Thursday, September 30, 2010

Peace At Last! World War I Finally Ends

Some great news out of Europe – the First World War, a conflict so horrible it was known as the “war to end all wars” is finally officially ending 96 years after it began.

And no, you didn't miss 90 years of history, the fighting actually did end in 1918 and the conflict officially came to a halt in 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.  But that treaty also stipulated that Germany pay war reparations, primarily to Belgium and France; on Sunday Germany will make the last of those payments with a sum of approximately $93 million, finally satisfying the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles and “officially” ending the war.

As a condition to the treaty, France and Belgium demanded enormous sums of money as reparations from Germany, about 226 billion Reichmarks in 1919.  John Maynard Keynes, Britain's top negotiator at the time, was so outraged at the sum that he walked away from the peace negotiations and warned that Germany wouldn't be able to properly recover from the war themselves if they had to payout so much of their national treasury to France and Belgium, a condition Keynes said would lead to future problems.  Those future problems turned out to be World War II.  The huge debt payments did, as Keynes predicted, bankrupt the German state in the 1920s; which led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The German payment will go towards paying off bonds issued after the end of the conflict against the payments Germany owed to the Allied nations, most of those bonds today are held individuals or organizations like pension funds.  And in case you’re wondering, officially World War II isn’t over either – at least as far as Russia and Japan are concerned, the two sides have never signed a peace treaty due to a dispute over the Kuril Islands, which Russia occupied from Japan in the final days of the war and continue to hold to this day.  North and South Korea have also never signed a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War either.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bill Clinton, Russia And The Settlements

The current round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are once again slouching towards failure and much of the blame, at least on the part of the Palestinians, is falling on Israel's failure to maintain a freeze on settlement building within the West Bank. The “settlements”, in case you haven't been keeping up on the details of the negotiations, are Israeli-only housing projects built on the land the Palestinians hope will one day become their homeland; settlement blocks are ringed by security zones and linked by private roads, causing a map of the West Bank to bear a striking resemblance to a piece of Swiss cheese. The Israeli government meanwhile insists the settlements aren't a real issue but merely an excuse used by the Palestinians to sink the latest round of talks.

Now Bill Clinton has weighed in on the issue, laying the blame for the fragile state of the peace talks not only on the settlement issue, but on Israel's Russian-born immigrant population in particular. Clinton describes the Russian Jews who emigrated to Israel in huge numbers following the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 as the hardest of the hardline segments in Israel. Russian Jews moved to the settlement blocks in large numbers and now that they are there, they don't want to leave, providing a major obstacle to a negotiated Israel-Palestine settlement in the process.

It's certainly an interesting theory on Clinton's part, and it points to a demographic reality that isn't discussed much outside of Israel. It is estimated that one in six Israelis today were born in the former Soviet Union; in Israel's fractious political system, there are several parties that cater especially to Russian-speaking Israelis. And if Israel's current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, originally from the former Soviet Republic of Moldova is any indication, Clinton may be onto something as far as the political attitudes of Russian-born Jews; Lieberman has a long history of supporting aggressive policies towards the Palestinians, including in the past endorsing the idea of mass deportations of Palestinians from the West Bank.
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Friday, September 24, 2010

Americans OK With Fading US Influence

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is out with their survey of American perceptions of the United States' role in the world, Global Views 2010.  The takeaway from they survey is that a majority of Americans think the United States role in global affairs is diminishing, but surprisingly they're ok with that.  Only a quarter of Americans think that the US plays a larger role as the leader of the world than the country did ten years ago; while nine out of ten Americans think it is more important to focus on fixing domestic problems than for America to try to solve problems abroad.  More than two-thirds of Americans also thought the rise of aspiring global powers like Turkey and Brazil was a good thing since essentially it would mean that there would be other countries to help in dealing with global crises.

What's really interesting about these results is that they seem to fly in the face of the dominant thought among American politicians – namely that Americans expect the United States to play the role of the “sole superpower” and the world's policeman - the country that guarantees law and order around the world. As a result, much of our foreign policy today is based around this idea, along with fear on the part of our political leaders of doing anything that would take America away from this role in the eyes of the American public.  For example, at the core of arguments about why the United States must remain engaged in Afghanistan is this belief that if the US were to end the mission there before achieving “victory” (whatever that means) it would mean a loss of global prestige that the American people wouldn't stand for.

Yet the Global Views 2010 survey indicates that Americans would stand for a diminished leadership role for the United States on the world stage, in fact many would seem to prefer it if it then meant that we would be able to concentrate on resolving pressing domestic issues.

Other interesting results from the survey were a decided lack of support for a military strike by the United States against Iran to try to stop their nuclear research program (only 18% were in favor), along with a widespread belief that an American military strike would result in terrorist attacks against US interests in retaliation.  A majority also believed that if Israel launched an airstrike against Iran the United States should not engage in military action against Iran in support of Israel.
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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Medvedev's Main Event

There's a political battle shaping up in Russia pitting President Dmitry Medvedev against Yuri Luzhkov, the powerful Mayor of Moscow, in a struggle that could have long-ranging effects on the Russian political scene.  Luzhkov, who has overseen the capital for nearly two decades, is likely Russia's third-most powerful politician behind only Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.  He runs a city that is responsible for almost a quarter of Russia's annual gross domestic product (GDP) and controls a budget of more than $32 billion dollars (along with, some critics say, a paramilitary force of 10,000 in the Moscow police).

But in the past three weeks a series of reports have aired on Russia's television networks highly critical of Luzhkov; given the tight control the government exercises over the nation's television networks, it's nearly impossible to believe that these anti-Luzhkov pieces aired without the blessing of someone at the top levels of government.  Among the allegations leveled at Luzhkov were that he was responsible for Moscow's chronic traffic jams; that his wife, Yelena Baturina, amassed her vast personal fortune thanks to kickbacks on countless Moscow construction projects (Baturina owns a development company and is Russia's richest woman as well as one of only three female billionaires in the world, according to Forbes); and perhaps most damning, that Luzhkov was indifferent this summer as Moscow was being choked by smog from forest fires burning around the city and was more concerned about his collection of bees (Luzhkov is an avid bee-keeper) than he was about his citizens.

On this last point, it's tempting to see Luzhkov as a sacrificial lamb being put up to atone for the government's lousy response to the forest fire crisis this summer; a high-ranking termination to deflect public anger over the official disaster response (or lack thereof).  Another possibility is that Luzhkov got on Medvedev's bad side by criticizing his decision to halt work on the Moscow-to-St. Petersburg highway that would have plowed through the ancient Khimki Forest (more on that story here).  Medvedev called for the route of the highway to be reconsidered after the Khimki Forest protests gathered national attention, but on September 1 Luzhkov wrote an editorial slamming the suspension of work, saying the new highway was vital to improving the nation's infrastructure.  It was the kind of public rebuke of the top leadership not often seen in Russia today, and it seems like Medvedev took great offense, since shortly after the editorial was published, the damning reports about Luzhkov started appearing on the TV networks. On Sept. 10, Medvedev replied to criticism leveled at the national government by Luzhkov by saying that “government officials in this situation should either take part in improving our social institutions or go into opposition.”

Some political analysts in Russia are saying that if Medvedev is that dissatisfied with Luzhkov's performance then he should just fire him outright, and by not removing him from office, they argue, President Medvedev is looking like a weak leader.  This brings up the third possibility, that Luzhkov has become a pawn in a behind-the-scenes power struggle between Medvedev and Putin ahead of the 2012 presidential elections.  While Luzhkov challenged Putin for the presidency in 1999, since then he has been a largely loyal ally to the Kremlin.  Some in the Luzhkov camp are even suggesting that people within the Kremlin are playing up the Medvedev-Luzhkov feud to attempt to drive a wedge between the ruling tandem (as they sometimes call themselves) of Medvedev and Putin.  For his part, Putin has so far remained publicly silent on the Luzhkov matter.

Dmitry Orlov, director of the Agency for Political and Economic Communications in Moscow, estimates that there is a 70% chance that Luzhkov will either resign or be removed from office “in the near future.”  Should that happen, it will likely be seen as a “win” for Medvedev and will burnish his credentials as a reformer, even through he's has little else to show in his fight to reduce corruption in Russia; of course conversely if Luzhkov weathers the storm and stays in office, Medvedev will look weak, while it will likely boost the image of Putin as the real power in Russia.  Past the symbolism of Luzhkov staying or not staying in office, having an ally in the mayor's seat in Moscow would also give either Putin or Medvedev an advantage in the 2012 elections in the unlikely case that they face off against each other, since the mayor could be relied on to deliver hundreds of thousands of votes to their preferred candidate.  

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India's Troubled Games

Delhi is the host for this year's Commonwealth Games, and what was suppose a glorious international showcase is quickly turning into a national nightmare for India (to get a sense of feeling in India, check out this series of “man in the street” interviews by the BBC).  The Commonwealth Games, in case you're not familiar with them, are a sort of British Empire Olympics, bringing together teams from 54 nations that were once part of the Empire in a summer celebration of sport every four years.  Indian officials expected that the Commonwealth Games would serve as the same sort of global coming out party for their country as the 2008 Beijing Games were for China.

But the Delhi Games are having the opposite effect as several national teams balked over accommodations at the Athletes' Village, which some officials called “unfit for human habitation,” saying that the construction of the dormitories was poor and the sanitation facilities inadequate.  Not helping matters was the sudden collapse of a pedestrian footbridge on Tuesday, injuring 27 workers who were scrambling to get construction finished for the Games that are scheduled to start just two weeks from now, an event that underscored doubts about the overall quality of the venues for the Games.

Some Indian officials have tried to downplay the concerns of the national sport federations, Delhi's Chief Minister, Sheila Dikshit  was reported in The Guardian as saying, somewhat unbelievably: “something may be dripping, some tile may collapse, doesn't mean the entire Games are bad.” Another official tried to brush off some concerns as a cultural difference over basic standards of hygiene, suggesting that the Westerners were just being too picky about the accommodations. It is an excuse that isn't playing well with the sport federations nor apparently with the Indian people either; the Hindustan Times is reporting that two-thirds of Delhi residents are saying the Games have become a source of national shame, a sentiment echoed in a front-page headline in the Times of India.  Concern over the Games has become such an issue that on Wednesday night, the BBC dedicated the first ten minutes of their international newscast to coverage of the controversy.

Several teams, including New Zealand, Australia and Scotland are seriously considering pulling their athletes out of the Delhi Games over concerns for their health and safety.  The Commonwealth Games are scheduled to kick off on October 3, how many national teams show up remains to be seen.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hack The Climate

The Guardian published one of those stories last Monday that just makes you sit back and go “huh?” According to the article, the hot (no pun intended) new idea to fight global warming is to basically hack the world's climate system, or what its backers call “geoengineering”. The basic idea is that instead of reducing the amount of greenhouse gases – those gases blamed for warming the globe – released into the atmosphere, you just hack the atmosphere so that it can carry more GHGs without heating up. Voila, problem solved.

The concept is based on a natural phenomenon related to volcanic eruptions: when large amounts of sulfur dioxide are released into the upper atmosphere, the resulting haze has the effect of reflecting some of the solar radiation (a.k.a. sunlight) back into space; the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines for example reduced global temperatures by half a degree Celsius for more than a year thanks to the sulfur dioxide it spewed into the upper atmosphere. To put that in perspective, some small island nations around the globe are saying the difference in current GHG reduction goals that would result in a temperature rise of 2C opposed to 1.5C would be the difference between their nations being swallowed by the sea or not.

The geoengineers propose releasing huge amounts of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere on purpose to reflect a portion of the sun's output back into space, permanently; thus counteracting the effect of GHGs on the atmosphere. Simple. The Guardian reports though that once started, the sulfur dioxide spraying would have to continue, permanently. If sulfur levels dropped and the full effect of the sun hit the atmosphere, global temperatures (thanks to the GHG-laden air) would spike up suddenly and dramatically. They go on to say that: “a more disturbing effect of enhanced dimming would be the permanent whitening of day-time skies. A washed-out sky would become the norm.” If you want to see a dramatic portrayal of this in action, watch the movie The Matrix, where Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus explains how humans “scortched the sky” in their fight against the robots, and we know how well that turned out... (that example reminded me of this story from last year about scientists at McGill University who were attempting to reverse-engineer a dinosaur from a chicken's egg – a good rule of thumb should be that if it went awry in a sci-fi movie it's probably not a good idea to try in real life.).

Among the backers of geoengineering, according to The Guardian, are several prominent US-based conservatives, along with the influential right-wing think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute. Their rationale is that geoengineering would allow mankind to fight global warming (which they are suddenly buying into) without forcing business to adopt costly carbon-reduction technologies or buy carbon credits on emissions exchange markets. Lowell Wood, the man who helped to design President Ronald Reagan's “Star Wars” space weapons program is a vocal critic of current GHG reduction schemes, calling them “the bureaucratic suppression of CO2” though it's worth noting that just last week, the current GHG reduction framework was credited with halting the construction of a new coal-fired power plant in Poland after the project was deemed uneconomic when its carbon-reduction costs were factored in. Geoengineering advocates also include billionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson, both well-known for their humble, sanguine views of the world...

It might be a good idea to look at the blue sky while you still can.
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Friday, September 17, 2010

Is Afghanistan Keeping some Ethnic Groups From Voting?

Quick note about Afghanistan and how their upcoming round of elections is promising to be just as fraudulent (if not more so) than last year's presidential ones.  It's already expected that because of the deteriorating security situation in much of the country there will be fewer polling stations open for the parliamentary elections this weekend than there were for last year's presidential election, especially in Taliban strongholds in the south of the country.  But according to MSNBC, there will also be fewer polling stations open in the relatively peaceful north as well, and this has members of Afghanistan's Hazara ethnic group angry.

If you read the wildly-popular novel The Kite Runner, then you are likely familiar with the Hazaras; the protagonist Amir's childhood friend/servant Hassan was a Hazara, and as you may also recall from Hassan's treatment in the book, the Hazaras traditionally makeup Afghanistan's underclass.  But thanks to the parliamentary government installed after the United States-led invasion in 2001, the Hazaras have managed to carve out a small niche in the Afghani government – 30 Hazara candidates are running for seats in the 249-member wolesi jirga (the Afghan parliament). 

But their chances for success are now being compromised by the government's decision to close polling stations across the Hazara homeland in the northern part of the country, according to the Hazara's political leader Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, even though the part of the country dominated by the Hazaras has been relatively peaceful, unlike the predominantly Pashtun lands to the south.  And that gets to the heart of the problem, according to Mohaqiq; the predominantly Pashtun and Sunni government of President Hamid Karzai (himself a Pashtun) has been upset by the small, but growing, influence of the Shiite Hazaras in the national government.  Even though the Hazaras themselves could not challenge the dominance of the Pashtuns in the national government, they could if they allied with other minority groups in Afghanistan, like the Uzbeks or Tajiks.  It seems Karzai's Pashtun government is taking steps, using “national security” as a shield, to prevent this.

Mohaqiq told a rally of Hazaras he would not let them go unrepresented. Stay tuned, it's looking like another disastrous election for Afghanistan's "democracy".

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Canada's View: Third World America

I always it fascinating to read foreign press accounts of current affairs in the United States, to see what things look like from the other side of the fence so to speak.  This latest report from Canada's newsweekly MacLeans though is downright depressing. Titled “Third World America”, it argues that the United States is teetering on the brink of a systemic financial collapse, not a mere recession, and a plunge into the status of becoming a true Third World nation.

Sure, you can dismiss some of that as hyperbole, or perhaps even an innate Canadian inferiority complex, but the examples that make up the first third of the article are pretty telling. My personal favorite is the course being offered to county managers by Purdue University explaining how to breakup a paved asphalt street into gravel to save on road maintenance costs.  But along with offering up some economically-fueled horror stories, the MacLeans piece tries to get to the root causes of America's current economic decline.  Michael Bernstein, an economic historian at New Orleans' Tulane University laid the blame at the feet of conservative icon Ronald Reagan.  “We have been involved for three decades now in paring back public commitments and public spending, and that started with the Reagan revolution,” Bernstein said. “We are living with the outcomes and consequences.”

Interestingly one of Reagan's former staffers, Clyde Prestowitz, who served as a trade official to Reagan and later helped negotiate the NAFTA trade agreement, put the blame on American trade policies, specifically the United States' habit of trading economic favors for perceptions of national security.   Prestowitz said that the US was too willing to swap economic agreements in exchange for the right to put a military base in a foreign country or for support at the United Nations.  He also blasted the US government for not challenging other countries, most notably China, on currency manipulation – keeping their currency artificially “cheap” to give them an unfair advantage in the import/export markets.  Prestowitz also noted that other countries were willing to protect “key industries” the feel are important to their national well-being with heavy subsidies; the US, by contrast, has been dedicated to the advice of Adam Smith and has been more than willing to let jobs and industries go abroad in this era of globalization.

Smith was an 18th century Scottish economist who popularized the idea that some nations would be better at producing a specific good than others (for example France can produce wine better and cheaper than England), so it makes economic sense to buy goods from the countries that do the best job of producing them rather than trying to produce every good your society needs yourself; it is the basic idea behind globalization, and one embraced by American economists and politicians, particularly conservative ones.  But the 21st century is much different and much more complex than Smith's 18th, we wouldn't follow 18th century medical advice (where a doctor would likely have you slapping a leech on your forehead to “re-balance your humors”), does it make sense then to follow 18th century economic advice, especially when, as Prestowitz notes, other countries aren't playing by the same rules?

The MacLeans article points to the need for some new and different thinking from America's leaders, both political and economic, if we are to reverse this financial slide.  Sadly it looks like we're not about to get any. 

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Other Ground Zero Mosque

While the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has passed, the furor over the “Ground Zero Mosque” continues (still ignoring the fact that the Cordoba House/Park51 is neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero).  But hopefully this brief story from the New York Times about the other Ground Zero Mosque can put the issue to bed once and for all.

You see there already has been a mosque at Ground Zero, there was an Islamic prayer room inside the South Tower  of the World Trade Center, a room that was destroyed along with the rest of the building in the terrorist attacks. It would be nice if this little bit of knowledge served to 1) remind us that the people killed on 9/11 weren't just white Christian folk like some would like to imply (nor were they all Americans, it is important to remember that about 700 were citizens of approximately 70 other nations); 2) that lower Manhattan has had and continues to have an Islamic community that has the same right to exercise their faith as anyone else and that 3) the Islamic fundamentalists who attacked the buildings destroyed their own prayer space, holy texts (I would assume the prayer room had at least a few Korans laying about) and their coreligionists, meaning they weren't brave individuals on some sort of grand mission, but a bunch of sick individuals co-opting religious ideas to serve their own twisted world view.

A guy can always hope.

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Holy Smokes

Hot on the heels of a slack-jawed Florida preacher Terry Jones' decision not to serve up Korans flambĂ© as some sort of twisted 9/11 “tribute”, video has surfaced on YouTube of Alex Stewart, a lawyer and avowed atheist from Queensland, Australia tearing pages from both the Bible and Koran to use as rolling papers for a pair of oversized joints he then lit up to see which holy text “smoked better.”  Stewart did this bit of desecration to lampoon the hysteria over Jones' plan to set fire to a stack of the Muslim holy texts and also to promote his own view that all religions are false.  Of course his protest against religious hysteria has threatened to spark its own wave of hysteria with the head of the Islamic Association of Australia issuing an appeal for calm.

Jones and Stewart's actions, and the furor that surround them point to a real flaw of this digital age.  Throughout human history, every community has had to put up with its share of oddballs, all nursing their own set of grievances, hurts and conspiracy theories that they are happy to broadcast to anyone within earshot.  I remember the summer I spent working as a small-town reporter once (unknowingly) getting into an hour-long conversation with our town's resident crackpot that bounced from using the biblical calendar to plant wheat, to sunspots, to the JFK assassination.  I told my editor about it when I got back to the office, she replied that everyone in town knew better than to get in a conversation with ol’ Merle because he'd talk your ear off with his nonsense.

Unfortunately, the Merles of the world now have a global megaphone thanks to the sudden ubiquity of YouTube, et al. and a media so bereft of actual reporting skills they gladly hype whatever Internet meme strikes their fancy into the next “must-see” story.  Thus crackpots like Preacher Jones become the must-have media “get” as an interview, giving them a platform to spout their insanity.  To make matters worse, their appearance then just stokes others to do something more outrageous to seize the spotlight for themselves; without Jones Koran immolation threat it's hard to imagine we would have had Stewart’s holy rolling papers.

The worst part though is that these people aren't dismissed as nuts (racist, bigoted nuts in Jones' case), but rather treated with a degree of seriousness far beyond anything they actually deserve.  The threat of Jones's Koran-burning sparked protests around the Muslim world, protests that actually resulted in deaths in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

We all need to take a deep breath and realize in this age of instant fame and lazy journalism that crazy people will do crazy things for attention, we just have to stop taking them so seriously.

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9/11 Kitsch

One final thought on the 9/11 anniversary. Foreign Policy magazine is out with a photo essay called “9/11 Inc.” about the cottage industry that has grown up around the attacks – from speakers fees paid to people like Rudy Giuliani, to books and movies based on the day, to pieces of memorial kitsch produced to remember the Towers like the paperweight pictured below. Foreign Policy notes that much of the demand for 9/11-themed items is from the American south and Midwest rather than the New York City area, which is a pretty telling statistic…

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Kabul's Too-Big-To-Fail Bank

Given the current global recession, bank failures are not particularly newsworthy events.  But the Kabul Bank in Afghanistan is on the brink of being done in not by the economy, but rather by good, old-fashioned corporate mismanagement.  In the past few days, depositors have made a run on the Kabul Bank after infighting between the privately-held institution's two largest shareholders exposed a series of dubious real estate deals made with the Bank's holdings; so far $160 million has been sucked out of the Bank, with estimates of potential losses topping $300 to $400 million – a sum that exceeds the total worth of the Kabul Bank.

The situation is made worse by the fact that the Kabul Bank manages the payroll for Afghanistan's police and military, which puts the institution in that “can't be allowed to fail” category, meaning money to cover Kabul Bank's shortfalls will have to be found somewhere.  Mahmoud Karzai, the Kabul Bank's third-largest shareholder and brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai (though not to be confused with Hamid's drug-baron brother Wali) has an idea of where that money should come from – the United States.  Mahmoud Karzai thinks a US-bailout of the mismanaged Kabul Bank is just fine, though he, and other Afghan officials, bristle at the idea that the Kabul Bank then be made to adopt basic international management standards for financial institutions – like installing an independent board of directors or allowing audits of the Bank's accounts – or even that anyone be punished for bungling the Kabul Bank to the brink of insolvency.

Afghan officials apparently are worried that any independent look at the Kabul Bank will show that its top stockholders used the rank-and-file deposits to fund lavish lifestyles for themselves, which included some seriously bad real estate deals in Dubai; and as a slush fund for Hamid Karzai's presidential campaign.  The US-bailout deal apparently was being considered by the State Department before thankfully being dropped, on Wednesday, Afghanistan's Central Bank announced that they would step in to provide capital to the Kabul Bank, a good thing since riot troops also had to be called out on Wednesday to manage angry crowds that had gathered outside the Bank's main branch as depositors continue to try to salvage their life savings.

Lost in the shuffle of the Kabul Bank story is the fact that in ten days Afghanistan will be holding national parliamentary elections, elections that international observers fear will be riddled with fraud.  Thanks to the deteriorating security situation across much of the country, there will be fewer polling stations and fewer election monitors than during the country's troubled presidential elections in August 2009  That election saw nearly a million ballots – mostly cast for Karzai – tossed out over suspicion that they were fraudulent, a move that infuriated Karzai.  Speculation is that this upcoming election could see even more fraud committed than in March.

Shady elections, one brother of the country's President allegedly one of the nation's biggest druglords and now another brother a major shareholder in a bank used to fund lavish lifestyles for its top investors; it's the sort of mind-boggling corruption to make you question why after nine years the United States insists on remaining in Afghanistan propping up the same typr of government we condemn in other parts of the world?  Time magazine tried to offer a graphic explanation this summer: since apparently if US forces leave then the Taliban will be free to cut the noses off of young women around the country, just as was tragically done to poor Aisha as her punishment for running away from her abusive husband.

In 2009, when United States forces were already occupying large parts of her country...

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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Germany, Oil and Why You Should Love BP

If you've read much about global energy reserves, you've probably come across the term “peak oil”; basically it is the point when half of the world's oil reserves have been pumped from the ground and mankind is in pursuit of an ever-dwindling commodity. Since oil is a non-renewable resource, there will definitely be a peak oil point, when that point occurs though has been a subject of debate since the term peak oil was first coined in the 70s. As it turns out, predicting peak oil is a tricky thing – new technologies will make it possible to access previously unreachable oil reserves; while on the other side, the continued industrial growth of countries like China and India will increase demand.

Discussions of peak oil are usually accompanied by dire predictions of what will happen when mankind finally realizes that the days of oil are in fact numbered; Germany's Der Spiegel magazine is reporting this week about a dramatic new prediction of the chaos that is just around the corner. What makes this projection noteworthy though is that it's not from a “green” energy company, or environmental group, or any of the other usual suspects of peak oil doom, but rather the German military. Der Spiegel has confirmed and published the draft of a strategic outlook document prepared by the Bundeswehr, the German military, about what will follow the peak oil point (which they project will occur on or about 2010), the projections are pretty chilling.

According to the report, the real trouble will begin about 15-20 years from now (assuming they are correct about the 2010 peak oil date), as countries across the globe realize that the era of easily-accessible oil is drawing to a close and that not nearly enough has been done to move the world away from a petroleum-based economy. Oil-producing countries will realize a dramatic increase in their global influence as oil-importing countries become ever-more panicky about securing petroleum supplies. This will likely result in oil-exporting countries dictating terms of international relations, according to the Bundeswehr report; they give German-specific examples of Germany potentially having to move away from relations with Eastern European states to curry favor with oil-supplying Russia or ending their support of Israel to keep the oil from the Arab world flowing. This will also have major impacts on the global economy as well. Beyond the obvious cause-and-effect of dramatically-higher oil prices resulting in higher prices for most other goods as well, the report suggests the oil shortages will become so acute they could force countries to adopt “planned economies” so that the remaining oil reserves can be most efficiently used. Put together, the Bundeswehr report warns, it's a situation that could place the entire free market/democratic system in jeopardy.

It's all pretty doom-and-gloom stuff, which would be easy to dismiss if it wasn't coming from such a sober institution as the German military. It's also a story that dovetails nicely with this recent piece from Foreign Policy: “Why We Need Big Oil.” While it may be comforting to bash big oil, Foreign Policy suggests, huge multinationals like BP are still better than the alternative: national oil companies or other state-run petroleum interests, since for every well-run Norway, there are many more poorly-run petro-states like Equatorial Guinea. These are states that care little about the rights or safety of the workers who labor in the oil patch, or about the ecological damage the petroleum industry can wreak on the land if a strict set of safeguards are not followed and states that are unlikely to share the wealth generated by the petroleum industry with anyone outside the ruling regime and its assorted cronies and hangers-on.

But, Foreign Policy correctly notes, aside from a handful of huge multinational firms, no one besides the petro-states have the resources to explore for new reserves and bring new fields into production, meaning that if multinationals like BP or ConocoPhillips start selling off assets – which both firms have begun doing – the oil industry is going to be run to a larger and larger degree by a collection of heads of state, few of whom will be “Man of the Year” candidates anytime soon. With a larger share of a dwindling reserve under their control, they will be far less likely to respond to complaints about their lack of human rights or concern for the environment. Maybe by comparison BP doesn't look so bad after all.
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