Sunday, May 30, 2010

Youssou N' Dour’s World Of Politics

Famed Senegalese recording artist Youssou N' Dour turned up in an expected place last week – on the border between Georgia and its breakaway republic Abkhazia. N’Dour didn’t just show up there on a whim of course, he appeared as part of an all-star concert meant to bring attention to the estimated 350,000 Georgian refugees from Abkhazia and Georgia’s other aspiring independent state, South Ossetia. Known officially as “internally displaced persons”, these Georgians were driven from their homes due to ethnic fighting with the Abkhaz and Ossetians, in some cases dating back to the early 90s when the two provinces first made their bids for independence from Georgia. The concert dubbed “Music Without Walls” brought together musicians from around the world in a show to promote the idea of reconciliation between the different ethnic groups – and with the blessing of Georgia’s government.

But this isn’t N’Dour’s first foray into politics. Earlier this month The Guardian reported that N’Dour had joined a political platform with some of his native Senegal’s leading opposition politicians. The move was a drastic change for N’Dour, who once had been a close ally of President Abdoulaye Wade. Their relationship soured in 2006 when a newspaper owned by N’Dour (who has invested in media projects in Senegal that include newspapers and a world-class recording studio) criticized Wade’s son for his alleged involvement in a money-laundering scheme. President Wade felt that N’Dour shouldn’t have let his newspaper print such a story; N’Dour though actually believes in journalistic ethics: “I own a media group and trust the journalists who work for it. It is not my role to control what they write.” His relationship with Wade quickly deteriorated. Like many other Senegalese, N’Dour now believes that Wade is grooming his son to succeed him – transforming Senegal from a democracy to a family-run autocracy in the process.

“I get the feeling the president hears only in mono, these days, not in stereo,” N’Dour told The Guardian. “He has removed those who told him the truth.”
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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Canada’s Faux Clean Oil Alternative

Government officials in Canada apparently are hoping that the uproar over the ongoing, oil-spill fueled ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico will provide a boost to their domestic petroleum industry. Canada’s Environment Minister Jim Prentice was quoted in MacLean’s magazine as saying that environmental risks from Alberta’s oil sands were “probably less than the kind of risks associated with offshore drilling.” In other words, getting oil by mining the plains of Alberta is better for Mother Earth than drilling holes in the Gulf seabed.

But as we explained in this post from last year, even when everything goes right, getting petroleum from Alberta’s oil sands is a very, very dirty process. As you might have assumed from the name, the oil sands are vast tracts in northern Canada where oil has been locked into soil deposits near the surface of the Earth. Rather than drilling wells, the oil sands are strip mined from the Alberta plains; but that is only the start of the process. The sands are then cooked down to release a sludge, which is refined into crude oil, which can then be refined again into gasoline or other petroleum products. The refining generates a lot of air pollution, the mining scars the plains and according to the indigenous Cree First Nation tribes who call the oil sands region home, the rise of the oil sands industry has caused a spike in cancer among their people.

Demand for oil sands-sourced petroleum has been growing in recent years – last year the US government agreed to build the “Alberta Clipper” pipeline that, when completed, will bring 800,000 barrels of oil sands oil into the United States every day; demand has also grown from Europe as well. For now, Canadian government officials are happy to promote the oil sands as a spill-free petroleum alternative, meanwhile environmental groups like Greenpeace plan to step up their campaign against the oil sands, noting that one of the biggest investors in Alberta’s oil industry in recent years has been BP.
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Thursday, May 27, 2010

You Too Can Be A Hungarian Citizen

Hungary just passed a new citizenship law that could add millions to their population; the problem is that those millions of potential new Hungarians are already citizens of neighboring countries.

Hungarian politics took a dramatic swing to the right last month as the center-right Fidesz Party won two-thirds of the seats in parliament; the new citizenship law is the culmination of a campaign pledge made by Fidesz – it allows anyone to claim Hungarian citizenship, so long as they can prove they are of Hungarian descent and can speak the language. But this new citizenship law has Hungary’s neighbors fuming. Ninety years ago, in the wake of their defeat during World War I, Hungary was forced to give up two-thirds of their territory, land that is now part of Slovakia, Serbia, Ukraine and Romania. It’s estimated that as many as three million ethnic Hungarians still live in these nations, people who can now claim Hungarian citizenship. Prime Minister Robert Fico of Slovakia said the law, which could affect a half-million people in his country, poses a severe security threat to Slovakia. His parliament is already considering a law that would strip the Slovakian citizenship from any of their ethnic Hungarians who take advantage of the new law.

The new citizenship law isn’t the only cause for concern in Europe over the new Hungarian government. Along with Fidesz, another far-right party, Jobbik, had an unexpectedly strong showing, gathering 16% of the vote in April’s elections. Jobbik (officially the Movement for a Better Hungary) is described by their critics as a “neo-fascist” party and includes a paramilitary wing that dresses in black uniforms reminiscent of the WWII-era uniforms worn by Hungarian fascists at the time. Though the wearing of the uniforms was banned by Hungary’s constitutional court last year, Jobbik supporters broke them out for the April election campaign. Among the items in Jobbik’s platform are calls for the restoration of “Greater Hungary” (the pre-WWI borders) and a scapegoating of Hungary’s Roma (or Gypsy) population for many of Hungary’s social ills, like street crime and high unemployment rates.

Fidesz picked up Jobbik’s anti-Roma mantle during the campaign, promising to “keep a closer eye” on Hungary’s estimated 500,000-800,000 Roma as part of their “law and order” platform. This, not surprisingly, has Hungary’s Roma on edge, fearing that they could become the target of ethnic violence, especially at the hands of Jobbik’s uniformed paramilitaries. Roma leaders in Hungary say that instead of more police scrutiny, their population really needs better access to jobs and education. Hungary’s Communist government supplied the Roma with plentiful low-skilled jobs, jobs that have disappeared since the collapse of Communism. The Roma have an unemployment rate that is at least double that of ethnic Hungarians.
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Graham Greene’s Sierra Leone Escape

Some of the best behind-the-scenes international reporting can be found in the BBC’s “From Our Own Correspondent” series; case in point, this story on the fall of Graham Greene’s favorite African hotel (and if you’re not familiar with Greene’s works, go now and pick up a copy of Our Man in Havana or The Quiet American). Once “The City” hotel in Freetown, Sierra Leone was the hub for life among a community of ex-pats living out the last days of colonialism in West Africa. But, for “Correspondent” writer Tim Butcher, the hotel’s decline and eventual fall is an allegory for the strife and civil war that have plagued Sierra Leone since the end of colonial rule. The City went into decline after the death of its long-time owner; eventually the building ended its life as a brothel before being consumed by a fire in 2000. Butcher, a Greene fan, traveled to Freetown hoping to find a link to the writer’s past, instead he found only a pile of rubble.

Check out his engaging report, here.
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Japan’s PM Sparks Fashion Row

The rise of Yukio Hatoyama to the role of Prime Minister seemed to signal a seismic shift in Japanese politics last year, ending nearly a half-century of Conservative rule in the country, but now even his choice of shirts is drawing criticism from the Japanese public. At issue now is the multi-color check shirt that he recently wore to a barbecue (pictured at right), one Japanese designer even asked: “is anyone able to stop him wearing such a thing?” It’s worth noting though that a Shanghai-based retailer is selling copies of the infamous shirt at $500 a pop, so someone must like them.

On a more serious note, Hatoyama’s ruling coalition may be in big trouble, as he seems ready to allow the United States to maintain a massive military presence on the island of Okinawa. The US Marine Air Station has long been a sore point for Okinawans who complain about the noise and pollution generated by the base and the crimes committed on the island by off-duty Marines, which they feel often go unpunished. Hatoyama had caused a diplomatic row with the United States earlier this year by seeming to support a call from his coalition partners in the Japanese government, the Social Democrats, who want the base removed from Okinawa entirely. Now, Hatoyama seems willing to just allow the base to be moved from one part of Okinawa to another less-populated area. The Social Democrats are outraged by what they feel is a betrayal from Hatoyama and are threatening to pull out of the coalition, which would cause Hatoyama’s government to collapse. But with recent aggressive moves by North Korea, including the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, Hatoyama likely feels he’s not now in a position to weaken the US-Japanese military alliance, even if it winds up costing him his job.
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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Russia’s Blue Light Specials

Drivers in Moscow planned a series of public demonstrations today, including a traffic-blocking slow-speed caravan, all to protest the official misuse of flashing blue car-top lights. In theory, the blue lights are only to be used by high-ranking officials on working state business, with drivers yielding the road to them like they would to an ambulance or fire truck; in practice though, legions of bureaucrats (and in some cases VIP businessmen) use the lights simply to ignore driving laws and plow through traffic jams – sometimes with disastrous results. In February, two women in Moscow were killed when their car was struck by a speeding – and blue-light festooned – Mercedes carrying a vice-president from the energy company LUKoil; as in other fatal crashes involving blue-light cars (which date back to 2000 and have occurred across Russia), the women were initially blamed for the accident, despite witness accounts that the Mercedes was actually at fault.

Saturday’s protest was the latest in several weeks of public actions around the capital regarding the misuse of official signal lights. Hundreds of Muscovites have been driving around recently with blue buckets taped to their cars, mimicking the official blue lights. When Moscow authorities threatened to detain drivers with faux blue lights, some people took to wearing blue buckets on their heads while walking around the city.

Protests by car owners are nothing new in Russia, while officials tend to clamp down quickly on political protests, groups of car owners have managed to stage effective rallies during the past few years on topics including not only the abuse of blue lights but also high import taxes on used automobiles and the poor condition of Russian roads. Drivers in the city of Irkutsk protested the lack of street maintenance last month by using their cars to spell out “No Roads in Irkutsk” (pictured below) in a display they said would be visible from space.

Drivers in Saturday’s rally were also planning to use their cars to spell out “NO” at the end of their slow-speed caravan. Protests by car owners are among the most successful in Russia because they are usually broad-based. Unlike the occasional rallies against the Putin/Medvedev government in Moscow that tend to attract the same collection of political fringe groups and reform-minded liberal elites, the driver’s rallies cut across the strata of Russian society – attracting the rich and poor, the working class and students. Last month writer Julia Ioffe speculated in Foreign Policy magazine on whether these protests could form the basis for a truly nationwide campaign to reform Russia’s political system. It is an interesting idea, though some of the organizers involved in the driver’s protest movement said one reason the rallies have been effective is that they usually organize around a single, narrow issue and don’t require a deep commitment on the part of the participants.
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Kabul’s Last Photographer

Cool story by way of the Associated Press about a man named Mia Mohammed, who is one of Kabul’s last street photographers. According to the AP, photographers like Mr. Mohammed were once common sights on the street corners of the capital, earning their living by taking the tiny identification photos required by the myriad of agencies in Afghanistan’s bloated bureaucracy. Mr. Mohammed said he got into the photography business after stepping on a landmine in the mid-90s cost him his leg and his ability to work as a farmer.

But now his days as a street photographer are coming to an end – because of dwindling demand, his supplier no longer stocks the photo paper he needs for his camera. Shops using digital cameras offer the same service, but Mr. Mohammed, who is illiterate and earns just a few dollars a day through his street corner work, can’t afford a digital set-up nor does he think he has the ability to learn the technology; meaning once his meager stock of photo paper is gone, Mr. Mohammed will face an uncertain future without his camera, and Kabul will lose another link to its past.
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Friday, May 21, 2010

Bush, Obama and Losing Eastern Europe

Is Obama’s foreign policy signaling the end of America’s role as the world’s last superpower? That was the question discussed at a very interesting debate I attended last week, and while I enjoyed the back-and-forth of the participants, I couldn’t help but think that the whole premise of their debate was flawed. First, we have to admit that others (China, Europe and Russia to name a few) are rising as world powers; and when it comes to discussing America’s decline, there’s more than enough blame to go around. On that note, I take a look at how both Presidents Bush and Obama had a hand in diminishing America’s influence in Eastern Europe during the past few years. For the whole argument, check out my post at The Mantle here.
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Monday, May 17, 2010

Iran, Brazil And The Quest For The A-Bomb

The United States and key European powers are continuing their push for sanctions against Iran over their nuclear development program, even as talk of a possible deal to ship enriched nuclear fuel out of Iran emerged this morning. Iran’s claim is that they are trying to develop a domestic nuclear program so that they can begin to switch the country over to nuclear power, looking forward to the day when their oil runs out; the US/Europe say this explanation is nonsense. That’s why it’s useful to take a look at this magazine ad dug up by the folks over at RealClearWorld. Printed sometime in the 1970s – and before the Three Mile Island accident, when nuclear power was still seen as the wave of the future – it’s aimed at city managers in the United States; the pitch says that since the Shah of Iran is planning to build nuclear power plants for the day when his country runs out of oil, then you too should consider nuclear for your city’s future.

So the question is that if 30-plus years ago, the Shah of Iran’s plan to build nuclear power plants made so much sense it merited an ad campaign in American magazines, why is it such a ridiculous idea today? Critics will respond by saying that much of the same knowledge/technology you need to build a nuclear power plant is also the same knowledge/tech you need to build an atomic bomb, so the Iranian nuclear power plant plan is just a cover story to hide a nefarious A-bomb production scheme.

They may be right, that Iran’s stated desire for nuclear power may just be an elaborate ruse, but that brings us to the second half of this story, via Der Spiegel magazine. In their May 7 issue they asked the question: “Is Brazil Developing the Bomb?” Three times in their history, Brazil has had secret programs to develop nuclear weapons – each was eventually abandoned. Late in 2008, Brazil released their National Defense Strategy, which called for “mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle” (the same goal Iran has been pursuing) for the eventual goal of building a fleet of Brazilian nuclear submarines. Since then, according to Der Spiegel, Brazil has done its best to keep its nuclear program out of the eyes of international inspectors – much like Iran has done with their program.

And while we’re drawing parallels with Iran, Brazil’s stated goal – mastery of nuclear production to build nuclear submarines - is also a bit sketchy. The purpose of having a nuclear reactor aboard a submarine is to give that vessel the ability to sail for years without refueling (really, the only thing that limits the time a nuclear sub can spend at sea is the amount of food it can carry for the crew). A key mission for the nuclear subs the US and Soviet Union built was to hide out under the ice of the Arctic Circle, perhaps for months at a time, ready to launch missiles should a nuclear war ever break out. It’s true that Brazil has thousands of miles of ocean coastline to patrol, but that mission could be accomplished more simply, and probably more effectively, by diesel-electric submarines that Brazil could build with the technological expertise that they have today. It makes for another dubious rationale for a nuclear program, pair that up with an air of secrecy and you have a situation much like the one we currently have with Iran, yet there has been no similar call for sanctions against Brazil to get them to drop their nuclear program.

Just something to ponder on a Monday.
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Nazis vs. Gay Bar

There are stories from the world press that you just can’t make up. Case in point, this story from Russia Today about a lawsuit filed in Estonia by a Waffen-SS veterans group against the owners of a gay bar next door. The former Nazis claim that “excessive noise” from “X-baar” (the bar in question) is hurting the property values at their legion hall. They won an earlier judgment, which forced the bar to stop playing music by 11pm; but the Nazis say that noise generated by the bar’s patrons is still a nuisance and has caused several tenants who were renting rooms from the veterans to move out, depriving them of a source of income (let’s just ponder for a second, who would even rent a room in a legion hall full of Nazi veterans?). The Nazi vets are seeking approximately $8,000 in compensation from the bar owners.
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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Somalia’s Four-Cornered Fight

Two weeks ago we ran this story about the coming battle between the Somali pirates and the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab for control of the pirate port city, Haradheere. Last week the battle happened and the pirates were in fact driven out of Haradheere, only by a different group of Islamists, Hizbul Islam. Like al-Shabab, Hizbul Islam opposed the pirates’ presence in Haradheere, publicly because of their belief that piracy - and the free-spending, drinking and womanizing pirate lifestyle - were “un-Islamic”; privately, speculation is that both Islamic groups hoped to muscle in on the lucrative pirate industry that has sprung up along Somalia’s lawless coast and where a single ransomed ship can bring in several million dollars. According to the pirates, representatives from Hizbul Islam arrived in Haradheere a few days before their armed forces to demand a cut of the ransoms the pirates received, they refused. Rather than fight for the city on May 1 and 2, the pirates fled Haradheere before Hizbul Islam’s forces arrived, reports are that a string of luxury automobiles were seen leaving the city under the cover of night. The pirates also moved several ships they were holding for ransom to another port city, Hobyo, further up the coast. Hizbul Islam is pledging to set up a local government and provide security for the city.

The situation in Haradheere is emblematic of the utterly chaotic situation in Somalia today, which has been in a state of near-chaos since the last national government was driven from power nearly two full decades ago. Hizbul Islam and al-Shabab were allies in the Islamic militant movement in Somalia until falling out with each other last year; the two groups fought for control over the southern port city of Kismayu, a battle al-Shabab eventually won. Kismayu now provides al-Shabab with a port for smuggling and trade activities, (the export of charcoal is one way that al-Shabab funds their activities) which could also be why Hizbul Islam was keen to seize Haradheere. Both groups adhere to a fundamentalist version of Islam, hope to establish sharia law in Somalia, and have pledged their allegiance to al-Qaeda, a move that has put them on the United States’ terrorist watch list. In addition to battling with each other and the pirates, both al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam are also fighting against the Somali Transitional National Government (TNG) for control of the capital city, Mogadishu – a fight that has been going poorly for the TNG lately. The TNG has been losing ground in their battle against the militants since Ethiopian troops left the country in early 2009; with the backing of Ethiopian peacekeepers, the TNG was able to return to Mogadishu in 2006 after years in exile in neighboring Kenya. The TNG/Ethiopians drove out the Islamic Courts Union, a more moderate collection of Islamist groups who had been acting as a de facto government in Mogadishu. The defeat of the Islamic Courts Union led to the rise of more militant, more fundamentalist groups like al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam.

With so many factions fighting for control of the country, it’s clear that the situation in Somalia won’t stabilize anytime soon. And so long as Somalia remains in a state of chaos, problems like terrorism and piracy cannot be effectively addressed.
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Opposition Rallies in Haiti

Police firing tear gas canisters met a crowd of more than 1,000 people demanding the resignation of Haiti’s President Rene Preval on Tuesday, according to the BBC. Opposition politicians, who are claiming that Preval is using the earthquake last January that killed more than 200,000 people as an excuse to remain in power once his term in office ends next February, led the protest. Haiti’s parliament just extended Preval’s term in office by three more months because, they say, it would be impossible to hold elections as scheduled because many government electoral records were lost and many civil servants were killed in the quake; opposition politicians though counter by saying that Haiti’s constitution makes no provisions for suspending elections due to a national crisis.

In the aftermath of the quake, many Haitians were upset by Preval’s seeming lack of leadership; some also felt that the Haitian government was allowing foreign militaries - particularly the United States’ – too free a hand in operating within their country while providing relief efforts. During Tuesday’s protest, some protestors called for the return of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was driven from power and into exile in Africa six years ago. For his part, Aristide claims that he was actually deposed by the United States in a coup d’etat for his refusal to sell off state-owned enterprises; at the time, officials from the Bush Administration countered by saying that the US military actually helped Aristide and his family escape the country ahead of an armed uprising by Haitians opposed to his rule, the US hoped, as a way to avoid a full-blown revolution in Haiti. Aristide was flown into exile first in the Central African Republic and later in South Africa. Preval was later elected to the presidency in 2006.
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Tax Evasion As An Olympic Sport

With the Greek economic collapse dominating the foreign news lately, this piece from Sunday’s Guardian is well worth reading. American pundits, particularly those on the Right, have used the Greek collapse to push the argument that public welfare programs are inherently bad for a country. And while Greece has had an almost unbelievably generous public welfare system (like a retirement age of 54), there’s another factor that has helped to push the country to the brink of economic collapse – the way the Greeks treat tax evasion as their national pastime.

The Guardian notes that despite the sprawling suburbs that surround Athens, only 15,000 Greeks claim incomes of over 100,000 Euros. When the Greek government tried to use Google Earth’s public access satellite imagery to locate swimming pools in the yards of Greek houses (a sign, apparently, of affluence), Greek citizens invested in fake grass and asphalt nets to disguise their pools from space. Tax evasion is estimated to cost the country 20 billion Euros per year, while a whopping 30% percent of the Greece’s GDP is believed to be on their black (unofficial and untaxed) economy. Obviously, losing that much tax income is going to cause some severe problems for the national economy.

The Greek attitude towards paying (or more precisely not paying) taxes has left Greece’s last surviving military dictator Brigadier Stylianos Pattakos feeling somewhat vindicated for his anti-democratic rule. “In our time there was no debt. Not one drachma went astray. The Greeks are not disciplined like the Germans or the British. They need authority,” Pattakos was quoted as saying in the Guardian.
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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Victory Day

Last year President Barack Obama and heads of state from across Europe gathered on the beaches of Normandy to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings that marked one of the turning points of World War II. The reason for the huge memorial service last year was the tacit admission that given the increasing age of WWII veterans, the 65th was likely the last milestone anniversary where actual participants would be able to attend in sizeable numbers. This weekend marks the 65th anniversary of the actual end of the war in Europe, yet this anniversary is passing across Europe and the United States with almost no notice.

Except, that is, for Russia where “Victory Day” (May 9th) is the largest secular holiday in the Russian calendar. The Russians too realize the significance of the 65th anniversary to their surviving vets, so they have made an effort to make this year’s Victory Day commemoration the largest in recent years. Russia Today has spent the past several weeks conducting interviews and gathering first-person accounts from veterans and Russians who were on the homefront during the War; they have compiled all of them on a special website dedicated to Victory Day. And for the first time contingents of troops representing the Soviet Union’s allies during the war are participating in the annual military parade in Moscow, including soldiers from France, the United Kingdom, Poland and the United States.

You would think the site of American troops marching through Red Square for first time ever would be big news, but apparently it’s not, since their participation merited only a passing mention on the cable news channels and news sites on the Web this morning. It’s too bad, since beyond the historic visuals was also an attempt by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to reach out to his fellow heads of state to try to foster a new era of international cooperation. Medvedev said during his official remarks: “Only together can we counter present-day threats. Only as good neighbors can we resolve problems of global security in order that the ideals of justice and good triumph in all of the world.” It’s worth noting that Angela Merkel, head of Russia’s adversary in WWII, stood next to Vladimir Putin during the ceremony, while China’s Hu Jintao sat with Medvedev. Poland’s acting President Bronislaw Komorowski was also in attendance, a sign of the rapidly improving relationship between Russia and Poland, a relationship that ironically seems to have been helped by the recent tragic plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and many high-ranking government officials. Poles have appreciated the sensitive manner in which Russia dealt with the tragedy – Medvedev was one of a handful of world leaders who actually made it to Kaczynski’s state funeral, many others cancelled due to the disruption of international flight patters caused the volcano in Iceland.
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Saturday, May 8, 2010

For News Editors, It’s Still 1983

In my latest post over at The Mantle, I take a look at the strange way news editors cover International Politics, particularly a tendency among them to continue to view the world like the Cold War was still going on. I talk about how not only does this ignore how today's complex and interdependent world really operates, but it also is bad for their readers since it provides them with a lot of faulty thinking in the area of International Relations. Check out the whole piece over at The Mantle.
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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Goodluck, Jonathan

You would think that the death of the president of Africa’s most populous nation would rate more than a passing mention on the news. But apparently that’s not the case, as the death of President Umaru Yar'Adua scored only a few short blurbs on the cable news channels today. Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan was sworn in this morning as president, a role he has been filling since February in the wake of a lingering heart ailment that had effectively removed Yar'Adua from office last November.

The lack of interest over the death of Yar'Adua illustrates the misplaced priorities of both the American press and foreign policy services, which pay too much attention to developments in the Middle East and not nearly enough to what’s happening in Africa. The oft-stated reasons for America’s fixation on the Middle East usually come down to oil and terrorism. But Africa is on pace to surpass the Persian Gulf in terms of oil export to the United States by mid-decade; the Associated Press notes that in January, Nigeria was America’s 4th largest oil supplier, surpassing Saudi Arabia in the process. At the same time, al-Qaeda’s most active franchise operations are increasingly located in Africa, including al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) located in Algeria and operating through northwestern Africa; and Islamic groups like al-Shabab operating in Somalia, but with designs on the whole Horn of Africa region. But despite Africa’s growing relevance to American energy and security interests, attention tends only to fall on the continent when a war breaks out, or a natural disaster (or some other kind of humanitarian crisis) occurs.

President Yar'Adua brought a measure of stability to Nigeria, which had suffered through a number of military coups in the half-century since gaining independence (Yar’Adua’s election was the first peaceful transfer of power in the nation’s history), in part by bridging differences between the Christian south and Muslim north. But he also plunged the country into a constitutional crisis as his inner circle tried to cling to power after Yar'Adua had been taken gravely ill in November. Yar'Adua was taken to Saudi Arabia for treatment; it was only after he had been absent from the country for months before public pressure built enough to allow Goodluck Jonathan to assume title of acting president. According to Phillip van Niekerk in today’s Huffington Post, that the story of Yar'Adua’s illness even became a matter of public record was only due to some intrepid investigative journalism by Next, a Lagos-based newspaper. Next resisted official pressure from Yar'Adua loyalists, and even Nigeria’s State Security Service, to run a story in January claiming that Yar'Adua’s condition had deteriorated to the point where he did not recognize friends and family – despite official claims that he was “recovering.” The story prompted the parliament into action, and finally brought Jonathan into power.

Perhaps the American press corps could take a lesson or two on the need to report important stories…
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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

We’ll Put This In The “Maybe” Column…

Thousands of barrels-worth of oil continue to leak into the Gulf of Mexico from the site of the BP drilling rig collapse, threatening an ecological disaster along the Gulf Coast of almost unimaginable proportions. BP’s latest plan is to drop what’s basically a giant funnel connected to a hose over the leaking pipes on the seabed, hoping to trap the oil and pump it to barges on the surface – BP though has never tried this tactic in water as deep as the current leak site and is not overly optimistic about its chances for success. But according to Russia Today, some former Soviet scientists think they have a solution to stopping the leak – use a nuclear bomb.

Incredibly there is a precident for this bizarre action. In 1963 a natural gas well in Uzbekistan failed catastrophically, resulting in a plume of flame 120 meters tall that consumed 12 million cubic meters of gas per day. For three years, the blowout resisted all attempts to extinguish it. Finally, a group of Soviet nuclear physicists stepped in to help, not surprisingly their idea came in the form of a small nuclear bomb. Since everything else they had failed, Soviet authorities decided to go ahead with the nuclear solution – a shaft was drilled down to the gas well and the bomb set off, effectively sealing the gas vein and finally extinguishing the fire.

Strangely enough, during the Cold War both the United States and Soviet Union both tried to think up ways that nuclear weapons could be used for peaceful purposes. The American version was “Operation Plowshare”, the logic was that one nuclear bomb could remove more material in a moment than a huge crew of men and machines could during weeks, or months, of labor. The ideas proposed under Operation Plowshare included using nuclear bombs to cleave passes through mountain ranges for highways or to carve a new shipping canal across Central America; the idea that came closest to reality was one to use five hydrogen bombs to create an artificial harbor in Alaska, a plan that was only scuttled when officials realized that the proposed harbor would be literally in the middle of nowhere.

The physicists interviewed by Russia Today admit that while a nuclear bomb did successfully seal the Uzbek gas fire, it was also set off in the middle of a desert, and that detonating a nuclear weapon in the Gulf of Mexico might have some adverse effects on the ecology.
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Kenya: Newspaper Heaven

Newsprint may be a dying medium, just don't tell that to Kenya. According to the Utne Reader, even in this digital age, Kenyans love their newspapers, so much so that each copy of a Kenyan newspaper is read on average by fourteen people and Kenyans who can't afford to buy their own personal copy of the local paper may "rent" one at a local newsstand - the equivalent of 13 cents will by you a half-hour of newspaper enjoyment in the capital, Nairobi. A study published in the Columbia Journalism Review points to a lack of Internet access across much of the country as a reason for the dominance of newsprint in the country. But newspapers also fill a social niche in Kenyan culture, where people will still gather to discuss the events of the day carried in the local broadsheet. One young Kenyan quoted in Utne said that even though he can access the web via his mobile phone, he expects to still read newspapers in 20 years, adding: "newspapers will not die here, definitely not."
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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Hezbollah’s Mystery Scuds

It’s the Mid East mystery that won’t die; for the past month accusations have been flying that Hezbollah, the Islamic group that the United States and Israel regard as a terrorist organization, yet which also is a member of Lebanon’s national parliament, has received Scud ballistic missiles from Syria. Israel first made the claim in early April as part of a stark (though off-the-record) warning to Syrian officials that if Hezbollah were to launch Scuds against Israel, then Israel would retaliate against Syria as well as the government of Lebanon, based on the assumption that since Hezbollah is represented in the Lebanese parliament the attack was sanctioned by the Lebanese government. Subsequent reports suggest that the Scuds may have originated in Iran, with Syria acting as a middleman between them and Hezbollah. The United States has even weighed in on the issue warning Syrian diplomats in Washington DC not to rearm Hezbollah (UN Security Council resolution 1701 forbids any weapons shipments to Lebanon not approved by the United Nations), and especially not to provide them with Scuds. The US called Syrian policy towards Hezbollah “ill-conceived.”

Israel has a long history of conflict with Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group based in Lebanon and funded in part by Iran. Most recently, Israel engaged in a 34-day conflict with Hezbollah in 2006 over persistent rocket attacks fired into northern Israel from Hezbollah bases in Lebanon. That conflict resulted in more than 1,200 casualties in Lebanon - many of them civilians, 160 dead in Israel, caused widespread damage across southern Lebanon, but ultimately did not bring about the end of Hezbollah as a force in Lebanese politics and culture, so in that respect the conflict was a tactical defeat for Israel. The rockets used by Hezbollah during the 2006 conflict were mostly Katyushas – a kind of artillery rocket that can trace its history back to the Soviet Union and World War II. Katyushas are about the size of a lamppost, can be carried by a few men, and fired from a simple metal tripod, though a series of tubes mounted on the back of a truck is a more common firing arrangement for Katyushas (during WWII the Germans called these trucks Stalin’s Pipe Organs). The Katyusha has a fairly short range, and fairly small warhead (only about 50 lbs). The Scud can also trace its lineage back to WWII, this time to the German V-2 rocket. A Scud, by comparison, is about 40 feet long, weighs several tons, has a range of several hundred miles and needs its own launch vehicle (about the size of a school bus) to operate.

And that’s what makes the Scud claims sound dubious – considering that US and Israeli satellites monitor the Iranian and Syrian borders, it’s hard to imagine either country being able to slip something the size of a bus past them unnoticed. Egypt’s foreign minister has already expressed his doubts over the Scud claims and on Saturday Syria fired back, (diplomatically, that is) cautioning Washington not to accept Israel’s allegations, before making their own claim that what really destabilizes the security situation in the region is instead the United States’ military support for Israel. So far neither the United States nor Israeli governments have offered concrete proof to back up the Scud allegations.

So why make the claim, especially one that has the region in such an uproar? One possible answer could be found in this article from the March 26th New York Times. It is a report on a war game simulation conducted by the Brookings Institution over what could follow an Israeli air strike against suspected nuclear sites in Iran. The simulation found that rather than strike back at Israel directly, Iran would likely use proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas to launch hit-and-run rocket attacks into Israel in an attempt to destabilize the country. Israel’s Scud accusation – linking Hezbollah, the Lebanese government, Syria and Iran together in the process – could be a warning then that such a retaliation could spark a region-wide war.
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Saturday, May 1, 2010

More Manliness From Vladimir Putin

The Vladimir Putin, Man of Action calendar is just about complete. The Russian prime minister has made it a habit during his term in office of being photographed engaging in a number of incredibly “manly” situations, including: riding in a jet fighter, participating in a judo match, wading bare-chested through a Siberian river and catching a tiger in Russia’s Far East. He added another one to the album this past week while visiting the Arctic where he helped a crew attach a radio-tracking collar to a wild polar bear. The actual reason for the visit was to highlight Russia’s efforts to study the effects of global warming on local fauna and also to subtly reinforce Russia’s claims to a sizable chunk of the rapidly melting Arctic Ocean. The visual with the polar bear was good, but for me I don’t think it was quite as good at the image to the right of a fur-clad Putin riding a horse this past February through a crisp Siberian winter morning in Khakassia. That image made me think of John Wayne, unfortunately it made me think of John Wayne in one of the worst movies ever madeThe Conqueror, where the Duke played Genghis Khan (seriously) and delivered lines like: “rejoice mother, there shall be feasting tonight” (again, seriously). I can only assume that none of the visual directors in the Kremlin has ever even heard of The Conqueror

On a more serious note, for my take from last year on the cultural implications of Vladimir Putin’s he-man pictorials, click here.
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Grover Cleveland, Hawaiian Hero

To most Americans, President Grover Cleveland is known (if he’s known at all) as the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms in office. But to a growing group of Hawaiian home-rule advocates, he’s becoming something of a folk hero; so much so that yesterday a delegation traveled from Hawaii to his birthplace in Caldwell, New Jersey for the first-ever “Presidential Luau” in his honor.

The reason for this love for a largely forgotten 19th century president is Cleveland’s decision immediately after taking office for a second time in 1893 to withdraw a bill before the Senate to annex Hawaii. Earlier in January 1893, a group of wealthy American businessmen and elite native Hawaiians led by Sanford Dole overthrew Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani and almost immediately petitioned for annexation by the United States, something President Benjamin Harrison was trying to push through Congress when his term ended. Cleveland was skeptical of the “revolution” and sent a delegation to investigate the matter. The delegation’s formal report found that a majority of the Hawaiian population was actually opposed to annexation by the United States. Cleveland said at the time:
“I suppose that right and justice should determine the path to be followed in treating this subject. If national honesty is to be disregarded and a desire for territorial expansion or dissatisfaction with a form of government not our own ought to regulate our conduct, I have entirely misapprehended the mission and character of our government and the behavior which the conscience of the people demands of their public servants.”

While Cleveland prevented the outright annexation of Hawaii, the United States also did not move to restore Queen Liliuokalani to the throne either; instead the short-lived Republic of Hawaii was established with Sanford Dole (big surprise there) serving as its one-and-only president. Hawaii was ultimately annexed by Cleveland’s successor, William McKinley in 1898. While Cleveland ultimately only delayed the inevitable, his stand on principle that it was an abuse of power for the United States to attempt to annex Hawaii has made him something of a cult hero today – a Grover Cleveland facebook page has more than 1,200 fans and calls him a “hero for Hawaii” (and “way cooler than any furry blue puppet.”).

Currently, there is a bill before Congress, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, which would grant native Hawaiians a "federally recognized government-to-government relationship" with the United States, much like many Native American tribes in the other 49 states enjoy. Grover Cleveland would likely approve.
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