Sunday, August 31, 2008

Pondering Palin

Even though this site is meant to focus on world affairs, I feel like the US presidential election is going to creep in from time to time… (like now).

It’s been three days since John McCain surprised everyone with his pick of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for the VP slot on his ticket. Immediately the questions started flying on whether she had enough experience for the job (she has been Alaska’s governor for only two years), or more specifically if she had enough experience to step into the big job should something happen to McCain (more on this in a moment).

One retort was that along with being governor, Palin was also the commander of the Alaska National Guard (ANG for short). This was usually followed by a snicker of some sort since the ANG is usually not counted among the world’s elite military units. I have to admit I felt the same way, until reading this post.

It seems though that among the units in the ANG is the 49th Missile Defense Battalion based out of Fort Greeley, a key part of the “missile shield” covering America. They are the troops manning the interceptor rockets meant to protect the United States from ballistic missile attack from “rogue states”.

In other posts here, I’ve talked about how I think the missile interceptor program is a colossally dumb idea, so I won’t go into my objections again now. But the fact remains that President Bush doesn’t share my dim view on the missile shield and has made it a key component of the United States defense strategy. And the troops in charge of the interceptors are from the Alaska National Guard, Sarah Palin’s Alaska National Guard.

It’s one of the reasons why I don’t think the Left should be so giddy about Palin’s selection as VP. Arguing the experience angle is strange considering Barack Obama’s own lack of experience (he was only a United States Senator for about two years before deciding to run for president). In fact, early on his lack of experience was one of Obama’s selling points, he wasn’t “tainted” by the culture in Washington, so he was best positioned to change it (or so the argument went).

From an historic view, you could even argue that Palin’s two years as governor make her better prepared to be president than Obama’s time in the US Senate. Sixteen men have served as governors before becoming president, while only two have made the jump from the Senate to the White House. Why? Probably because like the President, governors have to make decisions, they are the ultimate authority (or as George W. Bush once infamously said “I am the decider”). The Senate, on the other hand, is built around coming to compromises and building consensus. There’s nothing wrong with that, it is why the Founding Fathers created the body in the first place, but it also doesn’t make for a decisive leader.

One final thought. By picking Palin, McCain boosted his image (whether it’s deserved or not) as a maverick. He selected someone with a record of taking on the power elite of her state (she beat Frank Murkowski, patriarch of one of Alaska’s most powerful political families on her way to the governor’s seat) and the oil and gas industry (the economic powerhouse of the state) as the person he felt best to be his partner in reforming Washington. By contrast Barack Obama thought Joe Biden, (someone I personally have great respect for) who’s been in the Senate since 1972, was the person best suited to bring change to Washington. Hmmm…

There’s still a long way to go before the election, and these are just a few random early thoughts. But I do think if Obama hopes to win in November, the Left needs to come up with some better arguments and do a better job in sticking with the message that has gotten them this far.
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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Relief agencies decry military role in Georgia

Non-governmental relief agencies (also known as NGOs) working in Georgia are outraged that President Bush has put the military in charge of humanitarian operations.

Bush's decision in August 13th passed with little notice in the press. But relief agencies active in Georgia say the decision will make their efforts harder, and could put their workers in jeopardy because they may be regarded as agents of the US military. Bush said that he made the decision because the military could move aid into Georgia faster and distribute it more efficiently. Officials from various NGOs agree that the military can bring aid into the country quicker than private groups, but point out that many well-regarded NGOs, like the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children and Mercy Corps, as well as the UN's World Food Program, were already working in Georgia before the conflict, and have the people on the ground to provide help to those affected by the war.

The NGOs also point out that military aid doesn't always work for humanitarian relief. MREs (meals ready to eat, the US military's standard pre-packaged food) for example provide too many calories in one meal for young children. Some NGOs also refuse to distribute MREs because of their military origin.

Worse yet, putting the military in charge of relief efforts only stokes Russian fears that the humanitarian aid is merely a cover for secret arms shipments to the Georgian government. So far two US warships have docked in Georgia with aid shipments, plans are for more ships to follow. But the 34 tons of relief supplies brought by the Coast Guard Cutter Dallas could have been brought in by one C-17 cargo jet, plus the jet could have landed at one of several airfields in Georgia, instead of one port located far from the conflict. Of course that would not have provided the powerful image of an American warship docked at a Georgian port.
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Update from Zimbabwe, power and gold

Two stories out of Zimbabwe today.

First the ongoing power struggle between President Robert Mugabe and his would-be replacement Morgan Tsvangirai is still ongoing.

The two have been negotiating for weeks on how to share power in the government. Mugabe rejected the latest proposal from Tsvangirai that the two jointly chair the country's ruling cabinet on the grounds that there can only be one president. Mugabe has been trying to form a unity government with Tsvangirai's MDC party, but only in a way where he keeps all the power and sidelines Tsvangirai. So far Tsvangirai has (wisely) been unwilling to accept any deal that leaves him powerless.

In a worrying sign the MDC is accusing Mugabe's attorney general of trying to prosecute five members of their party, presumably to get them tossed out of the parliament and shift the majority in parliament back to Mugabe's ZANU-PF party.

On the upside Zimbabwe was able to put aside the political wrangling for a few hours and honor their Olympic team just home from Beijing. The Olympians were given cash prizes totaling $148,000 (hopefully they weren’t paid in Zimbabwean dollars). $100,000 of that went to swimmer Kirsty Coventry who won one gold and three silver medals at the Beijing Games.

Mugabe called Coventry the country's "golden girl". After winning medals at the Athens Olympics in 2004, Coventry, who is white, was honored as a national hero.
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Gaddafi, Berlusconi sign accord worth billions

Italy has just given Libya a historic apology for decades of colonial rule over the North African nation. Along with the apology came $5 billion in compensation for colonial misdeeds. The compensation will be both in the form of direct payments and Italian investment in Libya, for example Italy will now fund the construction of an east-west highway across the country. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi signed the historic accord in Tripoli, saying that it ended 40 years of misunderstanding between the two nations.

He added: "it is a complete and moral acknowledgement of the damage inflicted on Libya by Italy during the colonial era."

Berlusconi's move was a bold one for two reasons. First, European powers have been reluctant to acknowledge the toll their colonial rule took on large swaths of Africa and Asia, and even more reluctant to back up any apologies with compensation. Second, Italy is one of the first Western countries to invest heavily in Libya since that country renounced terrorism and their pursuit of nuclear weapons in 2003.

Muammar Gaddafi was once viewed in much the same way Saddam Hussein was for his funding of terrorist groups across the Middle East. But in recent years Gaddafi has tried to repair his image and set himself up as one of Africa's elder statesmen. This rehab project included payments for Libyan-funded terrorist acts (like the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988) and giving up a decades-long quest to build a nuclear bomb.

For their part, Italy hopes that better relations will mean that Libya will step up efforts to prevent illegal immigration to Europe (many of whom land in Italy), and will provide future business opportunities for Italian firms. Italy ruled Libya from 1911 until being driven out during World War II in 1943.
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McCain's #2

I've been trying to stay true to the point of this site and stick to discussing world affairs, but with the US Presidential election in full swing, I decided to take a short time out to talk about the campaigns, and sepcifically John McCain's decision to name Alaska Governor Sarah Palin his pick for Vice-President.

Keep in mind - this isn't an endorcement of one candidiate or the other, just my views on the strategy behind the election.

As for McCain's move? It was brilliant. It's a move that will win him the election, despite the deck seeming to be stacked in their favor this year. Why? Three reasons:

First, there's the timing of the announcement. McCain made his announcement the morning after Barack Obama's acceptance speech before 80,000 screaming fans at Invesco Field in Denver. Most accounts of the speech called it moving, historic, yet the timing of McCain's announcement blew it out of the news cycle - a day the Obama camp probably thought would be a 24-hour long free campaign commercial for them as the pundit class played and replayed soundbites from Barack's speech. In military terms McCain outflanked Obama and blunted the impact of his milestone address.

Of course if McCain had made a conventinal pick for VP, the newsies might have gone back to Obama's speech pretty quickly. But rolling the dice and picking an absolute outsider like Palin guaranteed that the press would be glued to the McCain camp as they digested the news (this would be reason #2 in why it's a briliant move). Palin gave the McCain campaign something far more than a one-day spectacle, she validated the image of McCain as a maverick. Not only is she a Washington outsider, but she's an outsider with a record of taking on the powers that be. Palin took on one of Alaska's most powerful political families, the Murkowskis - defeating the patriarch Frank in a primary fight to win the Governor's seat. She also took on the powerful oil and gas industry (the lifeblood of the Alaskan economy) and in a move that likely endeared her to McCain, fought against funding for the infamous "Bridge to nowhere" that McCain rails about from he stump as pork barrel spending gone amok.

And while McCain was validating his image as a political maverick by tapping another maverick to be his running mate, Obama decided that the best person to help him bring change to Washington was Joe Biden, a very nice and honorable man, but also someone who has been in the Senate since 1973. Not exactly someone who screams "change".

But the third, and I think biggest, reason why I think Palin will help McCain win the White House is simply the Left's reaction to her. Almost immediately after the announcement the Obama camp, their surrogates, and allied media outlets and pundits began the attacks against her (the Right did the same thing when Biden was announced as Obama's VP of course). Their main line of attack is that Sarah Palin doesn't have the experience to be president.

This is a really odd (and poor) choice of attack considering that one of Barack Obama's biggest selling points early on was that he is "an outsider", someone not tainted by years in Washington. And that only someone who hasn't spent years becoming engrained in the Washington culture (like say, Biden) can really bring about the type of change we need. That begs the question though why is inexperience a virtue for Obama, but a flaw for Palin? You basically can't get further from Washington than Alaska.

To make it worse, they are arguing that Palin is too inexperienced to be "one heartbeat" from the presidency. They point out that she's only been governor of Alaska for two years and that three years ago she mayor of a town of 8,000 people (she served as mayor for six years). Yet these same people argue that Obama is qualified to BE president despite having only two years in the US Senate before deciding to run for president (along with seven years as a state senator in Illinois). In terms of number of years in elected office, Obama has more, but there is one important difference.

Obama has zero years serving as an executive, where Palin has two at the state level and six at the local (plus she and her husband ran a small business, something Barack never did). Why is that important? Because sixteen of our presidents were first governors, only two came to the presidency via the Senate. And that's not surprising, the president is essentially an executive, one who ultimately has to make tough decisions and live with the consequences (or as George W. Bush once infamously quipped, "I am the decider"). That's what governors (and mayors) do, they make decisions, where senators talk (and talk and talk). Not that there's anything wrong with that, the Senate is meant to be a deliberative body where decisions are made by consensus, but history has shown it's not the same training for the White House that serving as governor is.

So you could make the argument that Palin in fact has MORE relevant experience than Obama. I won't make that argument, but I can see the logic behind it. The bigger point here is that any questions raised about Palin having the experience to be president only serves as an unpleasant reminder that Obama too is a neophyte when it comes to the political big time.

But where I think Palin's critics are really going to damage (to themselves) is not in the questions about her experience, but the questions about her personality. The Huffington Post is already in a tizzy over Palin, most of the front page of their site was dedicated to hit pieces about her (that and stories about how Lindsey Lohan is mad at her dad and that David Duchovny has a sex addiction). The policy pieces are fine, questions about her past positions are more than valid. But the pieces about her hair, her glasses, her shoes, the way she talks, the way she acts with her family are not. Why? Because Sarah Palin looks and acts and talks like middle America. Another genius element to her pick is just how Middle America she looks.

I think these comments are going to be read as having an air of elitism about them. That this is the way the people in New York, and Washington and LA look (down) on "flyover country" as they like to call the big swath of the country between the coasts. The problem for Obama is that if people think his surrogates are elitists, they will think he is an elitist. George W. Bush's blood may be as blue as John Kerry and Al Gore's but Dubya came off as a guy who would have a beer with the fellas at the corner bar, Kerry and Gore were painted as never setting foot in a place that didn't serve brie and a nice cabernet. We all know how those elections turned out.
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Friday, August 29, 2008

An Embattled Enclave Yearns to Be Free (and Liechtenstein)

The New York Times had an interesting piece today on the (potential) future of South Ossetia. It's worth a read if you have the time, but in short, the South Ossetians are looking at some of Europe's microstates as a model to follow in the development of their country (and that of course assumes that South Ossetia can make good on Russia's recognition of their independence).

One model is to become a banking haven like Liechtenstein. The more interesting idea though is to pattern themselves after the tiny state of Andorra (sandwiched between France and Spain) and become a destination for mountain sports and adventure. In an odd way the last 16 years of political limbo are a help in this regard since they kept development in South Ossetia to a minimum, leaving the mountains in a largely natural state.
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Is Turkey getting fed up with NATO?

That's the question being asked in the wake of the Russia-Georgia conflict.

According to press reports, Turkey is fed up with NATO's military build-up in the Black Sea in the wake of the conflict. So far the United States alone has sent three warships to Georgia to deliver relief supplies, with more are expected to sail for the region. Several other NATO nations have ships in the area as part of a previously planned naval exercise.

The problem is that there are limits that regulate the size of naval vessels allowed to sail into the Black Sea. The only way into the Black Sea is through two narrow straits (the Bosporus Straits and the Dardanelles) that cut through Turkey. An agreement from 1936 (The Montreaux Convention for those keeping track at home) make Turkey the gatekeeper to the Sea, if a country wants to sail a large vessel into the Black Sea, they need Turkey's permission. Turkey is said to be getting tired of the United States repeated requests to sail large military ships into the Black Sea, fearing that it will only provoke a confrontation with Russia.

Of course there's more going on here than meets the eye. Russia is Turkey's largest trading partner thanks to oil and gas shipments. Turkey also feels a little jerked around by the European Union at this point. Turkey has been a candidate for EU membership for since 1999. Since then the EU has added 12 members, but Turkey still remains on the sideline, with their potential membership coming sometime next decade at best. There is a feeling in Turkey that they are being treated unfairly, since they have undertaken many of the massive government reforms that the EU demanded they make to become a member.

So recently, Turkey has been starting to look towards the east. They upset their fellow NATO members recently by welcoming the leaders of both Iran and Sudan to Istanbul. And Turkey has not joined the NATO chorus in condemning Russia for its actions in Georgia. In fact the Wall Street Journal article points out that Turkey considers Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili "crazy enough to unleash the next world war".

Turkey could be coming to a crossroads, a time to decide if it's worth waiting around hoping the EU someday let's them in, or if its time to break with organizations like NATO and forge new alliances with their neighbors to the east.
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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Is success going to Russia's head?

Russia's leadership is riding pretty high right now after their successful campaign in Georgia. Of course politicians and pundits from Washington to Brussels are vilifying Russia, but the fact remains that they have dismantled the Georgian military, granted independence to South Ossetia and Abkhazia and left the West largely powerless to do anything about it. But you have to wonder if the leadership in Moscow isn't getting way to overconfident.

They have taken some odd steps in the last couple of days. First there was the Russian ambassador to Moldova warning them about taking action in the separatist Trans-Dniester region of their country. The Trans-Dneister is a small sliver of land sandwiched in between the Dneister River and the Ukranian border. It is home largely to Russians and Ukranians, unlike the rest of Moldova, which is mostly full of Moldovans and Romanians. After a brief war it broke from Moldova's control, declared itself independent and pledged allegiance to Moscow (which, in turn, did not recognize it as an independent state, but did maintain some level of relations with their government). Sound familiar? Trans-Dniester has become an odd little place, a sort of mini-Soviet Union, where the KGB still keeps the peace and a small contingent of Russian troops are based to watch over some massive military depots left over from Soviet times.

Of course the big differences are that no one in Moldova was even remotely suggesting a military campaign to retake Trans-Dneister, and unlike Georgia and Ukraine, which the West has been actively courting as future members of NATO and the European Union, no one cares about Moldova. Its one of the poorest, and most forgotten, parts of Europe, on the radar screens of nobody except Romania and Ukraine and those two nations only care because they share a border with the place. So why the ambassador would choose to threaten a country no one cares about over a conflict no one has any intention of launching is a mystery.

Not to be out done, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin outright accused the United States of provoking the Georgia-Russia conflict. Putin made the statement during an interview with CNN today, saying that the United States may have in fact wanted a war in Georgia for the upcoming presidential election, both to distract Americans from the ongoing conflict in Iraq and whip up some feelings of patriotism among the voters.

Now before you think Putin is nuts, there is a certain logic to his statement when you look at the situation from the Russian point of view. The United States has been working closely with the Georgian military in the past few years to bring it up to NATO standards, Georgia has been begging for membership in both NATO and the EU, and their president Mikhail Saakashvili was educated in the United States (Harvard to be exact). Russia therefore assumes that Georgia is a client state of the West, the United States in particular. They cannot believe then that Georgia would launch such a large-scale military operation like the one they launched against South Ossetia without approval from their masters (the US).

The Russian media has also been widely reporting that their military captured several US humvees (which was confirmed by the White House) in the port city Poti, and that they had a "wealth" of intelligence about Georgia's campaign to retake South Ossetia (that part was not confirmed). There are also reports in their press that two "black-skinned" bodies were found in the city of Tskhinvali; the assumption is that they were Americans involved with the military (this also has not been confirmed by outside media).

String it all together and yes, it does make for a narrative of some level of American involvement - of course its built on a lot of assumptions and takes some sketchy reports as fact. Maybe, in the high emotions of the situation, you can see Putin believing this tale. What seems crazy though is him going on a major news network and expounding on it, without presenting any convincing evidence of his own. You do have to wonder what Putin was thinking, or is he just assuming that the West is so powerless right now he can pretty much say or do what he wants?

The third and final piece of this story is the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that just wrapped up. The SCO is an organization that includes Russia, China and several Central Asian republics as members, and a few others, like Iran and Pakistan, who have observer status with the group. Its primary concern is to be a forum for security issues in the region, though Russia is hoping to build the alliance into a regional powerblock that could rival (or surpass) NATO.

Russia was hoping that the SCO would issue a statement of support for its actions in Georgia and possibly even recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia's independence. In reality though, that was a silly thing to expect, given that China has its own problems with separatist regions (Tibet anyone?), not to mention Beijing still hopes one day to rule Taiwan again, so they're not going to eagerly recognize new states carved from old. What Russia got was mild support for their peacekeeping actions and statement on peace and stability in the region that was so wonderfully vaguely worded it was cited as a measure of support in the Russian press and a symbol of Russia's isolation in the West.

And that’s where Russia is in danger of overplaying its hand. So far the West has been full-throated in its condemnation of Russia’s actions in Georgia, while the rest of the world has been fairly silent. That allows Russia to frame this in terms of a “new Cold War”, a long-brewing dispute with NATO/the EU/the US, an attempt for that block to keep its hegemony over the world by oppressing the one power that might rise to challenge it (Russia). But it’s only a short trip to “rogue nation” status – and paranoid-sounding statements from the prime minister and threats to utterly unimportant little nations aren’t good steps to take.
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Harper tightens grip on Canadian Arctic

The struggle for a very cold part of the world is quietly heating up.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper stepped up his country's efforts to control their slice of the far north during a visit to the town of Tuktoyaktuk (which if you have been watching this season of Ice Road Truckers you've become rather familiar with) in the Northwest Territories. This includes extending Canada's jurisdiction of the Arctic Ocean from a distance of 100 miles to 200 miles from their coastline and a new requirement that any ships entering the waters register with Canada's Coast Guard.

Global warming is the reason the countries around the Arctic Ocean are starting to take an interest in it. Large areas of the ocean are now becoming ice free for longer and longer portions of the year. For Canada, not only does this mean access to potentially huge reserves of natural gas and oil, but also that the fabled Northwest Passage is becoming a reality.

For centuries explorers looked for the Northwest Passage (a shortcut route from Europe to Asia by passing north of the American continent), but found only ice. But as that ice retreats, the Passage is becoming a commercially viable route, one that could shave weeks off the travels of the world's largest ships (ones too large to pass through the Panama Canal).

It's also a cause for dispute. Using the Passage would mean sailing between islands in Canada's far north. Right now many, including the European Union, consider these straits international waters. Canada thinks the straits are part of their territory and want to regulate, and likely earn revenue for, their use.

Separately, Harper announced the construction of a new icebreaker to serve as the flagship of the Canadian Navy's Arctic fleet.

"If you are in Canada's Arctic you will be playing by Canada's rules," Harper said in Tuktoyaktuk.
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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Black Sea Shuffle

There's a complex dance going on in the Black Sea, and the US is stepping on its own toes. Consider what's been going on in the past few days.

First the US dispatched three warships to the Black Sea to provide humanitarian relief to Georgia. Russia has accused the US of using the missions as a cover to bring weapons to the Georgian military, a charge the US vigorously denies. The first ship docked at the Georgian port of Batumi, which is located in the south of the country, far from the fighting so aside from a few words of protest the Russians didn't do anything to stop it.

Then the US announced that the next ship, the Coast Guard cutter Dallas, would dock at Poti, which is still under Russian control. This move would put the Russian and American militaries face-to-face. Since the Russians believe that the Dallas’ mission was a secret effort to rebuild the Georgian military, a group they have worked hard to dismantle these past couple of weeks – it would seem like a recipe for conflict.

So on Tuesday Russia countered with an announcement that the Moskva was leaving its port in Sevastopol on a cruise to conduct tests on its weapons systems. The Moskva is one of the most powerful ships in Russia's navy, and the flagship of their Black Sea fleet. It took part in operations that sank one Georgian ship during the recent fighting and bottled most of the rest of Georgia's navy up in the port of Poti. Sevastopol isn’t all that far from the Georgian coast.

Still later on Tuesday Reuters reported that the US Navy had a sudden change of mind and cancelled the Dallas' visit to Poti, taking away the immediate potential for conflict between US and Russian forces.

So while it's good to see a US ship not heading into the middle of a Russian-held port with tensions and ill will running as high as they are between our two governments, its also a move that is only going to reinforce the idea among the Russian leadership that the US, NATO and EU are nothing but paper tigers who, when push comes to shove, will back down. It was a dumb idea to think to send the Dallas to Poti in the first place, and a dumb idea to use warships to deliver humanitarian aid (it's hard to imagine there's a shortage of cargo ships floating around the Black Sea or the Mediterranean that could be hired to bring in supplies) considering how high tense the situation is at the moment and that the Georgian military was trained and equipped by the US and NATO (another sore point with the Russians).

Given Russia's actions during the past two weeks, it's clear that they are not going to be swayed by vague threats of consequences, so thinking that sending a warship to dock at an occupied port would get them to leave the city was dumb, especially when the Navy wasn't (apparently) willing to follow through on the threat. The West's weak hand in dealing with Russia and Georgia just got a little weaker.

Meanwhile Pravda is reporting that the Dallas will stay off the coast of Georgia, ready to take Mikhail Saakashvili into exile should the Georgian population become angry enough with him over the failed war to rise up and kick him out of office.
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Russia recognizes independence of Abkhazia, South Ossetia

Russia upped the ante in their conflict with Georgia by formally recognizing the claims for independence by South Ossetia and Abkhazia today. In plain talk, Russia now considers Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be countries, the same as Georgia, or France, or the United States. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced the decision a day after both houses of the Russian Duma (Parliament) passed resolutions urging him to do so.

It's a bold move by Medvedev, one that shows Russia is unconcerned about threats of retaliation from the United States, European Union, NATO, or any other international organization. It also greatly complicates the situation in Georgia since Russia has pledged to protect both new nations, with force if necessary. And since they are independent countries (in Russia's eyes), Georgia has no business doing anything on their territory. We saw the first test of this earlier today Russian troops turned back a squad of Georgian policemen trying to drive into South Ossetia.

So what's the future for Abkhazia and South Ossetia as nations? It's far too early to tell whether they will be like Northern Cyprus (recognized only by Turkey), Kosovo (recognized by a few dozen countries, mostly EU/NATO members), or Taiwan (considered by the Chinese a renegade province, a nation by some countries and some sort of quasi-independent thing by many others who don't want to anger China). It's sure that the United States won't be sending an ambassador to Tskhinvali (South Ossetia's capital) anytime soon.
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Time to go Robert

The BBC is reporting that Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe was heckled at the opening of the country's parliament today. Lawmakers from the rival MDC party interrupted Mugabe's address several times, calling him a murderer on several occasions. The outbursts left the 84-year old leader both visibly shaken and embarrassed.

Mugabe should take a lesson away from today's session - its time to call it quits.

Mugabe has turned into the stereotypical strongman leader, staying in power by imposing his will upon the country. But the irony is that strongmen are never really strong. Their supporters are far outnumbered by their opponents; fear of harsh retaliation is the only thing that keeps the masses from rising up. Once that fear is gone though, the end usually comes to the strongman - often quickly and brutally.

Take for example the case of former Romanian strongman Nicolae Ceausescu. He ruled Romania with an iron fist for 24 years, until 1989 when the people had enough. Spontaneous demonstrations took place in several of Romania's major cities, the army and state security found themselves powerless to stop them. On December 21st the largest rally occurred in the capital, Bucharest. Ceausescu tried to address the crowd, to once again scare them into submission, but failed. By the 25th he had been captured by the army (which by this point had turned on him), put on trial and executed.

The very public heckling on the opening day of Parliament shows that the fear of Mugabe is gone among his opponents, his aura as the all-powerful leader of Zimbabwe tarnished. At this point it would seem the end is inevitable for him - either those calling him a murderer will feel the political process has failed and will revolt, or his own ZANU-PF party, seeing him as a liability to their staying in power, will take care of him themselves.

Mugabe has not survived for this long without having keen survival instincts; he has to see that the writing is on the wall. All things considered accepting a deal to become a figurehead president while giving Morgan Tsvangirai considerable power as prime minister looks like his best option at this point.
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Monday, August 25, 2008

Beijing Olympics wrap-up

This report came via AFP today: China used planes, rockets to prevent wet end of Games. It seems that meteorologists from Beijing's Weather Modification Office used eight planes and more than 200 rockets to keep the rain from falling on Sunday's closing ceremonies. The office is reported to have used more than 1,000 rockets to keep August 8th's opening ceremony dry as well.

I've read reports about Russia using similar techniques to provide good weather for big national events. My question is why don't we do that here? Seriously, I think the folks in Florida who were swamped this weekend by Hurricane Fay wouldn't have minded a little weather modification.

But speaking of the games, a few random thoughts. It's hard to see them as anything but a rousing success for China. The Olympics were China's coming out party to the world, a sign that they had arrived as a world power and a chance to show off Beijing as a modern metropolis the equal of New York, London or any other world capital. And the Games went off, basically, without a hitch, a remarkable accomplishment given both the size of the event, and considering how recently China was essentially a Third World nation.

The opening ceremonies were magical, and at a couple of moments, perhaps just a little frightening. The opening scene, where 2008 drummers performed in unison, had a militaristic quality about it - despite the smiles. In fact one of the stunning things about the opening ceremony was the huge throng of people power employed in them. One sequence featured blocks meant to symbolize China's invention of movable type printing. For several minutes the blocks move perfectly in intricate patterns forming Chinese characters, waves, ripples and other shapes. You assumed it was the result of a computer activating hundreds of hydraulic pumps, that is until the end of the routine when a person emerged from under each of the 2008 blocks. It showed China’s ability to marshal enormous groups of people to work in unison for a common purpose – perhaps a subtle message to the West?

The opening ceremonies were so mind-blowing it's not a surprise that the closing ceremonies couldn't quite match up. But the closer has more of a casual theme anyway, and were still well done with the exception of London's contribution, which was just weird right down to having Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page perform "Whole Lotta Love". It was a pretty odd choice of song for an Olympics closing ceremony. Thinking about the Zeppelin back catalog, I came up with "The Rover" as a better selection, please feel free to submit your own.

There was a lot of talk about whether any Olympics will ever mean as much to another country as the Beijing Olympics did. Frankly, it would be hard for that to happen. The Beijing Games were the culmination of a nation's dreams - a nation of 1.3 billion people. There were said to have been one million volunteers for the Games and China spent more than $40 billion getting ready for them. Chinese Basketball star Yao Ming said that China hosting the Games were a dream of his since he was a child, and he played despite a bad injury that really should have kept him on the bench. He couldn't miss participating in China's grand moment.

Russia, though, could try to use the Winter Games in Sochi in 2014 for a public "re-launch" of their international image. Sochi will mark the first time that Russia hosts the Games (Moscow was the site of the 1980 Summer Olympics, but it was the Soviet Union at the time and the boycott by dozens of Western nations over the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan meant that the Moscow Games basically became the forgotten Olympics). Having the world's attention would give Russia a chance to show the richness of Russian culture and history, and provide a chance to rehab their image abroad (particularly in the West). Not only has Russia's image been damaged by the recent conflict in Georgia and the ongoing disputes with NATO, but think about how Russians are usually depicted in pop culture in the West. A Russian in a book, movie, or TV show is invariably shown as a criminal, prostitute, mail-order bride, or crazed ex-KGB colonel. The Winter Games in Sochi could give Russia a chance to show the world a different image.

Still, it's going to be hard for Sochi, Vancouver, London, or anywhere else to top the spectacle that was Beijing.
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Meanwhile in Zimbabwe...

While the world has been focusing on the Russia-Georgia conflict, the two sides in Zimbabwe's political crisis have been trying to come to an agreement on forming some kind of unity government.

President Robert Mugabe "won" another term in office after intimidating his opponent Morgan Tsvangirai (who won the first round of voting) into dropping out of their runoff election. The two parties have been encouraged by the international community to come together in a power-sharing agreement for the good of Zimbabwe.

The two sides have been talking for weeks. Mugabe's idea was to make Tsvangirai prime minister, giving him responsibility for the economy, while keeping control of the military and state security services; or in other words, to give Tsvangirai all of the nation's problems while keeping the power for himself. Tsvangirai was wise enough not to take that deal.

He wants the prime minister position, but wants it to have some real power, essentially making Mugabe's presidency a ceremonial one. That's where the negotiations have hung up.

Tsvangirai's MDC party did score a victory on Monday by winning an election for the Speaker's position in Zimbabwe's parliament. It marks the first time in nearly 30 years that a Mugabe loyalist has not held the post and gives the MDC some real power in the government.

The power sharing talks will continue despite the growing tension between the two sides. Foreign governments are withholding much needed aid until a unity government is in place. Thanks to policies designed to keep Mugabe in power, Zimbabwe's economy has fallen apart, with inflation said to be at a mind-boggling rate of more than one million percent per year.
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This sounds like something out of Father Ted...

An Italian priest is organizing The Miss Sister Italy contest - a beauty pagent for nuns.

Fr. Antonio Rungi said that the conest is meant to fight the image of nuns as old and dowdy, he adds that the idea for the contest came from the nuns themselves.

Online voting for Miss Sister Italy begins in September, and unlike other beauty contests this one will not have a swimsuit competition.
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Iraq, Georgia, and Russia

Coverage of international events on The Huffington Post is like snow in the desert; its pretty rare and the quality isn’t very good. So I was surprised to come across this post by Lionel Beehner: “Iraq, Not Georgia, Is What Doomed U.S.-Russia Relations” (and I was even more surprised that Beehner didn’t take a swipe at Russia, which he tends to do in his posts).

Beehner makes a good case, saying that the US pressed for NATO membership for Poland, Ukraine and Georgia as a payoff for those countries sending troops to Iraq to, in turn, add some legitimacy to the “Coalition of the Willing” the US put together to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Keep in mind that when Georgia (a nation of just over four million) withdrew their troops from Iraq, they were the third largest contributor of men to the coalition (behind the US and UK). Ukraine and Poland also gave sizeable numbers of troops to the effort.

He makes the further point that NATO expansion is indeed aimed at hemming in Russia, and not just some sort of benign gathering of friends as the Bush administration would like you to believe. This is the viewpoint from Russia and one of the reasons that they have become increasingly belligerent of late.
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Business as usual for MSNBC

The Olympics finally drew to a close last night. By harnessing the power of their empire of cable networks, NBC was able to provide unprecedented, nearly round-the-clock coverage of the Games. The biggest contributor to the effort was MSNBC, which gave over almost their entire broadcast day (save for a few hours of regular programming in the evening) to the Olympics, so now with the Games now at an end they’re going back to news.

My advice? Don’t.

Let’s be honest, MSNBC is a sub par news operation. It’s a perennial third-place finisher to Fox News and CNN; its main purpose seems to be to serve as a farm team for the big leagues (aka NBC’s “Nightly News”, “Today” show, etc.). While CNN tries to position itself as the news station of record and the place for international news, and Fox goes by the empowering tagline “We Report, You Decide”, MSNBC is well…it’s hard to say just what they are. Their latest slogan is “the home for politics”, but that’s the flavor of the month.

It was different when MSNBC started back in 1996. It was originally a collaboration between Microsoft and NBC (hence MS+NBC), and intended to blend TV and the internet. Its first signature show was “The Site”, an hour-long tech news show and Soledad O’Brien’s first national anchoring gig.

But this was before broadband, blog and MP3 were household words, the blending of the ‘net and TV mediums never came together (in reality MSNBC was ahead of its time). The tech side slowly faded and MSNBC became a more traditional news channel, but still one that lacked an identity. That’s why in its history it’s had hosts ranging from the very liberal Phil Donohue to the rabidly conservative Michael Savage. Neither lasted long.

Today MSNBC is best known as the home to Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann. Matthews’ “Hardball” is a passable, if slightly overblown, political chat show. Olbermann’s “Countdown” though has gone from being a fresh, innovative news hour, to a dull hour-long ego trip for Olbermann – a place for him to vent his political views (he loves Obama and hates Bush), and continue his creepy obsession with Fox’s Bill O’Reilly. MSNBC’s announcement that they will be adding Olbermann’s vapid yes-woman Rachel Maddow to their line-up isn’t a good sign that the network will improve anytime soon.

MSNBC should take a lesson from their Olympic coverage and ditch news entirely in favor of sports. Right now sports coverage on cable is dominated by ESPN, a family of networks so dominant they started their own sports awards show, so a little competition would be a welcome thing. Do it with an international flair – show some of the European leagues: football (what we call soccer), basketball, heck even water polo proved strangely compelling during the Olympics, and they play it professionally in Europe. Throw the wild and wooly Australian Football League as well, and round it out with some college sports.

Why not try something different? I don’t think a lot of people missed MSNBC during the Olympics, I know I didn’t.
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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Envoy sees bitter legacy of war in Ossetian village

Reuters followed Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner as he toured South Ossetian villages damaged during the Russia-Georgia conflict, what he found was widespread distruction.

"What happened here, a couple of weeks ago, shall never be repeated because this is an insult to people's human rights," Hammarberg said after touring a part of the regional capital Tskhinvali that had been heavily damaged by Georgian shelling.

Comments from South Ossetians showed that the chances of their region returning to Georgian control are basically nil. South Ossetians are calling the recent conflict the "third wave of genocide", referring to conflicts with Georgia in the 1920's and the region's war for independence in the 1990's.

"Are you mad? It's better to die than live with them," said one South Ossetian villager.
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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Next stop, Ukraine?

The conventional wisdom in Washington is now that Russia has stepped in and crushed the freedom-loving, Western-leaning democracy of Georgia; their next target will be the freedom-loving, Western-leaning democracy of Ukraine. But like Georgia, the reality in Ukraine is a lot more complex than the pundits and politicians like to admit.

To be sure Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was quick to condemn Russia's actions and ratchet up the rhetoric against Russia. But then earlier this week he all but accused his Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko of treason on the vague grounds that she was "working for Russia", sparked apparently by her not joining in his condemning Moscow.

Yushchenko and Tymoshenko were the heroes of Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution - the event that got the democracy ball rolling in Ukraine. But the two are also bitter political rivals. Their first partnership ended after only a few months due to infighting between their two camps. Two elections later they were forced to once again become coalition partners. Things aren't going much better the second time around.

Yushchenko is rabidly pro-Western, wanting Ukraine to be on the fast track for membership in both NATO and the European Union. Tymoshenko would like Ukraine to join the EU, but also wants to have good relations with their next-door neighbor, Russia, so she is decidedly less enthusiastic about signing up for NATO. Meanwhile, waiting in the wings is Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine. His power base is in Eastern Ukraine, which has a large Russian population, is therefore, not surprisingly, pro-Moscow.

And just to complicate matters even more, there's the Crimean peninsula, home to Russia's Black Sea fleet. Russia now rents the base that has long been the historic home to the fleet from Ukraine, something that greatly irks Yushchenko. The Crimean region also has a large Russian population; it had been part of Russia until 1954 when then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gifted it to Ukraine (since they were both part of the Soviet Union, a state that Khrushchev thought would last forever, it didn't seem like a big deal at the time). The Russians of Crimea, proud of their long naval heritage, also want no part of NATO.

Early in the Russia-Georgia conflict several Russian ships set sail from the naval base at Sevastopol. As a protest against Moscow, Yushchenko threatened not to let them return to Ukraine. They did, without incident, which may be a good indication of, despite the bluster, how powerless Yushchenko is in this situation.

In fact it's quite likely that Ukraine will become more pro-Russian in the near future. The Yushchenko-Tymoshenko partnership looks like it's about to fall apart (again). This leaves Yushchenko with two options: form a coalition with the pro-Russian Yanukovych, or call for new elections. Right now Yushchenko is third in the polls behind his more pro-Russian compatriots Tymoshenko and Yanukovych. Either way it would seem that Ukraine’s leadership will be moving closer to Moscow soon.
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Thursday, August 21, 2008

NATO talks tough, suffers losses

NATO issued strong statements against Russia's action in Georgia on Tuesday, demanding that Russia withdraw and saying that they were "seriously considering" the implications of the conflict. As far as action though, all NATO did was to suspend future operations with Russia and set up a NATO-Georgia council. While that might look like the first step in making Georgia a member of NATO (something the United States is pushing for even more since the start of the conflict), a NATO-Ukraine council has been meeting for more than a decade and Ukraine is nowhere near becoming a NATO member. Several NATO members (particularly Germany) want questions of territory (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) settled before granting Georgia NATO membership, the conflict hasn’t changed their minds, at least not yet.

Meanwhile actions in Afghanistan show that NATO will have a hard time backing up any future threats of military action. Ten French peacekeepers (serving under NATO command) were killed in a daylong battle with Taliban insurgents, with 21 additional French soldiers injured in the fighting. To make matters worse, the French troops were members of their country’s parachute corps (usually paratroopers are some of the best trained troops in a nation’s military) and there are reports that some were killed by friendly fire when an air strike (carried out by US aircraft) was called in. The battle is the latest chapter in NATO's failing mission in Afghanistan, where Taliban insurgents are pushing ever closer to Kabul, Afghanistan's capital city.

The question is if NATO can't defeat a rag-tag group like the Taliban, how can they expect to take on a modern, well-equipped army like Russia's? The conflict in Georgia suggests that Russia already knows the answer to that one.
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A soldier in the Georgia-Russia cyberwar

I came across this really fascinating account from of a writer who signed up to become a soldier in Russia's "cyberwar" against Georgia.

The writer, Evgeny Morozov, makes it clear that he didn't enlist for ideological reasons, but rather out of curiosity to see just how easy it is to launch (or help launch) a cyber attack. The answer is it's frighteningly easy, it took Evgeny less than five minutes to join the fight.

The article also shows how attacks blamed on the Kremlin as part of a cyber warfare strategy, in reality instead are the work of patriotically, or ideologically motivated computer geeks (or in Evgeny's case, that of a curious writer). Last year Estonia also accused Moscow of launching a cyber attack against its government and business websites, attacks that in reality turned out to be the work of a single Estonian-born, ethnic-Russian teen.

It also makes you wonder if a loose collection of hackers can cause such chaos for a nation's computer infrastructure, what a nation like China - which is rumored to have an entire cyber warfare unit within their military - could cause.
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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Some Democrats Urge Delay in Building Missile Shield

Could saner heads still prevail on the missile shield in Europe?

Some House Democrats are saying the United States should hold off on plans to build a missile site in Poland until the defense system can be proven reliable. The Bush administration wants to spend more than $700 million next year to dig silos at an abandoned military base in Poland. But several Democratic lawmakers want to wait until the interceptor missiles are put through more testing.

The missile defense system is supposed to protect Europe from attacks by "rogue states", which usually translates to Iran. Of course why Iran would choose to launch a missile against someplace in Europe is never fully explained by its backers. And currently Iran doesn't even have a missile capable of flying far enough to even be shot down by an interceptor based in Poland. Then there's the matter of no one in Europe really wanting the system in the first place. The Poles finally accepted the system after Russia invaded Georgia (causing some fear in Warsaw), and after the United States sweetened the deal with a plan to upgrade the Polish military (including giving them a battery of Patriot missiles).

There already is a missile defense system in place for the United States with bases located in California and Alaska. Whether it could actually intercept anything a "rogue state" might throw at us is debatable. In testing the interceptors only have a success rate of just over 50%, and that's on tests that were stacked in the system's favor. The European version will use a different rocket to carry the "kill vehicle" (as the actual interceptor is called by the Air Force), one that hasn't been tested, meaning the likelihood of the whole shebang working is even less than the American one.

And then, of course, there's the whole matter of Russia being dead set against it. But that is the main reason why the Poles finally agreed to host it and the Bush administration has been so eager to get it in place. $700 million - it's an awful lot to pay to flip someone the bird.
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Monday, August 18, 2008

Georgia and George (Lucas)

The conflict in Georgia made me think about the original Star Wars movie, the 1977 version, and in particular Han Solo’s first scene.

We first meet Han in a wretched bar on a backwater planet. He’s sitting at a table when the bounty hunter Greedo confronts him. Greedo threatens Han, who looks almost bored by the encounter. Of course what we in the audience are privy to is Han slowly drawing his gun and pointing it at Greedo under the table. Without warning Han shoots, sending Greedo’s corpse skidding across the room. Han nonchalantly gets up, tosses the bartender a coin “for the mess” and leaves.

That’s the way the scene originally played out until George Lucas released the movie on DVD. George decided to take the opportunity to redo the Han Solo scene, by using computer animation to have Greedo shoot at Han first. In doing this though Lucas robbed the Han Solo storyline within the movie of its impact – the character who is an amoral killer at the start of the tale acting selflessly to help the rebels defeat Darth Vader and the Death Star by the end.

And if by this point you’re asking what any of this has to do with the current conflict in Georgia it’s this: that it matters to the story who shoots first.

The narrative in the Western (US/UK) press about the conflict so far has largely been one of naked Russian aggression towards their poor freedom-loving neighbor. It’s easy with that set-up to paint the Russians as the villains. The problem is that the current conflict was sparked by Georgia’s shelling of the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, an attack that caused widespread damage in the city of 40,000 (for a view of the conflict from the “other” side, check out this Russian reporter’s blog). Like the Star Wars movie, it’s a realization that changes the tone of the story.

As do the reports that Western diplomats, including staff from the US State Department, cautioned Georgia’s president Mikhail Saakashvili to cool down his rhetoric regarding South Ossetia and Abkhazia these past few months, and under no circumstances to engage in any military action – something the Russian press has been warning about for some time now. But portraying Saakashvili as a hothead doesn’t fit with the narrative being crafted about the Georgian situation, nor does reporting about Saakashvili’s own problems with democratic rule. It was less than a year ago that Saakashvili used riot police to break up peaceful protests against his government in the capital Tbilisi. The protestors accused Saakashvili’s government of corruption and becoming authoritarian. Saakashvili’s response was to send in the troops, then to call an early election that he likely lacked the authority to call, and finally to engage (as reported by European observers) in the same kinds of vote tampering that were called the “death of democracy” in Russia. The problem is that none of this fits into the image created of Saakashvili as the George Washington of the Caucasus.

Tensions have been building with Russia and the West for the past few years, part of Saakashvili’s brilliance has been to put Georgia squarely on the front line of that struggle – a move that has brought his country, tucked away there in the far southeast corner of Europe, a measure of prestige in the international community, not to mention foreign support, larger than one would naturally expect for such a place. But that only works if Georgia is the little democracy threatened by its bigger, aggressive neighbor. Saakashvili sending his troops against Tskhinvali ruins that carefully crafted image.

The politics of post-Soviet Europe are vastly complicated, as are relations in the Caucasus region, put them together and well…It’s a situation with a lot of moving parts – US/Russian relations, the fate of two separatists regions, the founding of new democracies, energy supplies, military alliances – all of which act and interact with each other in an intricate dance. It is a situation that takes a lot of time, patience and understanding to sort out. It’s also a case where there are no clear good guys and bad guys; it’s a painting in shades of gray.

Or you could just paint once side the aggressor and the other the victim, which is fine, so long as you don’t particularly care who fired the first shot.
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Friday, August 15, 2008

Russia: 'Forget' Georgian territorial integrity

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Thursday that critics should "forget about any talk about Georgia's territorial integrity" in regard to the disputed lands of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Lavrov's statement is being held up as another example of Russia's aggressive action towards their southern neighbor, but it's more an acceptance of reality than anything else.

Georgia has not controlled either place since the early 1990's when both of the territories fought wars for their independence. While no nations (not even Russia) recognized their claims, South Ossetia and Abkhazia set up governments and managed their affairs with no input from the Georgian government in Tbilisi for much of the past two decades. Mikhail Saakashvili made bringing the two rebel provinces back under Georgian control a key goal of his government when he was elected president.

His bid to use military force to bring South Ossetia to heel though failed miserably. It's hard to imagine the Ossetians ever accepting Georgian rule after the Georgian military leveled much of their capital Tskhinvali, and the failed attack showed that Georgia lacks the military power to force South Ossetia back into the fold.

It's hard to say there can be an upside to a war where hundreds (if not a couple of thousand) have been killed, and many, many more driven from their homes, but if there is its that there will now have to be some final resolution on the status of these two places, something that has languished in the international community for the past 15 years (Abkhazia and South Ossetia are two of the several “frozen conflicts” as they have come to be known in the lands of the old Soviet Union – small wars for independence where the fighting stopped, but the underlying decision of independence for the areas in question have not been answered) .

It really shouldn't be difficult, the recognition of Kosovo by the United States and Western European powers (France, Germany and the UK) earlier this year should set the precedent for the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Of course the problem is that Kosovo was carved out of Serbia, a country the western powers don't particularly like, while Abkhazia and South Ossetia would have to be pared from Georgia, the current darling of the West. Officials from the United States government insisted that Kosovo isn't a precedent for other would-be independent states, but never really explain why, other than because they say so. If anything Serbia's historic claim to Kosovo is much stronger than Georgia's claim to South Ossetia. The Ossetians lived in that particular corner of the Caucasus for hundreds of years before the Soviet Union and later Russia/Georgia drew an arbitrary border across their lands. It's much the same for Abkhazia, which has enjoyed various degrees of independence for the past few hundred years before becoming part of the newly-minted state of Georgia. In all three cases the areas in question acted as independent states within larger states.

Abkhazia, with its long Black Sea coastline that made it a favorite vacation spot among the old Soviet elite, has the resources to become a successful independent state. It’s harder to imagine that for little landlocked South Ossetia, though that fact didn’t stand in the way of little landlocked Kosovo.
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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Gorbachev on Larry KIng

I just finished watching Mikhail Gorbachev's appearance on the Larry King show. While Larry asks questions that hit as hard as a marshmallow, Gorbachev made some interesting comments.

He began by placing the blame for the conflict squarely on Georgia. Gorbachev said the Georgians opened the conflict with a massive, late-night artillery barrage on the South Ossetian capital Tsinkvali. The Russians claim that more than 1,500 people were killed in Tsinkvali (though this figure is disputed by the Georgians and has not been verified by outside sources), while the city's mayor claims that 70% of the buildings have been destroyed or damaged (Western journalists have confirmed the damage to the city to be widespread). Gorbachev said that he had information from the former Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze confirming both the assault and saying that the Georgians in the attack used precision weapons. Gorbachev said that the Russians had to respond to the attack on civilians in South Ossetia.

Throughout the interview he was highly critical of President Mikhail Saakashvili, who he blamed for launching the attack on Tsinkvali. He was also critical of the United States for "propping up" Saakashvili and encouraging him to massively build up the Georgian military (he said that Georgia, a nation of just 4 million, had spent over $1 billion on their military, and received a lot of high tech gear from the United States). Gorbachev said that the outside interference in Georgian relations with Russia caused them to deteriorate. He cited the 300 yearlong relationship between Russia and Georgia and said that most Russians have warm feelings towards the people of Georgia (which is something true of the Russians I know).

Larry then asked Gorbachev if he thought a new Cold War was starting. Gorbachev said not yet, but that it was possible. His answer though was interesting. He blamed rising tensions on steadily increasing military spending around the world. Gorbachev noted that the amount spent annually in the United States on defense accounts for half of the world's military spending. He also put part of the blame for the current Russian-Georgian conflict on Georgia's large military build up in the past several years, saying that when weapons pile up, conflict is inevitable.

Finally Gorbachev expressed concern that the relationship between the United States and Russia has not progressed since the end of the Cold War. Basically, he said that US policy makers were stuck in a Cold War mindset - not only could they not see Russia as anything but an adversary, but they were not tuned into the realities of the world today, including the interests of other countries. Gorbachev also accused the United States of always trying to solve policy problems around the world with military force.
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If the jackboot fits...

The Italian government is outraged over being labeled "fascists" by an influential Catholic magazine.

Famiglia Cristiana used the term in an editorial to describe recent moves by the Italian government to fingerprint and catalog all the members of Italy's Roma (aka Gypsy) community. The magazine compared the Italian government's actions to that of Nazi Germany against the Jews in Poland. In response members of the Italian government called the magazine - you guessed it - fascists.

I say good for Famiglia Cristiana. It's good to see the Italian government being called on their actions. The tactic of collectively blaming one already discriminated against ethnic group for societal problems (Italy is blaming the Roma for rises in street crime in its major cities) and singling them out for collective punishment/enforcement is straight out of the fascist playbook. And let's not forget that Rome's new mayor, Gianni Alemanno, represents a neo-fascist party and his election was greeted with the 30's-era fascist salute and chants of "Il Duce" (nickname of Italy's fascist leader Benito Mussolini). Comparing this crowd to the fascist doesn't seem to be a stretch to me.

Europe's response to Italy has been disappointing. Other than a letter of concern over the Roma policy, the European Union, which prides itself on talking up the protection of minority rights within its union, has done nothing.

Just because during the war fascist Italy was the comic relief of the Axis Powers though is no reason not to take today’s Italian government's actions seriously. Ask yourself, what would Europe's reaction had been if Berlin elected a mayor from a neo-Nazi party, whose supporters greeted him or her with chants of "seig heil" and straight-arm salutes?
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Caucasus chaos

The mainstream media coverage of the Georgian conflict has roundly been painting the Russians as the aggressors, with reports (some accurate, some not) of Russian troops in action across Georgia. But a report on Fox News this afternoon showed a different side of the conflict.

One of their correspondents sent in some harrowing tape of their camera crew running for cover after being threatened at gunpoint - by Georgian troops. The Fox crew had to run for their truck and make a hasty getaway (all caught on camera) after being confronted by a pistol-totting Georgian soldier. The correspondent reported that the Georgian was angry and frustrated and it seemed (in his opinion) that he was looking for someone to take it out on and happened to find the Fox crew.

This isn't meant to be an excuse for the Russians. There are credible reports of Russian troops active in two Georgian cities - Gori and Poti, which would seem to be in violation of the cease-fire agreement. The troops appear to be systematically dismantling the Georgian military, including sinking several Georgian coast guard ships at anchor in Poti. Since South Ossetia is landlocked its hard to argue that these ships would somehow be a threat to the Ossetians.

But blaming all acts of violence, or reported acts of violence, anywhere in Georgia is inaccurate (as the Fox crew showed this afternoon). Keep in mind that there are at least seven armed groups active in Georgia at the moment - Georgian troops, Russian troops, the South Ossetian militia, South Ossetian irregulars (basically local citizens with guns), Georgian irregulars, Cossacks and other "volunteers" who have traveled to South Ossetia on their own initiative, and the Abkhaz militia. Like the title says, that many players makes for a chaotic situation. Still, given the rising tensions between the US and Russia over Georgia, the media has an obligation to report the facts on the ground, not their own opinions.
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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Commentary on the Georgian conflict

While much of the mainstream media in the West seem to be reading off the same script regarding the Russia-Georgia conflict, there are some interesting points of view out there. Below I've linked to three.

First is an analysis of the conflict from the geopolitical intelligence website Stratfor: The Russo-Georgian War and the Balance of Power. It’s a bit dense, but worth a read, though if you’re short on time the highlights are that Stratfor believes the Georgia war doesn't signal that the balance of power in the world is shifting, but rather that it already has shifted and that the West still (mistakenly) thinks about Russia as the weak nation it was in the 1990's, rather than the growing regional power it has become. It also suggest that Georgia's move into South Ossetia was thought out well in advance (though questions why the Georgians launched such a risky operation in the first place), and makes the point that Russia is not trying to rebuild the old Soviet Union (a charge I've heard a lot in the mainstream press over the last day or so), but that it is trying to build a sphere of influence (something I have also argued).

Next up is a piece from Newsweek Some Georgians Blame Saakashvili for Russian Raids that shows the finger-pointing over the failed push into South Ossetia is already starting in Georgia. It's not a surprise since not only did Saakashvili's gamble probably lose Georgia South Ossetia and Abkhazia for good, but Georgia also seems to be systematically dismantling the Georgian military as we speak.

Finally commentary on the conflict: A Path to Peace in the Caucasus from Mikhail Gorbachev, a man who likely knows a thing or two about both the region and the politics involved.
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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The man behind the curtain

Near the end of the movie "The Wizard of Oz" Dorothy and her fellow travelers finally arrive in the Emerald City, where they meet the terrifying Wizard. He’s terrifying that is until a curtain is pulled back and the Wizard is revealed to be not the giant they first met, but instead a meek, little man sitting in front of a projector. I think that this week's conflict in Georgia will be the event that finally pulls back the curtain on the notions of America's strength as a superpower and the relevance of NATO.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has spent the past four years cultivating close relations with the United States, European Union and NATO. The American military has been training and equipping the Georgians for several years now, Saakashvili has been pushing for fast-tracking Georgia for EU and NATO membership and Tbilisi was even given the honor of a state visit by George W. Bush - yet all of these symbols of close ties between Georgia and the powers of "The West" meant nothing to Russia this weekend. Why? Because Russia realized the hollowness of that power, that when push came to shove the West would sit by and do nothing while they pounded Georgia into submission.

And Russia was right. As early as Friday (the fighting in South Ossetia having started late on Thursday), things weren't looking good for Georgia. Saakashvili went on CNN and expressed hope that the US and NATO would send military aid, but it never arrived, nor was it really even considered. The only military help he got was the loan of a few US Air Force transports to shuttle Georgian troops home from their deployment Iraq. Past that it was nothing but the usual vaguely worded statements of concern and calls for restraint.

There have been signs that America's reign as a superpower was at an end (or maybe more correctly that the idea of being a 'superpower' is a phony one) for some time now. Consider that nearly seven years after 9/11 the most powerful nation on Earth still has failed to find Osama bin Laden, or that it took nearly five years for the US to bring even some semblance of stability to Iraq, a fairly small country. Throw our European allies and NATO partners into the mix and you can add failures to get Iran to stop their nuclear program, Zimbabwe to commit to democratic reforms or of Burma to just let in humanitarian aid after a typhoon to the list of foreign policy failures.

There were always explanations of course: bin Laden was being aided by elements of the Afghani and maybe Pakistani governments, our early strategy in Iraq was flawed, Ahmadinejad and Mugabe are nuts, but the truer explanation is that we simply are not the dominant world power we think we are. Consider this - the neoconservatives who heavily influenced President Bush's foreign policy liked to think of America as "the new Rome", a benevolent, but world-ruling power. I heard a story once that at the height of the Roman Empire a man could travel on the Empire's far-flung network of roads wearing only a medallion that read "I am a citizen of Rome" for protection and arrive safely at his destination - the fear of reprisals from the Empire for attacking one of their citizens was so great, no bandit was willing to take the chance. Fast forward to today when Russia does not think twice about military action against a close ally of the US, since Russia knows we won't risk a fight over some small potatoes country like Georgia.

On a side note, the performance of the Georgian military is also likely to raise some eyebrows as well. Georgia (as a percentage of their national budget) spends more on their military than almost any other nation on Earth and for the past few years have received intensive training from the American military. Yet the Georgians seem to have been thrashed by a Russian military still struggling to rebuild after 20 years of neglect. It's something that won't help our superpower image.

In the short term the world will become a more turbulent place. Russia, China and Iran will pay even less attention now to the concerns of the West, since they know there’s nothing to back up our protests. The same goes for small-time despots, like the leaders of Sudan, who have blown off American/European protests about the humanitarian crisis in Darfur for years now and suffered no repercussions for it.

There was a telling moment on Friday, captured at the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. Bush and Putin were seated nearly side-by-side in the vip section reserved for heads of state. The camera caught Bush and Putin talking, even without sound you could tell the exchange was tense. After a few seconds Putin abruptly turned his back to Bush, leaving George hanging in mid-sentence, and walked away.

Once the illusion of the wizard is revealed, there's no going back.
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A cease fire in Georgia?

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy seems to have brokered a cease fire agreement between Russia and Georgia that will halt the fighting that has raged in the region for the past five days. Sarkozy appeared this morning in Moscow with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to unveil a six-point plan to end the fighting. Sarkozy will now fly to Tbilisi to get Mikhail Saakashvili's approval on the deal.

It's clear that the five-day conflict has been a disaster for Georgia. The Georgians hoped that their military action would bring the separatist region of South Ossetia back under their control, instead Georgian forces appear to have been driven from the area entirely. And rebel forces in Georgia's other separatist region, Abkhazia, are claiming to have pushed the Georgian military from that province as well. Meanwhile, Russian forces conducted actions deep into the territory of Georgia proper attacking the Georgian military in the towns of Gori and Senaki, which the Georgians were using as staging areas for military operations into the separatist regions. In announcing the Russian side of the cease-fire, Medvedev said that Russia's goals in the operation had been achieved.

But while the combat shows signs of cooling down, the rhetoric is heating up, especially in the American press. Russia is clearly being painted as the aggressor, with analogies to Nazi Germany's invasions of their neighbors in 1938 and 39 being the most common tool. Of course these analogies ignore that the current conflict seems to have been sparked by Georgia's attack on the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali late Thursday, which would then make Georgia the aggressor in this case, not Russia. Groups like the UN are trying to figure out how many people have been killed in the conflict so far (a tough task given the tens of thousands who have been driven from their homes), but the figure most quoted is about 2,000. Of that number it’s thought that 1,500 to 1,600 were killed in Tskhinvali alone (which only had a population of around 40,000 before the conflict).

The worst commentator I heard so far has been retired Air Force General Thomas McInerney, a military analyst with Fox News. McInerney, not only repeated the Russia/Nazi analogies, but also said that the US needed to take direct military action against Russia because of their actions in Georgia.

Gen. McInerney as a professional soldier though, should realize that from a strictly military point of view (I mean leaving out humanitarian, political, and who shot first arguments), the Russian operation in Georgia was very well planned and executed. The strikes into Georgia made sense: attacking staging areas like Gori prevented the Georgians from mounting a counter-offensive, while hitting airfields allowed the Russians to have air-superiority, something vital on the modern battlefield. I would think as a general McInerney would have mapped out a similar plan if he had been given the task.

But past that, given the United States military actions in the past decade, there is something disingenuous about a former general condemning Russia's actions. Of course the past five years in Iraq immediately spring to mind, but the NATO campaign against Serbia in 1999 is a more apt comparison.

Finally prodded to action after charges of ethnic cleansing started rolling out of Kosovo, NATO (though the United States did the bulk of the work) launched into an 88-day bombing campaign against Serbian forces to halt their military campaign in Kosovo. But even though the fighting was all taking place in Kosovo, the bombing campaign hit targets throughout Serbia, including many sites in the capital Belgrade. Not only were military installations targeted, but also so were power plants, communications centers (radio stations, telephone exchanges and the like) and bridges. I believe that every bridge over the Danube was damaged or destroyed in the course of the bombing.

The explanation was that these facilities were all important for the Serbian war effort and therefore legitimate targets for the bombing campaign, nevermind that these were also important facilities for the everyday lives of Serbs in Belgrade. My point (beyond the idea that there's no such thing as a humane war) is that the United States has to realize that when it undertakes unilateral (or near unilateral) actions against other sovereign nations, it sets a precedent for other countries to follow, and our howls of protest ring a little hollow when other countries follow our blue print.
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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bad Bets

As the crisis in Georgia enters its third day, one thing is clear: Mikhail Saakashvili bet big and lost.

The Georgian president bet that he could use military force to launch a quick action that would seize the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali and bring the rebellious region back under Georgia's control. He seems not to have expected the thousand or so Russian peacekeepers based in the region to actually take action to keep the peace in the face of a military raid, nor did Saakashvili think Russia would respond after 10 of those peacekeepers were killed in the early hours of the fighting.

That Saakashvili wouldn't think of these things is, frankly, pretty stupid. Russia has been flexing its military muscles for months now (resuming long-range patrols by their nuclear bombers and staging the largest naval exercise since the fall of the Soviet Union – sailing basically their entire Atlantic fleet - earlier this year). Plus Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev is an unknown quantity for the most part on the world stage; it isn't a stretch to think he would meet a challenge to Russia's military prestige forcefully.

Russia's response has been (if I may continue the gambling analogies) to go "all in": flooding troops into South Ossetia and striking at the Georgian city of Gori, which Georgian forces have been using as a staging area for their South Ossetia campaign. By responding with overwhelming force the Russians were able to quickly recapture Tskhinvali, pound the Georgian forces and drive them out of South Ossetia.

Saakashvili's second mistake was betting that the Western powers (his primary patron the United States, the European Union and NATO) would back his South Ossetia plan and stand up to Russia. They of course haven't, nor are they likely to, at least not as long as the conflict is confined to Georgia. Look at the situation in Darfur, which has been festering for years. The West will condemn the government of Sudan all day long, but no one wants to send in any troops to crackdown on the roving genocidal militias. Even in Afghanistan, NATO's front in their new primary mission of fighting the threat of global terrorism, few members have been willing to commit troops (then there's Germany, who is happy to send them so long as they are kept far, far away from the fighting). Washington and London may loathe the Putin/Medvedev government, but they're not about to go to war with it, especially not for a protégé who’s gone off half-cocked and started a war.

Sadly it will be Georgia that will pay the price for Saakashvili's bad bets. While offers of cease-fires are being discussed, the fighting continues with Georgia seeming to be getting the worst of it. Even once peace is restored it's awfully hard to imagine either South Ossetia or Abkhazia (Georgia's other erstwhile region) re-integrating themselves with the Georgian motherland. The country likely faces a period of instability once the inevitable finger pointing in the Georgian government begins, derailing any immediate hopes for membership in NATO or the EU. And, of course, there are the many civilians who have been killed, wounded or driven from their homes. They have lost the most of all.
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Saturday, August 9, 2008

Visual Aids

Since this will be a major topic of discussion for some time to come I exepct, I thought a map of Georgia (and South Ossetia/Abkhazia) would be helpful. The map below is from the BBC.

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Georgia vs. Russia: A battle of perceptions

I wanted to link to this piece from the Guardian (UK) website: Georgia's decision to shell Tskhinvali could prove 'reckless', because it provides a more balanced view of what's going on in Georgia today.

News so far has been slow coming out of South Ossetia and Georgia and trying to figure out just what's happening there is difficult. The Russians have one view of events, the Ossetians another and the Georgians their own - each side telling a story that helps their case. For example, the Russians and Ossetians are claiming more than 1,500 people have been killed - many of them civilians, the Georgians say the number is less than 200 with only about half being civilians. Experience shows that in situations like these the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle.

One thing that has been clear though in the vast majority of the media reports I've seen/read is that the western press is framing the conflict in terms of Georgia good/Russia bad. Take for example this piece by Edward Lucas from the Times of London. I've seen Lucas speak several times; he is a bright guy with a solid understanding of events in Russia. But he's also very anti-Putin, which colors his assessment of the situation. In this article Lucas glosses over the flaws of Georgia's president Mikhail Saakashvili because Saakashvili is standing up to Putin.

But that there is the problem. Both the Russians and Georgians have spent months bungling the situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and making stupid, aggressive steps that ratcheted up the tension to a point where it finally exploded (it also looks like it was Georgian military action that provided the spark - something else Lucas downplays). International organizations - the UN, European Union, etc - also dropped the ball by ignoring the frozen conflict in South Ossetia (and a few other regions in the former Soviet Union) for years rather than pursuing a negotiated peace.

The important thing now is to bring the conflict to a quick end. We need an objective view of events for that to happen, not a narrative that fits the opinions we have already formed about those involved.
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Friday, August 8, 2008

CNN: Russia invades Georgia

I turned on CNN this morning and was greeted by the tagline “RUSSIA INVADES GEORGIA” in big, bold type screaming across the bottom of the screen. The morning show host looked worried, I can only imagine because since Russia had invaded Georgia she expected Russian troops to kick in the doors of CNN’s Atlanta studios at any minute now. It’s worth noting that CNN was the only media outlet I could find (so far) that characterized today’s actions as a Russian “invasion”.

So what’s really going on? Regular readers of this site will know that tensions between Russia and Georgia have been running high for months now over two regions in Georgia – Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which rebelled from Georgia in the early 90’s and have enjoyed de facto independence for more than 15 years now. Russia has kept peacekeeping troops in both regions for much of that time, has economic ties to both areas and has issued Russian passports to many of each region’s citizens. Both sides have engaged in more than their fair share of sabre-rattling recently over the two regions and until today there had been a few, very small-scale military actions.

For the past few days there have been reports in the Russian media about the Georgian military shelling areas inside of South Ossetia. An attack yesterday apparently killed several Russian peacekeepers as well as some South Ossetian civilians. In response Russia has sent a column of tanks into South Ossetia heading for the regional capital Tskhinvali to defend both their peacekeepers and their citizens (since many Ossetians hold Russian passports). What else is happening past that is hard to sort out. MSNBC’s Pentagon correspondent this morning said that NATO was reporting a large build-up of Georgian troops along the South Ossetia border (something that backs up claims Russia has been making for the past few weeks). The cable news channels have run a clip of rockets flying through the night sky that looks impressive, but it’s impossible to tell who is doing the shooting and who’s being shot. Georgia claims that Russia has bombed areas within Georgia proper and that they have shot down four attacking Russian aircraft. The Russians and South Ossetians claim that Georgia has launched large-scale attacks into South Ossetia and that they are engaging in ethnic cleansing among the Ossetians.

Getting back to CNN for a minute. One reason for their breathless coverage this morning was an exclusive interview with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. Well, interview is a bit of a misstatement since it was more of a monologue by Saakashvili, who wrapped himself in every pro-democracy movement of the past 50 years. Keep in mind though that less than a year ago, Saakashvili himself was involved in a questionable presidential election. Election monitors from Europe found convincing evidence that Saakashvili’s government engaged in voter intimidation, vote rigging and used the state-run media as a PR machine for Saakashvili, while denying opposition candidates airtime. Saakashvili last December used police riot troops to break up a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration complaining about corruption and authoritarianism in his government, ironic since similar demonstrations (the ‘Rose Revolution’) brought him to power in 2004.

But Saakashvili has proven adept at portraying himself as a George Washington of the Caucasus, and the United States in particular has been eager to support him because Georgia is the home to the only oil and gas pipelines running from the rich Caspian Sea region that do not pass through Russian territory. Any problems that Saakashvili has with ‘democracy’ are passed off as growing pains of the budding Georgian democracy (really, that’s what the election monitors said about the last election, while saying that similar problems in Russia marked the death of democracy there).

A final note on the “invasion”. Any discussion of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has to come back to Kosovo, because like Kosovo both of these Georgian territories claimed to be independent, self-governing regions that were not part of the countries that claim them. So if Russia has invaded Georgia by sending troops into South Ossetia, then hasn’t NATO and the European Union invaded Serbia through their actions in Kosovo? Something to ponder.

UPDATE – Fox News is reporting (just after 11am) that South Ossetian officials are claming that over 1,000 civilians have been killed in Tskhinvali by Georgian forces. Tskhinvali’s population is only estimated to be around 42,000 people.
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Monday, August 4, 2008

Attack in China kills 16 just days before Olympics

With the Olympics set to start on Friday, this is the kind of news China does not want the world to hear - this morning two militants connected to a separatist group in the far northwestern province of Xinjiang China launched an attack that killed 16 police officers and wounded 16 others.

Chinese officials were quick to blame the attack on Muslim separatists from the ethnic Uighur population native to Xinjiang. The Chinese have accused the Uighurs of plotting a number of terrorist attacks in the months leading up to the Olympics, arresting dozens of suspected militants in the process.

Since 2001 China has been claiming that there are ties between Uighur militants in Xinjiang and al-Qaeda. The problem is that there is very little independent evidence that the Muslim Uighurs have any ties to al-Qaeda, nor that there is an active separatist movement that will use violence to achieve its goals. There have been only a handful of small-scale terrorist-style acts that can be traced to Uighur separatists in the past 20 years.

The Uighurs, meanwhile, claim that China is attempting to do in Xinjiang what they are accused of doing in Tibet (Xinjiang's neighbor to the south) - engaging in a systematic campaign to wipe out the culture of the indigenous ethnic population and replace it with an ethnic Han Chinese one loyal to the government in Beijing. China has supported a massive immigration of Han Chinese into Xinjiang, displacing the Uighurs as the main ethnic group in the region. The government has also closed down mosques in the province and arrested imams, preventing the Uighurs from practicing their religion.

For a brief time in the 1940's Xinjiang was an independent nation called East Turkestan, but was overrun by Mao's Red Army and incorporated into China. Since then the Uighurs have claimed the Chinese government has launched a campaign of discrimination aimed at erasing their culture, which has existed in the region for over a thousand years.

The Uighurs maintain that their struggle for ethnic and religious rights is a peaceful one, despite China's efforts to tie them to al-Qaeda and the Global War on Terror.
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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Giant kites for wind power?

Giant kites could be the newest source of clean, renewable energy.

That's the goal of scientists from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands who recently tested a small-scale model of a renewable energy generator that uses kites instead of turbines to harness wind power. As the kite rises it pulls a cable that turns a generator and makes electricity. When the kite reaches the end of its line (about 800 meters above the ground), its reeled in and the process starts again.

The scientists say that the winds at 800 meters are stronger than the average wind speed at 80 meters off the ground - the height of most wind turbines - so in theory the kites can generate more power than turbines. The winds aloft also tend to blow more steadily and reliably than those near the ground.

The kite idea is being funded by Google's philanthropic arm, among other groups. The scientists from Delft U. say the cost of kite-based generators could be half the price of wind turbines.

Wind is being touted as one of the renewable energy sources that can replace fossil fuels like oil and coal. Hopefully these energy-producing kites will get some serious research funding. Right now the only way to harness wind power is through giant wind turbines, which honestly are pretty ugly. From an aesthetic point of view I think a field of wind turbines is just as ugly as a field of oilrigs. But past that, the early research shows that kites could produce more power at a lower price than turbines. Hopefully research will be done into kite technology before we start building turbines all over the place, like some (Al Gore, T. Boone Pickens) are advocating we do. In the US we've already made the mistake in bio-fuels of committing to a high cost/low return source (corn-based ethanol), hopefully we won't do the same thing with wind power - jumping into one technology (turbines) without researching some promising alternatives.
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