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NightWatch 20091130


For the Night of 30 November 2009

Philippines: Update. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo disclosed her intention to run for a seat in the Philippine House of Representatives in the May 2010 elections after her presidency ends, according to a report in The Associated Press on 30 November.

Arroyo said in an interview on government radio station dzRB that she would run for a seat in the second district of her home province of Pampanga, located north of Manila in central Luzon Island. She said she will file her certificate of candidacy and stand for election there.

Malaysia: According to a report in Channel News Asia, Defense Minister Hamidi said that piracy is increasing in the South China Sea and urged bordering nations to work together to fight the threat, according to Agence France-Presse and other news services.

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB), a global maritime watchdog, said there were 22 pirate attacks reported in the area for the first 11 months of this year compared to 17 in all of 2008. "The cases are quite sporadic as once we report an attack to the authorities the numbers go down but they then slowly creep up again," said Noel Choong, head of the IMB's global piracy reporting centre.

He said the affected area lies in a triangle between Indonesia's Anambas Islands, Tioman Island off Malaysia and the eastern Singapore Straits - essentially in the sea lanes east of Singapore.

Comment: Defense Minister Hamidi appears to want a justification for not sending more resources to the Gulf of Aden. In fact, the wholesale reduction of piracy in the Malacca and Singapore Straits is one of the major and most under-rated achievements of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, working together to secure the straits.

Pakistan: U.S. President Obama offered Pakistan an expanded strategic partnership, including additional military and economic cooperation, while warning against Pakistan's use of insurgent groups to pursue policy goals, The Washington Post reported 30 November.

US National Security Adviser James Jones delivered the offer, including an effort to reduce tension between Pakistan and India, to President Asif Ali Zardari. It was accompanied by assurances of increases in U.S. military and civilian efforts in Afghanistan and no early withdrawal plans.

Jones supposedly threatened that if Pakistan cannot deliver, the United States may use any means to rout insurgents based along Pakistan's borders with Afghanistan.

Comment: The New York Times and the Washington Post both published journalist reports that Zardari is in trouble and his government is in danger of collapse. That might be the case, but Readers should not understand those dire warnings as predicting the collapse of the government in Islamabad.

Pakistan's national government is a modified presidential-parliamentary system, owing to changes Musharraf made but failed to institutionalize. Zardari swore an oath to relinquish the powers of a strong president and did transfer control of nuclear weapons to the Prime Minister over the weekend - two years after he vowed to surrender that and other powers.

The US has a public declaratory policy of dealing with governments not personalities, but in the case of Pakistan every policy action has been based on the personality of the Pakistani president.

Zardari promised in 2007 and 2008 that the government would revert to the Westminster model. One of the reasons for the strong political opposition is his failure to keep that promise. He is corrupt. His appointees are corrupt. His lack of sensitivity to national security issues felt strongly by the Army leadership is astonishing. The Army despises him. Plus, he has not been a visionary or a good economic manager.

All of that does not add up to the collapse of the Pakistani government, only to a shift in the center of power, back to the Parliament, most likely with Army backing. The Army leaders seem to get along with Prime Minister Gilani, who should be the constitutional head of government.

The nuances of the political crisis in Islamabad were buried deep in the US press treatments. Personal assurances by President Zardari or by Army Chief General Kayani are not the same as agreements between governments. Every Reader knows that Zardari was acting on borrowed time in violation of his own promises. Any US officials who predicated policies on his longevity made foolish judgments. The same is true of Kayani who must retire in six months or so.

Zardari's reversion to a ceremonial president, which is the direction government is heading, does not mean necessarily a reduction in government leadership. It means Pakistan is trying to return to its parliamentary roots, departing from the Musharraf era's dalliance with an American-style presidency.

The unanswered question is whether the Pakistan Army Corps commanders are willing to accept government by the elected representatives of the people, as opposed to government by appointed officers in a closed, elitist and unrepresentative military social system.

US support for the last steps in Pakistan's political normalization - including the reversion of the president to ceremonial status -- will be critical to ensuring the Army does not seize power again. Zardari is an easy target for international news coverage, but he is not the government of Pakistan and he has always known it!

Russia-Iran: Today, Russia and Iran signed four cooperation deals in the oil and natural gas sector and the telecommunication sector, Fars News Agency reported. Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki endorsed the agreements.

With the signing of these cooperation pacts, Shmatko said, "Iran and Russia will continue expansion of their trade and economic relations regardless of barriers." Meanwhile, Iran's Atomic Energy Organization chief Ali Akbar Salehi said that Russia will receive priority in Iran's future power-generation projects.

Comment: The significance of this announcement is its coincidence with the Iranian announcement of intent to build more nuclear facilities. The Russians are pursuing their own interests.

For centuries, Russian national security interests have required meddling or engagement with the Persian empire and modern Iran. In no way are Russian interests congruent with US interests in Persia which appear to be aimed at ensuring Israel's security and US economic interests.

Russia requires knowledge of Iranian nuclear developments. To get that intelligence it must retain access to the power brokers in Tehran, simply because Iran borders Russia. Russia does not want another nuclear armed power on its southern border, any more than the Tsars wanted a strong Persia on their southern border. However, Russian leaders have decided engagement is more useful in influencing Iran's ayatollahs than international shunning, which is the failed approach the US has pursued in successive administrations. That this annoys the Americans is a political bonus.

Special Comment: NightWatch considers ludicrous those assessments that find Russian, Chinese and Iranian leaders consider the US president weak. This administration has tried new ways of doing business, been rebuffed in all three capitals, but has only been in office less than a year. What comes next will measure its strength or weakness.

The political model is Chicago politics. It is hard ball, not bean bag. The second round is the important round, not the opening action-reaction cycle. Some analytical centers don't get it yet and are premature in publishing conclusions because they have truncated the action.

For NightWatch Readers, consider: the history of the past decade is that leaders in China, Russia and Iran consider any US President to be unpredictable and dangerous because of the capabilities at his command and willingness to apply that power.

Historically, foreign leaders will see consistency in US policy actions more readily than change, as a matter of prudence. Thus, while they are prone to take tactical advantage of small windows of opportunity, analysts are unwise in assessing that foreign leaders consider a US president to be weak at this early time in his term of office. No responsible world leaders share that view, wisely. They see that view as baloney trying to pass for beef steak and they smell a trap.

Somalia: On Sunday, clan pirates captured a Very Large Crude Carrier, the second in a year. The Greek-owned Maran Centaurus, was seized more than 800 miles east of Mogadishu -- fully loaded with an estimated 2 million barrels of oil heading for New Orleans from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

By late afternoon, the Maran Centaurus had changed course and was heading toward the Somali coastline, according to Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarer's Assistance Program in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa. The 1,085-foot vessel's 28 crew members - from Greece, Ukraine, Romania, and the Philippines - were believed to be unharmed. Once the ship is at anchor, likely close to the Somali coastal towns of Haradheere or Hobyo, ransom negotiations will begin.

The only issues are the amount of the ransom and the speed of the payment. The attack raises fresh questions about the effectiveness of the international effort to curb piracy, headquartered at the US Fifth Fleet's base in Bahrain. A recent economic study proved that the cost of the international anti-piracy naval flotilla and the cost of increasing anti-piracy defensive measures aboard ship are far greater than the cost of just paying the ransom.

The Sirius Star, the only other supertanker ever to have been hijacked off Somalia, was freed in January after a payment reportedly of more than $3 million was paid. The value of the cargo was over $100 million. Industry executives consider the ransom to be a tolerable price of doing business, far less expensive than the price of suppressing piracy. That is an economic analysis, not a moral one.

In a separate incident, Somali pirates warned they would kill the crew of a Chinese mainland bulk carrier if the Chinese navy attempted to rescue the ship, according to today's South China Morning Post. Pirates seized the coal ship De Xin Hai in mid-October and are holding 25 crewmembers.

Pirate Nur said the pirates know China has arrayed its naval ships in Somali waters to attack. He added that there have been negotiations to release the ship and the pirates are telling China not to attack and gamble with Chinese lives.

Note: a successful Chinese rescue operation would be a jewel in the crown of the People's Liberation Army Navy operations off Somalia. The Chinese navy has had a few minor successes, but nothing comparable to a rescue for proving Chinese capabilities for sophisticated, multi-dimensional naval operations.

Uruguay: Update. According to exit polls by Uruguay's leading pollsters Cifra, Factum and Equipos Mori, Jose Mujica won more than 50 percent of the votes cast compared to about 45 per cent for former President Luis A. Lacalle, The Associated Press reported 30 November. The Electoral Court was releasing official results slowly, but the conservative Lacalle conceded the race. More on this later, as required.

Honduras: Update. Porfirio Lobo won 55 percent of the popular vote, with more than half the votes counted. His closest rival, Elvin Santos of the ruling Liberal Party, conceded defeat, Reuters reported today.

Washington commended the vote, but leftist rulers of Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and other Latin American countries said the election is invalid because it was backed by coup leaders and could end any hope of ousted citizen Zelaya returning to power and completing his term, which is due to end in January. Zelaya said the election was illegitimate and that the election winner would not be a true president.

The new US assistant secretary of State Dr. Valenzuela gave a solid press conference today but showed his lack of experience with the press when he stumbled over some questions. He said the US wants Zelaya restored as president for a month, in a national unity government. The Honduras Congress might agree to that for the sake of ending the outside meddling, but not of its own accord. A vote by the Congress on the future of Zelaya is set for 2 December.

The US requirement has been overtaken by the vote of the Honduran electorate. Hondurans seems to have been ahead of US policy makers since June. They turned out Zelaya's Liberal Party and elected a conservative, by a significant margin. And they ignored calls for a boycott.

There would seem to be little point in a gesture that assuages Zelaya's feelings of rejection but wastes money in one of the poorest countries in the world.

As for the idea that Zelaya's restoration would be a step towards national reconciliation, the election on 29 November showed that Hondurans really don't want him, his brand of snake oil, his party and his agenda. Such a clear expression of popular will by democratic vote should resonate as good news in Washington, even in Foggy Bottom.

Zelaya gambled and lost and deserves to be in history's dust bin, also known as the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa.

End of NightWatch for 30 November.

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