Friday, October 31, 2008

Gaddafi goes to Moscow

Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is paying a visit to Moscow this weekend, his first since the days of the Soviet Union, in another sign of growing ties between Russia and the North African country.

Gaddafi's trip follows one made by Vladimir Putin to Libya last April where Russia forgave billions of dollars worth of Libyan debt going back to the Soviet-era in return for billions of dollars of new contracts with Russian companies, including one to build a 300-mile railroad across the desert. More deals are expected during Gaddafi's visit, probably including billions of dollars worth of upgrades to the Libyan military, which is stocked almost exclusively with Soviet-made equipment. Then there are the rumored deals…

They include helping Libya build nuclear power plants and a possible agreement for the Russian navy to establish a base at the Libyan port of Benghazi. Russia has been looking to establish a presence in the Mediterranean Sea recently and has also been working with the Syrian government to renovate an old Soviet base in the port of Tartus for use by the Russian Navy.

Speaking of the Russian Navy and the Mediterranean, a naval task force from Russia's Northern Fleet will soon set sail for the Med to conduct joint operations with ships from their Black Sea Fleet sometime in November. The flagship for the Northern Fleet will be the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. Once in the Med, the two fleets will engage in a mock combat exercise and visit several ports, including a stop at Messina in Sicily.

A second Russian task force is already en route to Venezuela where it will conduct operations in the Caribbean Sea with the Venezuelan Navy, also in November. The recent contact with Libya shows that not only is Russia trying to step up its military profile around the world, but it is also trying to build ties (or rebuild) ties with nations in Africa.
Sphere: Related Content

This gave me a laugh

From the BBC Wales service:

E-mail error ends up on road sign

The government in the UK has been trying to promote the use of Welsh with bilingual signs in Wales. The English part of the sign in question is straightforward enough: "No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only." The Welsh?

"I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated."
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

WWF says reckless consumption threatens the planet

The human race is burning through the Earth's natural resources, but the World Wildlife Fund has come up with a simple solution - we just need to find a second planet.

That's the result of the WWF's "Living Planet Report" that found that three-quarters of the world's population live in countries that use natural resources at a rate faster than they can be replaced. At that pace, the WWF says we will need an entire second planet just to keep up with demand by the mid-2030's. The United States and China have the largest consumption "footprint" according to the WWF report. Perhaps more disturbing, many of the countries that are currently living within their sustainability footprint are also the world's poorest (like Haiti), which makes you think that if they were to start to develop economically, then their footprints would grow as well.

The WWF refers to resources as "natural capital", and says that reckless consumption will lead to higher energy and food prices around the globe, as resources grow more and more scarce.
Sphere: Related Content

Why the world wants Obama

If the world could vote it’s clear that Barack Obama would win the presidency in a landslide. A recent survey by The Economist magazine showed Obama winning in basically every country on Earth (save for some reason Georgia and Macedonia). But why such a lopsided margin? Perhaps an email I received from a dear friend teaching English in the Russian heartland might shed some light.

Her class includes not only the college-age students hoping to go abroad that you would expect, but also a few well into middle-age who just want to learn English - the American version they stress, not the Queen’s, thank you. Considering the poor state of relations between our governments, that little fact is remarkable, that obviously to these students deep in Siberia, the idea of America means something special.

That idea also made its way onto the PBS news program “World Focus”, which on Tuesday did a report from correspondents in Kenya and Tanzania. It’s not surprising that the Kenyans are backing Obama, since it was the homeland of his father, what was remarkable though was the degree that they had embraced American culture in general. Young people hanging out in malls decked out in baggy jeans and baseball caps singing along to hip-hop, are a far more common sight today in Nairobi than youth wearing dashikis listening to Kenyan music. Even down the coast in Tanzania World Focus reported that while the War on Terror has caused the predominantly Muslim Tanzanians to dislike the government of the United States, they draw a distinction between the government and the American people, whom they still looked on very favorably.

And that’s why I think the world is so overwhelmingly supporting Obama – because his election would validate their belief in America. That in the imaginations of people around the world America remains a place where you are not bound by caste, limited by race, color or creed, or held back by lack of wealth or connections; that it is a place where even the son of an immigrant, even someone from a group once owned as property can aspire to the highest office in the land.

It’s not to say that America is perfect, far from it – we spend too much and save too little, we need to be better stewards of the land, we too often focus on the silly instead of the serious (it will be interesting to see whether more people this year vote for American Idol or President) – in short, we still struggle to be the “more perfect union” our Founding Fathers challenged us to be. But that struggle is a strength, not a weakness.

The world supports Obama not for his policies (I’d venture to guess that outside of some universities and salons in Europe the world is likely not even aware of many of his positions), but because of the simple power of his ideal. His election would reconfirm in their hearts and minds the idea of America as the “shining city on the hill”, as Ronald Reagan once said - a place not of secret prisons, rendition flights, extra-judicial detention, and some of the other excesses of the War on Terror that smell too hauntingly of the tin-pot dictatorships so many came here to escape - but of a land of infinite possibilities.

It is the land the world wants America to be, next Tuesday they hope to see their faith renewed.
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Georgia accused of Ossetia war crimes

The BBC has done an in-depth report into this summer's conflict in Georgia and has found evidence of potential war crimes committed by Georgian soldiers.

Among the claims made in the BBC report were eye-witness accounts from the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali from residents of an apartment building who claimed that Georgian tanks rolled up to their apartment building and systematically fired shells into each of its five floors. The BBC crew found damage to a nearby building that was consistent with the eye-witness accounts. Others told of Georgian soldiers firing at civilian cars fleeing the city. (For another eye-witness account of the conflict read "I survived the Georgian war. Here's what I saw")

The conflict began on the night of August 7 when Georgian forces bombarded Tskhinvali with artillery and rockets.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called Georgia's actions "reckless" and called for a full, independent investigation into the conflict to look for possible war crimes.

The BBC story is another that contradicts the version of the conflict popular with the American press and politicians that had an aggressive Russia attacking their peaceful and democratic neighbor, Georgia. Early in September OSCE (the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) released a report accusing President Mikhail Saakashvili of numerous rights violations in his re-election bid in May. A recent Human Rights Watch report also took Saakashvili to task for being less than democratic in his rule.

The Ossetians are not blameless in the BBC report either. They talked with several Ossetians who admitted to burning the houses of Georgians living in Ossetia, but only – they stressed - after the owners had fled.

"You can call it ethnic cleaning, but I think I just did it to prevent a future war," one Ossetian man said.
Sphere: Related Content

Monday, October 27, 2008

This week's rumor mill

The latest entry into the rumor mill is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Speculation has been for the last few days that Ahmadinejad is in poor health after he missed some public events (stop me if this sounds familiar). Ahmadinejad went on Iranian TV yesterday to quash the rumors, saying that he simply caught a cold like any other person. His supporters are accusing the political opposition in Iran of trying to undermine Ahmadinejad's rule by spreading lies about his health.

Ahmadinejad has to stand for re-election in 2009 and might be in for a real fight - he was elected on a platform of sharing Iran's oil wealth with the country’s poorest citizens, but instead inflation has been steadily climbing and oil prices steadily falling, which won't help the inflation problem.

Meanwhile, we're still waiting for North Korea's "major announcement" that was suppose to come last Monday. Last time North Korea used the term "major announcement" it was to tell of the death of President for Life Kim Il Song, so speculation has been that his son and successor Kim Jong-Il has gone the same way as his father. But for now, it's only speculation and officials in South Korea say they've seen no unusual activity from their northern neighbor.

Stay tuned...
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, October 26, 2008

NATO vs. Somali Pirates

Time magazine this week is asking "Will NATO Navies Stop Somali Pirates?"

My answer? Probably not.

Not if they go at piracy like it's a law enforcement problem, which is the approach the article implies NATO is taking. It talks about a successful action by the French navy that stopped an attempted hijacking and caught nine pirates. The nine were then turned over to the government of the Puntland region of Somalia, which promised to put them on trial.

Of course if you read this piece by the BBC a few weeks ago, you'd know that's a pretty unlikely proposition. The story talked about the Puntland city of Eyl, whose economy is based on providing support and services to the pirates (not only things you’d expect like ships and fuel, but also hostage negotiators and restaurants that feed ship’s crews that have been captured - honestly you have to admire the entrepreneurial spirit of the folks in Eyl). Piracy provides most of the income for the entire Puntland region, so I wouldn't expect them to kill the golden goose.

But past that, historically pirates have been viewed as a military problem rather than a criminal one. It's been largely forgotten now, but the United States first foray into foreign affairs was to fight pirates along the Barbary Coast of North Africa, the line in the Battle Hymn of the Marines "the shores of Tripoli" is a reference to their role in fighting the Barbary Pirates at the start of the 19th century. Treating the Somali pirates of today as a criminal problem seems doomed to fail. A military mission would be simple - find the pirates' ships and sink them. If you treat it as a criminal problem, you have to arrest them, but what are the rules if they fight back?

And then there's the problem of what to do with the pirates if and when you do catch them. Turning them over to the legal system of a country that basically does not have a functioning government doesn't make much sense. France sent another group of pirates back to Paris for trial because that group had attacked a ship with French citizens, so then is every country responsible for prosecuting pirates that attack their citizens? Then what about a ship with a multinational crew?

You get the point; it becomes a wildly complex problem being handled by a group (NATO) that already is an enormous bureaucracy. And keep in mind that the Somali pirates have had a lot of practice in playing cat and mouse with ships on a huge swath of ocean. All in all I'd say NATO's chances for success in this mission aren't great.
Sphere: Related Content

Flawed Pakistan strategy now in Syria?

Is a US strategy to defeat terrorists just creating more of them?

That's the verdict from Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on the policy approved last month by President Bush that authorized the US military to launch air strikes against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets inside Pakistan. While the Pentagon is claiming that a number of militants have been killed in the lawless border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Prime Minister Gilani said that the policy is counterproductive and because it only enrages the local population and turns more of them to the side of the terrorists. Pakistan's government is also angry over the repeated raids, which they see as a violation of their national sovereignty.

Pakistan's government is instead pursuing a strategy of targeted raids against some suspected terrorists, but is also trying to persuade local tribal chiefs to turn away from al-Qaeda and side with the Pakistani government. Gilani says that what's needed in the tribal areas more than air strikes is money for development efforts to raise the standard of living in an area mired in poverty.

So the air strike strategy very well may be making more terrorists than it's eliminating. Now the word out tonight is that the same plan may now be underway in Syria.

Reports from Syria are that US Special Forces conducted a raid on a village on the Syria/Iraq border in an area notorious for smuggling. Troops flew in on helicopters and struck a building that the US said was part of a “foreign fighter network”. Of course the Syrians have a different story to tell - they say that the building was under construction and that those killed included a guard at the construction site and his wife. Syria is condemning the raid as a "serious aggression".

The BBC is speculating what might be behind the raid, especially since European countries and Israel have recently been trying to improve relations with Syria. The BBC thinks the raid may be a "parting shot" by the Bush administration, since it expects Barack Obama to win the election and several of his advisors are in favor of improving relations with Syria.
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, October 24, 2008

Iraq's government is giving us a gift, let's take it

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced on Friday that he wouldn’t sign the Status of Forces (SOF) agreement that his government has just finished negotiating with the United States.

The SOF provides the legal basis for the United States military operations in Iraq. Currently, the US (and other multinational forces) are operating in Iraq under a mandate issued by the United Nations back in 2003. But that mandate expires at the end of the year and without either a new one from the UN or a SOF between the US and Iraq, America's military wouldn't have legal grounds for operating in Iraq. Or in the words of the United States’ commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno: "Without (a security agreement), we would potentially have to cease all operations."

Al-Maliki's government isn't happy with the SOF, even after the US gave major concessions to Iraq, including prior approval of military missions conducted by US forces, and the right to arrest and try US soldiers who are suspected of committing crimes when they are off-duty and off US bases (a privilege the US doesn't even grant to some of its closest allies like Japan). The Bush administration is peeved at Iraq's failure to sign.

They shouldn't be.

Let's face it, Iraq is handing us a gift - a quick end to our military involvement in Iraq – we’re silly not to take it.

Whether you support the war or not, there are a couple of facts that can't be ignored about Iraq - it's costing us a pile of money ($1.5 billion per week is the figure usually quoted) and it's dangerously overstretched our military. We can't afford either cost any longer.

Not to mention that the stated goals of the 2003 invasion were all accomplished long ago: getting rid of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (done, well they weren't there in the first place…), removing Saddam Hussein from power (done, he’s been tried and executed), and bringing democracy to Iraq (done). On that last point - Iraq's democracy is far from perfect and in reality is a functioning democracy only in a broad sense of the term. But the work that's left to do in the country is political, not military; only the Iraqis can improve their government.

Even with a huge number of US troops in Iraq, their Shiite-dominated government has fallen under the influence of their brethren in neighboring Iran, and the Iraqi Kurds in the north of the country are threatening to go their own way – control over the oil-rich region around the city of Kirkuk is probably the biggest source of conflict within Iraq’s government, while the Kurds are already fighting a low-level war with Turkey over the idea of “Greater Kurdistan”.

The point is that these are Iraqi problems to solve, they’re happening with our troops in-country, they’ll continue to happen if we stay or if we go. Only the Iraqis can decide if they want to be a client state of Iran or if the Arab Iraqi’s (the Shia and Sunnis) and Kurdish Iraqis even want to share a country. These problems won’t be solved by the end of 2011 (the expiration date for our proposed SOF agreement with Iraq) or mid-2010 (Obama’s target date for getting our troops out of Iraq), so where’s the logic in staying any longer if we are clearly not wanted and if our presence isn’t solving these problems in the first place?

Frankly, I am surprised that George Bush doesn’t jump at this fig leaf of a foreign policy victory to wrap up his presidency at a time when he is looking incredibly irrelevant. Imagine this: a last Bush address from the White House sometime in December where he announces that, in agreement with the Iraqi government, the troops will be coming home from Iraq, starting immediately. He can go on about how one of the world’s worst dictators has been replaced by a democracy, and how our troops are liberators, not occupiers. He can even look into the camera, do that half-squint thing he does when he’s about to say something he thinks is profound and say something like “and when that young democracy said ‘we’re ready’, our troops came home.”

I don’t know why he doesn’t go for it, use it as cornerstone for the George W. Bush presidential library to try to start to build a foreign policy legacy on, rather than sending Condi Rice out to make statements about how the Iraqis aren’t ready to lead yet, and let the news magazines write stories about how he’s so unpopular that Republicans running for office don’t want the President of the United States to campaign on their behalf. But he’s not, so it’s likely the last act of the administration will be to try to strong-arm an agreement out of Iraq to keep our troops in place a little while longer in a land where they’re not wanted, trying to complete a mission that was finished long ago.
Sphere: Related Content

Virtual murder, real jail

From the odd story files...

A woman in Japan could be heading to jail for murdering her virtual husband. The two were "married" in a Japanese online role-playing game called "Maple Story" and all was fine until her virtual husband suddenly decided he wanted a virtual divorce. The woman in question then used the man's user name and password to access Maple Story and delete his character, in effect "murdering" him.

For the record, she isn't being charged with murder, but with illegally accessing a computer network and manipulating data. Police in Japan say that they do not believe that the woman intended to do the man any harm in the real world. Still, she could spend five years in jail on the charges she now faces.

It’s another in a growing list of cases where the virtual world is colliding with the real.
Sphere: Related Content

Grading the Bush foreign Policy

Expect to see a lot of these in the coming weeks as the George W. Bush presidency comes to a close...

The Asia Times Online is up first, offering a scorecard on Bush's foreign policy record. A quick preview - the average grade falls somewhere between E and G.
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Site updates

There are a few new features on the site.

First, there's now a link at the bottom of each post titled: "Sphere: Related Content". Click on it and a pop-up window opens with links to additional content related to the topic - other news stories, video clips and blogger posts. Click on the "X" at the top right corner of the Sphere window to close it.

Next, I've changed the news feed on the right hand corner of the page (again) since the other feeds haven’t been working properly. The new feed is from Google World news and offers up a broad list of world stories. Click on the link in the news feed to open the story you want to read.

Finally there's a new email link on the right hand side of the page for comments, questions or story ideas. Feel free to contact the site at
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Rumor mill update

Looks like The Australian went 0-for-2 in the stories mentioned in Sunday's rumor mill post.

First, Monday came and went with no big announcement out of North Korea. That nation's diplomats were said to be on standby for a "major announcement" from the country's leadership. There was a lot of speculation that the announcement would be the death of leader Kim Jong-Il, but nothing happened. So what's going on in North Korea (if anything) remains a mystery.

As for the other story, China has in fact gone through with its epic land reform program.

The Communist government announced that they were moving ahead with a scheme to give peasant farmers control over their land. Right now, rural farmers sign 30-year leases for their land with large collective farms run by the Communist Party. The new plan will let farmers buy and sell these leases.

It's expected that the new scheme will both improve the efficiency of farmland in China and double the incomes of rural residents. While cities like Beijing and Shanghai have become the showpieces of a new, affluent China, around 700,000,000 of the country's residents still live on rural farms in deep poverty. The growing divide between the emerging middle class in the cities and the rural poor is one of the government's major concerns and one they hope the land reforms will help to cure.
Sphere: Related Content

Monday, October 20, 2008

Russia - from Ukraine to Yemen?

According to Russia's deputy prime minister, the Russian Navy could leave the Black Sea port of Sevastopol by 2017, while the speaker of Russia's Parliament said that Russia could look to reopen a Soviet-era base in the country of Yemen.

Deputy PM Sergei Lavrov told the BBC that Russia will leave Sevastopol if an extension to the lease they have with Ukraine for the naval base there can't be worked out. Sevastopol is another problem left over from the breakup of the Soviet Union. For more than 200 years Russia's Black Sea fleet has been based in Sevastopol, which (like the rest of the Crimean region) was part of Russia. Then in 1954, in an act of goodwill, the Soviet Union gave the Crimea to Ukraine. At the time it wasn't considered a big deal since Russia and Ukraine were both part of the big, happy Soviet family. Then the Soviet Union broke up in 1991...

Since then Russia has been renting Sevastopol from Ukraine, but as relations between Ukraine and Russia have been souring and Ukraine has been eager to get the Russian Navy out of their port. Governments in the West (the US and UK mostly) have been worried that after the recent conflict with Georgia, Russia might try to keep Sevastopol, and the rest of Crimea for that matter, lease or no lease. But Lavrov seems to now be striking a different tone, at least as far as the base is concerned.

Russia, though, has been looking at other homes for their navy. They are currently renovating facilities in the Syrian port Tartus for use by their navy, which would give them a presence in the Mediterranean Sea. Now Sergei Mironov, speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, said that Russia is looking to head back to Yemen, the little country at the bottom of the very strategic Arabian Peninsula.

Yemen was once two countries, North and South Yemen, with the South being socialist and an ally of the Soviet Union. That ended in the early Nineties when Yemen reunified and the Soviet Union fell apart. Now the Russians are looking at once again using the port facilities in Aden, according to Speaker Mironov.

Russia has been showing more and more interest in Africa recently. They have sent a ship to help intercept the hijacked Ukrainian shipload of tanks taken by pirates a few weeks ago off the coast of Somalia, and they have been in talks with the Somali government over future cooperation. A base in Aden would be a natural location to launch anti-piracy operations off the coast of Africa, and would help to extend Russia's military influence beyond its borders.
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Israel considering Saudi peace plan

The news coming out of Israel these past few weeks has been really fascinating.

First there was outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's frank statements in an interview that Israel should give up almost all of the land it captured in the 1967 war with several of their Arab neighbors - the West Bank, Golan Heights, and east Jerusalem - in exchange for a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians. Now Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that Israel is considering dusting off a 2002 peace deal put forward by the Saudis.

The Saudi deal says basically that if Israel withdraws from the occupied lands (West Bank, Golan Heights, east Jerusalem, Gaza Strip), the Arab nations will recognize Israel. Currently, most Arab nations do not recognize Israel as a legitimate country and few have formal diplomatic relations with them.

Olmert's interview and taking a fresh look at the Saudi peace deal are pretty dramatic developments, considering the peace deal that George Bush said he wanted by the end of his term in office looked pretty dead a few weeks ago. Arab leaders are said to be worried about the growing influence of radical groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and Iran's nuclear program – who all point to Israel's occupation of Arab territory as reasons for their actions. I also wonder if Israel's leaders aren't getting more and more concerned about the actions of the settlement movement (the Israelis who live in the occupied territories), who have been growing more militant in recent months - carrying out attacks against Palestinians and allegedly sending a pipe bomb to an Israeli peace activist. Olmert himself warned of an "evil wind of extremism" that was threatening Israel's security based on some of the more militant members of the settlement movement.

Israel, meanwhile, announced it would continue peace talks with Palestine and Syria while asking Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to provide more information on how the Saudi plan could move forward.
Sphere: Related Content

Umm...about that embargo...

You have to wonder if the United States’ decades-long embargo of Cuba is in its last days now that the island nation has announced it has strong evidence that there are likely as many as 20 billion barrels of oil in its offshore territories.

Cuba already has a small oil industry, and produces about half the oil it uses domestically. They have though long suspected that there are vast reserves offshore. Last week's estimate of 20 billion barrels is based on years of research and by comparing Cuba's geography to the oil-producing regions of Mexico. The state oil company Cubapetroleo (which is also known by the just-too-cute nickname Cupet) plans to drill the first test wells early next year.

If it all plays out according to estimates, Cuba will join the ranks of the world’s oil exporting nations. Industry experts point out that the oil is located in deep deposits offshore, so it is hard to get to, and that the US embargo in place against Cuba prevents American companies from investing in developing the oil fields.

Of course that embargo won't stop Chinese or Russian companies (Russia has been actively working lately to restore ties with their Communist-era ally) from investing, which makes you wonder if the US will continue the embargo, or make the decision that five decades is enough.
Sphere: Related Content

Brazilian president urges emerging countries to unite

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has laid the blame for the world's financial crisis firmly at the feet of the world's developed countries. At a meeting of IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa), Lula said that the world's emerging economies needed to work together to avoid suffering as a result of the downturn.

“We risk being victims of a financial crisis generated by the rich countries. That is not fair,” he said. “It is unacceptable for us to pay for the irresponsibility of speculators who turned the world into a gigantic casino.”

The leaders of the three IBSA countries said the crisis is another example of why world policy organizations need to be reformed, that they for too long have been dominated by countries from the Northern Hemisphere of the globe - at the expense of nations in the South (if you study development in international affairs you hear a lot about what’s called the “Global South”, the countries below the equator that tend to lag behind the developed nations of Europe, North America and Japan, all of which are on the northern half of the globe). Lula’s comments show that the developing world (for lack of a better term) is now much more willing to find their own solutions to problems rather than relying on the existing global powers (those countries of the north) to solve the problems for them.

It’s a feeling that goes along with a growing call to reform bodies like the United Nations, International Monetary Fund and Group of Seven (G7) to make them more responsive to the needs of the developing world. Since the recent global crisis was made possible by the financial reforms pushed by the developed countries - to use President Lula's terms - these calls are only getting louder.

One idea being put forward by Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, is to expand the G7 to 14 nations by adding Russia, China, India, South Africa, Mexico and Saudi Arabia to the mix. Zoellick's view is that the current G7 isn't working and that by expanding to the G14 the group will represent a much broader cross-section of the globe and will be more sensitive to the needs and problems of developing nations. Ultimately Zoellick said that the G14 would lead to a more stable world.
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday rumor mill: China and Korea

Two stories from the rumor mill today, both appearing at The Australian news site (which makes you think they’re either great investigative reporters, or just really bored this weekend).

Rumor #1: Forget ill, speculation now is that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is in fact dead and that the news will be formally announced on Monday.

Rumors have been flying about Kim for the past month after he failed to appear at several major public events in North Korea. The state-controlled media showed footage of Kim last week to quell the rumors about his health, but sharp-eyed critics were quick to point out that the “new” footage showed plants in bloom that normally only grow in the summertime, which made the video look a bit fishy.

It’s suspected that something big is up in North Korea: officials were told not to travel abroad, the country sealed its borders yesterday and North Korean diplomats worldwide were told to be on standby for a “major announcement” on Monday.

Some Korea watchers think the major announcement will be of Kim’s death, though other possibilities include a coup or of a drastic change in relations with South Korea (relations between the two Koreas have been steadily worsening in recent months). We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Rumor #2: That popular Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is about to be ousted by hard-line Communists within the government.

Sometimes called “Grandpa Wen” for his connection to the common man in China, Wen has been the driving force behind many of China’s recent reforms. But while they have helped to improve relations with the West, they have not been popular with some members of China’s ruling Communist Party.

Now Wen’s boldest reform – a land deal that would give China’s 700,000,000 peasant farmers control over the fields they worked - has been put on hold.

Tensions have been rising between reformers in the government who are pushing for more Western-style freedoms for the people, and hard-line Communists who want the state to remain at the center of society. Wen’s ouster would be a blow to the reformers and would strengthen the position of China’s other top politician, President Hu Jintao.
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The latest political drama from Ukraine

I was really surprised to see Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko suddenly reverse course and say that she would “accept any conditions” to revive her ruling coalition with President Viktor Yushchenko since they have become bitter rivals in recent years and since their first two tries at coalitions each fell apart within a year. But this piece from clears things up.

The International Monetary Fund is willing to lend Ukraine between $3 and $14 billion to shore up the country’s economy, but only if Ukraine can show some political stability, and that’s where Tymoshenko’s offer comes in. If Yushchenko accepts and they re-re form the coalition, then she looks like a statesman, if he refuses, Tymoshenko can tell the public (and Ukraine’s business community) that she tried to save the country’s economy, and she strengthens her standing for the country’s Presidential election in 2010.

Whether the IMF accepts a third stab at a coalition between two bitter political rivals as a sign of “political stability” though remains to be seen.

Ukraine was already suffering from one of the highest rates of inflation before the global credit crisis set in. Now projections for growth for the coming year are being slashed and citizens are worrying about the health of the nation’s banks. The IMF loan would be used to shore up the nation’s financial sector.
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Christians flee Mosul, and other news from Iraq

It's been a tough week for Iraq's Christian minority. A wave of attacks that killed more than a dozen people last week have now prompted more than 8,000 Christians to flee the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

Mosul is the home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, but times have been tough for Iraq's nearly one million Christians since the start of the war in 2003. It's estimated that a third have fled the country in the past five years, and in March of this year the Archbishop of Mosul was kidnapped and murdered. Before the war began, the Christians and Muslims of Mosul had lived together peacefully for centuries.

Not surprisingly, the US/UK coalition forces are blaming the recent attacks against the Christian population in Mosul on al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Coalition said that al-Qaeda forces that have been driven from other parts of Iraq have set up operations in Mosul, the only city in Iraq where al-Qaeda is still operating freely (they say).

But at least one report blames Iraq's Kurds for the recent attacks. An Iraqi member of parliament from Mosul, Osama al-Najifi, said that the peshmerga (the Kurdish militia) is responsible for the killings, and that the attacks were being done to drive the Christian population from Mosul to swing the demographics of the city more in the Kurds favor.

Tensions have been growing between the Kurds and the rest of Iraq over claims of land and the country's oil reserves. The biggest hotspot has been the northern city of Kirkuk. Historically, the Kurds claim Kirkuk as theirs, but during his reign, Saddam Hussein moved tens of thousands of Arab Iraqis into the city, trying to break Kurdish influence over the place. The Kirkuk region is home to a sizable chunk of Iraq's oil reserves, so both the Arab Iraqis and Kurds want to control it. And just to make things more complicated, there is also a population of Iraqi Turkmen who also call Kirkuk home.

If a report from the Guardian is correct though, the Iraqis will have to solve these problems without the help of the Americans after 2011.

A deadline for the withdrawal of coalition forces by the end of 2011 is said to be a key part of a draft "Status of Forces" agreement between the US, UK and Iraq. All sides have to agree to a SOF by the end of the year when the UN mandate that authorized the 2003 invasion expires. Once that ends, assuming there is no new SOF, the coalition forces technically would have no legal grounds to remain in Iraq.

The Iraqi government has been standing fast in their negotiations with the coalition forces, and according to the Guardian report, has gotten some big concessions. Off-duty troops who commit crimes would face punishment under the Iraqi system, according to the draft. Usually an SOF only allows American personnel to be prosecuted by the US military, no matter where or when they are alleged to have committed crimes (for example, an off-duty soldier assaulting a civilian, at an off-base bar would still be prosecuted by a US military court (if at all) and not by local authorities) the Iraq SOF then would be quite a departure from the norm. Another provision would bar US forces from holding Iraqi citizens without charging them with crimes under Iraqi law. Right now it's estimated that the US is detaining 18,000 Iraqis not charged with any crimes.

If the Guardian is right on the details, the Iraq SOF contains a lot of concessions that the US previously refused to make. Whether it's the final version though, and if the Iraqis will even agree to it, concessions and all, remains to be seen.
Sphere: Related Content

Monday, October 13, 2008

Abkhazia tries novel pitch for recognition

I've got to give Abkhazia's parliament credit for trying a novel pitch to get their land recognized as an independent country - they tried playing on Ireland's national pride and sense of history in an appeal they made to Ireland's parliament. Their statement read in part:

"The Irish Free State, which eventually became the Republic of Ireland, was de-facto independent for a long time, but remained unrecognized. Ireland was the only unrecognized country in Europe until the world's largest country recognized a free parliament of Ireland. And that country was Russia. Abkhazia is in the same situation today. For 15 years Abkhazia existed as an independent, although unrecognized, state.”

Abkhazia has been claiming independence from Georgia since the early 1990's, and has established its own government and judicial system operating free of Georgia’s influence, but no other country recognized their claim until after the Georgian conflict in August.

Since then Russia and Nicaragua have recognized both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries. But two countries out of 200 or so in the world doesn't lend a place too much legitimacy.

I doubt that Ireland is going to be calling Abkhazia a nation in its own right anytime soon, but recognition from Ireland is a big step up from the rogue's gallery of places thinking about recognizing them.
Sphere: Related Content

Obama, me and foreign policy

I’ve been having conversations with friends in the past few weeks on why I’m not more excited about Barack Obama, especially where foreign policy is concerned, and have been trying for weeks to boil all of those thoughts down into a column. That’s why I was happy to read this piece “Have No Illusions” by Justin Raimondo over at, which makes a pretty compelling case that Obama’s foreign policy wouldn’t look much different than McCain’s (or for that matter George W. Bush’s).

Now you’re probably thinking that’s ridiculous, but once you set aside the war in Iraq (more on that later) the positions of the two candidates start to look pretty similar. Consider:

Both candidates want to continue the War on Terror (though Obama considers Afghanistan the main battleground, while McCain thinks it’s Iraq),
Both candidates want to send more troops/resources to Afghanistan,
Both candidates support sanctions against Iran and think it’s vitally important to stop Iran’s nuclear program,
Both candidates are in favor of NATO expansion to include Ukraine and Georgia,
Both candidates condemned Russia and pledged unwavering support for Georgia after the August conflict,

Well, you get the idea.

In Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine last week, Noam Chomsky (hardly a neocon mouthpiece) said that Europe’s reaction to Obama – the belief that he would mark a sea change in US/European relations was “a European delusion” in reaction to his “soaring rhetoric”. It’s a harsh assessment from Noam, but also one with a ring of truth to it (which goes back to my lack of excitement). The reality of what Obama has said about foreign relations often doesn’t match up with the idea of him as a break from the cowboy diplomacy of the Bush era.

Take Iran for example. One of the many mini-controversies of this campaign has been Obama’s statement that he would meet with the leadership of Iran “without preconditions”. He may be willing to meet with them, but in the meanwhile he is pushing a course of action remarkably similar to the one the US is currently engaged in. He supports sanctions against Iran to get them to end their nuclear research program (even though the first three rounds of sanctions have failed to change their mind) and has said that it’s unacceptable for Iran to build a nuclear bomb. He’s been coy over whether that means the US ultimately taking military action to stop their program, though this summer on “Meet the Press” he did suggest that the United States put Israel under its “nuclear umbrella” – in other words to consider a nuclear attack on Israel like an attack on American soil and to respond accordingly.

One group Obama has steadfastly refused to talk with is Hamas. Obama said he would not meet with the leadership of Hamas because they are a terrorist organization, even though they also happen to be the elected government of the Gaza Strip (Palestine) and that a recent poll in Israel showed that a majority of Israelis supported negotiations with them as part of the peace process with Palestine. Obama has said that he supports the “two state” solution (Israel and Palestine), though how you can get a peace agreement when you refuse to talk to half the leadership of one side is a mystery.

I talked about some of these points with a friend who has been involved with more political campaigns than I can count. His opinion was that Obama was playing it safe for the campaign, that taking bold positions on Iran or Israel or other world hotspots would only open him up for critique from the Right and that he’ll be more innovative once he gets into office. Maybe he’s right, but then again what if Chomsky’s right? Obama himself did say early on in the campaign that he was a canvas onto which people projected their hopes.

I’ve just found little to get excited about when it comes to foreign policy. America’s standing in the world is changing. We’ve spent too long thinking of ourselves as the world’s lone superpower. This has been a bipartisan delusion going back to the Clinton era (when we were the benevolent hegemon) through the Bush regime (where the neoconservatives dubbed us the “new Rome” – as in empire). What’s happening now is what Fareed Zakaria dubbed “the rise of the rest”, other countries emerging as powers in their own right – China, Russia, the European Union (on those occasions when they can get their act together). The ongoing crisis on Wall Street is only casting doubt on the free market financial policies the United States promoted. The point is we can’t expect the countries of the world to ask “how high” when we say, “jump”. It’s going to be a real challenge for the next president to operate in a world like this, it will require some bold thinking, and leadership different from what we’ve been getting in recent years. It is the time for bold leadership, that’s why I’ve been so disappointed on what I’ve seen from Obama.

Getting back to Iraq, which has been the one foreign policy point that Obama and McCain have argued about repeatedly. McCain is in favor of an open-ended commitment to keeping our troops in Iraq, Obama has said that he wants a sixteen-month timeline for bringing our troops home. Though maybe there should be an asterisk after “home”, since Obama said that he would leave some troops in Iraq to defend American interests (like our embassy in Baghdad, which is the size of the Vatican) and for anti-terrorism operations. He gave a speech this summer where he gave numbers as to how many troops he would be withdrawing. I did the math and came up with roughly 40,000 to 50,000 staying behind in Iraq, and about 10,000 to 15,000 of those troops coming home by way of Afghanistan, since Obama is proposing using some of the Iraq-based troops to bolster our numbers in Afghanistan.

I can’t fault Obama for his plan, I think it’s rational to leave some troops behind in Iraq, and boosting the numbers in Afghanistan is what everyone – politicians and military leaders alike – seems to want at this point. But it’s not exactly “ending the war” and “bringing them home” like many of Obama’s supporters have been calling for.

Maybe Chomsky is onto something.
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, October 12, 2008

50 of your favourite words

A little vocabulary building from our friends at the BBC - a list of 50 reader-submitted, totally obscure words (or as my old journalism professor would call them, 50-cent words). A fun read. Your next task is to work crepuscular, enervating, or oxter into daily conversation (the spell check on MS Word knew two of the three).
Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Democracy, Ukraine Style

Ukraine's feuding leaders are feuding once again.

The latest struggle in the battle of wills of Ukraine's two political heavyweights - President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko - is over a new round of elections. Yushchenko called for new elections after his coalition in the parliament with Tymoshenko fell apart (again). He wants a new election held in early December, the country's third in less than three years.

But not so fast, says Tymoshenko, who is using her power as prime minister to try and block the vote, saying that the country could not afford to hold another election. Yushchenko then undermined the whole process when he fired a judge who was to rule on Tymoshenko's appeal.

So right now Ukraine may or may not be having an election in December. One thing is for certain, the political turmoil will continue for the foreseeable future. The conventional wisdom is that Yushchenko and Tymoshenko will face off in the next presidential election, which for now is set for 2010, so the two are unlikely to work together. Meanwhile, Yushchenko is deeply unpopular, in the last polls that I saw his party was polling in the single digits, basically tied with the old Communist party of Ukraine, so even though he will remain as president, he won't have a real base of support in the parliament.

Ukraine's politicians then will likely put their energy into fighting with each other rather than tackling some of the economic problems (Ukraine was already suffering from high inflation before the global slow down).
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, October 10, 2008

U.S. plans to train Afghanistan tribal militias

You think we would have learned...

The US military, faced with a situation in Afghanistan that is rapidly falling apart, has come up with a new strategy - train and arm Afghan tribal militias. Under the new plan, US (and other Western) forces would do less fighting in Afghanistan and instead focus on training Afghani government forces and various tribal militias to take over the military operations.

Now, we tried this before in the 1980's (if you saw the movie "Charlie Wilson's War" all of this might sound familiar), when the CIA working with the Pakistani government trained and armed Afghan insurgents to fight against troops from the Soviet Union who had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. It worked, sort of - the Soviets eventually got fed up with a guerilla war they couldn't win and gave up. The problem was that a lot of the people we armed and trained turned out to be Islamic militants who then went on to form the core of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

And we know how that turned out...

There are other flaws in this plan. The government in Afghanistan under President Hamid Karzai is very weak, in large part because warlords control much of the country, limiting his rule. This plan would work with both the government AND the warlords (who control the tribal militias), so in all likelihood it will only make Karzai's government weaker rather than stronger since it will, in theory, help the warlords to have better armed, better trained militias at their disposal.

The other problem is that Afghan militias and warlords are notoriously fickle. Last week 60 Minutes talked with a US Special Forces officer who led a plan to capture Osama bin Laden in 2002. The plan ultimately failed because the Afghan militias that had promised to help us wouldn't take action against bin Laden. What we doesn’t seem to realize is how complicated Afghan culture is and that bonds between tribes and clans mean far more than promises made to outsiders. In other words, just because we train an Afghani militia to fight al-Qaeda and just because they promise to do it, doesn't mean they actually will.

The new strategy is another indication about how bad things in Afghanistan have gotten and just how few good options the United States has to turn things around.
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

UN refers Kosovo independence to world court

It seems that Kosovo's independence has now become a case for the courts.

In a close vote the UN general assembly decided to refer the matter of Kosovo's independence to the International Court of Justice (the ICJ). In February of this year Kosovo abandoned the UN-led negotiation of its status within Serbia and declared independence. It was quickly recognized by the United States and European powers like France, Germany and the UK. But Serbia has maintained that the whole process went against international law. Now the ICJ will have a chance to give its opinion.

The UK's ambassador to the UN, John Sawers, spoke out against the UN resolution saying that it was politically motivated on Serbia’s part and was only "designed to slow down Kosovo's emergence as a widely recognized independent nation."

But only about a quarter of the UN's members recognize Kosovo as an independent country (not exactly wide recognition), and nearly half of that number are from Europe. Serbia and Russia have bitterly opposed Kosovo's independence, saying it is a blatant violation of international law.

What's not clear from the UN resolution is what happens if the ICJ decides that Kosovo's independence violated international law, if the ICJ would void their independence and rule they were again part of Serbia. No date has been set for the ICJ to review the case.
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Survivor's testimony on the Georgian war

I came across this story: "I survived the Georgian war. Here's what I saw", written by a resident of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. And while the writer is an Ossetian, she has also been active for years in bringing Ossetians and Georgians together in peace, so its fair to say that she is more objective than many of the partisans both sides put forward. Her story is harrowing. An excerpt:

My friend's elderly father tried to douse the flames set by Georgian fire on the home he had built with his hands. His leg was severed by shrapnel from Georgian weapons. He bled to death while his disabled wife crawled from their burning home.

Tskhovrebova's story also shoots some holes in the version of events Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili put out. Among other things, she said that for several days before the fighting began her Georgian friends were warning her to get out of Tskhinvali because Georgian troops had massed on the outskirts for an all-out assault - quite a different story from Saakashvili's claim of self-defense.

Tskhovrebova also makes some good points about how the war story was covered in the Western press, that attacks on Georgian cities like Gori were widely covered, while the fighting in and around Tskhinvali was largely ignored.

It's definitely worth taking a few minutes to read.
Sphere: Related Content

Release of Chinese Muslims Ordered

A federal judge has ordered that 17 men detained at Guantanamo Bay be brought to his courtroom in Washington on Friday, where Judge Ricardo Urbina indicated he plans to release him. The 17 are Uighurs, a Muslim minority that lives largely in Xinjiang Province in the northwest corner of China, who were picked up in Afghanistan in 2002 as part of the United States War on Terror.

The White House is condemning Judge Urbina's order, saying it threatens the security of the country and could potentially lead to terrorists being let loose on the streets of America.

And here's where the story gets stupid.

The government has admitted that the 17 Uighurs aren't terrorists and have given up trying to prove that they're "enemy combatants" - the catchall term for people we suspect of being aligned with anti-American terror groups. But the problem for the Uighurs is that they are an oppressed minority within China - the Uighurs say that they were in Afghanistan in the first place because they were trying to escape harassment from the Chinese government in Xinjiang, which has tried to undermine the Uighur culture, closed their mosques and imprisoned many on flimsy (or non-existent) charges. If the 17 men were shipped back to China they would likely be imprisoned and killed by Chinese authorities. The Bush Administration admits this, so they won't send the Uighurs back (that at least is the one good thing they're doing in this situation), but at the same time, they won't give them asylum here. The administration's answer is to find some third country that will accept them (like Albania, check out this story from the BBC on the long, strange trip of six Uighurs released in 2006).

And until they do find a country for them they think that Guantanamo is a fine place for the Uighurs to stay - despite the fact that we've given up trying to prove they did anything wrong, or that they were a threat to America. Apparently Judge Urbina also has a problem with warehousing people in a prison for no apparent reason, thus his order for the Uighurs to appear in his court on Friday.
Sphere: Related Content

Half of Ukrainians support independence for S.Ossetia, Abkhazia - poll

Just to show that things in Ukraine are more complicated than a lot of folks in the West would like to admit, a recent poll showed that half of the Ukrainians interviewed supported Russia's recognition of the independence of the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko has been one of the loudest critics of Russia over their recent conflict with Georgia; he even flew to Georgia's capital Tbilisi in a show of solidarity. He, of course, supports Georgia’s territorial integrity (in other words, he’s against independence for the two regions). Yushchenko has also been pushing for Ukraine's quick entry into NATO and the European Union.

But Yushchenko’s approval ratings are somewhere around the 10% mark and he is in real danger of suffering huge losses in the country's parliament if new elections need to be called (which is becoming more and more likely), so it might be a mistake to assume what Yushchenko wants and what the people of Ukraine want are one and the same.
Sphere: Related Content

Monday, October 6, 2008

Meanwhile in Afghanistan...

It will be interesting to see if Afghanistan comes up in tomorrow night's Presidential debate, because the news coming out of there in the past few days has been decidedly bad...

First was this rather stark admission by the commander of British troops in Afghanistan Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith who said over the weekend "We're not going to win this war."

Rather than all-out victory, the Afghan campaign (according to Carleton-Smith) should be about "reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that's not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army. We may well leave with there still being a low but steady ebb of rural insurgency," he said. It was a rather blunt statement of an argument that European officials have been making more quietly in recent weeks: that the American strategy in Afghanistan is deeply flawed and it will never bring about the decisive victory over the Taliban and al-Qaeda that American politicians talk about.

There is a growing feeling that the war in Afghanistan has reached a stalemate and that Western forces will never be able to entirely root insurgents out from the vast, wildly rugged Afghan countryside. History may back the critics up - in 1979 the Soviet Union conquered all of Afghanistan's cities in little more than a week, then spent the next nine years trying (and failing) to win a war in the mountains and valleys of the country; the mighty British Empire didn't do much better back in the 19th century.

And Western officials are reportedly getting more and more frustrated with the government of President Hamid Karzai, which is described as weak and corrupt (more on this in a moment). Karzai has his own problems with Western militaries operating in his country following several well-publicized events where Afghan civilians were killed, the worst being a US-led air strike in August reported to have killed up to 90 civilians. Karzai and some European officials are now saying that Western troops in Afghanistan are more of a problem than a solution – that their actions are doing more to strengthen the insurgency than to weaken it.

But there's a good chance there will be fewer and fewer Western troops in Afghanistan in the coming months anyway. Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised to get all of his country's troops out by 2011, while the Germans are saying they won't be renewing the deployment order for their special forces operating in south Afghanistan. And reports out of France are that some soldiers from that country set to deploy to Afghanistan are refusing to go. Ten French soldiers were killed in August after a daylong battle with Taliban troops, an event that turned French public opinion against the war.

Getting back to Karzai, according to the New York Times, the president's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is also reported to be a major drug dealer, profiting from the lucrative poppy trade (poppies provide the raw material for drugs like opium and heroin). Ahmed is said to use his position in government (he is on the council that rules a good chunk of Afghanistan, including the second-largest city, Kandahar) to protect his part of the trade. The Karzai brothers dismiss the allegations as politically motivated attacks.

Considering how both Obama and McCain have the fight in Afghanistan a part of their policy platforms, you would think this would be a topic to discuss in the debate. We’ll see if that happens…
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Say hello to Africom

Though it went basically unnoticed in the American press, the US military underwent a major shake-up in its priorities last Wednesday when it established the Africa Command (or Africom).

“Commands” are the tool the military uses to organize its actions in a specific part of the world – Europe has its own command, so does the Middle East and the Pacific. Until last week operations in Africa were carved up among these three other commands, an awkward arrangement at best.

The Pentagon says that Africom’s main responsibility will be to help African nations fight terrorism, while supporting democracy in the continent and supplying humanitarian relief. Nations in Africa though are more skeptical, especially emerging powers like South Africa, Nigeria and Libya. They worry that Africom is the start of an American militarization of the region and wonder about how much humanitarian aid will actually be provided by the US military (Hugo Chavez in Venezuela voiced a similar concern over the US Navy’s recent decision to reactivate the US Fourth Fleet supposedly to provide humanitarian assistance to South America). Some Americans are asking the same questions. The New York Times quotes former Clinton administration Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon who said: “The military should stick to military tasks and let diplomats and development experts direct other aspects of U.S. policy in Africa.”

Nearly a quarter of all US development aid now flows through the Pentagon, a drastic increase from just the past decade when the military controlled less than 4%. US military officials counter with the claim that they have found that an interagency approach is the best way to deal with troubled regions, and that the military only acts in a supporting role to development efforts.

It will take some time to see how Africom plays out on the ground. For now Africom isn’t even based in Africa – there has been reluctance among African nations to hosting a large American base, though Liberia is said to be interested – so for now it will operate from afar in Stuttgart, Germany. What is clear though is that Africa will be a larger and larger part of US foreign policy in the coming years for a very simple, and familiar reason – oil.

Estimates are that the US could import up to 25% of its crude oil from West Africa within the next decade. It’s also a part of he world where our influence has been waning, China has been investing heavily in Africa in the past few years, and now Russia is showing interest in the region as well, signing development deals with Libya earlier in the year, and now having some talks with Somalia, meaning that Africom could have a very interesting future.
Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Georgia's Saakashvili: freedom fighter or rights abuser?

That's the question that Georgia's political opposition is starting to ask about President Mikheil Saakashvili, accusing him of stepping on human rights and democracy in the wake of the conflict with Russia in August.

While they admit that Georgia is freer now than it was when it was part of the Soviet Union, they say that Saakashvili is far from the democrat that politicians in the West (particularly the US) want to make him out to be. In fact they blame the war in August on Saakashvili's authoritarian tendencies - his government lacked any dissenting voices to tell him what a colossally bad idea it was to pick a fight with Russia. Human Rights Watch is also warning that Saakashvili is taking a sharp turn away from democracy in a recent report citing, among other thing, the "quick resort to use of force by law enforcement agents" against the political opposition. The most visible example of this was last November when Saakashvili ordered riot police to break up a large, but peaceful, demonstration against his government in the capital, Tbilisi.

The opposition though makes it clear that while they are upset with Saakashvili, they are not about to turn to Moscow for support, exactly what Saakashvili's government is accusing the opposition of wanting to do. Instead, they want Saakashvili to live up to the democratic principles he championed during Georgia's peaceful Rose Revolution that brought him to power.
Sphere: Related Content

Enough already...

It's a good thing there's only a month left in the presidential election, I don't think I could stand anymore. Case in point: this take on the Vice-Presidential debate by way of CNN -Palin spoke at 10th-grade level, Biden at eighth.

That's the word from Global Language Monitor, a Texas-based group that apparently micro-analyzed the speech patterns of the debaters and found, among other things, that Sarah Palin used the passive voice in 8% or her sentences, more than Joe Biden who only spoke passively 5% of the time.

Usually you only find stat keeping to this level of minutiae on sports-talk radio debates about Major League Baseball.

There are and have been some big, substantial issues to talk about, but too often the media focus has been on things like shoes, "lipstick on a pig" comments and other silly distractions. But maybe that's to be expected with a 24-hour news cycle and a campaign that's been going on for two years now.

Unfortunately things don't look good for the future. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was pretty outspoken in his opposition to last week's economic bailout package, which prompted some to speculate if he wasn't trying to set himself up for a run at the White House in 2012. I also heard a discussion of Sarah Palin making her own run in oh-12 should the McCain/Palin ticket lose next month.

After all, Election Day 2012 is only 49 months away.
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, October 3, 2008

Mystery about those Ukrainian tanks

So where exactly was that shipload of tanks seized by Somali pirates headed?

The story is that the tanks were sold by a Ukrainian company to the government of Kenya and were on their way there when the pirates attacked. But according to the BBC, there is growing evidence that the tanks were really headed to South Sudan.

When we talk about Sudan, usually it's about the ongoing unrest (many would call it genocide) in the western region of Darfur, but forces in the southern part of the country also fought their own bloody civil war against the central government in Khartoum. That conflict has was halted in 2005 thanks to a peace treaty, though part of the treaty agreement was that the region can have a referendum in 2011 on independence. Reports are that groups in both the north and south of Sudan are building up their forces in preparation for 2011, thinking that the South will vote to go its own way from the rest of Sudan. Defense analysts think that South Sudan could already have as many as 100 tanks in their arsenal, not counting the three dozen currently embargoed by the Somali pirates. It is a force that analysts say could change the balance of power in the region.

Both the governments of Ukraine and Kenya deny that the tanks were really headed for South Sudan. The pirates meanwhile are demanding a ransom of $20 million for the release of the ship, its crew and the tanks.
Sphere: Related Content

The VP debate

Since I talked last week about the first Presidential debate, I figured that I should say a little something about last night's Vice-Presidential debate, even though my take on the debate is like a lot of the ones I've read today: objectively Joe Biden was the winner, but Sarah Palin did well enough, and exceeded expectations to such a degree that it also has to be considered a win for her as well.

Palin last night was the Sarah Palin that we first met at the Republican convention, self-confident and folksy, a package aimed at appealing to that mythic place "Middle America", not the deer-in-the-headlights version from the Katie Couric interview. Her performance alone can't save McCain's floundering campaign, but she may have thrown him a lifeline to stay afloat a little while longer, at least until his head-to-head match up with Barack Obama next week.

As for Biden he did the best thing anyone can do in these debates - he seemed presidential. Watching the debate I couldn't help but think it was too bad that we didn't get to see him give a performance like that when he was still in the running for the nomination. Biden was only in for the early debates, the ones with seven, eight, or nine candidates. Let's be real, a debate with nine people isn't a debate, it's some kind of weird group press conference, no one has a chance to stand out. And that's too bad for Biden, if he'd had the chance early on, and if he'd turned in a performance like he did last night, maybe the election might look a little different now.
Sphere: Related Content

Germany says no NATO for Georgia, Ukraine

German Chancellor Angela Merkel put the brakes on the idea of speedy membership for Georgia and Ukraine.

The United States and Great Britain have been pushing to make the two nations full NATO members and were planning to propose Membership Action Plans (MAPs) for both at a NATO meeting in December. But Merkel on Thursday said that it was too soon to commit to a timetable for membership, a position that Germany held the last time MAPs were suggested at a meeting last April. Germany was concerned then about the regions of South Ossetia and Abkahzia in Georgia, suggesting that Georgia should have to first settle these disputes as a way of showing they were ready for NATO membership. Since then war broke out, Russia sent in troops and the two regions have effectively stopped being a part of Georgia, though Georgia remains determined to win them back.

The US and UK though are taking the position that the conflict only strengthens the case for Georgia's membership in NATO, that membership is needed to protect Georgia from Russian aggression. The Germans though don't seem to be buying that argument. Since membership decisions in NATO have to be made by consensus, Germany’s opposition would be enough to stop the MAPs.

Merkel's comments came at a press conference with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in St. Petersburg. Russia is bitterly opposed to NATO membership for either Georgia or Ukraine. Germany, meanwhile, happens to be one of Russia's chief trading partners and is working with them on building a massive pipeline to bring natural gas directly from Russia to Germany.
Sphere: Related Content

Tata abandons cheapest car plant

India's Tata Company has finally given up on its plan to build an automobile plant in the Indian state of West Bengal.

Tata made a splash when they announced plans to build the "world's cheapest car", a tiny sub-compact called the Nano that would sell for approx. $2,300. The car was a hit with India’s growing, but largely car-less middle class, with people lining up to put in down payments for their own Nano. As part of their plans, Tata built a huge plant near Singur in West Bengal, where they hoped to build up to a quarter million cars per year.

But land for the plant was seized from thousands of local farmers, and while many were willing to take compensation for the land, a group of about 2,000 were not and demanded their farms back. Their protests turned violent in recent months, halting work at the plant. Finally Tata gave in. "We cannot run a factory with police around all the time," said Tata chief Ratan Tata. His company had spent more than $350 million to build the massive factory, which is basically complete and was ready to start cranking out Nanoes.

Officials in West Bengal (which has a Marxist government) are now worried that investors may be scared away from funding large projects in one of India's least developed states. Tata, meanwhile, says that the Nano will be produced at other plants around India.
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Somalia ready to recognize Abkhazia, South Ossetia

The word from Russia's RIA Novosti news service is that Somalia is ready to recognize the independence of Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. So far, aside from Russia, only Nicaragua has recognized the two places as independent countries, though Belarus and Venezuela are reported to be considering recognition as well. Russia wants to get other nations to declare the two regions as countries in their own right to counter pressure from the United States and European Union who both consider the regions a part of Georgia and want Russia to withdraw its recognition.

Of course you could question whether Somalia itself is even a country - it hasn't had a working government since a civil war in the early 1990's, warlords run the capital city, Mogadishu, and the Somali coast is a haven for pirates (like the ones who recently captured a Ukrainian shipload of tanks) because there is no one around to enforce the law. The Somali government has often met in neighboring Kenya in recent years because it was just too dangerous to travel to Somalia.

This is Russia's problem in acting as patron for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the nations looking to support their claims are kind of a global rogues gallery: the non-functioning state of Somalia, Belarus - the place Condi Rice called "Europe's last dictatorship", and Venezuela - home of Hugo Chavez, the self-anointed successor to Fidel Castro.

It's kind of reminding me of an episode of the cartoon series "Family Guy", where Peter (the main character) declares his home and yard to be an independent country. In a bid for legitimacy he invites a group of world leaders to a pool party, but the only ones that show up are look-alikes for Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Slobodan Milosevic, and the Ayatollah to name a few. Not exactly the greatest crowd to run with.

In their announcement, Somalia also talked about starting military and technical cooperation with Russia in the near future.
Sphere: Related Content