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Kasparov check-mates his own logic

I can understand why Garry Kasparov hearts dissidents, since he's one of Russia's most prominent himself. And he may be able to beat anyone but a computer in chess, but his logic falls seriously short here:

But the Soviet Union used tanks to quash dissent when it could. Dictatorships use force when they can get away with it, not when a U.S. president makes a strong statement.

Okay, agreed. Nothing Barack Obama says or doesn't say about the Iranian "revolution" will affect how the country's leadership, who seem to be pretty desperate to hang on to power, employs violence. But then how does this follow?

President Dwight Eisenhower might have learned that lesson in 1956 when he said nothing and the Soviets sent tanks into Budapest anyway. Likewise, in 1968 the Soviets cracked down in Czechoslovakia even though the West said little. Regardless of what Mr. Obama says, the Iranian leaders will use all the force at their disposal to stay in power.

"That lesson" is not that silence from a U.S. president will cause a dictatorship to send in tanks to quash dissidents; it is, in fact, the opposite, as Kasparov said in the previous paragraph. There is no relationship between what the "leader of the free world" says and what the leader of an unfree country does to his own people. So, contrary to the thrust of this much emulated argument, Barack Obama not issuing his "support" for Iranian dissidents will not "cause" a greater crackdown in Iran. History is being twisted into erroneous causation here, and it's being used for purely political purposes.

(image from flickr user arellis49 under a Creative Commons license)

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When success is softball…

Not everyone, evidently, is as unconvinced as we are that Ban Ki-moon is "the world's most dangerous Korean." Pegging off the rather tendentious Jacob Heilbrunn FP piece of that title, Michael Keating at World Politics Review concurs that Ban's tenure at the UN has not been far short of failure.

There's no need to pussy-foot around the UN's shortcomings, and, for his part, Keating acknowledges the tremendous pressures put on the S-G office, as well as the enormity of the challenges that the UN confronts. Yet Keating's claim that "[i]t's not that anyone expects the U.N. to solve these problems" belies, I think, the lofty expectations that most people actually have of the UN, and particularly of its most visible personage, the S-G.

You see people's high expectations most anytime you hear someone lament that "the UN" isn't doing enough about whatever geopolitical issue happens to be boiling that day. So even when a top UN official does issue a strong statement about, say, the trammeling of human rights in Iran, the organization as a whole is panned for not "doing" enough to protect Iran's people. And with pretty much no one else paying attention to the ghastly continuing conflict in eastern DR Congo, the UN is the only one on whom to hang our hopes for a solution. Unsurprisingly, those outsized expectations turn out to be quite the albatross for the UN when, in fact, a war that few countries are actually interested in resolving painfully deteriorates.

But the deeper flaw in Keating's criticism -- and one that I think most people simply silently assume -- is the way he dismisses out of hand those UN operations in tough climates that actually have worked.

With the exception of softball assignments like Liberia -- an acknowledged success story -- U.N. peacekeeping operations have hardly been worth their expense.

Why must an "acknowledged success story" be condescendingly equated to a "softball assignment?" The fallacious implication here is that what the UN does well, it does well because it is easy. Liberia was wracked by years of civil war, torn apart by rebel groups, devastated by human rights violations and child soldiery, and driven into the ground by one of the most rapacious of recent dictators, Charles Taylor. If that's "softball," then I don't even want to know what the major leagues are like.

Yet into this volatile mix came some 15,000 UN peacekeepers, and, over the course of the last six years, they have, in fits and starts, helped Liberia reach the state it's in today: relatively peaceful, with improving infrastructure, a growing economy, and Africa's first elected female head of state. And all this for about $600 million a year -- a bargain compared to, say, what the United States is paying in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Not all peacekeeping missions have been as successful as the one in Liberia, to be sure. But neither, I would contend, have any of them been abject failures. In even more difficult cases like DR Congo and Darfur, UN peacekeepers are the only ones doing anything on the ground. To suggest that these missions "have hardly been worth their expense" -- especially when that expense is so comparatively low -- offends both the very real successes they have had and even the notion that something should be done about these conflicts at all. Not every brutal civil war in an oft-ignored part of the world, it turns out, is that easy to solve.

(image of an UNMIL medical officer, from UN Photo under a Creative Commons license)
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Climate Week NYC

Earlier this week in New York, the Secretary General and Mayor Bloomberg announced that the UN and the City will host Climate Week NY˚C, from September 21 to 25, as hundreds of business and government leaders from around the world converge on the City for a series of high-level meetings, events and activities designed to raise awareness about the critical issue of climate change.

Climate Week NY˚C will take place 70 days before the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 15) in Copenhagen and will offer one last opportunity to underscore the urgency for a global deal on climate change.

The SG said:

We're here for one reason, to push forward urgent action by world leaders, civic leaders and every citizen of the world. For your daughters and sons and grandchildren: emissions are rising and the clock is ticking.

Stay tuned on the Climate Week website for the listing of public events as they come online. We'll also be updating you here, as well as bringing you some special online features to coincide with the physical events in New York.

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A Response to the Lancet

Ed Note:  Last week, The Lancet published an editorial and two studies about the current state of global health initiatives for the developing world.  The following is a response to The Lancet from Andrea Gay, Exeucitve Director of Children's Health at the United Nations Foundation and Dr. Dan Carucci, Vice President for Global Health at the United Nations Foundation. 

While two studies in the Lancet medical journal on Friday, June 19, raised awareness about the importance of strengthening health systems worldwide and working with the United Nations to improve global health, it was shocking to see that the researchers failed to recognize the significance of the Measles Initiative, a model public private partnership that has produced real results.

Since 2001, the Measles Initiative has supported the vaccination of more than 600 million children in more than 60 countries. Between 2000 and 2007, the number of children dying from measles has decreased by 74% worldwide and nearly 90% in sub-Saharan Africa alone.

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When a scientist gets all political

Elizabeth Kolbert has a pretty good profile of renowned (and now temporarily arrested) climate scientist James Hansen, unfortunately tucked away behind The New Yorker's digital subscriber wall. One major angle that comes out of the article is a sense that Hansen has drifted too far out of science and into politics, as captured by this graf, which I have assiduously and insidiously copied, word for word.

Hansen is also increasingly isolated among climate activists. "I view Jim Hansen as heroic as a scientist," Eileen Claussen, the president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said. "He was there at the beginning, he's faced all kinds of pressures politically, and he's done a terrific job, I think, of keeping focussed. But I wish he would stick to what he really knows. Because I don't think he has a realistic view of what is politically possible, or what the best policies would be to deal with this problem."

All this because, the following paragraph (which is too long for me to copy down) implies, Hansen favors a direct and stringent carbon tax over the more politically feasible "cap and trade" system. For one, favoring a carbon tax and a complete ban on coal-fired power plants, as Hansen does, does not strike me as an out-of-touch radical position. You can disagree on the policy merits of each, or on their political viability, but you can't begrudge the man for advocating for his solution.

More significantly, though, isn't the obstacle to getting tougher policies through, say, the U.S. Congress the fact that science has not been able to infuse itself in the politics of the thing? It seems to me that we need more James Hansen-esque super-scientists filling the political arena with ambitious arguments, not urging that they back down in favor of what is "politically possible." The future is going to be laughing at our "politics," I am sure.

(image from flickr user World Development Movement under a Creative Commons license)

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Is the Koh vote a proxy for future treaty battles in the Senate?

Earlier today Harold Koh overcame an effective filibuster of his nomination to be the State Department's top legal advisor.  Koh required 60 votes to overcome cloture.  He received 65 votes with 31 senators against and 3 not voting.  

Groups affiliated with treaty-slayer Frank Gaffney sought to undermine senatorial support of Koh by portraying him as outside the mainstream. Well, that obviously did not work. but it did turn the Koh vote into a proxy for future Senate battles over international legal issues like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Convention on the Law of the Sea. 

Looking at the roll call, I think it's fair to say that this vote shows there is a core of about 30 "sovereigntists" who will likely never vote for senate ratification of these treaties.  Of the three not voting, it's safe to say that two (Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy) are supportive of the CTBT and UNCLOS and one (Thad Cochran) is probably not.

Unlike the Koh nomination, these treaties require 2/3rds of senators present to become ratified.   Under normal circumstances this means 67 votes.  Byrd and Kennedy, however, are infirmed.  This means that if votes on UNCLOS and CTBT were to come up in the near future, 66 senators would be required for ratification--one more than what Koh was able to secure.   To be sure, it's not inconceivable that some of the Koh's "nays" support one of these treaties. (Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, for example, is a strong supporter of UNCLOS).  But the Koh vote does show that these votes will  likely be very, very close. 

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UN drug report encourages treatment over incarceration

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime just released its 2009 World Drug Report to much fanfare.  Why? Well, it seems the report endorses the government of Portugal's policy of decriminalizing drugs and preferencing treatment over incarceration.  The Huffington Post's Ryan Grim explains:

In its 2009 World Drug Report, the UN had little but kind words for Portugal's radical (by U.S. standards) approach. "These conditions keep drugs out of the hands of those who would avoid them under a system of full prohibition, while encouraging treatment, rather than incarceration, for users. Among those who would not welcome a summons from a police officer are tourists, and, as a result, Portugal's policy has reportedly not led to an increase in drug tourism," reads the report. "It also appears that a number of drug-related problems have decreased."

This should come as welcome news to Glenn Greenwald, who is an outspoken proponant of the Portuguese approach.  You can watch a repeat of the webcast of the report's release in Washington, D.C. here.   Foreign Policy's James Downie catches the money quote (via the Guardian)

"People who take drugs need medical help, not criminal retribution," said Antonio Maria Costa, director of UNODC, calling for universal access to drug treatment. Since people with serious drug problems provided the bulk of drug demand, treating this problem was one of the best ways of shrinking the market."

Incidentally, this jives with something that the Migration Policy Institute's Susan Ginsberg told me in a bloggingheads interview  about Mexico border violence: that one sure way to reduce drug related violence in Mexico is to reduce demand here in the United States though a more robust focus on drug treatment.