments and begin talking to US banks and others about how those companies should be handled. If Russia doubts US capability or resolve, Russia is welcome to consult with Iranian bankers.

This point should be absolutely clear: the US understands Russia’s desire to see Syrians decide Syria’s fate, but the US will not stand idle as Russia arms the Syrian government as it slaughters its own people.

Syria has one significant friend left, but, as others have noted, that friendship is not based on one person, Bashar al-Assad, or one political party. It’s based on Russia’s specific interests. Until the Kremlin calculates it’s time to cuts its losses and stem the horrific loss of life in Syria, the US should help Russia with the math – draw the chart, back it up with real pressure, catalyze some change.

Iran, nukes, sanctions…and what comes next

This piece in today’s NYTimes raises a number of great questions about US and EU sanctions on Iran, including:

  • at what point do sanctions press Iran over the edge into action, rather than just frustration?
  • what if Iran does go nuclear, what then?
  • is there an outcome that allows Iran to be almost-nuclear that satisfies everyone?

The last question strikes me as one of the recurring issues I saw when I worked in Washington: how do we define policy success and what do we do when we get there? We often dealt with messy, seemingly endless issues like terrorism financing, MANPADs (don’t laugh, look it up), and weapons of mass destruction trafficking. On many of the subset issues (specific countries, specific problems), we had policies and objectives, but no real way to measure success. This was most acute in terror financing, which makes sense – how do you know when someone decided NOT to put $100 into the hat of the local terrorist fundraiser?

With Iran, as the NYTimes piece points out, some less-than-nuclear-armed options and examples exist, but its hard to see how we get there from here. Making matters worse, I think, are the absolutist positions that a nuclear armed Iran is unacceptable. While I agree, that is the worst possible outcome, if it does come to pass, we probably need to have some coherent way of dealing with it….short of war. Maybe its that threat of war that keeps the Iranian mullahs from moving too fast and too finally towards a nuclear weapon, but that gamesmanship requires relying on those mullahs making smart, logical choices. Somehow, I think Bismark, Kissinger, Metternich, and Nicholson didn’t count on that kind of calculation.

Maybe the best answer is sanctions calibrated to cause enough pain for regime change and a negotiated answer to the nuke issue — but that requires exceptional diplomacy, smart political leadership, and a long view of international affairs.

Russia Doesn’t Matter, but Russia’s WTO Accession Does

Friday’s Deep Smarts included a piece on Russia which happily agreed with my general disposition towards Moscow. With 2010 Overall ELLT Champion Eric Shimp serving as Russia’s handmaiden into the WTO at the same time, the stars were aligned for some proper Russia-bashing. Of course, Eric took me to task on both, so I can’t resist* a too long-worded reply.

The short version: Russia’s international affairs relevance is based on history and geography, not anything Russia has done over the last 20 years. But letting Russia into the WTO is a mistake that will unravel in less than 5 years.

Starting with relevance…both these essays are flawed, but they raise a valid question: is Russia’s influence and prominence on the world stage warranted? (and set aside discussion of what the hell the “world stage” is and what constitutes influence and prominence…this is a discussion rooted in too many issues of The Economist and an advanced degree in “Foreign Affairs”)

Russia has a UN Security Council seat because of its place in the post-World War II world. In today’s world, Russia is not a Top Five country. Energy, yup. Military, maybe. But its economy is both small and riddled with corruption. And its political system is one small (frozen) step above a banana republic or a African-style dictatorship. Russia’s undeniable size (11 time zones and neighbors as diverse as China and Estonia) makes it unavoidable when discussing global issues like fishing, the environment, and Risk. But size hasn’t led to leadership. Russia is like Kwame Brown – huge and you have to account for him, but you don’t build a game-plan around him or expect him to lead. To take two examples from the Forbes piece, Russia has been the exact opposite of global leadership on Iran’s nukes and Syria’s chaos. Russia has sought its own interests exclusively — and has a seat at the table only because of history (that UNSC seat) and geography. Not that a country shouldn’t pursue its own interests, of course, but when that country carries extra diplomatic weight simply because it said it should (and everyone is used to it), something is a little off. Russia doesn’t lead. It blocks and stalls and delays and cuts deals for itself. But it doesn’t lead.

Russia’s importance comes from static strengths – energy resources, geography, and historical circumstance – not dynamic strengths developed over the last 20 years. And even those static strengths have been weakened by Russia’s own decisions. Its energy companies don’t dominate the world through innovation or efficiency; they simply get by technologically enough to produce and politically enough to transport and sell under favorable conditions. Russia’s infrastructure sucks, which means its geographic reach is limited by its own shortcomings. And Russia’s UNSC role – and its actions on the world stage beyond the UN — are consistently shaped by Russia’s politics, far more so than 3 of the other 4 members. This last weakness is probably what holds Russia back from being a modern great (and relevant) power. As today’s NYTimes noted, Russia is beset by “pervasive corruption, judicial fraud, and political stasis.” Those aren’t accidental outcomes or a phase, but the result of Russia’s own political decisions and political culture. Bottom line: that is Russia. And as long as it continues to be, Russia’s relevance will decline. Ferguson may have over-emphasized the wrong facts and predictions, but he got one of the most important ones exactly right: Russia’s economy is 1/10 the size of the US economy, with all signs and trends pointing towards it getting smaller.

Ok, wait, then why does Russia’s WTO accession matter? If its a small, has-been power still punching above its weight, then who cares if it joins the WTO? Maybe its a big deal because it will force Russia to change, or at least force it to play by tougher international rules, as this guy argues. Maybe. Or maybe it will be messy and painful and complicated, but worth it simply because everyone knows its worth it, as this guy argues.

But joining the WTO isn’t going to change Russia for the better, make its politicians and bureaucrats follow international rules (that hurt Russian companies), or transform the country into a model for the rule of law. The WTO is simply going to provide another platform for Russia to complain about poor treatment and bash the West. Within 5 years – and I will lay down a bottle of rye on this — Russia will have multiple trade disputes raging at the WTO and will have failed to meet many of its phased obligations.

Russia is the business partner you don’t trust. I spent many hours sleeping through negotiation sessions in Geneva, half-listening to US, Russian, and other trade experts beat the dead horse details into glue, but I spent just as much time over drinks with the Brits, Canadians, Australians, and French discussing their views of what really could and could not happen with Russia. Off-the-record, these old diplomats and trade geeks said repeatedly that Russia wasn’t negotiating for accession on technical trade grounds, making concessions or agreeing to trade terms. Russia was going through the trade talks motions while expecting – and damn near demanding — a political agreement. Russians believed they deserved to be part of the club because they were Russians and Russia was a world power. End of discussion.

So it took them 18 years, in large part because of the abnormal obstinance of your  average trade negotiator (think Eric Shimp on the low block), and maybe I should have the graciousness to welcome them in. But I think the WTO just got messier, just became more politicized, just took itself down a notch in terms of being able to influence trade policy and police how countries adhere to commitments. Basically, the mob boss just got a seat on the mayor’s ethics commission. Expect nothing good.

Yes, I have opened myself up for education and abuse from Eric Shimp, who has far more intimate and fresh knowledge about Russia’s accession and the commitments Moscow made. I am looking forward to it and may be convinced I’m wrong. For now, I am not betting on a better Russia any time soon.

*full disclosure: From July 2000 to June 2002, my job was to know Russia, particularly Russia’s economy. Highlights from that time included multiple trips to Moscow, one night in St Petersburg, and a chicken dispute that earned me high praise (despite being on vacation when it was resolved…maybe being away was what I did right). So my intimate knowledge of Russia started falling into platonic paying attention in 2002 and continues at an interested-but-not-buying state today. I don’t pretend to believe I am fully informed on Russia issues, but I did take away from 2002 a few gospel truths. And while I am open to learning and understanding more, I will cling to those gospel truths until I am converted away, which may take time, if it ever happens. Yeah, that makes me both under-informed and biased, but I think most people are that way about most things. In the case of Russia, my biases are based on experience, strengthened or weakened by information and analysis I have read and heard over the years.