Saturday, October 29, 2011

"Don't Take The Brown Acid"

Sorry for the Woodstock reference - anyone who gets that is probably old enough to need a knee replacement - but I can't help thinking how, all these years after Woodstock, New Yorkers still can't handle being outdoors.

Anyway, that's the impression I'm getting from watching the Occupy Wall Street streaming video. The Fire Department seized OWS's generators this morning due to fire safety violations, so now they are hunkering down under tarps and wondering what they'll do when they get covered with snow tonight.

The Livestream comments are more interesting then the video. There has been a thread all day alleging that today's unseasonably early snow in the Northeast is really an attack on OWS by the Military Industrial Complex via its HAARP program. Maybe somebody got into the brown acid after all.

From other comments I learned that:

-- Brandon is barefoot because somebody stole his shoes
-- Another guy had his MacBook Pro broken when somebody stepped on it
-- Homeless guys are stealing stuff from the food tent
-- Abraham, OWS's "real big" security guy is keeping "the riffraff" [!!] away
-- Somebody thinks Kosher salt will de-ice the concrete in Zuccotti Park
-- Somebody is asking for baked potatoes as organic hand warmers
-- Somebody is quoting "Frm Secretary of State Brzezinski" [sic]
-- "Brian from the Comfort Section" is begging for tents and dry clothes

This has become my favorite reality show.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Slow Motion Suicide In Sarajevo

The WaPo report on today's shooting incident in front of U.S. Embassy Sarajevo quotes the AP and Sarajevo city officials saying that the shooter was a Muslim from Novi Pazar, Serbia, and that he wounded a policeman guarding the embassy before being shot by responding police. None of the Embassy employees was injured.

Radio reports are saying the embassy office building was struck by rifle rounds. Fortunately, the building is a new Fortress Embassy, completed almost one year ago, so the bullets bounced right off. Ha!

Bosnian TV identified the shooter as a follower of Wahabi Islam, and noted that he was dressed in "an outfit typical for followers of the conservative Wahabi branch of Islam." That must explain the highwater pants, since they are fashionable among young Bosnian Muslims, apparently in imitation of the shortened thobes (the white man-dresses) worn by the more devote Wahabbis of Saudi Arabia, who in turn are imitating the dress of the companions of the Prophet.

There is a good set of photos at the UK Daily Mail, here.

After Highpants paced back and forth for about 30 minutes, essentially daring the police to shoot him, they finally did so with a single head shot. Naturally, that moment was captured and posted to YouTube. The video is tastefully non-graphic.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

You Don't Want To Die With A Full Magazine

Now that Muammar Gaddafi is dead and his Old Regime overthrown, Libya is moving on to Act Two of the classic four-act structure of revolutions, i.e., the Rule of the Moderates. You can take that from Mustafa Abdel Jalil himself.

Historically, the Rule of the Moderates has been followed by the Rise of the Radicals, and finally the cycle culminates in a Thermidorian Reaction and the consolidation of power in the hands of a new dictator. Anyway, that has been the pattern of modern revolutions.

So now is a good time for historian Andrew Robert's piece in The Daily Beast about How Dictators Die, since he points out the extremely unusual manner of Muammar Gaddafi's death and the favor he did the Libyan people by staying in the country and fighting rather than escaping into exile.

Usually dictators do not actually die on their feet, weapon in hand, as Gaddafi appears to have done. All too often they escape from the countries they brutalized, or are captured and not executed, or (most often) they die in office, full of honors, surrounded by sycophants and only loosening their grip on power when their hands go cold. For Gaddafi to have fought to the last, not escaping to Chad or Niger, but believing in his diseased mind that the silent majority of Libyans still loved him, is quite exceptional for dictators.

Quite exceptional, indeed. Maybe even unique. I had not noticed before how very, very, hard it is to find an example of a dictator who went down fighting.

Roberts notes that Hitler killed himself. Benito Mussolini and Nicolae Ceausescu both surrendered and were promptly shot to death. Josef Stalin, Francisco Franco, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Marshal Tito, Papa Doc Duvalier, Vladimir Lenin all died in power, as will, most likely, Robert Mugabe, Fidel Castro, and Hugo Chávez. Saddam Hussein was pulled out of a hole in a bedraggled state and gave up without a fight. Idi Amin, Ferdinand Marcos, Alfred Stroessner, and Mobuto Sese Seko all died in exile. Pol Pot died under house arrest in 1998 and Slobodan Milosevic died while on trial in The Hague, where Charles Taylor of Liberia is currently on trial. Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic was removed from power, imprisoned, then died in his home country. Jan Kambanda of Rwanda is serving a life sentence in Mali.

It seems that dictators, as a group, have almost no willingness to go out like James Cagney in a 'come and get me coppers!' blaze of glory.

But if, like Gaddafi, they do, then that removes a potentially destabilizing influence that could impede the new regime's normal political development.

Robert's piece concludes:

The moral of the Gaddafi story is that it is very rare for dictators to meet their end bravely, still inside the country they are fighting to recapture. It was fortunate that he chose to stay and fight, rather than destabilizing Libya from abroad, perhaps for decades to come. As he was never going to go quietly, the manner of his demise at long last gives Libyans something for which they can thank Colonel Gaddafi.

Thank you Colonel, for rendering that one last service for your country.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

I Was So Much Older Then

Apropos of nothing, except that I've been listening to it on my iPod while flying back from TDY today, this is from Bob Dylan's 30th anniversary concert.

Dylan wrote My Back Pages in 1964 to step away from the more strident kind of protest song.

Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

The Byrds did a popular cover version, but it didn't include all six versus. Dylan, of course, recorded the full version, but, frankly, his rendition is too eccentric for me. This collaborative version is the best of both worlds - you get the entire song, and you can understand the words.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

My Kind Of Town

Also known as: the City on the Make, Hog Butcher for the World, Paris on the Prairie, and - my favorite - the Miami of Canada.

I'm working in Chicago tonight, on my first trip ever to the city, and I must say I am loving the place. Yesterday, I walked past blocks and blocks of wonderful architecture on Michigan Avenue, and tonight I found this red brick Victorian Gothic building of "luxury flats" from 1882.

It's a historical landmark building, one of the first significant pieces to be completed after the Great Fire, and today it contains a Starbucks (of course). I am all over that like white on rice.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Lexus And The Olive Tree Ball Cap And The Browning

According to a BBC report from Sirte, the Libyan rebel who discovered Qaddafi, a kid named Mohammed al-Bibi, was wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap at the time. That's him in the photo, holding up a gold-plated Browning P-35 pistol that he took from Qaddafi. (An excellent pistol, by the way; I used to have one myself, but just in plain blued steel.)

There are surely more important things to say about the end of Qaddafi, but I'm kind of struck by the weird mashup of cultural artifacts in that photo: dusty peasant militiamen, designer sunglasses, American ball caps, and a pimped-out pistol made in Belgium. There is a story about globalization and consumption somewhere in there, twisted around a political narrative about oppression and post-colonial violence.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mo' Better Fortresses

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We all hate those Fortress Embassies, don't we? Well, some of our diplomatic premises aren't nearly fortress-y enough but, in general, yes, we all hate them.

So it was good news when the Office of Overseas Buildings Operations met with its Industry Advisory Panel yesterday, and then sent out a press release about how it is exploring ways to design less fortress-y embassies. This is all part of the Design Excellence initiative that is slowly replacing OBO's established practice of standardized embassy design.

Here's the press release. Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations Introduces New Perimeter Design Concepts for Diplomatic Facilities:

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) announced the new Embassy Perimeter Improvement Concepts (EPIC) initiative during its Industry Advisory Panel meeting today. The EPIC team studied compound perimeter designs to improve the quality and appeal of the built environment surrounding United States diplomatic facilities abroad. The EPIC initiative [see a summary here] is one of many efforts OBO is undertaking in its renewed commitment to Design Excellence.

OBO and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security collaborated with Davis Brody Bond Aedas, Rhodeside & Harwell, and Weidlinger Associates to observe and document the perimeters of four existing embassy compounds. After analyzing the function and aesthetic realities of perimeter designs, the team developed a range of alternate approaches to achieving mandated security requirements.

The goal of EPIC is to design new embassy perimeters that present a more positive and welcoming image of the United States abroad, while meeting all perimeter security standards and the functional needs of these facilities.

Design Excellence, implemented in 2010, is a holistic approach to building U.S. diplomatic missions abroad. Using the Guiding Principles of Design Excellence in Diplomatic Facilities as a road map, Design Excellence furthers OBO’s mission to provide safe, secure, and functional facilities that represent American values and the best in American architecture, engineering, technology, sustainability, art, culture, and construction execution.

OBO has gotten away from the standard embassy design a couple times in recent years to do one-offs, most notably in Beijing. See some photos of that Unfortress Embassy here, and an artist's rendering from the embassy's website, below.

Wow. All that glass, water features, fancy landscaping, and cultural sensitivity. What's not to like? No Fortress there. Why not do more of those?

Here's my take-away from OBO's Design Excellence guidance and how it might affect future embassy construction:

-- Urban site selection for most new buildings. We can expect to see taller chancery buildings on smaller plots of land closer to the urban core. At least, we can expect that in those cities where OBO doesn't need to provide on-compound amenities like dining and recreation facilities, or on-compound housing. For the worst of the Third World, and for the highest-threat posts, big compounds in - necessarily - remote locations will continue to be needed.

-- Representational (not just functional) embassy buildings that are fitted into the surrounding architectural environment. No more Big Box diplo-kitsch productions that all come from the same template.

-- Grounds and landscaping will be an important part of the design. They will no longer be ignored, value-engineered away, or left for the regional bureau to pay for later. I could rant a little here about one of this year's new construction projects in which the entire compound is landscaped with a foot-deep cover of loose rock that looks like a barren moonscape, can't be safely walked on, soaks up solar heat until it feels like a frying pan, makes it impossible to establish a helicopter landing zone for emergency evacuations, and would become secondary fragmentation in the event of a bomb attack. I could rant about that, but I'm trying to ease up about it.

-- A higher value will be placed on selecting excellent designers (“seek to hire the highest quality American architects and engineers”), as opposed to hiring anyone willing to sign a firm fixed price contract for less than the next guy.

-- Designs will take lifecycle analysis into account, thereby reducing long-term costs for operations and maintenance.

-- Historical, cultural, and architectural legacy buildings will be preserved. OBO does this now, however, I hope it will more fully develop adaptive work-arounds for meeting security requirements, especially perimeter security requirements, in protected cultural properties. I see no reason why such buildings can't be preserved both in the cultural sense and in the literal sense of being preserved from destruction by mobs and vehicle bombs.

-- OBO will seek the best value when contracting. The guidance states that "current [OBO] policy emphasizes low first cost at the expense of design quality and lifecycle costs." Indeed, it does. They can admit that kind of thing now that General Williams isn’t around.

Come to think of it, General Williams has been gone for almost four years. What took OBO so long to shake off his influence?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

'Happy Fire' In Tripoli (What Goes Up, Must Come Down)

Listen to that joyously unrestrained celebratory gunfire in Tripoli! Unconfirmed reports say that six people were killed by falling rounds. If so, then it was even worse than a typical New Year's Eve in Puerto Rico, where only two people get killed. Arriba!

Someone has started a Twitter campaign to make Libyans a little more careful about where they point the muzzle when they empty a magazine.

Libyans cry #NotoCelebullets as 'unconfirmed news kills':

With troops loyal to Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) close to a complete rout of pro-Gadhafi forces in Sirte, a bloody evening of gunfire reportedly left six dead and many more injured 500 kilometers away in the capital Tripoli. Shortly after the explosion of small arms fire, ambulance sirens joined the din as scores of innocent victims were rushed to hospital. Property was destroyed and the streets of the Libyan capital once again became a place of extreme danger – all in the name of celebrations. A rumour that the NTC had captured Gadhafi’s son, Mutasim Gadhafi, in Sirte set off massive celebrations with hundreds of jubilant Libyans firing into the air. Activists called for a halt to the dangerous celebrations by tweeting under the hashtag #notocelebullets. In the morning, there was no Mutasim Gadhafi, as activists attempted to count the toll from so-called celebratory gunfire. The news remained unconfirmed 24 hours later.

Good luck with that hashtag. If it works, maybe we can tackle Puerto Rico next.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

U.S. Embassy Bandar Seri Begawan, On The Cutting Edge Of Diplomatic Water Efficiency

(Photo from embassy website.)

OBO (the Office of Overseas Buildings Operations) cut another ribbon this week, this time on the 84th new building to be completed under the capital security construction program. That program is a tragic legacy of the 1999 Embassy Bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

Here's the press release. United States Dedicates New Embassy in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam:

Occupying a 5.3-acre site in the Diplomatic Enclave, the new Embassy compound replaces the prior facility in the Teck Guan Plaza building located in downtown Bandar Seri Begawan.

The new Embassy compound incorporates several sustainable features, most notably an irrigation system that utilizes Brunei Darussalam’s abundant natural rain. The facility is registered with the U.S. Green Building Council, and will be submitted for certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) green building rating system.

-- snip --

OBO’s mission is to provide safe, secure, and functional facilities for the conduct of U.S. diplomacy and the promotion of U.S. interests worldwide. These facilities should represent American values and the best in American architecture, engineering, technology, sustainability, art, culture, and construction execution.

The local press in Brunei has some more on that LEED® green building sustainability stuff:

According to Mr Evans, the Managing Director for the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operation (OBO) Construction, Facility and Security Management Directorate, "The new embassy is registered with the US Green Building Council and will be submitted for certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system. The building uses advance irrigation system that utilises natural rainwater, waterless urinal as well as energy efficient lightings in the building.

Waterless what now? Urinals? Yes, and you can expect to see them coming to an embassy office building near you because waterless urinals play a major part in OBO's initiative on water efficiency:

Indoor strategies that OBO incorporates include low-flow plumbing fixtures, faucet aerators, dual flush toilets and waterless urinals. OBO further supports posts with a waterless urinal replacement program for older, more water-intensive plumbing fixtures in facilities that demonstrate high consumption and high cost.

I kind of understand how those waterless devices work, with a liquid sealant vapor block and so forth. Still, I find the whole concept a bit disconcerting. Would it really be asking too much for a little water to flush that bad boy? Considering that Brunei has 7.5 feet of "abundant natural rain" annually, compared to just 2.5 feet for the United States, why are we going to extremes to save a little water there?

I like LEED®-green-sustainable-ecological-efficient building design as much as anybody, but, please, how about a little more concern for the microclimate inside the men's room?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Che™ Was Launched On This Date In 1967

Tickle Me Che Pictures, Images and Photos

He just won't lie still, will he?

Career-wise, getting killed in Bolivia at age 39 (see the declassified documents reporting all the details here) was the best move Che could have made. If he had made it back to Cuba he would probably be in the same nursing home as Fidel Castro today, the two of them trying to remember their glory days of show trials and firing squads while nurses spoon soft food into their mouths.

Che avoided that pathetic fate by being re-branded from a failed revolutionary into an enduring image of adolescent revolutionary romanticism, thanks to the famous photo shot by Alberto Korda in 1960, seven years before he was killed.

The British art historian Martin Kemp identifies that Korda photo as one of the most iconic images of all time in a book to be released next month, Christ to Coke, How Image Becomes Icon:

Christ to Coke is the first book to look at all the main types of visual icons. It does so via eleven supreme and mega-famous examples, both historical and contemporary, to see how they arose and how they continue to function. Along the way, we encounter the often weird and wonderful ways that they become transformed in an astonishing variety of ways and contexts. How, for example, has the communist revolutionary Che become a romantic hero for middle-class teenagers?

Here's the face that sold a million tee-shirts:

Call me crazy, but doesn't that photo bear a certain resemblance to that other great cultural product of the 1968, Planet of the Apes? There is definitely a stylistic similarity.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

I Know Just The Guy You Should Talk To

The Office of the Historian recently launched an oral history program that will have a special focus on contemporary Foreign Service experiences in Iraq:

[T]he Office of the Historian has also collaborated with the Center for Army Lessons Learned and the Office of Provincial Affairs of Embassy Baghdad to capture the experiences of State Department officers working on the frontlines of expeditionary diplomacy at Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Iraq.

Now, where is HO going to find people who have experience in military-embedded PRTs in Iraq, and are eager to go on the historical record about what they saw and did there? Ideally, people with a flare for pithy description.

That's a tough one. Hmmm.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Declassified Document Of The Week

H/T to Unredacted at the National Security Archive for a very timely find on this week's Document Friday.

It's a State Department INR memo to the SecState dated November 7, 2001, reporting that "urban Pakistanis" polled immediately after 9/11 supported the Taliban regime in Afghanistan at greater levels than before. In fact, almost half of respondents favored increasing support to the Taliban.

The survey was conducted amongst “urban Pakistanis,” beginning “shortly after September 11″ 2001 and “almost all interviews” were conducted before the United States started bombing Afghanistan. In other words, the window that a westerner would assume that Pakistanis would probably have had the absolute lowest amount of support for the Taliban.

Not the case. The survey asked: “As you may know, our [Pakistani] government has been generally supportive of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. In the future, would you like to see our government strengthen its support for the Taliban, reduce its support, or maintain support for the Taliban at about the same level as now?”

The vast majority –46 percent– favored “increasing support for Mullah Omar’s regime.” Only a paltry 14 percent favored reducing support. The INR concluded that the Pakistani public “saw the Taliban more favorably than it had before the September 11 attacks.” And that Pakistanis “believed by a sizable majority that the Taliban are not a threat to stability in the region and that Pakistan’s ties with the Taliban are good.”

In a week when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff accused the Pakistani government of supporting the Afghan Taliban, it is sobering to realize how deep and pervasive popular support for the Taliban runs in Pakistan.

Flags Made To Be Burned - A New Public Diplomacy Metric?

Protestors like to burn flags, and those flags have to come from somewhere. In Pakistan, that somewhere might be a specialty shop run by an entrepreneur named Syed Mohammed Hussain who has flags to burn. I mean, he makes combustible flags to order:

Syed Mohammed Hussain has seen his one-off experiment [producing Danish flags to be burned] turn into a profitable little sideline as he produces American and Israeli flags to order.

This week brought fresh demand for the Stars and Stripes with a wave of demonstrations against American allegations that Pakistan was using an Afghan insurgent group to wage a proxy war against US forces.

But it all started with protests at caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed printed in a Danish newspaper in 2006. Pakistan witnessed some of the fiercest demonstrations, with two people shot dead.

"I was also very angry about the Danish cartoons but I wouldn't have gone out on the streets myself. Instead I decided to get Danish flags printed," Mr Hussain, who sells his flags for 500 rupees or about £3.50, told The Express Tribune

Word spread fast and he couldn't keep up with the orders.

Today, bulk buyers – looking for more than 100 flags – are given a discount.

And there has been no shortage of business this year as relations with the US have fluctuated between poor and catastrophic.

The killing of Osama bin Laden in May ignited a spate of flag-burning protests. Many Pakistanis were angry that the US could launch a secret, unauthorised raid on Pakistani territory.

Today his storeroom has a selection of western flags, including the Union Flag and French Tricolour, ready to be stamped, trampled or burned.

So here's my idea for a metric of Public Diplomacy success in places like Pakistan: monitor fluctuations in the local demand for U.S. flags.

If Syed Mohammed Hussain's unsold inventory of Stars and Stripes grows, that would be quantifiable good news about the U.S. image in Pakistan. If he has to work overtime to make more product and raises his prices, that would be a leading indicator of a spike in public outrage.

You're welcome, United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy!

Is Uzbekistan The New Pakistan?

- Google Earth map marked with the Northern Distribution Network, from CSIS.

After breaking up with Pakistan, it looks like we are rushing into a new relationship with Uzbekistan on the rebound. Isn't that always the way?

Both Hillary and Obama chatted up their Uzbek counterparts this week, and Congress is considering increasing our military assistance to Uzbekistan provided that it can find a way to overlook the regime's egregious human rights abuses and corruption.

The UK Telegraph has a story today on this bad romance:

The past fortnight has seen relations between Islamabad and Washington sink to new lows over allegations that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency was working with the Haqqani network to direct attacks on American targets in Afghanistan.

The crisis, the latest in a turbulent year, has seen both countries scrambling to build up alternative regional alliances.

However, more than a third of supplies to Nato forces in Afghanistan pass through Pakistan, giving Islamabad a strong bargaining position.

A White House official said President Obama had discussed sending more supplies through the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan during a phone call with the country's president, Islam Karimov.

At the same time, Hillary Clinton met her Uzbek counterpart on Thursday, and Congress is considering legislative changes that would allow more military aid to the Central Asian despite its poor human rights record.

"We value our relationship with Uzbekistan. They have been very helpful to us with respect to the Northern Distribution Network," said Mrs Clinton.

That route winds its way through Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia to Afghanistan and has already become more important in the past year as the US began switching supplies from Pakistan's roads.

But closer ties will anger human rights organisations which have protested proposed plans to send military aid to Uzbekistan for the first time since 2004, when funds were choked off as penalty for the country's poor human rights record.

Twenty groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group, signed a letter of protest sent to Mrs Clinton before her meeting with Mr Ganiev.

"We call on you to stand behind your strong past statements regarding human rights abuses in Uzbekistan," the letter said.

"We strongly urge you to oppose passage of the law and not to invoke this waiver."

As bad as the Uzbekistan human rights situation may be, Congress seems to be at least as concerned about corruption. According to Eurasianet:

Capitol Hill wants the Pentagon to be more transparent in the way it manages the Northern Distribution Network ... The US Senate in particular has voiced alarm that a lack of oversight over the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) has turned it into a gravy train of graft for Uzbekistan’s ruling elite.

“The [U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations] is concerned with reports of pervasive corruption in Uzbekistan and therefore expects to be informed of public and private entities that receive support, directly or indirectly, from United States Government funds used to pay the costs of Northern Distribution Network supply routes through that country,” a Senate report on foreign aid bill S. 1601 states.

-- snip --

A well-placed source in Washington, DC, indicated to that the use of subcontracted local firms on DoD contracts is an area of intense interest within some branches of the US government. Some officials worry that Uzbek political and security elites may be profiting from below-the-radar partnerships with international firms.

Another source familiar with Pentagon contracting practices in Central Asia alleges that Defense Department planners are aware that some US military contractors have cultivated relationships with companies that have been linked to friends and relatives of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

“Pentagon logistics certainly knew some contractors were using companies controlled by the Karimov family to perform aspects of their contracts in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. But it's very clear they didn't view this as a negative, just the opposite," the source said.

Maybe we shouldn't rush into this. Do these rebound relationships ever work out?