Thursday, April 30, 2009

Africa's other pirate problem

The attack on the Maersk Alabama focused the United States' attention on the piracy problem off the coast of Somalia. But, as The Economist magazine noted in A clear and present danger last week, Western Africa has its own piracy problem as well, and it’s one that could have a far greater long-term impact on American foreign policy.

The why is simple – oil. The countries of West Africa currently supply about 20% of the oil the United States imports, which is basically the same amount as America currently imports from the Persian Gulf. It is projected that by the middle of the next decade West Africa will become the United States' chief source of foreign oil, supplying as much as a quarter of all America's oil imports. And while there is concern that the Gulf States may be running dry, new sources of oil keep being discovered in sub-Saharan Africa.

The "how" of the West Africa pirate problem is more complex. Piracy exists along the east coast of Africa because Somalia is a failed state that hasn't really had a functioning government in almost two decades; that lack of rule of law gives the pirates a safe base of operations.

There aren't any failed states per se in West Africa, but there's plenty of instability. Liberia and Sierra Leone are trying to recover from long civil wars, their resources are dedicated to keeping the peace on land rather than enforcing the law at sea; Nigeria has been struggling with its own rebel movement in its oil-rich south, rebels who often target the facilities and personnel of international oil companies operating in the Niger River delta; Guinea-Bissau is now being referred to as Africa's first narco-state - Latin American drug cartels have, essentially, taken over portions of the country and are now using it as a hub to ship drugs into Europe - with the support of at least some members of Guinea-Bissau's government.

All of that instability means that, like in Somalia, pirates have a fairly free hand to operate in the waters of the Gulf of Guinea (which stretches along much of the West African coastline) - the countries in the neighborhood have too many of their own problems ashore to dedicate much of their resources to enforcing the law at sea (or in the case of Guinea-Bissau they just don't seem to have much interest in enforcing the law to begin with).

Like in Somalia, the conditions that enable piracy to occur in West Africa have been a long time coming and are at least somewhat the fault of the "developed" nations of the world for actively ignoring Africa’s problems. Both Liberia and Sierra Leone suffered for decades through coups and civil wars, yet little was done by the global community to stop the fighting and bring peace - in fact the trade of illegally mined diamonds largely fueled the conflicts in both countries. Several years ago the United Nations warned that Guinea-Bissau was in danger of becoming a narco-state, the country languished at the bottom of the UN's development index. Many of the country's law enforcement officers were faced with a choice: accept money from drug traffickers or do their job for a government that wasn't paying them - for many it turned out to be a simple choice.

The United States response to the growing West Africa piracy problem has been the USS Nashville. As The Economist reports, the amphibious transport ship is on a five-month tour of the region to as the “Africa Partnership Station” - providing training to the navies of the countries along the Gulf of Guinea. No doubt the training will be helpful, but one has to question how worthwhile it is in the long run if the African countries don't have the resources to then patrol their own waters?

As West Africa plays a larger and larger role in America's energy policy, the chances of a pirate attack against American interests also increases. When it does happen, expect the same type of panicked response, the same calls to do something that we heard about Somalia following the Maersk Alabama attack. Keep in mind though that, like Somalia, the problems in this region have been developing for years; they've developed, in part, because we haven't wanted to invest the time or effort in preventing them from happening in the first place.

And long-term problems don't have overnight solutions.
Sphere: Related Content

Pakistan says bin Laden is dead (or maybe not)

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari raised some eyebrows on Monday when he said that Pakistani intelligence agencies believe that terrorist mastermind and the world's number one fugitive, Osama bin Laden, is in fact dead. Zardari didn't explain why the intelligence agencies thought that bin Laden was dead, though one reason seemed to be simply because he hasn't been caught after eight years of intensive searching.

US officials rushed to say that they believed bin Laden was still alive and that the hunt for him continues. Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani also worked to backtrack, at least a little, from Zardari's comments by saying that "nobody knows" whether bin Laden is alive or dead.

Part of the problem with the hunt for bin Laden is that in an absence of factual evidence, like a physical sighting of the man, much of it tends to be built on the prevailing conventional wisdom of the situation. For example, one reason given to believe that bin Laden is still alive is that there would be a lot of "noise" among the tribes along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, where he's believed to be hiding out, if he died. "Bin Laden's death will likely be celebrated by the group and its affiliates as him having achieved martyrdom," according to Ben Venzke, director of IntelCenter (which tracks extremist propaganda).

That's true, assuming that bin Laden died a martyr's death fighting the infidels. But what if he just died of pneumonia, or fell off his horse, or died some other un-martyrly death, would his supporters still celebrate? Or might they keep it a secret to preserve his mythic status?

While we're on the topic, I’ve had a problem with the idea of bin Laden running from cave to cave for much of the past decade, especially since the capture last summer of Radovan Karadzic. If you recall, Karadzic was the former president of the Bosnian Serb Republic in the former Yugoslavia; he was charged with war crimes for the deaths of thousands of Bosnian Muslims during the wars that swept through the region in the mid-1990s. Like bin Laden, he spent almost a decade on the run, the prevailing thought was that Karadzic was sheltering among a clutch of die-hard supporters in remote Orthodox monasteries in the mountains of Serbia. In reality, Karadzic lived a very public life (in a very flimsy disguise) in Serbia's capital city, Belgrade - he even practiced medicine as 'alternative healer', before finally being captured one day on a city bus.

So isn't it possible that rather than a cave, bin Laden might just be living in a city like Kandahar or Islamabad? Somehow blending into the hustle and bustle of a large city seems an easier way to hide than to scurry between caves that are under the constant surveillance of the world's most hi-tech military.

Just a thought...
Sphere: Related Content

Why I'm not a diplomat (North Korea version)

See, this is why I'd never make it as a diplomat. On the heels of the United Nations Security Council condemning North Korea's (failed) ballistic missile launch earlier this month, the North Koreans announced that they would be forced to take "self-defensive measures" if the UN didn't apologize. These "self-defensive measures" translate into more tests of their missile program and perhaps even a second nuclear weapons test.

The diplomatic thing to do is to again try to talk North Korea down from their threats and back to the negotiating table. My feeling though is that the global community should tell Kim Jong-Il and the rest of the cabal running North Korea to go ahead and test away. I'd ask them which are they planning to test first - the ballistic missiles with the faulty second and third stages, or the nuclear bombs that fizzle? North Korea's first a-bomb was generally believed to the worst initial nuclear weapon test, ever. It was such a dud, there is some doubt whether the North Koreans even tested a nuke in the first place, or whether it was all an elaborate ruse concocted to scare the international community.

Then I'd tell Dear Leader Kim if he really wanted to do something to amaze the world, something the global community thinks he's incapable of doing, he'd provide a chicken dinner to every family in North Korea.

Hopefully the global community will give this latest threat all the attention it deserves - namely none - and not allow themselves to be threatened back to the negotiating table.
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Somalis take fight to pirates

The pirates operating off the coast of Somalia are now facing a new threat - some of their fellow Somalis.

Fisherman in the Puntland region of Somalia, along the pirate-plagued Gulf of Aden, have formed their own militia to take the fight to the pirates. Local fishermen say they're fed up with would-be pirates snatching their fishing boats at gunpoint to then use on attacks against commercial vessels. The new militia has had some early success, capturing 12 suspected pirates in two boats.

Officials in Somalia's fragile national government are promising tough justice for pirates, including possibly the death penalty under newly-enacted laws, according to the BBC. But for all the tough talk, its questionable whether the 12 men detained will face any justice past being plucked off their boats by some angry fishermen.

Puntland is a self-described autonomous region in northern Somalia. While it hasn't pushed for independence, it also doesn't recognize the shaky central government in Mogadishu. In the past, suspected pirates turned over to the authorities in Puntland have tended to be quickly released, facing little actual punishment. Part of the reason is likely because piracy is one of the few activities that brings money into the impoverished costal regions of Somalia.

Meanwhile, the Russian navy is claiming one of the biggest victories yet off the coast of Somalia, where on Tuesday the destroyer Admiral Panteleyev captured 29 pirates aboard a pirate vessel, along with their firearms and navigational equipment. The day before the same pirate ship attacked a Russian-owned oil tanker, but the tanker's crew was able to repel the would-be hijacking. No word yet on what will happen to the 29 suspected pirates.
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Another election, another controversy in Russia

The Russian city of Sochi held a mayoral election on Sunday, and like all election these days in Russia, this one is surrounded in controversy.

Acting Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov won the election handily, but Pakhomov is a member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, and that’s where the controversy begins. Former Deputy Prime Minister, and Sochi mayoral candidate Boris Nemtsov cried foul - saying not only had the Kremlin directed a smear campaign against him in the run-up to the election, but that the government was guilty of widespread vote-rigging. Billionaire Alexander Lebedev, the only other “serious” candidate, was disqualified weeks before the election, another indication, critics say, that the vote was fixed.

Not only does the spectre of Vladimir Putin hang over the Sochi race, so to does the 2014 Winter Olympics – Putin’s pet project - that are to be held in the city. The Olympics, while touted as an engine of economic development for the whole Sochi region, has its fair share of critics, who say that the region can’t handle an event the size of the Olympics. Nemtsov himself suggested spreading the Games around to a number of Russian cities.

Nemtsov claims that the Olympics were part of the reason Putin felt the Sochi race had to be rigged - to ensure that one of ‘his own’ was in charge of the city in time for the Games. Opposition candidates say that they were regularly harassed, that government officials blocked rallies and denied them access to radio and television stations; meanwhile Sochi’s main TV station aired a 20-minute program that among other things accused Nemtsov of being a South Korean spy (a wide-spread rumor was that if elected mayor Nemtsov would endorse the idea of moving the Winter Games to South Korea, the runner-up in the IOC vote that awarded the Games to Sochi).

Golos, an independent Russian election-monitoring group claimed that 25% of all votes cast were early ballots (votes cast before election day). This, critics say, is a tactic the government uses to ensure that people - like government workers and students vote the “right” way, since the ballots can be checked by a third party (like a worker’s supervisor) before being cast. Other sources put the early vote totals at 11%.

Pakhomov though won more than 76% of the vote, with Nemtsov finishing a very distant second with just 13.6%. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the worst about Putin, the Russian government and vote-rigging. Let’s even subtract all of the early voting using Golos’ 25% figure; Pakhomov still would have easily won the election.

That’s what makes the Kremlin’s apparent interference in Russian elections so stupid. Vote rigging makes sense if you are worried you're going to lose, but if you're going to win? And I don't think its a stretch to think that the odds were in favor of Pakhomov, the incumbent mayor and member of the (still) popular United Russia Party over Nemtsov, who is a co-founder of the Union of Right Forces (SPS in Russian), one of the liberal parties that many Russians still blame for the economic chaos of the 1990s. Even in last year’s presidential election (again, filled with allegations of vote-rigging), was it realistic to think that Dmitry Medvedev would have lost to the candidates put up by the Communists (whose support languishes around 10%, mostly among older voters), or the nationalistic (and perhaps ironically-named) Liberal Democrats (who also hang around the 10% mark) or the SPS or Yabloko, the two liberal factions relegated to near-irrelevance nationally because of their linkages to the bad old days of the 90s and internal divisions?

Maybe it’s just a lingering Soviet mentality then among Putin and his inner circle - that elections are fine so long as you know the outcome in advance. But perhaps there are signs of change. Last week Anton Chumachenko, a United Russia member, newly-elected to a legislative council seat in St. Petersburg, renounced his own victory because of what he said were votes falsified in his favor. On the surface the 23-year old Chumachenko looks like one of what are sometimes called the ‘Putin Youth’, he was a member of the pro-Kremlin Youth Guard turned political activist. But in an open letter to his constituents, Chumachenko wrote: “I don't need this kind of victory! I don't want to begin my political career with a cynical mockery of rights, laws and morality.”

Maybe it’s a small sign of a maturing democracy in Russia.
Sphere: Related Content

Monday, April 27, 2009

Karzai blinks on controvesial law

News today out of Afghanistan is that President Hamid Karzai has promised to amend a new law that prompted an international outcry over what it contained. Critics blasted Karzai over the 'Shia Family Law' he signed last month saying that, among other things, it legalized spousal rape and child marriage.

Now, after weeks of international outrage that included government officials in Europe and pundits in Canada asking why they were supporting his government in the first place if this was the kind of 'change' he was bringing to Afghanistan, Karzai announced that he would amend the law to take out the Taliban-style provisions regarding women. Hopefully though Karzai will actually take the time to read the amendments before signing them - one excuse given for the Shia Family Law in the first place was that Karzai signed it without actually reading it so he simply didn't know about all of its horrible details.

Karzai is now promising that a new Family Law will respect the Afghan constitution, which itself has provisions to protect gender and human rights - all of which the Family Law violated.

We'll see what take two of the Family Law includes, and whether Afghanistan's hard line clerics, who were big backers of the original Shia Family Law and its anti-women provisions, will accept a new version.
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Update on the "Twitter Revolution"

Three weeks after a mass public uprising in Moldova that threatened the country's newly-elected Communist government, the BBC scored an interview with the woman who it's believed was the mastermind behind the 'Twitter Revolution'.

The Beeb spoke with Natalia Morar, freshly released from house arrest about the uprising earlier this month on the streets of Chisinau, Moldova's capital. According to Morar, she never planned to spark a revolution, but only to hold a peaceful protest against what she and her friends thought was an election rigged in favor of the ruling Communist party (observers from the OSCE, while suspicious, found little evidence of voter fraud). They expected a few hundred Moldovans to turn out, instead 15,000 did.

But like a tweet, the Moldovan revolution proved to be short, with government forces quickly tossing protesters out of an occupied building and clearing the streets of the capital. Three weeks later, everyone is still trying to figure out just what happened, with the role of Twitter itself as the driving force of the revolution now being called into question.

The Twitter community in Moldova is tiny - estimated at only 100 to 200 users, and an analysis of Moldova-related traffic on Twitter just before the protests doesn't show the kind of jump in traffic you'd expect if people were organizing a massive event. Ms. Morar tacitly admits that Twitter was only one of a number of new media technologies being used to organize the protests, along with blogs, websites and SMS text messages - so perhaps in this case its best to think of "Twitter" as a catchall for a whole stew of new media techniques.

The unexpected size of the turnout has also led to speculation that there were larger forces behind the protests that were trying to use what looked like a spontaneous public uprising as a front for a more organized coup d'etat. Moldova’s President Vladimir Voronin almost immediately accused Romania of trying to oust him from power in a bid to annex Moldova (Romania and Moldova have deep cultural ties and for part of the 20th Century Moldova was part of Romania, before being carved out and turned into one of the republics of the Soviet Union).

Russia has also been accused of being behind the coup attempt either to 1) solidify the control of Moldova's Communist government and pull the country into Russia's orbit; or 2) to cause such a level of chaos in Moldova that it boosts the independence claims of the separatist-minded, pro-Moscow Transdnestr region in eastern Moldova, which has been struggling for independence from Moldova since the early 1990s. The CIA, the go-to suspects anytime there is a coup attempt anywhere in the world, also has gotten their share of suspicion, though its hard to gather what US foreign policy gain there is to be had by overthrowing the government in Europe's poorest country.

That last fact probably comes closest to explaining why what should have been a fairly benign protest grew so wildly. It's estimated that more than 500,000 of Moldova's four million citizens live and work abroad, supporting families back in Moldova through remittances. At least that's how things worked until the recent economic crisis. Many of those Moldovans working across Europe though lost their jobs and were forced to return home, causing a spike in Moldova's already high unemployment, as well as a spike in anger among these newly unemployed Moldovans.

Even though the Twitter Revolution may have failed to materialize, the tensions still remain, so to then does the potential for another mass uprising.
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Amnesty International accuses NATO of war crimes, ten years later

One of the world's top human rights groups is demanding that NATO be investigated for possible war crimes committed in Serbia ten years ago.

Last month marked the ten-year anniversary of the bombing campaign NATO launched to force Serbia to end military operations against separatists in the (then) Serbian province of Kosovo. At the time, NATO said the air campaign was needed to force a halt to atrocities NATO claimed the Serbs were committing against the Kosovars (since then evidence has come out that the Kosovars were committing atrocities of their own against the Serbs, but that's another post).

Now Amnesty International is calling for an investigation into what they're describing as a 'war crime' committed by NATO forces – the bombing of the headquarters of Radio Television Serbia (RTS) on April 23, 1999, an attack that killed 16 civilians and wounded 16 others. At the time, NATO claimed that RTS – located in the heart of Belgrade, far removed from Kosovo - was a legitimate target because it was the source of a massive anti-Kosovar propaganda that was stoking the Serbs to fight.

Amnesty disputes this claim, saying that RTS was a civilian installation, and thus exempt from attack under international law, and even if you accept the propaganda claim, NATO used 'disproportionate' force in the attack – then also grounds for a war crimes charge. They are calling on NATO member states to launch their own investigations.

That's pretty unlikely, but it’s (yet) another blow to NATO's credibility, which is at a pretty low level these days. For a different slant on the RTS bombing, check out this piece by Belgrade-based media outlet B92. The RTS headquarters still remains in ruins in the middle of Belgrade, the families of those killed in the attack are pushing for the site to remain a memorial to their loved ones.
Sphere: Related Content

Car thefts, the new Russian economic indicator?

According to the economic downturn is having a powerful effect on one group of Russians – professional car thieves.

It seems that the slowing Russian economy has forced car thieves to change their tactics, traditional Russian brands like Ladas are now flying off the streets, with the rate of theft for those makes being higher in 2009 than ever recorded; while high-end rides like Bentleys and Maybachs can now park on the Moscow streets in relative safety. The number of Russian cars stolen this year in Moscow has even surpassed the numbers of modest foreign brands like Hondas and Toyotas combined.

The explanation seems to be that criminals can't fence stolen luxury rides, while demand remains high for cheaper domestic models. I don't think this is exactly what Vladimir Putin had in mind though when he stepped in to prop up the Russian auto industry.
Sphere: Related Content

Another call to just ignore Kim

Well I'm feeling a bit vindicated today.

After North Korea tested its second would-be intercontinental missile earlier in the month (another failure as you'll recall), amid the panic that was swirling about the North Korean 'threat', I argued that the best response would be to just ignore the whole thing. Why? Because the North Koreans have yet to have a test of any of these feared weapons (the ICBMs or nuclear bombs) end in success. But past that, North Korea uses weapons tests like a five year old uses a temper tantrum – as a desperate bid to get your attention and give them what they want. So why play the game?

It seems that the Cato Institute agrees. Earlier in the week Doug Bandow, one of Cato's senior fellows, argued that in dealing with North Korea, we need to change the rules of the game - namely to not get sucked into negotiations in order to stop the North Koreans from developing another dreaded weapon, and that the best way for the US to react is "with bored contempt rather than excited fear" the next time Dear Leader Kim decides to play with one of his missiles or bombs.

All of this isn't to make light of the situation in North Korea, which is fairly dreadful. Bandow correctly states that there really are no good options when it comes to dealing with North Korea. Kim Jong-Il's health is obviously poor, though he has no clear successor, meaning when he does die, there will likely be a power struggle (check this BBC piece for a possible contender to replace Kim). And this will happen in a country that already has a starving population and a crippled economy (both thanks to Kim's fetish for dumping billions of dollars into weapons like ICBMs and nuclear bombs).

Of course even after all that sacrifice North Korea still can't make one that actually works properly. And that's the point of the Cato Institute article - in dealing with North Korea its best to focus on the very real problems posed by the country and not to scare ourselves silly over imaginary threats.
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

War crimes? What war crimes?

The Israeli Defense Force has completed its investigation into five alleged atrocities committed during January's military campaign in the Gaza Strip, and - not surprisingly - found that in all five instances they examined “Israeli forces acted professionally and ethically.”

Of course the Israelis are accused of far more than five instances of atrocities; a United Nations envoy to the region said that she alone had “hundreds” of credible accounts of potential war crimes that included Israeli forces using unarmed Palestinian civilians as ‘human shields’, snipers shooting Palestinian women and children and the illegal use of weapons like white phosphorous shells (which cause horrific burns on skin) by the IDF. (A post about the allegations is available here).

And while the IDF seems to want to sweep the allegations under the rug, the government of Norway might not. Norway's public prosecutors announced today that they would study a complaint brought by a group of Norwegian lawyers to charge Israeli leaders - including Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni - with war crimes. Norway recently passed a law giving their prosecutors broad powers to charge foreigners with war crimes committed anywhere in the world, even if Norwegians were not directly involved.

Norway's chief prosecutor said that a review is underway to decide on whether or not to order Norwegian police to launch a formal investigation into the allegations in Gaza. The United Nations is also continuing its own investigation. Seems like the IDF's word just isn't good enough for them.
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Palestinians running out of water - World Bank

Palestine is facing “dire water shortages,” that’s the main conclusion of a new report by the World Bank, which also finds that the average Israeli uses four times as much water as the average Palestinian.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of forcing the Palestinians to live in a “chronic state of water scarcity”, which prompted the World Bank to conduct research into the water issue from September 2008 to February 2009. While the report was dressed up in polite diplomatic language like “because of asymmetries in power, capacity and information between parties…” it spread the blame between the two, saying that Israeli policies along with mismanagement of resources by the Palestinian Authority have led to the current water crisis.

But that may not be entirely fair to the Palestinian side. The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem has reported that in practice it is basically impossible for Palestinians to get the required permits from Israeli officials to do things to gain access to water like drill a new well. This has forced many Palestinians to either make illegal, unregulated connections to the existing water system (compounding the problem of the system being overstretched), or to just go without. It’s not really surprising then that Israel’s water use is four times Palestine’s.

Abbas wants water rights to be part of any comprehensive ‘two-state’ peace deal between Israel and Palestine. That’s not likely to happen though. Water supposedly was one of the issues that derailed President Clinton’s attempts at brokering a peace deal at the end of his second term. Israel relies heavily on the aquifer beneath Palestine for much of their water needs, many of their West Bank ‘settlements’ get all of their water from the West Bank aquifer, so its hard to imagine Israel just giving up access to this much-needed pool.

The World Bank report concludes that new rules governing water usage are required just to meet the basic needs of the Palestinian people.
Sphere: Related Content

Save the Earth, go back to the 70s

Ahead of Earth Day, scientists in Great Britain have a suggestion on how to save the planet – go back to a “1970’s lifestyle”.

The conclusion of a study conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, isn’t an endorsement of disco tunes and bell-bottom slacks, rather it focuses on people’s weight. The study found that the United Kingdom uses nearly 20% more food today than it did during the 1970’s while the rate of obesity in the country has jumped from 3.5% of the population then, to nearly 40% (four out of every ten people) today.

The culprit is today’s diet with meals that feature much larger servings of meat and smaller servings of vegetables compared to average meals of the 1970’s, coupled with declining amounts of exercise among the general population. It’s a combination that has made people larger and heavier today compared with just 40 years ago.

That’s led to a spike in greenhouse gas emissions – both from growing and transporting the extra food people are eating, and then in transporting larger, heavier people around. When you add it all together, the study estimates that the high rate of obesity equates to and additional 60 megatons of greenhouse gas emissions per year in Great Britain alone. And the British are far from the only population that’s getting larger and heavier.

The report concludes: “staying slim is good for health and for the environment.”
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, April 19, 2009

US Energy Secretary warns that islands could disappear

Steven Chu, the US Energy Secretary, has used a trip to the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago to warn that if drastic action isn't taken to stem the effects of global warming, some of the world’s island nations could "simply disappear."

This won't come as news to the leaders of two of those island states Kiribati and the Maldives. Last year President Anote Tong of Kiribati said that his country could be doomed. With an average elevation of just six feet above sea level, the South Pacific nation is already dealing with widespread erosion and loss of cropland. Tong feels that moving people to what little high ground exists in Kiribati may just be delaying the inevitable.

President Mohamed Nasheed has a similar assessment of his nation (average elevation, five feet), but has a more proactive plan for the future. His government has begun a Sovereign Wealth Fund, fueled by money generated by the Maldives tourism sector. He said the nation could one day use this pool of money to just buy a new homeland for the Maldives 300,000 citizens.

Secretary Chu said the Obama administration was encouraging other nations to adopt new energy efficiency standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Sphere: Related Content

Look out Eritrea! US threatens new WOT front

Even though the US involvement in Iraq still hasn't ended, published reports suggest that the Obama Administration may be looking to open yet another front in the War on Terror, this time in the East African nation of Eritrea.

First a little background - the Muslim region of Eritrea fought a bloody 30-year war for independence against largely Christian Ethiopia. When Eritrea won its independence in 1993 it took Ethiopia’s entire coastline along the Red Sea with it. And while Eritrean independence should have been the end of the fighting, it really wasn't. The two nations have skirmished over an ill-defined border; Eritrea has maintained an army of 300,000 soldiers, huge for a nation of only four million people, just in case large-scale fighting breaks out again.

So far though, the two sides have seemed happy to fight a proxy war in Somalia. In 2006 Ethiopian troops backed a push by the Transitional National Government (TNG) of Somalia - which up to that time had been 'ruling' Somalia from a suite of hotel rooms in Kenya - to reestablished their government in Mogadishu (the Somali capital city). Eritrea backed the Union of Islamic Courts (ICU), which had taken Mogadishu back from a collection of warlords and set up their own version of a Somali government. When the ICU was driven back, Eritrea shifted their support to another Islamic group al-Shabaab ("The Youth"), who took up the fight against the TNG.

And that's where the US comes in. The United States thinks that al-Shabaab is al-Qaeda's franchise in the Horn of Africa. With US attention, for the time being, focused on the Horn of Africa because of the Somali pirate problem, the Obama Administration is apparently warning Eritrea to drop its support of al-Shabaab, or risk facing the same fate as Afghanistan. Eritrea, meanwhile, wants al-Shabaab to have a seat at any negotiations on forming a new Somali government.

Eritrea's President Isaias Afewerki isn't helping his country's cause with the world community. He promises democratic reforms, but continues to postpone presidential and parliamentary elections. Critics say a mandatory national service program instituted by Afewerki has turned the entire country into a "giant prison"; there are credible reports that his government subjects its political opponents to slavery and torture (including a version of crucifixion). And Eritrea was the first nation to host a visit from Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir after his indictment by the International Criminal Court on crimes against humanity.

All of which makes Eritrea a great candidate for the "rogue nations" list. But does it really make sense to threaten, even behind the scenes, Eritrea with the 'Afghanistan treatment' when the US is already bogged down on two fronts in the 'War on Terror' and, the US Navy's rescue of Capt. Phillips of the Maersk Alabama aside, when the US, and a coalition of the world's militaries, seem to be having a devil of a time even stopping motley collections of pirates off the Somali coast?

The Obama Administration should think seriously about wrapping up Iraq and Afghanistan before looking for new fights.
Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, April 18, 2009

NATO stirs the pot in Georgia

Here's one for the truly bad ideas file - next month NATO is planning to hold a large-scale exercise in Georgia. The exercise, dubbed "Cooperative Longbow 09/Cooperative Lancer 09" (and who is in charge of naming these things over at NATO anyway?), will bring together more than a dozen nations at a site just 12 miles from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

The NATO exercise comes less than a year after the Russia-Georgia conflict last August, and just as NATO-Russia relations were showing some signs of improvement. As you can expect, Russia, which views NATO's presence in neighboring countries Ukraine and Georgia as a threat to Russian security, is not happy.

NATO points out though that the exercises were planned more than a year ago (before the August 2008 conflict) and that Russia was even invited to participate. Besides, they say, it’s basically just a logistics exercise - no heavy or light weaponry will be involved, so there is no threat at all to Russian security.

NATO and Georgia are eager to go forward with the exercise to prove to Russia that it doesn't have veto power over where or with what countries NATO operates. But there is another issue in play that the folks at NATO are ignoring. Right now there are ongoing protests in Georgia against the rule of President Mikhail Saakashvili, who the opposition not only blames for (from Georgia's point-of-view) the disastrous August war, but who they are also slamming for mismanaging the economy and failing to deliver on long-promised democratic reforms.

Unfortunately there is no way that Saakashvili isn't going to try to use next month's NATO exercises to his advantage in dealing with the opposition protests. I'd expect Saakashvili to push the NATO exercise as a way to legitimate his own rule (i.e. would NATO be partnering with Georgia if I wasn't a democrat?); I wouldn't be surprised if Mikhail were also to use them as a justification for cracking down on the so-far peaceful protests under the banner of 'national security'. And then there's the self-governed breakaway region of Abkhazia, which is threatening to hold its own military exercises in response to the NATO operation.

This is why NATO should steer clear of Georgia for the time being - not to appease Russia, but because Georgia's democracy isn't stable enough or developed enough to justify partnership with the organization. By going forward with the exercise, NATO is inserting itself into Georgian politics, it’s another mission bound to blow up in their face.
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, April 17, 2009

Was Tsvangirai accident not an accident?

That is the question members of Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party are asking about the automobile accident last month that injured Prime Minister (and MDC chief) Morgan Tsvangirai.

You may remember the story of the car accident last month where Tsvangirai's car rolled over three times after being knocked off the road by a truck. While Tsvangirai himself was not critically injured, his wife Susan was killed. Immediately rumors swirled that the 'accident' was really an assassination attempt carried out by President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party to eliminate their main political rival. USAID, the United States overseas development agency, quickly stepped in to say that the truck belonged to them, not the Zimbabwe government; Tsvangirai himself made a statement just days after the crash to say, he believed that it was, in fact, just a tragic accident.

But now senior MDC officials are telling the BBC that after an initial investigation, they believe the collision was intentional, noting that 'traffic accidents' have killed at least two other prominent ZANU-PF critics in recent years. The MDC claims to have evidence that the USAID truck driver was a former Zimbabwean soldier and follower of Robert Mugabe. They also note that the security detail in Tsvangirai's three-vehicle convoy - provided by the Mugabe-controlled Central Intelligence Organization - did not come to the aid of Morgan and Susan Tsvangirai after the crash, but did detain a white farmer who took pictures of the accident scene.

Mugabe made a very public show of support to Tsvangirai following the accident, including rushing to visit him in the hospital, it seemed in an effort to tamp down the assassination rumors. An uneasy truce has existed between the two men since the accident allowing Zimbabwe to make some tentative steps forward in repairing their shattered economy, though it remains to be seen how relations between the MDC and ZANU-PF will be affected by these new allegations.
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Teabags n' Texas

It's a stretch to say that yesterday's "Tea Party" protests were an outright failure, though the nationwide turnout seemed to fall far short of the "millions" organizers talked about attracting beforehand.

Maybe that's because the whole point of the rallies, like a good cup of tea, seemed rather dark and murky. Organizers used the image of the 1773 Boston Tea Party as a symbol for their anti-tax protest. But the Boston Tea Party wasn't a stand against paying taxes; it was a stand against paying taxes to Great Britain without receiving any political representation in return. It's a claim that doesn't stand up today, except perhaps for residents of Washington DC, who still do not have a voting member of Congress.

Those at the Tea Parties seemed to have a similarly fuzzy view of American history. One sign I saw said that we should get back to the fiscal responsibility of our Founding Father, George Washington. Sounds great, except that George nearly spent the country into bankruptcy, one reason the president has a salary today is because Washington originally just wanted Congress to pay his expenses - they thought it would be cheaper to just give free-spending George a salary instead.

Another said that we should return to the respect for individual rights shown by President Abraham Lincoln, which again sounds good, so long as you ignore Lincoln's decision to suspend Habeas Corpus, which is still seen as one of the worst abuses of civil liberties ever taken by a President of the United States. One thing protesters at this 'non-partisan' rally seemed to agree on though was that President Obama is a fascist (or commie, or socialist, take your pick).

And taking the whole protest thing one step too far was Texas Governor Rick Perry who told a Tea Party rally in Austin that if the federal government continued to 'oppress' Texas, then the state might just have to secede from the Union.

Of course the Supreme Court ruled that states do not have the right to secede (see, ironically, the Texas v. White decision), and then there was also this little thing called the Civil War that seemed to settle the matter. But in Texas' case, there may be a loophole to exploit. Former (Texas) Congressman Tom DeLay let the theory slip on Chris Matthew's Hardball program Thursday night.

It's a little known fact, but when Texas joined the US, they reserved the right to break their territory into five separate states should they choose sometime in the future. So, Tom explained, Texas could just threaten to do this sending, in effect, ten senators from 'Texas' to Congress, rather than just the current two, which, by Tom's way of thinking, would cause Congress to think it was just too much bother and lead them to kick Texas out of the Union. In other words, make a big enough pain in the rear ass of yourself, and they'll ask you to leave.

It's an utterly bizarre idea, but one that some people of note (Gov. Perry, DeLay) seem to have rattling around in their heads. What’s that old saying about those who don’t know history?
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Politics in Alaska take an Afghani turn

Quick question - if I told you that the man put forward to be the top legal authority in the land once allegedly said: “If a guy can’t rape his wife, who’s he gonna rape?” and asked you for the place where would you guess?

Afghanistan, you say? Nope, it’s Alaska.

Governor Sarah Palin has nominated Wayne Anthony Ross to become the state's new attorney general. In addition to the spousal rape statement above Ross allegedly made, its also claimed he once said that domestic violence wouldn't be a problem if women would just keep their mouths shut. But wait, there's more: he publicly praised a college student for making an art project that glorified the Ku Klux Klan, is friends with known white supremacists, called homosexuals "degenerates" and slammed laws protecting the environment. Past that he's just a regular guy...

It’s said that Palin nominated Ross to appeal to social conservatives in America ahead of her possible run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. She's coming under increasing pressure though to withdraw the nomination from Alaskans offended by Ross' positions who don't want to see such a man become the ultimate law enforcement authority in their state.

But, if Ross can't be put in charge of enforcing Alaska's laws he can always try to get a job with the Taliban, sounds like he'd fit right in.
Sphere: Related Content

A different view of Somalia's pirates

The press in the United States has been all over the Somali pirate story since they had the nerve to attack an American ship last week; the pirates themselves have been portrayed at best as bloodthirsty mercenaries and worst as outright terrorists.

But the pirates have a different view of themselves, according to a piece published by, some think they are the 'marines of the Somali coast', defending their territorial waters from foreign ships looting the seas. They turned to piracy - they claim - after spending much of the last two decades watching foreign ships both illegally fish just off their coastline and dump a stew of pollutants into the water. A poll conducted by the Somali news site WardheerNews found 70 percent of Somalis asked "strongly supported" the idea of piracy as a type of national defense.

Since the attack on the Maersk Alabama, this piece by journalist Johann Hari - originally published back in January - has been making the rounds on the Internet. In it, Hari makes the claims that since the government of Somalia collapsed in 1991, European ships have taken advantage of the absence of Somali legal authority by both fishing and dumping in their territorial waters.

I have to admit being a little skeptical of Hari's claims - it doesn't make sense that you would dump hazardous materials - including apparently nuclear waste - in the same place where you would also hope to catch fish for food. But back in 2005 the United Nations Environment Program issued a report that found the South Asia Tsunami in late 2004 washed ashore a number of barrels of nuclear waste, that had been illegally dumped at-sea, onto the Somali coast, causing some severe health problems among Somalis living in coastal communities. According to the UN, there is evidence that the dumping of hazardous waste had been going on for 15 years - beginning at just about the same time that the Somali government collapsed in the early 90s. The report said that it cost European companies just $2.50 per ton to dump wastes off the coast of Somalia rather than $250 per ton to dispose of it legally in Europe.

So perhaps the fish poachers simply didn't know about the illegal dumping that was also going on in their fishing grounds. Whatever the explanation though, it does add a dimension to the piracy problem that's lacking in the mainstream media. It's also another indication that the piracy problem won't be solved until the rule of law is reestablished in Somalia and it once again becomes a functioning nation.
Sphere: Related Content

Medvedev talks to Kremlin critics

Is Dmitry Medvedev quietly striking a blow for the freedom of the press in Russia?

Yesterday Medvedev gave his first interview to a Russian newspaper since becoming president last May. His choice of newspaper was quite interesting - he gave Novaya Gazeta the honor of the first interview. Not only is Novaya Gazeta one of the last remaining critics of the Kremlin in the Russian press, in the past eight years four of its reporters have been murdered, most notably Anna Politkovskaya (internationally renowned for her reporting on the war in Chechnya), who was gunned down in front of her own apartment building in Moscow. Former President (now Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin has been widely criticized in the global journalism community for creating an atmosphere where the press is effectively muzzled and the murder of reporters tolerated.

That's why Medvedev's choice of Novaya Gazeta makes a statement about his attitude towards the media (and is perhaps another indication of his attempts to step out from behind Putin's shadow). The interview itself wasn't particularly noteworthy, though Medvedev did, correctly, point out the way the average Russian continues to associate 'democracy' with the economic chaos Russia endured in the 1990s - a point that is often missed by Western observers. Medvedev noted that because of this connection in the minds of many Russians, bringing democratic reforms to the country needed to be a gradual process.
Sphere: Related Content

Monday, April 13, 2009

Another blow to women's rights in Afghanistan

Following the passage of a law condemned by the international community as, among other things, legalizing spousal rape, comes news of another blow to women's rights in Afghanistan.

Over the weekend, Sitara Achikzai, a governing council member in Kandahar and prominent women's rights activist, was gunned down outside her home. The Taliban has reportedly taken credit for her assassination. Achikzai returned to Afghanistan in 2004 after living for many years in exile in Germany. Recently, colleagues begged her not to attend government functions, fearing she would be targeted by the Taliban.

You can't help but wonder if passing a law that crippled women's rights didn't have some impact in promoting this weekend's attack.
Sphere: Related Content

Are War Crimes committed in Kosovo being ignored?

The Kosovo Liberation Army fought to free Kosovo from Serbian rule, but now they're being accused of also liberating internal organs from captured prisoners for sale on the black market.

Last week the BBC ran gruesome testimony from a former KLA soldier who said he routinely saw prisoners being starved, tortured, beaten and shot while working at a prisoner-of-war camp during the Kosovo-Serbia conflict in 1999. The soldier said that many former KLA members knew of similar abuses, but kept quiet both out of feelings of loyalty to their former comrades and fear of retribution - according to the United Nations, some KLA officers who spoke out on possible war crimes committed by their side have received death threats, while some have just disappeared.

But the BBC story left out the worst allegations, that the KLA killed Serbian soldiers captured during the war to harvest their organs, which were then sold on the black market for transplant operations. Last November the Guardian sent reporter Paul Lewis to a small farmhouse in Northern Albania where some of the organ harvest was said to have taken place. According to the report, organs were removed from captured prisoners, driven to the airport in Albania’s capital, Tirana, where they were then flown to Turkey and transplanted into waiting patients.

Carla Del Ponte, the hard-nosed former prosecutor for war crimes committed during the wars that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia, said she has “credible” reports about KLA harvesting the organs of as many as 300 Serbian prisoners. But here’s where the story takes a turn towards the conspiracy side. In the Guardian report from last November, Del Ponte said she was stymied in her efforts to investigate the KLA organ ring because of evidence that suddenly went missing and resistance from senior UN officials. Now the Huffington Post is reporting that the Swiss government is barring Del Ponte from promoting her new memoir about her time as special prosecutor: “The Hunt: Me and War Criminals,” over what the Swiss government is calling “statements, which are impermissible for a representative of the government of Switzerland.” Those statements are thought to be her claims about the KLA organ smuggling ring.

So why the reluctance to investigate, or even discuss, these awful crimes? Two likely reasons: first there’s a reluctance (still) to promote anything that doesn’t portray the Serbs of the 1990s as the bad guys set on ethnically cleansing their little corner of Europe. The bigger reason though is likely that European and American officials don’t want the young Kosovo government to be painted in a bad light. The US and Europe were enthusiastic supporters of Kosovo’s bid for independence in February 2008, short-circuiting an UN-led effort in the process. Kosovo’s government today is made up largely of old KLA figures; so an investigation into these same individuals as war criminals would be rather embarrassing to Kosovo’s Western patrons. It’s worth noting again though that as recently as the mid-1990s, the United States, and other Western governments, listed the Kosovo Liberation Army as a terrorist group with probable ties to al-Qaeda.

The attitude among the Europeans and Americans though now seems to be to let bygones be bygones, even if that means ignoring some truly disturbing allegations into what are rightly called war crimes by some.
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Russia's new Chechnya problem

It has all the trappings of a spy novel - a former military commander murdered in an exotic locale by a strongman leader settling old scores - but for Sulim Yamadayev, the end of his life wasn’t a scene from a novel. The former Russian military commander was apparently killed in Dubai two weeks ago on, the speculation goes, the orders of Chechnya’s President Ramzan Kadyrov. And Yamadayev isn’t the only opponent of Kadyrov’s to die suddenly in recent months - a former Kadyrov bodyguard was murdered in Vienna, while Yamadeyev’s own brother was killed late last year in Moscow.

You have to wonder if Russia hasn’t created its own monster in the Caucasus Mountains.

On the surface, Ramzan Kadyrov has been a blessing to Moscow. Since becoming President of the Chechen Republic of Russia in 2004 he has basically brought an end to the bloody insurrectionist war that had raged since 1994 when Moscow sent in the troops to put down Chechnya’s bid for independence. Not only did the ensuing war kill thousands of Russian troops and untold numbers of Chechens, it sparked horrific terrorist attacks in the rest of Russia that included the suicide bombings of airliners, the siege of a Moscow theater and the massacre of nearly 300 people, many of them children, in the town of Beslan. In Chechnya, the Kadyrov’s were an influential clan who initially fought against the Russians. But in 1999 Ramzan’s father, Akhmad, decided to switch sides, became president of the Chechen Republic of Russia and then led the fight against the Chechen insurgents - a move that got him assassinated in 2004, and brought his son Ramzan to power.

Ramzan Kadyrov finished his father’s work of routing the rebel Chechens, while pledging his support to Moscow. The result today is that Chechnya is more peaceful than it has been in nearly 15 years, in March Kadyrov boldly claimed that the insurgents and Islamic militants had been “wiped out.” But critics have accused Kadyrov of large-scale human right’s abuses, including the torture and murder of his political opponents, many committed by his own private militia.

And lately Kadyrov has been pushing for Chechnya to be ruled by a version of Sharia - a legal system based on an interpretation of Islamic religious beliefs. Kadyrov has told women to wear headscarves while in public, encouraged Chechen men to practice polygamy (which is against Russian law) and has endorsed the “honor killings” of women who ‘disgrace’ their families. Recently a number of Chechen women have been found shot and left by the side of the road; Kadyrov said that their murders were conducted by their families as honor killings and were thus justified. Though this claim was not supported by either the women’s families or by Russian investigators sent from Moscow, who turned up evidence that some of the women may have worked in brothels frequented by Kadyrov’s militiamen (which is rather un-Islamic behavior on their part…).

Moscow though doesn’t seem to be planning to take any action against Kadyrov, even as he attempts to set up his own Caliphate in Chechnya, running roughshod over Russian law in the process. In this case Moscow seems to have made a deal with the Devil, so long as Kadyrov stays loyal to the Kremlin, keeps a lid on Chechen insurgents and prevents any future Beslan-style terror attacks in the rest of Russia, they’ll look the other way as he rules Chechnya.

But that last part may get harder and harder for Moscow if Kadyrov keeps sending his personal hit squads around the world to settle old scores.
Sphere: Related Content

Controversy continues to swirl around Afghan rape law

Afghanistan's ambassador to Washington said yesterday that the Afghani government wouldn’t force women to have sex with their husbands.

The global community reacted with outrage last week when the news spread that Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a bill placing the country’s Shia Muslim population under Shariah law, in the process apparently legalizing spousal rape, child marriage and prohibiting women from leaving their homes without the express permission of their husbands. President Obama called the new law “abhorrent”, the UN’s Development Fund for Women said it “legalized rape” and NATO wondered aloud whether they should continue to support the Karzai government if it failed to stand up for basic human rights.

But Afghani Ambassador Said Jawad told Bloomberg Television that he was confident that the new law would never go into effect because it violates women’s equality provisions in the Afghani constitution. He then offered an incredibly lame excuse as to why President Karzai signed this awful bit of legislation in the first place - he apparently never read the bill so he didn't know what measures it actually contained. I have a hard time believing that explanation, especially since early reports had Karzai backing the law, presumably as a way to appeal to religious hard-liners to support his re-election bid this summer, and since he signed the law with no public announcement - perhaps trying to slip it past his Western patrons to avoid their protests.

Meanwhile an influential Shia cleric in Afghanistan defended the law and slammed Western governments for ‘meddling’ in Afghani affairs by protesting the legislation. “The Westerners claim that they have brought democracy to Afghanistan. What does democracy mean? It means government by the people for the people,” was the question Mohammad Asif Mohseni asked reporters at a press conference in Kabul. He went on to show petitions signed by hundreds of women in support of the new law, and pointed out that it was passed by the Afghani parliament after three years of debate. And while the law as written applies only to the country’s Shia population, Mawlawi Habibullah Ahsam, one of the country’s top Sunni clerics, said there was no reason for the law not to apply to Afghanistan’s Sunnis as well.

Mohseni does raise a difficult issue for the US, NATO and other members of the Afghan coalition - if Afghanistan is indeed a democracy then they do have an inherent right to pass whatever laws they see fit, no matter how repellent they may be. The tough question for Afghanistan's supporters is do they want to continue to back a president and a government that seems ready to undue years of forward human rights progress and drag Afghani women back to the Stone Age.
Sphere: Related Content

Saudis ban 'offensive' USA license plates

Ok, here's today’s odd story via our friends at the BBC. It seems that Saudi Arabia has banned what they’re calling “offensive” words on automobile license plates. The Saudis recently changed the way they do their license plates, so that they can now include three Arabic characters along with their Latin alphabet equivalents.

So wiseguys in Saudi have taken to requesting personalized license plates that apparently are random letters in Arabic, but spell out on the Latin alphabet side three-letter words, usually in English, like “ass” and “sex” (this all reminds me a little too much of The Simpsons episode where Homer goes bowling - his buddies ask him what wacky name he’d like on the overhead scoreboard and Homer asks: “are ass and poo taken?”)

Back to the license plates - the Saudi government, in reply has now put out a list of banned three-letter words. And what tops the list of offensive license plate words?


No explanation yet from the Saudis on why they find “USA” so offensive.
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Georgians take to the streets to push Saakashvili out

In 2003 tens of thousands of Georgians took to the streets in the capital, Tbilisi, demanding a change in leadership, mass protests that eventually brought President Mikhail Saakashvili to power. Today, tens of thousands of Georgians have returned to the street to tell him it's time to go.

That was the message some 60,000 Georgians were sending today in Tbilisi who, in an echo of Georgia's much-heralded "Rose Revolution" of 2003, are promising to stay on the streets outside the Georgian Parliament until Saakashvili resigns. According to the Associated Press, many Georgians are still angry with Saakashvili over last August's conflict with Russia over the disputed regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. While Western governments were quick to blame Russia for the war last year, more and more evidence has emerged showing that Saakashvili himself sparked the conflict - an attempt, perhaps to make good on a 2008 campaign promise to reintegrate the two breakaway regions into Georgia before the end of his term.

But the war went badly and both regions have since made claims of independence, claims backed up by Russian peacekeeping troops on their territories. Georgians, as the AP points out, are angry at Saakashvili for in effect losing about a quarter of their country, though in reality the anger with Saakashvili goes back further than last summer's war. Even as early as 2007 there were large-scale protest in Tbilisi over Saakashvili's failure to make good on promises to reduce unemployment and spread the country's economic growth throughout all sectors of the population. There were also charges that he was turning into exactly the same type of autocrat that the Rose Revolution deposed in 2003. Saakashvili responded to the peaceful protests by sending in the riot troops to break them up - an action ignored by his supporters in the West who in the wake of the August conflict tried to paint him as the George Washington of the Caucasus, the father of Georgian Democracy.

Reality, though, seems to be catching up to Saakashvili. The political opposition, which was previously fractured, is using Georgia's defeat in the conflict as a rallying point to oppose Saakashvili. Mikhail himself is being portrayed as an impulsive, incompetent leader who blundered his way into a war that he could not possibly win. While there is still much anger with Russia over the conflict, many in Georgia see the importance of friendly relations with Russia (not to mention the deep cultural ties between the two nations) and are not receptive to Saakashvili's continued angry talk towards Moscow. His stock even seems to be falling among his supporters in the West who have made some overtures towards former parliament speaker (and former Saakashvili ally) Nino Burdzhanadze, who is now looked on as a possible successor to Mikhail.

Whether Saakashvili remains in power at this point likely depends on the resolve of the opposition and the protesters in the streets.
Sphere: Related Content

Somali pirates in standoff with the US Navy

Guess what? There are pirates off the coast of Africa! Today, in the 21st century! While this would not come as a surprise to readers of this site, where we've been talking about the Somali pirates for months now, including this post from Monday about the recent uptick in pirate activity, the attack against the US-owned Maersk Alabama on Wednesday caught the US media off-guard.

Just in case you somehow missed it, the Maersk Alabama, a 17,000-ton cargo ship heading to Kenya was attacked by pirates roughly 300 miles from the coast of Africa. A handful of pirates held the ship for several hours before the Maersk Alabama's crew fought back and re-took control of their ship. The pirates fled in one of the Maersk Alabama's lifeboats, taking the ship's captain, Richard Phillips, with them (some reports say that Phillips handed himself over to the pirates in return for them leaving the ship). There's now a standoff going on between the pirates in the lifeboat, which is out of gas and dead in the water, and the Navy's guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge, which sped to the scene after the hijacking. FBI negotiators are currently in discussions with the pirates for the release of Capt. Phillips.

The Maersk Alabama was, briefly, the sixth ship taken by Somali pirates this week alone. The five other captured ships are still being held by the pirates for ransom. What's been interesting is that in interviews with some of the Maersk Alabama crew's families, many say that they thought there was a good chance the ship, which often sails in the waters off the Horn of Africa, would one day be hit by pirates. Shane Murphy, the Maersk Alabama's chief officer, went so far as to post on his Facebook page recently: "these waters are infested with pirates that highjack ships daily...I feel like it's only a matter of time before my number gets called."

And speaking of the media, like often happens when they’re forced to cover events they're not familiar with, the Maersk Alabama hijacking has led to some pretty bad reporting, with Fox News leading the way. Yesterday afternoon Fox started reporting (a claim that has been picked up in other reports), that the incident with the Maersk Alabama was the "first time in two centuries" that a US ship had been attacked by pirates. Though in just five minutes on Wikipedia I found the story of the MV Seabourne Spirit - a luxury cruise yacht owned by the Miami-based Carnival Corporation - that was attacked by Somali pirates in November 2005. The Seabourne Spirit managed to repel the attack, even ramming one of the pirate boats in the process, and was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade shot by the pirates. Of course this means not only was the Maersk Alabama incident not the first pirate attack against a US-owned ship in 200 years, it wasn't even the first pirate attack this decade.

The Fox crew went on to describe the pirates as "terrorists" and, along with their 'military advisor' of the hour, repeat the oft-said statement about how the "United States doesn't negotiate with terrorists", even though at this hour we are negotiating with the pirates - I guess the US Navy and FBI didn't get the memo...

Now that America's attention has been focused on Somalia, let's hope some decent reporting follows.
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Twitter fuels revolt in Moldova

While you were sleeping there was an odd attempt at a revolution in Europe, and Twitter is getting much of the credit (or blame, depending on your point of view). Activists in Moldova, a small country tucked away in Southeastern Europe, briefly occupied Moldova’s Parliament building before government forces regained control of the capital.

People took to the streets to protest the results of elections on Sunday that saw Moldova’s Communist Party win 50% of the seats in parliament, giving them full control over the country’s government. Almost immediately youth groups in Moldova called for protests against the Communists in Chisinau (the capital), and they used SMS text messaging services and Twitter to spread the word. One group said they hoped their ‘tweet’ would attract about 1,000 people, instead 15,000 turned out – the huge numbers helped to turn peaceful protests into violent ones that led to riots and the brief occupation of parliament.

Parallels were immediately drawn between Moldova’s protests and the Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine that brought about a change in government in 2005. But unlike in Ukraine, where there had been wide-spread fraud in the elections that sparked the Orange Revolution, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which monitored Sunday’s election in Moldova, gave it a tentative thumbs up, saying that they had no evidence to back up opposition claims of vote-fraud or voter intimidation. The activists in this case seem to just be protesting the fact that their side didn’t win (you could call it the Norm Coleman strategy).

And here’s where the protests start to get strange. When people took to the streets in places like Ukraine and Georgia they called for democratic reforms, one demand made by protestors in Moldova was for unification with neighboring Romania, with some going so far as to fly the Romanian flag over the Moldovan parliament (Moldova shares many cultural and ethnic ties with Romania; the two languages are nearly identical). This has led Moldova’s President Vladimir Voronin to accuse Romania of being behind the uprising.

The economy also seems to have played a large role in the protests. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, and remittances from Moldovan working abroad were an important part of their economy. But, because of the global recession, many Moldovan migrant workers lost their jobs and were forced to return home – striking a blow to Moldova’s economy and causing a big spike in unemployment.

For now the Communist government seems to be in control, but the situation remains tense. And this week’s uprising could cause problems in the thawing of relations between Russia and the West. Like Georgia, Moldova has its own separatist region – Transnestr, which has been a quasi-independent state since the early 1990’s. Transnestr (a thin strip of land between the Dniester River in Moldova and the Ukraine border) is hoping for full independence and economic ties with Russia. There is speculation that Transnestr may use the uprising in Chisinau and instability in Moldova as a justification for their own drive for independence.
Sphere: Related Content

Obama scores two diplomatic successes in Europe

Barack Obama hit the world stage in a big way this past week with a whirlwind diplomatic tour of Europe. And while a lot of the media coverage on Obama focused on his ‘rock star’ status in Europe (even among his fellow heads of state), Obama quietly scored two diplomatic victories that have been largely (and unfairly) overlooked.

During the G20 summit, Obama personally negotiated an agreement between France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and China’s President Hu Jintao that had threatened to disrupt the meeting. The disagreement on the surface was about China’s failure to support a French proposal to reign in international tax havens, but the relations between France and China have been on the skids since last year when Sarkozy met with the Dalai Lama – something that angered the Chinese and led them to cancel a state visit to France in return. Obama managed to broker a compromise between Sarkozy and Hu that allowed language on tax havens to be included in the final G20 agreement.

Obama then cleared the way for Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to become NATO’s new Secretary-General. All of the members of NATO agreed to the appointment of Rasmussen, except for Turkey, and because the appointment required the unanimous approval of all NATO members, Turkey effectively blocked Rasmussen’s candidacy.

Turkey’s opposition to Rasmussen goes all the way back to 2005 when several Danish newspapers published editorial cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad, something that caused outrage across the Muslim world. At the time Rasmussen refused demands to punish the cartoonists, though he said that he personally disagreed with the cartoons. He has also been an opponent of Turkey’s drive to join the European Union.

After meeting with Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Rasmussen, Obama was again able to broker an agreement to get Turkey to drop their opposition and for Rasmussen to become NATO’s Secretary-General.

In the grand scheme of things they weren’t huge international agreements, but they were two noteworthy achievements for Obama during his first major trip abroad, and are an indication that America’s diplomatic power on the world stage may finally be returning.
Sphere: Related Content

Iraqi shoe thrower prison sentence cut

Muntadar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who became a folk hero after flinging his shoes at President George Bush, should be out of jail by the end of the year.

Al-Zaidi was originally found guilty of assault after a trial in March and was sentenced to three years (out of a possible 15) in jail. But an Iraqi judge has agreed with al-Zaidi's appeal, changing his crime from assault to 'insulting a foreign leader' (a crime under Iraqi law) and reducing his sentence from three years to one. With time already served, it means al-Zaidi should get out of jail in September.

Al-Zaidi became a hero to many in the Middle East after he tossed both of his shoes at Bush during the President's press conference to mark his last visit to Baghdad last December. Throwing or hitting someone with a shoe is considered a grave insult in Arabic cultures. At his trial al-Zaidi said he threw his shoes at Bush because "I had the feeling that the blood of innocent people was dropping on my feet during the time that he was smiling and coming to say bye-bye to Iraq with a dinner."

A recent poll conducted by the BBC found that 62% of Iraqis consider Muntadar al-Zaidi to be a 'hero' for his actions.
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

North Korea, 0-for-2 in missile launches

As expected, on Sunday North Korea fired the Taepodong-2 missile they've been preparing for the past two months, but like the first Taepodong-2 launch in 2006, this one also was a failure. According to tracking data gathered by the United States and Japan, the rocket’s second stage seems to have malfunctioned and the third stage never ignited, dropping the Taepodong-2 into the Pacific about 2,000 miles from North Korea, well short of it’s projected 5,000 mile range.

Of course this didn’t stop North Korea from claiming that the launch was a total success and for alleging that even now the satellite Kwangmyongsong-2 is circling the Earth, broadcasting patriotic hymns to North Korea’s Kim Jong Il and his father Kim Il Sung. Nor did it stop Dear Leader Kim from hailing the rocket’s “successful” launch, while, according to the North Korean state news agency, saying he “felt regret for not being able to spend more money on the people’s livelihoods and was choked with sobs.”

Uh-huh…I mean Kim could have spent money on feeding his nation’s starving citizenry, but why do that when there are dud rockets to launch?

Of course the whole reason Kim had the State sink untold billions into the Taepodong-2 project was to provoke exactly the type of response that he got from the world community. The launch was roundly condemned as a provocation by just about everyone, while the United Nations met in an emergency session to discuss what to do next about North Korea and the troublesome Kim. And, of course, right wing pundits and politicians in the United States took President Obama to task for not doing enough to stop Kim and for leaving the United States “at-risk” of North Korean nuclear attacks.

This, frankly, is a wild overstatement of North Korea’s abilities. So far North Korea’s nuclear ICBM program has consisted of two failed rocket launches and one dud nuclear weapons test, hardly a fearsome program. But this doesn’t stop some from presenting North Korea as an existential threat to the existence of the United States (including this gem from Neo-conservative spokesman Frank Gaffney, who takes a turn into science fiction by insisting that North Korea will not only develop a working ICBM, but also an electro-magnetic pulse [EMP] weapon that will destroy all of America’s electronics, plunging us back into the Stone Age).

So what to do about North Korea? My idea – nothing. Talk of more sanctions on North Korea were scuttled by China and Russia at the UN, mostly by China which fears that if the government in North Korea collapses, they’d have millions of starving refugees showing up on their border. Knowing this Kim has in the past used weapons test to scare the world community into concessions to North Korea on foreign aid to prevent him from developing more weapons (which he’s usually just gone ahead with anyway).

Knowing this, then perhaps the best move would be to do nothing, to basically ignore the Taepodong-2 test, realizing that as a weapon of war the Taepodong-2 is useless. Not only does it take months to get ready to launch (more than enough time to destroy one on the ground), it doesn’t work once it is fired. Maybe if we move away from the fear-based negotiations scheme with North Korea, it will open a path for a new kind of relations with the world’s most reclusive nation.
Sphere: Related Content

Monday, April 6, 2009

Somali Pirates come storming back

The Pirates of the Somali coast had themselves a busy weekend. In just 48 hours pirates snatched five ships off the east coast of Africa, including a German-owned freighter and a Taiwanese fishing trawler.

The weekend outbreak shows two things - one that having ships from a dozen of the world’s navies patrolling the Somali coast isn’t scaring off the pirates, and two, that the pirates are becoming bolder and more sophisticated in their hijackings. When the piracy problem first started, the attacks mostly came against ships traveling close to the Somali coast on their way to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Several of this weekend’s attacks though took place hundreds of miles from Somalia, far out in the Indian Ocean, meaning that the piracy problem is getting worse, not better.

Even the US Navy is admitting stopping piracy off Somalia might be out of their grasp. “We can’t be everywhere at once. This is basically a case of where the cops aren’t, you’re going to go,” said Lt. Nathan Christensen, spokesman for the US Navy, who called this weekend’s rash of piracy “unbelievable.”

It is an admission that trying to find one little pirate ship in millions of square miles of ocean is looking for a needle in a very large haystack. And there’s good reason to believe that it’s the wrong approach to take if you want to stop piracy off the east coast of Africa. In this post from January, I talked about this interview from Canada’s MacLean’s magazine with Abdiweli Ali Taar, the chief of the tiny Somali Coast Guard. Mr. Taar’s view is that if the nations engaging in naval patrols in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean instead spent the money they’re using for anti-piracy patrols on anti-poverty programs ashore in Somalia - particularly on initiatives that created jobs - the piracy program would disappear. Many of the Somali pirates are former fisherman and merchant sailors who lost their jobs as Somalia’s economy collapsed due to the two-decades long civil war that has gripped the country.

As this weekend shows, maybe it is time for a different approach.
Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Could drugs be key to US/Iran/Russia relations?

And no, I don’t mean getting the leaders of the three countries high... I wonder though if stemming the flood of heroin coming from Afghanistan could be a common point for the US, Russia and Iran to rally ‘round?

The poppy fields of Afghanistan provide more than 90% of the world’s heroin. The drug has long been a problem for the United States, but Afghanistan’s location in Central Asia means its causing headaches for Iran and Russia as well. Smuggling routes to Europe have become well established through northern Iran, while the former Soviet republics of Central Asia provide an easy path for heroin to get into Russia.

The drug as exploded into an epidemic in Russia, one that has gotten so bad Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov calls it a threat to Russia’s “security” - estimates are that three billion hits worth of heroin are flooding into Russia from Afghanistan every year, enough to give more than 20 doses to every man, woman and child in the Russian Federation (Russia reports having five to eight times as many heroin addicts as the European Union). And heroin is causing problems in Afghanistan as well - cash generated by the sale of the drug is said to support not only the Taliban resistance movement, but corruption within the Afghani government as well (Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of President Hamid Karzai, is alleged to be one of the country’s biggest drug lords).

The new administration in Washington has often talked about pressing the ‘reset’ button with Russia, while President Obama has reached out to Iran, including recording a message to the Iranian people to mark the Persian New Year in March. There is a definite desire to turn the page on relations with these two countries. But the issues the United States is focusing on; Iran’s nuclear program, Russia’s opposition to NATO expansion and American plans for an anti-ballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe, are issues too emotionally charged, ones with too much political capital wrapped up in them to expect them to be the thing that provides a breakthrough in US-Iranian or US-Russian relations.

So why not try to build a three-party consensus around combating the Afghani heroin trade? It is an issue without the baggage of the nuclear programs or missile defense, and is a pressing need to all parties involved (Afghanistan included). It could also serve as a way for Iran to participate in a cooperative, collaborative way with the same Western nations they have alienated with their pursuit of a nuclear program; and it could help to mend fences between Russia and the West. Cutting into heroin sales would not only weaken the Taliban, but also undermine some corrupt government officials as well, who thanks to personal connections have so far been basically untouchable (that means you Ahmed Karzai) - two things that will help in Afghanistan’s long-term development.

The bridges built in a US-Russian-Iranian anti-heroin effort could also later prove useful in getting Iran to suspend its nuclear program. It’s a project worth considering.
Sphere: Related Content

Police grill Israeli Foreign Minister, again

Avigdor Lieberman is having quite a busy first week in office... After seeming to scuttle hopes for Israeli-Palestinian peace on his first day as Foreign Minister, he's spent days two and three being grilled by the police over bribery and corruption charges. Similar charges have dogged Lieberman in the past, but I can't help but wonder if there's more here than meets the eye.

Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) Party finished third in February's elections. Since the top vote-getter, the Kadima Party, refused to enter into a coalition government with Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, he needed to get Lieberman's support if he was going to build enough support to form a governing coalition.

But Lieberman has a reputation as being a harsh ultra-nationalist - and that's the kind view of him, he's also been called an outright racist accused of supporting the idea of ethnically-cleansing the West Bank and Gaza of Palestinians. With Lieberman as part of the government (Foreign Minister no less, the position he insisted on getting as part of the coalition deal), the Peace Process would seem to be on hold for the foreseeable future.

Of course if Lieberman was indicted... Maybe I am being Machiavellian here, but it would seem to be a great way for Netanyahu to get the benefits of Lieberman's support (his party's backing), without the baggage (Lieberman himself). Maybe the question isn’t if I’m being Machiavellian, but is Benjamin Netanyahu?
Sphere: Related Content

Did the Queen rip on Italy's Berlusconi?

That's the question being asked after a clip surfaced on YouTube where Queen Elizabeth II of England seems to be fed up with the antics of Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi never has had a reputation for being quiet and reserved, and according to reporters Silvio was trying like mad to get the attention of his new BFF (at least in Berlusconi's eyes), Barack Obama during the heads-of-state photo at the end of the G20 conference. After a few shout-outs to Obama, the Queen apparently had enough and was caught asking "why does he talk so loud?" The clip soon became a YouTube sensation.

Buckingham Palace has tried to play it off as "a jovial lighthearted moment" between friends. Perhaps, or maybe she was just fed up with Silvio being Silvio - keep in mind that Berlusconi once described Obama as a nice young man with a tan, which sadly is one of his less offensive remarks....

But persistence paid off and Silvio got his photo:

Who says these meetings of heads-of-state are stuffy affairs?
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, April 3, 2009

Why we fight? (Afghan edition)

When I first heard about an idea floating around Washington to create a political party for the Taliban in a bid to bring peace to Afghanistan, I had some problems – a big one being that bringing the ultra-conservative Taliban and their 11th century mind-set into the Afghani government would be a huge blow to women’s rights. Of course who needs the Taliban to set back women’s rights when you have Afghan President Hamid Karzai?

In case you missed it, this week Karzai rammed through a new law that slaps Taliban-style restrictions on the Shiite women of Afghanistan. Among the specifics of the law are that women must have sex with their husbands at least once every four days (whether they’d like to or not) and that wives cannot leave the house without their husband’s permission; girls can also legally get married (or more accurately get married off by their fathers) once they hit puberty, thus legalizing child marriage. Though the law technically only applies to members of Afghanistan’s Shiite community, there is fear that it could easily be extended to apply to the whole country, it can’t be seen as anything other than a huge reversal of women’s rights in Afghanistan, which had slowly been improving during the past few years (girls have been returning to school post-Taliban and women now hold nearly a quarter of all provincial government seats).

Karzai's new law has been roundly condemned by the world community, though no where has the criticism been louder than in Canada, which long has positioned itself as a global champion for human rights. Now many Canadians are asking why 116 of their countrymen have died to defend a regime that has just taken a giant step backwards to the bad old days of the Taliban.

It’s a good question to ask as is what are we even doing in Afghanistan in the first place? Let's remember that the United States only got involved in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to capture Osama bin Laden, who was being sheltered by the Taliban. The Bush Administration demanded that the Taliban surrender bin Laden; the Taliban asked for proof of bin Laden’s involvement in 9/11 (under the complex rules of the Taliban’s Pashtun culture they were honor-bound to defend their guest bin Laden, unless he violated their hospitality by committing a crime). The Bushies though were unwilling to comply with this request and declared war on the Taliban, which other than playing host to bin Laden had no connection to 9/11.

The US rallied together a coalition to free Afghanistan from the oppressive rule of the Taliban; and the western-educated Karzai was tapped as the perfect choice to lead Afghanistan into the 21st century. But Karzai’s presidency has been marked by charges of weakness and widespread corruption that have allowed heroin production to flourish and the Taliban to make a comeback in many parts of the country, and now he seems willing to sell out the women of his country for some votes from the Shiite community ahead of a tough reelection campaign this summer.

The Afghans, of course, have the right to run their country the way they see fit. But that doesn't mean we have to like, or support, their choices. Before we commit more soldiers and more money to the Afghan cause, we should make sure it is a cause worth fighting for in the first place.
Sphere: Related Content