Monday, June 30, 2008

A century ago in Siberia

One hundred years ago today something fell from the sky and flattened hundreds of square miles of forest in a remote part of Siberia. Called the Tunguska event (after a nearby river), it was an explosion estimated to be a thousand times larger than the nuclear blast that leveled Hiroshima in World War II. It was so incredibly massive that the sound of the explosion was heard hundreds of miles away, it threw enough debris into the atmosphere to reflect enough sunlight that the night sky in London - thousands of miles away - was bright enough to read a newspaper.

Still, 100 years later scientists still aren't quiet sure what caused Tunguska. Some of the wilder theories say the blast was caused by a mini black hole, or perhaps an exploding alien space ship. The most popular theory though is that the blast was caused by a rocky asteroid about 100 feet across.

Tunguska is so remote that scientists didn't reach the area for nearly 20 years after the event, due in part to the fear the local Evenk people had of the impact area – they regarded it as a place of evil. Scientists were also confused by the lack of a crater, since asteroid impacts typically make craters (just look at the surface of the moon). The main theory is now that the asteroid blew up several miles above the surface. Strangely the hundreds of square miles of trees knocked down in the Tunguska event didn't fall in a circle, but instead in a pattern called the "Tunguska butterfly" because it resembles, well, a butterfly. This same pattern was also seen in the debris of Hiroshima (the atomic bomb there exploded not on impact with the ground, but about a mile above it).

Scientists estimate a Tunguska-sized asteroid probably hits the Earth every 300 years, so hopefully we'll be safe for another couple of centuries.
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Candidates Take Presidential Race Overseas

Look for John McCain and Barack Obama to hit the road this summer to boost their respective foreign policy platforms ahead of this November's election.

McCain is going first with a trip to Mexico and Columbia next week. Not to be outdone, Obama has two trips planned so far - a five-country junket through England, France, Germany, Israel and Jordan; and a second trip later in the summer to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Look for free trade to be the topic of McCain's trip - he is a supporter of a proposed trade agreement with Columbia and a backer of NAFTA (a treaty Obama has talked about renegotiating). Obama, meanwhile, will likely use his trips to pump up his foreign policy credentials. Europe is already excited about the prospect of an Obama presidency, so expect him to use warm welcomes in the EU countries as a way of boosting his argument for change.

McCain boxed him into visiting to Iraq and Afghanistan this spring by challenging him to a joint trip. McCain was critical of Obama for opposing the war in Iraq while only visiting the country once (McCain, a strong backer of the war, has visited seven times). This trip will be Obama's second to Iraq and first to Afghanistan.

It will be interesting to see how the camps spin the visits of both their candidate and their opponent.
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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Good cop, bad cop?

A staple of American TV crime shows is the good cop/bad cop routine - one police officer acts kindly, and friendly towards a suspect, while his partner comes off as hard-nosed and mean. The idea is that by working as a team, but with approaches that are the opposite of each other, together in the end they will get what they want.

I wonder if that is what's going on in Russia today with President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Consider last week's talks with foreign leaders.

Medvedev hosted a summit with leaders from the EU in Siberia. The New York Times reported that he took a new tack with the Europeans: he was nice to them. Instead of the aggressive approach favored in the past by Putin during his negotiations with the Europeans, Medvedev came off as quiet and reserved, he even admitted that Russia had made some policy mistakes in the past few years in dealing with Europe. He gave his fellow diplomats gifts - a book of photographs that Medvedev himself has taken (which he autographed, of course). The goal was to put a reasonable face on Russia, to make the Medvedev government look like one willing to work with the Europeans, rather than against him.

Meanwhile Putin was meeting with his counterpart from Ukraine, Yulia Tymoshenko. Putin, not surprisingly, played the bad cop. He told Ukraine to expect contracts with Russian companies in the energy and aerospace fields to be cancelled if Ukraine goes ahead with their plans to join NATO. The topic of Russia's Black Sea fleet also came up. After the Soviet Union dissolved, much of the old Soviet navy became the Russian navy, the problem is that their base at Sevastopol is now part of Ukraine. Russia wants to keep the base, which is leased through 2017, permanently; Ukraine thinks that nine more years is long enough to play host to the Russian navy. The issue is becoming one of many sore points between the two states.

Books of photographs or threats of cancelled contracts. It will be interesting to see whether the good cop or the bad cop has more success.
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Friday, June 27, 2008

North Korea demolishes nuclear reactor

With a little fanfare and in front of a collection of international diplomats and journalists, North Korea blew up the cooling tower of their Yongbyon nuclear reactor on Friday. The explosion put a symbolic end to their nuclear weapons program. The Yongbyon reactor is believed to have produced enough plutonium for up to a half dozen bombs.

Reaction so far has been positive. The United States has agreed to lift some of the economic sanctions in place against North Korea and will begin the process of removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. In other words, if all goes well, the "axis of evil" will soon lose a charter member.

The US (along with China, Russia, South Korea and Japan) has been negotiating with North Korea for years over their nuclear weapons program. For years though it seems like little progress has been made.

While blowing up the Yongbyon reactor is a good step, critics have said that the agreement made with North Korea leaves a lot to be desired - that negotiators could have made this same deal years ago and that it goes easy on North Korea. For example, the Koreans did not have to disclose just how many nuclear weapons they have made (the best guess is between six and eight, but there is no hard evidence that the Koreans have built any bombs at all). Some also worry that while the destruction of the Yongbyon site puts an end to North Korea's plutonium bomb program, that a second program making nuclear weapons out of uranium may still exist.

What this all means is that there will be more negotiations and more verification trips in the future. But it is the first solid sign of progress in a long time.
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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Veteran opposition leader leaves top post in Russia

All in all this isn't a really big story - liberal Russian politician Grigory Yavlinsky has decided not to run again for the leadership of Yabloko, the political party he founded in the 1990's.

Yabloko shows part of the problem with political parties in Russia today. Vladimir Putin is often blamed for turning Russia away from true democracy during his eight years as president of Russia. What's not mentioned is how the liberal parties in Russia, the ones that would have been the opposition to Putin during his presidency, basically fell apart during that time.

Yabloko has suffered from infighting among its leaders for quite some time now, hurting their ability to compete effectively in national elections. Past that Yabloko and other liberal, reformist parties from the 1990's, like the Union of Right Forces (SPS in Russian) were tied to the economic chaos of the nineties in the minds of many voters, something that hurt them greatly in the polls. Neither Yabloko nor the SPS received enough votes in the most recent election to be represented in the Russian Duma.

Yavlinsky though should get a lot of credit for forming the first western-style democratic party in Russia following the fall of the Soviet Union.
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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Terror 1, Democracy 0

Well, it looks like it's over in Zimbabwe...

Morgan Tsvangirai dropped his challenge to President Robert Mugabe on Sunday, meaning that Mugabe will run unopposed in Friday's runoff election - guaranteeing his reelection.

Tsvangirai said the cost to the supporters of his Movement for Democratic Change party had gotten too high. In recent weeks, forces loyal to Mugabe have waged a brutal campaign against MDC supporters, beating, raping and murdering them. Few people, aside from Mugabe's supporters, expected Friday's elections to be either free or fair.

So, for now, it looks like Mugabe's brutal campaign to stay in power has succeeded. Tsvangirai has called on the United Nations, the European Union and neighboring governments in Southern Africa to step up and put pressure on the Mugabe regime. But considering how Mugabe views world condemnation as a badge of honor, its hard to imagine some tough diplomatic words will convince him to loosen his iron grip on power.

His African neighbors could, in theory, have some impact on him though. Zimbabwe is a landlocked country, so eventually to import or export anything it has to send them to ports in neighboring countries like South Africa. If these countries were to launch an economic boycott on Zimbabwe, close their ports to Zimbabwe's business that could have an effect. But that would also mean that Zimbabwe's neighbors would have to take strong, decisive action on behalf of the ideals of democracy and good governance, something they have lacked the courage to do so far.

So, for now, the people of Zimbabwe will continue to suffer so a pathetic old man can cling to power.
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Sarkozy calls for Palestinian state

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is taking some bold steps in the area of foreign affairs.

On his first state visit to Israel, Sarkozy called for the formation of a Palestinian state, saying the new state of Palestine could be formed "tomorrow". Sarkozy said that he believes the two-state solution (Israel and Palestine as independent states) is the best way to provide lasting peace and security to Israel.

It was a bold move for him to take. His visit was the first to Israel by a French president in more than a decade. His predecessor, Jacques Chirac, was regarded as being pro-Arab during his time as president - a position that the Israelis were not always happy with.

Earlier in the week, Sarkozy announced his intention to bring France back into NATO's military command structure. Despite being a founding member of NATO, France withdrew their military support in the 1960's. The independence of their military from NATO command (unlike most other European nations) has been a long-standing area of national pride for the French.

The NATO announcement came as part of a package of military reforms Sarkozy proposed. France has Europe's largest army. Sarkozy wants to begin a large-scale modernization program that will reduce the overall size of the military, but make it more high-tech. He also wants the French military to focus more on anti-terrorism operations.

France plans to close several of its remaining military outposts in Africa, but will open a new base in Abu Dhabi in the Persian Gulf.
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Saturday, June 21, 2008

I'm sure this is just a coincidence

The same day that this story: Israel Conducted War Games, U.S. Officials Report came out, so did this one: Hezbollah 'sleeper cells' activated in Canada: report.

First things first. In the beginning of June Israel conducted a large-scale military exercise, where nearly 100 aircraft flew 900 miles out into the Mediterranean Sea and back. Aside from the large number of planes involved, the distance was interesting, since 900 miles is the approximate distance from Israel to Iran's suspected nuclear weapons research site outside the city of Natanz.

Military action to stop Iran's nuclear research program is something that has been floating around out there for at least a year now. But the large-scale exercise has to be an indication that Israel is considering the option seriously. Earlier in the month a former Israeli defense minister said that an attack was inevitable because the policy of sanctions against Iran have not stopped their research.

Of course many other countries are bitterly opposed to military strikes against Iran, not to mention the concern over what an attack on Iran would do to world oil prices. That's why it seemed like awfully good timing that the story about Hezbollah sleeper cells in Canada came out on the same day, especially when you read the story you find that the evidence backing up these threats is almost non-existent. Keep in mind that Hezbollah's main source of funding is widely thought to be the Iranian government. So if the nuclear threat isn't enough, there's always terrorism...
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Thursday, June 19, 2008

'Oldest' computer music unveiled

Call it the great, great, grandfather of electronica I suppose.

The BBC has released the earliest known recording of music made entirely by computer. The scratchy recording dates back to the fall of 1951 and contains snippets of songs including "Baa Baa Black Sheep" and "In the Mood".

The recording was made on a Ferranti Mark 1 computer at the University of Manchester. The Ferranti Mark 1 was the first commercially available programmable computer. Programs for the Mark 1 had to fit within the machine's 1024 bit (or one kilobyte) memory. Just for comparison, figure that the average MP3 file today is around 4-6 megabytes in size - thousands of times the size of the Mark 1's memory.

The recordings were made for a BBC children's show and predate what was thought to be the first recording of electronic music - made by an IBM mainframe in 1957 - by six years. The Ferranti Mark 1 set the stage for the commercial growth of computers and was the forerunner to all the Macs and PCs of today.

The recording can be heard here.
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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

British ministers to review climate change plan

The Guardian is reporting that a new report blaming biofuels for much of the recent sharp rise in global food prices is bound to force a change in both the UK and EU's plans to fight global greenhouse gas emissions.

Like in the US, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown also took the foolish step of making corn-based ethanol a major part of their plan to reduce emissions. The result has been to drive the demand for corn up dramatically. A basic rule of economics is that when the demand rises, so does the price, and that factor has caused more than 100 million people worldwide (by most estimates) to go hungry.

The Gallagher Report states that there is a place for biofuel in the strategy to reduce world greenhouse gas emissions, but the emphasis should be put on developing what it calls second-generation biofuels - ones that use fibrous plans as the source (what's often called cellulose-based ethanol in the US). Food crops for ethanol, the report suggests, should only be grown on "marginal" croplands - fields that do not yield enough crops to be commercially viable for food production.

Really it seems like common sense not to use food crops for fuel. Instead of building ethanol plants to turn corn into fuel (a process that basically uses as much fossil fuel to produce ethanol as it replaces), that money should be spent on research to make cellulose ethanol commercially viable, it is good to see a major government report reach that conclusion.
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Bono vs. Sarkozy

Back in 2005 a group of the world's leading economies (a.k.a. the G8) pledged to double the foreign aid they provided to Africa by 2010. With less than two years until the deadline though, the G8 nations are falling far short of the mark, and that has musicians-turned-activists Bono and Bob Geldof mad.

They've singled out France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, since France has actually reduced aid to southern Africa in the past two years. Geldof said the wealthy nations have "failed…utterly and miserably."

Geldof and Bono grandly took up the cause of Africa in recent years, not only lobbying the leaders of the world's richest nations, but also holding the worldwide series of Live 8 concerts to build awareness of the plight of the poorest African nations. They have vocally promoted both foreign aid and debt relief for Africa's poorest nations.

That second part - the debt relief - they say is especially important, because many African nations face crushing debt payments to foreign nations (usually wealthy foreign nations). Unable to ever payoff their loans, the African nations are forced to pay huge parts of their annual revenues in interest payments, leaving them with little money to develop their own countries. So, Bono and Geldof say, forgive the debt and these countries will have much more money to spend on their own people, thus giving them a chance to develop.

But part of the debt forgiveness plan is that each nation getting their debt forgiven must make a commitment to good government - in other words they have to run their countries well: free elections, no government oppression, no funneling public funds off to Swiss bank accounts, and so on.

Reaction in Southern Africa to the ongoing crisis in Zimbabwe though shows that many of these governments have some work to do regarding good government and helping to prop up a regional dictator, I would argue, is not a solid commitment to good governance. If Bono is going to critique Sarkozy for not paying up, fine. But I'd also expect him to scold the governments in Southern Africa for helping to prop up a dictator.

The G8 nations should live up to their pledges to Africa, but the countries in Africa need to live up to their end of the bargain as well. If a country is going to have billions of dollars worth of debt forgiven, asking their government to commit to a series of policies to ensure the ethical running of their country is not a huge price to ask.
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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

I do Time.com's job for them

Time.com has a report about the latest survey by the Pew Research group on the world's attitude toward the United States. Overall, the news is looking better for the US, for the first time since the start of the Iraq war, foreign opinion of the United States has increased, albeit slightly. Some of that may be because President Bush will soon be out of the picture - nearly 4 in 10 nations polled thought foreign relations would improve under a new president, with most feeling that Barack Obama would do a better job on the world stage than John McCain. On the downside, a majority of nations thought that the US had too much influence on their domestic affairs and nearly half identified us as the world's largest polluter (China was also cited as polluting too much). Their article on the Pew survey is here.

The Time.com article ends with a few items that the author, Gilbert Cruz, puts out as truly imponderable questions that he wished the poll had answered. Frankly, they're not all that imponderable. He asks:

1. Why, for example, do Russians prefer powerful leaders to straight-up democracies? (Pew found 57% of Russians "favor a 'leader with a strong hand'")

This one is fairly simple (especially if you've been reading AWV for awhile). Going back through the history of the Communists and the Czars before them, Russia has traditionally had "strong leaders" - a system where one person held broad authoritarian powers, so in a sense that is what is expected in a leader. Now combine that with the chaotic situation Russia went through in the 1990's under a not-so-strong leader, Boris Yeltsin. Going from a world power (as the Soviet Union) to a pauper country with a collapsed economy was a shock to the Russians and a rather poor introduction to this whole "democracy" thing. Since Russia has seen its economy and at least some of its world standing restored under the strong hand of Vladimir Putin, its not really surprising that 57% would say they prefer a strong leader.

2. Why do Tanzanians like President Bush so much? (Tanzania was one of three countries where a majority approved of Bush)

Probably it’s because of Pres. Bush's efforts at combating HIV/AIDS in Africa. Unless he can pull an Israel-Palestine peace agreement out of his hat in the next few months, Bush's most positive legacy will likely be the effort he has put in at bringing resources to bear against the disease in Africa, which has had a positive effect on reducing HIV/AIDS.

3. Oh, and why does Turkey dislike America so much? (Only 12% of Turks told Pew they had a favorable view of the US)

This one is due in large part to the Iraq war. No part of Iraq benefited more from removing Saddam Hussein from power than did the Kurdish north. The US has been supportive of the Kurds, in large part because it’s been a relatively peaceful part of a chaotic country. The problem is that some Kurdish groups have been fighting a decades-long terrorist war against Turkey in an effort to carve out a Kurdish homeland in SE Turkey. Since the fall of Saddam, some Kurdish groups have been using Iraq as a safe haven to launch attacks into Turkey. When the Turks have tried to use military force to break up what they call terrorist camps in Iraq, the US has tried to stop them, worrying that Turkish action will destabilize the part of Iraq being held up as a model of what the whole country can become (peaceful, stable, etc.).
So if you are a Turk, it is easy to the US as preventing your country from fighting terrorists attacking your homeland, something that might tend to give you a negative view of America.

That's just a few thoughts off the top of my head. I'm sure the folks at Time.com could come up with some more in-depth answers though if they were motivated to go out and look for them.
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Israel and Hamas agree to ceasefire

Some surprising news out of the Middle East today as Israel and Hamas have apparently agreed to a six-month cease-fire that is set to start on Thursday. The news came after months of negotiations led by Egypt. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip portion of the Palestinian Territories, said that they feel confident that all militant groups inside Gaza will agree to the cease-fire. Israel, meanwhile, said that they are looking to see if the announcement is legitimate.

A small-scale war has been going on in Gaza and southern Israel since Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007. Militants in Gaza regularly fire crude, homemade rockets into Israel, sometimes dozens per day, while Israel conducts regular military raids into Gaza looking for the militants, but often causing civilian casualties in the process.

One goal of the cease-fire will be to loosen an economic blockade that Israel has imposed on Gaza - the Gaza Strip is largely dependent on Israel for food, fuel and other essentials. It could also serve as a platform for future negotiations, though both sides are skeptical over how much progress can be made in negotiations. Still, it is a start.

UPDATE: Israel has officially approved the cease-fire with Hamas. It is set to begin tomorrow morning.
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Friday, June 13, 2008

Is Africa souring on Mugabe?

Could Africa's leaders finally be showing some leadership?

Forty prominent African leaders - including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former UN head Kofi Annan have signed a letter calling on Zimbabwe to hold free and fair elections and for current president Robert Mugabe to end his state-sanctioned campaign of violence and intimidation against opposition politicians.

The letter is a good step by some of Africa's most prominent faces, but what's really needed is action by Zimbabwe's neighbors. Botswana just became the first country to lodge a formal protest with Zimbabwe's treatment of opposition politicians, citing the arrest of two high-ranking members from the opposition MDC party.

As I've talked about on other posts here, many of Zimbabwe's neighbors have been awfully silent as Robert Mugabe destroys his own country in a desperate bid to stay in power. Dozens of opposition party members have been murdered in the past few weeks, with many more arrested or beaten either by government forces or groups loyal to Mugabe. Yet the leaders of neighboring countries have largely been silent, not wanting to take on Mugabe, who is still regarded by many as a hero in Africa's struggle against colonialism. Mugabe has done his part to play up post-colonial paranoia by saying over and over that the opposition MDC party is merely a front for colonial powers that want to get Zimbabwe back. The BBC quoted Mugabe as saying that an MDC victory would hand Zimbabwe back to "our former oppressors, the whites".

Frankly I can understand wanting to view Mugabe as a hero because he did lead the fight to overthrow colonial rule in Zimbabwe. But what he did 30 years ago cannot be used as an excuse for his actions today. The idea behind independence movements across Africa was to let people rule themselves, not to be ruled by bureaucrats in far-off European capitals. Its time now for Africa's home-grown leaders to stand up to Mugabe - who has become the type of tin-pot dictator that has caused the continent so much misery in the years since the end of colonialism.
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Paradise lost in the South Sea

Anote Tong, the president of the island nation of Kiribati is asking for some help against the effects of global warming. Tong isn't asking for financial aid or technical assistance, rather he is asking the world to find a new home for Kiribati's 92,000 residents since Tong feels that the islands may very likely be doomed.

With an average height of just six feet above sea level Kiribati dramatically feels the effect of rising ocean levels due to global warming. Even the modest rise in sea levels so far has caused widespread erosion on the islands, failure of some croplands and has forced some seaside villages to be relocated to what high ground exists on the islands. Still, Tong thinks it may just be postponing the inevitable.

"We may be beyond redemption, we may be at the point of no return where the emissions in the atmosphere will carry on to contribute to climate change to produce a sea-level change that in time our small low-lying islands will be submerged," he said at a UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change held at Wellington, New Zealand. But the word from the panel was that decisive action by the world's governments to limit greenhouse gas emissions looked unlikely this year, meaning the situation will get worse before any action is taken to make it better.

Its kind of hard to imagine an entire country needing to be moved, but that certainly seemed to be the likely future for Kiribati.
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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Obama advisor's historical blunder

Now that the two parties seem to have settled on their nominees, I am planning to do some posts on the foreign policy positions of both Barack Obama and John McCain. I’m starting with a comment from Obama’s chief foreign policy advisor Susan Rice, who uncorked this whopper recently on CNN.

The set up to her comment is that Obama has been receiving criticism for saying a number of times on the campaign trail that he is willing to meet with world leaders “without preconditions”. Critics have said that it shows that Obama is na├»ve that you can’t just sit down with dictators and talk. His supporters have replied by saying George Bush’s belligerent foreign policy has not helped the United States’ standing in the world and that a new approach is needed.

Enter Ms. Rice. In her comment she drew the comparison to John F. Kennedy (someone who Obama has often been compared to) meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, our then adversary. Rice said “thank God he (JFK) did because if he hadn't we would have not been able to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis.” A good sound bite, one that seems to make the “meet without preconditions” idea seem valid, there’s just one problem – she is totally wrong about the JFK/Khrushchev meeting.

She is factually wrong – the only JFK/Khrushchev meeting happened in Vienna, in June of 1961, more than a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis. So it would have been impossible for this meeting to “resolve” an event that had not yet occurred.

Secondly, most historians agree that the meeting actually helped to cause the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year. Kennedy was steamrolled in the meeting by the aggressive Soviet leader. Khrushchev spent two days berating Kennedy so badly that JFK became physically ill from the encounter. Khrushchev, meanwhile, saw Kennedy as a weak leader, which prompted him to take aggressive steps against the West, like building the Berlin Wall and putting nuclear missiles in Cuba.

Kennedy’s aides had pleaded with him not to meet one-on-one with Khrushchev because of the Soviet leader’s reputation as a tough, hard-nosed negotiator, but Kennedy ignored them. So really the JFK/Khrushchev meeting could be seen as an argument against meeting another leader (especially a leader from a hostile nation) without preconditions.

What’s more disturbing though is how Ms. Rice, who has a PhD from Oxford and has spent two decades as a foreign policy analyst could get a milestone moment in US/Soviet relations so wrong. If this is the quality of foreign policy advice Obama is getting, then he has a lot of work to do.
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Henry Kissinger talks about Russia

Venerable foreign policy fixture Henry Kissinger was the guest on last week's Fareed Zakaria GPS, and as you would expect from Kissinger the interview covered a lot of ground.

What I found most interesting was Kissinger's views on US-Russia relations. He argued that US interests and far more aligned with Russian interests than most people assume, and that there should be greater cooperation between the two countries. For example, he noted (correctly) that between them the US and Russia hold about 95% of the world's nuclear weapons, therefore any plan to reduce nuclear stockpiles worldwide should be a joint effort (makes sense). Kissinger also talked about the long borders Russia shares with both China and the Islamic world - two regions where the United States has its share of issues today.

I agree with Henry on this one - there should be far more of a strategic partnership between the US and Russia. For example, Russia has strong economic ties with Iran, which means they have some real economic clout with them, so Russia should be a natural ally in efforts to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

But the US has been bungling our relationship with Russia for years now by taking policy positions that unnecessarily provoke Russia. The proposed missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland is one, pushing for NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia is another. Russia is dead set against both, yet the US keeps pushing for them to happen. In diplomatic terms it’s poking a thumb in Russia's eye.

And it’s for no good reason that I can see. It’s questionable whether the missile shield would even work, and even if for a second you assume it will, it doesn't defend against any legitimate threat. The only country that it could be used against is Iran - a country that has neither nuclear weapons nor missiles able to reach the US. As for Georgia, I've talked about their tense relations with Russia in other posts but the bottom line question is why is a close relationship with Georgia worth more than one with Russia? Frankly it’s not.

Yet US foreign policy has been to pursue these efforts that will do nothing to benefit the country at the expense of a useful partnership with Russia.

I'm sure that makes sense to someone in Washington DC.
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Saturday, June 7, 2008

Olympics roundup

A few stories about the Olympics crossed the news wires in the past few days. First, China has been giving its citizens lessons on the correct way to cheer at the games (since disorganized yelling apparently just won't do). The government approved cheer is apparently "China - add oil!". Yeah you read that correctly...And just to be in the Olympic spirit of inclusiveness, the Chinese have been told that they can insert other countries or athletes' names in the place of China (i.e. "Lewis - add oil!", or "France - add oil!").

What the heck the meaning of "add oil" is though is something of a mystery, perhaps with oil at about $140 a barrel, its a way of saying your performance is valuable, or maybe its just one of those things that doesn't translate well.

Moving on to future Olympics, I'm sure the folks in London want the 2012 games to be a blast, but not quite like this...Work at one of the Olympic sites in London came to an abrupt stop when a 2,000 bomb dropped during World War II was unearthed. Unexploded bombs dropped by the Germans during the war are still occasionally found in London, though this 2,000-pounder was the largest uncovered in three decades. If it had exploded it could have thrown shrapnel up to a half mile away. The bomb disposal officer who defused the bomb was said to have worked under a "high level of stress". Gee, ya think?

Finally the London Olympic Committee is planning to take recycling to new heights. Their goal is to recycle most of the stadium that will be used for the opening and closing ceremonies. They are using an innovative plan to build a 55,000 temporary stadium around a smaller 25,000 seat permanent base. The belief is that London does not need another huge stadium, but could use a smaller field. So smaller, permanent field will be temporarily expanded to Olympic proportions.

The hope is that after the games, the temporary portion could then be sold, shipped to another city and reassembled. The London Committee has already had initial talks with the organizers of Chicago's 2016 Olympic bid about that city reusing London's stadium.
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Friday, June 6, 2008

Medvedev on first visit to West

Dmitry Medvedev put on a friendly face when he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday, during his first visit to West as Russia's new president, trying to stress the importance of Russian-Western relations over any disputes the two sides are having at the moment. He talked more freely though to a group of German businessmen and politicians.

He told this group that plans to bring the former Soviet states of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO would severely damage relations for Russia and the West for a long time to come. Medvedev also said something I believe - that NATO has outlived its usefulness.

NATO was formed during the Cold War as a balance to the Soviet Union's bloc of Eastern European states, the Warsaw Pact. NATO's mission was to defend Western Europe against an invasion from the Soviet side that never came. Now with the Soviet Union long gone and many of the old Warsaw Pact countries now NATO members, the organization is trying to find reasons to justify its existence. Since 9/11, NATO's has taken on anti-terrorism operations, something quite far removed from its original mission.

Russia has always been suspicious of NATO's eastward expansion. Taking in Ukraine and Georgia for Russia is a step too far, something that would hurt Russia’s relations with the West. Medvedev said that rather than take actions that will drive the West and Russia apart, the two sides should work together to build stability for the entire region. "Now we must talk about the integrity of the entire Euro-Atlantic space — from Vancouver to Vladivostok," Medvedev said.

And again, I think that Medvedev is right. Expanding NATO and the United States' plan to but missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic (another idea Russia is bitterly opposed to) seem to me to be policies that won't benefit the United States or Western Europe but will deal a real blow to relations with Russia. Sometimes in international relations you do have to take steps that will offend another country, but you should at least get some benefit from that move in return. I see no upside in these proposals, and no benefit in worsening relations with Russia.

Even with the dire talk about NATO, Medvedev expressed hopes that relations would continue to improve, and that closer ties were in Russia's best interests. "Russia today has come in from the cold, has returned from nearly a century of isolation and self-isolation," he added.

Medvedev picked Germany for his first trip to the West in part because of the two countries close economic ties.
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Vote by Numbers

Anytime an astrophysicist does an analysis of the upcoming US presidential election, it’s probably worth a look.

That's exactly what Neil deGrasse Tyson offers up by way of a New York Times editorial. He reports on a study of the election soon to be published by the journal Mathematical and Computer Modeling that takes a new look at the statistical modeling of political polls. Using data from the 2004 election, this model correctly predicted the winner in 49 of 50 states.

DeGrasse Tyson used their model and applied it to the 2008 race. His findings? "If the general election were held today, Mr. Obama would win 252 electoral votes as the Democratic nominee, while Mrs. Clinton would win 295. In other words, Barack Obama is losing to John McCain, and Hillary Clinton is beating him,” said deGrasse Tyson in his editorial.

He goes on to add that things can change greatly between no and November, which is quite true. Still, in the age of political pundits blathering 24/7 via the web and cable news, it’s interesting to have some non-pundits take a look at the race.
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Is Israel ready to attack Iran?

It looks like war with Iran is becoming more of a possibility.

I've thought that the chance of some military action against Iran by the end of the year is about 50/50. Today a high-ranking Israeli minister said that Israel would attack Iran if they did not give up their nuclear program.

The word came from Israel's transportation minister Shaul Mofaz. Usually a nation's transportation minister doesn't make military decisions, but in previous administrations Mofaz has served as Israel's defense minister, so it’s safe to assume he knows a few things about how the military operates. Mofaz said that international sanctions have failed to stop Iran's civilian nuclear program, which Israel claims is a cover for a military program to build nuclear weapons.

Tough talk between Iran and Israel is nothing new. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is notorious for his calls for Israel's destruction. I think now though there could be more will on the Israeli side to take action, and for a reason that actually has little to do with Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is in a lot of hot water these days, with several investigations into charges of corruption in his administration ongoing. One recent poll put Olmert's approval rating at a mere 3%. Considering that these polls usually have an error rate of plus-or-minus three or four percent, it is technically possible that absolutely no one in Israel approves of the job Olmert is doing.

So what better to rally folks around the flag than with some decisive military action? Yes, it sounds like the plot for the movie "Wag the Dog", but these things do happen. And Israel has been talking about striking Iran for quite awhile now, viewing the idea of Iran building nuclear weapons as an existential threat to Israel. For his part Ahmadinejad holds up Iran’s nuclear program as a key source of national pride, so it’s unlikely that he would be willing to give it up anytime soon.

Israel successfully ended Iraq's quest for nuclear weapons with a bold series of airstrikes in 1981, so they have gone down this road before. Olmert's thin grasp on power makes me think its a little more likely today that history may repeat itself.
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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Mugabe backers assault US, British diplomatic convoy

Really surprised that this wasn't a bigger story today...A convoy of US and UK diplomats was waylaid on Thursday morning in Zimbabwe by loyalists to President Robert Mugabe. The "War Veterans" (how Mugabe's thugs self-describe themselves, a reference to Zimbabwe's war for independence from Britain) dragged one Zimbabwean staffer from the convoy and beat him, while threatening to burn the rest of the convoy's SUVs - with the US and UK embassy staff inside them. The embassy staffers - five Americans, four Brits and three Zimbabweans who work for the two embassies - were held for six hours before being released.

The group was returning to Harare, the capital, after a tour of some outlying villages. Government officials accused the diplomats of handing out campaign material for Mugabe's challenger in the presidential runoff Morgan Tsvangirai. Mugabe blamed his loss in the first round of the presidential election not on the food shortages or runaway inflation his policies have caused, but rather on secret British attempts to turn Zimbabwe back into a colony.

Luckily no one in the diplomatic convoy was seriously hurt, but it could have been much worse, and is just the latest example of the government's attempts at intimidation ahead of the June 27th runoff election. Mugabe's government on Thursday also ordered international aid agencies to halt their activities - again claiming that they are campaigning for the opposition.

In the wake of land reforms that seized productive farms from white landowners and gave them to Mugabe's "War Veteran" cronies, agriculture in Zimbabwe has nearly ground to a halt, leaving much of the population dependent on food aid from international relief agencies.
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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

New Russian-based league flexes its muscles

I am a big hockey fan, which is part of the reason why this story about a new professional league starting up in Russia caught my eye. The other part of the reason though is that it is another indication of how the rest of the world is catching up to the United States.

Really it’s always been that if you were an athlete professionally playing one of the major team sports (with the exception of soccer) to truly say that you've "made it" you had to play in one of the major leagues in North America. That is why the NBA, NHL and MLB are filled with athletes from around the world. Even the NFL, playing "American Football" as its known in most of the rest of the world in recent years has begun attracting players from around the world.

Of course with the notoriety of playing the North American major leagues came money that few other places could match (again the exception is soccer of course). That is why Russia's new Continental Hockey League is so interesting to me since it is the league's intention to match, and exceed, the salaries offered by the National Hockey League.

Many of the CHL's teams are owned by large Russian corporations, like energy giant Gazprom - corporations with very, very large wallets. The CHL has said it is their intention to bid for players currently on the rosters of NHL teams. A couple of years ago, when the NHL lost an entire season due to a labor dispute, a number of the league’s top players traveled to Russia for the season, earning millions of dollars in the process, so the idea of star players playing for the new Russian league isn’t that far-fetched.

And, of course, there’s an element of politics involved. Having a world-class professional sports league based within its borders would be another way for Russia to show it has left the economic chaos of the 1990s behind. Meanwhile, CHL president Alexander Medvedev (not to be confused with Russian Federation President Dmitry Medvedev said about the CHL’s challenge to the NHL “a unipolar world is not good; we should have a multipolar world”, a riff off one of former Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favorite lines about world politics.

Russia’s Continental Hockey League is set to start play in September.
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Monday, June 2, 2008

Russia to increase oil output says Putin

Last week I linked to a piece from The Economist that talked about a drop in Russia's oil production (if you have to feed a car like I do, then you know oil prices are an important thing these days). Well former President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has announced that Russia is taking steps to increase oil production over the next few years.

Putin told a meeting in France that Russia would lower taxes on both oil production and exploration. High taxes are one of the main reasons that production in Russia has started to fall off - its more profitable for companies to work existing oil fields, but the amount of oil coming from these fields is starting to decline. The drop in taxes should spur the development of more oil fields in northern Siberia and Russia's Far East.

Russia is the world's second-largest producer of oil, second only to Saudi Arabia.
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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Thoughts on the first GPS

I was 15 minutes into Fareed Zakaria GPS when something struck me – there was a roundtable talk going on and in that whole time no one had yelled at anyone else! It was as if a group of adults could actually sit around a table and talk about a topic without it turning into some kind of shouting match. Its not a new concept for the cable news channels, but its one that hasn’t been seen in a long time.

I’ll say that GPS is the most intelligent thing I’ve seen on cable news in quite awhile. The first segment featured four guests – including CNN’s long-time foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour and former Bush administration official Doug Feith (one of the architects of the “War on Terror”), in a roundtable discussion that hit a lot of the world’s hotspots. The other segment was a long interview with former British PM Tony Blair.

And that was it. Big topics talked about at length by intelligent people. It’s definitely something that’s sorely missed in today’s 24-hr news cycle. Watch the news channel of your choice: international news sadly only seems to make it on when something blows up or blows away – wars and disasters – and every two years, the Olympics. So I give Fareed a lot of credit for doing a show that tries to talk about what’s happening around the world the other 98% of the time.

That said I worry that GPS won’t be around long if this is the formula. No on-air catfights, no fluff pieces, and segments that run longer than three minutes, it just doesn’t fit the cable news mold. But let’s hope that CNN can spare an hour a week for some intelligent talk.
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Jamaica to revive railroad industry (with China's help)

Rising fuel prices have prompted the island nation of Jamaica to restart its railroad industry.

The new Jamaica railway project will link the island's main cities of Kingston, Spanish Town and Montego Bay. The project is expected to cost about $350 million, with China agreeing to fund about 85% of the cost. It is expected to take at least three years to complete.

Jamaica's railroading history dates back to 1845, it was the first place outside of Europe and North America to open railway lines. Service was stopped in 1992 after decades of operating at a loss.
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Tsvangirai says Mbeki 'no longer fit' to be mediator

A long time ago there was a TV show called “It Takes a Thief”, the show (as I’ve been told since it was on before I was born) centered around a former jewel thief who now helped the authorities catch criminals. The logic was that a criminal knows how another criminal thinks.

So maybe that was the logic in inviting Zimbabwe’s current president Robert Mugabe to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization conference this week in Rome. The organizers of the conference thought that having a leader who destroyed his nation’s agricultural sector in a desperate bid to stay in power, leaving his people hungry and relying on foreign food aid programs to survive, could help other aid agencies understand how countries can let their own people starve. It’s the only explanation I can think of for inviting Mugabe – who is currently trying to engineer a coup to stay in power – to any international conference on food or any other topic.

Officials from the United States, European Union and Australia – just to name a few places – are outraged by Mugabe’s presence and are saying so in pretty blunt terms.

“Robert Mugabe turning up to a conference dealing with food security or food issues is, in my view, frankly obscene," was the word from Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, his nation’s representative at the conference.

Mugabe is expected to hang around at the conference until Friday.

Speaking of Zimbabwe, Mugabe’s would-be challenger, presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai has called out the Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa. Mbeki is suppose to be serving as a mediator for the ongoing political crisis in Zimbabwe. Tsvangirai said though that Mbeki’s idea of mediation is doing whatever Mugabe says.

Tsvangirai cited Mbeki’s blocking the MDC’s (Tsvangirai’s political party) request to the UN security council to investigate violent attacks on his party’s supporters after the first round of election as an example of Mbeki’s “lack of neutrality”. The last straw for Tsvangirai came when he saw Mbeki and Mugabe appearing on television saying there was “no crisis” in Zimbabwe.

Tsvangirai is onto something. Leaders in southern Africa have shown an appalling lack of concern for Zimbabwe’s citizens and have been extremely reluctant to criticize Mugabe, even as his actions lead his country to destruction. Not only has Zimbabwe become dependent on foreign food aid because of Mugabe’s policies, but inflation in the country is now at an unbelievable 1,000,000%. One report I read recently said the amount of money it takes now to buy a single loaf of bread, a few years ago would have bought you several cars.

The other regional leaders though have held off calling for tough action against Mugabe because of his iconic status in the region as a fighter against colonialism. He was the one who led the fight that finally drove the British from Zimbabwe.

But really, does his status as a hero thirty years ago give him the right to stay in power now by whatever means necessary? So it’s bad for a colonial power to oppress Africans, but its okay if the leader is a native? I don’t really think this is what Mbeki and other regional leaders believe, but by not taking a harder line with Mugabe, it is the message they are sending.
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