Friday, May 27, 2011

Georgia's Independence Day “Celebrations”

Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili chose an interesting way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his nation's independence – by sending in riot troops to break up a protest against his regime in a move that left at least two protesters dead and several dozen others injured. As we reported here earlier in the week, about 6,000 people turned out for a protest against what they say was the growing autocracy of Saakashvili's regime (a protest that was also broken up by the riot police) and planned for an even bigger showing on Wednesday, Georgia's Independence Day. Saakashvili was quick to blame the protests on his old nemesis – Russia, contending that the demonstrators weren't Georgians asking for better government, but rather were provocateurs acting on behalf of Geogria's “enemy and occupier” (here Saakashvili is referring to the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia which both declared their independence from Georgia. Russia currently has peacekeeping troops based in both).

Saaakashvili's statement begs two questions: First, why do these leaders always insist protesters are crazy or foreign agents or “on drugs” as Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni both have recently done? Can't they just accept the fact that in any country, no matter how well or poorly run, there will be people opposed to your rule for a whole host of reasons? Scapegoating the protesters only makes the ruling regime look weak.

Secondly, and more importantly, is how long will the United States continue to have a double standard in responding to the violent putdown of obstensibly pro-democracy protests? Shortly after Saakashvili sent in the riot troops, US ambassador John Bass said “it is also important to remember that there were clearly a number of people included in that protest who were not interested in peacefully protesting, but were looking to spark a violent confrontation.” By comparison, the European Commission said that while they understood the need to restore order, the use of force was “very regrettable”, especially since Saakashvili had riot troops violently breakup pro-reform protests just four years ago, a fact ignored by Ambassador Bass.

It's not surprising since the United States has been more than willing to overlook Saakashvili's democratic shortcomings for years now because he is staunchly pro-Western and is seen as a check against Russian influence in the region. But he's also part of a disturbing pattern in US foreign policy. While the US has been vocal in its support for the Libyan rebels who are opposing Gadhafi and after deciding that Hosni Mubarak was no longer worth the trouble, the US threw its support behind Egypt's pro-democracy movement; America has been largely silent about the government of Bahrain's violent put-down of that country's pro-democracy movement because the current rulers of Bahrain a) allow their country to be used as a base for the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and b) are tightly allied with the House of Saud. So as long as Saakashvili remains reliably pro-Western/anti-Russian, and allows his country to be used as a transit route for western-bound oil and Afghanistan-bound troops, he'll likely get no complaints from the United States.

On the topic of democratic reform movements then, the United States is sending some very mixed signals; the problem is that the rest of the world is listening.
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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Laws Keep US From Cuban Oil Bonanza

Every now and then you come across a story that reenforces the enduring stupidity of the United States' decades-long embargo against Cuba. So it is with this story from an oil industry trade journal about how a deep-water drilling rig is beginning its long, slow journey from Singapore to the waters off Cuba to begin exploration in fields off the coast of the island nation. Specifically, the rig will be drilling in waters roughly 20 miles from Havana, and less than 60 miles from Key West, Florida. Surveys estimate there may be more than four billion barrels of oil off the coast of Cuba, along with sizable deposits of natural gas. Cuba is taking steps to exploit these resources with the goal of not only becoming energy independent but also of joining the club of oil exporting nations – a move that could breathe real life into the largely stagnant Cuban economy.

Now logically US-based firms should be all over these Cuban oil fields – with vast experience drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, such a partnership would make perfect sense. But that's not going to happen because of the economic embargo the US slapped on Cuba at the height of the Cold War to protest the takeover of Cuba by Marxist forces led by Fidel Castro. Of course not only has the embargo outlived the Cold War it also in six decades has failed to do the one thing it was designed to do, namely bring down the Castro regime.

But wait, it gets worse. If there were to be an accident with a Cuban well, like the kind that struck BP's Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico last year, that oil would wind up on the beaches of Florida Keys within a couple of days and would, if enough oil was spilled, slip into the Gulf Stream and spread up the East Coast of the United States. But thanks to the embargo, any companies responding to this hypothetical accident could not request rescue or clean-up equipment from the United States, since that would be perceived as “doing business” with Cuba, something forbidden under the embargo. And, again thanks to the embargo, the United States does not participate in regular oil spill recovery drills with Cuba as it does with another regional oil producer, Mexico.

So not only is the now-pointless Cuba embargo preventing American companies and workers from earning money off the Cuban oil fields, it is also putting the country at risk should there be a spill. Can you say short-sighted government policy?
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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Yandex Hits It Big

Russian Internet giant Yandex had a good day yesterday, their initial public offering (IPO) on New York's Nasdaq stock exchange earned the company $1.3 billion, $300 million than expected. Not bad for a day's work...

Yandex is Russia's answer to Google. Last year Yandex accounted for roughly two-thirds of the Internet searches conducted in Russia, their free email service is also very popular in the Russian-speaking world. Their IPO wasn't harmed by revelations which came to light earlier this month that Yandex had passed information to the FSB (Russia's state security bureau) about payments made through their online service to a popular anti-corruption watchdog website. Yandex even admitted that doing business in today's Russia is challenging in the prospectus they provided to the Security and Exchange Commission in the United States ahead of their IPO where they warned that as a company they “may be subject to aggressive application of contradictory or ambiguous laws or regulations, or to politically-motivated actions.”

At the time of the FSB admission, Georgy Voronkov, an analyst from research firm Investcafe, dismissed its likely impact on Yandex's IPO, telling the BBC that “all big funds who plan to invest a lot of money in Russia are already aware of these risks.” Apparently he was right.
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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Danish Pole

According to a leaked report, Denmark is set to lay claim to the North Pole. Officially, the North Pole belongs to no one, but both the Danes and the Russians would like to change that. Their actions are another indication that the Arctic region is heating up politically along with physically.
Climbing global temperatures are making the formerly inaccessible Arctic wastelands valuable territory as ice retreats and new, shorter sea routes between Asia, Europe and North America open up. The Arctic is also estimated to contain 25% of the world's remaining undiscovered natural gas and oil reserves, all of which makes ownership of chunks of the Arctic a prized commodity.

Under current international law, the nations bordering the Arctic Ocean can all claim the first 13 miles from shore as their national territory; each country can also claim an area of ocean 200 miles from their coast as their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). As the name suggest, each nation has the exclusive rights to use this piece of ocean for economic interests – fishing, drilling for oil and gas, whatever. But there is a clause in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (or UNCLOS) that allows nations to extend this EEZ beyond the 200-mile limit if they can demonstrate that a geographic feature, like a mountain range, extends from their territory out beyond the 200-mile limit. That's just what the Russians and Danes are trying to do, ironically with the same feature, a sub-sea mountain range called the Lomonosov Ridge: Russia claims the Ridge runs from northern Siberia out under the sea, directly beneath the North Pole, the Danes claim that the Ridge runs from Greenland (which is still nominally controlled by Denmark) under the Pole as well.

Eventually this will be a matter for the United Nations to settle. Of course the situation could get even more confused if Greenland were to gain their independence from Denmark. Greenland recently gained a large measure of autonomy from Denmark, despite having a population of only about 60,000. Greenlanders now control their own domestic affairs, while foreign policy decisions are still made by Denmark. As a measure of Greenland's growing clout, its capital city, Nuuk (pop. 15,000) recently hosted an international gathering of representatives from the world's Arctic nations, the Arctic Council, which included the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. The purpose of the meeting was to begin discussion about how the resources and territory of the Arctic could be used and shared, with the Arctic Council serving as a mediator in these affairs.
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Monday, May 23, 2011

Arab Spring: Georgian Edition

We've already seen that the pro-democracy/pro-reform demonstrations called the “Arab Spring” are spreading far beyond the Arab world, to places including Uganda in sub-Saharan Africa and now, apparently to the southeast corner of Europe. On Saturday an estimated crowd of 6,000 turned out in Tbilisi, Georgia to protest against the rule of President Mikhail Saakashvili in what they hope will be a prelude to more massive demonstrations on May 25, the 20th anniversary of Georgia's independence from the Soviet Union.

The complains from the Georgian demonstrators have a familiar ring to them: They accuse Saakashvili of turning into an autocrat, rigging elections, trying to eliminate political opposition to his rule and muzzling the nation's press. They claim that Saakashvili's turn to autocracy has only grown worse since he led Georgia into a disastrousfive-day war with Russia over control of two break-away regions in Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in 2008. The irony in their charges is that Saakashvili came to power himself in the wake of similar protests, the “Rose Revolution,” that pushed former President Eduard Shevardnadze from office.

The Western-educated Saakashvili has been viewed by governments in the United States and Europe as a valuable strategic ally and a way of blunting Russian influence in the borderlands of southeastern Europe and northeastern Asia, an image he has been happy to polish by actively promoting himself as a pro-market reformer while raising the threat of Georgia becoming a Russian satellite if he were to fall from power. Western governments have thus been willing to overlook charges raised by the Georgian opposition of oppression and substantial allegations that Saakashvili's government interfered in the January 2008 presidential elections – while at the same time condemning Russia over allegations of similar interference in their elections.

And that points out a bit of the hypocrisy that has surrounded Western (primarily the American government's) reaction to the Arab Spring protests – they have been fully behind the Libyan rebels attempts to oust Moammar Gadhafi from power, but practically silent on the oppression of protesters in Bahrain, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and whose royal family is closely allied with Saudi Arabia's. Given that measure it's doubtful that Wednesday's demonstrations against Saakashvili will be met favorably by the West.
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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Vladimir Putin, Modern-Day Apostle?

There's an odd little story from the heartland of Russia about a group of women who worship Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Literally. The all-female group is described as a religious sect who have made Putin the object of their veneration, the group's leader, a woman calling herself Mother Fotina compares Putin with John the Apostle. Putin, she said, did some “unrighteous things” during his KGB career, but once he became president she claims he was “imbued with the Holy Spirit” and is now “wisely leading his flock”, in this case the nation of Russia. The sect's members dress as nuns, are vegetarians and conduct services where they pray for the success of Putin and sign patriotic Russian songs rather than hymns (A Kremlin spokesman said that Putin does not see himself as being on a mission from God...). A local Russian Orthodox priest, Father Alexei, dismisses the sect's teachings as “a nonsensical mixture of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, the occult, Buddhism and political information” (not sure how Catholicism and Buddhism make it into the mix there myself...), though Father Alexei adds that he doesn't think Mother Fotina herself is “a mad woman.”

Meanwhile on more earthly political matters, Putin is taking steps to bolster his position ahead of next year's presidential elections by calling for the creation of a “popular front” that would draw support from all corners of Russian society to select a candidate for next year's polls – one would assume that their popular choice would be Putin himself... It is another sign, political commentators say, that Putin intends a return to the presidency.

At the same time Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov has also thrown his hat into the political ring by taking control of the Pravoye Dyelo or “Right Cause” Party. Prokhorov may be best known in the United States as the new owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, but he is also Russia's third-richest man, with a net worth of more than $22 billion and control of a large chunk of Russia's gold and nickel reserves. Prokhorov could be tempting fate, it has long been assumed that Mikhail Khodorkovsky's own entry into local politics in Siberia is what led to his downfall as chairman of the powerful energy conglomerate Yukos and his eventual imprisonment on tax fraud charges. So far Prokhorov has been careful to not openly challenge the Kremlin like Khodorkovsky did; Right Cause has positioned itself as a pro-business, anti-corruption party, without directly criticizing the current ruling regime. Prokhorov has promised that Right Cause will win the second-largest block of seats in this years elections for the Russian Duma (the Russian parliament). And with it's pro-business/anti-corruption platform, Right Cause could be the perfect vehicle for a 2012 presidential run for current Russian President Dmitry Medvedev should United Russia select Putin as their candidate and if Dmitry decides he wants to take on the Boss in the 2012 elections.
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Friday, May 13, 2011

Al-Shabaab: This Time It's Personal

A quick follow-up now to Wednesday's piece on threats of revenge coming from al-Qaeda's Somali franchise al-Shabaab, they're at it again, only this time the threats are personal: Al-Shabaab is threatening to kill Barack Obama's paternal grandmother Sarah in retaliation for the killing of Osama bin Laden by US Navy SEALs.

Despite being the grandmother of the most powerful man on earth, 88-year old Sarah Hussein Obama lives a quiet life in rural Kenya. She also seems unfazed by al-Shabaab's threats, telling ABC News: “my life has not been affected in any way…it has not restricted my movement. If the government has decided to bring more security personnel, we are OK with it,” after Kenyan authorities flooded her rural village with security personnel.

Al-Shabaab is currently fighting African Union peacekeepers for control of southern Somalia, including the capital city, Mogadishu. Though al-Shabaab's activities have mostly been limited to southern Somalia, they were blamed for a bombing in Kampala, Uganda at a 2010 World Cup viewing party that killed more than 70 people. Ugandan troops make up the bulk of the African Union peacekeepers in Somalia.
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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Putin's Got Gas (Problems)

If Barack Obama were thinking of heeding the call of Donald Trump (and others) to order gas prices down, he needs to look no further than Russia, where Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has become a one-man gas crisis, to see what a colossally-bad idea that is. Russia has been facing widespread gasoline shortages, with two dozen regions reporting serious shortages and some places in Siberia running dry for awhile, all apparently thanks to Putin's efforts to wrest control of the nation's gasoline prices away from the open market.

Russia's problems started a few months ago when Putin signed a decree raising the taxes on gasoline in Russia. Of course Russians didn't like the increase at the pump and with presidential elections less than a year away, Putin felt a need to polish his populist credentials. Putin being Putin though, his solution was in February to simply order Russia's gas companies to lower their prices to make up for the rise caused by the new taxes. But the gas companies soon realized that they were getting the short end of the deal and that they could make far more profit by exporting gas to Europe rather than selling it at a loss or near loss at home, so they began to divert shipments from Russian gasoline stations to wholesalers in Europe. Soon stations across the country were experiencing shortages, with some in the Altai Region of Siberia where half of the gas stations ran completely dry.

This caused even more anger among Russia's driving public, so last week Putin stepped in again, this time “suggesting” that Russian oil companies halt gasoline exports for the month of May to put more product into the distribution system at home, state-run firms Rosneft and Gazprom, the giants of the Russian petroleum sector, soon complied, easing the shortages.

But one has to wonder if this is just kicking the can down the road a bit, since once June rolls around and the May moratorium ends, companies will still see the same profit in selling gas abroad (though Putin also ordered a raise in gasoline export taxes to cut into these profits). The reality is that gasoline prices are a function of market forces largely beyond government control. It is a good lesson for Putin, Trump and anyone else who thinks they can just “order” fuel prices around to learn.
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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

From The Horn Of Africa, Vows Of Revenge

The Islamic Militant community was initially quiet following the death of Osama bin Laden on May 1, but they're starting to make up for lost time with statements vowing revenge for the killing of their spiritual head, and now the top Islamist group in the Horn of Africa has weighed in. According to regional media reports, Somalia's al-Shabaab (“the youth”) has said they will “take revenge for him [bin Laden]” in a videotaped statement by their media wing. Al-Shabaab's likely target won't be the United States or its forces but rather the “non-Muslim invaders” in Somalia – troops from the African Union's peacekeeping mission to the failed state.

One country that has been growing more wary of al-Shabaab is neighboring Kenya, which fears that the instability in Somalia could spread, both through direct terror attacks launched by al-Shabaab and through Somali refugees fleeing to Kenya to avoid fighting between al-Shabaab, the African Union peacekeepers and the militias supporting Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) - the internationally-backed attempt to bring governance back to Somalia after a two decade absence. Last month, Kenya offered their support to “Jubaland”, a new autonomous region in southern Somalia, which borders Kenya. In announcing their semi-independence, the government, so to speak, of Jubaland also pledged their determination to fight al-Shabaab. According to Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper though, Jubaland is less of an expression of self-governance than it is an attempt by Kenya to create a “buffer zone” within Somalia proper between Kenya and the forces of al-Shabaab. “The Jubaland initiative will be Kenya’s first major attempt to reassert its influence in a country that has posed a major social and security nightmare for the last two decades,” said Elias Bare Shil, a former member of Kenya's parliament, adding that Jubaland could not only help Kenya with security but also reopen a trade route to the Somali port city, Kismayu, which fell into al-Shabaab's hands several months ago.

Kenya's willingness to so overtly interfere in Somalia's internal operations is an expression of frustration over how long the international community has allowed the Somali situation to fester. While the TFG is a sincere attempt to establish a working government in Somalia, it has been underfunded by the international community and under-supported by the African Union, which has had difficulty in even finding member nations to send troops to the peacekeeping mission. As a result, the TFG militias and AU troops have had a difficult time just keeping control of just Mogadishu, Somalia's capital city, and have been wholly unable to bring law and order to the rest of the nation.

Kenya will likely face a stiff fight from al-Shabaab for control of Jubaland, while al-Shabaab will also look to make good on their public declaration of revenge in the name of bin Laden. It seems like it will be a tense next few months in the Horn of Africa.
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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bad Reporting Is Even Worse

Last week I wrote about a bit of bad reporting surrounding the death of the typewriter – NBC News, among other outlets, reported that the last manufacturer of typewriters in the world, India's Godrej & Boyce, ceased production of the iconic office machine. The reality was that Godrej & Boyce in fact halted production of their typewriter line in 2009 and was only now nearing the end of their warehoused stock. Apparently though, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the typewriter's demise have been greatly exaggerated – and some sloppy reporting is even worse than originally thought.

The North Jersey Record tracked down Swintec Corp., a Moonachie, New Jersey-based company that still builds and sells typewriters. According to Swintec's General manager Ed Michael, they still have a fairly solid business selling electronic typewriters, with their main clients being “correctional institutions” who favor a funky version with a clear plastic case (presumably so the residents of said correctional institutions can't hide any contraband within the typewriter's casing). Michael adds that: “we sell to anyone who needs one [a typewriter].” He also tells the Record that he was surprised to read the stories about the death of the typewriter since he has recently been interviewed by media outlets, including the BBC, about Swintec's continued sales of typewriters.

So not only did a whole host of media sources get the initial story about Godrej & Boyce wrong – that they stopped manufacture of typewriters in 2009 not 2011, but Godrej & Boyce wasn't even the “world's last” manufacturer of typewriters in the first place. This might seem like a small story to get worked up over, but as my journalism professors at Gonzaga University taught me, if as a reader I can't trust you to get the small things right, why should I trust you on the big ones?
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More Bad Reporting (I'm Looking At You CNN)

Okay, one final, final note on sloppy reporting for today. On today's “American Morning” on CNN, they did a little story about how 8-to-12-year olds were becoming the “face” of the site Facebook – since there are now 7.5 million Facebook users in that age bracket. Ok, 7.5 million sounds like a lot, but not when you compare it to Facebook's total user base of roughly 500 million people, then 7.5 million works out to be a whopping 1.5% of all users. This is about the same as saying that elderly Hawaiians are the “face” of the United States of America.

I can only assume that no one on the “American Morning” staff either bothered to take 30 seconds to do the math or even knew how many Facebook users there were in the first place. It reminded me of this piece from the satirical newspaper The Onion from a few years ago about Ted Turner sending himself back in time to prevent the TimeWarner/AOL, which was suppose to vault CNN into the age of "new media". If only Ted, if only...
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The Week That Was

Not surprisingly, the news last week was dominated by coverage of the death of Osama bin Laden, with the odd report from Libya thrown in for good measure, but a lot of other things happened around the world, some of them with serious implications for global affairs. Foreign Policy did a nice job of recapping the week that was in this roundup. Among the highlights: an assassination attept against Turkey's Prime Minister; the beginning of trials in Egypt against former officials from the Mubarak regime, along with the suggestion that former President Hosni Mubarak could face the death penalty if he is found to have ordered security forces to fire on pro-democracy demonstrators; and signs of a power struggle within Iran's government, complete with charges of witchcraft.

You can say a lot of things about the world, but you can't say it's a boring place.
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Friday, May 6, 2011

Gadhafi and Bin Laden's Strange Link

Quick quiz: name the first country to issue an international arrest warrant for the now-deceased Osama bin Laden. The United States you say? No. Kenya perhaps for the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi? Or Saudi Arabia? Great Britain? Spain?

Nope. It was Libya.

A comment on The Guardian's liveblog of developments in the bin Laden story reminded me of this fact, reported here by Sky News. Way back in March 1998, the government of Moammar Gadhafi (yes, that Gadhafi) issued an arrest warrant for bin Laden in connection with the murder of a German man named Sinvan Becker and his wife, who were supposedly visiting Libya as tourists. Only Becker wasn't merely a tourist, he was one of German intelligence's top analysts on Islamic threats in the Arab world. He and his wife were murdered by four gunmen in the town of Sirte in 1994. The Libyans claimed the gunmen worked for a group called "al Muqatila”, al-Qaeda's branch office in Libya. In 1998 the Libyans passed information about the murder, and bin Laden's supposed involvement, off to Interpol, which then issued the international arrest warrant against bin Laden.

It is a strange world…
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Why No Love For Canada?

They had national elections in Canada this week, but unless you're a Canadian this news likely comes as something of a surprise to you. The elections received barely any coverage in the United States, which is disappointing since they turned out to be something of a game-changer for our neighbors to the north: The Conservatives, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, won a solid majority in Parliament; the perennially third-place New Democratic Party (NDP) became the official opposition party after the near collapse of the once powerful Liberals; meanwhile the separatist-minded Bloc Quebecois (which advocates independence for Quebec) lost almost all of their seats, while the Green Party elected a member of Parliament for the first time ever.

All in all, it was a pretty momentous election, which makes the lack of any meaningful coverage in the United States all the more confusing. The United States and Canada share the world's longest demilitarized border, and Canada is the United States' top supplier of imported oil - you would think that we in the US of A would then at least care a little bit about what's going on up there. But the United States has long had a parochial attitude towards Canada, as if their main responsibility was to dance to our tune, or as Homer Simpson once quipped when Bart suggested they go to Toronto: “why should I leave America to go to America Jr.?” From the other side of the border, the Canadians have also had fun with the idea of living in America's perpetual shadow, the comedy show Kids in the Hall once did a skit where a character described Canadians to an unknowing foreign foil as “an American without the gun.”

Unfortunately this comical attitude has a way of affecting serious issues, like our political discourse. Take for example recent moves by some members of Congress to block the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. As proposed, the pipeline would carry synthetic crude oil from the Oil Sands region of Alberta to refineries along the US Gulf Coast. But the crude production from the Oil Sands region has a reputation for being hard on the environment in northern Alberta and for being a major source of greenhouse gas emissions (though this claim is actively disputed). Environmentalists in the US, with the backing of a group of Senators, have been working to block the authorization of construction of Keystone XL on environmental grounds, with the implicit assumption being that without access to US markets, this crude from the Oil Sands just wouldn't be produced. The Canadians though have a different take on the matter and now are just looking into an alternative pipeline route that would carry the production from the Oil Sands westward instead to the Pacific Ocean and eventually onto China.

The point here is that despite our perception of Canada as our over-polite, over-eager little brother who is always glad to follow in our footsteps, Canada is in fact its own country with its own culture, motivations and politics. And their path isn't necessarily the same as ours, so maybe we ought to pay a little more attention to them.
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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Who Wants To Rule Russia?

There's a new chapter in the ongoing political soap opera “Who Wants To Rule Russia?”, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister (and former President) Vladimir Putin's wrangling over which one of them will run for the top job in next year's presidential elections. The Russian constitution bars anyone from serving more than two consecutive terms, which is why Putin had to turn over the reins of power to Medvedev. While the two publicly present themselves as a “ruling tandem”, conventional wisdom has been that Medvedev is only keeping the seat warm for Putin, who will run for President again in 2012, a job that he could then keep until 2024 after the completion of two more terms in office.

Not so fast, say some familiar with the inner workings of the Kremlin. Medvedev, they say, has grown into the job of president and sees himself as the only one who can push forward much-needed political and economic reforms in Russia, and he's now willing to stand up to The Boss. That's the word from Konstantin Zatulin, a respected member of the Duma (Russian parliament) and a member of Putin's political party, United Russia. Zatulin claims that Medvedev's political allies were working behind the scenes to undermine support for Putin, particularly within the parliament. Medvedev also seems to be asserting himself of late, and in the process taking on Putin. One high-profile action was Medvedev's decision to bar ranking government officials from also serving on corporate boards of directors, an action that seems aimed squarely at one of Putin's most powerful lieutenants, Igor Sechin, a deputy prime minister and also chair of the board of Rosneft, one of Russia's largest energy companies. Medvedev has taken aim at such arrangements, saying that Russia's largest companies are too closely tied with ranking members of the government – a situation that stifles economic growth and hampers foreign investment in Russia. Putin, meanwhile, supports the “statist” approach to governance, where the economy is driven by a few key corporations which themselves are intimately tied to an inner circle of power at the top level of government.

Other Russian political observers disagree with Zatulin’s assessment, either saying that the Putin-Medvedev tandem is strong and that a decision has already been made about which one will stand for election next year, or that Medvedev simply is not powerful enough to push Putin aside. One indication of where things may be headed is a rumor that some members of the Duma may split off from United Russia to form their own political party, likely named “Fair Russia” which could then be a vehicle for a Medvedev 2012 presidential run. And just in case you think there's no humor in this situation, check out the trailer for the disaster movie “2012”, reworked to tell the story of next year's Russian elections.
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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Royal Wedding And British Cool

Ok, I admit it, I watched the Royal Wedding, most of it at least, on Friday. Really, how could you not, how often do you get to see historic events unfold live before your eyes? And before you think that the Wedding was just so much fluff and nonsense, it was hard not to be affected by the responses of the British people who seemed genuinely moved by the experience. One British man interviewed by CNN said that with all of the problems with the global economy and the conflicts brewing throughout the North Africa/Middle East region, the British “needed this”: a day to come together as a nation and celebrate a joyous event (the British government even declared Wedding Day a national holiday).

But more than just an excuse for a day off from work and a national party, the Royal Wedding showed that it was cool to be British. While Great Britain is often derided as a land of bad food and even worse dentistry, the Royal Wedding was a chance to show England as a land of high fashion and cool design: from the gorgeous gowns worn by Kate Middleton and her sister Pippa, to outfits worn by guests like the Beckhams (we'll overlook the rather odd headgear of Princesses Beatrix and Eugenia...), to the classic 1969 Aston Martin DB6 Volante MKII roadster that Will and Kate used to leave Buckingham Palace (a car converted to run on E85 ethanol in a nod to today's spirit of Eco-consciousness). The words suave and debonair come to mind. At the same time, this modern display of high fashion was paired with a sense of pomp and history done in a way that only the British seem able to pull off – the wedding party was accompanied by a platoon of mounted cavalry, their polished helmets gleaming in the sun, while the ancient Westminster Abbey had it's interior filled with trees, giving the vaulted room the feeling of a medieval glade.

All in all it was an example of British suave worthy of a Sean Connery-era James Bond flick, and it was enough to make being British seem very cool.
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More On The End Of OBL

While the world continues to try to digest the news of the death of Osama bin Laden, speculation is naturally falling on what will become of his terrorist baby, al-Qaeda. Over at the Global Public Square, Fareed Zakaria is arguing, perhaps optimistically, that bin Laden's death with also be the death knell for al-Qaeda – that stripped of their spiritual head the organization will become adrift and will eventually burn itself out. On CBS during their Sunday night coverage, Lara Logan (and it's great to see her back to work) wondered if bin Laden had been betrayed by a member of his inner circle, or at least by one of their respective underlings, and if so what impact it would have on al-Qaeda as a whole?

That made me think of the mafia here in the United States. In their heyday during Prohibition in the 1920s and 30s, the idea of omerta (“silence”) was strong – if you were picked up by the police or the feds, you didn't talk about the mafia's operations or members, “this thing of ours” to quote Tony Soprano. But the idea of omerta began to fade as the years went on, particularly after anti-racketeering laws were passed that basically meant that even if you were a low-level foot soldier you could face the same kind of charges - and jail time - that would be awaiting The Boss if he ever got arrested. More mobsters started to talk when they were inevitably arrested, which sent more mobsters to jail and seriously undermined the effectiveness of the whole criminal enterprise. The leaders of the mafia families became more and more insulated out of fear of being betrayed by one of their colleagues (think about how nervous Tony Soprano always seemed), and worried more about finding the “rats” within their organizations than in actually engaging in money-making activities, which left them less able to manage their criminal empires, which in turn became less and less effective.

Could then a similar thing happen to al-Qaeda and it's frachises? Bin Laden himself had apparently not only withdrawn from the active operational role he played pre-9/11, but in these last few years he seemed to have become a hermit, holed up in a sprawling, barb-wire encircled “mansion” in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Now that even these precautions seem not to have helped keep him safe, will the leaders of al-Qaeda's franchises – the Pakistan operation, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen, mostly), al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (North Africa) – isolate themselves further? The best part, from an anti-terror perspective, is that bin Laden doesn't even have to have been betrayed by a follower, the other leaders in al-Qaeda only have to believe that he was and they will act accordingly.

This likely isn't the end of al-Qaeda, just like the arrests of a number of capos hasn't been the end of the mafia in America, but it will likely lead to a far less effective organization and one that is even less capable of pulling off a major 9/11-style (or London or Mumbai for that matter) attack in the future.
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Monday, May 2, 2011

Obama Gets Osama

Even though the media coverage of the death of Osama bin Laden has been wall-to-wall, ESPN of all places ran it on their bottom-of-the-screen score ticker, I still felt like I should throw in a few of my own comments this morning. First is that along with giving credit to the SEALs team that carried out the operation on Sunday, credit also has to go to the Obama Administration for their careful handling of the intelligence leading up to the raid. I thought this graphic posed by several friends on Facebook this morning was pretty hilarious:

The raid came after six months of dedicated intelligence work that had narrowed bin Laden's likely whereabouts from a region in Pakistan to a specific mansion in the city of Abbottabad. The administration handled this analysis the way that covert intelligence should be handled – quietly, smartly and without fanfare. Unfortunately the same can't be said for some Congressional staffers who apparently leaked news of bin Laden's death in the hour ahead of the President's official announcement last night after their respective bosses had received courtesy calls from members of the administration to give them a heads-up about the soon-to-be breaking news. It shows again how Congress today, sadly, is more interested in self-promotion than in actually doing anything useful for the country. Those leaking staffers should all be fired. Today.

Other thoughts. I wasn't surprised that bin Laden was caught living in a city rather than hoping from cave to cave like a mountain goat. Ever since former Bosnian Serb president and indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic was captured after years on the run living a fairly public life in Belgrade, Serbia where he had reinvented himself as some kind of alternative medicine guru, I thought the cave-hopping scenario for bin Laden was pretty unlikely.

Bin Laden's death does provide some valuable lessons to any others who find themselves the target of a global manhunt. First is not to live in a mansion owned by a pair of unemployed brothers; one reason why intelligence officials scrutinized the bin Laden compound was that it was built in 2005 supposedly for $1 million, yet its owners of record were unemployed and apparently lacking assets of their own. Blending in is also important. Analysts were further tipped off by the fact that this million-dollar home lacked Internet or phone service, something you think you would add if you were going to spend seven-figures on building a house. And they burned their trash unlike everyone else in the neighborhood who just used the curb-side refuse pick-up; perhaps bin Laden should have invested in a good quality paper-shredder instead if he was that worried about security.

I also have to admit that the mission leaves me feeling conflicted about Guantanamo Bay. I've been critical of the “eternal imprisonment” of some at Guantanamo Bay. Last week's Wikileaks story that US officials believe roughly ¾ of the prisoners there haven't actually done anything to warrant being locked up forever, but that they're being kept in prison “just in case” didn't do anything to improve my opinion of the place. Yet the intelligence chain that led to the death of bin Laden apparently started four years ago from intel gathered from a Gitmo prisoner about a trusted bin Laden courier, who happened to be one of the owners of the Abbottabad mansion. It does make you at least have to take another look at the utility of the place.

Finally, the death of bin Laden provides a great opportunity for the United States to declare victory and come home from Afghanistan once and for all (ironically this is the eight-year anniversary of George W. Bush's infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech on Iraq). The United States didn't go to Afghanistan to build democracy or fight for women's rights or to build schools or any of the other myriad of reasons that have become attached to the Afghan War. Or mission was simple: capture or kill Osama bin Laden and dismantle al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The capture or kill part has now been accomplished, and the fact that he was hiding out in Pakistan in the first place is pretty clear indication that al-Qaeda no longer exists in Afghanistan at least as a viable force. If this isn't victory I don't know what is.
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