Thursday, July 28, 2011

Our Stupid Congress: Russia Edition

Much of the focus in the United States, and the world for that matter, has been on the totally manufactured crisis our Congress has whipped up over the ordinarily mundane act of raising the nation's debt limit. But its good to know that while plunging the national economy into peril, Congress can also screw up foreign policy at the same time.

Right now Congress is threatening to plunge US-Russian relations with a piece of legislation designed to scold the Russians for not living up to our standards of human rights. The “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011” is named for a noted Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison in 2009 allegedly after being beaten by his captors, who then denied him medical treatment. The bill targets his captors, as well as any other Russian officials as deemed by our Congress “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of human rights.” Now the treatment of Magnitsky was horrible and is yet another low point for the concept of the Rule of Law in Russia. But this bill is nothing more than some political grandstanding by a collection of blowhard American politicians whose view of Russia stopped evolving sometime around the release of the movie Red Dawn.

What they overlook is the deep cooperation between the US and Russia in several key areas, cooperation the Russians are threatening to curtail if the Magnitsky Act were to become law. Among these key areas of cooperation are logistical support for the ongoing military mission in Afghanistan , the so-called “Northern Route” into Afghanistan, which avoids Pakistan entirely; not to mention that the Russians are now our taxi service to and from the International Space Station, without the Russians our astronauts will have to hitchhike home.

If Congress really wanted take up the mantle of human rights, they could always introduce the Tienanmen Square (or Uighur or Ai Weiwei) Accountability Act demanding that China follow international norms in human rights or face a total ban on their imports to the United States, of course such an act would require our politicians to take a meaningful and principled stand on a serious issue that would have an impact on the lives of tens of millions of Americans, which is something the current Congress likes to avoid at all costs.

Or our Congress could simply stop telling the rest of the world how they should govern their affairs until they get their own house in order and stop behaving like a bunch of squabbling eight-year olds, since frankly the current state of affairs in our government is downright embarrassing.
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Even More African Pirates

There's news from Monday, via the BBC, that the Anema e Core, an Italian-owned oil tanker, was seized off the coast of Africa. I know what you're thinking, thanks to the ever-industrious Somali pirates, this really isn't news... Now here's the kicker, the Anema e Core wasn't sailing off Africa's east coast, but rather its west, in the Gulf of Guinea, just south of the nation of Benin.

We talked about the threat of West African piracy some time ago. Unlike their high-profile Somali brethren, west African pirates seldom go after prizes as large as an oil tanker and subsequently rarely make the news, but the problem does exist and some experts fear it could get worse. Many of the piracy drivers are the same for both east and west Africa – impoverished, sea-faring people who are able to exploit lax enforcement of the sea-lanes thanks to poorly-functioning local governments and a lack of interest on the part of the international community. And though West African piracy has not nearly reached the levels of Somali piracy, there is fear that it will climb as more nations in the region attempt to follow the example of Nigeria, and now Ghana, and begin to exploit offshore reserves of crude oil and natural gas. Exploitation of these resources will lead to more shipping off the coast and will create more targets for the would-be pirates.

As of Monday, officials from Benin were trying to track the whereabouts of the Anema e Core.
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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Notes on Norway

A few quick thoughts following the tragic terror attacks in Norway last Friday that have left as many as 76 people dead. If you followed the events as they happened on Friday, you will recall that details were slow to emerge, especially about the perpetrator and any possible motives. Of course a lack of information did nothing to stop posters on Internet chat boards from afixing the blame on the usual suspects – Islamic terrorists. The standard arguments were trotted out: That this is just what we should be expecting since Islam is a religion of hate, that it was the goal of Islamic extremists (and by extension of all Muslims) to create one global caliphate under sharia law; blame was assigned, Norway's immigration laws were just too lax and that this was inevitable as they took in refugees from the Arab world (like war-displaced Iraqis); and motives were suggested, primarily Norway's support for NATO missions in Afghanistan and Libya.

Of course the perpetrator turned out to be a white Norwegian guy, who in America we would describe as being a “Christian conservative”. He seems to hold himself up as some sort of crusader, warning that Norwegian (and European) identity was being lost due to immigration and who hoped that his attack would spark a inter-cultural civil war within Europe.

The obvious take away here is not to jump to conclusions when some horrid event like this occurs. Evil comes in all colors and creeds. Are there Islamic extremists who would gladly perpetrate such an act? Surely there are. But it is just as wrong to scapegoat an entire religion of a billion people for the actions of a splinter minority as it would be to call Christianity a religion of hate because of this man's actions. The terror attacks in Norway seem to be turning the focus of European security agencies onto far-right groups across Europe, many of whom have been preaching an increasingly hateful anti-immigrant (which depending on the group, can be aimed at Muslims, Africans, or even other Europeans) message. These groups will likely fall under increased scrutiny following the Norway attacks. It's worth mentioning that when the US Dept. of Justice issued a report warning of the same possibility among American extremist anti-immigrant groups, the DOJ was roundly condemned both by Republican politicians and by the taste-makers on the Right, talk-radio hosts, even though it was a man who identified with America's home-grown far-right anti-immigrant/anti-government who was responsible for the worst pre-9/11 terror attack in American history, the bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City.

One final note, during their coverage of memorial services in Norway on Monday, the BBC reported that a number of Muslims were attending services being held in cathedrals around Oslo. When one Muslim was asked by the BBC why they were attending a service in a church, they replied that it was a house of God, and that they felt the need to attend and express their grief. As Norwegians.
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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Next For Liberia: Oil?

Steve LeVine, over at his excellent energy-themed blog The Oil and The Glory is reporting that the war-torn West African nation of Liberia is looking to oil as the catalyst for rebuilding after decades of civil war. Large deposits of oil are known to exist in the Gulf of Guinea along Africa's coast. Nigeria was the first nation to cash in on the offshore riches, Ghana joined the club of oil exporting nations late last year. Now Liberia is hoping that the good fortune and oil reserves will continue to spread west. Exploration activities will begin in a few months. If the reserves pan out, Liberia could be producing oil by the end of the decade.

Near the end of his piece LeVine talks about the threat of the “resource curse” striking Liberia, it's a point worth taking a closer look at. In case you're unfamiliar with the term, the resource curse is a concept in international development coined to describe situations where impoverished nations suddenly discover a valuable natural resource, but instead of lifting the nation out of poverty, the country is gripped by corruption, crime, and political (occasionally actual) infighting, with the people in some cases winding up poorer than they were before the resource was found. The resource curse has struck nations around the world, but the causes are often the same – poverty produces a poorly-educated population and civic institutions that barely work, if they function at all. The country can't absorb the wealth suddenly flooding into it: institutions that barely worked before now have massive budgets to mismanage, politicians often become fixated on pet projects to build their legacy without concern over whether or not they help the nation (skimming a healthy amount off the top is also commonplace), and fights break out over control of the natural resources, sometimes rising to the level of insurgencies if not full-blown civil wars. Foreign companies historically have taken advantage of unsophisticated local governments to sign deals that massively favor them while depriving the people of promised wealth.

Given the fragile state of civil governance in Liberia, you can't be terribly excited about their prospects. They could do a lot worse than to follow the example of their Ghanaian neighbors, though. Faced with a similar petro-windfall, Ghana has taken pains to try to avoid the resource curse. Part of that plan has been to start an education program to create a home-grown generation of oil engineers, accountants and other experts, the nation developed a comprehensive strategy to become energy independent within the next 10 years and to fund needed infrastructure projects, and debates over what to do with the oil money have become a staple of public discourse. It is too early yet to determine how well Ghana has done, but they are actively trying to avoid becoming the latest victim of the resource curse.
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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Nixon's Unmade Speech

In case you were unaware, today happens to be the 42nd anniversary of men landing on the moon. Human history changed forever once Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on our celestial neighbor, but despite a decade of planning, training and testing there were no guarantees that the mission would be a success. In fact, there was more than a little concern that the engine on the lunar module might fail to ignite – after all, blasting men off from the surface of another world was something that had never been tried before – marooning Armstrong and Aldrin forever. The possibility was considered so real that a speech was prepared for just such an occurrence for President Nixon to read to the nation. “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace...” went the first line of the speech Nixon thankfully never had to give. The Los Angeles Times has the rest of the text of the speech and more about this forgotten bit of American history over at their website today.
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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Amnesty Warns Of China's Uighur Oppression

Amnesty International is accusing China of carrying out an organized campaign of oppression against the Uighur minority group two years after riots rocked their homeland in the northwest corner of the nation. The Uighurs are an ethnically-distinct, Muslim minority group who have inhabited the remote region of Xinjiang for centuries. For a brief time in the 1940s their homeland was the independent nation of East Turkestan before an invasion by the People's Liberation Army brought them under Chinese control. Since then the Uighurs have accused the government in Beijing of trying to suppress their language and culture, while encouraging the migration of enough ethnic Han Chinese into the area to now make the Uighurs a minority in their own homeland – all in all a situation that sounds eerily familiar to the scenario being played out in Xinjiang's neighbor to the south, Tibet.

The most recent troubles began two years ago when two Uighur migrant workers were killed by a mob in southeast China after being falsely accused of raping a Han Chinese woman. This sparked a series of riots in Xinjiang's capital of Uighur-on-Han violence, that was then followed by a brutal crackdown by the PLA and mass arrests of Uighurs (but not of Hans); Beijing cut off Internet and most long-distance phone service to Xinjiang for months following the riots, ostensibly for “security” reasons.

Now, with the two-year anniversary of the riots approaching, Amnesty International is warning that China is stepping up security operations against Uighurs in Xinjiang, including the reported arrests of hundreds in the region, in what Amnesty is calling an attempt to “muzzle” the Uighurs. Perhaps the most disturbing element of China's current security operation is that it is not limited to their borders - last month Kazakhstan extradited a Uighur schoolteacher who had been granted refugee status by the United Nations back to China, despite protests that he would face probable arrest and possible torture if returned and that the charges against him were false. It is a sign of China's growing power over Central Asia, and the growing ambivalence of their neighbors, the countries known collectively as the 'Stans. It's worth noting that back in May Tajikistan agreed to give up a chunk of their nation to settle a long-simmering border dispute with China rather than risk some possible future conflict with their more powerful neighbor.

Meanwhile in Xinjiang, according to Reuters, Uighurs are trying to gather in groups of no more than three or four people to avoid drawing the scrutiny of State security officials and then their likely arrest. Beijing has allotted nearly a half a billion dollars for security measures in Xinjiang this year alone.
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Secret Pirate Island

Just when I was thinking that I hadn't written about the Somali pirates in awhile, two news stories cross the wires and that all changes.

The first is a detailed account from Reuters that pirates from Somalia are taking advantage of the chaos surrounding the months-long ongoing revolution in Yemen to turn an island off their coast into a secret pirate lair. It shouldn't be a surprise: The island of Socotra – smack in the middle of the Gulf of Aden and on the sea-lane approaches to the Red Sea and Suez Canal – has for centuries been a hideout for Arab pirates plying these waters; for their part, Somali pirates have become masters at exploiting holes in security to enable their operations. According to Reuters, Somali pirates have turned Socotra into a refueling depot for their missions, taking advantage of the Yemeni military's being distracted by the unrest roiling their country as people continue to protest in an effort to unseat the very unpopular President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is currently recovering from an assassination attempt in Saudi Arabia. In fact, there are some indications that Somali pirates are simply bribing the Yemeni garrison on Socotra to look the other way while they conduct their pirate missions.

The use of Socotra is part of a shift in tactics by the Somalis. When the world first started paying attention to the problem of Somali piracy, many of the attacks occurred near the coast of Somalia. But as a loose coalition of the world's navies started patrolling off the coast and merchant ships started sailing further out to sea, the pirates too adapted. Most attacks now come not from small motorboats sailing from the Somali coast, but rather from speedboats launched from “motherships” - typically a captured fishing trawler or small freighter. But ships of this size burn a lot more fuel than a speedboat, which appears to be how Socotra fits into the picture. By refueling at Socotra, 150 miles out to sea, the pirates' range is drastically increased, allowing them to attack ships far out in the Indian Ocean.

And speaking of burning, that brings us to pirate story #2. Bloomberg is reporting that a large oil tanker is now burning off the coast of Yemen, thanks to a failed pirate attack. The 900-foot, China-bound Brillante Virtuoso was reported adrift and ablaze on Wednesday following an apparently failed pirate attack. The tanker was not said to be at risk of sinking, exploding or leaking since the fire was located in the accommodation block – the building-like structure on deck where the crew lives. The fire did force the crew to abandon ship, they were later rescued by a UN Navy destroyer and the Brillante Virtuoso put under tow, headed for Yemen. It is unclear at this point whether the ship accidentally caught fire during the attack or if the pirates deliberately set the ship ablaze when it appeared that they would not be able to capture it.

According to the London-based International Maritime Bureau, the average ransom payment paid out for the release of a captured ship last year was $5.4 million, making piracy a very lucrative business.
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