Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Real Price Of Oil...

There's an incredibly thought-provoking piece out now from Time.com's military-focused blog Battleland on United States policy in the Persian Gulf. It talks about an analysis put together last year by Roger Stern, an economic geographer at Princeton University, who, after an exhaustive study, calculated the cost of the United States' military presence in the Gulf from 1975-2010 - a cost he puts at a whopping $8 trillion. Yes, that's trillion with a “T”. According to those calculations, the United States now spends as much each year ensuring that the oil from the Persian Gulf keeps flowing as it did in fighting the Cold War. And to make matters worse, Stern argues that it is not money well spent.

US policy towards the Gulf boils down to this: Thanks to the bottleneck created by the Straits of Hormuz, a military force could conceivably block the narrow shipping channels, cutting off the supply of oil and sending the world into an oil-fueled economic shock; therefore we must maintain a robust presence in the region to ensure that this does not happen (the US Navy's Fifth Fleet is currently based in the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain). Stern thinks this is nonsense. While it is conceivably possible that the Straits of Hormuz could be blocked by strategically sinking a few very large ships, the states of the Persian Gulf are too reliant on oil exports to ever do this, and countries outside of the Gulf (like China) are too dependent on oil imports ever to do it either.

History shows that Stern is probably right. Iran and Iraq spent eight years in the 1980s engaged in a brutal war with each other that featured, among other things, ballistic missile strikes on each others cities, the use of chemical weapons and suicide attacks carried out by children on the Iranian side. Yet neither the Iranians or Iraqis ever seriously tried to shut down the Straits of Hormuz, and oil prices were not only largely stable during the period of the war, they were also at near historic lows. If the Straits weren't shut down during that conflict, it is hard to imagine when they ever would be.

Yet much of current US foreign policy is built around just this scenario. Stern argues that this leaves the US overfocused on the Middle East while ignoring strategic threats in other parts of the world – say from China. I absolutely agree with him, especially since this is a point I've been arguing here for some time now. Consider for a moment that by the middle of this decade the United States will likely get as much oil from Africa as from the Persian Gulf, yet our investment/interest in Africa pales in comparison to our focus on the Mid-East. Unfortunately for as compelling as Stern's arguments are, they're not likely to change the minds of many decision-makers in Washington; his report originally came out in April 2010, a full year ago, to little public notice.
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The Last Typewriter

It was a simple enough story: News that the world's last typewriter manufacturer, Godrej & Boyce of Mumbai, India, had ceased production of the once ubiquitous office appliance, but sadly it turned into yet another example of today's sloppy journalism. I saw the story last night on NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams. As the owner of a 1940's-vintage manual typewriter (which needs a new ribbon), the story struck me as another example of good, historic technology being surpassed by something more modern, yet perhaps not as good (and here see the recent demise of Kodachrome film for a prime example).

Williams' piece was a brief drop-in near the end of the newscast, so I went looking for more information and found this story from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and that's where the sloppy reporting comes in. Godrej & Boyce were in fact the last manufacturers of typewriters in the world and did halt production of their last model – in 2009. But Williams, and others who picked up the story, portrayed it as though Godrej & Boyce just stopped production, the Nightly News even featured an obituary-style graphic that listed the typewriter's death date as “2011”. How this information hit the news now, and not two years ago, is that Godrej & Boyce announced they only had 500 typewriters left in inventory - from the stock they stopped producing in 2009.

It only took me about three minutes on the Internet to glean this particular piece of information. One would hope that with their vast resources, NBC could exercise the same level of due diligence. As for Godrej & Boyce – which as recently as the mid-2000's still cranked out 10,000 typewrites per year – one of the last “new” typewriters can be had for 12,000 rupees, about $270, shipping not included. And as for me, I think I'll try to scare up a new ribbon for my Remington.
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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

As Somalia Crumbles

The international community's three-year effort to end piracy off the coast of Somalia is a waste of time; that was basically the message presented by the Foreign Minister of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Mohammed Abdulahi Omar Asharq, to an anti-piracy conference in Dubai on Monday. “The race between the pirates and the world is being won by the pirates,” Asharq told attendees at the conference, adding that, “it is ... clear that piracy can only be uprooted on land, where it grows and persists.”

Asharq is echoing a sentiment expressed by a number of military and piracy experts over the past few years (despite what Donald Trump may think): that so long as Somalia exists as a lawless state without a functioning national economy, the lure of the big money to be made capturing and ransoming ships along with the ability for pirates to operate from several port cities along the long Somali coast, piracy will continue in a big way in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden. But international anti-piracy efforts have concentrated almost solely on intercepting pirates at sea, not trying to bring order and security to pirate ports like Haradheere and Eyl. The attempt of restoring a national government to Somalia, the TFG, is woefully underfunded and militarily only supported by a mission of African Union peacekeeping troops drawn from a handful of nations. The military of the TFG/AU mission spends most of its time fighting against the al-Shabaab Islamic insurgency, leaving them unable to provide security in the port cities and rout out the pirates.

And indications are that there won't be a boost to the TFG coming anytime soon. Last week the region of Azania (also known as Jubaland) announced their break from the central government in Mogadishu, announcing that they had become a semi-autonomous region and naming their own president. This would make Azania/Jubaland the second semi-autonomous region in Somalia, along with Somaliland in the far north, which considers itself an independent nation, even if no one else in the world does. The new president of Azania/Jubaland announced his intention to battle the militants of al-Shabaab, though Foreign Policy notes that Azania/Jubaland may be less a case of people striving for self-determination and more a case of one country meddling in their neighbor's affairs. Kenya is said to be the driving force behind the creation of Azania/Jubaland. The Kenyans have become concerned about al-Shabaab spreading south from Somalia, creating Azania/Jubaland then could be a convenient way for them to send their troops in to battle al-Shabaab without formally invading Somalia.
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Looting In The Land Of Honest Men

News out of Africa lately has been dominated by coverage from Libya, but it's worth noting the unrest that is occurring in some of the other parts of the continent as well, like the recent reports coming out of the landlocked and often overlooked country of Burkina Faso, where an army “mutiny” that started last week is showing signs of spreading across the country. Soldiers began protesting last Thursday in the capital, Ouagadougo; those protests turned violent, with dozens of people reported injured in street fighting. The soldiers then were said to have gone on a looting rampage of shops in the capital, perhaps an ironic action in a country whose name loosely translates to “the land of honest men” (Burkina Faso was formerly known as Upper Volta). The motivation for the protests seems somewhat unclear with one government spokesman quoted by Reuters as saying “we don't know what they want,” after soldiers began firing their weapons into the air last Thursday. The soldiers' action may simply be following an outbreak of public protests against the regime of President Blaise Compaore, who has ruled the country since 1987, the BBC is also saying that the protests by the army could be fueled in part by unpaid housing allowances as well as anger that the members of the military aren't paid as well as the members of the elite presidential guard.

The BBC is also reporting that as of Monday military protests had spread to three of Burkina Faso's other major cities and that members of the presidential guard apparently joined in on the protests in Ouagadougo. While Burkina Faso may not have the international importance of Libya, it is still worth noting what's going on in this corner of Africa as well.

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Weird Atmospheric Science

You might remember this story from last year about “Geoengineering”, an attempt, essentially, to hack the global climate. Well there's now another mad scientist-style idea floating around out there to fight global warming, and while this one won't have the Matrix-style affect on the skies that Geoengineering would, there's also a good chance that this plan could make global warming worse, instead of better.

The plan, as presented to the European Geosciences Union and reported by the BBC is simple enough in theory: Specially designed ships will sail to precise parts of the world's oceans where stratocumulus clouds are in short supply, the ships will then pump tiny droplets of seawater into the atmosphere to promote cloud growth to reflect more sunlight back into space, thus cooling the Earth. Simple enough, right? Well, in theory, yes, but it turns out that clouds are complex things and that the wrong size droplets could actually reduce cloud cover, rather than increase it. And fewer clouds would mean more sunlight would reach the Earth's surface, warming the globe rather than cooling it. Plus other scientists say that the plan drastically underestimates the amount of seawater that would need to be pumped into the atmosphere to achieve the desired effect in the first place.

Of course another way to fight global warming would be to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions pumped into the atmosphere in the first place. Just sayin'....
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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Karzai Family Values

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is engaging in another war of words with Western officials active in his country, this time over the management of Afghanistan's financial sector. Last September, Kabul Bank, the country's largest private lender and the institution that handles government and military payrolls for Afghanistan, nearly collapsed. The Kabul Bank wasn't done in by the global recession and credit crunch, but rather by good, old-fashioned mismanagement: Bank insiders used a series of fraudulent loans to suck close to a billion dollars out of the bank, nearly its entire asset base. Western firms including PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte were suppose to be providing consulting services and oversight for Afghanistan's fledgling financial sector, so Karzai is now slamming the foreigners for not seeing the collapse of Kabul Bank coming and taking steps to prevent it. Of course it is worth noting here that Kabul Bank's third-largest shareholder was a man named Mahmoud Karzai, and before you ask, yes, he is the brother of Hamid Karzai.

So President Karzai's complaint boils down to this: The Western companies overseeing the Kabul Bank should have kept the Karzai family from ripping it off.

Once again I find myself asking, “is this guy serious?” in relation to Hamid Karzai (here it might be worth while brushing up on the activities of his other brother, Ahmed Wali). “Hundreds of millions of dollars have been paid to these individuals and organizations to help the banking system of the country and they failed in their task,” Pres. Karzai said on Monday. It is almost tempting to say that he has a point; USAID, the US government agency that oversees foreign aid ended their contract with Deloitte in March because Deloitte's inspectors at Kabul Bank failed to see all of the bogus loans being written that led to the institution's near collapse. But of you go back a little further to the original stories surrounding the September banking crisis, reports at the time said that Mahmoud Karzai and other Afghan officials at the bank actively opposed moves suggested by the consultants, such as adopting Western-style accounting standards at the bank and refused to allow an independent audit of the bank's books. In essence, Deloitte was asked to oversee a bank without access to its inner workings, a situation that seemed doomed to failure.

Karzai's critique of the Western agencies involved with his country's economic sector follow a recent pattern of behavior with him, which has been basically to launch a series of scathing attacks against the foreign forces (both military and civilian) active in his country. One could say that it is nothing more than a transparent ploy to shift attention away from his own corrupt and ineffective government and try to put the blame for his country's problems elsewhere. During Monday's address, Karzai promised that “whoever was involved in leading the bank into crisis, all those people will be brought to justice.” Somehow I doubt that Mahmoud Karzai will be among those people.
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Monday, April 11, 2011

Arab League Doubles Down

While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice are said to have led the charge within the American government to intervene for humanitarian grounds in Libya, the act that seems to have spurred the global community to action was the Arab League's call for a no-fly zone. Within a few days of the Arab League's announcement, which amounted to their symbolically turning their backs on one of their more famous members, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, aircraft from the United States, Great Britain and France were patrolling the skies over Libya.

Now the Arab League is calling for another no-fly zone, this time over the Gaza Strip. That call is spurred by an increase in fighting between the Gazans and Israel over the past week, which has seen rocket attacks launched from Gaza met by Israeli airstrikes. So far the casualty totals are one wounded in Israel and 19 dead in Gaza. That statistic has the Arab League calling Israel's actions “brutal” and asking that the UN Security Council “consider the Israeli aggression in the Gaza Strip on an urgent basis to stop its siege and impose a no-fly rule on the Israeli military to protect civilians in the Gaza Strip,” according to the League's formal statement. Not surprisingly, the Israelis responded by telling the Arab League that instead of UN resolutions, they should focus on getting the folks in Gaza to stop launching missiles into Israel.

The Arab League's call for a no-fly zone over Gaza won't fly (forgive the pun) if for no other reason than a resolution authorizing it will be vetoed by the United States within the Security Council as are any resolutions that are perceived to interfere with Israel's security stance. But the fact that the Arab League is publicly calling for a no-fly zone in the first place is yet one more bit of tension in an already tense region. Meanwhile, both the Gazans and the Israelis say they are willing to abide by a cease-fire, so long as the other side stops shooting first. As to why there has been a flare up in attacks between Israel and Gaza after a period of relative calm (relative to the region at least), a couple of factors are likely at play: a recent attempt at rapprochement between the Hamas-led government in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank, as well as Palestine's potential unilateral declaration of statehood that could happen later this year, both factor that would drastically change the current Israel-Palestine equation.
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Friday, April 8, 2011

Al-Qaeda's Back (We Think)

Reports started circulating in the media during the past few days, like this in-depth account from the Wall Street Journal, that al-Qaeda is making a comeback in Afghanistan. As recently as last fall, US intelligence officials said that the total al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan was as small as a few dozen militants. But now, according to the WSJ, the US-led coalition has evidence of new al-Qaeda training camps springing up in parts of the country formerly thought of as “secure”, evidence, they say, that strong ties remain between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, despite nearly a decade of war against them.

I'm not in any position to dispute the accuracy of these reports, but their timing sure is convenient. The old narrative, that al-Qaeda had largely been defeated in Afghanistan, made the military mission seem like a success, but it also undercut the need for the United States to maintain a large military presence in the country, since the mission was now essentially to defend the thoroughly corrupt and largely reprehensible government of Hamid Karzai against a home-grown insurgency, the Taliban, and picking sides in someone else's civil war is rarely a good idea (see the rapidly deteriorating situation in Libya as an example). With Congress in an absolute mania to slash spending, the $100 billion per annum allotted to Afghanistan seemed like a prime target.

Bring al-Qaeda back into the picture and suddenly everything changes...but should it? There still is a visceral need within America to “get” those who perpetrated 9/11, even though the actual attackers are all already dead, the planners either dead or in custody, and while the figurehead for the attacks, Osama bin Laden is still at-large, there's nothing to make anyone think we'll be catching him anytime soon (assuming he's even still alive). In the decade since, al-Qaeda has become a much more diffuse group, one of world-wide franchises rather than a group headquartered in the badlands of Afghanistan. It's worth noting that the last two attempted al-Qaeda attacks against America originated from Nigeria and Yemen rather than Afghanistan – it might be worth further noting here that the 9/11 attacks themselves were largely planned in Germany, funded by Pakistan and carried out by Saudis, yet we never invaded any of those countries in retaliation.

So should the presence of a few scattered al-Qaeda outposts and an ongoing relationship with the Taliban really change the metric by which we measure our continued enormous investment of lives and treasure in Afghanistan? Or should we just treat al-Qaeda's presence there like we do in the dozen or so other lawless and semi-functioning states across Africa and Asia as a low-level problem to be dealt with on an as-needed basis and not as the justification for spending hundreds of billions more of our dollars and dedicating the lives of 100,000 or more of our fellow citizen-soldiers on a mission whose chance for success is doubtful at best?
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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Journalism or “Just a Blog”?

Originally I set out to write a simple post about London erecting a statue to honor cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on the 50th anniversary of his becoming the human being to ever travel in space, which occurs next week on April 12. As part of that post I intended to include a bit about a new book called Starman by authors Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony, which adds a new chapter to the mythos surrounding Gagarin, who became an iconic figure both in the old Soviet Union and remains one in today's Russia. Starman, however, paints a disturbing picture of the Soviet space program in the late 1960s. Noted journalist Robert Krulwich, formerly of ABC and now of NPR, received an advanced copy of the book and made it the subject of a lengthy blog post two weeks ago where he recounted in detail the book's more explosive allegations surrounding the death of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov during the flight of Soyuz 1. In short, authors Doran and Bizony allege that the flight of Soyuz 1 was pushed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Russian revolution, and that the ship was in no shape to fly in space, a fact known to Cosmonaut Komarov, who was sure that he would die if he went up on the mission. He tried to get the mission delayed to no avail. While he could have simply refused to fly, his back-up was his good friend and now Soviet icon, Yuri Gagarin. According to the authors, Komarov decided to take the flight, sacrificing himself for Gagarin. After launch, when it became clear that he would not return alive, Komarov allegedly had a tear-filled conversation with Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin, before “crying in rage” against those who sent him up as his ship began its final, fiery plunge to Earth.

Soon after Krulwich's NPR blog account appeared, its veracity was attacked by members of the international space historian community, who pointed out that Starman contradicted the well-documented historical account of Soyuz 1 in many areas, and that certain key details – like the teary conversation with Kosygin – likely never happened. It turns out that the account in Starman is almost entirely from a single source, a former KGB agent and “friend” of Gagarin named Venyamin Russayev. The only problem is that there is no record of a Venyamin Russayev ever appearing anywhere before his inclusion in Starman. To make matters worse, there is evidence now that Doran and Bizony may have never even directly spoken with “Russayev”, whomever he may be.

While authors Doran and Bizony were quickly criticized by the space community for their lax approach to history, so too was Krulwich for his verbatim retelling of their tale without ever bothering to verify if any of it was in fact true. Sadly, despite his distinguished journalistic career (Krulwich has a knack for breaking complex issues down into easily understandable, yet still intelligent, TV packages), Krulwich decided to both pass the buck by blaming Doran and Bizony for feeding him a potentially false story sold as history, and to tell his critics to calm down since because of the “informal” nature of blogs, basic tenets of journalism – like fact-checking – apparently do not apply. “It's not an NPR news story. A blog is a blog,” Krulwich said via NPR.

It is both a disheartening and disturbing reply to a botched bit of reporting. First, one would hope that a journalist - the craft at which Robert Krulwich has earned his living for many years - would apply the same standards to their reporting no matter what the platform: television, print magazine, or yes, even a lowly blog. This implication that because something is “just a blog” is even more disturbing when one considers the trend among major media outlets to rely on “citizen journalists” to augment, or even replace, their traditional coverage. Blog posts, YouTube clips, Tweets, and cellphone videos are now a routine part of the reporting mix of most major media operations. If we look at the coverage of the “Arab Spring” revolts across the North Africa/Middle East region, we see that a preponderance of the coverage, particularly the early coverage of the uprisings, came not from paid correspondents, but unpaid “citizen journalists”. If we are going to give these public submissions the same weight as the formal packages filed by paid reporters, is it too much to expect that they should/would follow the same basic journalistic tenet of factual accuracy? That because something may be “just a blog” and “informal” does not absolve it of a duty to be accurate or for its writer to at least attempt to verify the salient details of the story he/she reports? And if we are not willing to hold these sources to these standards, then is it not time to remove them from our news-gathering mix?

Rather than traditional journalistic ethics, Robert Krulwich preferred to follow the one-time diktat of the famed supermarket tabloid, The Weekly World News: don't fact-check yourself out of a good story. The authors of Starman made some bold, and apparently dubious claims that were easily challenged, let Krulwich did not bother to attempt to check them before running with the story. Sadly he should realize that for journalists - real journalists - the same standards must apply, even if you are writing for “just a blog”.
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Monday, April 4, 2011

Karzai And The Kook

Late last year a small-time, crackpot pastor in Florida named Terry Jones threatened to burn a copy of the Islamic holy book, the Koran. Jones' motives for this act of religious hatred were never really made clear, other than it served as a grade-A publicity stunt for his tiny, 30-member church. US military officials warned ominously that if Jones went ahead with his Koran burning, it could have dire effects on US troops deployed in Afghanistan along with harming US credibility across the entire Muslim world. After milking this stunt for its full publicity value, Jones backed off on his plans. So end of story, right?

No. Apparently, with little of the fanfare of his earlier attempt, two weeks ago Jones made good on his threat and did burn a copy of the Koran, after a “trial” where Jones acting as judge found Islam “guilty” of, well, I don't know what since it's hard to tell what this nut is talking just about anytime he opens his mouth. Unlike last year, the US media boycotted coverage of Jones' stunt, applying it seems the same logic to his lunacy as they now have to another collection of nuts masquerading as a church, the folks from Westboro Baptist – those fine people who “protest” at the funerals of US soldiers and public figures. Recently media outlets decided to stop giving these publicity-seeking cretins airtime. Jones' Koran-burning seemed like that hypothetical tree falling in a forest – there was no hue and cry from the Muslim world, even though news of his act of blasphemy did make it all the way to Afghanistan somehow, where there were a few low-key, peaceful protests.

That is until Afghan President Hamid Karzai decided to get involved in the matter. According to Sunday's Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN, after the initial low-key protests Karzai went on Afghan television and made a fiery speech denouncing Jones and his actions and also demanding an official apology from both President Barack Obama and Congress. Karzai's tirade did what Jones could not; it sparked an outbreak of rioting in the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The target of the Afghans' wrath though turned out not to be US troops, but rather a UN compound where aid and reconstruction efforts for the region were located, at least seven UN workers have been killed so far and unrest in Mazar-i-Sharif is said to be continuing.

So why did Karzai make a speech designed to whip his people into a frenzy so long after the fact? Frankly it's probably because Karzai is as much of an unstable, publicity-seeking nut as Pastor Terry Jones. And Karzai is in a snit both because Afghanistan lately has been relegated to the backpages by world events like the earthquake in Japan and the symbolic seismic shift in politics across the Arab world, and also because of US/Coalition demands that Karzai take steps to better govern his country like cracking down on corruption and introducing some transparency to his government. Karzai's standard response to calls for governmental reform - particularly when they strike close to home, like the recent run on the Kabul Bank, managed in part by his relatives - has been to try to deflect attention by railing against civilian casualties caused by the Coalition's anti-Taliban operations; “they”, the outsiders, are trying to run our country and are killing our people, is the usual subtext of these messages from Karzai. The Koran-burning then just provided Karzai with a convenient deviation from his standard script.

It is bad enough for the US/Coalition, now a decade into this Afghan adventure, to have such an incompetent, corrupt leader in the Afghan government. But when you have someone so actively working against the mission and efforts to rebuild his own country (keep in mind the people killed in the Koran protests were UN workers trying to lead relief efforts), you have to question the whole validity of the mission, especially when the intelligence community has been saying for some time now that al-Qaeda – the reason behind the mission to Afghanistan in the first place – has moved on to other bases around the world. One has to wonder if at this point it would be better to leave the continued efforts to provide security and reconstruction in Afghanistan to regional neighbors like Pakistan, India and China, perhaps building them around projects like the TAPI pipeline that would benefit the entire region. As Congress argues over cutting the budget, the $100 billion allotted to continuing the Afghan mission seems like a good place to start.
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