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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Mideast unrest a hopeful sign

Last week I wrote about the unrest in the Middle East and the confused response of the administration to the situation in Egypt.

I noted then, the Middle East was aflame. I didn‘t realize how much hotter things would get.

In Libya, long time dictator Muammar Gaddafi has reportedly fled his capital after ordering his military, and apparently foreign mercenaries, to fire on the protesters in the street. As many as 1,000 have reportedly been killed. In Yemen, in Bahrain, in Iran, all over the region spontaneous protests are breaking out and people are demanding the ouster of totalitarian regimes and calling for elections.

I had been worried these protests would be a repeat of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, but they do not seem to be. Buoyed by successes in Tunisia, where all this started, and in Egypt, people all over the region seem to be standing up and saying “enough!”

Whether or not this will turn out to be a good thing remains to be seen. It is notable, however, that for the most part the protesters are not calling for Islamic states but for elections — which is heartening. I do worry about what the radical Islamists will do in as the unrest spreads, as this sort of chaos is exactly the sort of thing they specialize in exploiting.

The people who should really be worrying are dictators not just in the Mideast but world wide. Sooner or later it‘s going to occur to people in say, North Korea, that if they simply have the will, they can take to the streets and force the regime change we‘ve been trying to cause with sanctions and what not for years. Kim Jong Il and his son should be shaking in their boots.

This is a prime example of what Americans have understood for centuries now — all government, of whatever kind, is only by the consent of the governed. It may take a war to throw off oppressive government, of course. In the end, if the people refuse to submit even in the face of casualties, there‘s little a government can do to remain in power.

What‘s heartening, is that while some governments seem to be resorting to violence, most of the protesters are not. They‘re simply taking to the streets and refusing to leave. Which is shutting down the cities where they are protesting.

I wish the protesters in these countries the best. They have for too long lived without the freedom to which all people are entitled. Those rights which all people are “endowed by their creator ... life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The causes and truths laid out so many years ago in that simple document, The declaration of Independence are no less true today, and no less applicable simply because the people are not Americans.

All IMHO, of course...

Friday, February 18, 2011

Decisiveness needed at the top

The Middle East is aflame. That's nothing unusual in and of itself, something — bad — is normally going on somewhere in that most unstable part of the world.
What's interesting is what's setting things on fire just now.
I can't decide if what's going on is a good or bad thing. Long time Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak was run out of office by a crowd of protesters in the streets. The same thing happened in Tunisia, Algeria is facing some of the same sort of trouble and now there are more protests in Iran and in Libya Muammar Gaddafi is finding himself in a bit of trouble.
Dictators all over the Middle East are finding out what a wise man once said, "ruling is not so much a matter of an iron fist as a firm seat!"
Should these velvet revolutions result in true secular democracy then I'm all for them. If they are a repeat of Iran in 1979, then they are worrisome at best.
In Egypt for instance, much of the impetus for the ouster of Mubarak was from the Muslim Brotherhood. This "movement" which continues to defend the use of violence against civilians and call for the destruction of Israel tries very hard to present itself as a moderate alternative to Al Qaeda. Never mind that nearly every Western intelligence agency believes they were responsible for the assassinations of both the Egyptian prime minister in 1948 and President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Just as troubling is the confusion on the part of the Obama administration on what stance to take. That Mubarak was a tyrant is undeniable. He was also a staunch U.S. ally. The administration flip-flopped several times during the 18 days of the Egyptian crisis. First supporting Mubarak, then suggesting he should step down, supporting him again — back and forth.
Our foreign policy might be wrong from time to time, but it should never be confusing. Vacillating from one position to another sends a message of weakness to our enemies and that is never a good thing. Worse it sends conflicting messages to our allies who have to then wonder if we will be there for them when we are needed.
If our few allies in the Mideast come to believe we will abandon them the minute things get tough they will start to look for allies elsewhere — likely from people we'd rather they didn't.
A leader can be seen to be wrong, they can even be seen to be overbearing and retain leadership. They cannot ever be seen to be uncertain or weak.
Part of the problem, of course, is the 24 hour news cycle, and an administration which believes itself to be media-savvy.
Former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs is perhaps a good political strategist, but as a press secretary he left much to be desired. Gibbs, and by extension the president, had a tendency to feel the need to respond immediately to any perceived crisis, often before the facts on the ground were known. This has led to a series of foreign and domestic policy gaffes when the administration has had to backtrack quickly after it became apparent their statements were wrong.
It is far better to be seen as perhaps reacting slowly, but with careful thought and deliberation, than it is to spout off with only half the facts and be seen as waffling or disingenuous.
What will come of the current turmoil in the Middle East is currently anyone's guess. What cannot happen is misstatements by the U.S. to make said turmoil worse or to lead our allies to question our commitment to them.
All IMHO, of course.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Crash is wakeup call on computer security

I've had a bit of a wake up call where computer security is concerned the last few days. It all started when my personal laptop at home started giving me the "Blue Screen of Death."
For those of you who are unfamiliar, this is when your Windows machine suddenly stops working and a blue screen with white writing pops up to tell you in geekese you're screwed.
Now normally this is not too hard a fix. You reboot, run some disk utilities, maybe restore the computer to an earlier point and move on with your happy little computing life.
Yeah, not so much.
I had what's called a boot-kit, and not to get into too much detail, it's a Bad Thing™. I could only manage to get the computer to boot up for about 20 seconds before it would blue screen out again. I tried several things to get to my data and get it onto an external hard drive but nothing worked.
Finally, I did the thing every geek dreads — erased the hard drive and started from scratch. Only to find out the company I bought the computer from sent me the wrong system restore disk and I was even more hosed than I thought I was.
For a complete geek like me, being without a working computer was like having my arm removed, or maybe half my brain missing.
Took me a couple of days but I was finally able to get the machine back up and working and it's now happily purring along. I managed to save some of my files.
I was also more than a little red in the face, because, after years of telling people to back up their data regularly — I hadn't.
Much of it I was able to salvage, and a lot of what I was missing I was able to find in attachments to archived emails, but it was still a very frustrating and frightening time.
The other thing which brought computer security to my attention was that the NASDAQ stock exchange's computers have apparently been hacked repeatedly over the last year.
For those of you who don't know, NASDAQ is the exchange where a great many tech stocks are traded so it's somewhat amusing they couldn't keep their own computers secure.
It's also a bit frightening.
So much of our world these days relies on computers. The phone in your pocket, if you have a smart phone, really isn't a phone at all. It's a palm-top computer. Everything from our cars to our televisions these days are connected in some way to a computer. Chevrolet and Ford cars are even Internet and cell phone connected as well.
Nuclear power plants, coal plants, hospitals — everything — is computerized.
With the revelation of the Suxtnet worm which invaded Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities and which was so sophisticated it almost had to be built by some one like the National Security Agency or the Israeli equivalent, it's becoming more and more obvious that cyberwarfare is here.
We also know that China has hacked Google's severs a couple of times and in response, Google is banning Windows from it's campus, preferring more secure operating systems. It's increasingly clear that low level cyberwarfare is a constant thing and it's not just the government which is under attack.
What's the solution? I don't know. I'm far from a computer security expert. My good friend Charlie Martin, who is a computer security expert tells me he and an old research partner of his are thinking about writing a paper on why after 40 years of work, computer security remains as bad as it is.
Again, I have no answers, but I do know we very much need to find one. Information security is now as important to national security as protecting our interests abroad, or our air space, or the sea lanes. The consequences of a major cyber attack to our infrastructure are also no less life threatening than any other form of terrorist or military attack. Imagine hackers taking down the air traffic control system at, say, O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, at Thanksgiving. Or not even taking it down, just causing it to tell controllers the planes are not where they actually are.
The good news, is DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, has two major programs going aimed at increasing computer security. DARPA funds and conducts high-risk, high-reward research programs, so there's a good chance neither of the programs they're working on will succeed. Roughly two-thirds of DARPA's projects fail. Although almost always there is a great deal learned even from the failures.
Whatever happens, computer security is going to be a major issue for years to come.
Me, I'm just taking my own advice and backing up my data.
All IMHO, of course.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Obama abandons our allies ... again

I have watched with interest the events in Egypt the last week or so. Under most circumstances I would be cheering a populace taking to the streets to demand a dictator step down — and make no mistake, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is a dictator.
In this case, however, having his government fall would not be a good thing for U.S. interests.
Much like Shah Mohammad Pahlavi of Iran in 1980, Mubarak may be a dictator, but he's our dictator, and much like Jimmy Carter, President Barack Obama is hanging Mubarak out to dry — likely with similar results.
I had thought this was, once again, a failure of leadership on Obama's part. I'm now coming to a different conclusion. I suspect it now has more to do with an unrealistic and simplistic worldview combined with a lack of understanding of what the Germans called "Realpolitik."
Both of the choices available should Mubarak's government fall, and that's looking more and more likely, are unpalatable at best.
First is the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1928 in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest and largest Islamic political group in the world and has been banned in Egypt. It is widely believed it was the Muslim Brotherhood which assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat after he signed a peace treaty with Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood has repeatedly defended killing civilians and terrorism. If the Muslim Brotherhood takes over, the most powerful Muslim nation in the Middle East becomes Islamist.
The next choice, and perhaps the most likely, is Mohammed ElBaradei. That name may be familiar to some, he was the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. ElBaradei is a mostly secular Muslim, and if that sounds like a good thing, think again. The IAEA is a creature of the United Nations, and ElBaradei has spent most of his adult life working for the UN in one capacity or another.
He has said in the past that nuclear weapons in Israeli hands are more of a threat to Mideast security than they would be in the hands of Iran.
He's also on record saying the U.S. shouldn't have them either. ElBaradei is a committed UN leftist and internationalist and manifestly Not Our Friend.
Mubarak may be a slimy creature, but he is at least our ally and a known quantity.
The Obama administration's simplistic world view sees any popular uprising against a dictator as a Good Thing. This is not always the case. For decades U.S. foreign policy has been to promote stability. Should Mubarak fall, the always unstable Middle East becomes that much more dangerous.
Moreover, Obama is once again telling our allies they simply cannot depend on us. This is not only dangerous to world stability, but dangerous to American Security as well.
If our allies believe they cannot depend on us to protect them, they will quickly seek allies who will — and those may be nations we would rather they did not.
And that brings us back to the Obama Administration's, in my opinion, dangerous naivete where foreign policy is concerned. They seem to truly believe it is their job to managed the decline of America. That the world would be a safer place if the U.S. was not the preeminent power in the world, but simply one more nation among many, no more powerful or important than any other.
The problem is, and this goes to the people who like to say the U.S. should not be the world's policeman as well, is that the U.S. is the only nation on Earth capable of maintaining the peace, more or less, and preventing civilization from melting down.
If that sounds overly dramatic, think again.
Currently the general consensus among the great powers such as England, France, Germany, etc., and the U.S. is that wars of conquest and aggression are not to be allowed. It would appear we use the U.N. to prevent these, while mostly staying out of purely internal affairs like Darfur. The reality is the U.N. couldn't prevent anyone from taking over a paper sack. It is the U.S. backing the policy of "no wars of conquest" which keeps it from happening. The first Gulf War was an example. No one has really tried it since, as they know they'd be facing us if they tried.
If the U.S. is just one more great power, rather than the lone super power, that threat disappears. You want chaos and old night? Let Iran not have to worry about a carrier battle group appearing off shore.
With no threat of American might hauling warring nations apart, the whole international system the progressives are so fond of falls apart — and the world goes up in flames with it. There are too many nations with grudges, or territorial ambitions, to keep that from happening.
What's happening in Egypt right now are the first cracks in the foundation. We need to stand up for our ally there as despicable as he may be, to reassure the rest of our allies we will be there when we're needed.
All IMHO, of course.