Unsuspecting Heir of Nazi Art Dealer Nabbed

The other day, I received a surprise phone call from Germany. A woman I never met and had never heard of had some news that might interest me, she said: my late grandfather, German until he had to flee the country in the 1930s, had left behind what she referred to consistently as “an asset” to which her German firm had access. If my sister and I were willing to sign the contract she was about to e-mail us, that asset would be ours—minus one-third of its value, which would go to her firm.

Of course it occurred to me to ask just what this “asset” consisted of, but there I was stymied. This was information the firm wasn’t about to give us, said my caller, because, as she explained very politely, “Then you would do your own research and maybe find it yourself.”

Somebody Has to be the Bad Cop

I’m still getting caught up on the Iranian nuclear negotiations. I missed a lot while I was cut off from most of the human race down in Cuba, and now that I’m back I’m mostly struck by the rather odd fact that France is the hardliner in the Western camp.

It’s double strange when considering that France had a conservative president—Jacques Chirac—during its most recent dovish phase, while the current hawkish president is from the Socialist Party.

Here is Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times:

The history of the west’s failed efforts to block a North Korean bomb, along with its various unsuccessful rapprochements with Iran over the years, suggest the sceptics may have a point.

In 2005, the powers negotiating with North Korea reached a deal that promised a package of economic and diplomatic incentives in return for the North Koreans abandoning their nuclear weapons programme. But the deal was a dud; in 2006 North Korea staged its first successful nuclear test. The weapon first tested by the North Koreans was a plutonium-based nuclear bomb, rather than one based on enriched uranium. France’s insistence that an early Iran accord should deal not just with uranium enrichment but also with the plutonium plant being developed at Arak is therefore particularly important. There are already signs that this tougher approach is bearing fruit, with Iran suggesting that it might ease its position on international inspections of Arak.

It can be argued that Iran would be more likely to stick to a nuclear deal than the endlessly duplicitous North Koreans, whose totalitarian system is probably better adapted to accept the extreme poverty and isolation that flows from being a nuclear pariah. But no outside power can pronounce with confidence on the balance of power between hardliners and moderates in Iran. And even conservative western leaders have been seduced by the illusory hope of a breakthrough with Iran before. Remember Ronald Reagan’s emissaries showing up in Tehran, carrying a key-shaped cake, that was meant to open the door to better relations with the sweet-toothed mullahs?

The transformation of France’s diplomatic profile in the Middle East over the past years is striking. Just a decade ago, France’s opposition to the Iraq war led to its denunciation by American rightwingers, who famously labelled the French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”. Now France is, temporarily, the toast of neoconservative Washington, while it is the Iranians who come out with the colourful insults. The Fars news agency denounced the French as “gun-slinging frogs”. (Perhaps there is room for compromise, in which the French assume a settled identity as cheese-eating frogs?)

For anyone following the “Iran dossier” (to use diplo-speak), it has been noticeable for some years that France is the most hardline of the western powers. Quite why this should be the case puzzles even French diplomats.

I suspect one reason the French are being hardliners right now is because somebody has to and the United States cares more about getting a deal than about what’s in it. We all instinctively understand that negotiations need “bad cops” as well as “good cops.” If John McCain were president of the United States instead of Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande likely would not be compelled to bang his fist on the table and say “no” because somebody else would already be doing it.

Are China's Dissidents Becoming Violent?

In the central Chinese city of Taiyuan last Wednesday, seven nearly simultaneous explosions killed one person and injured eight others, according to official reports.

“At the time of going to press, there was no indication that Wednesday’s serial blasts involved terrorism,” the Global Times, the Communist Party–run newspaper, wrote on the day after the incident. The suggestion of terrorism, however, was unmistakable, even then. Police had found fragments of circuit boards at the sites of the detonations, an indication that they were the result of homemade devices. Also, “finger-length long nails” and ball bearings littered the scenes, conclusive proof of an intention to harm passersby.

Kasparov’s Latvian Gambit

This week, Garry Kasparov, legendary Russian chess grandmaster and one of the leaders of the country’s pro-democracy opposition, has officially requested Latvian citizenship. In his letter to the Saeima (Parliament), which can grant citizenship to foreigners based on “special merit” (and which has made 174 such decisions since 2000), Kasparov explained that a Latvian passport would give him the security to work “in Russia and in other countries across the world where civil rights are denied and democratic norms are trampled on.”

Home From Cuba

I spent the last several weeks in Cuba and have just returned to the United States. That is one truly strange place. It’s right there alongside Libya under Moammar Qaddafi in the bizarro department. I’m glad I went, but I’m even more glad to be out of there.

Working in a communist country as an unauthorized journalist is complicated, to say the least. I had little choice but to slip in clandestinely on a tourist visa, which limited my ability to conduct formal interviews. So I’m still working on that from this side of the border. Cubans who left the island and live in the United States are willing and able to speak much more freely than those left behind. I can interview them without putting them in danger and without getting myself arrested and deported.

So I’m not ready to start writing about Cuba just yet. I need to interview some more people and transcribe the interviews I already have. But I hope to be ready soon enough. In the meantime, I can attend to the blog again—as soon as I can get caught up on what’s happening in the world.

I’ve been living the last few weeks in a near-total information blackout. Hardly any information whatsoever trickles into or out of Cuba. I was a mere 90 miles from Key West, Florida, but I may as well have been on the dark side of the moon. So bear with me.

And thanks again to all my Kickstarter backers for sending me there. It has been a real education, that’s for sure.

Economy Outranks Gay Rights in Serbia

KÖNIGSWINTER, Germany — Johannes Rueger personifies the values of progressive Europe today, particularly its youth. But as the young German discovered after relocating to the Serbian capital of Belgrade two years ago, certain western norms, like LGBT rights, have yet to be embraced, much less prioritized, by many in the Balkans with other bread-and-butter issues in mind.

Rueger, 30, has followed political and social developments in Serbia as part of his work for a German peace-and-reconciliation program in Belgrade. Based on his observations, he doesn’t have high hopes for the country’s impending EU accession talks

According to Rueger, who also contributes regularly to German blogs moe-kompetenz and ntropy, Serbia’s last-minute cancellation of the gay pride march in Belgrade last month (for the third year in a row) speaks to a lack of enthusiasm for certain EU values. Some in Brussels were not impressed.

A Ukrainian Blogger for Luhansk Mayor?

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny may not be the only blogger with a bright political future. Similar prospects could await the “Proctologist,” a critically minded Ukrainian blogger based in the depressed eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk.

I first reported on the Proctologist—a.k.a. Stanislav Tsikalovsky—in a post on March 30, 2012. At that time, Tsikalovsky was just making a name for himself, especially with a viral video blog in which he stated:

We have no city authorities and no provincial authorities. And it’s not even a question of having no prospects of large-scale change. We have no prospects of any kind of change whatsoever. All that’s left for us, for you, is at a minimum for us, the Donbas, to be enclosed with barbed wire and not be let out, so as not to interfere with normal people’s efforts to develop themselves and build a good country. And at a maximum, I guess, simply to drink ourselves silly.

The Looming Bad Deal on Iran

The nightmare scenario of a “bad deal with Iran” looms for three reasons.

First, the West is not putting Tehran under enough pressure from sanctions to get it to accept what would be a bad deal for them on their nuclear program. And now the “Rouhani narrative” surrounding Iran’s new president is persuading the EU and the US to go soft on sanctions with the hope that by doing so they will be bolstering moderates.

Argentina's New Opportunity for Reform

The midterm legislative elections in Argentina on October 27th left no doubt that a majority of voters have tired of President Cristina Kirchner’s confrontational style of government and want a change. Opposition party candidates for both houses of the National Congress soundly defeated Kirchner’s left-wing Peronist lists in Argentina’s major cities and most important provinces, all but dashing the president’s hopes for reelection in October 2015. What the voters will want then remains to be defined, but there is clearly an opportunity for a basic political reorganization that could replace decades of dysfunctional relations between Argentina’s political parties with a new politics of cooperation in place of mutual destruction. This depends on a spirit of national unity gaining strength among Argentina’s political parties over the next two years. The Kirchner era, which stretches back to the election of Kirchner’s late husband more than a decade ago, has been enormously divisive and the results of the midterm election indicate the voters want a pact between pragmatic dissident Peronists and opposition parties.

Will EU Embrace Ukraine's Membership Bid in Vilnius?

The European Union is often depicted as a feckless, bumbling institution with lots of sex appeal but little capacity to act and talk tough, even when it’s in the EU’s direct interest to do so. As Europe watchers know, the argument is not without merit, especially when Europeans need to consider policy measures that risk alienating influential states.

Here’s a case in point. It’s clearly in the EU’s direct interest to integrate Ukraine through association and accession talks, and it’s clearly in the EU’s interest to do so swiftly and decisively, especially now, as Russia has just ramped up pressure on Ukraine over gas. And yet, Europe appears unwilling to act and talk tough vis-à-vis Moscow, on which it is, to be sure, dependent for gas, even though it would be in its interest to do so. Is such behavior unavoidable?

Are Julian Assange's Embassy Asylum Days Numbered?

The Fifth Estate, the new film about Julian “WikiLeaks” Assange, was a reminder that the Australian who gained notoriety for disseminating secret US State Department e-mails has been holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in central London for 16 months. A long time, but not a record.

Assange sought asylum in the embassy in June 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden for alleged sex crimes. He has been there ever since. The Ecuadorians have created a mini suite inside the building, installing shower and kitchen facilities, while British police wait outside 24/7 in case he should decide to make a dash for it.

The record-holder for the longest time spent in an embassy to escape arrest, however, was Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty, the Catholic primate of Hungary, who remained holed up in the US Embassy in Budapest for 15 years. The prelate sought refuge in the American mission on November 4, 1956, just as the Hungarian Revolution was collapsing and he faced the prospect of being jailed by the Soviet authorities as its spiritual leader.

Putin the Powerful?

Last week, Forbes named Vladimir Putin the world’s most powerful person. The Russian president edged out the American and Chinese leaders. Barack Obama came in second and Xi Jinping third in the magazine’s fifth-annual list.

So congratulations to President Putin. Yet his perch at the top could be short-lived. It’s true, as Steve Forbes explained, his publication ranked people and not countries, but Putin’s fortunes and influence, no matter the strength of his personality, will diminish as his country’s accelerating economic decline and irrelevance continue, as seems inevitable today.

The Flame-Haired Fatale of Britain's Phone-hacking Scandal

Here’s what Rebekah Brooks, once Rupert Murdoch’s favorite flame-haired executive and now on trial in London with her erstwhile lover (another Murdoch favorite), is guilty of:


True, the former News International chief executive stands charged with approving payments to British public officials when she edited the Sun, currently Britain’s stupidest newspaper. And true too, both Brooks and her co-defendant/ex-lover Andy Coulson once edited the News of the World, which is now defunct, but used to hold the title of Britain’s stupidest newspaper. And true finally, various people working for that now extinct newspaper were fond of hacking into the telephones of actor Hugh Grant, singer Paul McCartney, various athletic hunks, assorted politicians, rival journalists, and, unfortunately, teenaged kidnap victims, and both Brooks and Coulson, not being complete idiots, had to know that the information retrieved on all of these people wasn’t very likely the result of a few psychic abilities.

Yet is tapping phones a terrible idea for anyone who works for a media outlet? Generally, yes. But maybe not in Britain.

Why the US Can’t Leave the Middle East

My new essay in the print edition of World Affairs is now available online:

America is in a bad mood.

In the midst of the worst economy since the 1970s, we’re on the verge of losing the war in Afghanistan, the longest we’ve ever fought, against stupefyingly primitive foes.

We sort of won the war in Iraq, but it cost billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and Baghdad is still a violent, dysfunctional mess.

The overhyped Arab Spring has been cancelled in Egypt. Liberating Libya led to the assassination of our ambassador. Syria is disintegrating into total war with bad guys on both sides and the US dithering on the sidelines, worried more about saving face at this point than having any significant effect on the facts on the ground.

A majority of American voters in both parties have had it. They’re just flat-out not interested in spending any more money or lives to help out. Even many foreign policy professionals are fed up. We get blamed for every one of the Middle East’s problems, including those it inflicts on itself. How gratifying it would be just to walk away, dust off our hands, and say you’re on your own.

But we can’t.

Actually, in Egypt maybe we can. And maybe we should.

Hosni Mubarak was a terrible leader and a lukewarm ally at best, but until the Egyptian army arrested him in 2011, Cairo had been part of the American-backed security architecture in North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean ever since his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, junked Egypt’s alliance with the Soviet Union.

The election of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in the wake of the Arab Spring, though, moved Egypt into the “frenemy” column. It’s still there under the military rule of General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the new head of state in all but name since the army removed Mohamed Morsi.

Sisi is no less hostile to Washington than Morsi was. As Lee Smith put it shortly after the second coup in three years, Egypt’s new jefe “sees the United States as little more than a prop, a rag with which he burnishes his reputation as a strongman, a village mayor puffing his chest and boasting that he is unafraid to stand up to the Americans.” 

Sisi knows his country and what it takes to appeal to the masses. The whole population—left, right, and center—is as hostile toward the United States as it ever was. Never mind that Americans backed the anti-Mubarak uprising. Never mind that Washington sought good relations with Egypt’s first freely elected government in thousands of years. Never mind that the Obama administration refuses to call the army’s coup what it plainly was in order to keep Egypt’s aid money flowing. None of that matters. The United States and its Zionist sidekick remain at the molten center of Egypt’s phantasmagorical demonology.

Bribing Egypt with billions of annual aid dollars to maintain its peace treaty with Israel and to keep a lid on radical Islam makes even less sense today than it did when Morsi and the Brotherhood were in charge. Morsi needed that money to prevent Egyptians from starving to death. He had a major incentive to cooperate—or else.

But now that the Brothers are out of the picture, partly at the behest of the Saudis, Riyadh says it will happily make up the difference if Washington turns off the aid spigot.

Turn it off then, already. Our money buys nothing from Sisi if he can replace it that easily. If he gets the same cash infusion whether or not he listens to the White House, why should he listen to the White House? He isn’t our friend. He’s only one step away from burning an American flag at a rally. He’s plenty motivated for his own reasons to keep radical Islamists in check since they’re out to destroy him. And his army is the one Egyptian institution that’s not at all interested in armed conflict with Israel because it would suffer more egregiously than anything or anyone else.

We’re either paying him out of sheer habit or because Washington thinks it might still get something back from its investment. Maybe it will, but it probably won’t.

Either way, Sisi instantly proved himself more violent and ruthless than Mubarak when he gave the order to gun down hundreds of unarmed civilians. The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood “retaliated” by burning dozens of churches, murdering Christians at random, and shooting policemen does not make what he did okay. He was, for a few days at least, no better than Bashar al-Assad. Giving him money and guns will make us no friends but plenty of enemies, especially when his regime proves itself no more capable of halting Egypt’s freefall than the last one.

Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations put it this way in the Los Angeles Times: “It is no coincidence that both Osama bin Laden and [al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-] Zawahiri hailed from US-allied nations that repressed their own citizens. Both men were drawn to the conclusion that the way to free their homelands was to attack their rulers’ patron. It is reasonable to expect that a new generation of Islamists in Egypt, now being taught that the peaceful path to power is no longer open, will turn to violence and that, as long as Washington is seen on the side of the generals, some of their violence will be directed our way.”

Even if the Egyptian army faces the kind of full-blown Islamist insurgency that ripped through Algeria in the 1990s—which is unlikely, but possible—Cairo will still get all the help it needs from the Gulf, not because the Saudis oppose radical Islam, but because they view the Muslim Brotherhood as the biggest long-term threat to their rule.

The case for walking away from Egypt and dusting our hands off is sound.

Read the whole thing.

Whither Afghanistan?

What’s going to happen to Afghanistan after the United States and its allies largely leave the country next year? And how about the more than $100 billion the United States has spent on new infrastructure and other building projects nationwide? Who’s going to care for and protect these buildings and other infrastructure—knowing that the Taliban would love nothing more than to blow them up?

That’s one significant quandary the federal government is facing right now as it contemplates possible imposition of the so-called “zero option.”

Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Kabul in early October and spent more than 24 hours with President Hamid Karzai, trying to work out an agreement that would allow a contingent of as many as 10,000 US troops to remain in the country after 2014, to continue training Afghan soldiers while also protecting Afghans and the infrastructure.

The two men said they came to agreement on several important issues. But the pact still remains hung up on one key point: Karzai’s insistence that American servicemen accused of a crime be tried in Afghan courts. Kerry rightly made it clear the United States will not accept that.


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