Hard News by Russell Brown

Our round

If you don't have the fattest wallet in the bar, it's a good idea to get your round in early. Which would appear to be New Zealand's strategy in the dizzying arena of tsunami aid commitments. Our $10 million in matched contributions so far is dwarfed by the $1 billion Australia yesterday promised, but at least the colour of our money is apparent.

As news stories yesterday demonstrated, it's one thing to promise aid, another to actually deliver it. What happened in the wake of the earthquake in Bam, Iran, a year ago - $US1 billion pledged in the heat of the moment, only $17 million actually coughed up a year later - is not an isolated phenomenon.

This is not to suggest that Australia's billion-dollar, five-year promise to Indonesia will not be honoured. On the contrary, the leaders of the two countries appear to have recognised that the disaster offers a unique chance to reboot the relationship between the neighbouring nations. It is unilateral aid (as the SMH points out today, Australia has rejected even the US strategy of debt relief), not delivered via the United Nations, but, as Howard says, that is simply the practical thing to do.

The same can't, unfortunately, be said about the Americans' "core group" of nations to lead the aid effort, which has been wound up after a whole week, its operations handed over to the broader UN effort. (According to Reuters, "diplomats have suggested there was concern that if the huge relief effort breaks down, the United States would prefer not to be in the lead role where it might get the lion's share of blame.") No sign of a Power Line/NZ Pundit spin on it yet, but I'll keep watching …

PA reader Frank Dean had a further observation on the aid politics discussed earlier in the week:

I have just read the on the BBC site that Mr Powell arrived in Indonesia, the world's most populous Islamic country, with a message to Muslims worldwide:

Muslims, along with the rest of the world, had "an opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action", he said in Jakarta.

"And I hope as a result of our efforts, as a result of our helicopter pilots being seen by the citizens of Indonesia helping them, that value system of ours will be reinforced."

The US secretary of state added that US relief work should also "dry up pools of dissatisfaction which might give rise to terrorist activity".

Powell in my view is the best of the bunch in the current US Admin but why oh why do they have to go into this sort of rhetoric? It just cheapens even further their effort in giving aid. I mean, "American values"!!!! Are the rest of us too lowly to have these values?

Oh, and of course they have to continually link back to the "War on Terror", the administration reason for existence or so we are to believe. But honestly, can't they just keep it simple, take off the Stetson, get off the bleeding white steed and speak as human beings and global citizens with compassion e.g.: "This is one hell-of-a disaster and we just wanna do what we can to help."

And the US Navy in particular has been profoundly helpful in the tsuanmi zone, although the airmen who declared the aid effort more satisfying than "destroying things" in Iraq will probably already have been rapped for going off-message.

Not for the first time, American military professionals seem able to demonstrate a purpose and grace that eludes their political leaders - and certainly their cheerleaders in the blogosphere, who presently sit around waiting to take exaggerated offence at any perceived slight to America. Check out the hair-trigger Francophobia in the comments on this blog linked to by Instapundit.

The Guardian's story about the visit by Powell and Jeb Bush to Phuket is quite funny.

NBR's Francis Till has noticed the rabid anti-UN blog Diplomad too, apparently causing considerable excitement amongst its fans. Without wishing to rain on anyone's parade, it must be noted that the sole source for almost the whole Diplomad-driven story is, er, Diplomad.

Meanwhile, New Zealander Ben Lewis Evans, whose brother was injured when the tsunami struck Phuket (he is now safely home) notes that he and his friend were visited in hospital in Thailand by creepy god-botherers bearing the news that the disaster was in fact God's retribution. "This," he observes, "is just crazy."

Reported this week: 700 bodies unearthed from the rubble, 550 of them those of women and children. Two babies starved to death in their homes after their parents were killed. Satellite images reveal comprehensive destruction. Indonesia? Sri Lanka? No. Fallujah.

As doubts, understandably, increase that Iraq's election this month can be held as scheduled, Riverbend has some interesting observations on the election run-up, including "the fact that, technically, we don't know the candidates. We know the principal heads of the lists but we don't know who exactly will be running. It really is confusing. They aren't making the lists public because they are afraid the candidates will be assassinated."

On the other hand, and doubtless for their own reasons, the governments of both Iran and Syria have strongly encouraged Iraqis to participate in the elections.

A fascinating new essay by James Dobbins in Foreign Affairs magazine urges a regional solution for Iraq - meaning co-operation with Iran, much like that quietly undertaken as part of the reconstruction of Afghanistan:

Engaging Iran will present the greatest difficulties for the United States, given Tehran's nuclear aspirations, its support for terrorism against Israel, and several decades of mutual hostility and noncommunication. But Iraq cannot be stabilized without Iranian cooperation. Conversely, if Iraq is not stabilized, there can be no prospect of dimming Tehran's nuclear ambitions, however much its actual capabilities might otherwise be delayed by military or economic action.

On the other hand, there is the view quoted here:

"Until now, the best efforts of the United States and the emerging Iraqi army have not succeeded in preventing the growth of the insurgency," noted Robert Killebrew, a retired Army colonel and counter-insurgency specialist, who believes that even if the elections come off, Washington may well soon face the greater danger of a region-wide insurgency.

Killebrew, whose theories will be featured next week at a forum at the influential neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), argues that the only way to redress the situation is to increase Washington's, as well as the Iraqi government's, troop strength, close the borders with Iran and Syria, and threaten Iraq's neighbors with retaliation if they provide support or safe haven to the insurgency. He also favors substantially expanding the U.S. military as a signal of "national will."


The US Congress is expected to face a request for $100 billion to support the war in Iraq this year. It won't be accounted in the annual federal budget, but as a "supplemental request" after the budget is filed. Huh? You mean they don't know there's a war on?

So, how are things going in Iraq, anyway? There's Chrenkoff's frantically optimistic Good News From Iraq, an article of faith amongst panicky conservatives, and the more measured Iraq Index from the Brookings Institute, and there's the bad news.

Unfortunately, President Bush appears to want Iraq news in only one flavour, according to the generally-accurate Beltway newsletter the Nelson Report:

There is rising concern amongst senior officials that President Bush does not grasp the increasingly grim reality of the security situation in Iraq because he refuses to listen to that type of information. Our sources say that attempts to brief Bush on various grim realities have been personally rebuffed by the President, who actually says that he does not want to hear “bad news.”

Rather, Bush makes clear that all he wants are progress reports, where they exist, and those facts which seem to support his declared mission in Iraq...building democracy. “That's all he wants to hear about,” we have been told. So “in” are the latest totals on school openings, and “out” are reports from senior US military commanders (and those intelligence experts still on the job) that they see an insurgency becoming increasingly effective, and their projection that “it will just get worse.”

Our sources are firm in that they conclude this “good news only” directive comes from Bush himself; that is, it is not a trap or cocoon thrown around the President by National Security Advisor Rice, Vice President Cheney, and DOD Secretary Rumsfeld. In any event, whether self-imposed, or due to manipulation by irresponsible subordinates, the information/intelligence vacuum at the highest levels of the White House increasingly frightens those officials interested in objective assessment, and not just selling a political message.

Gordon Dryden notes a statement, published as a full-page ad in The Economist, signed by more than two dozen American intellectuals, calling for a radical change in US policy in the Middle East. "Most pertinent," Gordon notes, "many of the signatories would be regarded as conservatives, including Samuel Huntington, of Harvard, and Christopher Layne, contributing editor of The American Conservative."

On the same site (and just to show that not everyone at the Cato Institute is as stupid as Louis Rosetto), Christopher Preble and Justin Logan have an excellent essay noting "the pervasive fear among neoconservatives in Washington of the resurgence of realism."

So, that'll do. I hadn't planned to blog so seriously through the holidays. Indeed, I had planned to author a loving description of making a gorgeous raspberry jus to accompany Christmas Day's roast turkey breast. It was my first jus, and I was going to call the post 'Season of the Jus'. Never mind.

I'm away for a break on Waiheke island next week, when, we are promised, the sun will finally come and stay, so there won't be anything on the wires. I'll hopefully post one more thing before then: an analysis of United Future's draft law and order policy, which is, er, interesting …