Monday, June 28, 2010

Somaliland: An Election Without A Country

What if they held an election, but nobody noticed?

That is the situation faced by Somaliland, which held, by all accounts, a fair and largely peaceful election this past weekend to elect a president for a country, which according to the rest of the world, doesn’t exist.

Like you might guess from the name, Somaliland is part of Somalia (specifically, the northwestern most quarter of the nation); Somaliland broke away from Somalia in 1991 after Somalia’s dictator Siad Barre was overthrown. The circumstances of the two places have diverged widely since then: while Somalia has spent the last two decades being fought over by warlords, pirates, Islamic militants and foreign troops; Somaliland has been relatively peaceful and stable. Somaliland operates its own government, military forces and even issues its own currency – it is a functioning nation in just about every way that matters, except that no nation on Earth recognizes their claim of independence, citing the need to respect Somalia’s “territorial integrity” (two of Somaliland’s neighbors – Djibouti and Eritrea maintain informal relations with the Somaliland government, but have not recognized their independence).

Despite this, Somaliland has continued to hold elections for the office of president, including the one held this past weekend. Three candidates were on the ballot, including current President Dahir Riyale Kahin; the vote tally is not expected for several days, though the results are expected to be close. The International Republican Institute, a US-based organization, provided election monitors who reported few irregularities in Sunday’s voting. There were however, some reports of violence at a few voting stations in a disputed area claimed by both Somaliland and another quasi-independent region of Somalia, Puntland; one incident left four people dead. If the name Puntland sounds familiar, it is because it has been in the news recently for its status as a haven for both Somali pirates and Islamic militant groups like al-Shabab, who were blamed for the attack on the polling station, supposedly in an effort to disrupt the Somaliland election.

But maybe that just furthers the case for actually recognizing Somaliland as an independent nation? After all, shouldn’t the people of Somaliland receive some credit for operating a stable “country” in the midst of the chaos that is Somalia today? It would seem like any stability that can be brought to that region of the world should be encouraged, not ignored in favor of the idea of “territorial integrity” for a nation that in a very real sense doesn’t exist.
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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Black Stars Shine at WC

So the United States’ World Cup dreams ended on Saturday with a 2-1 loss to Ghana’s team, also known by their nickname the “Black Stars.” While it’s sad to see Team USA lose, it’s also nice that there is an African side still playing in the tournament that has become a continent-wide event. With that in mind, I wanted to link to this story by Dan Wetzel from Yahoo! Sports (assuming that you can actually read it, thanks to the bizarre choice of background design…), which takes a look at the match from an African point of view, showing just how much the entire continent has embraced the team from Ghana. For example, consider this quote from Ghana’s Dede Ayew: “we feel we have a continent behind us and the whole of Africa behind us and that’s given us a lot of energy to fight more.”

On a side note, given that the World Cup is a truly global tournament, with two years of preliminary matches to decide on the 32 tournament berths and that the seedings for the eight four-team pools are done by random draw, how bizarre is it that the United States has been knocked out of two consecutive World Cups by the same team and by the same score each time?
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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Support for “President” Abbas

Good news for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – a recent poll shows that he has the support of a clear majority (54%) of those surveyed.  Maybe he can go ahead then and hold the presidential election that Palestine was suppose to stage a year and a half ago…

Ask an international diplomat who leads the government in Palestine and they’ll point to Mahmoud Abbas.  Technically though, Abbas’ term in office actually ended in early 2009; he’s been pretending to be president and the world has been pretending he’s legitimate ever since, largely because under the terms of the Palestinian constitution, the presidency should pass to ranking members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (their version of a national parliament), who also happen to be members of Hamas, and no one wants that.  Abbas cancelled the scheduled elections in 2009 by declaring a state of emergency following Israel launching Operation Cast Lead – their full-fledged military assault on the Gaza Strip.  In the year and a half since though neither Abbas nor the Palestinian Authority has found the time to reschedule them, again in large part because of the belief that Abbas would lose to a candidate put forward by Hamas.

This circles back to a problem the United States and other “Western” powers have in dealing with the Middle East: while they preach the need for democratic reforms in the region, they consistently accept autocratic rule in countries throughout the ME, so long as the autocrats are reliable allies – for prime examples, look at Saudi Arabia and Egypt.  Speaking of Egypt, it will be interesting to see if the US continues to support the decidedly un-democratic Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt with an increasingly iron fist for the past three decades, now that the former head of the UN’s atomic watchdog agency, Mohamed ElBaradei is emerging as the head of an opposition movement set on opposing Mubarak in the next election. 

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Stalin’s Gori End

The Georgian government took down a towering statue of former Soviet leader Josef Stalin Thursday night.  Two things that make this story noteworthy are that the statue was located in Gori, Stalin’s birthplace, and that Georgian officials for some reason decided to take the statue down in the middle of the night.  There is speculation that they removed Stalin under the cover of darkness to avoid any protests, though it’s hard to tell if there would have been protests in the first place.  Gori has a strange relationship with Stalin: like in Russia, he remains popular among older people who survived World War II, who tend to remember him as the “strong leader” who saved the Soviet Union from the Nazis; younger people though tend to view Stalin more harshly (focusing instead on the gulags, forced labor, ethnic persecutions, etc.); the fact that their hometown is also his birthplace is something of an embarrassment.

Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili said: “a memorial to Stalin has no place in the Georgia of the 21st Century,” echoing the younger generation’s viewpoint of the Soviet leader.  Stalin’s replacement though is likely to provoke further controversy: the statue’s pedestal will be recycled and used as the base for a memorial dedicated to the nearly 400 Georgians killed or still missing from the country’s August 2008 conflict with Russia.  The two sides fought a five-day war over Georgia’s two breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Gori is located just a few miles from the border with South Ossetia).  Georgia initially framed the conflict as a Russian invasion, though increasingly international analysis has shown Georgia started the fighting when they shelled the Ossetian capital city, Tskhinvali during the night of August 7.  Since the conflict, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have both declared their independence, a claim only recognized by Russia and a handful of other countries. 

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Update #1 – Coach Kim Jong-il

On Saturday I wrote about Team North Korea’s trip to the World Cup – the country’s first appearance in the global tournament since 1966. Among the oddities of Team NoKo, is the rumor that North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il has a special, secret hotline to the North Korean bench to give his own special brand of soccer “advice” during their games.

Since then North Korea was thoroughly thumped by Portugal 7-0 on Monday, and South Korea’s Chosun lIbo is suggesting that Kim Jong-il himself might be responsible for the team’s crushing defeat. According to the Chosun, the North Korean team played in a way very unlike the style of Coach Kim Jong-hun (no relation), prompting some to speculate that he was influenced by someone outside to change the team’s strategy, and the only person with that sort of pull would be the Dear Leader himself. In a press conference last week, Kim Jong-hun confirmed that Kim Jong-il provides “advice” to the team, the type of statement he couldn’t have made unless permitted by Jong-il, which adds to the speculation that he was in fact whispering in the coach’s ear.

Kim Jong-il’s regime was apparently so buoyed by North Korea’s hard-fought 2-1 loss to Brazil, regarded as one of the best sides in the world, that they allowed the North Korea-Portugal match to be broadcast live on North Korea’s state-run TV channels, basically an unprecedented move in the Hermit Kingdom. According to people in the North contacted secretly by the Chosun, the move has backfired spectacularly, with some North Koreans so upset by the 7-0 defeat they “drank themselves senseless” and will “never forgive” the players for their lopsided loss.
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Update #2 – Dudus Done

A follow up now to a post I did on The Mantle a few weeks ago: “The Other Drug War Next Door.” That post focused in large part on attempts to apprehend notorious Jamaican drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke and on attempts by residents in his Tivoli Gardens neighborhood in Kingston to prevent that from happening. News from Jamaica Tuesday night is that Dudus was finally taken into custody, but how that happened is open to interpretation – Jamaican officials say that Dudus was stopped at a police checkpoint; his pastor though claims they were stopped by police while on their way to the American embassy to surrender.

Why go to the Americans? It was an extradition order from the United States on charges of drug and gun smuggling that kicked off the whole hunt for Dudus - eventually. The Jamaican government, led by Prime Minister Bruce Golding spent the better part of a year fighting the extradition request, which focused unwanted attention on the close links between the drug baron and prime minister. Tivoli Gardens lies within Golding’s district and reliably delivered large blocks of votes to his Jamaican Labor Party each election. Rumors in Kingston were that Golding finally decided to act on the extradition order after learning that the US Drug Enforcement Agency had evidence of the Golding/Dudus sweetheart deal on a wiretap of Dudus’ phones. Dudus’ decision to skip the middleman and surrender directly to the Americans may have been motivated by his own father’s death in a Jamaican jail after a fire mysteriously broke out in his cell. Meanwhile, residents of Tivoli Gardens don’t want Dudus to go to jail either in the United States or Jamaica, claiming that he (and not the Jamaican government) is the only one supplying much-needed social services in their poverty-stricken portion of Jamaica. Dudus has in the past funded schools, health clinics and job programs in Tivoli Gardens.
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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Towering Humanitarian

I couldn’t let the passing of Sudan-born NBA player Manute Bol go unmentioned. At seven feet, seven inches, Bol tied for the record of the league’s tallest-ever player; but Bol’s weight never made it much past the 200lb mark, giving him an outstretched, even otherworldly appearance. I saw Bol play in person once; he used his big hands and skinny arms like giant flyswatters to block shots and could basically dunk the ball without leaving the floor. Phil Jasner of the Philadelphia Daily News gives a good account of Bol’s 10-year NBA career, including Bol’s wickedly good sense of humor.

But far more important were Bol’s actions off the court, where Bol worked tirelessly for social causes in his native Sudan; including reconciliation among warring factions - even after a large portion of his extended family was wiped out in the unrest in Sudan’s Darfur region. The Montreal Gazette ran this account of Bol’s humanitarian work shortly before his death; it’s well worth your time to read it. According to the paper, Bol gave away almost all of the $6 million he earned during his NBA career. To support his philanthropy after his playing career ended, Bol took on a series of stunts usually reserved for D-list celebs: he was on Fox’s “Celebrity Boxing” and agreed to play in a minor league hockey game (ultimately they could not find skates large enough for his feet), all in an effort to keep the donations rolling in for his work in Sudan.

The article does ask why the NBA’s own charity “NBA Cares” never made a donation to Bol’s causes, or for that matter why none of today’s ultra-wealthy superstars haven’t either. At the time of his death, Bol was trying to raise $18,000 to finish three classrooms in southern Sudan – that’s probably about what LeBron James will earn during the first minute of the mega-contract he’ll soon sign. Just something to think about…

Farewell Manute.
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Mandela’s Fading Dream

With the World Cup in full swing, the world’s attention is focused on South Africa. While the games have so far gone off smoothly, the same can’t be said for the political situation in South Africa. The nation may see itself as both a rising regional power and the face of the continent in the new century, but at home South Africa is starting to slide into familiar patters of corruption and poor governance; quite a tumble for the prosperous, multiethnic country Nelson Mandela dreamed about. In my latest post over at The Mantle, I take a look at the state of the “Rainbow Nation” and how today’s leaders are failing to uphold Mandela’s dream.
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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Afghan Mines, Reporter Whines

I was getting ready to write another column on the utter pointlessness of America’s ongoing Afghan mission when the New York Times’ James Risen broke the news on Monday that the United States had discovered “previously unknown deposits” of vast quantities of minerals in Afghanistan, including rare earth elements like lithium (vital in producing high-energy batteries for consumer electronics). In fact, Pentagon officials valued the deposits at a whopping $1 trillion and breathlessly proclaimed that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

It was an announcement that promised to breathe life into an otherwise faltering mission in Afghanistan – no longer were our troops fighting and dying to support a corrupt regime in a fight against a collection of tribal insurgents for control over a primitive narcostate; they were helping to secure vital resources badly needed by our modern society. The timing couldn’t have been better; in fact I thought it was a little too perfect, and I wasn’t alone. Almost immediately criticism over Risen’s story popped up on websites across the Internet; many focused on the fact that the “new” minerals survey had actually been produced in 2007 and was itself largely based on reports that dated back further than that, some to the time of the Soviet invasion three decades ago. Some sites went further, suggesting that the Times had been “played” by the Pentagon hoping to turn the Afghan narrative away from a stream of negative news including a failed peace council, rising insurgency in the south and more comments by Hamid Karzai that he didn’t think the US-led coalition could “win.”

James Risen took the high road in his response to his critics, calling them “bloggers” who are “sitting around in their pajamas” instead of doing “real reporting” like him (note to Risen, I am dressed as I type this). It’s tempting to turn Risen’s critique around, and to say his report is emblematic of the laziness of the mainstream media, which is content to sit back and be fed leads from administration officials rather than going out and pounding the bricks for their own stories; after all, there was nothing preventing Risen from doing his own account about Afghanistan’s economic potential separate from a Pentagon briefing. Or more on point, Risen could have questioned where the Pentagon got their “$1 trillion” figure, something he does not do in Monday’s story.

Keep in mind, natural resources only have value if you can get them out of the ground (or wherever) and deliver them to a customer willing to buy them. That’s a pretty doubtful proposition in landlocked Afghanistan, a country with very little infrastructure (Afghanistan’s two main cities Kabul and Kandahar were only recently linked by a modern highway), even Risen’s story notes that truly developing the minerals industry could take “decades.” To look at another example, some of the world’s absolute lowest labor costs can be found in the Central African Republic, but multinational firms aren’t lining up to build factories in the CAR because the country is smack in the middle of the continent, with little infrastructure, no sea access and a history of poor governance (sound familiar?). So while there may be a lot of minerals buried beneath the dirt of Afghanistan, without a viable way of getting them out of the ground and to market, you really can’t say its “worth” anything, let alone $1 trillion.

And of course even if the geological assessments are correct and the infrastructure can be developed to exploit the minerals, that still doesn’t guarantee a bring future for the Afghani people, since the country is likely to fall victim to something in international development circles called the “resource curse.” Simply put, while having a valuable resource (oil, diamonds, lithium, you name it) should put a country on the route to prosperity – since there’s money now to build roads, schools, hospitals, and offer employment to people at good wages; more often than not though quite the opposite happens, wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of a small elite, while the rest of the population lives in poverty and are often oppressed by their government lest they upset the status quo (see Equatorial Guinea for a great example of the resource curse in action). With an Afghan government already notorious for its cronyism, it’s not likely they will behave in an egalitarian way with a sudden influx of mineral-based wealth. Of course that’s probably not the spin the Pentagon would like put on the Afghan story.
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Go Team NoKo

Like many of my fellow Americans, I am in the midst of a strange quadrennial affliction – actually caring about soccer. A week into the tournament and I find myself getting up early to catch the opening round games on ESPN, and one team that I’m quietly pulling for is the squad from North Korea.

Since the Hermit Kingdom is arguably the world’s strangest country, how can we expect their national team to be any different? The Guardian described an “icy” press conference with Team North Korea’s coaching staff, where they said the goal of the team in the World Cup was to “bring great happiness to our Dear Leader [Kim Jong-Il].” Speaking of Dear Leader Kim, he has been credited with helping the North Korean side qualify for the World Cup in the first place by giving the coaching staff “advice” – it is even rumored that he has a secret hotline to the North Korean bench, though this may just be the North Korean propaganda machine trying to give Kim another mystical quality in addition to his alleged ability to manipulate time (seriously). Meanwhile, North Korea’s only imported player – Japan-born Jong Tae-se, who plays in that nation professionally – has had a grand time introducing his new teammates to technology uncommon in North Korea, like cellphones and pay toilets. According to Jong, when a teammate saw a pay lavatory in Switzerland, it prompted him to remark: “this is truly what capitalist society is like.”

And you won’t find many people already on the North Korean bandwagon – the team has reportedly hired as many as 1,000 Chinese to attend the team’s matches in South Africa as “fans,” something necessary I suppose when you won’t allow your own citizens to travel outside of the country unless they are members of the ruling elite. But then again, how can you not root for a team whose players make such Stalin-esque quotes as when goalkeeper Ri Myong-Guk said he felt as though he was “defending the gateway to my motherland”?

Team NoKo takes to the field again on Monday.
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Sunday, June 13, 2010

As The Warship Turns…

Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin used a state visit to Paris to again push French officials to finalize a deal that would allow Russia to buy one, if not four, Mistral-class warships from France. The two sides have been negotiating the deal for months, much to the worry of Russia’s neighbors Ukraine and Georgia.

The Mistral is an amphibious assault ship; its mission is to rapidly deploy several hundred battle-ready troops ashore with their tanks and other heavy equipment and to carry a squad of helicopters to provide air cover for the invading troops. Critics have questioned why Russia – the country with the world’s longest land borders and few overseas possessions – would need amphibious assault ships in the first place. The Russian military didn’t help to quell their neighbor’s fears when a high-ranking general remarked how much more smoothly Russia’s August 2008 conflict with Georgia would have gone if Russia had the Mistral in its arsenal. But last week Russian Armed Forces Staff Gen. Nikolai Makarov gave the official explanation as to why Russia needs to buy Mistrals from France – to protect the Kuril Islands.

The Kurils are a chain of rocky, barren islands in the Northern Pacific. In August 1945, Josef Stalin finally made good on a pledge to open a second Pacific front in World War II against the then all-but-defeated Imperial Japan. One of the bits of territory snatched by the Red Army in the closing days of the war were the Kuril Islands. Sixty-five years later, the Russians are still there, while Japan is still demanding the return of the four southernmost Kurils – a small dispute that has actually kept Japan and Russia from signing a peace treaty to formally end World War II. The dispute over the Kurils brings to mind an old joke about the British-Argentine war for the Falkland Islands: that it made as much sense as two bald men fighting over a comb.

It’s hard to believe the Russians would look to spend $2 billion to buy four Mistral warships to guard against a hypothetical invasion over a collection of wind-blown rocks… Russia’s interest in the Mistrals actually has less to do with the ships themselves and more to do with the technology inside them. In terms of technology, Russia’s military is lagging behind their NATO counterparts, particularly when it comes to integrated command-and-control systems (ones that link together satellite imagery, GPS coordinates, the ability for soldiers to communicate with HQ, etc). These weaknesses were shown during Russia’s 2008 conflict with Georgia. The Mistral, meanwhile, is also a command-and-control hub for the troops it sends ashore. So buying a Mistral from France would give Russia direct access to this state-of-the-art technology; building Mistrals in Russia under license (the deal Putin is pushing for) would give the Russians even more hands-on experience with these systems.

The United States has been pressing France not to make the Mistral deal, precisely for this reason (which is a bit odd since we’re all suppose to be friends now). But France has shown a willingness recently to sell their technology as a way to make big arms deals. Brazil is looking to upgrade their air force and is considering bids from the United States, Sweden and France. Only the French bid though is willing to include a transfer of key technology to Brazil as part of the deal. It remains to be seen if France is willing to cut Russia the same bargain regarding the Mistrals. One sign of how much Russia wants this agreement to go through is a separate offer made by Putin during his visit to allow France’s petroleum firm Total SA bid for a 25% stake in a Siberian natural gas field – Putin has long been a strong proponent for keeping Russian natural resources in Russian hands.
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Are The Saudis Onboard For Israel Air Raid?

An update now to last Saturday’s post: “Israel, Iran and the Summer War”. The Times of London reported on Saturday that Saudi Arabia and Israel have struck a secret deal where the Saudis will basically “stand-down” their national air defense system over the northern part of the country to allow the Israeli Air Force a corridor to fly through on their way to attack nuclear sites in Iran. Rumors of Saudi assistance in an Israeli strike have been circulating for some months now, the Brookings Institution war game scenario of an Israeli raid on Iran even speculated that the Israeli Air Force might set up a secret refueling base in the Saudi desert (the target sites in Iran are at the far edge of the IAF’s operational range).

Since Saddam Hussein’s removal from power, Iran’s influence in the Persian Gulf has grown steadily, thanks in part to now no longer having to worry about getting involved in another war with their long-time adversary, Iraq (the two countries spent most of the 1980s engaged in a bloody, but ultimately fruitless, war). Iran’s growing power has not sat well with the Saudis, who like to see themselves as the big player in the Gulf, which is why they would likely be willing to let Israel use their airspace to launch an attack on Iran. The Times article should be seen as more evidence that an Israeli air strike against Iran this summer is becoming more and more likely.
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Saturday, June 12, 2010

View From The Gaza Border

On Saturday, The Guardian published a series of brief interviews with residents of Gaza queuing up to cross the border into Egypt. For the past three years, Egypt has largely kept the border crossing at Rafah closed in response to Hamas’ takeover of the government in Gaza and Israel’s subsequent blockade. But since Israel’s deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, Egypt announced the Rafah crossing would be open indefinitely.

Passage through the checkpoint is still monitored by Egyptian guards and there are limits as to who can cross from Gaza: primarily students planning to study abroad, those seeking medical treatment and people with foreign passports; members of Hamas are banned. And the process is slow, leading to wait-times that can stretch into days. With this in mind, The Guardian interviewed several Gazans waiting at the crossing, three interesting themes emerged from their interviews: first were the number of people leaving Gaza for medical treatment in Egypt or at other locations further abroad, a testimony to the toll the blockade has taken on basic services in Gaza; second, despite the hardships that mark the daily lives of most Gazans, the people The Guardian talked to by and large didn’t want to leave the Gaza Strip, at least not permanently; and third, despite widespread criticism aimed at the United States for acting as Israel’s chief patron (and according to some, serving as accomplice to Israel’s oppression of the Gaza Strip), one young girl interviewed hoped to leave Gaza to study in the United States, adding “I love America – it's a wonderful country and culture.”
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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hurray! Sanctions On Iran (well, sort of…)

So the big news on Wednesday was that the United States succeeded in getting the United Nations Security Council to agree on a new round of sanctions against Iran aimed at getting that country to suspend action on their nuclear development program. Predictably, the US is touting the new sanctions as an effective tool against Iran’s ambitions; in reality though they’re far less than advertised and certainly not the “crippling” sanctions that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton threatened to levy against Iran just last year.

Any truly effective sanctions regime against Iran would target their oil exports – the place where Iran earns the bulk of their foreign currency. But Wednesday’s sanctions specifically avoid putting restrictions on Iran’s oil exports, a compromised that the US had to make in order to get China (which relies on Iranian oil to help fuel their ongoing economic expansion) on board. Similarly, Wednesday’s resolution bars foreign governments from supplying Iran with weapons – but only “weapons” that meet a specific set of definitions included in an annex to the sanctions resolution. One item that apparently somehow does not meet the “weapon” definition is the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system Iran has been trying to buy from Russia for three years now. So far Russia hasn’t delivered the S-300s for possible reasons that include technical problems with the system, to pressure from Israel not to complete the deal (Israel fears the S-300 would be so effective it would make any attack against Iran’s nuclear production sites too costly to the Israeli Air Force; at the same time Russia has begun to buy unmanned drone aircraft from Israel to cover up a hole in Russia’s military intelligence gathering capacity, an arrangement that may be jeopardized by the final sale of the S-300 to Iran). There is nothing in the new sanctions though that would actually prevent Russia from delivering the S-300.

The annexes to the sanctions bill are in fact filled with loopholes, many of which are outlined in this informative (but thanks to an odd choice of background/font colors, very hard-to-read) post. For example, a lot of the reporting on the sanctions say that several dozen individuals and more than a dozen banks and companies are specifically targeted (the reason why US officials are touting the sanctions as “smart”); in reality though there is only one individual and one bank that were not covered by earlier UN sanctions.

In an attempt then to “do something” on the Iranian issue, the US watered down the sanctions put before the Security Council enough so that the Chinese and Russians wouldn’t veto them, but in the process they passed a sanction regime that – despite assurances from the White House – won’t have enough “bite” to actually compel Iran to abandon its nuclear program (the whole point of the sanctions in the process). To make matters worse, the US seems to be opening a rift with Brazil and Turkey – two countries that in recent months have been coming into their own as fledgling powers on the world stage. Brazil and Turkey recently worked together on a scheme that would have had Iran ship uranium to Brazil in return for fuel for their nuclear research reactors. The United States was quick to try to scupper the Brazil/Turkey deal, based in part on new assessments that the Iranians had more nuclear material than they were originally believed to possess (in other words the Iranians were happy to give some nuclear material to Turkey as part of the deal since they had more hidden away). Brazil and Turkey though felt the US opposition was really motivated by a desire not to have more voices setting the tone of global affairs; notably both countries voted against the Iran sanctions resolution (Lebanon, serving a term in one of the SC’s rotating seats, abstained in the final vote). It’s a move likely to set the tone for future international negotiations, adding Brazil and Turkey to the growing list of countries the United States will have to try to “win over” when it comes to building international consensus on a given issue.
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Jong Un On Deck

With the recent raid on the Gaza-bound relief flotilla, the ongoing crisis in the Gulf of Mexico and this week’s UN debate over new sanctions on Iran, the world’s attention has turned away from North Korea. But political life in the Hermit Kingdom is still as bizarre as ever.

On Monday Chang Sung Taek was named vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission. What makes this at all noteworthy is that the National Defense Commission is one of North Korea’s most powerful state institutions and Chang Sung Taek is regarded as a close ally of “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il’s youngest son Kim Jong-Un. And that brings us back to the whole complex issue of finding a successor to Kim Jong-Il, a task that has taken on a new urgency since the Dear Leader apparently suffered a serious stroke a year-and-a-half ago and is now in frail health. The belief among North Korea watchers is that Kim Jong-Il is trying to consolidate support around the twenty-something Jong-Un as his chosen successor – there is even belief that this behind the scenes power-struggle could be the motivation behind notable acts of North Korean aggression that have included nuclear and ballistic missile tests and even the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan.

Chang Sung Taek was purged from the North Korean leadership in 2004, but returned to power two years later and now has risen to its highest levels. In other news from NK, the Times of London is reporting that two other senior North Korean officials suddenly left the government – one due to a heart attack, the other killed in a car “accident”; both possible indications of some regime housecleaning ahead of the younger Kim’s taking the reigns of power. Kim Jong-Il’s decision to promote his youngest son as his successor came after his eldest – Kim Jong-Nam - fell out of favor with his father after being caught trying to sneak into Japan using a false passport apparently to visit Disneyland Tokyo (and thus in the eyes of Kim Jong-Il proving himself not to be leadership material). Recently, the passed-over Kim Jong-Nam denied South Korean media reports that he was planning to defect to someplace in Europe.

Finally, just because you’re a despotic, Stalinist state, doesn’t mean you can’t be the source of a little humor. The site NK News has a Random Insult Generator based on the speeches of Dear Leader Kim and the official North Korean news agency. Just the thing to spice up your emails with bon mots like: “you politically illiterate militarist.”
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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Real Jihadis of New Jersey

By now you’ve probably heard the story of Mohamed Alessa and Carlos Almonte, two naturalized American citizens arrested in New Jersey last Saturday night on charges of terrorism – the allegations are that the two men were headed to Somalia to join up with the Islamist group al-Shabab to join a jihad against “non-Muslims”, though some reports say more specifically that they planned to kill US troops overseas.

Overall, the television news reporters I saw on the story did a fairly good job of discussing al-Shabab, quite obviously a group they’d never heard of before (though one we’ve discussed on this site numerous times); one exception though was Fox News’ “Security Expert”, former NYPD officer Bo Dietl, who mistakenly tied al-Shabab to the Somali pirates (in fact al-Shabab has been fighting against the pirates, branding them as “un-Islamic”, just about the worst condemnation that you can get from a militant Islamic group like al-Shabab). As more information is coming out about Alessa and Almonte though, it’s seeming less like they are hardcore jihadis and more like they are a couple of screwed-up young men who fell under the sway of a radical preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki, who preaches global jihad via the Internet from his base in Yemen.

Newspapers in New Jersey this morning are portraying Alessa as a troubled youth who local officials felt was such a threat those around him that at one point during high school he was not allowed to be taught in a classroom with other students. Almonte’s family describe him as a shy kid who fell in with the wrong crowd – namely, Alessa, who they blame for filling his head with violent ideas. While the two were arrested while on their way to the airport to catch a flight to Egypt, it’s unclear how they planned to then get to Somalia, or to link up with al-Shabab if they did manage to get to the country. And Al-Shabab probably isn’t the best group to link up with if you’re goal is to participate in a global jihad. Even though al-Shabab has pledged its allegiance to al-Qaida, al-Shabab hasn’t engaged in acts of international terrorism, instead they are locked in a quasi-civil war in Somalia, trying to dislodge the weak Somali transitional government in Mogadishu, while also skirmishing off-and-on with other rival Islamist groups in the country, like Hizbul Islam, and occasionally with the Somali pirates as well. Killing US troops would also be problematic, since at the moment (officially at least), there are no US troops involved in operations in Somalia.

The case of Alessa and Almonte does raise two points worth pondering:

First – it again shows how the current mission in Afghanistan is an utter waste of time, money and, most importantly, the lives of American soldiers. The oft-stated reason for having American and coalition troops in Afghanistan for the past nine years is to keep the country from again turning into a haven for terrorist groups like al-Qaida. But what’s always overlooked in this argument is that Afghanistan was a base of last resort for al-Qaida, a place to flee to when they were kicked out of Sudan in the mid-90s. Remote and with little modern infrastructure, Afghanistan is a lousy place to try to fight a global jihad from (unlike Somalia, which has an 1,100 mile long coastline along some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes). Since the US-led military campaign began in Afghanistan, al-Qaida has increasingly used the Internet to recruit and organize – see preachers like Anwar al-Awlaki who radicalized Alessa and Almonte via the Web; meaning that having a physical “base” is far less important to al-Qaida, and other global jihadists, than it was a decade ago. So even if all the foreign troops withdrew from Afghanistan tomorrow, there’s no reason to assume it would revert to being a terrorist base camp, or that it would lead to a new 9/11.

Second – it will be interesting to see if the escapist jihadi fantasies of Alessa and Almonte increase the pressure for American intervention in Somalia. Last October in The Mantle, I predicted that Somalia would eventually become the next front in America’s “Global War on Terror”, likely in 2011. I picked that date based on political reasons: by mid-2011 US troops will be out of Iraq, Afghanistan will remain a quagmire and heading into the 2012 elections, Barack Obama will feel pressure to show “action” against global jihadists. Since last October, Obama has continued to show that he’s committed to the Bush-era idea of the GWOT, while the situation in Afghanistan has certainly not improved - arguably it has gotten worse. According to a report on NBC’s Nightly News two weeks ago, meanwhile, American drone aircraft are already active over the skies of Mogadishu on a nightly basis. If Alessa and Almonte increase American focus on (and paranoia about) the Islamist groups active in Somalia, it could increase the likelihood of the opening of a Somali front in the War on Terror.
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Monday, June 7, 2010

Think The Gulf Is Bad? Look At Nigeria

While the American press, and of course American politicians, have been fixated on BP’s ongoing oil spill along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico; The Guardian reported last Sunday that the Gulf spill is actually small potatoes compared to the ongoing, decades-long environmental catastrophe in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta region. According to The Guardian, a Gulf-sized amount of oil has been spilled every year in the Niger Delta for roughly the past four decades. And in contrast to the efforts to clean the Gulf Coast, little or nothing usually is done to clean up spills in the Niger Delta, despite the fact that most of the residents in the region rely on subsistence farming or fishing for their livelihoods – a likely reason why life expectancies for natives of the Niger Delta have dropped to, on average, just 40 years.

The Niger Delta is one of the richest oil-producing regions on Earth, with the “light” Nigerian crude regarded as some of the highest-quality crude oil in the world. Much of that Nigerian crude finds its way to the United States, which now gets 40% of its imported oil from Nigeria (in January 2010, Nigeria exported more oil to the United States than Saudi Arabia). But despite the vast amounts of oil revenues flowing into the country, residents of the Niger Delta complain they see practically none of the proceeds while having to deal with the massive pollution and ecologic damage produced by the petroleum industry (in response a rebel movement called MEND – the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta – formed to fight for independence for the region based on the failure of Nigeria’s central government to share the oil revenues). Niger Delta residents say that rather than a single massive spill, the vast amounts of oil polluting the region come from rusting pipelines the oil companies refuse to replace and a lack of safety procedures at drill sites. They argue that oil companies simply don’t care about polluting the environment, and that the Nigerian government refuses to enforce anti-pollution laws because of the amount of money the petroleum industry brings into the country. The oil companies counter by saying many of the leaks in their pipelines are the result of vandalism or attacks by groups like MEND and not because of a lack of maintenance to the decades-old network.

Whatever the reason for the leaks, it does seem clear that neither oil companies or the Nigerian government is putting much effort into cleaning up the Niger Delta, allowing the world’s worst case of oil pollution to go on and on and on.
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Life On Titan

Last weekend I spent some time reporting for The Mantle from the World Science Festival. During a presentation titled “The Science of Star Trek”, one of the panelists said he believed we would find fairly conclusive proof of life outside of Earth within the next 20 years. That’s why this story from Russia’s RIA Novosti caught my eye: according to the report, NASA scientists analyzing data from the Cassini spacecraft currently orbiting Saturn has discovered what they think might be signs of primitive life on the planet’s moon, Titan.

Titan is a bitterly cold (-300 degrees) place where there the seas are made of hydrocarbons rather than water (insert your own BP joke here). Scientists studying the chemistry of the surface from data collected by Cassini have found a lack of acetylene on the surface – some biologists theorize that because of the extremely low temperatures on Titan’s surface, life that uses liquid methane as a basis for their biological functions, rather than water like lifeforms on Earth, may have evolved there. These methane-based life forms would likely “eat” acetylene, which could explain the lack of the material on the surface.

Of course there could be a host of non-lifeform related reasons for the lack of acetylene as well, but scientists at NASA aren’t dismissing the idea of life on Titan just yet and are planning to collect more data from future Cassini fly-bys to try to sort out the mystery.
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Saturday, June 5, 2010

Israel, Iran and the Summer War

If there is a message to be drawn from Israel’s raid on a Gaza-bound humanitarian aid flotilla it is this: there will be a major war in the Middle East this summer.

The flotilla raid was more than simply a military operation; it was an outward expression of Israel’s ongoing internal political and security debates. Since the modern state’s founding, Israel’s national mythos has been built on the idea that they are an island surrounded on all sides by hostile forces. While this was certainly true during their early history, Israel has enjoyed peaceful relations with two of their next-door neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, for several decades now; Turkey too was one of their closest allies, at least until the flotilla raid. In recent years, though hard-line Israeli governments have expanded this mythos: so now not only do they have enemies on all sides, they also exist in a world that (with the notable exception of the United States) is indifferent to their plight while secretly hoping for their downfall. The generally negative reaction to the flotilla raid around the globe (again save for the US) has only given strength to this idea.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s post-flotilla raid press conference gives valuable insight into the current thought process of Israel’s leadership. Netanyahu was quick to dismiss the flotilla’s stated mission of providing humanitarian aid and instead condemned it as an attempt by Hamas - the ruling force in Gaza that Israel regards as a terrorist organization - to rearm in preparation for a new conflict with Israel. Netanyahu then went a step further, to draw the line from the flotilla through Hamas in Gaza and back to Iran, at one point saying that Iran could not be allowed to “open a port on the Mediterranean [Sea].” It is a sign of how completely Iran is dominating current Israeli strategic thinking. Israel regards their main security challenge today as coming not from the Palestinian Territories, but rather from Iran and their ongoing nuclear program. Israel dismisses Iran’s claims that their nuclear research is meant to establish a domestic nuclear power program; instead saying it is a front for a secret atomic weapons program, which Israel regards as an existential threat to its very existence.

Here, it’s useful to take a look at Amos Oz’s op-ed in the June 1 New York Times. Believing that hostile forces surround them, Israel has responded by building and maintaining a formidable military. The downside to this belief, as Oz explains, is that Israel now acts as though every foreign policy problem has a military solution; Israel’s military campaigns against Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in 2008 though, both of which failed to destroy these groups, would seem to argue against this belief. Yet the Israeli leadership remains undeterred, arguing that only military action (namely air strikes) and not a new round of sanctions will prevent Iran’s nuclear program from going forward. Here Israel is buoyed by their success in 1981, when a raid against the research reactor at Osirak destroyed Iraq’s fledgling nuclear program.

To this point, diplomatic pressure and fear of a widespread backlash seem to have kept Israel from ditching the UN-based sanctions scheme and preemptively launching air strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites. I would argue the flotilla raid then should be viewed as a sign that these forces will no longer restrain Israel. Simply stated the flotilla raid is Israel in effect saying: “we’re surrounded, we’re going to act in our defense and we don’t care what you think about it.”

What effect would an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities have? Here it’s useful to look at a war game scenario conducted by the Brookings Institution that examined both the Israeli raid and the probable Iranian response. Rather than retaliate directly against Israel militarily, Brookings predicts that Iran will use their Lebanon-based proxies in Hezbollah (which receives a large portion of its funding from Iran) to strike back against Israel. And here is where the air strikes will spark the region-wide war. In April, Israel accused Syria of smuggling Scud missiles across the border to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. Hezbollah, Lebanon and Syria have all denied the claims, though that has not stopped Israel from pressing them. Because Hezbollah has seats in the Lebanese parliament, Netanyahu has said that Israel will regard any attack against Israel from Hezbollah as being officially sanctioned by the Lebanese government and will respond accordingly, the same goes for Syria for their role as the transshipment route for the weapons. So, if Iran’s Hezbollah proxies strike out at Israel, Israel will respond militarily against the governments of Lebanon and Syria (it’s also hard to imagine that Hamas, which also receives funding from Iran, won’t launch retaliatory strikes against Israel as well). What started as a series of air raids against a select group of targets in Iran will then quickly devolve into a war pitting Israel against Lebanon, Syria and Gaza.

The United States will find itself involved in the Summer War, by both choice and circumstance. During Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, the United States provided emergency shipments of precision guided bombs when Israel’s stockpile of these weapons ran low as what they thought would be a series of air strikes and hit-and-run ground incursions turned into a month-long guerilla campaign. It’s logical to believe that the United States will again be called on to provide Israel with war material; US troops based in Iraq (still numbering in the tens of thousands) are likely to become targets of retaliation attacks from Iranian-backed militias within Iraq, or by groups in Iraq sympathetic to the Iranian cause. Since the removal from power of their long-time adversary Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iranian influence in Iraq has steadily grown – Shiites, the dominant Islamic sect in Iran also make up the largest single ethnic group in Iraq as well. If Iran chooses to play the “oil card” by attacking oil tankers and other shipping in the Persian Gulf (a possibility outlined in the Brookings scenario), the United States, with the largest naval presence in the Gulf, will be pressed into the role of securing these vital shipping lanes as well.

Wars have unusual ways of unfolding once the shooting starts. It is impossible really to script exactly how the Summer War would play out – what role Turkey will play, how the populations in Jordan and Egypt will react to the fighting and how the government in Iraq will formally respond all are difficult to predict, as is how long the Summer War will actually last. But even before it starts, we can know the war will be a strategic loss for Israel. Countries go to war with specific goals that define victory – for Israel air strikes against Iran are meant to bring an end to their nuclear program. Israel believes this is an achievable outcome because of their experience with the Iraqi reactor at Osirak. But Iran has studied Osirak as well, and they have learned from the Iraqi experience not to concentrate their nuclear program at one lightly guarded site. Iran has scattered their nuclear sites across the country and some are allegedly buried 75 feet or more underground, protected by anti-aircraft weapons systems. It is extremely unlikely that the Israelis could destroy them with air strikes alone. And the experiences in 2006 and 2008 show that it is also unlikely Israel will be able to destroy Hezbollah and Hamas through military might as well. So long as the Iranian nuclear program, Hezbollah and/or Hamas survive the conflict in some meaningful form, they win/Israel loses.

An Israeli loss will likely (again) spell the end of Netanyahu’s government. Israeli political coalitions are notoriously fragile; fighting another unwinnable war will likely turn Israeli public opinion against Netanyahu and bring down his government. The Summer War will probably spell the end of any meaningful foreign policy efforts on the part of Barack Obama as well. Support for Israel in an unprovoked attack against Iran will undo all of the outreach Obama has conducted with the Islamic world, which started in earnest with his landmark speech in Cairo last summer. It will also drive a wedge between his administration and rising powers, like Brazil and Turkey, who attempted to negotiate a deal that would defuse the Iranian nuclear situation in May – an attempt that was rebuked by the United States; and it will be another irritant in relations with Russia and China, both of whom the United States has worked hard to bring onboard for a new round of sanctions against Iran. Attempting to justify America’s support for Israel’s preemptive strike against Iran and their launching of a wider regional war will dominate Obama’s foreign policy efforts for the rest of his term in office, crowding out other initiatives.

The biggest losers, of course, will be the many, many innocent civilians who will be killed, maimed or displaced by the fighting in an unwinnable war.
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