Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Stunning Corruption, Even For Afghanistan

Tomorrow President Obama is scheduled to make another “major” announcement on America's decade-long involvement in Afghanistan. There has been a lot of talk about Afghanistan in the blogosphere and among the punditocracy recently, circulating mostly around US troop levels and whether or not its a good idea to talk with the Taliban. But one major story getting almost no attention is the ongoing mess surrounding the Kabul Bank, a situation that could cripple the entire country.

We first talked about the Kabul Bank late last year when the institution collapsed after the top executives – including a former professional poker player and President Hamid Karzai's brother Mahmoud - essentially used the Kabul Bank as their own personal slush fund, ripping the institution off to the tune of approximately $900 million, using the money to invest in half-built luxury villas in Dubai, a dysfunctional national airline and the reelection fund of Hamid Karzai. To put that in perspective, Afghanistan's total Gross Domestic Product is only about $12 billion. And to make matters worse, the Kabul Bank hosts the payroll accounts for the nation's army, police and civil servants (a kick-back for the Karzai reelection fund); the loyalty of the first two is already an open question, so one can only imagine what would happen if they didn't get paid. The Guardian's Jon Boone has put together a wonderfully detailed account of the stunning corruption affecting the Kabul Bank.

In fact, the only thing more stunning has been the Afghan government's official reaction to the Kabul Bank scandal. Shortly after the collapse, Hamid Karzai scolded foreign accountants hired by international agencies to oversee the bank for not preventing the fraud – in other words, he blamed the international community for not keeping his brother from robbing the nation's largest bank (which is almost as good a definition of chutzpah as the boy who kills his parents then asks the judge for leniency because he's an orphan). Currently the International Monetary Fund is negotiating with Afghanistan for a bailout of the Kabul Bank, but here too Afghan officials are putting on a great display of kleptocratic arrogance. Not only does the IMF want strict controls put in at the Kabul Bank to prevent the outflow of capital into the pockets of the bank's top execs, they also want people to go to jail for running the bank into the ground in the first place. Seems reasonable, well to everyone that is except Afghanistan's Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal who accused the IMF of “playing games” for trying to instill a sense of fiscal responsibility and good corporate governance to the Kabul Bank and said that the government was “running out of patience” with the IMF - no word on what Zakhilwal or the Afghan government will do to make good on that threat.

Unless the Kabul Bank is reformed though a host of international aid groups are threatening to withhold further donations to Afghanistan – why throw money down a rat hole is the prevailing thought among them. Currently, foreign aid makes up about 40% of Afghanistan's budget, so this loss would be a big blow to the country. And the whole Kabul Bank affair has seriously undermined faith in the banking sector among average Afghans. It’s also another example of the incredible corruption and incompetent leadership of a country in which the United States has already invested far too much.
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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Clinton's African Warning

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cut short a three-nation swing through Africa on Tuesday. It might come as a surprise to hear this since little attention had been paid to Clinton's trip in the first place (US media outlets seem to only be stirred to cover Africa when the United States is bombing part of it). It's too bad since the Secretary of State had some interesting things to say about China's growing clout on the continent. While starting with some pleasantries about China and America's interests not necessarily being at odds with each other, according to Reuters, she went on to say “we are however concerned that China's foreign assistance and investment practices in Africa have not always been consistent with generally accepted international norms of transparency and good governance,” and that China “has not always utilized the talents of the African people in pursuing its business interests.”

That first part is a reference to China's tacit support for despots ranging from Sudan's Omar al-Bashir to Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and that unlike foreign aid offered by the United States and European nations that is tied to good governance reforms, Chinese aid typically comes with no strings attached – so long as the recipient nation is willing to give China access to whatever vital natural resource they hold (i.e. oil in Sudan, diamonds, gold and other minerals in Zimbabwe). The suggestion from the Western powers is that Chinese aid is undermining their attempts at promoting governmental reform across Africa since despots (like Bashir/Mugabe) know they have a ready source of cash in China – so long as they have the natural resources to pony up. The second part of her statement touches on a bit of growing dissatisfaction towards China in Africa. The Chinese have been laying out billions of dollars to fund major infrastructure projects – roads, bridges, hydroelectric dams and the like – which would not have been built otherwise. But the Chinese method of doing these projects is to dispatch a virtual army of engineers, technicians and laborers, perhaps thousands at a time from China; Africans typically have little or no involvement in the construction of these projects.

So African states are saying to the Chinese that while they appreciate the projects, they'd appreciate it more if training and jobs for their citizens came along as part of the deal, which is the point that Clinton was skillfully hitting at. She suggested that aid from the United States was a viable alternative to the Chinese, but another could be aid from Brazil. RealClearWorld recently ran an informative piece on the “Brazilian way” of doing foreign aid projects, which unlike the Chinese, includes training and jobs for indigenous workers, something appreciated by the African nations. Brazil has also been able to capitalize on the fact that it was never a colonizing power, playing off the long, sad history Africa has had with Europe and fears voiced in some corners that China is attempting a 21st century style of colonization with their aid-for-resources approach. Brazil, which is emerging as the regional power in South America and as an energy-exporting nation, is increasing their foreign aid and assistance programs.
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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sister Sarah's Stalinist Supporters

By now you've probably heard about Sarah Palin's recent gaff regarding Paul Revere. During her family trip across the eastern United States, complete with campaign-style bus and media phalanx, Palin alleged that the famous midnight ride of Paul Revere was to warn the British not to try to take away our guns, rather than the actual purpose of warning his fellow rebellious colonists about the landing of British troops. Whether this was a sly attempt to pander to Nativist and Second Amendment advocates within her political base or simply an example of her stunning lack of knowledge of American history, we'll never know; but being Sarah Palin means never having to say you're wrong, in the following days Palin asserted her word salad version of history was the correct one.

So too did her online supporters, and here's where the irony kicks in. Palin supporters went onto the publicly-editable online dictionary Wikipedia and attempted to change the entry on Paul Revere to comport with the facts of Palin's story. It's ironic since Palin is quick to invoke charges of “Socialism” against the Obama administration for practically any policy move she disagrees with, yet the adjustment of history to support the political situation of the present was a hallmark of the one-time leader of the Socialist world, the Soviet Union. And no one practiced this tactic better than Josef Stalin.

Stalin started his own modification of the past early, blending photos to produce an image of him with the Father of the Soviet Revolution, V. I. Lenin as a way to polish his bona fides shortly after taking power. The tactic would continue on for decades: generals, ministers and cosmonauts who fell out of favor would quickly be edited out of official photographs, even ones that had been reproduced many times in the Soviet media. Sergei? Sergei who? There's no Sergei in this photo... Palin's supporters tried the same tactic with Wikipedia, attempting to edit the Paul Revere entry to state that he did ride to tell the Brits to keep their hands off our guns. And in a move that would make today's last Stalinist leader, North Korea's Kim Jong-il blush, they linked back to media reports of Palin making her Paul Revere statement as “proof” of its own historical accuracy.

It's a disturbing story on a few levels: first that Palin has such hubris she can't admit that she misspoke and move on, two that there are people who so value personality above someone who actually knows what their talking about that their willing to overlook any historical gaffes to support this person to be the leader of the nation, and finally that an online resource that has become the go-to site for many for historical reference can be so easily manipulated to fit the political will of the day. Maybe its time to go back to the old-fashioned bound sets of encyclopedias, and actually learning facts...
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Tuesday, June 14, 2011


While the State Department is criticized by some as yet another bloated Washington bureaucracy, they also sometimes come up with some pretty cool ideas. Case in point, the story that broke this weekend about the development of something that's being called “the Internet-in-a-Box”.

As we've seen from this year's “Arab Spring” revolts across the Middle East/North Africa region, the Internet has become the bane of despotic leaders around the world, after all, how can you have a good massacre of your citizens when some random guy with a cellphone and a YouTube account can go spreading word (and more importantly images) of your brutality to the world? The counter-move by today’s despot is simply to pull the plug on the Internet, a tactic we've seen used in Egypt, Libya and even on occasion in restive regions of China (like Tibet and Xinjiang). That's where the Internet-in-a-Box comes in. It is a trunk-sized device that can create a virtual network using cellphone handsets that can then connect to the World Wide Web independently of a given nation’s telecommunications system, thus bypassing any attempts at censorship or communications blackouts imposed by the local despot.

The Internet-in-a-Box will ensure that the world can bear witness to whatever atrocities are being committed against anti-regime protestors and will allow the lines of communications to stay open with whatever opposition forces have the Box. It's a pretty cool piece of tech, and yet another headache for the world's autocrats.
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Friday, June 10, 2011

Divac, Eagleburger And Non-Intervention

What can you learn about non-interventionist foreign policy from a former NBA player? Surprisingly, a good bit. This past weekend I happened to watch another installment of ESPN's excellent documentary series 30 for 30, the subject of “Once Brothers” were Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic. The two were stars of Yugoslavia's national basketball team and were both trying to break into the NBA in the early 1990s at the same time as their country was coming apart. Divac, a Serbian and Petrovic, a Croatian, had been extremely close, but their relationship ended as Serbian-led Yugoslavia went to war with Croatia and Slovenia after the two former republics declared their independence from Yugoslavia. Divac inadvertently became Public Enemy #1 in Croatia for refusing to take a Croatian flag during a post-victory celebration for the Yugoslav national team a few months earlier, an act that would help to drive him and Petrovic apart. Petrovic's untimely death in a car accident ended any chance of reconciliation between the two former friends. “Once Brothers” featured the story of Divac's first trip back to Croatia in 20 years to visit Petrovic's parents.

The Yugoslav War also came up in discussions about the legacy of recently-deceased former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. Though he no longer served in government, the jowly, bespectacled Eagleburger was a frequent guest on the news-talk circuit, speaking on issues of US Foreign Policy. In the 1990s, Eagleburger had been adamant about the US not intervening in the Yugoslav conflicts. From a humanitarian standpoint it was a tough call. The Yugoslav War was the worst conflict in Europe since the end of World War II, civilians bore the brunt of the fighting, and thanks to advances in satellite technology and the birth of 24-hour news outlets like CNN, images of the war were beamed into homes around the world. But Eagleburger argued that Yugoslavia wasn't America's fight and that we would be quickly drawn into a conflict that would last for years. The United States stayed out of the conflict – for awhile at least; by 1995 the US-led peace talks resulted in the Dayton Accords that ended fighting in Bosnia, the United States was also later the driving force in a NATO bombing campaign that brought about an end to the last stage of the Yugoslav conflicts, the fighting between Serbia and its breakaway region, Kosovo in 1999.

You could probably write a series of novels on what might have happened if the US hadn't followed Eagleburger's advice and had intervened in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. If current examples are any indication, we'd likely still be engaged in the region in a big way. Eight years after the start of Gulf War II, the United States is still in Iraq and is arguing to stay for awhile longer to support the fragile Iraqi government; ten years after going into Afghanistan to get Osama bin Laden, the US is still there as well, fighting the insurgent Taliban even after the death of OBL and with plans to stay until 2014, at least; and coalition forces seem to be getting more deeply involved in Libya, with NATO stepping up airstrikes against Gadhafi's regime. This last one is probably the best analogy to what could have happened in Yugoslavia – it is easy to see the US (and maybe a reluctant coalition of European nations like France and Great Britain) going in to set up “safety zones” for civilians and quickly being drawn into the fighting on the side of the Croats/Slovenians against the Soviet/Russian-backed Serbs, just as NATO is now supporting the Libyan rebels against Gadhafi in that supposedly “humanitarian” intervention.

It's no doubt that the fighting in Yugoslavia was bloody, resulting in far too many civilian deaths, but the countries that emerged seem to be doing pretty well today: Slovenia is a member of the European Union and a prosperous and popular tourist destination; Croatia too is doing well after recovering from the war and is in the final stages of becoming an EU member; even Serbia is emerging from almost two decades of largely self-imposed isolation from Europe, thanks to the policies of nationalist leaders like Slobodan Milosevic, and is now looking towards a future in the EU. Conversely Bosnia, where the warring Bosnian, Croat and Serb factions were wrestled into a peace deal in the Dayton Accords 15 years earlier, remains a deeply divided state; about once a month an op-ed will appear with a dire warning about Bosnia's impending collapse. Kosovo meanwhile is fairing little better – its independence is still not recognized by more than half of the members of the United Nations and their government is alleged to have more in common with the Sopranos than the Founding Fathers.

“Once Brothers” ended with Divac traveling to Zagreb, Croatia. Many of the Croats recognized him, but few approached, still apparently harboring ill-feelings towards him from two decades earlier. But the streets themselves were peaceful and well-kept, and Divac himself was warmly greeted by Petrovic's parents. A post-script to the story said that he was slowly rebuilding his former friendships with other Croats from the former Yugoslav national team like former NBA-er Toni Kukoc. Perhaps the message here is that intervention, however well-intentioned it may be, in the long run isn't the best course of action and that warring people need to find their own ways to peace.
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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Remembering US Soft Power

There's an interesting piece up right now on Foreign Policy's “The Oil and The Glory” blog on US diplomatic efforts in Georgia – an American chef from California's Napa Valley recently gave a cooking demonstration at the house of the US ambassador to Georgian chefs on how to prepare recipes using wine and grapes from Georgia's indigenous wine-making regions. The whole event was broadcast on Georgian TV and was reportedly well-received by the Georgians. Author Steve LeVine argues that it was a fine example of “soft power” on the part of the United States, something which diplomatically we use to excel at, but have abandoned in the past decade thanks to changes in presidential policy and the War on Terror (soft power is opposed to “hard power”, e.g. military action, which has been the primary focus of US international efforts in the past few years).

LeVine is right in his assessment. The United States has put soft power efforts on the back-burner this past decade, after all, where's the room for cooking demonstrations when there's terrorists to hit with drone airstrikes? At the same time though, China has been making real progress diplomatically, especially in Africa, through the use of soft power efforts like development aid and underwriting vital infrastructure projects alone. It's worth noting that the United States came out on the winning side of the Cold War not through military might, but largely because it had the system of government and society that people wanted to immigrate to, rather than the Soviet model that significant numbers of people tried to escape from. And the image of that government and culture were spread in large part though American soft power efforts. The Georgia cooking show demonstrates that soft power can still be an effective tool for American foreign policy today as well.
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A quick word about a nice series of broadcasts currently underway by the BBC World Service (and also available via their website) on the African nation of Djibouti. Tucked away on the northern part of the Horn of Africa, Djibouti tends to be off the radar screens of most people not from or involved with the region – aside from a lackluster novel by Elmore Leonard last year, references to Djibouti just don't appear in pop culture. But Djibouti has a long history as a center of trade and cultural exchange between Africa and Arabia; today, its location adjacent to Somalia and the Gulf of Aden has made it the base of operations for a number of navies involved in security operations against the Somali pirates. For example, Japan has just completed the construction of a complex to house military officials involved in their part of the anti-piracy operations (Japan, uncomfortable with military exercises since the end of World War II, is reluctant to call the complex a “military base”).

The BBC has a correspondent broadcasting live from Djibouti this week providing some interesting insights to this remote and exotic land, it's definitely worth checking out.
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Thursday, June 2, 2011


We've had some fun here with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's exhibitions of manliness – his rides in fighter jets, his wading bare-chested through wild rivers, his riding fur-clad astride a horse across the Siberian steppe in winter – but now Russian artist Sergei Kalenik has gone one better casting the prime minister as a superhero in the online graphic novel “Superputin, A Man Like Any Other”, where Putin, clad in his judo gi, attempts to foil a terrorist plot with help from his sidekick, a giant bear that transforms into President Dmitry Medvedev.

Far from being an exercise in fanboy devotion, Superputin has a professional look about it, and it's pretty funny, loaded with inside jokes: The story incorporates elements of the movie Speed and the video game Mortal Kombat, while the last act is inspired by Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko 's wildly popular Night Watch series of novels. Medvedev's disguise is a play off of his name (medved is the Russian word for bear), while his superhero name “Nanoman” riffs off his attempts to launch a Russian version of Silicon Valley in the Moscow suburb of Skolkovo. The story even takes a post-modernist, self-referential twist when Putin prods Medvedev to quickly disarm a bomb by saying “hurry Dima, only nine frames left [in the story].”

Since its launch in mid-May, Superputin has been viewed more than three million times and has drawn enough international attention to prompt Kalenik to post an English-language version of Superputin on the website. But the story has also drawn its share of critics, many of whom label Superputin as nothing more than ham-handed pro-Kremlin propaganda, albiet in a slick, new package. Much of the criticism centers around the story's “Twilight” sequence, where Putin and Medvedev confront a horde of zombies with blue buckets on their heads. The Blue Buckets have been a visual group of government critics, largely in Moscow, who wear blue plastic buckets on their heads. The genesis of their movement came from misuse by government officials of car-top flashing blue lights, meant for emergency use but often employed by mid-level bureaucrats to speed through traffic, occasionally with fatal results. In Superputin, the blue bucket zombies spout off protest slogans like “Let us elect governors!” and “Free Khodorkovsky!” as they confront Putin and Medvedev.

For his part, Kalenik denies any official connection to the Kremlin saying that he did the graphic novel in an attempt to inject some humor into Russia's “depressing political scene”, though he adds that he sent a link to Superputin to Pres. Medvedev and that he hopes he and Putin like it. And if Superputin is “official” propaganda, it is interesting since it casts both Putin and Medvedev as heroes – many political moves during the past few months have been percieved as attempts by the Putin and Medvedev camps to undermine each other ahead of next year's presidential elections. It also puts Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin in the role of an invisible gunman helping Putin and Medvedev fight off the zombies, an interetsing show of unity considering that in real life Medvedev recently moved to undercut Sechin's power by stripping him of his chairmanship of Russia's powerful energy firm Rosneft.

Thanks to the online popularity of Superputin, Kalenik is now looking for funding to produce up to a dozen sequels.
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