Archive for the ‘international’ Category

Russia to increase military spending

According to the BBC, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has announced that Russia will begin a comprehensive military rearmament from 2011.

Mr Medvedev said the primary task would be to “increase the combat readiness of [Russia’s] forces, first of all our strategic nuclear forces”.

Explaining the move, he cited concerns over Nato expansion near Russia’s borders and regional conflicts.

Increased oil revenues make such spending possible.  The recent conflict with Georgia (the country, not the state) apparently demonstrated to them that much of their equipment is outdated and their tactics need updating.

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Israel takes more Palestinian land

Unfortunately, MSNBC reports that Israel is planning to take over even more Palestinian land, further adding to already illegal West Bank settlements.

Plans to expand a West Bank settlement by up to 2,500 homes drew Palestinian condemnation Monday and presented an early test for President Barack Obama, whose Mideast envoy is well known for opposing such construction.

Israel opened the way for possible expansion of the Efrat settlement by taking control of a nearby West Bank hill of 423 acres. The rocky plot was recently designated state land and is part of a master plan that envisions the settlement growing from 9,000 to 30,000 residents, Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi said.

The settlements, located on land captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, are illegal under international law which requires military occupiers to adminster areas under their control for the good of the local populace, not for their own good.  Many of the settlers are frank about wanting to make it impossible for Palestinians to form their own state, something that they are unfortunately accomplishing; these settlements derail the peace process. Furthermore, Israel is stealing property from individual Palestinian landowners to make these settlements and their concomitant access roads.

About 290,000 Israelis live in the settlements—about 4% of the nation’s population—up from about 195,000 in 2001.

Woman appointed to Saudi Council of Ministers

The Saudi flag bears does not appear on the nation's military uniforms because it bears the shahada ("There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet") which it would be blasphemous to display while going to the bathroom

The Saudi flag bears does not appear on military uniforms because it bears the shahada ("There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet") which it would be blasphemous to display while going to the bathroom

This blog’s very first post concerned women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and we have since followed other developments in the desert kingdom, good, bad, and ugly.  This one is good: King Abdullah has appointed a woman to the Saudi Council of Ministers for the first time.  Noor Al-Fayez will serve as deputy minister for women’s education.

Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s few remaining absolute monarchies.  The Council of Ministers is appointed by and responsible to the king and merely advises him on the formulation of general policy and assisted with managing the activities of the bureaucracy. The council consists of a prime minister, the first and second deputy prime ministers, 20 ministers (of whom the minister of defense also is the second deputy prime minister), two ministers of state, and a small number of advisers and heads of major, autonomous organizations.

King Abdullah (b. 1924) has a net worth of about $21 billion

King Abdullah (b. 1924) has a net worth of about $21 billion

Khaled Al-Maeena, editor-in-chief of Arab News, an English-language daily newspaper in Saudi Arabia, called many of the other appointments in what is the council’s biggest shake-up since Abdullah became king in 2005 very “progressive”, which is a very good thing.

King Abdullah appears to be, very slowly, moving the country in a more liberal direction, but considering how reactionary the place is it’s still just about the most conservative place on the planet.  He is 84 years old and the Crown Prince is just two years younger.  Succession to the Saudi Monarchy can be a messy process and it will be interesting to see how things shake out in the next two decades when the last of the sons of Ibn Saud, the nation’s modern founder, pass on.

Two Afghan men could be executed for translating Qur’an

The Flag of Afghanistan, adopted in 2004.  Afghanistan has had 23 flags since the start of the 20th century---more than any other country--- including one that was all white and another that was all black.

The current Flag of Afghanistan

Just when you thought the human rights situation in Afghanistan couldn’t get more outrageous: two men in said country now face possible execution, and four others have been jailed, for the crime of… translating the Qur’an.  Frequent readers of this blog will no doubt recall the case of Parwez Kambakhsh who was first sentenced to death and then had that commuted to 20 years in jail for discussing women’s rights.  His case is still pending.

The present case involves Ahmad Ghaws Zalmai who translated to Qur’an from Arabic into one of Afghanistan’s several local languages for people who can’t read the document in the original language.

Many clerics rejected the book because it did not include the original Arabic verses alongside the translation. It’s a particularly sensitive detail for Muslims, who regard the Arabic Quran as words given directly by God. A translation is not considered a Quran itself, and a mistranslation could warp God’s word.

The clerics said Zalmai, a stocky 54-year-old spokesman for the attorney general, was trying to anoint himself as a prophet. They said his book was trying to replace the Quran, not offer a simple translation. Translated editions of the Quran abound in Kabul markets, but they include Arabic verses.

Most English-language editions of the Qur’an include the Arabic text side-by-side with the English, and since books written in Semitic languages (including Hebrew) read back-to-front (from out point of view) you turn the pages of such books from left to right, not right to left.  Editions of the Qur’an without the Arabic are often considered to not really be the Qur’an, by some Moslems, but merely interpretations thereof, thus Marmaduke Pickthall’s well-known translation (as we would call it) is titled The Meaning of the Glorious Koran instead of just The Qur’an.

The Qur'an, or Koran, if you prefer

The Qur'an, or Koran, if you prefer

I can find no source indicating what, if any, errors or mistranslations the mobs in question are upset about.  Quite possibly, this is just an excuse for the imams to exercise power to keep people in line and for and the crowds to demonstrate their loyalty thereto.

All the men charged are pleading ignorance: the publisher didn’t read the book, the imam who signed a statement of support for it was tricked into doing so, Zalmai didn’t know it’d be a problem to omit the Arabic text.  Hopefully this case will garner international attention and the central government, led by Hamid Karzai, will be able to work something out.  Like they did with that convert to Christianity who, instead of being executed, was declared insane and allowed to flee the country.

Tories favored by 12 points over Labour

In a new poll released today by the Guardian, if the United Kingdom held elections for Parliament today 44% would vote Conservative, 32% for Labour, 16% for the Liberal-Democrats, and 8% would vote for another party. 

Across the poll, Labour is flatlining – the charge once thrown at struggling Conservative leaders who could not lift their party’s support below the low 30s. Labour has been on 31%, plus or minus two points, since August in ICM polls.

The prime minister can draw comfort from the fact that this new support has come almost entirely from the Lib Dems and smaller parties. Labour support is down only one point, and at 32% is well above the low points in the mid-20s it hit in the early summer last year.

But that simply suggests the party is on course for a big defeat rather than a calamity. One estimate suggests that the Conservatives would win around 360 seats on today’s figures, a majority of about 70. Labour could expect to win around 240, 30 more than it did at its nadir under Michael Foot in 1983.

The results seem largely driven by economic concerns. 

Elections must be held on or before 3 June 2010, as the maximum length of a Parliament is five years; however, Prime Ministers typically call elections after four years—unless they’re guaranteed defeat and think they can turn things around if given another year.  If elections are held this year, 4 June is a likely date, as they would then coincide with elections for the European Parliament.

This blog, which is more favorably predisposed to the Conservatives, predicts that Gordon Brown will not call elections this year and will let the current Parliament expire, or come very close to it before elections are held next year.  Furthermore, it is likely that David Cameron, the leader of the Conservatives, will probably be the next Prime Minister.

Netanyahu wants to expand West Bank settlements

Former Prime Minister of Israel and current leader of the opposition Benjamin Netanyahu says he will expand Israeli West Bank settlements if he becomes Prime Minister again after February 10th’s elections.  Based on current opinion polls, it appears likely that Netanyahu’s party, Likud, will secure a  plurality of seats in the Knesset and be able to form a government.

“I have no intention of building new settlements in the West Bank,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying. “But like all the governments there have been until now, I will have to meet the needs of natural growth in the population. I will not be able to choke the settlements.”

Israel’s West Bank settlements, constructed on land captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, are probably illegal under international law and are certainly a major obstacle to a lasting peace deal with the Palestinians.  It is therefore unfortunate that Netanyahu is willing to allow them to expand.

Settlement construction in the West Bank has been a key obstacle to peace talks over the years. The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank as part of a future independent state that would also include the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. They say Israel’s settlements, now home to 280,000 people in the West Bank, make it increasingly difficult for them to establish a viable state.

Nearly all Israeli settlement construction over the past decade has taken place in existing West Bank communities. And Netanyahu’s positions do not significantly differ from outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has allowed construction in existing settlements to continue even while holding peace talks with the Palestinians.

The West Bank. Israeli settlements in purple, areas where Palestinian movement is restricted in pink.

The West Bank. Israeli settlements in purple, areas where Palestinian movement is restricted in pink.

The settlements (see Wikipedia article) are home to about 280,000 Israelis and make it harder to the Palestinians to form a viable state.  They also require significant security infrastructure due to violence against them from Palestinians.  While the violence is deplorable, the anger which motivates it is understandable—how would you feel if foreigners came into your country and effectively claimed permanently as their own by building cities there?  Also keep in mind that about 40% of the land on which the settlements are built is privately owned by (unremunuerated) Palestinians.  Additionally, it is not simply the land on which they sit that Palestinians are deprived of; the settlements effectively cut up the West Bank, making travel and transport through the area difficult.

There are a lot of passions involved with the Israeli-Palestinian situtation.  For a possibly less charged example of a similar sort of activity, consider the Chinese policy of trying to tightly wed Tibet, which they conquered militarily, to the People’s Republic by settling ethnic Chinese people there.

These settlements make Israel less secure, not more secure.  They are furthermore one of the biggest obstacles to peace, right up there with continued Palestinian violence.  They are increasingly costing Israelis the good will of their allies, including, quite possibly, the United States under the new Obama administration.

Kadima party leader and Prime Minister candidate Tzipi Livni has vowed to dismantle the settlements, if elected.  This blog very much hopes that she will get that chance.

An analysis of Israel’s strategic decision-making

8. The precise shade of blue is not specified.

The Flag of Israel, shown with the correct hight/width ratio of 11:8

Foreign Policy magazine has an interesting new piece out, “The myth of Israel’s strategic genius,” which attempts to analyze the wisdom of that nation’s strategic decisions since its founding.  The author, Stephen M. Walt, concludes that while Israel gets a lot of credit for making good decisions, its actions have not helped it achieve long-term security and, indeed, some, such as supporting Hamas in the 1980s, have done much to imperil the country.

The article looks at pretty much every major armed crisis involving Israel since the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, including the 1956 Suez Crisis, the 1967 Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and all the way up to the current Gaza action.

From the article’s conclusion:

In virtually all of these episodes — and especially those after 1982 — Israel’s superior military power was used in ways that did not improve its long-term strategic position. Given this dismal record, therefore, there is no reason to think that Israel possesses uniquely gifted strategists or a national security establishment that consistently makes smart and far-sighted choices. Indeed, what is perhaps most remarkable about Israel is how often the architects of these disasters — Barak, Olmert, Sharon, and maybe Netanyahu — are not banished from leadership roles but instead are given another opportunity to repeat their mistakes. Where is the accountability in the Israeli political system?

The moral of this story is that there is no reason to think that Israel always has well-conceived strategies for dealing with the problems that it faces.  In fact, Israel’s strategic judgment seems to have declined steadily since the 1970s — beginning with the 1982 invasion of Lebanon — perhaps because unconditional U.S. support has helped insulate Israel from some of the costs of its actions and made it easier for Israel to indulge strategic illusions and ideological pipe-dreams. Given this reality, there is no reason for Israel’s friends — both Jewish and gentile — to remain silent when it decides to pursue a foolish policy. And given that our “special relationship” with Israel means that the United States is invariably associated with Jerusalem’s actions, Americans should not hesitate to raise their voices to criticize Israel when it is acting in ways that are not in the U.S. national interest.

Those who refuse to criticize Israel even when it acts foolishly surely think they are helping the Jewish state. They are wrong. In fact, they are false friends, because their silence, or worse, their cheerleading, merely encourages Israel to continue potentially disastrous courses of action.  Israel could use some honest advice these days, and it would make eminently good sense if its closest ally were able to provide it. Ideally, this advice would come from the president, the secretary of state, and prominent members of Congress — speaking as openly as some politicians in other democracies do. But that’s unlikely to happen, because Israel’s supporters make it almost impossible for Washington to do anything but reflexively back Israel’s actions, whether they make sense or not. And they often do not these days.

Also touched on briefly are some of the failed peace initiatives, including the Camp David meetings presided over by Bill Clinton.  Unfortunately, the article doesn’t go into detail about the proposals and their perceived deficiencies.

The article additionally mentions the West Bank settlements.

More importantly, after seizing the West Bank, Golan Heights and Gaza Strip during the [Six Day] war, Israeli leaders decided to start building settlements and eventually incorporate them into a “greater Israel.” Thus, 1967 marks the beginning of Israel’s settlements project, a decision that even someone as sympathetic to Israel as Leon Wieseltier has described as “a moral and strategic blunder of historic proportions.” Remarkably, this momentous decision was never openly debated within the Israeli body politic.

As I blogged about previously, Israel’s West Bank settlements are a major obstacle to peace and should be dismantled immediately if Israel is interested in a workable, long-term peace deal.

2009 has been delayed

The 2009th year of the common era is going to be delayed and its predecessor is being extended.  For real.  But just by a second.

As reported by MSNBC, the extra second, which is required to keep the time in sync with the Earth’s rotation, was ordered by the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (yes, that’s a real thing—here’s their website).  Said rotation can vary slightly due to various factors, like the planet’s liquid core sloshing around and the gravitational effects of other Solar System bodies.

Leap seconds are added periodically; the last was inserted into 2005.  Wikipedia has, unsurprisingly, more information on them.

Saudi girl, 8, must stay married to 58-year old

An 8-year old Saudi Arabian girl forced into a marriage with a 58-year old man (CNN reports that he’s 47) must stay married, according to a Saudi Judge, Sheikh Habib Abdallah al-Habib.  Her father arranged the marriage in order to cover his debts to the man, who is reportedly “a close friend.”  The amount in question is approximately $7961 US.

The Saudi flag

The Saudi flag

The girl’s mother, with whom she lives, petitioned the court to annul the marriage; however the judge ruled that the mother, who is divorced from the father, is not the legal guardian of the girl and thus has no standing to bring suit.  The judge ruled that the girl could petition in her own right for a divorce once she reaches puberty, however there is no accepted definition of what constitutes puberty under sharia law.  The father apparently had asked the man not to have sex with his “wife” until she reached 18.  The judge has asked for some sort of pledge from the husband against consummating the marriage until she reaches puberty, whatever that may mean. (I presume that the pledge would go to the father, not the girl, if te girl is statutorily raped, as such activity would be called in the civilized world).

Such marriages between young girls and (much) older men are not terribly uncommon in Saudi Arabia, though there are Saudis who oppose child marriages and point out that they violate various human rights agreements to which the kingdom is a party.  (As I’d previously noted, women are not currently allowed to drive legally in the kingdom, which is hardly a bastion of women’s rights.)

Apparently the girl doesn’t yet know that she’s married.  Hopefully the girl continues living with her mother and doesn’t find out about her marriage until she gets to sign the divorce papers in a few years.

FBI agents stole $7.8 million from taxpayers

The logo of a very corrupt organization that's run for itself, not for you

The logo of a very corrupt organization that's run for itself, not for you

MSNBC reports that FBI agents posted to Iraq received $7.8 million in overtime and pay that they weren’t entitled to, an average of $45,000 per employee between 2003–2007.  They claimed the pay for, inter alia, doing watching movies, exercising, and attending parties.

One employee defended the fact that he claimed pay for the time he spent doing laundry, “When you’re in that environment, anything you do to survive is work for the FBI.”  It must be nice to work for that agency when you can do immoral things and get away with it.  Just about all the agents posted to Iraq claimed 8 hours of overtime per day, every day, for the three months they were there.  There’a a term for that sort of behavior: stealing.