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The Obama administration published a series of memoranda on torture issuedunder the Bush administration. The memoranda, most of which dated from the period after 9/11, authorized measures including depriving prisoners of solid food, having them stand shackled and in uncomfortable positions, leaving them in cold cells with inadequate clothing, slapping their heads and/or abdomens, and telling them that their families might be harmed if they didn’t cooperate with their interrogators.

On the scale of human cruelty, these actions do not rise anywhere near the top. At the same time, anyone who thinks that being placed without food in a freezing cell subject to random mild beatings — all while being told that your family might be joining you — isn’t agonizing clearly lacks imagination. The treatment of detainees could have been worse. It was terrible nonetheless.

Torture and the Intelligence Gap
But torture is meant to be terrible, and we must judge the torturer in the context of his own desperation. In the wake of 9/11, anyone who wasn’t terrified was not in touch with reality. We know several people who now are quite blasé about 9/11. Unfortunately for them, we knew them in the months after, and they were not nearly as composed then as they are now.

Sept. 11 was terrifying for one main reason: We had little idea about al Qaeda’s capabilities. It was a very reasonable assumption that other al Qaeda cells were operating in the United States and that any day might bring follow-on attacks. (Especially given the group’s reputation for one-two attacks.) We still remember our first flight after 9/11, looking at our fellow passengers, planning what we would do if one of them moved. Every time a passenger visited the lavatory, one could see the tensions soar.

And while Sept. 11 was frightening enough, there were ample fears that al Qaeda had secured a “suitcase bomb” and that a nuclear attack on a major U.S. city could come at any moment. For individuals, such an attack was simply another possibility. We remember staying at a hotel in Washington close to the White House and realizing that we were at ground zero — and imagining what the next moment might be like. For the government, however, the problem was having scraps of intelligence indicating that al Qaeda might have a nuclear weapon, but not having any way of telling whether those scraps had any value. The president and vice president accordingly were continually kept at different locations, and not for any frivolous reason.

This lack of intelligence led directly to the most extreme fears, which in turn led to extreme measures. Washington simply did not know very much about al Qaeda and its capabilities and intentions in the United States. A lack of knowledge forces people to think of worst-case scenarios. In the absence of intelligence to the contrary after 9/11, the only reasonable assumption was that al Qaeda was planning more — and perhaps worse — attacks.

Collecting intelligence rapidly became the highest national priority. Given the genuine and reasonable fears, no action in pursuit of intelligence was out of the question, so long as it promised quick answers. This led to the authorization of torture, among other things. Torture offered a rapid means to accumulate intelligence, or at least — given the time lag on other means — it was something that had to be tried.

Torture and the Moral Question
And this raises the moral question. The United States is a moral project: its Declaration of Independence and Constitution state that. The president takes an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic. The Constitution does not speak to the question of torture of non-citizens, but it implies an abhorrence of rights violations (at least for citizens). But the Declaration of Independence contains the phrase, “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” This indicates that world opinion matters.

At the same time, the president is sworn to protect the Constitution. In practical terms, this means protecting the physical security of the United States “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Protecting the principles of the declaration and the Constitution are meaningless without regime preservation and defending the nation.

While this all makes for an interesting seminar in political philosophy, presidents — and others who have taken the same oath — do not have the luxury of the contemplative life. They must act on their oaths, and inaction is an action. Former U.S. President George W. Bush knew that he did not know the threat, and that in order to carry out his oath, he needed very rapidly to find out the threat. He could not know that torture would work, but he clearly did not feel that he had the right to avoid it.

Consider this example. Assume you knew that a certain individual knew the location of a nuclear device planted in an American city. The device would kill hundreds of thousands of Americans, but he individual refused to divulge the information. Would anyone who had sworn the oath have the right not to torture the individual? Torture might or might not work, but either way, would it be moral to protect the individual’s rights while allowing hundreds of thousands to die? It would seem that in this case, torture is a moral imperative; the rights of the one with the information cannot transcend the life of a city.

Torture in the Real World
But here is the problem: You would not find yourself in this situation. Knowing a bomb had been planted, knowing who knew that the bomb had been planted, and needing only to apply torture to extract this information is not how the real world works. Post-9/11, the United States knew much less about the extent of the threat from al Qaeda. This hypothetical sort of torture was not the issue.

Discrete information was not needed, but situational awareness. The United States did not know what it needed to know, it did not know who was of value and who wasn’t, and it did not know how much time it had. Torture thus was not a precise solution to a specific problem: It became an intelligence-gathering technique. The nature of the problem the United States faced forced it into indiscriminate intelligence gathering. When you don’t know what you need to know, you cast a wide net. And when torture is included in the mix, it is cast wide as well. In such a case, you know you will be following many false leads — and when you carry torture with you, you will be torturing people with little to tell you. Moreover, torture applied by anyone other than well-trained, experienced personnel (who are in exceptionally short supply) will only compound these problems, and make the practice less productive.

Defenders of torture frequently seem to believe that the person in custody is known to have valuable information, and that this information must be forced out of him. His possession of the information is proof of his guilt. The problem is that unless you have excellent intelligence to begin with, you will become engaged in developing baseline intelligence, and the person you are torturing may well know nothing at all. Torture thus becomes not only a waste of time and a violation of decency, it actually undermines good intelligence. After a while, scooping up suspects in a dragnet and trying to extract intelligence becomes a substitute for competent intelligence techniques — and can potentially blind the intelligence service. This is especially true as people will tell you what they think you want to hear to make torture stop.

Critics of torture, on the other hand, seem to assume the torture was brutality for the sake of brutality instead of a desperate attempt to get some clarity on what might well have been a catastrophic outcome. The critics also cannot know the extent to which the use of torture actually prevented follow-on attacks. They assume that to the extent that torture was useful, it was not essential; that there were other ways to find out what was needed. In the long run, they might have been correct. But neither they, nor anyone else, had the right to assume in late 2001 that there was a long run. One of the things that wasn’t known was how much time there was.

The U.S. Intelligence Failure
The endless argument over torture, the posturing of both critics and defenders, misses the crucial point. The United States turned to torture because it has experienced a massive intelligence failure reaching back a decade. The U.S. intelligence community simply failed to gather sufficient information on al Qaeda’s intentions, capability, organization and personnel. The use of torture was not part of a competent intelligence effort, but a response to a massive intelligence failure.

That failure was rooted in a range of miscalculations over time. There was the public belief that the end of the Cold War meant the United States didn’t need a major intelligence effort, a point made by the late Sen. Daniel Moynihan. There were the intelligence people who regarded Afghanistan as old news. There was the Torricelli amendment that made recruiting people with ties to terrorist groups illegal without special approval. There were the Middle East experts who could not understand that al Qaeda was fundamentally different from anything seen before. The list of the guilty is endless, and ultimately includes the American people, who always seem to believe that the view of the world as a dangerous place is something made up by contractors and bureaucrats.

Bush was handed an impossible situation on Sept. 11, after just nine months in office. The country demanded protection, and given the intelligence shambles he inherited, he reacted about as well or badly as anyone else might have in the situation. He used the tools he had, and hoped they were good enough.

The problem with torture — as with other exceptional measures — is that it is useful, at best, in extraordinary situations. The problem with all such techniques in the hands of bureaucracies is that the extraordinary in due course becomes the routine, and torture as a desperate stopgap measure becomes a routine part of the intelligence interrogator’s tool kit.

At a certain point, the emergency was over. U.S. intelligence had focused itself and had developed an increasingly coherent picture of al Qaeda, with the aid of allied Muslim intelligence agencies, and was able to start taking a toll on al Qaeda. The war had become routinized, and extraordinary measures were no longer essential. But the routinization of the extraordinary is the built-in danger of bureaucracy, and what began as a response to unprecedented dangers became part of the process. Bush had an opportunity to move beyond the emergency. He didn’t.

If you know that an individual is loaded with information, torture can be a useful tool. But if you have so much intelligence that you already know enough to identify the individual is loaded with information, then you have come pretty close to winning the intelligence war. That’s not when you use torture. That’s when you simply point out to the prisoner that, “for you the war is over.” You lay out all you already know and how much you know about him. That is as demoralizing as freezing in a cell — and helps your interrogators keep their balance.

U.S. President Barack Obama has handled this issue in the style to which we have become accustomed, and which is as practical a solution as possible. He has published the memos authorizing torture to make this entirely a Bush administration problem while refusing to prosecute anyone associated with torture, keeping the issue from becoming overly divisive. Good politics perhaps, but not something that deals with the fundamental question.

The fundamental question remains unanswered, and may remain unanswered. When a president takes an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” what are the limits on his obligation? We take the oath for granted. But it should be considered carefully by anyone entering this debate, particularly for presidents.

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PAKISTAN could collapse within months, one of the more influential counter-insurgency voices in Washington says.

The warning comes as the US scrambles to redeploy its military forces and diplomats in an attempt to stem rising violence and anarchy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“We have to face the fact that if Pakistan collapses it will dwarf anything we have seen so far in whatever we’re calling the war on terror now,” said David Kilcullen, a former Australian Army officer who was a specialist adviser for the Bush administration and is now a consultant to the Obama White House.

“You just can’t say that you’re not going to worry about al-Qaeda taking control of Pakistan and its nukes,” he said.

As the US implements a new strategy in Central Asia so comprehensive that some analysts now dub the cross-border conflict “Obama’s war”, Dr Kilcullen said time was running out for international efforts to pull both countries back from the brink.

When he unveiled his new “Afpak” policy in Washington last month, the US President, Barack Obama, warned that while al-Qaeda would fill the vacuum if Afghanistan collapsed, the terrorist group was already rooted in Pakistan, plotting more attacks on the US.

“The safety of people round the world is at stake,” he said.

Laying out the scale of the challenges facing the US in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Dr Kilcullen put the two countries invaded by US-led forces after the September 11 attacks on the US on a par – each had a population of more than 30 million.

“But Pakistan has 173 million people and 100 nuclear weapons, an army which is bigger than the American army, and the headquarters of al-Qaeda sitting in two-thirds of the country which the Government does not control,” he told the Herald .

Added to that, the Pakistani security establishment ignored direction from the elected Government in Islamabad as waves of extremist violence spread across the whole country – not only in the tribal wilds of the Afghan border region.

Cautioning against an excessive focus by Western governments on Afghanistan at the expense of Pakistan, Dr Kilcullen said that “the Kabul tail was wagging the dog”. Comparing the challenges in the two, he said Afghanistan was a campaign to defend a reconstruction program. “It’s not really about al-Qaeda. Afghanistan doesn’t worry me. Pakistan does.”

But he was hesitant about the level of resources for, and the likely impact of, Washington’s new drive to emulate an Iraq-style “surge” by sending an extra 21,000 troops to Afghanistan.

“In Iraq, five brigades went into the centre of Baghdad in five months. In Afghanistan, it will be two combat brigades [across the country] in 12 months. That will have much less of a punch effect than we had in Iraq.

“We can muddle through in Afghanistan. It is problematic and difficult but we know what to do. What we don’t know is if we have the time or if we can afford the cost of what needs to be done.”

Dr Kilcullen said a fault line had developed in the West’s grasp of circumstances on each side of the Durand Line, the disputed border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“In Afghanistan, it’s easy to understand, difficult to execute. But in Pakistan, it is very difficult to understand and it’s extremely difficult for us to generate any leverage, because Pakistan does not want our help.

“In a sense there is no Pakistan – no single set of opinion. Pakistan has a military and intelligence establishment that refuses to follow the directions of its civilian leadership. They have a tradition of using regional extremist groups as unconventional counterweights against India’s regional influence.”

In the absence of a regional diplomatic initiative to build economic and trade confidences before tackling the security issue, the implication, Dr Kilcullen said, was that India alone could not give Pakistan the security guarantees Islamabad required.

The special US envoy Richard Holbrooke has been charged with brokering a regional compact by reaching out to Iran, Russia and China, and Dr Kilcullen said: “This is exactly what he’s good at and it could work.

“But will it? It requires regional architecture to give the Pakistani security establishment a sense of security which might make them stop supporting the Taliban,” he said.

“The best case scenario is that the US can deal with Afghanistan, with President Obama giving leadership while the extra American troops succeed on the ground – at the same time as Mr Holbrooke seeks a regional security deal,” he said. The worst case was that Washington would fail to stabilise Afghanistan, Pakistan would collapse and al-Qaeda would end up running what he called ‘Talibanistan.’

“This is not acceptable. You can’t have al-Qaeda in control of Pakistan’s missiles,” he said.

“It’s too early to tell which way it will go. We’ll start to know about July. That’s the peak fighting season … and a month from the Afghan presidential election.”

…. more articles in the Sydney Morning Herald

In the Great Depression, only Gold Mine Companies produced good returns

There has been one relatively sustained beam of optimism during the weeks when the S&P was declining almost daily: commodity stocks. The commodity stocks did in fact bottom-out on relative strength quickly, and outperformed from November until the broad market began rallying again. Some market forecasters have been noting that, even when the S&P was falling, and major US banks were struggling to stay alive, the commodity stocks were quietly outperforming. This implies that there is light at the end of the tunnel. If as the grisliest of bears growl, a global Depression looms, then why are raw materials stocks outpacing other equities? The only commodity producers which delivered good returns to investors during the Depression were gold mines. (Admittedly, it should be different this time: China is stockpiling metals and oil, thereby providing,
in effect, a form of safety net for producers.)

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Indeed, a commodity stock portfolio structured according to our recommended weightings shown on page 38 should, we believe, continue to display good relative strength to the broad indices, and will likely display less daily volatility than the S&P. The gold stocks tend to go up and the other commodity stocks go down when the news is bank failures and catastrophes, or when Obama or a spokesman is talking about the Big Government American economy of the distant future; conversely, those economy-related commodity stock groups soar when investors turn optimistic about the economy—and gold stocks slump. The overall stock market will, we believe, continue to be heavily infl uenced by perceptions about Obama, his people, and his programs. This is an ObamaMama Bear Market now, and it is driven by both despair and disillusionment. The despair and the disillusionment may endure until the economy recovers. Many of the rules and criteria that worked in identifying bottoms in previous Mamas may not be so relevant this time. Obama carried the investor class by a sizable majority, the only Democrat in decades to score well with that group. They have been turning on him this year with the fury of those who feel betrayed. He is, however, a very smart man who has some very smart people around him, and he has a near-unique ability to convince the average voter that he is a true leader. That he has been stumbling is clear, but he is likely to fi nd his footing anew. US Stocks could put on quite a show if the economy is seen to revive—and his programs are seen to be working. What might happen then would be called The ObamaBull Market.

Written by the exceptional Donald Coxe for  BMO Capital Markets. You can contact them for the full 48 page report HERE . As Chairman, Coxe Advisors LLC, a newly incorporated investment advisory firm in Chicago, Don will continue to follow global capital markets, and to write and speak for investors. With 35 years of institutional investing and money management experience in the United States and Canada, Donald Coxe has a unique background in North American and global capital markets.

Donald also launched the  Coxe Commodity Strategy Fund (TSX: COX.UN) in 2008. The Fund provides exposure to commodity-related securities in the raw material sector weightings Mr. Coxe has established.

A Special Invitation from MoneyTalks – 2009 Risk Capital Investing Workshop

During the third week of May we are pleased to present our on-going series of workshops on risk capital investing strategies and opportunities.

You’ll hear from a hand-picked group of seven industry insiders on current market and business trends, commodity projections, as well as strategies for retaining and maximizing risk capital returns in this volatile global economy. Get answers to questions such as:

•    Is everything “risk” capital now?
•    Are we near the market bottom?
•    Where should we look to get back into the market?
•    Hard assets vs. the service economy
•    Is the relationship between gold and the $US changing?
•    Invest in Canada or the US? What about emerging markets?

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Our MC in Victoria is MoneyTalks regular Dunnery Best, in Abbotsford we’ll be joined by Rick Bekkering of Canaccord Capital and I’ll be hosting the evening in Nanaimo.

These evening workshops start at 6:30pm and promise to be must-see events. MoneyTalks listeners and website users can attend these workshops AT NO COST but you must register in advance. Please email me at grant@worldoutlookconference.com or call 1.877.926.6849 to reserve.

Seating is limited and we will be making the tickets available on a first come – first serve basis. You are welcome to reserve tickets for family, friends and colleagues. We look forward to seeing you in May.

Sincerely,

Grant Longhurst

The Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), a group vehemently opposed to the Cuban government, came out in favor of easing the U.S. isolation of Cuba last week. The move opens the possibility that the United States might shift its policies toward Cuba. Florida is a key state for anyone who wants to become president of the United States, and the Cuban community in Florida is substantial. Though the Soviet threat expired long ago, easing the embargo on Cuba has always held limited value to American politicians with ambitions. For them, Florida is more important than Cuba. Therefore, this historic shift alters the U.S. domestic political landscape.

In many ways, the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba has been more important to the Cubans than to the United States, particularly since the fall of the Soviet Union. The Cuban economy is in abysmal shape. But the U.S. embargo has been completely ineffective on the stated goal of destabilizing the Cuban government, which has used the embargo as justification for economic hardship. Although the embargo isolates Cuba from its natural market, the United States, the embargo is not honored by Canada, Mexico, Europe, China or anyone else beyond the United States. That means Cuban goods can be sold on the world market, Cuba can import anything it can pay for, and Cuba can get investment of any size from any country wishing to invest on the island. Because it has almost complete access to the global market, Cuba’s economic problem is not the U.S. embargo. But the embargo does create a political defense for Cuban dysfunction.

It is easy to dismiss the embargo issue as primarily a matter of domestic politics for both nations. It is also possible to argue that, though Cuba was once significant to the United States, that significance has declined since the end of the Cold War. Both assertions are valid, but neither is sufficient. Beyond the apparently disproportionate U.S. obsession with Cuba, and beyond a Cuban government whose ideology pivots around anti-Americanism, there are deeper and more significant geopolitical factors to consider.

Cuba occupies an extraordinarily important geographic position for the United States. It sits astride the access points from the Gulf of Mexico into the Atlantic Ocean, and therefore is in a position to impact the export of U.S. agricultural products via the Mississippi River complex and New Orleans (not to mention the modern-day energy industrial centers along the Gulf Coast). If New Orleans is the key to the American Midwest’s access to the world, Cuba is the key to New Orleans.

(click image to enlarge)

Access to the Atlantic from the Gulf runs on a line from Key West to the Yucatan Peninsula, a distance of about 380 miles. Running perpendicular through the middle of this line is Cuba. The Straits of Florida, the northern maritime passage from the Gulf to the Atlantic, is about 90 miles wide from Havana to Key West. The Yucatan Channel, the southern maritime passage, is about 120 miles wide. Cuba itself is about 600 miles long. On the northern route, the Bahamas run parallel to Cuba for about half that distance, forcing ships to the south, toward Cuba. On the southern route, after the Yucatan gantlet, the passage out of the Caribbean is made long and complicated by the West Indies. A substantial, hostile naval force or air power based in Cuba could blockade the Gulf of Mexico — and hence the American heartland.

Throughout the 19th century, Cuba was of concern to the United States for this reason. The moribund Spanish Empire controlled Cuba through most of the century, something the United States could live with. The real American fear was that the British — who had already tried for New Orleans itself in the War of 1812 — would expel the Spanish from Cuba and take advantage of the island’s location to strangle the United States. Lacking the power to do anything about Spain itself, the United States was content to rely on Madrid to protect Spanish interests and those of the United States.

Cuba remained a Spanish colony long after other Spanish colonies gained independence. The Cubans were intensely afraid of both the United States and Britain, and saw a relationship with Spain — however unpleasant — as more secure than risking English or American domination. The Cubans had mixed feelings about the prospect of formal independence from Spain followed by unofficial foreign domination.

But in 1895, the Cubans rose up against Spain (not for the first time) in what turned into the struggle that would culminate in the island’s independence from the country. With a keen interest in Cuba, Washington declared war on Spain in 1898 and invaded Cuba. The Spanish were quickly defeated in the Spanish-American War and soon withdrew from the island. For the United States, the main goal was less about gaining control of Cuba itself (though that was the net result) than about denying Cuba to other world powers.

The United States solved its Cuban problem by establishing a naval base at Guantanamo Bay on the island. Between this base and U.S. naval bases in the Gulf and on the East Coast, British naval forces in the Bahamas were placed in a vise. By establishing Guantanamo Bay on the southern coast of Cuba, near the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti, the United States controlled the southern route to the Atlantic through the Yucatan Channel.

For the United States, any power that threatened to establish a naval presence in Cuba represented a direct threat to U.S. national security. When there were fears during World War I that the Germans might seek to establish U-boat bases in Cuba — an unrealistic concern — the United States interfered in Cuban politics to preclude that possibility. But it was the Soviet Union’s presence in Cuba during the Cold War that really terrified the Americans.

From the Soviet point of view, Cuba served a purpose no other island in the region could serve. Missiles could be based in many places in the region, but only Cuba could bottle up the Gulf of Mexico. Any Soviet planner looking at a map would immediately identify Cuba as a key asset; any American planner looking at the same map would identify Cuba in Soviet hands as a key threat. For the Soviets, establishing a pro-Soviet regime in Cuba represented a geopolitical masterstroke. For the United States, it represented a geopolitical nightmare that had to be reversed.

Just as U.S. medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Turkey put the Soviet heartland in the crosshairs during the Cold War, Soviet missiles deployed operationally in Cuba put the entire U.S. Eastern Seaboard at risk. Mere minutes would have been available for detection and recognition of an attack before impact. In addition, the missiles’ very presence would serve as a significant deterrent to conventional attack on the island — which is why it was so important for the United States not to allow an established missile presence in Cuba.

The final outcome of the U.S.-Soviet standoff pivoted on the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which ended in an American blockade of Cuba, not a Soviet blockade of the Gulf. It was about missiles, not about maritime access. But the deal that ended the crisis solved the problem for the United States. In return for a U.S. promise not to invade Cuba, the Soviets promised not to place nuclear missiles on the island. If the Soviets didn’t have missiles there, the United States could neutralize any naval presence in Cuba — and therefore any threat to American trade routes. Fidel Castro could be allowed to survive, but in a position of strategic vulnerability. One part of Washington’s strategy was military, and the other part was economic — namely, the embargo.

Throughout Cuba’s history as an independent nation, the Cubans simultaneously have viewed the United States as an economic driver of the Cuban economy, and as a threat to Cuban political autonomy. The Americans have looked at Cuba as a potential strategic threat. This imbalance made U.S. domination of Cuba inevitable. Cuban leaders in the first half of the 20th century accepted domination in return for prosperity. But there were those who argued that the island’s prosperity was unequally distributed, and the loss of autonomy too damaging to accept. Castro led the latter group to success in the 1959 revolution against U.S.-supported Cuban President Fulgencio Batista. The anti-Castro emigres who fled to the United States and established an influential community of anti-Castro sentiment had been part of the elite who prospered from Cuba’s high level of dependence on the United States.

Cuban history has been characterized by an oscillation of views about the United States, with Cubans both wanting what it had to offer and seeking foreign powers — the Spanish, the British the Soviets — to counterbalance the Americans. But the counterbalance either never materialized (in the case of the British) or, when it did, it was as suffocating as the Americans (in the case of the Soviets). In the end, Cuba probably would have preferred to be located somewhere not of strategic interest to the United States.

The U.S. obsession with Cuba does not manifest itself continuously; it appears only when a potentially hostile major power allies itself with Cuba and bases itself there. Cuba by itself can never pose a threat to the United States. Absent a foreign power, the United States is never indifferent to Cuba, but is much less sensitive. Therefore, after the end of the Cold War and the Soviet collapse, Cuba became a minor issue for the United States — and political considerations took precedence over geopolitical issues. Florida’s electoral votes were more important than Cuba, and the status quo was left untouched.

Cuba has become a bit more important to the United States in the wake of the August 2008 Russo-Georgian war. In response to that conflict, the Americans sent warships into the Black Sea. The Russians responded by sending warships and strategic bombers into the Caribbean. High-profile Russian delegations have held talks with Cuba since then, increasing tensions. But these tensions are a tiny fraction of what they once were. Russia is in no way a strategic threat to American shipping in the Gulf of Mexico, nor is it going to be any time soon, due to Russia’s limited ability to wield substantive power in such a distant theater.

But Cuba is always an underlying concern to the United States. This concern can subside, but it cannot go away. Thus, from the American point of view, Russian probes are a reminder that Cuba remains a potential threat. Advocates of easing the embargo say it will help liberalize Cuba, just as trade relations liberalized Russia. The Cuban leadership shares this view and will therefore be very careful about how any liberalization is worked out. The Cubans must be thoroughly convinced of the benefits of increased engagement with the United States in order for Havana to sacrifice its ability to blame Washington for all of its economic problems. If Cuba opens too much to the United States, the Cuban regime might fall. In the end, it might be the Cubans who shy away from an end to the embargo. The Americans have little to lose either way.

But that is all politics. The important thing to understand about Cuba is the historic U.S. obsession with the island, and why the Cubans have never been able to find their balance with the United States. The answer lies in geopolitics. The politics in play now are simply the bubble on the surface of much deeper forces.

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The operation to rescue Capt. Richard Phillips involved dozens of Navy SEALs, who parachuted from an aircraft into the scene near dark Saturday, landing in the ocean. The SEALs were part of a group of Special Operations forces involved in the effort, according to military officials.

The SEALs set up operations on the USS Bainbridge, which had been communicating with the four pirates via radio and had used smaller boats to make deliveries of food and water to their lifeboat. Yet the pirates were growing increasingly agitated, the officials said. At one point Saturday, the pirates opened fire on one of the smaller U.S. Navy craft that approached.

As the seas grew rougher, the Bainbridge offered to tow the lifeboat to calmer waters, and the pirates agreed, linking up the lifeboat to the destroyer with a towing cable that left 75 to 80 feet between the two vessels. Phillips at the time was tied up in the lifeboat, having been bound — and occasionally beaten — by the pirates ever since he had attempted to escape by jumping into the water on Friday, the officials said.

Meanwhile, one of the pirates, estimated to be between 16 and 20 years old, asked to come aboard the Bainbridge to make a phone call. He had been stabbed in the hand during an altercation with the crew of the Maersk Alabama and needed medical care. “He effectively gave himself up,” a senior military official said. The Navy then allowed that pirate to speak with the others in hopes that he could persuade them to give up.

The three other pirates, however, showed signs of growing irritation, as the Bainbridge, 18 miles from shore, towed the lifeboat further out to sea, the senior military official said. “They had no promise of money, clearly no passage. The one ticket they had was the captain,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter on the record.

“In the last discussion, they said, ‘If we don’t get what we want, we will kill the captain,’ ” the official said.

Soon afterward, two pirates moved to one of the hatches of the lifeboat and stuck their heads out. The third pirate advanced toward the captain and pointed his AK-47 straight at Phillips’s back, the rifle touching it or inches away, the official said.

U.S. military observers thought that Phillips was about to be shot. SEAL snipers, who were positioned on a deck at the stern of the Bainbridge, an area known as the fantail, had the three pirates in their sights. The on-scene commander gave the snipers authority to fire.

“As soon as the snipers had a clear shot at the guy who had the rifle, they shot him and the other two in the hatches,” the senior military official said.

A member of the Special Operations team slid down the tow line into the water and climbed aboard the lifeboat. Phillips was then put in a small craft and taken to the Bainbridge.

more articles in the Washington Post HERE