Monday, December 24, 2012

Taliban Takes Stand In Favor Of Polio

According to news reports out of Pakistan, groups affiliated with the Taliban have killed several medical professionals working in remote villages on a vaccination program designed to eradicate polio. The Taliban countered that the vaccination program was actually a Western-designed plot to make their children sick, rather than to prevent illness, and that the whole medical effort was really a cover for covert military operations in these remote areas.

These are the exact same arguments made by the Taliban a few years earlier when they murdered other Pakistani medical professionals to halt an earlier polio eradication effort in 2006, an event outlined in Dominic Streatfeild’s book A History of the World Since 9/11.  In justifying their earlier attacks, the Taliban said that if a few children got ill or died from polio, it was “God's will” and a small price to pay to keep their region free of evil Western influences like, apparently, modern medical procedures.

But there is something more sinister at play here than merely the Taliban's religious-inspired paranoia, the vaccination efforts in these remote mountain villages are the last links in a chain of efforts to end polio, not just in Pakistan, but everywhere on the globe, forever. As explained in A History of the World Since 9/11, diseases can be wiped out if everyone carries an immunity to them – without new hosts, the diseases die. But for an eradication effort to work, everyone must get the vaccine.  Diseases have a stubborn tendency to hide out in remote corners of the world and humans have an annoying habit of not staying put. So, remote corners of the globe, like the AfPak border can be just the right place for a disease like polio to wait out a global eradication effort.

The Taliban's murder of the first group of medical professionals in 2006 meant that the first attempt to end polio failed; if these Taliban villages can't be vaccinated now, this latest effort will fail as well.

Of course the United States hasn't helped matters by using an earlier vaccination program as cover for an intelligence gathering operation around Abbottabad, the hiding place of Osama bin Laden, thus somewhat validating the Taliban's paranoia, and casting a pall over efforts like the current polio eradication program.
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What The United States Could Learn From Ghana About Elections

In case you missed it, we had a presidential election in the US last month. After a seemingly endless campaign, President Barack Obama defeated his challenger Mitt Romney in a race that wasn't all that close – Obama won just over 50% of the vote to Romney's 47.3%. Of course this didn't stop the opposition from alleging that Obama “stole” the election: Romney himself claimed that Obama only won by promising lower-income voters undefined “free stuff”. Meanwhile, groups of Americans across the country (but primarily in the South) responded by starting petitions encouraging their respective states to secede from the Union, with the Texas petition gathering more than 100,000 signatures.

Perhaps that's why with piece on the BBC last week about reactions to another hard-fought presidential election, this time in the African nation of Ghana, stuck with me.  In Ghana, incumbent President John Mahama of the NDC party defeated opposition leader Nana Akufo-Addo of the NPP.  Even though Ghana is one of Africa's most stable democracies, the election was marked by technical glitches which caused long delays at some polling places.  This, in turn, led the NPP to allege that the election was “stolen” from them.

That's where the BBC piece comes in.  The BBC interviewed five Ghanaians, including supporters of the NPP. What's noteworthy is that rather than join in their party's call to contest the election, the NPP supporters seemed rather embarrassed by the party's stance, with both saying that the party should just accept the results of the election and one voter questioning whether he made a mistake voting for the NPP if this was the way they were going to react.  Another voter explained that the reason the NPP lost was not due to fraud, but because of the party's inability to realize their message wasn't resonating in several of the country's key swing states (and doesn't that sound like an explanation that could apply to the US Republicans as well?)

It was refreshing to see voters not blame their political party's loss on some poorly-defined notions of fraud, or call for unrest, but to accept the results of the election and to blame the loss on the shortcomings of the losing party.  Perhaps the United States could learn a thing or two from the way that Ghanaians practice democracy.
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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Back to Blogging

As you may have noticed – or at least hopefully noticed – it has been awhile since there was an update to the site. Apologies for that. It's not that the world has become a less interesting place, but rather that life got much more complex – work, family, SuperStorm Sandy, etc. But regular updates to the site should resume now, thanks for your patience and continued support.
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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Red Dawn Redux: A Shaky Parable For Our Times

The Guardian has taken a first look at the trailer for the remake of the 1980's-vintage action flick Red Dawn, and it raises a few questions much deeper than you'd expect from a movie this vapid.

Just in case you're not up on your late Cold War cinema, the original Red Dawn was the story of a bunch of high school pals in rural Colorado turned guerrilla fighters after the Soviet Union, with an assist from Cuba, decided for some reason to invade the United States in 1985.  The 2012 remake pretty much sticks to the original script, swapping rural Washington state for Colorado and China for the now-defunct Soviet Union in the role of the antagonist.

Or maybe it is North Korea? As I wrote when the Red Dawn remake first went into production, the film's creative team pulled back from the logical substitution of China for the Soviet Union – possibly fearing a political backlash, a loss of Chinese distribution rights, or both – and instead substituted North Korea as the resident bad guys. Though the producers seem to have later decided that the idea North Korea, a nation of 25 million that struggles just to feed its own citizens, could stage a large-scale invasion of the United States stretches credibility too far even for a Hollywood action film (though Hollywood also recently decided that a movie version of Manimal is somehow credible), so now, according to The Guardian, the antagonists are from a “unidentified Asian” country.

Near the end of The Guardian's demolishing of the Red Dawn trailer, writer Stuart Heritage raises a good point: the original Red Dawn was released in the mid-1980s, at a time when the United States was offering moral and material support to the mujahadeen of Afghanistan as they tried to repel the mighty Red Army of the Soviet Union.  The original Red Dawn offered up a kinship to be drawn then between our plucky band of Colorado high schoolers and the scruffy Afghanis, who each took to the hills to fight the foreigners who invaded their lands.

Fast forward 27 years though and America's perception of Afghan insurgents has morphed from the heroic mujahadeen into the dastardly Taliban jihadi; the foreigners they fight are no longer the evil Soviets, but rather good red-blooded American boys and girls in uniform.  So while the new Red Dawn is still making the same visceral appeal to the audience to identify with the tragically over-matched band of fighters who want only to free their homeland from an invading foreign military force, the underlying role of the United States in the world has flipped – rather than supporting the insurgents on the sly as we did in the 1980s, we have become the invading heavies in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  In reality, Red Dawn is now asking us to emotionally identify with the very people fighting against American troops today. (If the producers of Red Dawn wanted to keep the emotional and subtextual consistency of the original, then instead of fighting, the high school kids in RD:Redux would join a local reconstruction team headed up by a government official from the unnamed Asian nation that might be North Korea).

It does beg the question of what exactly the producers of the Red Dawn remake were thinking in dredging up this largely forgotten bit of 80s pop culture? Why ask an American audience to identify with a band of local insurgents fighting against a vastly superior military power, when at that very same moment American troops are being attacked a half a world away by bands of local insurgents fighting against a vastly superior military power, which, in this case, just happens to be the United States.

Or maybe I am giving the Red Dawn producers too much credit for being able to make these intellectual connections in the first place. After all, their choice to play the All-American lead in this film was Chris Hemsworth, a British actor best known for playing a Norse god. 
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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Another Sign That Pussy Riot May Soon Be Free

The latest signals out of Russia regarding the world's most famous protest band are that the three imprisoned members of Pussy Riot:  Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina; may soon be freed.

This comes after Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was quoted on Wednesday as saying that additional time in jail for the three women would be “unproductive”.  His statement echoes one made by Russian President Vladimir Putin last month when he said he hoped that the three women would not spend a long time in prison shortly before they were sentenced after being found guilty on charges of “hooliganism driven by religious hatred” following their performance of a “punk prayer” last February at Moscow's Christ the Savior cathedral.  The women received sentences of two years in prison, though originally they could have faced sentences of as long as seven years.

The case of  Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich and Alyokhina has become a source of international condemnation for Russia as artists and human rights groups around the world have rallied to Pussy Riot's cause.  Their case is set for appeal on October 1.
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Friday, September 14, 2012

CNN Charged With Censorship Over Mid-East Documentary

Last week media critic Glenn Greenwald of the UK's Guardian newspaper/website published a pair of hard-hitting articles aimed directly at CNN that received surprisingly little coverage in the United States given the severity of their charges, namely that CNN is engaging in acts of censorship to protect the patronage paid to them by foreign governments.

Greenwald's charges center around a documentary made last year about the democratic uprisings in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain called “iRevolution: Online Warriors of the Arab Spring”.  The documentary, which Greenwald describes as “unflinching”, centered on pro-democracy activists in the tiny kingdom and was highly critical of the heavy-handed government response, which ultimately put down the democratic uprising.  The Bahraini regime was criticized internationally for their methods, which included the mass arrests of protesters (including doctors who were attempting to help injured demonstrators) and the use of deadly force against unarmed and peaceful protesters.  The CNN documentary crew themselves were even detained at gunpoint by pro-regime forces intent on disrupting their attempts at telling the story of the pro-democracy activists.

“iRevolution: Online Warriors of the Arab Spring” would go on to garner critical praise along with a number of journalism awards. Yet despite this praise, CNN's domestic network would air the documentary only once, while CNN's international broadcasting arm, CNNi, the outlet for which “iRevolution: Online Warriors of the Arab Spring” was originally produced, would not air the documentary at all.  The lead journalist on “iRevolution”, Amber Lyon, complained to CNN's upper management about the network's refusal to air the documentary.  Despite being groomed by CNN to become one of their star on-air personalities, Lyon was laid off by CNN earlier this spring after her complaints about CNN's internal censorship became public.

CNN, of course, has denied any attempt at censorship, noting that they have aired many stories about the uprising in Bahrain (just not “iRevolution” apparently).  But it is here, and in a companion piece, that Greenwald lays out his most serious charge against CNN – that CNN has entered into a number of paid partnerships with governments around the world and that CNN is allowing these partnerships to color their reporting from and about these countries.

The CNN “partnerships” with the governments of countries like Kazakhstan, Georgia and Bahrain has led to the production of a series of quasi-journalistic fluff pieces: reports that are meant to look like genuine CNN reporting – using CNN journalists/personalities - but that in reality are public relations spots that allow the “partner” countries to put their best foot forward, with no contrasting viewpoints offered by CNN's stable of journalists. For example, a series of paid reports aired under the “Eye on Lebanon” banner were touted by Lebanon's Tourism Minister not for their journalistic merit, but rather as a way “to market Lebanon as a tourism destination.”   

It's not surprising then to note that CNN has a long-standing partnership arrangement with Bahrain though the Bahrain Economic Development Board, the governmental agency responsible for promoting Bahrain to the world. CNN has included Bahrain in their “Eye on...” country series, among other paid-for network programming. It is not surprising then that CNN has been reluctant to air a documentary that is so critical of the Bahrani royal family.

There is an inherent tension between advertising and journalism, with the open question always being if the news organization will shy away from coverage that could reflect negatively on their sponsors.  But what Greenwald describes at CNN is something different, the countries in question aren't merely buying commercial spots on CNN, they are, in effect, directly paying for positive coverage of their countries. Worse still, the shelving of “iRevolution” and the subsequent dismissal of Amber Lyon is troubling evidence that CNN is willing to let these sponsorships affect their journalistic judgment beyond the paid-for beauty spots.  It is a troubling accusation to make against what has long been one of the most-trusted names in modern journalism, and is a sign of how far CNN has fallen from their own glory days.
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Monday, September 10, 2012

Is The US Dashing Israeli Hopes For A Strike Against Iran?

From the file of news that was overshadowed by the dueling Republican and Democratic political conventions is this nugget from Reuters about a US smackdown of Israel over their escalating rhetoric about a war with Iran (Reuters used the more diplomatic term 'chastised', but you get the idea).

Last week, while speaking to reporters in Great Britain, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, said that the United States did not want to be “complicit” in a preemptive  attack on Iran and starkly warned Israel that if they went it alone on the attack that they risked unraveling the international coalition that has levied heavy sanctions on Iran's crude oil industry and banking sector; sanctions that Pres. Ahmadinejad admitted earlier in the week were starting to causing real pain in Iran.

It was a bold statement, and one that has sent Israel scurrying back to square one in their efforts to start a war with Iran. The simple fact is that the Israeli Air Force does not have the ability to launch the type of sustained and targeted campaign of air strikes that would be necessary to knock out Iran's nuclear research program.  Or as one unnamed European diplomat was quoted as saying in the same Reuters article: “all this talk of war is bullshit. If they could do it, then they would have already done it long ago.”

For their part, the Israelis are now pushing for the establishment of a clear “red line”, an action by Iran that would guarantee a military response by the anti-Iran coalition (namely the United States). The Israelis are also ramping up their sabre-rattling against Iran's proxy group Hezbollah, threatening retaliation against Lebanon should Hezbollah launch attacks against Israel on Iran's behalf. For their part, the Obama administration is offering up a vague statement that diplomacy cannot go on “indefinitely” and that “military action” remains a possibility if Iran doesn't live up to their obligations.

Of course, it is very hard to imagine the US launching any kind of military action before the November elections, and if reelected, Obama is likely to feel much less pressure to placate the pro-Likud lobby within the United States, which puts into question the likelihood of military action against Iran in Obama's second term.  This does make you wonder if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might not attempt to interject himself into the US presidential race somehow. Netanyahu is a longtime personal friend of Republican Mitt Romney, so it is plausible to think he might try to play the double whammy of encouraging a US strike against Iran and boosting his friend's presidential chances by trying to make Obama look like he is both weak on Iran and putting Israel at risk by not launching military strikes now to stop the imminent threat of the Iranian nuclear program.

This strategy has some real risks attached though: for one, Netanyahu has been saying that Iran was on the verge of getting a bomb since the mid-90s, so his cries of danger have worn a little thin by now; the bigger issue though is that the American populace, mired in a slow economic recovery and weary from a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, might genuinely oppose calls for launching another military campaign in the Middle East, which would weaken, rather than strengthen, Netanyahu's efforts to get the USAF to knock out Iran's nuclear program for him.

If Netanyahu tries to go this route, it will likely be at the United Nations General Assembly set for later this month.
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Sunday, September 2, 2012

Are US-Israeli Relations Changing?

Two recent statements by US officials have me wondering if we are seeing a subtle shift in US-Israeli relations. One is that for the first time, acts of violence by Israeli “settlers” against Palestinian residents of the West Bank have been described by the State Department as “terrorist incidents”; the second is a statement made by the US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro who said that an official Israeli investigation into the death of American activist Rachel Corrie in 2003 was not “thorough, credible and transparent.”

Corrie was only 23 when she was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer as she and others tried to stop the demolition of Palestinian homes in Rafah in the Gaza Strip. The action prompted international outrage and became a rallying point for those protesting the Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli government promised a full investigation into the incident (a “thorough, credible and transparent” investigation, which Amb. Shapiro referenced in his statement).  But last week, Israel closed the formal investigation, concluding it was an accident, but also chiding the now-dead Corrie for inserting herself into a war zone.

Turning back to the terrorist declaration against the Israeli settlers, the State Department took the move after recent attacks by groups of young settlers against Palestinians, including attacks on mosques, beatings and one particularly brutal incident: the firebombing of a Palestinian taxi that left six people injured, including two four-year old twins.  The State Department's Country Reports on Terrorism for 2011 included: “Attacks by extremist Israeli settlers against Palestinian residents, property and places of worship in the West Bank.” According to the United Nations, which monitors conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians have increased by almost 150% between 2009 and the end of 2011.

It is important to note that the State Department isn't going out on much of a limb here. The Israeli media and government have been growing increasingly concerned about the actions of extremist settlers, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the fire-bomb attack of the taxi and other government officials have used the word terrorism when referring to some of the actions taken by a subset of extremist Israeli settlers (though the Israeli government supports the expansion of more “mainstream” Israeli settlements in the West Bank).

But given how reluctant the US typically is to criticize the actions of Israel, it is then quite noteworthy that officials with the US government would, in the space of a week, use the word “terrorism” when referring to the actions of Israeli settlers and would condemn an official report by the Israeli government. Could it be the sign of a subtle shift in US-Israeli relations? Only time will tell.
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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Possible Appeal In The Pussy Riot Verdict?

A quick follow up on three women who are likely the world's most famous political prisoners: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich; members of the Russian punk collective Pussy Riot, who were recently sentenced to two years in prison for their “punk prayer” performance in Moscow's Christ the Savior cathedral last February.

Or maybe not. Russia's Human Rights Ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, said he is ready to appeal the two year sentence unless it is commuted by higher authorities (i.e. President Vladimir Putin). “If the sentence stays as is, the ombudsman has a right to appeal it at higher levels, which I will consider,” Lukin said in an interview with RIA Novosti, adding that he considered the group's cathedral performance “not as a crime but an administrative misdemeanor.”

It is hard to tell what affect, if any, the Ombudsman's comments will have on the sentence handed down against the three women, who have already served six months in jail awaiting their trial earlier this month.  Commuting their sentences though could give Putin, who before the trial said that the judge should not act “too harshly” towards the women, a chance to appear as a benevolent ruler while also negating a verdict that has led to harsh criticism of Russia from the international community.

Of course, another comment made by Lukin is an indication of why Pussy Riot is unlikely to serve as a rallying point for Russia's political opposition; Lukin called the cathedral performance “I consider it tactless and silly.”  Public opinion polls have shown that a majority of Russians hold similar views of the Pussy Riot protest.

Meanwhile, over at The Mantle this week, I talk about why the Pussy Riot trial isn't the most important political prosecution in Russia today.
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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Why Putin Needs To Arrest Madonna

Following their sentence to two years in prison, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina - the members of the Russian punk collective Pussy Riot - have become an international cause célèbre. And one performer eager to take up the mantle for Pussy Riot is Madonna, who appeared on stage at her concert last week in St. Petersburg, Russia, with the words Free Pussy Riot written on her back.

But Madonna did something else during that show. To further show her displeasure at the Pussy Riot verdict (not to mention Russia's tepid support for Gay Rights), Madonna also stomped on a Russian Orthodox cross.

Let's reflect on that for a moment: Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich and Alyokhina each received two-year year sentences for their performance within Moscow's Christ the Savior cathedral on the grounds of “promoting religious hatred”. Yet aside from some loud music, bad dancing and profanity, Pussy Riot did nothing aside from make a purely political statement; they caused no damage to the cathedral, nor did they utter anything against the Orthodox religion, they recited their punk prayer to the Virgin Mary asking: “Holy Mother, Blessed Mother, drive Putin out!” It certainly was not disrespectful to anyone aside from Vladimir Putin.
On the other hand, Madonna decided to step on the symbol of the Russian Orthodox faith, which seems more like an act of “religious hatred”? And before justifying Madonna's actions as an act of free speech/free expression, let us for a moment contemplate what the reaction would be if at a concert in Tel Aviv, Madonna decided to stomp on the Star of David to protest some action by the government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Putin could actually use Madonna's protest to his advantage. Everyone regards the Pussy Riot trial as an attempt to stifle dissent in Russia by charging these women with crimes far outside of the scope of what they actually did; it is seen as a politically-motivated prosecution pure and simple. Putin could deflect, or attempt to deflect, these charges by calling for the arrest of Madonna on the same grounds of promoting religious hatred thanks to her act of outright religious vandalism.

It would be a fascinating way for Putin to turn the tables on his critics.
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Monday, August 13, 2012

London Closing: British Music, A Missing Queen and, Sadly, Ryan Seacrest

The London Olympics wrapped up last night in much the same way as they began, with a quirky, sometimes cheeky salute to all things British, particularly British music.

The London organizers largely dispensed with the interpretive pieces that typically mark these Olympic events. An opening number themed around London traffic largely served to introduce the eight-ramped stage in the shape of the Union Jack that dominated what, less than 24 hours before, had been the track and field area on the floor of the stadium. From then, the night quickly segued into an hour and a half long salute to England's contributions to modern pop music.

 The show got off to a rolling start, literally, when the iconic 80's ska group Madness performed their signature hit “Our House” from the back of a tractor trailer that circled the stadium floor. They were followed by another iconic 80's Brit pop act, The Pet Shop Boys, who performed “West End Girls” an apropo choice given the song's references to the East End, the site of the Olympic stadium, from the back of bicycle rickshaws. Contemporary acts also played a large role in the show; the Kasier Chiefs covered The Who's “Tommy”, while singer Jesse J also performed both as a solo act and with the surviving members of Queen on “We Will Rock You”, since what sporting event is complete without this song?

The Beatles didn't appear in person, though a rendition of John Lennon's “Imagine” was likely the emotional highlight of the night, and Russell Brand's rendition of “I Am The Walrus” might have been the quirkiest, had it not been for Monty Python's Eric Idle performing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”; complete with Victoria's Secret-style angels and a Bollywood dance troupe.  The highlight of the show though was likely the long-rumored reunion of the Spice Girls who took to the top of Austin Minis for their performance – Spice Girls standing on Minis, how more British can you get?

The Spice Girls after the show (London Telegraph pic).

Of course, the closing ceremonies provided one last opportunity for NBC to screw up the coverage. After promising a performance by The Who all evening, in the prime-time show's closing moments, viewers were told that The Who would actually be featured in their late-night coverage, which started at 12:30 EDT. This delay seemed mostly so that NBC could provide a preview of one of their craptacular fall “comedies”. Great move guys.  And coverage of the musical portion of the evening was turned over to Ryan Seacrest, likely due to NBC's baffling continued belief that Seacrest actually knows something about entertainment and is entertaining himself. Seacrest's few vacant contributions though could have easily been read by the real hosts, Al Michaels and Bob Costas, off of a TelePrompTer.  The only imprint Seacrest left on the coverage was to unwantedly speak over the performances on several occasions. My suggestion to NBC: leave Seacrest out of the coverage of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, or better yet, drop him in the ocean while en route to Sochi.

One final question from the Closing Ceremonies though is where were the Royals? Queen Elizabeth II was expected to be on hand to close the Games, yet the Queen was nowhere to be found; she did not even appear in video form (as did former Queen frontman, Freddie Mercury).  The whole Royal family attended the opening ceremonies, yet at the close they were represented only by Prince Harry, introduced formally as Prince Henry of Wales. He was accompanied by Duchess Catherine of Cambridge, better known as Kate, wife of Prince William.  The lack of Royal attendance seemed to be unexpected since several of the speakers, including outgoing IOC head Jacques Rogge, addressed their comments to the “Royals”, plural, making you think that they expected a larger attendance on the part of the Royal family.

Along with why NBC continues to employ Ryan Seacrest, the Royal presence is a lingering question from last night's otherwise brilliant Closing Ceremony.  
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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Putin Goes Soft On Pussy Riot

In a surprising turn, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a signal Thursday in London that could lead to leniency for the feminist punk protest outfit known as Pussy Riot.

If you haven't been following the Pussy Riot story, you can get caught up with this post I wrote this week for PolicyMic.  In short, the group bills themselves as a feminist punk collective; they gained national stature in Russia during the past year thanks to their rapid fire public performances of songs ripping into the Putin regime, which were then widely viewed on YouTube and other social media sites.  In February, Pussy Riot stormed into Moscow's Christ the Savior cathedral to perform a “punk prayer” where they implored the Virgin Mary to “drive Putin out!”  Two weeks later, three of Pussy Riot's members: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina, were arrested and charged with what amounts to a religious hate crime that could land them seven years in prison.

It has been widely believed that the harsh legal charges were directed from the very top, Putin himself, who took the performance, which also attacked the close links between the Putin government and Russian Orthodox Church, as a personal insult and that the prosecution of Pussy Riot has taken on the dimensions of a personal vendetta.  But Putin's comments Thursday, as reported by Reuters, could be a sign that he is softening his stance.

Saying that there was “nothing good” about the performance, Putin added: "Nonetheless, I don't think that they should be judged so harshly for this … I hope the court will come out with the right decision, a well-founded one.” In Putinland, that would seem to be a none-to-subtle signal to the courts not to impose the maximum seven year sentence on the three women.  That is the way that Pussy Riot defense attorney Nikolai Polozov is interpreting the comments. “Given the significance of such signals, we can expect some softening of the prosecution's position,” he said.

Putin's position could be the result of growing international pressure over the prosecution of Pussy Riot, which is seen as being largely political.  Their cause has been taken up by groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which declared  Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich and Alyokhina “prisoners of conscience”, to artists like Sting and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to protesters from St. Petersburg to Washington DC, where several dozen DC area “punks” gathered outside the Russian embassy this week.  Lawyer Polozov speculated that the signal from Putin might be to calm foreign investors in Russia over fears of politically-motivated prosecutions.

But Polozov is also sanguine about his clients' prospects, saying on Twitter: “to tell the truth, I don't believe Putin. If the signal gets through and the court reacts, OK, but if not we will fight on.”
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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Russia's Tatarstan Mufti Mystery

Who tried to kill the Mufti?  That's the Question in Russia after last week's car bomb attack on Mufti Ildus Faizov, one of the top clerics in Russia's historically Muslim Tatarstan region, and a man greatly respected by the Kremlin for his promotion of a moderate, peaceful brand of Islam, which stands in stark contrast to the Islamic-fueled insurgency in Russia's Northern Caucasus region.

Initial fears were that Faizov and one of his closest associates Valiulla Yakupov, were targeted by Islamic insurgents from the Caucasus because of their moderate views – Faizov was badly injured in the car bombing but will survive; Yakupov was shot in the head in a separate attack and killed.  Caucasus Islamists may still be behind the attack, though an alternate theory, that the two men were attacked over a business deal, is gaining more credence following the arrest of five men over the weekend. 

The five have ties to a man named Rustem Gataullin who was the former head of the Idel-Hajj company – a firm that organize tour packages for Russian Muslims who want to complete the Hajj, the journey to the holy city Mecca that all Muslims are suppose to undertake once in their lifetimes.  Faizov took over operations of Idel-Hajj in 2011, there is a theory that it is this switch in leadership is the motivation for the attacks.

This would be a good news/bad news scenario for Russia.  On the good side, it would at least dismiss  the idea that the attempted assassination of Faizov was the beginning of a new offensive by the Caucasus Islamists, who in the past have staged high-profile terror attacks in Moscow that have included aircraft and subway suicide bombings.  On the bad side though, if the attack on Faizov was nothing more than an attempted “hit” over a business deal gone bad, this could be an indication that Russia was backsliding to the era of the 1990s when business-related murders were somewhat common – a fact that could likely have a chilling effect on foreign investment in Russia.

Meanwhile, the Russian government is responding to the attack in a sadly predictable way, by trying to impose a media blackout on the whole affair. According to Radio Free Europe, the government in Tatarstan recommended that journalists limit their coverage of the event to stories about life in the capital city (and site of the attacks) Kazan, and only seek comment from a short list of pre-approved “experts”.  An editor of an independent newspaper in the region called the government response “near hysterical” and noted that information on the incident was still freely available on the Internet.     
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Monday, July 23, 2012

Floating A Trial Balloon For The Worst Experiment In The History Of Science

According to the New York Times, two Harvard professors are working on a proposal for a small-scale experiment in geoengineering.  The professors, James G. Anderson, who works in atmospheric chemistry, and David W. Keith, whose field is applied physics, are proposing to send a small balloon aloft to release microscopic amounts of sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere to see how they react with naturally-occurring ozone and water vapor.  The researchers stress that the experiment will be small-scale and its effects highly-localized, or in Dr. Anderson's words: “this is an experiment that is completely nonintrusive.”

The good professors are laying on the qualifiers because the field of geoengineering aims to do nothing less than to change the climate of the entire Earth in an attempt to stave off the negative effects of global warming.  As we discussed earlier, geoengineering is basically an attempt to hack the climate.  Based on observations that volcanic eruptions can have a temporary cooling affect on global temperatures as volcanic dust shot high into the atmosphere reflects some of the sunlight falling on Earth back into space, geoengineerers proposed shooting massive amounts of sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect a portion of the sunlight on a global scale. The idea is that if the amount of sunlight hitting the Earth's surface is reduced, the resulting drop in temperature will offset the global rise in temperature due to the growing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which prevent heat from naturally radiating off into space.

Sounds simple, even logical, right? Sure, except for the fact that it is the worst idea in the history of mankind.  Geoengineering has a few flaws. For one, there's the matter of this slight potential side effect: a permanent whitening of the skies.  Those particles meant to reflect some of the sunlight, also will likely diffuse it, meaning the sky will take on a white, washed-out appearance; in other words, so long blue skies... An even bigger problem is that once you start geoenginnering in a large scale, you can never, ever stop.

The reason is simple: geoengineering doesn't reduce the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere, it just tries to offset this gain with a corresponding reduction in temperature on the other side.  Those sulfate particles will eventually settle out of the atmosphere, meaning more will continuously have to be pumped in to take their place.  Stop pumping and the cooling side of the geoengineering equation goes away, leaving you with a runaway greenhouse effect that will cause global temperatures to spike upward.

Unfortunately, this crackpot idea has attracted the backing of some serious (and seriously rich) people like Bill Gates and Richard Branson.   But let's remember we've gotten ourselves in this greenhouse gas mess by pumping a lot of things into the atmosphere that shouldn't be there, pumping more things in at this point seems like a pretty bad idea. 
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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Islamic Radicals Suspected To Be Behind Assassination, Attempt in Russia

The Islamic holy month of Ramadan got off to a bloody start in Russia as assassins wounded one of the country's top Islamic clerics and murdered his deputy in separate attacks.

Mufti Ildus Faizov, the top Islamic official in Russia's historically Muslim Tatarstan region, survived not one, but three bombs aimed at his vehicle on Thursday in the Tatar capital, Kazan.  Faizov was hospitalized, but made an appearance on regional television following the attack.  His associate, Deputy Mufti Valiulla Yakupov, he was shot in the head and killed by an unknown assailant in an attack staged simultaneously with the attack on Faizov.  The timing of the attacks, and their targets, have Russia calling them an act of terror and suspecting they were organized and carried out by radical Muslim groups from the volatile North Caucasus region.

Faizov has been a high-profile and outspoken critic of the violent extremism that has taken root in the Caucasus region.  Unrest in the region started in the mid-1990s in Chechnya, which was the site of two brutal wars.  In recent years, Moscow has basically turned Chechnya over to local strongman, and Chechen President, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has used his own brutal tactics to crush the separatist movement within Chechnya.  However, this has only forced Islamic militants to relocate to neighboring Russian republics like Dagestan and Ingushetia, where they are continuing their attempts to carve a fundamentalist Muslim caliphate out of Russia's southernmost flank.  While most of the violence has been confined to the Caucasus region, the extremists have staged a number of high-profile terror attacks in other parts of Russia, the most recent being the January 2011 suicide bombing at Moscow's Domodedovo airport that killed 37 people.

With an indigenous Muslim population growing faster than the Russian Orthodox segment, Moscow has been eager to support Faizov's more tolerant, more inclusive version of Islam up as a model within the country.  But this has also made him a target for the extremists.

While the militants of the Caucasus region are suspected to be behind Thursday's attacks, no single group has yet claimed responsibility.  It is also too early to tell if the attacks against Faizov and Yakupov are a one-off strike, an attempt at sowing unrest in Tatarstan, or the beginning of a new wave of terror attacks across Russia.
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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Are America's Right Wing Crackpots Harming US Foreign Policy?

In case you missed this story from last weekend, during the latest stop in her whirlwind tour of the world (that so far has taken her to 102 countries) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's motorcade was met in Egypt by a wild mob of protesters who threw shoes and tomatoes at her car while shouting that the US needed to stop its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, the political party of Egypt's new president Mohamed Morsi, along with chants of “Monica!, Monica!” 

As one of the most popular members of the Obama Administration, Secretary Clinton usually doesn't elicit such angry receptions during her state visits, and given that Egypt has long been an American ally, the reception was quite startling.  So what was the motivation behind it?  Apparently elements of America's own Right Wing lunatic fringe.

It seems that Egyptian conspiracy theorists have eagerly bought into some ridiculous claims currently making the rounds of the Far Right fringe that the US government has been infiltrated by radical Islamists.  Ground Zero for these claims is Sec. Clinton herself, who according to the theory, has somehow been brainwashed by her deputy chief of staff, Huma Abedin, who happens to be a Muslim, and therefore a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.  The Muslim infiltration of the US government has been so successful, according to the theory, that the US has gone on to rig Egypt's election in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood, who we are now funding to the tune of $1.5 billion.

This crackpot theory was apparently started by Frank Gaffney, who went from serving in the Reagan administration to peddling McCarthy-style conspiracy theories about evil Muslims lurking in under the beds of Mr. and Mrs. America on internet-radio programs.  Gaffney's delusional ramblings were eagerly picked up and echoed by such Far Right luminaries as Glenn Beck, Rep. Michele Bachmann, and blogger Lucianne Goldberg, which explains the “Monica!” chants at least.  The details of this ring of lunacy have been mapped out by both the New York Times and TheRachel Maddow Show.

Of course in America we know better – at least those of us with an IQ higher than room temperature - than to take any of these idiotic ramblings seriously.  We know that these purveyors of nonsense are merely tossing out rhetorical red meat to folks like members of the Tea Party, who think that anyone not as white, Christian and conservative as they are is obviously some kind of foreign agent bent on destroying America.  We know that in this country anyone with a computer and a few dollars can stake out their own corner of cyberspace and fill it with whatever material they want, no matter how ridiculous, so the caveat that “I saw it on the Internet” is something of a joke about the reader's naiveté.

Unfortunately this model doesn't hold true in other countries, especially countries where an autocracy tightly controlled access to the media for decades.  So in a place like Egypt, being on the internet does confer some sense of legitimacy, as does the ability of someone like Frank Gaffney to be able to say they once worked for the President.  It gives his comments a certain weight, even if they sound like they ramblings of a lunatic and are easily debunked.  For example, “Muslim Brotherhood” agent Huma Abedin is also married to former Rep. Anthony Weiner, himself a Jew – hardly the action of a loyal MB member (I know Frank, it is all part of her amazingly clever cover story...).  The US rigging of the recent Egyptian Presidential election similarly makes no sense: if the US was going to rig the election then they most likely would have rigged it in favor of the SCAF-backed candidate Ahmed Shafiq, so that the US might more easily continue its decades-long friendly relationship with the Egyptian military (which is also the true recipient of the $1.5 billion in aid the Right Wingnuts say the US is providing Egypt).  Let's remember the United States' anemic early response to the Egyptian revolution – in part this was driven by a desire to keep our long-time ally Hosni Mubarak in power; it was also driven by the very real fear that if the Mubarak government fell, it's most likely successor would be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, since they were the only opposition party in Egypt with any level of organization.  Rather than wanting a Muslim Brotherhood take-over of Egypt, the United States feared it.

Dealing with idiotic comments is part of the price we pay for the freedom of expression guaranteed to us by the First Amendment.  Most Americans are savvy enough to either ignore comments like those being peddled by this collection of fringe characters or just roll their eyes at their inherent silliness.  Unfortunately folks in places like Egypt don't realize that these statements are the stuff of nonsense, they don't realize that to many Americans, Michele Bachmann is a joke. And, sadly, that means that their craziness is actually harming the United States abroad.
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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Is It Finally The End For Assad in Syria?

After dealing with a persistent rebellion in his country for over a year, the wheels seem to finally be coming off the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  Reports during the past day have indicate that several of Syria's ambassadors have defected and that a flotilla of foreign peacekeeping troops are en route to his country; another TV news report from a few days earlier alleged that troops loyal to Assad control only Syria's major cities (most of them, at least), the roads running through the countryside are basically no-go zones for Assad loyalists.

 So after more than a year of fighting and after Western-led efforts at stopping the violence proved to be largely fruitless, what's changed?  The nexus seems to be the defection of a member of Assad's inner circle, Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass.  The bonds of power between the Tlass and Assad families go back decades in Syria.  Tlass' father, Mustafa, was a former defense minister who helped to usher Bashar Assad's father Hafez into power; Manaf Tlass has long been a loyal member of Bashar Assad's ruling cabal.

That someone as well-connected as Tlass would decide to jump ship is a stunning vote of no-confidence for the Assad regime, and one that many other seem to have taken note of.  Syria's ambassador to Iraq defected on Wednesday, seeking asylum in that country and calling on Syria's military to revolt againts Assad; this morning the BBC made an as-yet unconfirmed report that Syria's ambassador to Belarus has also defected.  Meanwhile, Russia has sent a flotilla of navy ships, including one destroyer and three amphibious landing craft from their Black Sea fleet to Tartus, Syria, where Russia maintains a naval facility.  The flotilla is said to be transporting a detachment of weapons and Russian marines.

Russia raised eyebrows a few weeks ago when they first discussed sending ships and weapons to Tartus.  Western diplomats feared that Russia might be trying to intervene on behalf of their old ally Assad, though the Russian government issued assurances that any military action would only to be to protect the Russian naval facility and Russian personnel in Tartus.  That Russia is now making such a show of force with their Tartus flotilla is a pretty clear indication that they expect there is a high chance for widespread unrest in Tartus in the near future.  And widespread unrest in Tartus would likely be the result of the chaos expected to follow in the wake of Assad's removal from power.

Since Russia has much closer ties to the current Syrian government than do any Western nations, it is not a unreasonable supposition to assume they have a clearer picture of what's happening on the ground in Syria than do officials in Washington or London.  Therefore the movement of Russian marines into the region, along with the defections of Tlass and several Syrian ambassadors are all indications of a regime on the edge of collapse.

How will that collapse occur?  It is highly unlikely that the rag-tag Syrian opposition will be able to launch a major assault on Damascus.  Keep in mind that in Libya, the Libyan rebels were only able to execute their drive on Tripoli after the US/NATO “humanitarian” mission began acting as the rebel's de facto air force; the walls of Gadhafi's Tripoli compound were breached by laser-guided bombs dropped from Coalition aircraft.  The Syrian rebels do not have this assistance.  Bashar's end then will likely come from an uprising within his own inner circle; either through loyalists who have grown tired of waging war against their own people, or through loyalists who see the tide turning against them and hope to curry some favor with the rebel leaders by delivering up to them the symbol of their oppression, or by removing Assad from power, permanently, themselves.  
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Monday, July 9, 2012

Tanzania Facing Blowback From US-Iran Sanctions Spat

The East African nation of Tanzania has wound up in the middle of the sanctions fight between the United States and Iran.

The reason is Tanzania's decision to allow at least ten Iranian-owned oil tankers to re-register themselves in Tanzania; the ships, according to Bloomberg, are owned by Iran's NITC corporation but will fly Tanzania's flag and will, for all legal purposes be Tanzanian.  The move would allow the tankers to effectively skirt the sanctions regime imposed by the US and European Union on Iran over that country's nuclear research program.  While most of the focus on the sanctions has been on their embargo against Iran's oil exports, another piece of the sanctions also bans the issuing of insurance for Iranian ships carrying cargoes of Iranian oil.  Since a tanker's cargo can be worth millions, or tens of millions, of dollars and the liability involved in an accident that leads to an oil spill can exceed even those figures, companies aren't willing to run the risk of sending out uninsured oil cargoes.  Flagging these tankers as Tanzanian though could help Iran to skirt the insurance ban.

As expected, the US isn't happy about this move, and officials are already saying that the re-registering could harm US-Tanzanian relations.  Howard Berman, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs issued this warning: “If Tanzania were to allow Iranian vessels to remain under Tanzanian registry, we in the Congress would have no choice but to consider whether to continue the range of bilateral U.S. programs with Tanzania.”  That would likely include $571 million worth of US financial aid and investment earmarked for Tanzania in 2013.

For their part, the Tanzanian government is saying very little.  Most requests for comment from Bloomberg went unanswered, though one official did say that the stories were inaccurate since the tankers in question were previously registered in Cyprus and Malta, which while apparently true does not mean that they were not also owned by NITC.

So the US seems to be involved in another diplomatic game of chicken over the Iranian sanctions.  If the US government can't successfully pressure Tanzania into dropping their registration of the Iranian  tankers then the decision has to be made over whether or not to levy sanctions against Tanzania, including cutting off more than a half-billion dollars worth of foreign aid.  But if the US decides to go that route, it will hard to see the decision as anything but hypocritical.  Recently the US granted an “exemption” to the sanctions to China – Iran's biggest oil customer.  China had been openly defying the US over the sanctions, arguing that they didn't need to abide by them since the sanctions were not authorized by the United Nations, the only body, China argued, that had the ability to levy such wide-ranging sanctions in the first place.  But rather than engage in a diplomatic fight and possible trade war with China, the US quietly exempted them from the sanctions.

Should the US punish Tanzania for their actions, the clear message sent will be that the United States is more than willing to play the role of the world's policeman, so long as you're too weak to do anything about it.    
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Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Kremlin's If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em Social Media Strategy

Russia recently surpassed Germany as the European country with the most internet users.  While this could be taken as a positive sign of Russia's modernity and development from the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, it's doubtful that the folks in the Kremlin are viewing it that way.

Part of the reason for the growth of internet users in Russia is that the internet is the one form of mass media not under tight de facto control by the state.  That's also the reason why the internet has played a large role in organizing the political opposition to Vladimir Putin during the past year; Alexei Navalny  for one has risen to national stature based on his blog, which freely criticizes the Putin administration.

Seeing that they missed the boat on setting up a web-filtering system like China's Great Firewall, the Kremlin is taking a new tack: they'll try to beat the opposition at their own social media game.  Last week, Kremlin officials announced that they would be launching their own, as yet unnamed, government-run social networking site for Russia, set up along the lines of Facebook. Officials have high hopes for the new networking site and say that private capital will be used to develop the web project.

But Russia already has its own privately-run Facebook clones: Vkontakte (“In Contact”) and Odnoklassniki (“Our Class”), the former of which bears an amazing resemblance to Facebook.  Since these social networks already exist, along with an official Russian-language option for Facebook as well, critics wonder why anyone would join a government-run social networking site, especially since it is reasonable to assume that the government would be monitoring content on the site and would likely take a dim view of any critique of the government.

“If the government creates some form of social network, then people will not join it,” said Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russia's security services and the internet in an article in The Guardian. “It is not realistic.”
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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Why Russia Loves Syria

Even though the international community has largely turned against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over his government's brutal response to internal dissent, Russia has remained a staunch supporter of the Middle Eastern state.  In my latest post over at The Mantle, I take a look at the why of Russia's backing for Syria.  Rather than just outright anti-Western stubborness by Vladimir Putin, Russian support for Syria is driven by some unexpected factors like religion and a desire to cling to the remnants of their once glorious Soviet past. 
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Friday, June 15, 2012

Spies On The Catwalk

I normally steer clear of NBC's Today show, I just find their patented mix of inane chatter and pop culture nonsense really annoying first thing in the morning, but a tip of the hat to Today for posting this story about everyone's favorite “secret” agent, Anna Chapman.

After a period of being out of the public spotlight, Ms. Chapman turned up modeling a gown at a fashion show in Antalya, Turkey.  According to the AP Chapman was “clad in a stunning red-and-black print gown at the Dosso Dossi show,” but why take the AP's word for it?

Chapman continued to turn her supposed failed career as a spy to her advantage, walking down the runway with two men dressed like secret agents, or at least as secret agents would dress in a work by Ian Fleming.  According to the show's organizers, Chapman's appearance fee was donated to the charitable foundation she has established, which works with children with poor eyesight.   
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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Pilot Likely Cause In Russia's Superjet Crash

Officials in Indonesia managed to recover the black box from the Sukhoi Superjet 100 that crashed into a mountain while on a demonstration flight last month and the data recovered is pointing to pilot error as the cause of the crash that killed all 45 aboard.

The word “error” might be a little misleading; fragments of conversation point towards the crash being the result of test pilot Alexander Yablontsev's attempt to show off the abilities of the Superjet to the dignitaries onboard.  The Superjet was on a six-nation tour of Asia to drum up sales for the first newly-designed passenger jet to come out of Russia since the end of the Soviet Union.  While flying across the rugged, mountainous interior of Java, Indonesia, the Superjet encountered a thunderstorm.  Rather than trying to fly above the weather, Yablontsev instead requested that flight controllers allow him to descend to 1,800 meters; Indonesian flight controllers approved this odd request and moments later the Superjet flew into the side of a mountain.  This decision has led to speculation that Yablontsev was somehow trying to show off the handling of the Superjet, not realizing that there were mountains in his flight path. 

This theory seems partially confirmed by a snippet of recording from the black box just before the crash.  According to a report in Russia’s Moskovsky Komsomolets, after Yablontsev made his course adjustment, a crewmember is heard to say something along the lines of: “commander, we can't go there, there's a mountain,” though the paper did not provide a direct quotation.

This is both good and bad news for the Russian aviation industry.  On the plus side, it is proof that there is nothing mechanically wrong with the Sukhoi Superjet; the project on which Russia has basically bet the entire future of their domestic civilian aviation industry.  But on the downside, Yablontsev's reckless decision to descend to a lower altitude while in a storm over unfamiliar terrain will do nothing to improve confidence in Russian aviation, which already has a reputation for lax safety procedures and has suffered a series high-profile crashes in recent years including one that have killed Polish President Lech Kaczyński and his diplomatic party and another that killed the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team.
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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

African Nations Calling For Intervention in Mali

In case you were wondering where the world's next armed conflict will be, the West African nation of Mali is looking like a good candidate. 

Members of ECOWAS, the Economic Community Of West African States, is building support for a resolution they will present to the United Nations Security Council requesting an armed force be deployed to the northern part of Mali to combat a growing Islamist movement that ECOWAS says could destabilize the entire region.

Map of Mali
“It is not just a threat for the region, but the world,” said President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger and the man leading the charge on ECOWAS' appeal to the UN.  Issoufou called Mali a potential “West African Afghanistan”, alleging that terror groups from Afghanistan and Pakistan are recuriting among young Islamic militiamen in northern Mali, adding that: “it is an international threat that needs an international response so this is why we have decided to take this to the Security Council.”

Mali, once held up as a model of stability in Africa, has suffered a bizarre and sudden collapse in recent months.  Mali's problems were kicked off in March when a group of army officers overthrew the government of democratically-elected President Amadou Toumani Toure over, what the army guys thought, was Toure's mishandling of an ongoing uprising by Tuareg tribesmen in the north of the country.  The Tuaregs were once the favored mercinaries of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.  When the Gadhafi regime fell, thousands of well-trained, well-armed Tuaregs flooded back into their native Mali and began causing trouble.  The coup plotters claimed that Pres. Toure was not giving them the material and support they needed to effectively fight the Tuaregs.

But it quickly became clear that the coup plotters had no grand plan for governing and Mali fell into chaos, which, ironically, allowed the Tuaregs to launch a major offensive and seize half of Mali.  A power-sharing agreement ended the coup crisis, but the problems with the newly empowered Tuaregs remains; now they are pushing for the creation of an Islamic state carved out of northern Mali.

This is too much for ECOWAS, which claims that the only way to stop the Tuaregs and their Islamist supporters now would be through an international military force.  ECOWAS hopes that the bulk of the support for any UNSC-mandated mission will come from the United States and France.  French President Francois Hollande has stated that France would be ready to support such a mission if it receives the Security Council's blessing.  No word from the US about their possible support for the ECOWAS proposal.
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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

India, US Set To Square Off On Iran Sanctions

The next move in the ongoing geopolitical chess match between the United States and Iran is set to take place this Wednesday when US officials will try once again to get their Indian counterparts onboard with the “crippling” sanctions regime championed by the US.

India's continuing purchase of Iranian crude oil remains a major impediment to the “crippling” part of those sanctions.  By cutting Iran off from the global crude oil markets, the United States is hoping to put enough pressure on Iran to get them to give up their nuclear research program (folks in Washington also really, really hope that the sanctions will lead to the unlikely event of the Iranians overthrowing their government due to the negative impact a lack of oil sales will have on their economy).  While the European Union is phasing in a ban on Iranian oil, plenty of Iranian crude is flowing to China and India; making the sanctions painful, but survivable, at least in the short-to-medium term.

Even the optimists in Washington will admit they can apply little leverage to get China to abandon their Iranian oil purchases, but they hope that India could be swayed.  So far India has maintained that they need to continue to buy Iranian oil since many Indian refineries are configured to process specific types of crude that come out of Iran and that there aren't substitute volumes readily available on the global market.  India has also questioned the validity of the US sanctions since they are not backed by the United Nations.

According to the Indian publication Business Today, Wednesday's meeting is likely to focus on the US suggesting that American shale gas could be a substitute for Iranian crude oil.  This is interesting for a couple of reasons: first we're talking about replacing oil with natural gas, which would mean a massive restructuring of India's energy mix – a drastic shift away from crude oil products to natural gas (using natural gas as a vehicle fuel for example, instead of gasoline); and since the US currently lacks a liquefied natural gas (LNG) export infrastructure, it would be a number of years, at least, before large volumes of US shale gas could be heading to India in a best-case scenario.  How India would get by in the meanwhile without Iranian crude oil imports is an open question.

If accurate, the Business Today report points at American officials desperate to get their Indian allies onside with the Iranian sanctions regime.  According to the sanctions passed by the US Congress, the United States could levy penalties against any country trading with Iran in violation of our sanctions, and while it is hard to imagine the United States fracturing diplomatic relations with India with such an action, it is also clear that as long as India (and China) keep importing Iranian oil, it is highly unlikely that the sanctions will have the desired effect.

Stay tuned for Wednesday's meeting.
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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Cuba's Oil Hopes Coming Up Dry

The announcement last year of a potentially vast oil reserve off the coast of Cuba looked like a game-changer for the impoverished island nation, but Cuba's hopes suffered another blow last week as a test well came up dry.  Now Spanish oil firm Repsol said it is likely that they will withdraw from the hunt for Cuban oil, potentially giving up their stake in an reserve that could contain 20 billion barrels of oil.

But finding such a reserve in deep ocean waters can be a formidable challenge.  Repsol spent an estimated $100 million drilling their test well.  While dry wells are a common occurrence in oil prospecting, Repsol has apparently decided the likelihood of hitting oil with a future well did not justify a further expense.  This leaves Indonesia's Petronas as the only company actively prospecting for oil off the coast of Cuba; the results from their test well are expected in July.

Cuba had high hopes for the oil deposits identified in their coastal waters.  Oil taken from the offshore deposits could make Cuba energy independent, with enough then left over to transform Cuba into an oil exporting nation.  Oil exports would give the Cuban government of Raul Castro an effective tool in fighting the embargo levied against Cuba for the past half-century by the United States, as well as providing a large source of revenue for Cuba's state-run economy.  But with the global hunt for oil having success in locations around the world (with many of those places being in Africa) and techniques like hydrofracking making known, but previously not exploited, reserves profitable, there seems to be less incentive for international oil companies to hunt of elusive deposits of crude off the coast of Cuba.  At the same time, Cuba's domestic petroleum industry does not have the resources or expertise to drill in the deepwater themselves, leaving the Cuban government's oil plans on the edge of failure.
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Friday, June 8, 2012

Is Canada Turning Into The United States?

Jokes about the similarity of the two countries have gone on for decades, but some recent moves by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper do beg the question: is Canada turning into the United States?

Environmental and civil rights groups in Canada are up in arms over new proposals from Harper to reform the regulations that manage Canada's natural resources.  The Harper government says that the reforms are meant to reduce redundancy and streamline the approval process for projects in Canada's energy sector, which will benefit all Canadians through lower energy prices and increased exports; environmentalists say the changes are just meant to remove environmental protections, particularly those blocking the expansion of Oil Sands operations in Alberta.  Harper's plan will have the largest impact on a proposed pipeline that will run west from the Oil Sands region through British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, where tankers can be loaded with the heavy Oil Sands bitumen for shipment to China.  Currently, the pipeline route would have to be evaluated for its environmental impact on each watershed it will cross, and there are many of them in British Columbia; the Harper proposal would mandate that environmental approval would only need to be sought where the pipeline crossed an “official” watershed, a far smaller number.

Harper is presenting this as a net good for Canada: increased exports that will boost the Canadian economy, more jobs and more domestic energy security; opponents say that it is a massive handout to Big Oil and that environmentally sensitive, though not federally-protected, lands will be destroyed by the pipeline.  The Harper government is also putting Canadian environmental groups under closer scrutiny.  Officially, the closer look is meant to uncover donations from foreign sources, which in many cases would be a violation of Canadian law; but again, opponents say that the official story is merely a smokescreen and that the investigations are simply an attempt to silence groups opposed to Harper's policies. 

These investigations come on the heels of a new law passed in Quebec that gives authorities the power to block public demonstrations.  The law follows weeks of street protests by college-aged youth in Quebec protesting hikes in the tuition at provincial universities.  Again, the government and civil libertarians take differing views of the new law: authorities in Quebec say that the law will only be employed in extreme circumstances, noting that the tuition protests have dragged on for weeks, with the protestors refusing to compromise on a proposed deal regarding tuition and that the continuing protests are having a negative impact on the economy in a number of Quebec's cities; civil rights groups though see the new law as nothing more than an attempt to limit the public's right to free speech and assembly and to eliminate dissent.

Meanwhile, Canada is also flexing its military muscles.  Canada is sending 1,400 military personnel, along with five ships and a submarine, to participate in the biannual “Rim of The Pacific” military exercise; all at a time, Toronto's Globe and Mail notes, when the Canada's Defense Department is cutting back on its overall budget.  Canada is also in negotiations for a place in southeastern Asia to host a military “hub” as they're calling it.  The hub would be a way for Canada to have a military presence in a region that is rapidly growing in economic and strategic importance; a likely candidate is reported to be a small port facility next to an airfield in Singapore. Canada's Defense Minister Peter MacKay said that the hub would signal “Canada's intention to reassert our credentials in the Pacific.”

MacKay's announcement followed on the heels of a statement by his opposite number in America, Leon Panetta that the United States was planning to base 60% of its naval forces in the Pacific by 2020. But when you pair Canada's desire for their own slice of the military pie in southeast Asia with Harper's pro-business, and according to critics anti-environmental, energy policy, and new laws that are having a chilling effect on public protests that employ some of the same strategies as the PATRIOT Act, you're seeing policies coming out of the Canadian government that are looking very American.
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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A New Capital For Russia?

Is a new capital city the key to revitalizing Russia's economy?  That is the idea being floated by Sergei Karaganov, the world economy and international affairs faculty dean at the Moscow Higher School of Economics, who wants to elevate Vladivostok, the Russian port city on the Pacific, near the borders of both China and North Korea, and more than 4,000 miles from Moscow, to capital city status.

Rather than shipping the seat of Russian power and governance east, Karaganov is talking about making Vladivostok a third capital city for Russia: Vladivostok would be the economic capital of the country, joining Moscow (political) and St. Petersburg (cultural) in this strata.  Karaganov's rationale is that the focus of the global economy is drifting steadily eastward and that Vladivostok is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this shift.  An economic capital in Vladivostok would make Russia a serious player in global trade patterns of the Pacific Rim and would signal that Russia was serious about building lasting ties with emerging Asian economic powers.

Karaganov's idea isn't as crazy as it may first sound.  Much of Russia's wealth in natural resources lie in the Asian portion of the nation; one of the largest economic infrastructure projects in Russia in the past decade has been the development of natural gas resources on and around Sakhalin Island on Russia's Pacific Coast; last year Russia opened the ESPO pipeline to send Siberian crude oil to energy-hungry China. And one other Pacific nation has already followed Karaganov's lead.  Earlier this year, the island nation of Samoa lost an entire day as it officially switched from one side of the International Dateline to the other – Samoa had originally opted to be on the same side of the IDL as the United States, which at the time was their main trading partner, but flipped to the Asian side to reflect the fact that now most of their trade is with countries like Australia and New Zealand.

Vladivostok today is a fairly run-down port city that has far more economic interaction with Japan and China than it does Moscow.  In fact, Vladivostok was the site of some of the largest public protests seen in Russia before last December's rallies against what were seen as rigged Parliamentary elections.  People took to the streets in Vladivostok in 2009 to protest new tariffs levied against imported used cars that Moscow launched as an effort to save Russia's ailing domestic auto industry. Importing used cars from Japan is one of the key economic drivers in Vladivostok, and local residents feared that the new tariffs would cripple their city's economy.

It's doubtful that the Putin government will take Karaganov's idea seriously, but that doesn't mean that it is not an innovative approach to deal with a very real issue in the Russian economy. 
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