Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Pakistan: Headache for Next President

Yesterday, Pakistan test fired a cruise missile capable of delivering either a conventional or a nuclear payload. The missile has a range of about 310 miles and is primarily seen as a deterrent in the ongoing struggle between India and Pakistan. (BBC: Pakistan launches cruise missile).

Pakistan made waves a few years ago when they joined the nuclear club and launched a flurry of diplomatic desperation talks including the US and India. A visit by Secretary of State Rumsfeld to both Pakistan and India managed to defuse the situation at least temporarily, but in all likelihood the current state of relative calm is only a brief interlude.

In a recent speech, President Bush made reference to Pakistan as part of an overall goal to bring Democracy to the "Arab World". (We'll gloss over the fact that Pakistan is not an Arab country. We know what he meant.) In my view, a democratic Pakistan is about the worst thing that can happen in that region. As things stand now, Pakistan will likely be the greatest headache facing the 44th President of the United States. Sometime during the tenure of our next President, there is the increasing likelihood that there will be a change at the top in Pakistan. That, not Iran and not North Korea, poses the greatest danger to the US and our allies.

A Democratic Pakistan - something I see as impractical at best and more than likely impossible - would virtually guarantee a fundamentalist Islamic government with very strong ties to terrorist organizations including al Qaeda. Pakistan being a nuclear power, that essentially means nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists; not a pleasant prospect.

While the present Pakistani leadership is cooperating with the US in the War on Terror, albeit with numerous restrictions that have hindered our ability to contain terror cells in that region, the populace openly supports radical Islamic terror groups. Many consider bin Laden and other leaders of al Qaeda to be heroes, not villains. Once Musharrif is out of power, and bear in mind that he has been the target of 4 assassination attempts, there is a strong likelihood that his successor will be very anti-American and is also likely to have closer ties to terrorist organizations.

When Americans take to the polls in the 2008 election, national security will still be the biggest issue facing us. Conflict with Iran and probably the status of Iraq will fill the headlines, but it is Pakistan that the winner of that election will have to confront. It is Pakistan, not Iran, that is the America's greatest threat.


Monday, March 20, 2006

XXX Domain - It's Baaaack

The US Senate has once again taken up the call for a .XXX internet domain in legislation aimed at compelling President Bush to establish the world wide red light district. This measure was killed once before amid strong objections by Christian conservatives that were concerned the domain would make it easier to find porn on the web (if that's possible.) Proponents of the legislation claim it will make it easier for software to filter sights thus "protecting" children from seeing pornographic material online. Of course, that software won't stop them from finding the magazines under dad's mattress like our generation did. (Family News: .xxx Domain Bill Returns).

My opposition to this bill transcends many different levels. First of all, the US government has no oversight authority in the establishment of internet domains, and I'd like to keep it that way. Neither Congress nor the President have the authority to create an internet domain nor do they have the authority to require web sites to conform to any naming standard.

The internet has grown into an international entity that embodies the concept of free speech. The only thing any government can do is corrupt that free exchange of ideas. Whether or not any individual or government approves of pornography is irrelevant. Once a government regulates one aspect of free speech, the foundation is laid for that government to regulate all aspects of speech. I'm not willing to give them that beachhead by acknowledging any right of the government to regulate pornography on the internet. The issue is bigger than that.

Much of the pornography found on the internet does not originate in the United States and therefore is beyond the control of the US Congress. Legislation of this nature by the US Senate is just as bad as the legislation in China that required Google to filter certain search terms and the results displayed to Chinese citizens.

What it comes down to in its basic form is responsibility. With freedom comes responsibility, and this legislation is designed to absolve us of ours by limiting freedom. If people do not want to visit porn sites, the solution is simple. Don't visit them. If parents don't want their children to visit porn sites, the solution is equally simply. Be aware of what your child does online. In other words, be a parent.

Making it easier for filtering software to block sites is neither a good reason to impose government interference on the internet, nor in this case is it a valid argument. Porn sites typically carry more meta tags than you can count ensuring that any mention of a search term that remotely hints at sexual content will find their site. Today's filtering software keys off these tags to determine if the site's content should be blocked. That methodology is far more efficient and accurate than relying on the website provider to create their site with a .xxx domain name - something that is unenforceable by the US government.

With luck, there will be enough opposition once again to kill this measure yet again. Sadly, I'm not convinced it will stay dead.


Friday, March 17, 2006

NASA Priorities Completely Backwards

NASA researches are expressing dismay and outrage over the latest budget priorities as current projects and future missions are scrapped in favor of dead-end projects. NASA has focused its current budget on maintaining the Space Shuttle program through 2010, finishing the International Space Station, and developing a replacement for the Shuttle. Budget casualties, however, are deep space missions such as Dawn, a project intended to place a probe in orbit around Vesta and Ceres. (Astronomy: Scientists sound off on NASA budget).

The most successful and scientifically beneficial missions since the Apollo program have been the planetary and deep space missions, yet these are precisely the missions now being cut in an ill-conceived attempt to keep the Space Shuttle program on life support. Despite the relatively low cost of sample return missions such as Stardust which recently returned particle samples from a comet, these types of missions are unpopular with NASA administrators and are now on the chopping block.

Repercussions to Project Dawn's cancellation are being felt across the pond as well. The European Space Agency who also had a vested interest in that project is angry at NASA's decision to cancel the project and views it as a sign that the US is no longer a reliable space partner. Said Gerhard Neukum, the ESA's head of the Mars Express image processing team, "This was not a good way to treat things in terms of international cooperation. Things are degrading, and I'm not the only one who feels that way."

NASA's priorities are definitely backwards. The Shuttle program is dead, but apparently the NASA administrators are not willing to release the body. The ISS program is so scaled down from its original design as to be all but worthless. The future of all space programs is not near earth exploration, but rather interplanetary research both manned and unmanned. Current NASA administrators clearly lack the vision to lead the floundering US space program in that direction, however. A change in leadership within NASA would be refreshing and would be most welcome both here and abroad. Given NASA's current direction, there are few prospects for the US leading any major initiatives in space exploration. With the European and Chinese space agencies on the rise, losing that initiative may prove to be an extremely costly mistake.


Thursday, March 16, 2006

Bush Reaffirms First Strike Policy

In a 49-page report to Congress, President Bush reaffirmed the US policy he enacted in 2002 which provides for preemptive strikes against nations potentially planning an attack against the US with weapons of mass destruction. (Union Tribune: Bush security strategy reaffirms strike-first policy, sees Iran as possibly greatest threat).

That policy has come under fire of late with critics citing faulty intelligence in Iraq as an example of why preemption doesn't work. Until 2002 US policy had opposed launching preemptive strikes and was the cornerstone of our waging the cold war. However, given the number of rogue nations that either have nuclear weapons (such as Pakistan) and the number of rogue nations such as Iran that are trying to develop nuclear weapons, a policy of preemption is absolutely required. A nuclear equipped Iran or a fundamentalist regime change in Pakistan are worst case scenarios that would most certainly prompt a US preemptive strike.

President Bush commented on the policy saying, “When the consequences of an attack with weapons of mass destruction are potentially so devastating, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize. ... The place of pre-emption in our national security strategy remains the same.”

The President is correct. What is needed in addition to this policy, however, is significant improvement in our intelligence gathering capabilities within rogue nations as well as a restoration of our credibility with regards to foreign intelligence. The argument for war in Iraq is seen world-wide as a failure of US intelligence (despite the same conclusions being drawn by France, Germany, Spain, and Great Britain) and that public perception will certainly make it more difficult to sell a skeptical world on the need to act preemptively elsewhere.

Iran is one of the nations benefiting from the loss of foreign intelligence credibility. Efforts to sanction Iran - or even merely warn them not to develop a nuclear program - have stalled in the UN Security Council. Neither Russia nor China support any measures that appear at all confrontational. While their motives have little to do with foreign intelligence and more to do with their strong economic ties to Iran, the fact that the US has lost credibility has contributed to our inability to gain more widespread support for sanctions.

Still, the policy of preemption is sound. It does not make sense to wait for the enemy to strike first when the results of that strike could be a nuclear, chemical, or biological attack against US interests or allies. If that means acting unilaterally or without the support of the UN, then so be it. US foreign policy is set in Washington, not in New York, Paris, or Brussels. In the final analysis, the President reports to the American people, not to the United Nations. It is our responsibility to ensure that rogue nations do not gain the ability to cause harm to US interests. If that means acting while the UN stumbles along in endless and fruitless debate, then we will do just that.


Monday, March 13, 2006

Bush To Promote Iraq Progress

Facing the lowest popularity numbers of his presidency, President Bush will take to the airwaves in a series of speeches designed to garner public support for our efforts in Iraq. The speeches come at a time when polls show the largest number of Americans to date questioning a successful outcome in Iraq and expressing displeasure with the President's handling of the war.

Recent polls show that four out of five Americans believe the conflict in Iraq will escalate into civil war; an opinion that increasingly appears more like hindsight than prognostication. With armed conflicts between Shiites and Sunnis on the rise, it would be a hard sell to convince most Americans that Iraq is not already embroiled in a civil war.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block in the sales pitch to America is the administration's continued insistence that a democratic Middle East is the right approach. Few Americans believe that Democracy can flourish in Iraq. Recent elections in the Palestinian Congress emphasize the perils of promoting Democracy in a region where terrorism and anti-American or anti-Israeli sentiment has popular support. Thoughts of Democratic elections in Pakistan are enough to give even the most optimistic supporter of the policy nightmares for weeks.

Democracy is not a form of government suitable for everyone, nor is it in our best interests to promote popularly elected governments in every part of the world. The sad reality is that there are times when a dictatorship is the right solution, not just for American interests, but also for the betterment of the people in that region. Iraq is one of those places where a call for Democracy virtually guarantees continued armed conflict.

The President will have a very difficult sales pitch to make in his coming speeches. He's going to have to convince a skeptical public that progress is being made in Iraq while news reports continue to show a country backsliding quickly into civil war. He's going to have to convince a skeptical public that promoting Democracy in Iraq is the right approach while the lessons learned from Hamas' recent election show that Democratic elections do not always turn out in our favor. Most importantly, he's going to have to convince us that we are capable of sustaining our efforts in Iraq while the likelihood of military action in Iran continues to increase. It will be a tough sell at best.