Saturday, October 31, 2009

Presidential Deal Struck in Honduras

The four-month political crisis in Honduras seems to be over as the two sides - deposed President Manuel Zelaya and acting President Roberto Micheletti - struck a deal to allow Zelaya to apply to return to his former office and for the already scheduled presidential elections to go forward on November 29.

Honduras was plunged into political chaos when the military grabbed the sleeping Zelaya in the middle of the night and dropped him off in neighboring Costa Rica. The reason? Zelaya was apparently illegally trying to change the Honduran constitution through a referendum so that he could run for a second term as president, even after being ordered by both the Honduran Legislature and Supreme Court not to do so (more on this in a moment). The United States and the Organization of American States both pushed for Zelaya's return. And while this whole crisis could have resolved itself next month with the scheduled elections, the United States was threatening to not recognize the results of those elections unless Zelaya was first returned to office.

The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, never one to pass up a shot at the Obama Administration, is painting this as a victory for the pro-Micheletti side and a defeat for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But the WSJ does have something of a point, while this is being declared a victory for Zelaya, the agreement only says that he can apply to get his presidential job back. Since the Legislature ruled against him twice over his proposed referendum and supported his ouster, it's hard to think they'll restore him to the presidency. And besides, he only has three months left in his term anyway, the Legislature could easily drag his hearing out that long, meaning he'll likely never actually return to his job.

Speaking of the legality of his removal: Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Howard Berman are demanding that the Law Library of Congress retract an analysis that backed up the Honduran military's removal of Zelaya for violating their constitution as legal. In July, Octavio Sánchez, a former presidential advisor in Honduras also argued that the military acted properly to uphold the rule of law. The Library of Congress is quite upset at Kerry and Berman since they feel the lawmakers' demand could compromise the Library's image as a non-partisan organization.

The Library of Congress is a pretty serious body. Somehow I have more faith in their ability to correctly analyze the situation in Honduras than I do in a couple of Congressmen.
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Kim's Double Vision

It's starting to seem like if you're looking for a strange news story of the day you need look no farther than North Korea. The latest, from the Christian Science Monitor, is a question: last August, did former President Bill Clinton meet with North Korea's Kim Jong-Il or a Kim Jong-Double?

That's the speculation of several Japanese and South Korean analysts. During his mission to rescue two wayward American journalists, Clinton met with Dear Leader Kim. In the official photos from their meeting Kim looked far healthier than he had just a few months ago - keep in mind that for awhile in the summer 2008 the speculation was that Kim had died, now it is widely believed that the 68-year old suffered a severe stroke that has left him enfeebled.

The image of the plumper, healthier August '09 Kim is prompting a number of North Korea watchers to speculate that Clinton actually met with a Kim Jong-Il double, and that in recent months doubles have been making trips around North Korea to reinforce the idea that Kim is still the man in charge. Some analysts interviewed by the CSM went on to say that doubles may have been doing all of Kim's public appearances since 2000, and even that Kim may have actually died years ago but is still being used as a figurehead by North Korea's ruling cabal.

Whether this is true or not is anybody's guess, though Kim wouldn't be the first despot to use body doubles, Saddam Hussein was also reported to have a troop of stand-ins, including one who made his annual swim across the Tigris River.
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Friday, October 30, 2009

Stalin Looms Over Russian Remembrance

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev used his official Kremlin blog to rip into those who are attempting to "rehabilitate" the image of former Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

Medvedev's post comes on the "Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions", an official day set aside to remember those purged, imprisoned and executed during the reign of Stalin. According to the KGB's own state archives 800,000 people were executed during Stalin's rule - by comparison only 3,000 death sentences were carried out in the four decades between the end of Stalin and the end of the Soviet Union, and of the 800,000 executed under Stalin, 75% had their death sentences posthumously overturned. The Russian civil rights group "Memorial" marked the day in central Moscow by reading out the names of 30,000 people executed under the orders of Stalin between 1937 and 1938 in Moscow alone.

Medvedev warned against the "falsification" of history in attempts to excuse Stalin's crimes. He went on to say that: "no success or ambitions of the state, should be achieved through human grief and loss. Nothing can be valued above human life, and there is no excuse for repression."

But Stalin remains a complex and controversial topic in Russia and apparently within the Russian leadership. Current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been accused of soft-pedaling the crimes committed by Stalin and his regime in an effort to promote the positive aspects of Soviet history and boosting the image of Stalin as a "strong leader" as cover for his own attempts to consolidate power in modern Russia.

Meanwhile Russia's top news agency RIA Novosti also used the Day of Remembrance to blast a story by a European journalist that RIA Novosti was working with an American PR firm in an effort to polish the image of Stalin.
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World Wide Web To Become More Global

ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the body that regulates the use of Internet names and addresses, today approved the use of non-Latin characters in Internet addresses. What that means is that people and organizations with a website in Arabic, Chinese, Russian or a dozen other languages can now have an Internet address to match.

Countries that use non-Latin alphabets had long complained that it was unfair they had to use addresses only in Latin script, and that it was especially difficult for computer users in their countries who did not know the Latin alphabet to access the Internet. It's estimated that half the people in the world (that's more than three billion) speak a language that uses a non-Latin alphabet.

Under the ICANN ruling, countries can apply for one non-Latin web domain - for example Russia has proposed ".рф", cyrillic for "RF", standing for "Russian Federation". The new non-Latin domains should start to go live in the first half of 2010.
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Is Iran Really a Threat?

That is the question the Compass Blog over at RealClearWorld is asking, at least in regard to America's security. Writer Greg Scoblete cites an article in London's Daily Telegraph that argues Iran is a bigger threat to global security than even Afghanistan or Pakistan. Scoblete notes though that Iran's threat isn't global but instead aimed at two specific regions/goals - Israel and disrupting the flow of oil out of the Persian Gulf, and there have been no acts of terrorism on American soil - actual or attempted - that have been traced back to Iran.

Meanwhile a media event staged by the Pakistani military this morning to tout their recent offensive against terrorist groups in their Waziristan region turned up passports of militants linked to both the Madrid train bombings of 2004 and the 9/11 attacks.

It does make you wonder...
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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bosnia, A Test Case for Multilateralism

In my latest post over at The Mantle I tackle the topic of Bosnia, actually former Senator Bob Dole's take on the situation in Bosnia, which he worries could be split apart because of gridlock within the government between the Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat/Bosnian Muslim sides. With the specter of a new Balkan war in the background, Dole calls for the US to get involved to fix the political situation or risk disaster. My take though is that Bosnia could provide serve as a great test case for the new era of multilateralism that President Obama has made the center point of his foreign policy.

Give my whole argument a read over at The Mantle.
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Ahmed Wali Karzai: CIA Employee of the Month

Ahmed Wali Karzai is one busy guy. Not only does he play an important role in the administration of his brother, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, he's also said to be one of Afghanistan's biggest drug lords, and, according to today's the New York Times, Ahmed has also been on the CIA's payroll for the past eight years.

The story goes that Ahmed Wali Karzai has been helping the CIA battle insurgent and Taliban groups in and around Kandahar, his base of operations in southern Afghanistan. Thus AW Karzai is a valuable asset, in CIA terms, in the fight against insurgents in Afghanistan. Of course since he's also (allegedly) one of the country's biggest drug lords, and since the opium trade is a major source of funding for the insurgents/Taliban, AW Karzai can also be said to be a valuable asset too for those working against the CIA/NATO/US military efforts to defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, according to the London Telegraph, Ahmed Wali's brother Hamid is working hard to rig the second round of the Afghan presidential election. Karzai's camp has refused requests from his challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, to fire the head of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, the group that oversaw the fraudulent first round of voting. Nor will Karzai agree to close hundreds of polling stations in the south of Afghanistan that helped to turn in the nearly one million phony votes cast for him during the first round of the election.

Without these changes the International Crisis Group, a well-respected international affairs NGO, is warning that there is no reason to expect the second round of voting to be any more legitimate than the fraud-plagued first round. Nor they say does the international community seem to "either [have] the time, political will or resources available" to prevent Hamid Karzai from stealing Round Two.

The Karzai Brothers...perhaps this is a good time to again ask what are we doing in Afghanistan anyway?
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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Saudis Take One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Last month Saudi Arabia opened up a brand new school - the King Abdullah Science and Technology University (or KAUST). The Saudi royal family spent $7 billion to build an ultra-modern center for the sciences, which includes state-of-the-art labs and one of the world's fastest super-computers. But what makes KAUST truly remarkable, for Saudi Arabia anyway, is that within its campus men and women can mix freely, and women can do wild things like go outside without veils and even drive cars - both big taboos in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia.

The whole point of KAUST is to help diversify Saudi Arabia away from its petro-driven economy by establishing a base for science and technological research. It is also being used as a place to start to breakdown long-standing cultural taboos against the mixing of the genders. Of course as soon as it opened, KAUST became a target for religious conservatives. Sheikh Saad Bin Naser al-Shethri, a member of Saudi's Supreme Committee of (Islamic) Scholars, demanded that women be barred from the university. In a rare blow for women's rights, King Abdullah turned around and sacked Shiekh al-Shethri from his position on the Supreme Committee.

So are conditions for women actually changing in Saudi Arabia? Not really. Just a couple of weeks after this tacit endorsement of women's rights in Saudi, a court in the city of Jeddah ordered that a female journalist receive 60 lashes for having been involved in a talk show that talked about, you know, s-e-x.

Journalist Rozana al-Yami received the sentence after LBC, a Saudi-owned Lebanese television network aired an episode of their popular talk show "Bold Red Line" where a Saudi man named Mazen Abdul Jawad talked about meeting Saudi women and having sex with them. For publicly bragging about "picking up chicks" Jawad was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and five years in jail.

What makes Rozana al-Yami's sentence more disturbing though is that there is no proof she was directly involved in the Jawad episode of "Bold Red Line", only that she worked part-time for the network, which according to the judge made her guilty enough to face the lash. Needless to say al-Yami's verdict is being seen as an attack on both women and journalists, and may also be a message to LBC's owner Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who is perhaps the most liberal and reform-minded member of the Saudi royals.

No matter how many progressive steps like the opening of KAUST Saudi Arabia takes it means nothing so long as sentences like the one against Rozana al-Yami continue to be handed out.
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Georgia: The Movie

Hollywood is descending on Georgia (the country, not the state) for a re-telling of last year's conflict with Russia over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In fact the project, titled simply "Georgia", will be the biggest-ever movie production in the southern Caucasus country - Renny Harlin, of "Die Hard 2" fame will direct and Andy Garcia will star as Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

The filmmakers insist that their movie won't be a propaganda piece and will carry a strong anti-war message. I'm a little suspicious though since the Georgians, according to media reports, are pulling out all the stops to help get this production made. Garcia has even met privately with Saakashvili and has been working hard to master his speech patterns and mannerisms. No word on whether this includes the Saakashvili method of nervously eating one's own tie as he was caught doing by the BBC in this clip:

The Georgian army has also loaned the film crew tanks and other equipment, while thousands of Georgians turned out to recreate the "victory" celebration of August 12th, 2008 that marked the declaration of a cease-fire with Russia.

And that brings us back to the propaganda uses of "Georgia". Saakashvili, on August 12th, painted the conflict as a victory for his country, even though Russian forces were fully in control of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, had advanced to within a couple dozen miles of Tbilisi and had sunk almost all of Georgia's navy. Saakashvili even spun last month's report on the war by the Council of Europe that debunked his two major claims - that Russia had started the conflict and had massed troops in South Ossetia for an invasion of Georgia - into a vindication of his actions. I'm sure no matter what story the movie "Georgia" tells, Saakashvili will again say it shows his country was the victim of Russian aggression.
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Saturday, October 24, 2009

China vs. the Somali Pirates

We haven't heard from the Somali pirates in awhile, but that could all change very soon.

On Wednesday the pirates seized a Chinese-owned cargo ship, an event that is remarkable in several ways. First, the ship - the De Xin Hai - unlike many pirate targets is really big, its carrying 76,000 tons of coal and has a crew of 25; second the De Xin Hai was captured by the pirates a whopping 700 miles off the coast of Somalia in the Indian Ocean, the farthest out to sea that the pirates have ever struck. But perhaps most remarkable was the reaction of the Chinese government, which quickly - and publicly - vowed to "make all-out efforts to rescue the hijacked ship and personnel.”

As of Friday the De Xin Hai was reported to be anchored off the coast of Somalia. Normally at this point in your standard hijacking middlemen in Somali pirate ports like the city of Eyl would start negotiating with the ship's owners for a ransom payment. But the Chinese public took their government's "all-out efforts" comments to heart and some are now burning up the blogosphere with demands that China take military action against the pirates, going so far as to say the Chinese can't "surrender" to the pirates and to do so would make China a "laughing stock" on the world stage.

China does have three warships on patrol off the coast of Somalia but whether they're equipped to launch a commando raid on the De Xin Hai is an open question. And there is a good chance that some or all of the crew may have been moved ashore, making a rescue operation all that more difficult. It will be interesting to see whether the Chinese stick to the traditional route of negotiations and ransom to get the De Xin Hai and her crew back or if they pick the military option.

Even though the Somali pirates have largely disappeared from the news in recent months, they've kept themselves busy. In fact there have been more pirate attacks in the first nine months of 2009 than during the same period in 2008. And the pirates have become more sophisticated, using large captured "mother ships" as a base for the small, speedy craft they use to attack their targets, allowing them to strike hundreds of miles off the coast of Somalia - far beyond the patrols of the flotilla of warships from nations around the world there to guard the shipping lanes.
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Friday, October 23, 2009

Galbraith, not Kerry, Responsible for Afghan Redux

My new post over at The Mantle is about President Hamid Karzai's decision to give up his opposition and accept a run-off in Afghanistan's election. While Senator John Kerry is being hailed as the deal-broker here for finally convincing the reluctant Karzai to do the right thing and submit to a run-off, I argue that the real credit should go to UN envoy Peter Galbraith.

Galbraith was the one who loudly sounded the alarm about the ridiculous levels of voter fraud in the Afghan election, and who kept complaining even after he was fired by the United Nations for publicly disagreeing with his boss, Kai Eide, the head of the Afghan mission, who seemed more than willing to let the fraudulent results of the vote stand. If it hadn't been for Galbraith's complaints, it's hard to imagine that Kerry would have been sent on his mission to Kabul in the first place.

You can read my whole post here.
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Speaking of Karzai...

Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that he finally accepted holding a run-off round in the country's disputed presidential election because to do otherwise would be "insulting democracy."

I guess that can only mean that Karzai thinks that stuffing ballot boxes, taking over polling stations and burning votes for opposition candidates aren't insults to democracy. He has an interesting point of view...
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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When Stalin Was "Uncle Joe"

According to Russia Today, the American World War II-era movie "Mission to Moscow" is finally being released on DVD. What makes "Mission to Moscow" different from the legions of other pieces of wartime propaganda churned out by Hollywood during WWII is that it was made in 1943 basically as a PR piece for Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

It's worth remembering that for a brief time in America in the 1940s, Stalin wasn't painted as the notorious Soviet dictator, but instead as "Uncle Joe" - our reliable Russian ally in the fight against Adolph Hitler. "Mission to Moscow", based loosely on the memoirs of United States' ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph E. Davies, was meant to help cement that view of Stalin in the minds of the average American, though even in 1943 one movie critic slammed "Mission" as a "love letter" to the Soviet leader. "Mission to Moscow" went as far as to frame Stalin's purges of his political enemies as an attempt to foil German plots to bring down his government.

"Mission to Moscow" had a different legacy after the war. Senator Joe McCarthy would use the movie's pro-Stalin message as "proof" that Hollywood had been infiltrated by Soviet agents during his anti-Communist crusade in the post-war era.
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The BBC Tackles the F-Word

If you listen to enough talk about politics or world affairs today, you're likely to hear the word "fascist" thrown about pretty freely, usually as an insult. But what exactly does the term "fascist" mean? The BBC Magazine tackles that question this week in their piece "What is a Fascist?"

And the simple answer is, there is no simple answer...The BBC traces the term fascist back to its roots in early 20th Century Italian politics and its popular usage today, as traditional Fascism has become conflated with the ideas of Nazisim, authoritarianism, and racism. It all makes for an interesting read, one worthwhile for the next time you hear someone called a fascist.
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Monday, October 19, 2009

Fox News "Expert" Shows She's Clueless On Russia, India

Every time I need inspiration to do this site I happen to see something like the the exchange I saw this morning between Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer and FNC "foreign policy expert" KT McFarland, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs and speech writer during the Reagan administration.

Bill and KT were breathlessly discussing the "breaking news" on Fox that the Russians were developing some kind of super-missile. I figured out that they were talking about the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, a weapon so secret that it has its own page on Wikipedia. Not only that, but this only counts as "breaking news" if this is, say, 2003 - India and Russia have jointly been developing, and now producing, the BrahMos for several years, in fact the missile is currently in service with the Indian military. Bill and KT wondered aloud why, since President Obama "reset" relations with the Russians, were they even developing new weapons in the first place? (Probably for the same reason the US, China, Great Britain, France, Israel, etc. keep developing new weapons systems...)

But KT wasn't done flaunting her ignorance yet. She went on to say that Russia now had a stranglehold on energy supplies to Europe thanks to their new Nord Stream and their second "southern" pipeline. The problem here is that construction on Nord Stream, which will run under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany, won't even start until next year. South Stream (the "southern" pipeline) is still on the drawing board and facing stiff competition from the Nabucco Pipeline (also still in the planning stages), which would link Central Asia and Europe, bypassing Russian territory entirely.

She then went on to chide Obama for cutting funding for the anti-ballistic missile shield bases in the Czech Republic and Poland, leaving us vulnerable to the new Russian super-missile (which the ABM system would have been useless against anyway since the BrahMos is a cruise missile that flies just meters above the ground, not a ballistic one that flies in a high, arching trajectory - the target of the ABM system). Finally she said (and Bill agreed) that India's decision to work with Russia on the BrahMos was because Obama had "weakened" America on the world stage - apparently ignorant of the fact that Russia (and before them the Soviet Union) had been a major arms supplier to India for decades, and that among other systems, Russia is in the process of supplying India with an aircraft carrier, and once the Nerpa completes its sea trials, a nuclear attack submarine.

That's an awful lot of misinformation to pack into just three minutes...Frankly, I don't blame Hemmer so much for this ridiculous segment - he's just a typical news channel talking head, someone who looks pleasant and can read a teleprompter, but who has no real knowledge about, well, anything. McFarland though is another matter. Someone who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs should know a little something about two of the world's larger military powers. Next time Fox News wants to put on an "expert" on foreign affairs, they should find someone who knows what they're talking about in the first place.
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Tensions On The Rise Between India and China

India and Pakistan have fought two wars over the disputed region of Kashmir, but it's worth remembering that India and China also have competing claims over some of the world's most hotly contested for lands. And lately, as AFP notes, tensions have been growing between the two rising Asian powers.

China is angry that India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paid a visit to the disputed India-China border in Kashmir earlier in the month and that India will allow Beijing's nemesis, the Dalai Lama, to visit Kashmir in a few weeks. India, meanwhile, is upset that China is underwriting the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.

India said they hope China will take a "long view" of India-China relations and not build the dam in what they see as Indian land being illegally occupied by Pakistan. India and China fought a brief war over Kashmir in 1962. We're pretty far from a repeat of that, but it's worth noting that tensions over Kashmir aren't just an India-Pakistan affair.
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Friday, October 16, 2009

Did Italian Bribes Kill French Troops?

Though it hasn't gotten much attention on this side of the Atlantic, France and Italy are in the middle of a huge diplomatic fight over a British report that Italian bribery led to the deaths of French troops in Afghanistan.

The Times of London reported earlier in the week that in order to make their lives easier last year, Italian troops stationed in the Sarobi district of Afghanistan simply paid local Taliban tribes not to attack them. The arrangement worked out well and Sarobi was fairly quiet and calm. The problem was that when the Italian troops rotated out of Sarobi, they failed to tell the incoming French troops replacing them about their little side-deal with the Taliban. The French, thinking Sarobi was well pacified, let their guard down. Last August, Taliban forces staged a massive ambush against the French forces who weren't paying them not to fight, ten French paratroopers were killed and 21 others injured in an incident that shocked France.

The French are now furious that the Italians would basically set them up by letting them believe Sarobi was a calm region of Afghanistan. Of course the Italians have been tripping over themselves to deny any such arrangement with the Taliban existed. But in an editorial today The Times is sticking to its story, adding that since they published their first account, both a Taliban leader and Afghan government officials have confirmed that Italian forces in other parts of Afghanistan paid insurgents not to attack them.

But no one should be too shocked that such an arrangement could exist, Afghan militias are notoriously malleable in their allegiances - they are quick to switch over to a winning, or paying, side. And this strategy is being pushed by some pundits and strategists as a way of quelling the Taliban in Afghanistan. A similar approach was used in Iraq - part of the much-praised "Surge" by US forces involved paying Sunni tribal leaders not to fight against the US or the fragile Iraqi government (something we spun as the "Anbar Awakening" as the Sunni militias put down their guns).

Nathan Hodge over at the Danger Room blog though warns that the "bribe the tribes" approach has some flaws. The Sunni tribal militias in Iraq, which were suppose to have been absorbed into Iraq's national security forces recently balked after one of their leaders was arrested; it seems that bribery can only buy so much loyalty after all. And, Hodge points out, Iraq has a steady stream of oil revenue to pay for their bribes, something the impoverished Afghanistan lacks. Not to mention if you're going to engage in a cash-for-peace deal it would be nice to let your allies know what you're doing, a point France is making rather loudly these days.

The whole affair is reminding me of the character Milo Minderbinder, from Joseph Heller's WW2 novel Catch-22. Minderbinder was a US Army officer and small-time hustler who through some ridiculous business deals built up an empire while at an American airbase in occupied Italy. At one point Minderbinder is hired by the Germans to bomb his own airbase so that they won't have to. It was a vignette that Heller meant to show the futility of war, it's also something you could almost imagine happening in Afghanistan.
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Say It Ain't So, Josef

On Tuesday the grandson of Josef Stalin had his lawsuit thrown out of a Moscow courtroom, he was trying to sue a Russian newspaper for slander on behalf of the memory of his grandfather, the notorious Soviet dictator. In my newest post over at The Mantle I talk about the lawsuit, Russia's continuing fascination with (and for many admiration of) Stalin, and what all of this could mean for the future of democracy there.
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Work Resumes on "Worst Building in History"

Reports from North Korea are that work has now resumed on the Ryugyong Hotel after a mere 16 year break in construction. Conceived as the signature piece of Pyongyang's skyline, when (or if) completed, the Ryugyong Hotel will stand 1,083 feet tall with 105 stories, including an eight-story rotating section near the top slated to house a restaurant.

The pyramid shaped building has also been dubbed by one magazine "the worst building in the history of mankind." (Other nicknames include the "Hotel of Doom" and the "Phantom Hotel" in the belief it will never actually be finished) The Ryugyong is colossally ugly, it looks something like a giant lawn dart standing on end, but check out the picture to judge for yourself. And in addition to being incredibly ugly, the Ryugyong has also been incredibly expensive to build, cost estimates have been at three quarters of a billion dollars, 2% of North Korea's entire Gross Domestic Product. The main reason the Ryugyong lay fallow for so many years is that the North Koreans simply had no money to continue its construction.

But now an Egyptian firm, Orascom Telecom, has stepped forward to fund the completion of the Ryugyong - apparently part of a deal to also build a wireless 3G network in North Korea (Orascom is obviously banking on the day when North Korea is no longer an international pariah state). For their part, North Korea seems interested in finally getting the hotel finished as part of the preparations for 2012 - the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, their founding father and actual father of North Korea's current leader, Kim Jong Il.
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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Russian Auto Industry In A Skid

Parallels are often drawn between the Russian city of Togliatti, home of the massive AvtoVAZ automotive manufacturing plant that churns out Russia's most popular domestic car, the Lada, and America's Detroit. Now Togliatti is facing a Detroit-style problem - the prospect of massive layoffs in response to a steep drop in auto sales.

Togliatti has around 700,000 residents, the AvtoVAZ plant employs over 100,000 people; but now AvtoVAZ is in the process of shedding 20,000 jobs and that has Togliatti in a spin. Workers at the AvtoVAZ plant are warning of strikes and public protests if the company goes through with the layoffs and that prospect has officials in Moscow - never a fan of mass protests - worried.

Auto sales in Russia are projected to plunge by up to 50% this year in the wake of the ongoing financial recession. In an effort to bolster the domestic car industry, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin slapped a 50% tariff on foreign-made cars sold in Russia. That move sparked a wave of protests last December in Russia's Far East port of Vladivostok, where there was a thriving cottage industry in buying used cars in Japan and reselling them across Russia. Many Russians preferred to buy used Japanese cars rather than new Russian domestic ones, claiming the quality of the used foreign models exceeded that of the new home-built ones.

And that gets to what critics say is AvtoVAZ's bigger problem - that they are stuck in the Soviet past, their factory is inefficient and unable to compete with more modern automobile manufacturing plants. While other auto manufacturers rely on sub-contractors to supply many of the myriad of parts that go into building a car, AvtoVAZ has a sprawling complex that covers hundreds of acres and churns out most of what's needed to assemble a Lada - an inefficient way of doing things, critics say.

Meanwhile, layoffs loom for AvtoVAZ and Togliatti wonders what will happen next.
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A History of Terrorism (and an odd conicidence)

Last Thursday the Magazine section of the BBC News' site published a very interesting piece that asked if Emile Henry was the first terrorist of the modern age.

Mr. Henry was convicted and executed in 1894 for tossing a bomb into the crowded, upscale Terminus Cafe in Paris, killing one and wounding 20 others. Henry was an anarchist. He said at trial that his action was driven by his "hatred for the ruling classes"; the year before another Henry bomb had killed five French policemen. Henry's change in targets - a cafe rather than policemen - in part prompted the question on whether he was the first "modern" terrorist; someone hoping to use carnage among innocents to further their cause. Henry was said to have passed up several other cafes along the Avenue de l'Opera before selecting the Terminus Cafe because they were not sufficiently crowded.

The BBC story makes for an interesting read, but the odd coincidence comes into play here. Three days after the BBC piece appeared, the Huffington Post published "The World's First 'Terrorists'," by writer Johann Hari, the first third of which recounts the story of Emile Henry told just days earlier on the BBC. Hari's piece goes on to also talk about American anarchists before going on to compare and contrast anarchist terror movements of the 19th century to global terrorism today.

Like the BBC piece, Hari's article is quite interesting and his telling of the Henry story is different from the BBC's. Still, it is odd that two pieces about an obscure French anarchist from more than 100 years ago should appear in print just days apart.
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Monday, October 12, 2009

Time to Bury the "Graveyard of Empires"

My latest post over at The Mantle deals with a bit of wrong-headed conventional wisdom surrounding Afghanistan. Often referred to as "the graveyard of empires" for its role in bringing down Alexander the Great, the British Raj and Soviet Union - it makes for a great soundbite, unfortunately the facts don't back up the rhetoric.
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Opponents Cry Foul in Russian Elections

A quick follow-up to yesterday's post on the regional elections in Russia. The results were just about as expected, with United Russia - the party of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin - winning the vast majority of seats. The Communists, one of the "Kremlin-approved" opposition parties came in second in many races.

The AFP notes that the worst results for opponents of the ruling party came in Moscow, where the liberal Yabloko Party failed to even get 7% of the vote, the threshold parties needed to reach in order to win seats in the city legislature. That Yabloko failed to get even 7% of the vote in Russia's largest, and perhaps most-liberal city was seen as a crisis for the opposition.

They also say it is a clear indication that the voting was rigged in favor of United Russia and Kremlin-approved candidates. Before voting started a collection of opposition groups, led by politician Boris Nemtsov, said the elections wouldn't be fair since many opposition candidates were disqualified before the voting even began. Russia's independent election monitoring group GOLOS cited reports from across the country of opposition candidates being blocked from the ballots and of people - especially people involved with state-run schools or large corporations with government ties - facing pressure to support the "right" candidates. A widely-reported tactic from Russia's last major election was that students were told to use their cellphones to take a picture of their ballot before casting it as a way of proving they had voted as instructed.

Golos said that reports of such incidents did not "allow us to conclude that the elections met Russian and international standards for fair, free and competitive elections."

Meanwhile in the one race we were keeping an eye on the "Russian Obama", Joaquim Crima, fell short in his bid to win a seat on a regional council in the Volgograd Region, in fact he fell far short. Crima won just 4.75% of the vote, well short of the winning candidate's 40%, though good enough for third place in a seven-candidate field. Still, Crima said he was "pleasantly surprised" by his showing and said he never expected to gather nearly 5% of the vote. He ran on a platform that the government was not providing enough in social services to the rural communities outside of Volgograd.

People of African ancestry make up just a small fraction of one percent of Russia's total population. In recent years they have been the target of violent, racist attacks in many Russian cities.
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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Nuclear Free Follies

Apparently part of the rationale behind awarding Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize was to support his efforts at ridding the world of nuclear weapons. This has been a theme in some of his keynote speeches as President, like his address to the United Nations last month; other commentators like Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund have regularly been campaigning for a nuclear-free world he specifically in numerous posts at the Huffington Post.

But on this topic, I'll defer to Rush - the band, not the blowhard. Their song about the development of the nuclear bomb "Manhattan Project" contains this line, which I think sums up the current debate nicely:
The big shots tried to hold it back,
Fools tried to wish it away...

I don't mean to imply that Obama, Cirincione and others in the disarmament campaign are fools, but they are pursuing a goal they'll never attain. Mind you, I wish that disarmament would happen, I remember as a child being scared witless by the movie "The Day After", a made-for-TV film on ABC that showed the aftermath of a limited nuclear war by following a collection of average people in Kansas. An estimated 100 million people watched that movie, even Ronald Reagan said the effects of nuclear war depicted in the film left him feeling "greatly depressed." So yeah, I'd love to see a world free of nukes, I just know that it won't ever happen.

As for the why, let's take a quick look at the world's nuclear powers, starting with Russia. Russia sees itself as one of the world's great powers, but its military is a shell of the mighty Red Army thanks to a couple of decades of neglect and underfunding. The one area where Russia can still claim superpower status though is in its nuclear forces, estimated to be either the world's first or second largest nuclear arsenal depending on the source you use. Russia will agree to reductions in their nuclear forces - largely because they have thousands of warheads nearing or past their effective lifespans that need replacement - the fewer they need to replace, the more money they will save. It's naive to think though that the Russian military will totally give up the one thing that makes them a formidable force.

Then there's India and Pakistan, two nations which in their post-British Empire history have fought three wars, though none since Pakistan officially became a nuclear power in 1998. The two states are mutually suspicious of each other, therefore it's again naive to think either side would believe claims that the other had disarmed, thus it's impossible to imagine either giving up their arsenal.

China views both India and Russia as potential competitors for influence among the nations of Central Asia, so it's hard to imagine the Chinese giving up their nukes so long as Russia and/or India keep theirs (or so long as the United States has its arsenal). And then there's Israel, a country that won't even admit to having nuclear weapons in the first place. Israel's nukes are their ace up the sleeve - a last resort should they ever face another Six Day War scenario, where a pan-Arab army is moving against them on several fronts. Israeli planning dictates that if such a conflict were going badly, it could be quickly ended by use of nuclear weapons (it's also the reason they're so dead set against Iran ever getting the bomb).

So there you have Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel - five nuclear powers all of whom, despite what the anti-proliferation side argues, will never totally give up their nukes since each will argue giving up nuclear weapons will leave them weaker in the face of potential adversaries. And don't think the Pentagon will sign off on a plan to eliminate America's nuclear arsenal either, so long as a half-dozen or so countries are keeping theirs - or that a president will order the Pentagon to fully disarm under those circumstances, no matter how many Nobel Prizes they're awarded.

And there's something the disarmament proponents never discuss, let's call it the Japan Option, which is this: just because you get rid of all your nuclear weapons, that doesn't mean that you immediately forget how to make more. While Japan isn't a nuclear state, it's generally admitted by the folks in the nuclear weapons field that Japan could have a nuclear arsenal if they wanted one: Japanese industries produce some of the world's most advanced electronics, while decades of using nuclear power have left Japan with several tons of plutonium, a by-product of operating nuclear power plants, and also the raw material of choice for making an A-bomb.

Let's imagine for a moment then that tomorrow we were to wake up and all of the world's nuclear arsenals had disappeared. The bombs might be gone, but the knowledge of how to make them would not. And it's hard to believe that some country wouldn't start up production again, especially if they thought it would give them a quick advantage over everyone else.

The nuclear genie is long out of the bottle and sadly she can't be stuffed back in. It would be great to think there could be a world where a city might not be snuffed out in the glow of a mushroom cloud, but realistically that's not the world in which we live. There are some huge issues facing the world, one's that need the international community to come together to address. Maybe it would be best then for our leaders to focus on the problems they can solve, rather than ones - like nuclear disarmament - that they can't.
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Russia Votes, Opposition Cries Foul

Voting is underway across much of Russia for seats on city and regional councils, but already opposition groups are declaring the elections fraudulent.

A collection of opposition groups rallied in the streets of Moscow, led by politician Boris Nemtsov, on Sunday to protest the city-wide elections. Earlier this year Nemtsov lost badly to the Kremlin-backed candidate in the mayor's election in his hometown of Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Nemtsov alleged that his supporters were harassed and that he was denied access to the media, part of a Kremlin plan to get their man elected mayor so they could control the preparations for the Games.

Moscow officials denied any wrongdoing in today's vote, saying that vote-rigging was a crime. Critics countered by saying there was no need to actually rig votes, city officials made sure that any opposition candidates - except for Kremlin-approved opposition parties like the Communists or Liberal Democrats, parties with limited popular support and thus no real threat to United Russia, the party of Medvedev and Putin - were disqualified from the election and never appeared on the ballot in the first place.

Results should come in tomorrow. One race we'll keep an eye on is in the Volgograd region where African immigrant Joachim "Vasily" Crima is trying to become Russia's first black elected politician.
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Black Hawks Caged in Moscow

A court in Moscow last week sentenced six members of a gang to several years in jail for an ethnically-motivated assault in the Moscow Metro. Sadly, that in itself isn't all that newsworthy - in the past decade Moscow, and other Russian cities, have seen a dramatic spike in what we'd call in America "white supremacist" groups and gangs attacking ethnic minorities, particularly people from former Soviet republics in southeastern Europe and central Asia and Africans. What makes the case of the "Black Hawks" gang different is that its members are young Muslim men from the Caucasus region and that they attacked two ethnic Russian students.

The court case marked the first time an ethnic gang was prosecuted for attacking Russians, not the other way around. The members of the Black Hawks were accused of luring the two men to the subway to assault them; they filmed the attack and posted it on the Internet, which led to their arrests.

But the lawyers arguing in defense of the Black Hawks said the case isn't that simple. They say the two victims themselves were members of a skinhead gang and that the meeting had been planned by both sides, only this time the skinheads got the worse end of the meeting. They also argued that the Black Hawks "gang" really was just a collection of young men with a common ancestry who otherwise barely knew each other.

Whether or not the Black Hawks are the start of a new chapter in race relations in Russia remains to be seen, but the emergence of gangs like them wouldn't be a surprise. In America groups like the Italian Mafia, Chinese Tongs and even Latino gangs in California all had their roots as men within a then-oppressed ethnic group banding together for self-protection.
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Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama's Nobel Prize? (and an honor for Bill Clinton too)

I'll admit, I was pretty surprised to wake up this morning to hear that President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize. It's nice to know that he was pretty surprised himself.

Don't get me wrong, I think Obama, in broad terms, is on the right path in International Affairs: his multilateral approach to world affairs is correct - no single power dominates the world and future cooperation will depend on building coalitions to tackle global problems; I agree with his calls in Ghana and at the United Nations for countries to work together on common problems and for people around the world to hold their governments accountable fpr their actions (or inactions); he's right to try to "reset" relations with Russia; and while I think trying to rid the world of nuclear weapons is a pipe-dream, the goal at least is a nice one.

But I have to wonder what the Nobel Committee was thinking - Obama has great promise (their rationale in giving him the Prize), but little concrete success so far. Historically the Nobel Peace Prize has gone to people or groups in recognition of a past success, like when Menachem Begin and Mohamed Anwar Al-Sadat won in 1978 for signing the historic peace deal between Israel and Egypt, not to people for what they may do in the future.

And as Obama was getting his Nobel Peace Prize, former President Bill Clinton was getting an award of his own - a giant statue of himself to be unveiled in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. The Kosovars hail Clinton as the man who convinced NATO to launch an aerial bombing campaign against Serbia, bringing to an end what the Kosovars say was a Serbian genocide against them and eventually setting the stage for them to declare independence from Serbia.

No word yet on whether Clinton will travel to Kosovo to see his likeness unveiled.
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Is Canada's Biggest Problem America?

That's the question asked in this week's issue of Canada's weekly news magazine, Macleans. In their piece "Canada’s biggest problem? America", writer Luiza Ch. Savage runs through a list of issues rankling the Canadians, including: increased security along the world's longest de-militarized border, growing protectionism in trade agreements (especially "buy American" clauses in government contracts), and restrictions on Canadian airlines operating charter flights within the United States (which threatened to disrupt the National Hockey League season).

Canada thought that the “special relationship” between our two countries suffered under George W. Bush, as his presidency was consumed more and more by the War on Terror. Prime Minister Stephen Harper hoped things would improve under Obama, but so far his government hasn’t seen much of a change in key policies.

Some political analysts cited in the Macleans piece say issues like increased border security obscure the deep nature of the relationship between the two countries including being each other’s largest trading partners. Still, it seems like our neighbors (or neighbours) to the north aren’t too happy with us these days.
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How Not To Help The Uighurs

A high-ranking al-Qaeda official is describing the recent ethnic unrest in China's northwestern Xinjiang province as the beginning of a holy war against the Chinese government. Abu Yahia Al-Libi called on China's Muslim Uighur (or Uyghur) population to conduct a "jihad" against the authorities in Beijing. Two quick thoughts:

First, Beijing doesn't need an excuse to crackdown on the Uighurs. Following riots this July in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, between Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese, more than 1,000 Uighurs were arrested. But few Han were detained - and you would think in a riot between to groups you'd have a somewhat equal distribution in arrests... Uighur activists, meanwhile, say that in reality thousands of Uighurs were picked up by police and haven't been seen since.

The Uighurs accuse the Chinese government of carrying out a cultural genocide against them. They point to the Chinese government closing Uighur mosques and schools, arresting their clerics, suppressing the use of their language and engaging in a policy of mass migration - moving tens of thousands of Han Chinese into Xinjiang - in order to make the Uighurs a minority within their own historic homeland. In turn, the Chinese have long charged the Uighurs of being separatists and claim (by way of justifying some of their oppression)that they have links to al-Qaeda - a charge that China has never really been able to back up and a reason why Al-Libi's statement is potentially very bad for the future of the Uighurs in Xinjiang.

Second, tensions between Beijing and the Uighurs have been running high for some time now, the riots in July were an expression of those feelings. So in a way Al-Libi's statement seems like a case of the tail wagging the dog: he calls on the Uighurs to engage in a jihad, knowing that the unrest between them and Beijing will probably continue (and may get worse if Beijing decides to use Al-Libi as an excuse for further oppression), then where there is more fighting between them, Al-Libi can say "see they are heeding al-Qaeda's call!"

I hope cooler heads will prevail in the face of this ridiculous, self-serving terrorist's statement; but I doubt they will.
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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Know Your Next War: Somalia

First an announcement, in addition to the blog here, I am now also contributing to The Mantle, a forum for progressive critique, and all-around fascinating site covering books, films, society, culture, as well as hosting discussions on important topics of the day.

My first post is on Somalia and how there's a growing chance that it will wind up as America's next war. The reason? A growing Islamic insurgency, Somalia's status as a failed state, and political pressure on President Obama to "act tough" in the arena of foreign affairs. You can check out the whole post, "Know Your Next War: Somalia", at The Mantle.
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Small Island Nations Blast Climate Change Inaction

In December the nations of the world will gather in Copenhagen for the UN Climate Change Conference to hammer out a new agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions and hopefully reduce the impact of global warming. But already the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) is saying that any agreement in Copenhagen won't be enough to keep the sea from swallowing their native lands.

This week at a pre-Copenhagen meeting in Bangkok, AOSIS was pushing for a commitment to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade, rather than the 2C goal likely to be the outcome of the Copenhagen agreement. Their plea fell on deaf ears. "It's really setting up Copenhagen for failure or an inadequate result," said Leon Charles, the chairman of the AOSIS negotiating team. Two degrees, AOSIS argues, won't be enough to save their island nations.

The average elevation on many of the islands of members of AOSIS is less than two meters (a little over six feet for those of you not metrically inclined), so even a small rise in sea levels would have a devastating effect on the AOSIS nations. Already one AOSIS member, The Maldives, has set up a Sovereign Wealth Fund to buy a new homeland for the nation's 350,000 residents the day their Indian Ocean nation becomes uninhabitable. But for other AOSIS members, buying a new homeland is not an option either financially or culturally - many of the island peoples feel a deep bond to their land, the 12,000 Tuvaluan (natives of the tiny Pacific island nation of Tuvalu) say they would cease to be “Tuvaluan” if forced to leave their ancestral home.

Meanwhile, in an effort to highlight the coming effects of rising sea levels, President Mohammed Nasheed of The Maldives is convening the October 17th meeting of his Cabinet 20 feet underwater. The point of the meeting will be to sign a decree calling on all nations to slash carbon emissions ahead of the Copenhagen meetings in December.

A dramatic stunt? Sure it is, but the AOSIS would argue that dramatic action is needed if they have any hope of saving their homelands.
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Cultural Milestone in Canada

That Hockey Night in Canada hired former NHL goaltender Kevin Weekes as a commentator for their TV broadcasts isn't particularly noteworthy, what is noteworthy is that Weekes is Black and that this marks the first time that a person of color has had a regular role on Canada's most popular sports broadcast.

Sports Illustrated notes that the CBC's Hockey Night in Canada is a national institution, but it is also a fairly conservative one (aside from commentator Don Cherry's flamboyant sports coats). Therefore the inclusion of Weekes, the son of immigrant parents from Barbados, is a nod to the changing face of Canada, an admission of how the country is quickly becoming a multi-ethnic land thanks to liberal immigration policies. As SI notes: "the broadcast booth will look a little more like Canada once Weekes...makes his regular season debut Thursday."

And to any doubters out there, the CBC insists Weekes earned his job on merit, thanks to a fantastic audition tape calling a mock game. Weekes played in the NHL for twelve seasons and appeared in the 2002 Stanley Cup Finals with the Carolina Hurricanes.
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Monday, October 5, 2009

Norway Tops List For Best Life

Want to have a happy life? Then according to the United Nations, you should move to Norway.

The Scandinavian country topped the latest Human Development Index, compiled by the United Nations Development Program. The HDI tries to quantify "quality of life" by looking at factors like life expectancy, literacy rates, school enrollment and per capita gross domestic product in 182 countries around the world. Norway topped the list, followed by Australia and Iceland - though the UNDP notes that the latest HDI was based on data from 2007, before the global recession and the collapse of Iceland's financial industry sector that led to the nation's bankruptcy late in 2008.

In case you're wondering, the United States finished 13th, while Niger had the dubious honor of coming in dead last.

Overall, UNDP said that since starting the HDI in 1980, they've seen an average growth of 15% in individual nation's scores, meaning the quality of life around the globe, in very broad terms, is improving. China, Nepal and Iran have shown the greatest long-term HDI improvement.
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Saturday, October 3, 2009

Rio Wins the Olympics, is India Next?

So you've probably heard by now that Rio de Janeiro won the rights to host the 2016 Summer Olympics yesterday, despite a last-minute appearance by Barack Obama on behalf of America’s entry, Chicago. And you've probably also heard that the President's critics are slamming him for not bringing the games to Chicago, saying it's a sign of his ebbing political fortunes both at home and abroad.

Politics did play a huge role in the selection of Rio as the host city, but the critics are wrong - Obama had nothing to do with Chicago getting, or not getting, the Games, instead the selection of Rio is best seen as the product of the International Olympic Committee's own bizarre internal politics.

Going into the vote, the folks from Chicago were actually worried that, despite having a strong bid, they'd lose in the first round. Why? Because of geography. IOC members tend to support host cities in their neighborhoods, so the Europeans were expected to back Madrid; the Asians, Tokyo; and the South Americans (and likely Africans), Rio. That left Chicago without a real base of geographic support, and their fears of a first-round exit came to pass.

Meanwhile, Juan Antonio Samaranch - the powerful former head of the IOC and the man largely responsible during his two decades of leadership for transforming the Olympics from a quaint quadrennial sporting event into a marketing and merchandising juggernaut - made a personal plea on behalf of his hometown, Madrid, a factor that is probably responsible for Madrid making it to the final round of voting.

And there were other factors at play. The Huffington Post ran a piece suggesting that some IOC members voted against Chicago because of the United States' tough visa regime post 9/11. An IOC member from Pakistan was quoted as saying coming into the US these days for a foreigner can be "a harrowing experience" because of strict visa requirements. Finally, there is a long-running dispute between the IOC and USOC over issues of private funding for the Games as well as sharing television revenues that likely soured some voters on Chicago’s bid.

But the biggest factor working against Chicago was simply that there was a huge desire within the IOC to continue their commitment towards bringing the Games to new parts of the world, and South America (and with the exception of Australia, the entire Southern Hemisphere for that matter) has never before hosted an Olympics Games. This was a fact played up by the Rio delegation, who passed out maps before the vote showing the locations of previous Games - North America and Western Europe were well-covered, the were a few cities highlighted in Asia, but starkly none in South America. While Olympic votes are usually close-fought things, in the final round Rio won by a 2-to-1 margin.

My prediction is now that Rio has won the rights to the 2016 Games, look for India to make a serious push to bring the 2020 Games to Delhi (the 2020 Games will be awarded in the summer of 2011). India is now the only one of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China - the countries seen as having the largest, most-dynamic emerging economies in the world) not to be selected to host an Olympics. Last year China used the Beijing Games as a national coming out party, a chance to show the world China had arrived as a major industrial and cultural power. Russia will use the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi as a similar showcase for their rise from the collapse of the Soviet Union, of course Rio 2016 will be Brazil's chance to show that they too have arrived among the 'First World' of nations. It only follows then that India will be eager to show that they too belong in the club, and in the 21st century, there’s no bigger way of showing that then to host the Olympics.
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Help Afghanistan, Pay Taxes

Even though the international community has poured billions of dollars worth of aid into Afghanistan since the end of Taliban rule eight years ago, the country remains one of the most desperately poor places on Earth. In yesterday's New York Times, Peter Bergen and Sameer Lalwani proposed a novel solution to the problem - let Afghanistan tax foreign aid workers.

Like foreign troops, the presence of foreign aid workers in their country is a sore point for many Afghanis. Primarily, they question what exactly is the benefit these foreigners are bringing to their country. As the authors of the NYT piece point out foreign 'technical advisors' are well paid for their efforts, making on average $9,000 to $20,000 per month - for comparison, their Afghani counterparts often earn less than $1,000 per year. Thanks to these salaries, some estimates say that 40% of the foreign aid sent to Afghanistan then quickly leaves the country in the pockets of foreign advisors.

So, Bergen and Lalwani ask, why not let the Afghanis tax the huge salaries of these consultants? Afghanistan's top tax bracket is only 20%, yet the authors say a levy against foreign advisor's salaries could generate nearly a half-billion per year in revenues for Afghanistan - nearly double the government's current haul from taxation. But more than that, it could also help Afghanis to think that foreign advisors are in their country to do more than just earn a quick buck.
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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Obama, Gorbachev and Afghanistan

In the New Yorker's "Think Tank" blog, Steve Coll argues that President Obama's emerging Afghanistan policy is starting to look a lot like an earlier one - no not "the Surge" strategy from Iraq, but rather former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's 1980s plan on getting the Soviets out of what has come to be seen as "their Vietnam."

Gorbachev's strategy was to fight insurgents along the Afghan/Pakistan border, move Soviet troops into the major cities, try to put an "Afghan" face on military operations in the countryside and to reach out to elements among the insurgents open to negotiation (now doesn't all of that sound familiar?).

Coll goes on to say that Gorbachev had a bigger vision than just getting the Soviets out of an unpopular, costly war; he hoped to push for a global solution to the regional problem of instability in South Asia - Gorbachev wanted to have the United Nations lead talks aimed at stabilizing governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan that would isolate Islamic extremists. And who was opposed to such a reasonable idea? The United States, which continued to support the mujaheddin in Afghanistan against the government of Soviet ally President Najibullah. And the rest is history: Najibullah was deposed, a civil war among mujaheddin warlords wracked Afghanistan for most of the 1990s clearing the way for the Taliban to take power and eventually turn the country into al-Qaeda's safe haven.

Things could have turned out so much differently...
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