Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Youssou N'Dour's New Gig: Politics

Youssou N'Dour, the singer who is renowned in world music circles and beloved in his native Senegal announced over the weekend that he was tossing his hat into the political ring.  I will free myself of all artistic commitments from 2 January next year to enter the political arena,” N'Dour told a cheering crowd, according to The Guardian, adding in language similar to former US presidential candidate John Edwards in 2004 that there were now “two Senegals”, one for the haves and one for the have-nots.  “My concern is the Senegal of the have-nots,” N'Dour said in a message broadcast on a Senegalese television station he owns.  What wasn't clear from his announcement was whether N'Dour planned to lend his voice and image to a populist political movement, or if he planned to directly challenge sitting President Abdoulaye Wade's attempt to win a third term in office.

As we discussed here last year, this isn't the first time that N'Dour has flirted with politics.  N'Dour lent his support to a political platform pushing for reform in Senegal last year.  Ironically, N'Dour and Wade were once quite close, but things changed in 2006 when Wade pushed N'Dour to prevent a newspaper he owned from printing negative stories about the president's son.  N'Dour replied that he believed in journalistic freedom and that newspapers should be free to print stories without government interference.  The relationship between the two men quickly deteriorated.

The Guardian notes that unlike many of their West African neighbors, Senegal has a history of stable governments and democratic elections, though Wade is accused of undermining that trend in recent years by claiming a constitutional amendment barring the president from serving more than two terms in office didn't apply to him because it was introduced during his second term.  Other Senegalese are unhappy at the state of the country's economy and that President Wade has spent tend of millions of dollars on projects like “African Renaissance”, a massive statue on a hillside above the capital, Dakar, designed and built, strangely enough, by the North Koreans.  Wade also ordered a rural electrification program that was intended to boost the national economy, but the state electric monopoly, Senelec, has been unable to meet the demand; blackouts have become so common in Senegal that Senelec has acquired the unfortunate nickname of “Darkness, Inc.”
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Monday, November 28, 2011

Canada vs. The Greens

Canada's Conservative government isn't making many friends among the environmentalists these days.  As a major United Nations conference on climate change opens in Durban, South Africa, there are persistent rumors that Canada is planning to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocols – the international agreement regulating the emissions of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) blamed for climate change.  While the Canadian government already announced last year that it wouldn't abide by its GHG commitments, “unsigning” the agreement would be a blow to the future of the Kyoto Protocols and would be a pretty heavy blow to the talks just underway in Durban.

Kyoto is scheduled to expire at the end of 2012.  Talks on a follow-up agreement to Kyoto have dragged on, in part because of a fundamental split between developed and developing nations.  Canada  has taken the position that any future agreement needs to include caps on emissions by countries like China and India.  For their part, China and India (and other countries) have replied that they are still “developing” nations and that hard caps on GHG emissions could stifle their economic growth, and add that since the developed nations are responsible for much of the existing levels of GHGs in the atmosphere, it isn't fair to hold the developing countries to the same standard (it is something of a dubious argument, but it is one they are sticking to).

Canada has yet to officially confirm that they are indeed dropping out of the Protocols, though that hasn't stopped critiques from the environmental lobby from rolling in against the Conservatives.  Canada has seen a jump in their GHG emissions since 2009, largely because of development of the Oil Sands reserves in northern Alberta, a project the Canadian government credits for much of the country's current economic health.  But the Oil Sands are also a prime target of environmental lobbying both in the United States and Canada since not only do the Oil Sands contribute to GHG emissions and disrupt the environment in northern Alberta, but they also represent a new and vast source of crude oil at a time that environmentalists are pushing for a “green” energy economy. The most recent fight over the Oil Sands has been the Keystone XL pipeline that would link the Oil Sands with refineries along the Gulf Coast of the United States. 

Speaking of the Oil Sands, Canada has possibly gained an ally in an ongoing fight with the European Union over the Oil Sands.  The EU has been openly discussing barring the import of any petroleum products from the Oil Sands on the grounds that it is a “dirty” source of oil and that the GHG emissions from Oil Sands extraction and production is unacceptably high.  The Canadian government has been aggressively pushing back, arguing both that the Oil Sands do not emit as many GHGs as critics claim and that it is unfair to single out the Oil Sands from other so-called sources of heavy crude oil, like imports from Venezuela, among other nations, since all heavy crude requires extensive processing to turn it into gasoline and other petroleum products.  According to a report, the United Kingdom though is “secretly” siding with Canada.  Liberal Democrat minister Norman Baker was quoted as basically agreeing with the Canadians, saying:  We believe that means tackling all highly polluting crudes equally, not simply oil sands from one particular country. These certainly represent a problem, but so do other crudes, and it makes no environmental sense to ignore these.”  Canada currently doesn't send any Oil Sands products to Europe, but it does not want to lose Europe as a potential market and the government fears that an EU ruling could set a precedent that would make Oil Sands products more difficult to sell on the open market.  And while I can't imagine China for one caring much about the GHG footprint of the Oil Sands, they could demand steep discounts for Oil Sands products if they know Canada doesn't have many other viable markets.
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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Putin's Boo Birds

An interesting video clip is making the rounds of the social media sites of a live Russian TV broadcast showing Prime Minister (and future President) Vladimir Putin being booed at a public event.  While heckling politicians is something of a national sport in other democracies (the US for example), public displays of displeasure against the Boss are almost unbelievable in Russia.

The setting for the whole booing incident was a mixed martial arts event in Moscow.  After the match, Putin entered the ring to congratulate the winning fighter, and that's where the video clip kicks in.  While the crowd noise is difficult to specifically make out, it is clear that they're not cheering for Putin.  The rather unpleasant din doesn't change to applause for a full 30 seconds until Putin turns to the winning fighter, Russian MMA champion Fedor Emelianenko.  The whole event went out live on Russia's NTV network and then went viral thanks to Russia active blogging community, so far the clip has been viewed more than a half-million times.

It has caused enough of a sensation for Kremlin press flacks to step in with an explanation – that the boos were actually aimed not at Putin, but at Emelianenko 's defeated opponent, American Jeff Monson, who chose Putin's speech as the moment to exit the ring.  It is a marginally plausible explanation – the tight shot on Putin speaking doesn't allow the viewer to see if Monson was in fact leaving the ring, it is noteworthy that the crowd immediately began cheering once Putin introduced Emelianenko.

And to a real extend, it doesn't matter whether the crowd was booing Putin or Monson since the perception via the internet has been set that the crowd's boos were in fact aimed at Putin.  Two recent polls also show the erosion of Putin's once-legendary levels of public support.  The Russian polling firm VTsIOM puts Putin's approval at just over 40%, while the independent Levada Center marks him lower, down at 35% (a figure interestingly reported by Russia's RIA Novosti news service); these may be poll numbers typical for an American president in recent years, but are only about half the levels that Putin enjoyed just a couple of years ago.  Analysts say that Putin's decision to swap jobs with current President Dmitry Medvedev has caused a significant number of Russians to change their view of Putin, thinking that the country will not follow through on the reforms promised first by Putin, then by Medvedev, but rather will enter another era of stagnation like the Soviet Union faced under Premier Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s.  The global recession is also taking its toll on Russia's economy and, by extension, Putin's popularity, as inflation rises and the cost of living increases.  And there's also a thought that Russians may just be growing tired of Putin's he-man stunts, like wading bare-chested through Siberian rivers, or “just happening” to find antique artifacts while scuba diving.  The same week that Putin stepped into the ring, he also laced on a pair of skates and took to the ice with Russia's “Legends of Hockey” squad for a scrimmage.  These photo-ops that were once amusing, are starting to stray into a Kim Jong-il region of creepiness.

Still, barring an utterly epic change in circumstances, Putin is all but assured victory in the presidential elections next year, a symbol of how effectively the Putin machine has neutered the political opposition in Russia.  But signs of public discontent like the boxing ring booing show that Putin may find governing during his third term to be much more of a challenge than he expects. 
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A Resource Curse Prescription For Kurdistan?

Is the Iraqi region of Kurdistan about to feel the effects of the Resource Curse?  That's the feeling you get from this piece in Foreign Policy about the development boom currently underway in the Kurdish capital Erbil. 
While suddenly finding vast reserves of a highly-valued natural resource should be a blessing for an under-developed country or region, history has often shown the opposite to be true: rather than focusing on development projects that build infrastructure and improve the lives of the public at-large and establishing a scheme so that all the citizens can share in the windfall produced by the resource in question, what tends to happen is that vast sums of money are spent on lavish, but ultimately ineffectual projects, corruption is rampant, and while a few individuals become fabulously wealthy (typically individuals who are members of or friends with the ruling regime), the masses tend to stay in poverty, sometimes their living conditions actually worsen as has happened in the Niger Delta in Nigeria.  That is the resource curse.
And early indications are it is starting to take shape in Kurdistan.  Iraq is widely believed to have the last remaining untapped, easy-to-access oil reserves on the planet – an unintended side effect of decades of sanctions levied against Iraq's former ruler, Saddam Hussein.  It just so happens that a large portion of those reserves lie in the northern portion of the country, in the areas now controlled by the Kurds.  The Kurds are eager to exploit these resources and have begun signing contracts with foreign oil companies.  This has led to a massive influx of foreign cash to Erbil.  But how much of that cash is making its way to average Kurds at this point is unclear.  That, as FP notes, Erbil now has three luxury hotels under construction, but no modern hospitals, is not a good sign.
To make matters worse, the Kurds and the national government in Baghdad are still negotiating over who actually controls the northern oil fields and how the revenue will be divided, meaning there's no master plan for how the oil revenues will be used, nor apparently is there adequate oversight of the oil projects getting underway, all of which makes it likely that Kurdistan could be the latest victim of the resource curse.
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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Real Housewives of the Kremlin

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has long been the United States' official journalistic voice to the world, and a source of quality reporting, which makes the appearance of this rather tabloid-y (but still interesting) story about Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rather interesting.  In it, journalist and German intelligence expert,  Erich Schmidt-Eenboom makes the claim that during Putin's time as a KGB agent in East Germany, a West German counter-agent was able to penetrate his inner circle and become a close confidant to Putin's wife Lyudmila, and that's where the juicy details come in.  According to the report, Lyudmila Putina confided to the agent, identified as a woman called “Lenochka”, that Putin was a womanizer who regularly beat her.  Lenochka herself was later removed from the assignment after falling in love with the KGB colonel who ran Putin's unit.

It is a description of the Putins relationship at odds at least with the carefully-crafted public image of the couple.  Shortly after Putin quickly rose from obscurity to become President Boris Yeltsin's handpicked successor, a biography of personal anecdotes from Putin's early years called First Person was published; one of the stories it contained was how in the early days of his marriage Putin nursed Lyudmila back to health after she was badly injured in a car accident.  However, as RFE/RL notes, Putin has otherwise been fiercely protective of his private life, with his daughters never appearing in public or the press and, as RFE/RL wryly notes, public appearances with Lyudmila “have become as rare as Siberian yeti sightings.”  Now it is one thing to keep his daughters out of the public eye, but politicians wives are expected to pubicly support their husbands, which makes Lyudmila's absence all the more unusual, fueling rumors that the couple had in fact divorced or that Putin was keeping a girlfriend on the side, possibly (according to Russia's version of gossip columnists) former Olympic gold medalist, gymnast and current member of parliament, Alina Kabayeva.

Beyond the sleazy salaciousness of the Putin story, I also find it interesting that RFE/RL chose to run such a gossipy piece in the first place.  You have to wonder if this is part of a subtle media campaign to undermine the public image of the once and future President of Russia, since the column has appeared shortly after Putin announced that he, rather than current President Dmitry Medvedev, would be representing the United Russia party in next year's presidential election.  And then there is the sinking popularity of United Russia itself.  While still the dominant party in Russian politics, United Russia's own popularity is waning.  In a recent poll, only 51% of Russians said they would support United Russia, a drop of 9% from the previous poll.  In an effort to boost their profile ahead of parliamentary elections in December, United Russia released an edgy TV ad designed to appeal to young voters: in it a young woman exchanges glances with a young man before stepping into the voting booth, her hand then shoots out from behind the voting booth curtain, grabbing him and dragging him inside.  After a few seconds, the two disheveled voters emerge from the booth with the tagline “Let's Do It Together” then appearing on screen (y'know, vote).  The racy ad is being roundly criticized by opposition politicians who note that voting is something one is suppose to do alone.   
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US Sends Marines To Australia

President Obama has finally made good on his twice-delayed state visit to Australia.  The announcement that is grabbing the headlines this morning is that the United States will be basing a contingent of US Marines in Australia.  The Marines will be based near Darwin in the remote, far northern part of the country; 250 Marines will start the mission though their numbers will eventually grow to 2,500.  Darwin has been a historic location for US forces in Australia.  In the opening days of World War II, the US military used Darwin as a forward operating base to defend Australia against a possible Japanese invasion, as that threat subsided, Darwin became a logistical hub for the Allies island-hopping campaign against the Japanese across the Pacific.

What the Marines will be doing in Darwin has not yet been adequately described, though fingers are, of course, being pointed towards China, which has become more assertive in the seas near their coast.  China has had what we would diplomatically call “incidents” with both Japanese and Vietnamese ships in the South China Sea in the past two years; it's likely not a coincidence that these incidents have occurred as each country explores the seabed for oil and natural gas deposits.  And then there is the launch earlier this year of China's first aircraft carrier.  Frankly, I have a hard time getting that worked up about a second-hand, Soviet-era boat from Ukraine, but others point to the ship, and China's renaming it the Shi Lang after the Chinese admiral who conquered Taiwan, as subtle signs of their aggressive intentions in the region.

On one hand, it is hard to see China actually going to war with any of its neighbors.  China seems to have learned the lesson from the Soviet Union that trying to build and maintain an empire through military force is a sure route to bankruptcy.  Instead, China has followed the post-Soviet model laid down by Russia of trying to dominate countries through economics, either as suppliers of raw materials or consumers of your goods.  In that respect, war would be bad for business, and it's worth noting that China and Australia do a lot of business together.  But on the other hand, there's demographics.  Thanks to China's “one child” policy and cultural preference for boys, the male-female ratio is seriously out of whack, one statistic I have seen puts it at 88 women for every 100 men (typically the ratios are near 50/50 with a slight lean towards women).  Historically, societies with male/female ratios of this scale have been far more likely to go to war, since war gives unattached males something to do.

And there's always the modern American policy fallback position of anti-terror operations.  The Obama Administration has quietly, though aggressively, stepped up anti-terror operations by drone aircraft and US special forces around the globe, for example places like Ethiopia and the Seychelles are now bases for US drones, while military advisers were recently sent to Uganda.  Marines in Darwin would be ideally based to carry out operations in Indonesia, the world's largest (by population) Muslim nation and one that is not unfamiliar with Islamic extremism.

If nothing else, the basing of US Marines in Darwin will help to strengthen ties between the US and Australia, a nation that in recent years has been increasingly seeing itself more and more as part of Asia.
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As Much As I Hate To Defend Herman Cain...

I really don't want this to come off as a defense of the Republican presidential candidate, especially for an incident in the realm of foreign affairs where I think he is especially clueless, but some of the criticism surrounding his recent performance before an editorial board meeting of the Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal is I think is unwarranted.

If you haven't seen it, or have only seen an excerpt of it, the full, five-minute video of the exchange is available here.  The problem starts when Cain is asked if he agreed with the Obama Administration's position in supporting the Libyan rebels in the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi. The beginning of the video is admittedly painful to watch, Cain stumbles badly as he tries to remember his pre-programmed critique of Obama. If Herman Cain was a Mac, you would have been able to see the little beach ball spinning above his head as his brain tried to access the file containing the appropriate Obama slam.  Cain then goes into a lengthy, and off-topic, explanation about how as a businessman he likes to get a myriad of opinions before making a decision.  The whole sad reply, I would say, is deserving of some critique.  But buried in his stumbling answer is a nugget of truth – namely that we (the United States/The “West”/NATO) really had very little inkling about who the Libyan rebels were, or what were their ultimate goals aside from getting rid of Gadhafi; it was on the strength of that desire alone that the US/NATO gave the rebels their whole-hearted support.  Cain said - poorly, but he did manage to get it out – that as Commander-in-Chief he would have wanted to gather a little more intelligence, and had a little better idea of the nature of the rebel movement, before getting into bed with them.

That, I think, is a perfectly reasonable position, and one that shows that Cain at least has some grasp on the Libyan situation.  And perhaps as someone who has some experience in broadcasting, I'm also a little sympathetic to a person who loses their train of thought on camera.  Make no doubt about it, I think Herman Cain may have the worst foreign policy platform among the Republican candidates – his recent Uzbeki-beki-beki-stan-stan comment showed that not only is he out of his depth on foreign policy, but he's also proud of his ignorance and condescending towards other nationalities.  So let's criticize the man for his truly awful positions, and not just for a brain freeze that went viral.
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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

British PM Backs Key Aide

It has all the makings of a juicy political scandal – accusations that a key member of the prime minister's staff is neglecting his duties to cavort with a member of the opposite sex; while the PM issues a statement in support of his aide and their history of service.  This little scenario is actually happening right now in Great Britain.  Of course what makes this story odd is that the aide in question is a cat.

Larry, a four-year old cat rescued from a London animal shelter is the official cat of Prime Minister David Cameron's number 10 Downing Street residence.  Downing Street actually has a long history of having cats-in-residence to deal with any rodents who might happen into the PM's residence.  Larry himself was brought in four months ago after a rat could be seen scurrying in the background during a stand-up shot outside Downing Street during a press briefing Cameron held.  But according to the GlobalPost, after racking up three mouse kills in the early days of his residency, Larry's interest in mousing has fallen off, just as, according to the infamous “unnamed aides” always cited in pieces like these, his interest in a neighboring female tabby has increased.

On Monday a Downing Street spokesperson ruled out returning Larry to the pound saying that “Larry brings a lot of pleasure to a lot of people.” 
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Monday, November 14, 2011

Recapping The Republicans Foreign Policy Faceoff

The Republican presidential candidates had a debate on Saturday dedicated exclusively to foreign policy. The fact that there even was a debate may come as some surprise to you since the event seemed to slip rather unnoticed into the political discourse – note to Republicans: this is the downside in having two or three debates a week, after awhile they just become part of the pop culture background noise of our media-soaked society.  I have to admit, after being initially interested in seeing what the field had to say, I forgot the debate was on and only caught a portion of it.  Foreign Policy, though, did a good job of recapping the night here and here, and NationalJournal.com ran the candidates' statements through their fact-checker (surprise, some were less than truthful/accurate).

I did see enough of the evening's festivities to form a few opinions.  The first is disappointment – along with seeming to think this was still 1981 and peppering their comments with references to the “free world”, at least half the field never seemed to rise above the standard political posturing one would expect from their various campaigns.  Mitt Romney insisted that Iran would not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon during his presidency, even though the nuclear genie is largely out of the bottle by this point with Iran; it is probably safe to say that Iran has gained enough knowledge to construct a working nuclear bomb and that nothing short of a full-scale invasion/occupation could stop Iran from getting such a device if they really wanted it.  Candidates insisted that the US needs to stand solidly with Israel, and about half the field also believed that the technique of waterboarding did not qualify as torture, though their statements on this point – particularly Herman Cain's - came off as the phony swagger of a schoolyard tough guy who had never actually taken a punch. 

For me, two candidates stood out.  One was Ron Paul who, frankly, for the first time came off to me as a reasonable candidate with realistic positions and not a past-his-prime political hack with an odd fetish for the Federal Reserve.  The other was former governor, former ambassador Jon Huntsman.  Unlike most of the others, Huntsman not only said that he considered waterboarding torture, but then gave a thoughtful discourse on how engaging in practices like waterboarding diminished the United States in the eyes of people around the world who look to the US for inspiration and as a beacon of democracy and freedom.  While I watched, Huntsman also gave an insightful answer into US-Chinese relations, while subtly pointing out Romney's fundamental lack of understanding on how either the World Trade Organization and global currency markets work (kind of bad for a candidate who touts his experience as a businessman as one of his major qualifications for the presidency).
Huntsman looked like a man ready to be Commander-in-Chief, while the others simply repeated talking points and threw rhetorical red meat to their base constituencies.  That Huntsman is languishing in the low single digits in the polls perhaps says all that needs to be said about the sad state of this nominating process...  
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Friday, November 11, 2011

Now Here's A Reason To Oppose The Keystone XL

The Keystone XL pipeline project, which would bring bitumen down from Alberta's Oil Sands region to refineries along the United States' Gulf Coast, has been in the news a lot lately.  Opponents are trying to block approval of the US portion of the pipeline since they argue that Oil Sands crude production is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, destructive to the arboreal forests in Alberta and that the pipeline puts the American heartland and the massive Ogallala Aquifer at-risk since bitumen is highly corrosive, making pipeline leaks more likely, and difficult to clean when it spills.  Late Thursday they may have won a partial victory as the Obama Administration requested an additional review on the potential impacts of the pipeline which will likely punt any final yea or nay decision out past the 2012 presidential elections.  Of course a delay is not a denial and it's quite likely the pipeline could get the green light late next year or early in 2013, especially if a Republican wins next year's presidential elections, so the protests against the pipeline continue.

In an earlier post, I was critical of the protesters, not so much because I whole-heartedly support the pipeline idea, but because I find a lot of their rationale incredibly parochial – if we Americans refuse to build the Keystone XL, those silly Canadians will stop ruining their environment.  Of course Oil Sands production began before the Keystone XL project was even thought up and Canadians have a couple of Plan B's in mind in case Keystone XL is blocked.  One is to build pipelines west to the Pacific, where the bitumen can be shipped off to always energy-hungry China; the other is to build “upgraders”, a kind of refinery that converts heavy, lower-value into light, valuable synthetic crude oil (SCO) that can be processed like natural crude oil and which fetches a premium on the open market. In fact, some Canadians are wondering why they're even shipping out the lower-cost bitumen and not the higher-value SCO in the first place.

In a column in The Guardian, Sen. Bernie Sanders hits on a much better reason to oppose the Keystone XL – namely that little, if any, of the Oil Sands bitumen will actually be used in the United States.  The Oil Sands are being touted as a hedge against more unreliable sources of imported oil (i.e. the OPEC nations).  But internal documents from Valero, the refining company most invested in seeing Keystone XL completed, show that the company plans to convert the Alberta bitumen into gasolene and diesel fuel that they will then ship out to Latin America and Europe.  The reason is that their refinery in Port Arthur, TX is in a special enterprise zone where no export taxes are charged, so shipping the gas/diesel abroad is more profitable than selling it in the US, plus Europe has a much larger market for diesel than does the United States.

That argument knocks the legs out from the Oil Sands argument in the US – namely that they will provide America with a source of imported oil from a stable and trusted ally.  It also makes opposition to the pipeline a lot more palatable - why should the United States put its environment at-risk so a private company can make profits selling products from our “domestic” oil abroad – than some fantasy that if we “tell” the Canadians to stop exploiting the Oil Sands they actually will.

Update: According to Toronto’s Globe and Mail, Canadians are pissed about the delay decision.
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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Which Way To Mars?

Shooting a rocket across 100 million miles of empty space is about as daunting a task as it sounds, a fact the Russian space program is once again learning.  Russia's first interplanetary space mission in over a decade is currently stuck in orbit around Earth, with its prospects of heading off to Mars looking increasingly dim.

Phobos-Grunt is an audacious mission, a decade in planning.  If all goes according to plan, the Russians will land a probe not on Mars itself, but on one of Mars' two moons, Phobos.  There it will scoop up a sample of soil (“grunt” in Russian) which it will return to Earth.  For good measure, a small Chinese satellite is also hitching a ride, to spend two years orbiting the Red Planet.  That is if all goes according to plan, which sadly so far it is not.  Phobos-Grunt lifted off perfectly from Kazakhstan on Tuesday, but problems started about 11 minutes into the mission when the main rocket that would propel the mission to Mars failed to ignite, leaving Phobos-Grunt circling the wrong planet.  One theory is that the probe failed to detect the stars it would use to align itself for Mars, and rather than rocketing off into space, the probe went into a safe mode. 

Russian controllers are currently scrambling to get Phobos-Grunt pointed towards Mars to fire off its engine before the rocket's batteries die, which could occur in a few days.  The task is not impossible, but it does require the controllers to remotely override Phobos-Grunt's programming and get the rocket pointed in the right direction.  If they can't accomplish their task, Phobos-Grunt will go down as another in a long string of failed Martian missions that includes Mars 96, Russia's last interplanetary mission, and a NASA mission that slammed into Mars when NASA controllers failed to convert a key command from miles to kilometers.  And, according to former NASA scientist and space analyst James Oberg on MSNBC, if Russian controllers fail to send Phobos-Grunt to Mars, it could also become the most  dangerous piece of space junk ever.  The booster rocket currently contains seven tons of toxic fuel, which could survive Phobos-Grunt's re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

Ironic since Phobos is Latin for “fear”.  
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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Libya's Tuna Poachers

It seems like there's an unexpected casualty in the Libyan civil war: bluefin tuna.  According to a report by the BBC, fishing fleets allegedly took advantage of the months of chaotic fighting that led up to the fall of the Gadhafi regime to plunder tuna stocks within Libyan waters.  Bluefin tuna are a critically-threatened species, and the Mediterranean Sea is one of their spawning grounds, so catches of wild tuna are strictly regulated.  But plotting data from ICCAT - the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (yes, there is such a group) - shows that an unusually large number of fishing trawlers sailed into Libyan waters during the spring and summer of this year.  Normally Libya's navy would patrol their waters and keep out any poachers, but the Libyan navy was blockaded in port by NATO naval forces, leaving Libyan waters otherwise unprotected.

There's a strange irony at work here.  Many of the feared pirates of Somalia claim to have once been honest fishermen.  But, they say, that industrial fishing fleets from Europe and Asia took advantage of the collapse of Somalia's national government in 1991to scouring the fishing grounds off the Somali coast, leaving little for the largely subsistence-level Somali fishermen to catch.  Some of the pirates have even said that they consider themselves to be Somalia's de facto coast guard, seizing ships that are illegally operating in Somali waters since there is no federal government to enforce the law.  Just to bring this full circle, it is also worth noting that the United States' first foreign military campaign was fighting the pirates of the Barbary Coast (which includes present-day Libya) who preyed on American merchant ships at the dawn of the 19th century.

Of course it is doubtful that Libya will sink into a Somali-like state of lawlessness that would allow for a new generation of Barbary pirates, but the tuna-poaching shows that securing their territorial waters will be yet another unexpected challenge for Libya's new rulers.
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Iran And The Bomb

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is set to release a report that supposedly will show that Iran is much farther along in their pursuit of an atomic weapon than previously believed. Add to that the noticeable increase in anti-Iranian rhetoric in the op-ed pages, rumors of a mock Israeli attack on a NATO base as part of training for a long-range bombing mission and last month's botched (and highly suspicious) assassination attempt by Iranian agents against the Saudi ambassador in Washington DC and you can see that the war drums are clearly starting to beat for Iran.

For their part, the official Iranian line is that they have no active nuclear weapons program. According to details from the IAEA report, this may be technically true. The “smoking gun” in the IAEA report is a claim that Iran has designed and perhaps tested an explosive (though non-nuclear) triggering device necessary for an atomic weapon to work. It seems then, while not actually trying to build a bomb per se, the Iranians are trying to design and build all the parts so that if at a point in the future they wanted a nuke, they could quickly pull one together.

You have to ask though, why wouldn't Iran try to build their own nuclear bomb? Let's look at some of the major foreign policy actions of the new millennium: the United States assembled a coalition in 2003 to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein, while this year a US/NATO coalition used a proxy force of Libyan rebels to depose (and ultimately murder) Moammar Gadhafi. Meanwhile, Kim Jong-il continues to rule North Korea despite defying numerous sanctions from the United Nations and “international community” and after launching several outright military attacks against his South Korean neighbors; yet no one seriously talks about putting together a coalition to oust the Kim regime. What's the biggest difference between Kim, Hussein and Gadhafi? Kim has nukes, while the other two did not.

It's become clear that the best way to keep the international community out of your business is to set off a test nuclear device or two. Now look at Iran. They are almost completely surrounded by neighbors who host either large numbers of US troops, major American military installations or both: Afghanistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Iraq (though that one, at least, will change by year's end). And the Iranians remember, even if Americans do not, that the United States overthrew their democratically-chosen government in 1953 and reinstalled the Shah, whose brutal regime the US then helped to keep in power for the next 26 years. So, if your country is nearly surrounded by armed forces from the country who once overthrew your leader to install a regime more friendly to their interests – why wouldn't you take every step imaginable to protect yourself, including trying to make, or at least gain the knowledge to make, a nuclear weapon, when that device has proven to be the one thing that will stop this foreign power from meddling in your internal affairs?

Something to think about as the war drums beat.
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Friday, November 4, 2011

This Week At War: Kenyan Edition

Kenya is pressing on with their first military mission abroad, as their troops this week pushed deeper into neighboring Somalia in pursuit of militias allied with Somalia's Islamist al-Shabaab organization. The two sides have already fought several skirmishes, with both Kenya and al-Shabaab claiming to have killed a handful of the other side's fighters. The real battles are shaping up though as the Kenyans plan to take several strategic, al-Shabaab-held towns, including the vitally important port city of Kismayu, al-Shabaab's main link with the outside world. And Kenya is warning residents in ten Somali towns to expect to be “under attack continuously” during the next few days as the Kenyan military pursues al-Shabaab militias. That warning came by way of the Twitter feed of Kenyan military spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir, though you have to wonder if sending out messages via Twitter is really the best way to warn civilians in one of the poorest and most chaotic regions on the planet.

The upcoming attack is part of Operation Linda Nchi, which symbolically means “Protect the Nation” in Swahili. Kenyan officials say that they were spurred into action after al-Shabaab members crossed the border and kidnapped several European tourists from resorts in northern Kenya. Tourism makes up a major part of Kenya's economy, so the Kenyans felt they couldn't let the cross-border raids go unanswered.

But some analysts are questioning the wisdom of Linda Nchi. The Kenyans themselves are unclear about whether they intend to occupy Kismayu, assuming they get that far, or whether they plan to just capture/kill as many al-Shabaab fighters as they can in the city and then leave. And if they do leave, what keeps al-Shabaab from just retaking the area once the Kenyans are gone? It is worth noting that Ethiopia found itself in a similar situation a few years ago and launched their own invasion of Somalia in 2006 in response to cross-border incursions by Islamist militias along their border with Somalia. The Ethiopian army won some early victories against the militias, but soon found itself bogged down in a hit-and-run guerrilla war (much like the ones the US military found itself engaged in in both Iraq and Afghanistan). After two years the Ethiopians had enough and pulled their troops out, leaving a peacekeeping force from the African Union to fight al-Shabaab. The same thing then is likely to happen to Kenya should they decide to stay in southern Somalia. The Kenyans so far haven't offered any plans for how they would stabilize the region as a way of keeping al-Shabaab from returning. The old Kenyan strategy, which we discussed here a few months ago, was to prop up a separatist state in the border region of southern Somalia called Azania (or Jubaland depending on who you talk to), whose “government” pledged to fight al-Shabaab. But according to Tedai Marima on Al Jazeera, working with the folks in Azania/Jubaland can cause a whole new set of problems, since the state they would like to create also includes Somalis living on the Kenyan and Ethiopian sides of the border as well.

And then there's al-Shabaab themselves. Al-Shabaab tends to follow the insurgent's playbook and avoids direct conflict with professional militaries wherever they can, preferring hit-and-run attacks; or just outright acts of terrorism. As “punishment” for supplying the bulk of the troops in the AU peacekeeping mission, al-Shabaab staged a suicide bombing in Uganda's capital, Kampala, last year that killed 70 people. Al-Shabaab has now threatened similar attacks in Kenya.

There's also evidence that al-Shabaab is deepening their ties with the world's most famous terror outfit, al-Qaeda. A correspondent with The Guardian reporting on the ongoing drought in southern Somalia filed this story about al-Qaeda distributing humanitarian aid at an al-Shabaab-run refugee camp. Even more disturbing for Western anti-terror operatives is the claim that the relief group was led by an American al-Qaeda calling himself Abu Abdullah Muhajir. It is not unheard of for Somali-Americans to return to Somalia and take up with an Islamist militia – a recent suicide bombing in Mogadishu was traced back to a recently-returned Somali-American. But Muhajir was described by The Guardian as being “white” and a full-member of al-Qaeda, which changes the equation a bit. It could be a sign that al-Qaeda is taking a serious look at lawless Somalia, which hasn't had a functioning national government for 20 years now, as a new Afghanistan, a central base of operations for them to use while they try to rebuild.
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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Anna In Her Own Words (or Somebody Else's)

Our favorite accused spy, Anna Chapman,is now being accused of something else – plagiarism.

Russian bloggers claim that a recentarticle she wrote for the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper on Russia'smost famous poet, Alexander Pushkin, contained a passage taken almost“word for word” from a book on Pushkin by Russian writer OlegMatveyechev, according to The Guardian. They quoted the paragraph inquestion from Chapman's article, which argued that Pushkin was aninspiration for the Russian revolution and could have rivaledShakespeare in impacting the world had he not died at age 37, but TheGuardian did not offer up the quote from Matveyechev's book forcomparison, so there's no telling (at least from The Guardian'spiece) about the validity of the bloggers' claim.

Since returning to Russia, Chapman haskept herself in the public eye, the article in Pravda being thelatest example. But some are accusing her of merely being the typeof fame-seeking pseudo-celebrity we seem to churn out by the dozenhere in the West – Chapman was recently heckled by students at anappearance at St. Petersburg University. Chapman also indirectlymade the news in the US in the past few days as the FBI releasedsurveillance video of the undercover sting that brought down thealleged Russian spy ring last year.
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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

America's Next Top Villain

Any way you slice it, this has been a bad year for those George W. Bush would have called “evildoers”. A Libyan mob executed Moammar Gadhafi after a US/NATO-led air campaign allowed rebel forces to drive him from power; Anwar al-Awlaki, al-Qaeda's heir apparent, was killed in a US drone strike in Yemen; and Public Enemy #1, Osama bin Laden was dispatched by the US Navy's SEAL Team Six in May. Of course it seems these days that the United States isn't happy unless we have some uber-villain to rail against, so as a service to you, our reading public, AWV will handicap the race to be America's Next Top Villain. Now let's meet the contenders:

Kim Jong-il, North Korea; Odds: 6-1
Megalomaniacal bad guy Kim Jong-il already seems like he stepped out of a James Bond flick, which is fitting since the Dear Leader is known to be a huge movie buff. On the surface, Kim has all the prerequisites for supervillainy: a highly militarized state, a thriving cult of personality, a penchant for making grandiose threats; but Kim is also near 70 and reportedly in poor health – and no one wants a supervillain who just up and dies on you. Plus North Korea is currently on one of its swings towards engagement with the world, Kim himself was recently in Russia trying to drum up trade between the two nations and negotiating a possible natural gas pipeline route. And then there's the nuclear weapons issue, Kim has shown that nothing keeps the United States out of your well-coifed hair like having a nuclear arsenal (a lesson Gadhafi failed to grasp). But North Korea is known for wild swings in foreign affairs. Kim is also attempting to groom his youngest son, Kim Jong-un for leadership, and nothing screams legitimate leader like drumming up a little military conflict with your neighbors, so Kim the Elder will retain his spot on the possible Top Villain list.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria; Odds: 5-1
Given the Libyan blueprint, casting al-Assad of Syria as the Next Top Villain makes a lot of sense. Just like Gadhafi in Libya, al-Assad has overseen a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters within his country, and, just like Libya, the opposition has used social media to implore the international community to come to their aid. So far though these calls have fallen on deaf ears; there has been no outcry for a Syrian no-fly zone or to provide aid to their rebel movement. Why is a good question: it could be because Syria has close ties to Iran (as well as some ties to Russia), or because they lack Libya's vast oil reserves, or because al-Assad just doesn't have the track record for international mischief of a Moammar Gadhafi. Heady with the success from the Libyan mission, it is possible the international community may rally 'round the “Free Syria” idea, though not terribly likely so al-Assad stays on the list at 5-1.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran; Odds: 5-3
On paper, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems like a shoe-in for the Next Top Villain post. Hawks in Israel and the US have been clamoring for military action against him for years: Israel fearing an Iranian nuclear bomb, the US angry over growing Iranian influence in Iraq, but the thought of the US engaging in another regional war in the MENA/Islamic world has thrown some cold water on the military action idea (and that was before Libya), as has Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program (see North Korea). Some experts believe that Ahmadinejad may be losing his grip on power in Iran anyway, the comically-bad plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US is taken by some as sign of a split within the Iranian leadership. Ultimately power in Iran is known to be in the hands of Ayatollah Khamenei, which works against Ahmadinejad since a rule of thumb is that the Top Villain actually has to be the guy in charge. Still, given his record as an anti-West, anti-Israel irritant and the desire in some quarters for military action against Iran, Ahmadinejad has to remain the odds-on favorite for the Next Top Villain spot.

Joseph Kony, Lord's Resistance Army; Odds: 50-1
As the leader of a brutal, nihilistic cult, Joseph Kony seems tailor-made for the role of Top Villain. His Lord's Resistance Army -which earned its reputation for brutality by maiming innocent civilians and raiding isolated villages, killing all the adults while enslaving all of the children - is an easy group to despise (unless, of course, you're Rush Limbaugh). But the LRA has never shown itself to be a threat anywhere but in the hinterlands of Central Africa, and Kony himself has shown a remarkable ability to blend into the African jungle and avoid capture for two long decades now. President Obama recently showed his willingness to take on the LRA by dispatching 100 US Special Forces troops to aid Uganda in Kony's capture. But a Top Villain has to at least seem to pose a direct threat to the United States and also has to be someone that we can be reasonably sure that we can eventually take out. No president wants another decade-long game of hide-and-seek like we had with bin Laden; two factors that make Kony a real longshot for next Top Villain.

Vladimir Putin, Russia; Odds: 8-1
We'll go retro for our last pick. Since declaring that he would once again run for president, Vladimir Putin is being cast as a sort of Soviet-era Leader for Life for the new millennium. Republican presidential candidates are using Putin's announcement as a chance to blast the Obama administration for its “failed reset” of relations with Russia. Add to that Putin's own budding cult of personality (complete with bikini-clad female supporters and a comic casting him as a superhero) and his penchant for photo-op stunts like swimming in Siberian rivers or finding planted Grecian urns while diving in the Aegean Sea, and you have the theatrical makings of a true Top Villain. While a direct military conflict between the US and Russia is unthinkable, the two sides have shown that they can keep a Cold War humming along for decades, and a non-war “war” could be just the thing for American military forces depleted by a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and under growing budget constraints. The reality of the situation though is that the US and Russia need each other more as allies than as adversaries, so a return to the Cold War now is unlikely. Odds of Putin becoming next Top Villain depend on whether Obama (10-1) or the Republicans (6-1) win the 2012 election; we'll split the difference and put Vlad in at 8-1.

Of course there are always the dark horse candidates: Hugo Chavez is famous for his anti-American tirades; Republicans trying to appeal to Cuban-American voters in 2012 could always push the Castro brothers to the top of America's hit list; Afghanistan's erratic Hamid Karzai could always go rogue on us, so the race for America's Next Top Villain remains open. We'll check back in a few months and see where things stand.

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