Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ron Paul, Our (Bad) Ideas Guy

Michael A. Cohen is out with a good piece in Foreign Policy debunking the foreign relations plank of the latest top-tier Republican presidential candidate, Dr. Ron Paul. While he's cast himself staunchly in the conservative/libertarian camp, Ron Paul is drawing interest - and even some measure of support - from folks on the left; high-profile pundits like Rachel Maddow and Bill Maher have both voiced their approval for his foreign policy stances, so too have several of my more liberal/progressive friends.  Typically they cite Paul's belief that the United States needs to lessen its military footprint around the globe, along with his opposition to a possible war with Iran as factors that set him apart from the Republican crowd and reasons for their support.

But in reality, these positions are less examples of “good ideas” than they are simply of Paul having a more realistic view of America's current geopolitical situation than do any of his fellow Republican presidential candidates, all of whom have wrapped themselves in the cloak of “American exceptionalism” and all the rhetoric that entails.  The reality is that the United States spends too much money it doesn't have on maintaining a military presence in places that don't really affect life in the USA all that much, like say, Afghanistan, where the US spends billions of dollars a month to prop up the kleptocracy of Hamid Karzai.  In this regard, the US is following in the historic footsteps of other empires like the Roman and British, which spent much money and effort in their declining years meddling in the affairs of minor kingdoms at the fringes of Empire.  As for Iran, it is clear that no military intervention is going to achieve our desired result – the end of Tehran's nuclear research program – nor does our military have the ability to now fight a prolonged war after a solid decade of engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Paul's position then is more an accurate assessment of the global situation than it is an example of groundbreaking “good ideas”.

And once you take a step past these Left-approved positions, Paul quickly goes off the deep end.  Paul pushes an isolationist policy, one that would see the United States withdraw from international treaties and bodies (Paul insists that he's not an isolationist since he would allow free trade with foreign nations, though like his defense of his 1980's era newsletters, it is a pretty weak insistence).  Under President Paul, the United States would withdraw from treaties like NAFTA, alliances like NATO, and organizations like the World Health Organization and the United Nations.  So at a time when the world is becoming “smaller”, and countries becoming more integrated, Paul's foreign policy would amount to “hey you kids, get off my lawn”.  For good or bad, the United States can't simply withdraw from the world, not if we expect to maintain our level of international prestige, or keep our economy running – the global economy works because countries are bound together by a host of treaties and compacts, one can't then simply drop these obligations and expect to keep your seat at the table. From the time of our founding, presidents have understood that the United States needs to be engaged with the world.  As a nation, our first military actions abroad were the “Barbary Wars” at the dawn of the 19th century, where US sailors and marines fought with the pirates of the Barbary Coast (current-day Libya) over their harassment of American merchant vessels.  200 years ago, presidents realized you couldn't simply pull up the drawbridge and disengage from the world, a fact that seems to have escaped Paul today.

From isolationism, Paul's foreign policy musings quickly go into tinfoil hat land.  Part of Paul's opposition to NAFTA is a belief that it is the forerunner to the North American Union – a merger of the US, Mexico and Canada under a single government with a single currency allegedly to be called the “Amero”.  This conspiracy theory has been floating around the Internets since the mid-90s, though Paul has taken it seriously enough to introduce legislation to prevent it from occurring (one does have to wonder why, since clearly the United States would dominate such a union).  But it's not just the NAU that wants to subjugate the USA, the United Nations also has it in for us. According to Paul, the UN is merely a front for a one world government that will deprive Americans of their liberties, including their right to own guns.  Again, here Paul strays into the realm of far-right conspiracy fans, since anyone who has ever had any experience with the United Nations can tell you that the place is far too disorganized to ever come up with a one-world anything.

A fundamental misunderstanding of two centuries of American foreign policy and a penchant for taking far-right Internet ramblings way too seriously, things to consider next time Ron Paul is put forward, like Jon Stewart has done, as our “ideas guy”.
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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Grinch Who Stole The UN

I heard about this story while out with some friends last Friday.  It is nice to think of the United Nations as a serious place where diplomats and experts sincerely try to come up with mature solutions to the world's most dire problems.

And then there's Mark Kornblau, the spokesman for the United States' Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice.  In response to an ongoing feud between his boss and Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, Kornblau tweeted this picture of Churkin photoshopped into an image of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  Glad to see that the US is sending mature boys and girls to represent our interests at the United Nations...

Rice and Churkin have recently had an increasingly testy round of exchanges over Syria and Libya.  Basically, the United States is angry with Russia over that country's opposition to increased pressure on the Assad regime in Syria over their brutal crackdown of pro-democracy demonstrators.  Russia, which has long-standing political and economic ties to Syria, is reluctant to punish the country any further. But Churkin has framed Russia's position as one of opposition to another US-led attempt at regime change in the Middle East/North Africa region, citing the NATO-led, US-backed campaign that led to the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.  Rice responded to Churkin's latest position statement against further sanctions in Syria by saying of the Russian position “it is duplicitous, it's redundant, it's superfluous and it's a stunt.”  Churkin took a dig at Rice by saying those were the kind of big words one learns at Stanford, Rice's alma mater.

Of course a better tack for Churkin would have been to bring up Bahrain.  While Rice is making an impassioned case for intervention (politically at least) in Syria by stating: “Welcome to December. Is everybody sufficiently distracted from Syria now and the killing that is happening before our very eyes?,” just as the United States had made a similar case for action in Libya once that regime started killing its own citizens, the US position towards Bahrain was quite different.  When the small Persian Gulf state launched its own brutal crackdown against its own pro-democracy movement, which included the shooting of unarmed protesters and the arrest of doctors who tried to treat the wounded, the US was silent beyond a few bland calls for “restraint”.  The difference is that Bahrain is the home to the United States Navy's Fifth Fleet, the Bahrani royal family is closely allied with the Saudis and that the protesters were largely Shiite Muslims (like their large neighbor to the east, Iran).  Of course, if the United States is going to be the passionate supporter of human rights around the globe, then we should also call out our allies for their transgressions – a good point for Churkin to make.

Getting back to the Grinch thing.  Not only was it stupid, it was childish.  Given the beating the United States' image took at the UN during the term of Dubya Bush-era Ambassador John Bolton, who had all of the grace and diplomacy of a pit bull, there is a real need for the representatives of the United States now to appear mature and professional, Mark Kornblau has shown he is neither of these things.  Firing Kornblau would be a good step in the process of rebuilding the United States' stature as a glopbal leader at the UN.   
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Santa's Soyuz Sleigh

The Russian space program inadvertently gave western Europe a Christmastime treat during the evening of the 24th.  People all across Belgium and Germany reported seeing a strange, bright object streaking across the nighttime sky.  The object was alternately thought to be either a meteorite or Santa's sleigh.

In reality, the streaking object was the third stage of a Russian Soyuz rocket, which a few days earlier had delivered a new crew of astronauts to the International Space Station.  Still, the timing of the reentry was fantastic.

The Russian space program managed to chalk up another amazing coincidence last Friday, though this time not as the result of a successful mission.  On Friday, an unmanned Soyuz-2 rocket carrying a military satellite failed moments after launch from Kazakhstan.  Debris rained down over an area of central Siberia, including a small tank from the rocket, which crashed through the roof of a house in the village of Vagaitsevo.  The house was located on Cosmonaut Street – seriously, what are the odds of that happening?
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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Russian Protests, Round Two

Call it an unwanted early Christmas present for Vladimir Putin.  Last Saturday, a crowd of perhaps as many as 100,000 people gathered in the streets of Moscow to protest against the Putin regime and parliamentary elections widely viewed as stolen; smaller rallies occurred in other cities across Russia.  It was the second time since the December 4 elections that Russians took to the streets in mass protests, and a sign that anger over the elections directed towards the Kremlin was not subsiding. 

The rallies on the 24th were the second state-sanctioned protests since the elections earlier in the month.  Officials in the Kremlin tried to downplay the impact of the rallies, and the amount of anger in the public, by apparently under-estimating the size of the crowd gathered on Moscow's Sakharov Avenue.  The size of the crowd was officially put at 25,000, though one reporter from the BBC said that it appeared there were more people gathered than there had been at the previous rally, attendance at that rally was said to be 50,000; the stretch of Sakharov Avenue where the rally was staged is said to hold more than 100,000 people.  Video from the event showed a packed street, as well as some clever signs.  My personal favorite was one oversized placard, written in English, that said “Where's my money Hillary?”, an allusion to a charge made by Putin that the protesters were being paid by “Western” governments, and by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in particular, in an effort to undermine the Russian state.

It seems though that Putin & Co. will have to come up with some better rhetoric if they hope to diffuse the protest movement in Russia.  That the opposition was able to organize a second, even larger, round of protests mostly through the Internet, is a clear sign of the depth of disapproval directed towards the Kremlin and Putin.  The protesters are promising to stage a third series of rallies sometime in mid-January after Russia recovers from the New Years – Russian Orthodox Christmas holiday season, which typically brings Russia to a halt from the end of December through the first two weeks of January.  According to a poll of those in attendance at the December 24th rally, nine-out-of-ten say they will attend another protest rally in the future.

But even though the protest movement seems to have legs, for the moment at least, it seems to lack a leader – at least it lacks someone who could pose a serious challenge to Putin in the presidential elections which will take place in March.  While each of Russia's three official opposition parties – The Communists, the Liberal Democrats and A Just Russia – are all expected to field candidates, it is unlikely that the opposition turning out in the streets across Russia will coalesce around any one of them.  Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov has announced that he too will be a candidate in the elections, but he is still being regarded with suspicion as a candidate planted by the Kremlin to draw off opposition votes.

And the Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, weighed in following Saturday’s rally, urging Putin to follow his lead and retire from political life.
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Monday, December 26, 2011

Shepherds and Settlements

Humble shepherds in the hills above Bethlehem play an important role in the Christmas story.  But ask one of the remaining Christian shepherds tending their flocks in modern-day Israel the line from the famous Christmas carol about what they see and the reply is likely to be not a star, but a settlement wall.

The BBC reports this holiday season, that the shepherds tending their flocks near Bethlehem are saying their age-old way of life could soon be coming to an end, thanks to the expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank.  Israel has been expanding their massive housing developments - illegally built on Palestinian land, the BBC notes - in recent years.  But security walls surrounding the settlements have cut shepherds off from many of their prime grazing lands, while the settlements themselves draw massive amounts of water from already marginal reserves in the arid region, leaving little behind for the shepherd's flocks of sheep.  The result is that many of the current generation of shepherds are likely to be the last – their children don't want to go into an already difficult line of work, work now made nearly impossible thanks to the Israeli settlements.

Consider this – Israeli policies towards the West Bank and Gaza are staunchly supported by Conservative Christians in America, yet those very policies are now working to end a traditional way of life for a group of Christians that dates directly back to the time of Jesus.  As Homer Simpson once said: “think about the irony...”
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Thursday, December 22, 2011

As Iraq Crumbles

Iraq is falling apart at breakneck speed.  With the dust still settling from the US troop convoy out of the country, Iraq is showing every sign of coming apart at the seams. This morning, Baghdad was rocked by a series of coordinated blasts during the morning rush hour that killed at least 50 people and wounded more than 100 others.  But those explosions are masking an even larger problem gripping the Iraqi government.

Earlier in the week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Iraq's Vice President, Tariq al-Hashemi, claiming that al-Hashemi was running his own murderous hit squad.  It's worth noting here that this is Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister trying to arrest Iraq's Sunni Vice President.  In response, al-Hashemi fled to the northern city of Erbil, de facto capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, where he was granted protection by Iraq's Kurdish President Jalal Talabani.

So as of Thursday morning, Iraq's whole political system was in a three-sided stand-off broken down along ethnic/sectarian lines.  Part of the reason that this kind of situation could even happen in the first place is that Iraq's national government has obviously taken a lesson from the US Congress and developed an amazing ability to avoid making tough decisions.  The final status of Kurdistan within the Iraqi federal state has gone unresolved for years. The main sticking point is over oil revenues from the oil rich north, which the Kurds think should stay in their autonomous region and the Sunnis/Shiites think should be distributed to the country at-large.  Some oil companies have signed contracts to develop resources in the north with the Kurdish government in Erbil, which the federal government in Baghdad hasn't decided yet whether to honor or not. And then there's the city of Kirkuk, which sits in the middle of Iraq's northern oil patch, that the Kurds say was historically Kurdish and should thus belong to them, but Iraq's Arabs say was repopulated by Saddam Hussein with Shiites and Sunnis and so should not.

Of course the situation involving Iraq's Vice President has sparked claims from the Republican critics in the United States that the possible pending collapse of Iraq is all President Obama's fault for withdrawing US troops too quickly and too soon.  This line of argument ignores the fact that Pres. Obama's decision was motivated by the government of Iraq's refusal to sign an extension of the Status of Forces Agreement (or SOFA) that exempted US troops from prosecution under Iraqi law for any perceived misdeeds (you can only imagine how Obama's Republican critics would have howled if he had left US troops in Iraq without this protection). A larger question for the critics though is if after eight years Iraq's government was so fragile it would start to crack just days after the US withdrew from the country, when then would it be ready to govern? In another five years? Ten? Would the United States need a massive and permanent presence in Iraq to play referee to the feuding ethnic and sectarian groups, and is this what they're advocating?

The United States went to war in Iraq for dubious motives to remove the government of Saddam Hussein.  Our plan for the “day after” Saddam’s fall was to install Ahmed Chalabi, a shifty Iraqi ex-pat, as the new leader, a plan the Iraqis balked at.  It is clear that in the eight years following the rejection of Chalabi, the US never was able to come up with a Plan B other than to try to graft a federal system of government onto three groups with long and contentious histories, a plan that now shows signs, not surprisingly, of coming dramatically apart.
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Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Billion Year President

The Gambia's Yahya Jammeh is a man who obviously has never heard of term limits.  After winning re-election as president in a vote widely condemned by regional authorities as unfair, Jammeh said that he was ready to rule for “one billion years”, if God wills it, of course.

Jammeh has long been accused of political oppression since taking over as leader of this tiny West African state following a coup in 1994.  On a personal note, I happen to know someone who had to flee The Gambia after his organization ran afoul of the Jammeh government, so the claims of oppression are real.  The media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders notes that journalists who question the government are often arrested, while in their piece, the BBC discusses the case of Deyda Hydara, editor of a private newspaper in The Gambia who was murdered in 2004, a murder blamed on Jammeh's security forces and still officially unsolved.

ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, refused to send observers to monitor the presidential election because they said the opposition had been effectively silenced, making the vote inherently unfair.  For his part, Jammeh says that his critics can “go to hell”, and that he does not fear an Arab Spring-style uprising in his country.

It is hard to imagine what the world would be like at the end of Jammeh's billion-year rule, but thanks to our friends at NASA, we at least have an idea of what things might be like at the 250 million-year mark.  According to computer projections, continental drift will carry West Africa to the northwest, placing The Gambia on a latitude roughly equal to present-day Alaska and pressing it up against northern Canada.  Jammeh might want to start planning for the changes in location and environmental conditions now.   

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Powerless in Afghanistan

An engineering operation that the British called the most daring of its kind since the Second World War looks like it might fall, not to Taliban insurgents, but to penny-pinchers in the US Congress.  In September 2008, British Royal Marines hauled a 220-ton generator across 100 miles of hostile territory in southern Afghanistan to the partially-completed Kajaki Dam hydroelectric plant after private contractors refused to move the equipment through Taliban-held territory.  The new generator was meant to complete the hydroelectric plant and to ease chronic power shortages in this region of Afghanistan that includes the strategically-important city of Kandahar.  But since the autumn of 2008, the new generator has sat uninstalled at the dam, and now it looks like it might stay that way permanently.

USAID, the United States Agency for International Development, is questioning whether it makes sense to complete the expensive project in the face of budget cuts from Congress.  USAID's budget was slashed from $4 billion in 2010, to $2 billion this year, with further cuts for 2012 likely.  Installation of the turbine at Kajaki would chew up a big part of USAID's Afghan budget.  Officials are instead looking at other lower-cost options, like improving transmission lines in the region, as a way to ease the power shortages in the south of Afghanistan.  That has the US military leaders in Afghanistan dismayed since Kajaki was to be the signature project for the coalition in the region, making its completion strategically-important in their minds.

The Kajaki hydro plant is just another example of what a muddled mess the Afghanistan mission has become.  To dip into the big bag of writer's cliches, at this point the US needs to go big or go home (I vote for the latter myself), the problem is that the current strategy seems to be to do neither.  We have convinced ourselves that Afghanistan is an area vital to our national security, so the US insists on maintaining our engagement there.  But it is not enough to simply base a lot of troops in the country. In a very real sense Afghanistan doesn't exist as much more than a name on a map; a state and civil society needs to be built almost from scratch.  But the US also insists that it does not want to be involved in nation-building, even though a nation clearly needs to be built.  To make matters worse, we have a Congress that is looking to cut funding for everything that doesn't drop a bomb and the wholly-corrupt regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai for a partner, meaning that much of the money that is sent to Afghanistan never actually gets to its intended project.

Not installing the generator amazingly hauled through enemy territory at great cost may be seen as a fiscally-responsible move by some at USAID, though in reality it means that the money spent up to this point on the Kajaki generator project was simply wasted.  It is another sign of an increasingly pointless mission, and another argument for why it is time to just leave before we waste more money (and likely more lives) on similar projects that will ultimately go unfinished.
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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

More TIME Person Of The Year Lameness

So Time Magazine is out today with their annual Person of the Year award, and once again Time has missed the mark.  While not as ridiculously bad as their 2006 selection of “You”, the computer user, this one is fairly bad in its own right.

Time has selected “The Protester” as the Person of the Year. Not a specific protester, or even a group like Occupy Wall Street, just protesters in general, so if you've formally bitched about anything this past year, congratulations, you are Time's Person of the Year.  But beyond the generic banality of giving the award to a vague group of people defined by partaking in a poorly-defined action, Time makes their selection seem even more ridiculous with their press release about the POTY award.

 “A year after a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself ablaze, dissent has spread across the Middle East, to Europe and the U.S., reshaping global politics and redefining people power,” the magazine explains.  The problem is that Tunisian fruit vendor had a name: Mohamed Bouazizi.  He passed away in early January after setting himself on fire after Tunisian authorities trashed his meager fruit stand because he couldn't afford a vendor's license.  Before setting himself alight, Bouazizi complained that even after getting a college education, there were no jobs for young men like himself in Tunisia, and now the government wouldn't even let him sell fruit at the local bazaar.  Bouazizi's act sparked protests that would eventually topple the government of Tunisia, an act that would go on to inspire Egyptians, Libyans, Yemenis, Syrians and others to rise up against their oppressive governments.  If anyone met the criteria of being the individual who “most influenced the culture and the news during the past year, for good or for ill,” it was Bouazizi.
Yet somehow it wasn't enough for Time magazine to honor him as the POTY.  Perhaps Time feared that giving the award to a man little-known to the American population, but with a Muslim-sounding name would spark a possible boycott from a group of ignorant yahoos in Florida, or perhaps no one at the great journalistic institution of Time Magazine bothered to learn the name of the “Tunisian fruit vendor”.  Whatever the reason, by passing up honoring Mohamed Bouazizi in favor of the generic “Protester”, Time once again showed the irrelevance of the Person of the Year award, and of their magazine itself.
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Durban FTW?

The latest round of negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (or UNFCCC) wrapped up over the weekend.  Actually the talks, meant to strike an agreement on a follow-up to the Kyoto Protocols that limit global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, were suppose to end on Friday, but went on for an additional day and a half to allow delegates to hammer out a final agreement.

This is being spun in a lot of the media coverage of the talks as a win for the environment, since for the first time all of the 195 nations in attendance agreed in principle to be bound by legally-binding caps on future greenhouse gas emissions.  But you need to read past the headlines on what was actually agreed upon for the full story: first a three-year band-aid was slapped on Kyoto, extending the provisions of the soon-to-expire treaty out to 2015; then the UNFCCC parties agreed to “discuss” a legally-binding pact that would impose emission caps on major GHG emitters that would kick in by 2020.  String that all together and you get an agreement with more wiggle room than a six-year old's front tooth.

The parties in the UNFCCC were to have spent the past two years negotiating a replacement for the Kyoto Protocols to go into effect in 2013, once Kyoto expires.  But the negotiating sessions – Copenhagen, Mexico and now Durban – have all been exercises in delaying action until the next round of discussions.  There's no reason to think this pattern is now going to change during the next three years of “discussions”, especially since the core disagreements remain: the big polluters of the developing world, China and India, argue that it is not fair that they be held to the same emissions standards as the developed world, while the developed world's top emitter, the United States, ably assisted by our less polluting, but more vocal sidekick, Canada (which just pulled out of Kyoto entirely), argue that any future agreement is meaningless unless it binds all top emitters – be they developed or developing – to the same standard.  It's hard to see either side moving from their position during the next three years, not to mention that even if President Obama, in a second-term effort at legacy-building, were to sign onto a binding agreement, it is unlikely Congress would ratify it since some Congressmen view Global Warming as something akin to voodoo and/or a Commie plot to enslave America.  Durban also established a $100 billion fund to help developing nations to offset the costs of climate change (another reason why it is viewed as a “win”), though one country who feels that they may be entitled to payment from the fund is mega-wealthy Saudi Arabia, who argue they should be compensated for possiblefuture reductions in crude oil sales as the world moves on to greener sources of energy.

Frankly, I have a hard time then viewing Durban as anything more than another kick of the proverbial can down the road.  As a friend said, when it comes to the topic of climate change, there are no adults in the room to make the hard choices necessary to actually accomplish something.  Countries will talk about the need to mitigate climate change, but will stop short of any action that could impact the quality of life at home (and thus reduce their leaders chances of staying in power).  And until the day comes that nations/leaders can act in the global interest rather than their own self-serving ones, we'll see more Durbans and more empty promises of change “sometime” down the road.
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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Putin's Prokhorov Challenge

The unfolding political drama in Russia took another unexpected turn on Monday as billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov threw his hat in the ring as a challenger to Vladimir Putin in next March's presidential elections.  His announcement came after an unusual series of Kremlin-sanctioned political protest rallies took place this weekend, with the largest in Moscow drawing a crowd officially estimated at 25,000.  Prokhorov is apparently hoping that he can ride a wave of political dissent rippling across Russia over elections last weekend that are widely believed to have been fixed in the Kremlin's favor. “I made a decision, probably the most serious decision in my life: I am going to the presidential election,” Prokhorov said at a news conference on Monday to announce his independent bid for the presidency.

In fact, the timing of his announcement was so good that some are wondering if Prokhorov isn't just a stalking horse candidate for Kremlin critics- a safe outlet for disaffected voters that won't challenge the established leadership.  Adding fuel to this theory are the statements over the weekend by one top Kremlin insider who said that Russia needed a new liberal party to serve the mostly urban protesters attending rallies in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities across Russia.

But I think that there are two factors going against this argument.  The first is that there really is no need for a stalking horse-type candidate to ensure an electoral victory for Putin.  While some Russians may be angry, and many more just fed up with the ongoing Age of Putin, none of the three opposition parties in the Duma (the Russian parliament) have anyone to offer up as a candidate with the popularity (albeit damaged popularity) or stature of Putin, meaning that for as much of a pounding as his image has taken in the past week, Vladimir Putin is still odds-on favorite to win the election in March.

Second, even if the Kremlin was going to try to offer up a straw man candidate, Prokhorov is a fairly poor choice since he was already burned politically by the Kremlin just earlier this year.  In May, Prokhorov took leadership of the party Pravoye Dyelo, a name which is alternately translated as Just Cause or Right Cause.  Prokhorov's new party was to be more populist-minded with a pro-business/anti-corruption platform that managed to steer clear of any cutting criticism of either Putin or current President Dmitry Medvedev – a delicate maneuver that left Right Cause open to charges that it was simply another Kremlin-approved opposition party in the mold of A Just Russia (in fact, much of Right Cause's platform seemed to echo the economic reform ideas being pushed by Medvedev earlier this year.  In May, Prokhorov boasted that Right Cause would become the second largest party in the Duma (behind the ruling United Russia of course) following December's elections. 

But Prokhorov seems to have taken his role as leader of Right Cause a little too seriously for some in the Kremlin.  In September, a secret Congress (so secret Prokhorov didn't know about it) was held among some of Right Cause's leaders and Prokhorov was voted out of his leadership role, a move Prokhorov blamed on Vladislav Surkov, a presidential deputy chief of staff, who serves a role for Putin much the same that Karl Rove did for President George W. Bush, and a man who Prokhorov blasted following the secret vote as: “a puppeteer in the country who has long privatized the political system.”  Prokhorov kept a low profile following his ouster from Right Cause, but stated on Monday that he had been planning and putting together the machinery needed to gather the two million ballot signatures required to get his name on the March presidential ballot.

There appears then to be some genuine animosity between Prokhorov and the Putin machine, so it would seem unlikely that he would then secretly be working with them on an ultimately unnecessary political maneuver.  What's more plausible is that Prokhorov, an aggressive businessman who at just age 46 has amassed a fortune in the billions, sees an opening and is planning to take it in terms of Putin's now-waning popularity, and if it is a chance to get back at Putin, whose associate Surkov publicly humiliated him in the Right Cause affair, all the better. 

With his declaration, comparisons are now rightly being drawn between Prokhorov and the last oligarch who challenged Putin publicly and politically, the former head of the Yukos oil conglomerate, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is currently languishing in a prison cell in Russia's Far East on some dubious tax evasion charges.  But there is an interesting difference between the two men: in his book on the  Khodorkovsky affair, Putin's Oil, author Martin Sixsmith describes how Khodorkovsky publicly sparred with Putin in the months leading up to his arrest in 2003.  In the weeks before his arrest, Khodorkovsky was urged by friends to follow the lead of other oligarchs who had gotten on the wrong side of Putin and go into self-imposed exile outside of Russia.  But Khodorkovsky instead feverishly tried to negotiate a merger between Yukos and Exxon, his belief was that forming a business alliance with a major Western corporation would provide him with protection against Putin (in Russian the term is krysha, literally: roof) who would not want to damage Russia's image as a place to do business by arresting the head of a multinational corporation on politically-motivated charges.   Khodorkovsky ultimately wasn't able to complete the merger and wound up being arrested as he had feared.

For his part, Prokhorov has the Western business connections Khodorkovsky lacked; among Prokhorov's other holdings are the NBA's New Jersey Nets.  Prokhorov then seems ready to test the Khodorkovsky theorem, how Putin, and the Russian voters, respond will be interesting to see.
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Friday, December 9, 2011

Bald Man's Comb Redux

The brief 1981 war between Great Britain and Argentina over possession of the Falkland Islands, a pair of rocky, windswept pieces of land in the stormy South Atlantic that are home to more sheep than humans, was once famously compared to two bald men fighting over a comb.  It seems like at least one of the bald men is up to his old tricks again.

Earlier this month, Argentine patrol vessels boarded and detained 12 Spanish fishing vessels off the Falklands as part of what Argentina contends is a “legal” blockade of their islands (Las Malvinas, to the Argentines), which are currently being illegally occupied by the British, stating that the Falklands, along with the even more remote South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands are a “integral part of Argentine territory.”.  The Spanish replied by saying that they had legally-issued fishing permits from the government of the Falklands and contested the legality of Argentina's boarding.

Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner though is unbowed, slamming the British for “occupying” Las Malvinas, and recently calling Great Britain a “crude colonial power in decline.”  Her comments and the boarding of the Spanish vessels have brought a stinging rebuke from British foreign policy analyst, and frequent American TV pundit Nile Gardiner.  Nile typically provides a hawkish, right-wing point-of-view (no surprise since he is also the Director of the Margaret Thatcher Center at the Heritage Foundation), so perhaps it’s no surprise that his suggested reply to Pres. Kirchner is for Great Britain to go in guns a-blazing.  Gardiner says that the boarding of the Spanish vessels, licensed by the government of the Falklands to fish in their waters, should be regarded as “an act of war” and that the British should dispatch an infantry brigade, Typhoon warplanes and an attack submarine to the Falklands immediately, lest Argentina “strangle the Islands economically.”

Argentina raises the issue of sovereignty over the Falklands/Malvinas periodically; critics have charged that Pres. Kirchner uses the nationalistic fervor over the Islands to drown out critics of her domestic policies, particularly her economic ones.  Complicated the matter at the moment though is the fact that Prince William is due to be stationed in the Falklands next year as part of his tour of duty with the Royal Air Force – it is hard to imagine that the Brits would want to send the likely savior of the royal family into harms way, of course not sending him could send a message to Kirchner that maybe the British aren't all that serious about the Falklands after all...  Still, it is hard to imagine that Kirchner would want to do anything to put her country in a position of actually getting into another shooting war with Great Britain, considering how badly Argentina lost the first one and that the Argentine military really hasn't gotten much better since.
The whole sovereignty issue is a murky one since neither Great Britain nor Argentina have a particularly strong claim to the Falklands/Malvinas.  Typically, the preferred way a case like this would be solved is with a referendum among the disputed territory's residents, allowing them the right of self-determination.  But Argentina has steadfastly opposed this option since almost all of the Falklands 3,000 residents are of British ancestry and would surely vote for union with Queen and country, thus losing the Falklands as a nationalistic talking point for Argentine politicians for good. 
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Monday, December 5, 2011

United Russia's Bad Day

Pity poor Vladimir Putin, he's gone from the International Man of Action to a guy who can't even properly rig an election.

The results from Sunday's parliamentary elections are (mostly) in, and the ruling United Russia Party took a beating at the ballot box.  During the last elections in 2007, United Russia garnered 64% of the vote, but after Sunday it looks like the party of Putin will be lucky to crack the 50% threshold. With 95% of the ballots counted as of late on Monday, United Russia held a 49.5% share of the vote; in fact there was speculation that the official tally was being delayed so that election officials could “massage” the figures to put United Russia above the symbolic 50% marker.
What's more amazing is that United Russia is pulling only about 50% after staging massive voter fraud in their favor.  Reports out of Russia are that there were more reports of irregularities on Sunday than there were during the 2007 vote, which was also viewed with suspicion.  Vote monitors have collected nearly 5,000 reports of voting irregularities from Vladivostok in the Far East, to Kaliningrad, Russia's westernmost European enclave.  The most popular reports are of ballot boxes arriving at polling places pre-stuffed with votes for United Russia and of cadres of citizens being bussed from poling station to poling station, casting votes at each.  But the early results also showed that the Kremlin's decision to install strongman Razman Kadyrov as leader of Chechnya continues to pay dividends as nearly 100% of Chechen voters went to the polls with 99.48% casting ballot in favor of United Russia – I guess Kadyrov allowed the 0.52% of votes for other candidates to make the results look “legitimate”. 
Yet it is important to remember that even with widespread reports of voter fraud, United Russia still only received half of the votes cast, meaning actual support for Putin and his party is likely far lower among Russians.  The Russian opposition to Putin, however, did not coalesce around a single opposition party – the Communists are set to come in second with nearly 20%, even finishing ahead of United Russia in some regions; the populist-leaning A Just Russia finished third with 13% and the nationalist Liberal Democrats placed just behind them with 12%.  The liberal Yabloko party failed to break the 7% threshold parties need to pass to earn seats in the Duma.  But opposition parties are challenging the results in some localities and other opposition leaders, like Boris Nemtsov and Eduard Limonov are challenging the legitimacy of the entire election saying that their parties were illegally banned from participating in the election in the first place.
Predictably, Kremlin spokespeople tried to spin United Russia's electoral drubbing as a victory of sorts for Putin, noting that since the start of the great Global Recession in 2008 governments have been voted out of office in places like Spain and Great Britain, while in the United States the Republicans scored major electoral victories in 2010.  Thus, they argue, since United Russia managed to stay in power at all is a sign of faith in the party and in the ruling tandem of Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.  And there might even be something to their argument if not for the statements from Russian voters cited in almost any article you read about the elections, noting that their opposition to United Russia crystallized at the time when Putin announced he would be running for president again in 2012 – a sign, they say, that the political system had stagnated and that none of the oft-made promises for reform would ever occur.  Many Russians, the ones brave enough to talk with the press at least, are simply fed up with the now-seemingly eternal Era of Putin and have decided to take it out on his party.

So what will this election mean? In one sense, not much will change. United Russia will still control the Duma, meaning the legislative body is likely to remain little more than a rubber stamp for the Kremlin.  But in another sense, Sunday's elections could be a signal of a turning point, where the typically apolitical Russian public finally starts to engage with their democracy.  As of Monday night, protesters were taking to the streets in Moscow, by some estimates in a crowd of up to 10,000, chanting “Russia without Putin”, a slogan of one opposition movement.  It will be interesting to see how Putin himself responds.  Sunday's election in Russia reminds me of Zimbabwe's last presidential election in a sense.  In Zimbabwe, long-time strongman ruler Robert Mugabe seemed to eschew some of the heavy-handed tactics that had marked the previous presidential election; the result was that Mugabe finished a close second to Morgan Tsvangirai and the reformist Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).  Mugabe decided to take no chances in the runoff, unleashing Zimbabwe's state security forces, along with thugs from his own ZANU-PF party against the MDC with such a degree of violence that Tsvangirai pulled out of the run-off both for his own safety and the safety of the MDC's supporters.

It will be interesting to see if Putin follows a similar tack for the Presidential elections scheduled just three months from now.  While it is hard to see an opposition candidate emerging who could unite Russia's opposition and defeat him, Putin is unlikely to want to take that risk, or to squeak into the presidency with only 40% of the vote in a divided field.  So it is entirely possible that his response could be to crack town even harder on Russia's opposition parties and to engage in even more ballot-rigging.  The question then becomes how will the international community respond to a fraudulent election, and how will the Russians themselves respond.  It's worth noting that at this time last year, it was hard to imagine that Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi would be driven from office by popular revolutions.
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Friday, December 2, 2011

New Day Coming For Nano?

A friend of mine says that I have an unusual interest in Tata Motors Nano (a.k.a. “the world's cheapest car”), perhaps that is why this piece on the BBC from “motoring journalist” Hormazd Sorabjee caught my eye.  In it, Sorabjee runs though the various growing pains encountered by the Nano, which have so far kept it from reaching the lofty sales goals originally predicted by Tata Motors chief Ratan Tata, ranging from public protests that forced Tata to abandon the largely-completed factory where the Nano was to be made and instead build them at other plants within the Tata system, to a point I discussed in this post over at The Mantle: that the car's low-cost image worked against its adoption among India's emerging middle class.

“Even at the bottom of the pyramid, a car is highly aspirational and image is crucial. To be seen in the world's cheapest car gave the message that you couldn't afford anything else,” Sorabjee wrote.  But, he goes on to report, that the future may be looking up for the Nano.  An updated 2012 model smoothes out some of the rough edges of the original, like heavy steering and a spartan interior; advanced sales have responded accordingly.  And at heart, the Nano is a decent car, as Sorabjee, himself a Nano owner, personally attests.
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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Canada Takes Up Role As Green Villian

Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of the United Nations-sponsored climate change talks this week in Durban, South Africa so far is that for once the United States isn't being cast in the role as the anti-green bad guy.  No, this time that role is being ably played by Canada.

It is an odd place for Canada, which typically is seen as one of the most responsible players on the global stage, usually pushing an agenda of mutual cooperation.  But the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has staked out an aggressive environmental position ahead of these talks, complete with rumors that Canada may withdraw completely from the landmark Kyoto Protocols, the international compact aimed at curbing the emission of climate-changing greenhouse gases (GHGs).  A key source of contention has been Canada's Oil Sands, which the Harper government touts as a valuable source of crude oil from a stable and friendly country and which the environmentalists condemn as just another way to tie the world to the existing fossil fuel economy for decades to come, while also being a major source of GHG emissions in their own right.

In Durban, Canada is also balking at an agreement for developed countries to establish a fund to help poorer developing nations to mitigate the impacts of climate change that their countries may be experiencing.  Environment Minister Peter Kent took a decidedly un-Canadian tack in discussing the fund, saying: “there is a fairly widely held perception in the developing world of the need for guilt payment” as part of any future climate agreement.  It is part of a larger position taken by the Harper government that Canada will not sign onto any future climate change agreement that does not also require firm reduction commitments from developing nations as well.  Typically, the burden for GHG reduction has fallen on the developed world, since it is argued (usually by the developing nations themselves) that requiring the same level of intensity from developing nations in reducing GHG emissions would stifle their fragile economies and potentially trap countless millions of people in poverty.  And, the developing nations further argue, since much of the historic emission of GHGs came from the developed world, the burden in reducing it should be theirs.

Kent, and the government he represents, have taken an aggressive stance in dealing with the climate change issue, one that has angered environmentalists and their supporters.  But like most arguments, there is a grain of truth within it.  Kent notes that in the developing nations pool are countries like China and India – relatively well-off countries but demanding to be treated like the poorest nations in the world.  There is clearly a difference between China, now the world's second-largest economy and its top GHG emitter, and a place like Bangladesh.  Dirty, coal-fired power plants have helped to drive China to annual growth rates of 8 to 10% per year; and not caring about GHG emissions, at least until very recently, has been another way that China has kept their production costs artificially low and their exports abnormally cheap.  China is happy to act like an emerging superpower when it comes to doling out foreign aid in Africa or throwing their weight around militarily in the Pacific Basin, but when called on to act like a member of the top nations club in terms of leading on the environment (or in another area, like human rights), China shrinks back and hides behind the “developing nations” tag – I'm not sure what the Chinese word for hypocrisy is, but this is certainly a good example of it in action.

You can find a lot to criticize in Minister Kent's approach towards Durban, and PM Harper's overall environmental position, but at least on this issue they have a valid point – if the global community is serious about tackling climate change, then it is time to expect the top emerging economies in the world to start acting like they belong at the big table and do their part, even if it means their economy at home may suffer a bit.
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Boo Birds Redux

Last week I ran this post about Russia's Prime Minister/President-in-Waiting Vladimir Putin being booed at a martial arts match in Moscow.  In Wednesday’s web edition of Foreign Policy, writer Julia Ioffe offered a longish piece on the rumbles of discontent rolling around Russia these days, with some further information about the booing Putin incident.

Kremlin spokespeople quickly took to the air to explain that the 20,000 or so gathered spectators weren't actually booing Putin, but rather the defeated American fighter Jeff Monson who was supposedly exiting the ring off-camera.  But according to Ioffe, in the wake of that explanation, Russians flocked to Monson's Facebook page to comment that, no, they were booing Putin; or as one poster put it: “all whistles were only for Putin and for his party -- they are the greatest thiefs in our history.”  And while the martial arts boo-down was the only one of note aimed at Putin, people speaking in favor of the ruling United Russia party have recently been heckled at a hockey game and rock concert.

It's certainly not a sign that an Arab Spring-style revolt is just around the corner, but it should make it interesting to watch the results of this Sunday's elections for the Russian Duma (their parliament).
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