Sunday, July 31, 2011

Label Makers and Sledgehammers

We have a problem in this country that revolves around the label maker. Ever since the label maker was devised by a no doubt well intentioned soul, we have had the ability to label everything until our hearts content. I still remember my cousin labeling virtually everything in her bedroom. But today ladies and gentleman in an increasingly politicized America, the label maker has gotten entirely out of hand. Liberals are tagged with the incendiary labels of communist and socialist awakening the poisonous echoes of Lenin and Stalin. Conservatives meanwhile are tarred with the labels of big business, anti-progress, war hawks, etc. I am here today to say that this needs to stop or we are all doomed.

Most of friends are Christian, conservative, and Republican and I would find it unconscionable to brand them like many of our politicians are doing in Washington. My friends have strong opinions and hold tight to both them and their faith and I respect them for this rather than tear them down or try to convert them. I decided very early on that I would rather have friends than politics because friends mean a hell of a lot more than politics. Meanwhile in Washington, I hear the very impassioned sound bites rallying for and against various debt ceiling bills and I can’t help but feeling sad because I see men and women who have the best of intentions, but are instead resorting to tagging people on the other side with as many labels as they can think of.

The label maker needs to become an artifact of the past because our great country is not a liberal or conservative country, a black, white, or Hispanic country, but rather a country of many different groups and opinions that needed to be respected, rather then branded as nut jobs or radicals.

Why Wars Aren’t Exactly Won

I love our veterans, have had them in my classes, and will always praise them because they’ve sacrificed more than a coward like me will probably ever have the guts to do. I offer this disclaimer because I wish not to trivialize the sacrifice our men and women in uniform have made with the below posted remarks. The statement “Are we winning”? usually offered while watching coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drives me nuts. Wars in my view, are not won...there’s merely a loser who has lost less...thereby making him the winner.

Some people will argue that World War II represents an Allied victory over the forces of Nazism and Fascism. The world is indeed much better off with those poisonous evil forces marginalized in today’s world, but that “victory” came at a very substantial cost both in terms of human lives and power on the world stage. Russia is still trying to recoup the population it lost from World War II. Millions of people where killed through Nazi Camps, Stalin purges, atomic bombs, and actual hand to hand combat throughout the war effort. Yes, eventually the Allies came out on top, but when one calculates the casualty figures both of the Allies and the human embodiment of Nazism, Fascism, and Japanese imperialism, its’ hard to call anyone a true winner. Much of Europe was decimated, Japan was obliterated by an atomic bomb, millions of Jews were exterminated, and Russia is still trying to recover the population numbers it lost in World War II.

Sometimes war is a necessity. As much as I hate it, denying that reality is pointless. Allow me to turn towards the contemporary example of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The threat is now Islamic Extremism verses Western values of freedom and democracy. No one has been able to constitute what winning in the current conflict means. Even if we achieve objectives of stable, democratic, governance in Iraq and Afghanistan does it really constitute a win if extremism spreads throughout portions of Africa ? If we are not careful, I’m very concerned that we’ll have sacrificed thousands of young lives just to move the threat around creating a cycle of war waged=military victory=repeat somewhere else, which will ultimately lead to more lives lost.

We also don’t know what we are leaving behind for the good people of Iraq and Afghanistan yet. If we leave them in the hands of another Saddam Hussein (god forbid), how could we consider that a victory? Two fractured countries, billions of dollars spent, thousands of Coalition soldiers killed, injured, or permanently disabled, the numbers of Afghan and Iraqi civilians who have been killed in the fighting. War is a deadly, messy thing that rarely comes out as any military or civilian leader intends, but to me, the notion of there being one winner and one loser is the wrong thought. The thought should be Who has lost the least because no one comes out of war untouched.

Debating Gods and Demons in World Events

Religion has been a force of guidance and comfort for many of our greatest leaders and unfortunately some of our most infamous leaders. Religion by itself is not the evil, how one uses and interprets that religion often is. There is a bad tendency among some people who have certain religious beliefs to categorize the world into good and evil, or if we borrow religious terms: gods and devils. If something miraculous happens, than its’ the act of a merciful god, while if something unspeakable horrible happens, its’ the obvious work of a devil that god chose not to stop. At the risk of creating an religious tirade in the comments, there simply has to be more to the picture than one world of absolute good and evil.

There are some African tribes that practice voodoo and other rituals that some may consider black magic. There are similar people in Haiti. Africa and Haiti are two of the most tragic, poverty stricken, places on this planet. The fact that events like the massive earthquake in Haiti and the current famine in Africa could be read as a sign of other worldly influences like a god or devil, or we could look at it as a referendum of our own humanity because weren’t we put upon this earth to have love and compassion for our fellow man? Still, if we are going to put a religious context behind world events, there’s a question that needs to be asked “If we attribute the events in Africa and Haiti to the devil, or to a vengeful god, as some might suggest, why have such people been granted such tragedy?

Are the people of Africa, Haiti, the United States, wherever, who die, lose their home, etc. all just massively evil people or have drawn Satan’s rage? I think most people would look at you as though you’ve lost your mind, if you made that statement. The reality is that bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. It may be beyond this life for us to understand why these things occur. I must say though that it sounds tragic for some fringes of the religious community to continue to play the god verses devil debate when it comes to world events like those in Haiti and Africa because their somehow evil people. I’m not saying that God or the devil doesn’t exist on this planet, I just believe that the answer we seek is deeper than good and evil, black and white and rests firmly on the shoulders of humanity in this world.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Famine and Terror

The United States has found itself in a difficult position concerning the famine declared in Somalia last week by the United Nations. The United States classifies Al Shabab as a terrorist organization with links to Al Qaeda meaning that there subject to a variety of American anti-terror laws that would prevent the United States from funneling needed aid to the victims of the Somali famine. The U.S. government is working behind the scenes to figure out a way to get aid to the Somali people without breaking its’ own anti-terror laws and unwittingly aiding a terrorist organization. This brings to mind an interesting debate: Do we prevent terror or stop feminine? Or is there a way to do both?

There is no question that given the United States positions of human rights and common decency, that we cannot let people die. Not every Somali is a terrorist, as bared out by the civil war in existence there. But we also cannot allow a terrorist organization to hijack the aid for their own nefarious purposes. Unfortunately it looks like the people in charge there have slowed down the spread of relief within Somalia by the United Nations. One could argue that the very act of withholding, diverting or preventing aid to a starving people is a terrorist action, worthy of sanction and perhaps larger action. By providing food aid though, the UN will create a goodwill that could strengthen opposition or at the very least, not add to it, by preventing Al Shabab from creating the propaganda victory of the West standing still as the people of Somalia die. Bottom line: not acting is morally incomprehensible and is a gift to terrorists the world over.

Friday, July 29, 2011

What Rational Minds can't do?

When confronting an event like the Oslo terrorist attacks, people often look for rational explanations to explain why these events happen and who could be so cold hearted to open fire on a youth camp to protest some government policy, if news reports prove correct. Rational minds cannot operate in such an atmosphere because, put simply, they are trying to explain the absolutely irrational. What makes things doubly confusing is that terrorists have their rationality that allows this stuff to make sense. Like what in the hell did the Norway attacker prove by shooting up a youth camp? That’s the question a rational mind would ask.

The terrorist protesting government policies in effort to prevent the Islamization of Eastern Europe or whatever the latest claim is, would argue that because the camp was organized by the Labor Party its’ fair game because its’ an instrument of the government whose policies are hated. Rational minds would look at the bloodshed in Norway and wonder what a bunch of youth had to do with government policy they had no role in enacting. If we want to meaningfully fight terrorism, whether it be domestic extremist groups or Al Qaeda, rational people need to embrace what they consider the irrational motivations of terrorist groups, so that they can get inside the thought patterns or processes.

Dr. Dustin Berna, my former Middle East politics professor down at Northern Illinois once said about the Middle East “Your thinking about this too rationally.” Unfortunately, when confronting terrorists, rationality is a luxury we can’t afford.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

More Law isn’t the Answer

The story of Jaycee Dugard is a story of both the best and worst in humanity. The absolute strength of a little girl turned woman held captive by a sexual predator and his companion who birthed two of her captors babies. And the awe inspiring failure of the law enforcement officials who had over sixty chances to stumble upon Jaycee, yet never did. As America demands answers to how such failures could happen, there will be the ever popular proposition of new laws and regulation to prevent something like this from happening again. As much as I sympathize with Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, and the thousands of other children who have been abducted and subjected to untold cruelties, I am here today to explain why more law is simply not the answer to this problem.

We have laws on the books
against kidnapping and unlawfully imprisoning people and we have set guidelines on how convicted sex offenders and parolees are to be monitored within this country, there does not need to be a new invention of law here. What we need, is better enforcement of the laws that are on the books. There was clearly a lack of enforcement in this case. If we haven’t enforced the laws we already have in place, how do we expect to better enforce  new laws? Why weren’t the former laws enforced because had they been enforced, we probably would’ve found Jaycee years earlier. What is the point of new law here? We already didn't enforce the laws we have…so great we can just throw another layer of paper and bureaucratic tape over previous un-enforced laws to create, more un-enforced law leading to only more girls and boys like Jaycee.

Book Wars

Since this blog is entitled Book Diplomacy and most of my books have been bought through Amazon and Borders, I figured it appropriate that I weight in on Borders recent closure and ongoing series of liquidation sales. Realities often goes deeper than one sentence, but Borders basic problem was a failure to adapt to changing market conditions and the reality of the E-Reader revolution. Borders built a recognizable brand over thirty years and a meaningful bookstore experience that will hopefully not be lost to future generations through the resurgence of independent bookstores, but Borders ultimate failure to adapt and change with the times, ultimately led to its’ downfall.

In a thread on the discussion forum, a poster mentioned its’ hard to escape the reality that all of us on this board are responsible for the demise of Borders. This statement has a kernel of truth as Amazon sells books and other merchandise at some of the lowest prices around. It is my view that no bookstore in its’ bricks and mortar incarnation will be able to meaningful compete with Amazon, except among those consumers nostalgic for the bookstore experience. It’s a basic lesson in economics in a particularly anemic economy that if a book at Borders retails for $25 dollars and Amazon has the same book for $15, which is a 40% percent discount, where would you buy the book from? Borders system of discounts was so convoluted that one needed to study advanced mathematics to get any meaningful savings as evidenced by the mind-numbing explanation on Today around last Christmas of combining a $50 dollar gift card with some sort of store 40% off coupon + Borders bucks from the Borders Rewards card or something like to get $60 worth of books for fifty. Yeah I’ll just buy from Amazon and save my bottle of Advil for a rainy day.

Then comes the E-reader, much as I personally detest them, they are the wave of the future and Borders ended up missing the boat and shivering in the water. Barnes and Noble has Nook, Amazon the Kindle, and Borders had Kobo, which I just heard about for the first time last week. Being third to a party of three among big national booksellers is a horrendous blunder. Steadfast adherence to an increasingly inadequate model of large bookstores with bells and whistles and a smaller and smaller selection of books is doomed for failure when your confronting a global behemoth like Amazon who can sell you any book without the ordering process that takes days to get from the shipper to the store. Amazon basically said “Why get out of your house”? We’ll bring whatever you want to your front door, a winning argument for a Midwestern kid with limited mobility. Borders adapted to these changes in the reality of bookselling like an outdated decrepit factory stubbornly adhering to their classic though dated model preferred by the big publishing houses. Bottom line: Although Amazon played a part in Borders demise, Borders is ultimately responsible for its’ own demise.

2012’s Other Presidential Election

While American audiences rightly focus on our own 2012 presidential election, there is another presidential election that the world should be watching: The Russian presidential election. Russian politics presents political scientists with many challenges because one is never exactly sure what is going on behind the Kremlin walls. With that in mind, lets discuss what we do know. United Russia- the party headed by the current President-Prime Minister duo of Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin dominate the political airwaves within the Russian Federation, making a United Russia victory in the presidential election almost certain. While democracy and human rights advocates protest the fairness of such a system, Russians prefer a strong, firm, hand at the top of the Kremlin and our quite enamored with Vladimir Putin. Most everything Putin touches is golden within Mother Russia. Therefore, I would suggest follow Putin and the results to the election you shall find.

Constitutionally, Medvedev is allowed to seek a second term. Putin after serving two terms as President before sliding into the Prime Minister’s chair can also legally seek the presidency again because the Russian constitution forbids anyone from serving more than two consecutive terms. According to multiple sources, Medvedev has indicated that he would likely not run against Putin, if Putin decides to run. The Medvedev rationale is two fold 1. He is unlikely to win against the popular Putin and 2. Given Putin’s position of strength within United Russia, his political career would be likely over. But there’s been increasing question as to whether Mr. Putin has a desire to return to the job. Being president of Russia may be one of the most complex on the planet that takes absolute energy and focus, for whomever has the job. But there are several factors that play a significant role in who the president may be.

The Russian economy is largely dependent on oil and natural gas prices on the global market. High prices = good economy, low prices = bad economy. The North Caucasus region of Russia continues to be volatile, if the Kremlin is able to retain control there, it would represent a victory for the Putin-Medvedev coalition and quite possibly a re-election for the pair. If either of these falter, Medvedev will look weak and ineffective, potentially necessitating a change in the leadership coalition either to Putin himself or a third candidate, if Putin doesn’t have the energy for the job. Of course, since its’ Russia, this could be proven utter fantasy by the time the election comes. The Moscow Times did a much more in depth version of this available here:

Monday, July 25, 2011

What do Depictions of Gods Really Mean?

In my reading to prepare for today’s blog posting, I was somewhat surprised to learn that at least some of the hatred directed towards Scandinavian and some Western European countries was rationalized because of cartoon depictions of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. Now to clarify, Al Qaeda and related groups have a laundry list of reasons far to exhaustive to list here such as occupation of Arab lands, confiscation of Arab resources, and the imposition of puppet regimes on the Arab people. So cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad might be lower down on the rational list, but the fact that they’ve been named as a reason for suicide bombings as recently as December 2010 in Sweden, indicates that these cartoons have a valuable place inside the terrorist cannon of rationale. Why exactly are these cartoons given so much power, in certain circles of the Christian and Islamic world?

To many people, the cartoons would be just a perhaps crude depiction of a widely respected holy figure and draw the rebuke of newspaper readers and condemnation. To others whose life is based around a fundamentalist interpretation of their faith, these cartoon depictions of Muhammad, Jesus, and other religious figures are sacred and what might be read at humor within a one groups context is grounds to kill and maim for another group. Their prophet or divine has been desecrated and for that desecration the country that spawned the cartoonist must pay. I cannot reject this rationale strongly enough, people should never die for what they choose to put on a page, no matter how crude or insensitive it may be. But my position that people should never die for what they choose to put on a page is my reaction, terrorists operate on a different reality.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

To all the Harry Potter Fans...

Whom I may have offended with my post Harry Potter and The Generational Moment. After great deliberation and reflection, I decided that I was not respectful of the opinions of my blog commenter's that I claim to hold in such high esteem. In addition, I further disrespected the honest opinion of a Harry Potter fan who compared the last Harry Potter movie to the Beatles breaking up. For those lapses in judgment, please accept my sincerest apology and my hope that you will continue to visit my blog.

My intention was to think about historical moments that defined generations like 9/11, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, just to offer a few examples. Judging by the comments though, it ended up coming across as though I was denigrating Harry Potter and the memories that Harry Potter fans had shared with these characters, which was never my intention. In my short sidedness, I was blinded to the reality that so many people slipped from childhood to adulthood through the ten year run of Harry Potter books and movies. All of us have things that bring us back to our childhoods and these should be respected, not dumped upon.

Norway after the Terror

The challenge for Norway moving forward is the question that has concerned nations affected by terrorism since the beginning of time: How do we respond after the attack to make sure our people are as safe as humanly possible? Judging by the words of Iver Neumann, a research fellow at Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, quoted in Christian Science Monitor talking about its’ decision not to heighten security for its political leaders following incidents in other nearby countries the question is open: “We see it as a key political value in itself not to have that kind of militarized society,” “Whether we can still afford such an open society, is now up for debate.” Many societies have decided to fight terror by becoming more militarized or at the very least passing greater restrictions on freedom. It seems likely that Norway will consider changes to how it protects political figures, given that the Prime Minister was something of a target here. However, if Norway becomes a militarized society, they have effectively had their values altered and changed through terrorism, which sends a potentially dangerous message to any terrorist Islamic or right wing that they can simply bomb or shoot their way to political and social change.

A second concern is Norway’s Islam problem, which in both scenarios of who perpetrated Friday’s attacks played key roles. Clearly, there’s a right wing fringe who is steadfastly anti-Islamic and hates current immigration policy. Norwegian prosecutors filed terror charges against an Iraqi-born cleric Mullah Krekar who allegedly threatened to kill Norwegian politicians, if he was deported to Iraq. He founded the Kurdish Islamist group Ansar al-Islam, and still lives in the country. This along with the attack in Sweden in December 2010 by an Iraqi born man Taimor Abdulwahb al-Abdaly over the countries military presence in Afghanistan and Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who drew an image of the prophet Muhammad on a dog’s body. From an outsiders point of view, the Scandinavian countries should take a long hard look at their immigration situation because on one hand, they want to feel welcoming to new immigrants, but as we are painfully aware, terrorists will take advantage of even the best intentioned goodwill.

Norway is in a very difficult spot caught between their traditional culture and political values and the terrorists who will attempt to use the things that make Norway attractive to Norwegians and outsiders to their advantage. It’s a delicate act of political and social gymnastics that leaders have had to undertake for centuries. I’d expect a more security oriented Norway with greater security stationed around governmental buildings and a serious reexamination of immigration policies, though what form this takes, only Norway knows.

Terror in Norway

When I think about hotspots for terrorist activity, I think about Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, or the latest potential threat to the United States…Norway does not typically even enter my mind that’s why no one was more surprised than I when I heard about the attacks on the Prime Ministers office in Oslo and the Utoya youth camp on Friday. Since Scandinavian Politics courses are hard to come by at American university, I’m relying on the well respected Christian Science Monitor to assist me. It seems as though, there are two likely avenues for this terrorist attack: 1. Islamic radicals inspired by Al Qaeda because of Norway’s involvement in Afghanistan through NATO and Norway’s role in the Denmark Jylland Postand newspaper depiction of the prophet Muhammad in 2005 (one of the cartoonists was Norwegian and one of the papers in Norway reran the cartoons.) I was unaware that Al Qaeda had listed Norway on a list of targets since 2003.

The more likely option at this moment, is that this was an act of far right extremism opposed to the policies of Prime Minister Stolenberg’s Labour Party and it’s rather lax immigration rules. Indeed, the suspected gunmen appears to have been a Christian conservative, who held anti-Islamic, anti-Immigrant views, apparently quite common among the far right in Norway. I think it would be premature to rule out scenario A though as this investigation is barely seventy two hours old. This was quite an eye opening look at the internal and external problems that a country many view as tranquil really does have beneath the surface. My thoughts and prayers go out to the Norwegian people in this their 9-11, as some Norwegians posting on message boards and Facebook have dubbed it. May we all be Norwegian, so that we may stand shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters…Peace.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Let’s talk it to Death: A Critique of the UN

Hopefully I’ll still have some friends in Model UN after this critique. Let me begin by saying that I believe the world is better with the UN than without it. A civilized, imperfect world based on diplomacy and negotiation is much better than a warrior world with continual streams of tanks rampaging through European capitals. However despite the advance in modern diplomacy that the UN represents, its’ shortcomings are generally broadcast on the world stage for glaring eyes of condemnation.

 Although their exists great benefit in talking through problems, there is a great risk in over-talking problems, so that there exists a paralysis of action when words are no longer enough. This paralysis of action creates the perception, fair or not, that the United Nations simply “talks problems to death.”

This perception is far from dispelled when one considers the structure of the United Nations Security Council. There are five veto holders that can veto any sanctions that come before the Council. Which sounds like a reasonable idea on paper, but in practice it renders the United Nations fangless in meaningful action unless war is imminent because the five great powers of the United Nations will rarely agree on anything because they have different perceptions and national interests.

 This is why most of the time, we see rather watered down resolutions against Israeli settlement building in the West Bank, Sudan’s genocidal actions against the people of Darfur, and the painful chess match with Russia and China over the Iranian nuclear program. Russia and China have every economic interest to block sanctions of Sudan and Iran because they sell them large amounts of weapons and Iran employs many Russian scientists. The United States blocks most action on Israel because they have moral and national interests to safeguard Israel.

This isn’t all that horrible because it represents the diplomatic wrangling typical of most political actors, except when one considers the life and death nature of some of these events. UN action was held up on Sudan because of China, leading to more deaths, displacements and misery.

Don’t get me started on UN peacekeepers who in most cases are given orders not to fire unless they personally or as a collective group are under attack. This provision has been used out by genocidal killers in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, to just keep killing Tutsi’s. Because of narrow, hollowed out missions, the UN has allowed thousands of people to be butchered. The UN has a noble goal and mission in this world, but without action, you only have talk.


The Space Shuttle and the Age of American Impossibility

The space shuttle Atlantis touched down at Cape Canaveral this morning, marking the end of NASA’s thirty year shuttle program, and perhaps the end of the post World War II anything can happen with the human spirit attitude.

The voyage to the moon and the ensuing space shuttle program was the centerpiece of this attitude and a source of national pride. Though I was obviously unable to see the moon landing live, there had to be this unquestioned sentiment that “We can do anything." The Challenger and Columbia disasters gave pause to this sentiment, but it was still largely present because people still dream of exploring faraway lands and helping humankind in some way. But I question whether the day of the can do spirit has largely passed in the grips of a more cynical America.

The America of the 1960’s that was so full of hopeful spirit has changed into an economically fragile country in the midst of two wars, where children now dream, not of moons and presidencies, but of reality show superstardom or selling a million albums. An America of possibility has become an America that is largely struggling to survive. When your struggling just to survive, you’re not inventing the new technologies that will be the future of this world. This is part of the reason why so many people are apprehensive about the future of this country.

Given the current cynicism that’s so pervasive throughout the America of 2011complete with bitter partisanship, the question deserves to be asked: “Will my generation have the great moments of human achievement previous generations have”? Events like the Civil Rights movement, Space Race, and the end of the Cold War are some notable achievements of our parents generation as the World Wars, increased women’s rights, and the invent of the automobile belong to the previous generation. Or does the end of the shuttle program represent some greater societal loss than its’ position as a thirty second video clip on the morning news between the debt ceiling and heat wave would suggest?  

Kenya: Have we failed in Africa again?

I’ll be the first to admit that Africa is a little beyond my areas of academic training, but I’d still like to take a swing at this drought and famine that is engulfing not just Kenya, but several areas along the African coast including the recently declared famine in Somalia.

 I don’t mean to be disrespectful to the aid agencies and world governments who have stepped up to send billions of dollars in food aid to the region, but I feel like I’ve seen this movie so many times before. For one reason or another, civil war, drought, or genocide, it feels like parts of Africa has been in a perpetual state of hunger and disease forever.

 Some Western analysts view the continent as though the noble savage myth perpetrated by colonizing power two hundred years earlier has not been kicked into the casket. They believe that Africans are corrupt, stupid, lazy and barbaric and some have even gone as far as to write off the continent as a loss. Africans are not savages, they are prideful people with celebrated traditions and cultures, who don’t like famine and war anymore than the rest of the world. Today I’m calling on the world to take definitive steps to mitigate the constant food and water shortages in Africa.

There will always be spectacular circumstances that require international intervention, but we have to stop continually running to throw foreign aid at the problem and instead focus on practical, meaningful, solutions.

 In the current state of economic affairs, how long can the rest of the world support massive development programs that have yielded mediocre results. Furthermore, it takes time for relief agencies to hit the ground in Africa, valuable times passes, as people struggle to survive until  help can come. Africa is not exactly resource poor or ignorant, despite the suggestions of a few international aid workers.

 We have the technical knowledge and innovative capabilities to make use of Africa’s unique resources to build them some sustainable wells and irrigation systems that can provide them with valuable clean water until the help can arrive.

Although some of this work is occurring throughout Africa and other parts of the developing world, I’m very much afraid that various relief agencies will run in with big crates of food and water and then once the immediate crisis has passed, run back out, and the cycle will repeat itself again in six months. Just because we have sustained this cycle for decades does not make it right.

If people really give a crap about the impoverished and malnourished people of Africa, then they should dig a well or help plant gardens in African villages, something that can provide Africa more sustainable food and water sources, in the hopes that the global community won’t have to run in with food and water  play the Superman of the moment.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Good and Bad of Terrorist Merger

According to ABC News report aired last night, American officials are worried about the potential merger of the Al Qaeda organizations of Anwar al-Awlaki and Ayman al Zawahiri. They would merge so that they can coordinate attacks on American targets overseas. This is not the most surprising of developments, as businesses merge together all the time and terrorism is a business. It’s a business of violence, death, and repression, but it’s a business none the less. This proposed merger, if the terrorist egos can get along has both good and bad points for the American National Security Environment. Leading with the bad, this merger has the potential to create a larger unified threat to American interests both at home and abroad with assumed shared capabilities, intelligence and cooperation between the joined groups. American and International Intelligence agencies will need to be quite vigilant as this new larger terrorist organization takes shape.

There are two pieces of good news, the merging of terrorist organizations may be an indicator that U.S. efforts against Al Qaeda are paying some dividends. Al Qaeda would probably like to stay more individualized and cellular, the fact that they would consider joining forces indicates that something has occurred to change their capability structure. The second piece of good news is that even though the notion of two terror groups merging is the subject of intelligence agency nightmares, who’s to say that the unification process is smooth? Who’s in charge of the venture? Terrorist leaders are not exactly the most altruistic people in the world. Yeah, they may press these grand goals in their propaganda messages to inspire the followers, but do the two leaders begin to conflict with each other…in operational tactics or choice of missions or even who’s the bigger fish in the murky terror underworld, which eventually destabilizes the new SuperTerror Inc. into a fractious civil war among terrorist leaders? Make no mistake unified terrorist leaders is a big threat, but we shouldn’t return to the over reactive days of duct tape and plastic sheeting until the terrorist egos can prove co-existence.

Why States aren’t the Nuclear Threat they used to be

The popular wisdom during the Cold War was that the greatest threat for a nuclear weapons attack came from the Soviet Union and their client states and vice versa. Now that the Cold War has ended, the nature of the nuclear threat has shifted dramatically in my view from individual states to rogue terrorists and madman dictators with nothing to lose like perhaps North Korea because any man who lets his own people starve to death as he lives in an opulent palace in comfort. North Korea and notable others excepted, the era of state on state nuclear annihilation has largely passed. When the nuclear era began
in the shadows of World War II, the world stage was lined with men like Hitler and Stalin, who through mass campaigns of paranoia and racism sent thousands of people to their deaths. Men like Stalin and Hitler cared nothing about human beings seeing them as cogs in the respective machineries of Nazism and Communism respectively. These men where brutal, paranoid, lunatics who viewed murder as sport and would’ve thought nothing about using an atomic bomb against their own people, much less the United States.

I am happy to report that the era of madmen in the mold of Stalin and Hitler has largely dissipated as the few remaining madmen are increasingly isolated from the world of the civilized. The threat for localized barbarianism is still painfully likely in several countries spanning Africa and Asia, but the odds of such localized death becoming nuclear are slim. Today’s leader understands that any brandishing of the atomic bomb against his neighbors is a good recipe to have many sets of nuclear guns aimed directly at you. Leaders are far more rational and understand the consequences taking the nuclear war option would bring: mass destruction of your people, a loss of power for yourself and global catastrophe. Even though the world still has dictators and autocrats, these men crave power and understand that power ends if your people are all routed in a massive counter-strike. One has to weigh is the nuclear option worth the destruction of their people and their own rather comfortable livelihood.

When the Cold War peaked, two countries had nuclear weapons and it was easy to deter, now the nuclear club is small, but growing, and because of the alliance system, every country has a larger nuclear brother that would come to its’ aid, forcing a leader, presumably a man of strategy and tactics to consider the counter-attack. Many leaders decide that the calculus of rewards isn’t worth the brutal deterrence. Furthermore, states no longer hold an absolute monopoly over the nuclear option. Despite best efforts, nuclear material is made available on black markets, a lot of it from the former Soviet Union, where terrorists can in theory buy the material, place it with other radio-active material. They are the threat because today’s terrorist does not operate from a state as Al Qaeda with it’s global reach has shown. Furthermore, terrorists are this generations Hitler and Stalin because like their World War II brethren, they largely do not care who they kill and have a vision for the world that operates outside of reality.

Nuclear Zero: An unrealistic fantasy

Ever since the recession of the Cold War and the peace made between the two great nuclear powers, there was an increased hope that nuclear disarmament would somehow mean a world without nuclear weapons. The notion of a world without nuclear weapons is a utopian fantasy that will never have a basis in reality as it currently exists throughout the world. Although the United States and Russia have signed nuclear arms reduction treaties that attempt to secure loose nukes, strategic interests dictate that they will always retain enough weapons to retain a first strike capability should they be attacked by a state or Islamic radicals. Even if there was not a realistic and quite visible threat to the current regime of nuclear powers that justified the possession of nuclear weapons, its’ unlikely that the great nuclear powers would be able to magically create a world without nukes given their ability to prevent, so rouge states from acquiring them.

Preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the world is a popular rhetorical device in speeches that will score political points and human sympathy, but has little to show in reality other than those words. American politicians ranted for years against North Korean nuclear ambitions, all the while, our friends in Pakistan where all too willing to sell nuclear secrets to North Korea, Iran, and had at least a discussion with Libya during the 1980’s. Right now as leaders condemn potential Iranian nuclear ambitions, while Iran claims it’s nuclear program is for energy. Through keeping the veil of nuclear energy up and with the assistance of their United Nations friends Russia and China who have vested economic interests in Iran, the United States is hard pressed to pursue any meaningful action against Iran’s nuclear programs, including inspections.

The case of Israel provides the smoking gun for why there will not be a nuclear free world anytime soon. It is widely assumed that Israel has nuclear weapons and quite possibly a nuclear bomb under the rationale that they are surrounded by hostile neighbors some of whom have made speeches calling for the destruction of Israel. States like Iran, see a nuclear armed Israel as a security threat, much in the same way that the United States viewed the Soviet Union a threat during the Cold War era. Using the framework of a national security threat, Iran and other so called “rouge” states can paint Western nuclear powers as hypocrites because Western states have nuclear weapons for security, we want the same things. As long as this divide exists between the nuclear and the non nuclear, a nuke free world will be nothing more than a sleepy dream.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

ESPN: The dominant party of sports

Throughout the history of the modern state system, there have been a great number of one party or dominant party states. Dominant party states differ from autocratic states because they occur in young democratic states where the institutions of the state haven‘t fully been formed. Mexico was largely dominated largely by the PRI party for four or five decades until they began losing localized elections in the 1980’s and their first presidential election in the early 2000’s. The Congress party dominated India for decades until opposition parties gained in strength because of increasing dissatisfaction with the ruling party. A modern example of a dominant party system is United Russia in Russia. The advantage of the one party system is that the growth of the state can remain stable over a period of time. The disadvantage is that these types of systems can often turn into autocratic nations where democracy suffers.

I am very much afraid that ESPN is becoming the dominant party of the sports broadcasting world. In recent years, ESPN has launched bids to acquire the Bowl Championship Series, NCAA Basketball Tournament, The Olympic Games, and several other big name sporting events. Although these efforts are not always successful (The Olympic Games, and NCAA Tournament retained national broadcast rights on NBC and CBS/Turner respectively, ESPN has acquired full broadcast rights to the BCS football games and full broadcast rights to Wimbledon. The effect of ESPN’s acquisitions is a lack of meaningful sports programming on broadcast over the air television during the weekends.

 Weekends are spent watching poker, taped action adventure sports programming, golf, edited movies from the 1990’s- 2000’s while ESPN and related sports networks have days worth of baseball games and other notable events like the weekends World Cup final, depriving thousands who didn’t want to visit a sports bar of the opportunity to see the game. ESPN gobbles up all the big dollar sports contracts and leaves the broadcast networks with the meager leftovers. Domination is not a good policy in politics or sports.

What Can Sports Do For a Nation?

This may seem bizarre for me to write considering that the United States lost the Woman’s World Cup final to Japan on Sunday, but its’ something that just can’t be argued anymore. Sports have this tremendous ability to lift entire nations into states of pure joy, if only for a moment regardless of how bad reality is there. Japan has been in the grips of one of the world’s worst earthquakes on record, a tsunami that swept away thousands of bodies, many of whom may never be recovered, and a nuclear meltdown disaster that we may never know the full scope of. Yet for a little while, they could celebrate their woman’s soccer team who brought home the Cup in a great moment of
national pride. For a few fleeting moments, Japan wasn’t thinking about earthquakes, tsunamis, and failing nuclear reactors they where reveling in the hard fought well deserved victory for not just twelve woman, but an entire nation. The United States shouldn’t be discouraged because they captured the hopes and aspirations of a cynical America, again for a brief moment and in the process may have inspired the next generation of Abbies and Hopes.

Nor is this a phenomenon related to one game. South Africa playing host to the last World Cup opened itself up for global eyes. This was a huge deal for a country whose greatest claim to Western notoriety beforehand was the apartheid regime and its’ downfall in 1994, not exactly a legacy worth having. Serbia was known as the epicenter of a hideous three way genocide that the world is still trying to wrap its’ head around, until Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic became grand slam tennis champions after having grown up hitting balls in an emptied out swimming pool as bombs fell in other parts of the country, now thanks in large part to their success there has been an increased interest in the sport of tennis and within that interest lies the hope for a better future embodied in two national heroes, who serve as inspirations for a country still trying to recover from genocide.

Sports have the tremendous ability to unify a nation and distract them from the scourge of hard times. The United States took this comfort at the height of the Cold War at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympic games when a team of scrappy upstart college kids found some way to best the Soviet hockey machine, transfixing most of the American population around their television sets as Al Michaels uttered the most iconic call in Olympics history “Do you believe in miracles” as the final five seconds ticked off the clock. For an America with an ailing economy having just left the miserable decade of the 1970’s, the victory provided an uplift and a tremendous shot of national pride for the country. Sports also has the potential to distract populations from political events on the ground. This was displayed most potently at the 2008 Olympic Games when two athletes from Russia and Georgia embraced for a worldwide audience as Russian tanks where marching through Georgia. Sports is a common language that humanizes even the most bitter enemies.

Harry Potter and the Generational Moment

As virtually the entire non rock living population of the United States knows the last Harry Potter film opened this past weekend to packed theatres and rave reviews from audiences who grew up on the books and the movies. Some people have even gone so far as to consider it the end of their childhoods. One fan even declared it “Bigger than when the Beatles broke up  Possible overstatements put aside, this led me to think about the political events that have shaped our world and perhaps signaled the end of our childhoods or at least altered the realities that we had always known.

 For the American members of my audience  that event could be September 11th 2001. I was a high school freshman in second period World History when we found out about the attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and the plane that was downed in Shanksville PA. That moment changed reality as we have never again been without the threat of terrorism and war. Terrorism became the in word and Al Qaeda and Bin Laden rolled off the tongue as though one was ordering at Subway.  For previous American generations, maybe the moment was Vietnam or the Kennedy Assassination, Space Race, Civil Rights, MLK. For our grandparents or great grandparents World War II, Great Depression, WW1, Woman's Rights, Child Labor, or any number of other events.

For my non American readers, maybe its’ the fall of The Berlin Wall and the iconic Reagan phrasing “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall” that proceeded it. The wall had stood for over forty years separating families from each other and serving as a partition of communism from Western Europe. Then one day, you wake up and it’s not there. That must’ve had a major psychological impact. This gigantic symbol of the post World War II Cold War being chipped away at until eventually its’ on the ground in pieces, just a broken memory of what was. If your from Israel, maybe it's the outbreak or threat of war Of course, don’t allow me to put words in your mouths, leave me a comment and let me know about the political/historical event that dramatically shaped your life.

What Baseball Can Teach Us about Development

I am long suffering fan of the Chicago Cubs and making matters worse I studied political science meaning that I also know about all their human misery and conflict that is spread throughout this world. It wasn’t until I thought about it, that I realized there are a lot of parallels between global development programs and professional baseball teams.

 Global development organizations no doubt have the greatest of intentions when they go to a country in the developing world to help the impoverished masses. The images are haunting who wouldn’t be deeply affected by the images of little African children’s malnourished emaciated bodies with ribs sticking out? Likewise, every year the Chicago Cubs ownership and fans start out every year with the undying belief that this year is going to be the year when the Cubs will win the World Series and that curse thing will be lifted, unfortunately in many cases, the best intentions end up in the greatest despair.

In pursuing the goal of winning a World Series, the Chicago Cubs and many other teams (Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies) spend a great deal of money and prospects on high priced free agents. The difference between the Cubs and those other teams is that those teams have or contend for World Series rings. The Cubs spend their money and prospects on big name free agents who either get injured or shrink from view amid the glare of the dogged Chicago media.

A similar problem plagues the world of development as many relief agencies opt for the big opulent projects that yes look very beautiful and pleasing to the eye, but do nothing about the thousands of people who just want running water, food, and a roof over their heads.

Some international aid Agencies do worse than the Cubs by putting large sums of money into the hands of the aid agencies equivalent of free agent busts: corrupt third world dictators. Who without oversight corrupt the money away or engage in these large scale wasteful rudderless projects that some development agencies are known for.

No one is comparing Milton Bradley to Robert Mugabe in terms of mass brutality to a people, but both men proved to be wastes of money and failed to deliver on promises they made to their fan bases or the international community, depending on who you’re referring to. Big projects have results that can be seen in the form of buildings and structures that’s why aid agencies love them because they can claim “See we’re doing something about ____________ whether they’ve actually done anything or not.

 In baseball, big name free agent signings energize a fan base allowing the general managers to claim “We’re serious about winning the World Series this year.

Baseball provides a ready example that development programs might be wise to follow. Teams like the Tampa Bay Rays and Minnesota Twins have managed to field competitive teams the last few years by spending money wisely and making good use of their prospects to fill roster holes, rather than paying six gazillion dollars for a name player who hits .240 whose best contact was with Team Gatorade dispenser.

 Aid agencies can work the same way by engaging local communities they enter into and asking them what they need, rather than operating from the center where the president/prime minister may be clueless as to rural village needs.

Also don’t pick the projects that will serve the few, look for those that serve the many. Put in baseball terms, would you rather have one good outfielder who cranks sixty home runs, so you’re perpetually waiting for the homer or nine guys who hit .320 and drive in ninety runs a piece, so that the offense is more spread out? What’s better having one big centralized hospital or five hospitals spread out throughout five rural villages? These are the types of discussions aid agencies need to have.

Russian-American Adoptions

I wanted to take some time and focus on some Russian issues. As some readers may recall, in April 2010, a woman in Tennessee created an international uproar when she sent her seven year old boy on a plane back to Russia with a note saying that he was psychologically unstable. The Russian government demanded a child adoption treaty citing seventeen cases of death of Russian children by their adoptive parents since 1995. I am happy to report that the two governments came to an agreement last week that will allow adoptions from Russia to the United States to continue, albeit under tighter conditions. First, All U.S. adoption agencies will be obliged to meet the requirements of the 2008 Hague Adoption Convention in order to work in Russia. Unregistered independent “mediators” will be banned from handling adoptions. Most significantly, children adopted from Russia will retain dual citizenship until the age of eighteen where previously they were stripped of Russian citizenship upon being adopted. In addition U.S. social services will monitor families for a period of three years following adoption with the adoption agency monitoring the family until the child reaches age eighteen. Credit

I believe overall, that this is a solid agreement that benefits everyone. This way were not left with a stateless child at the airport in Moscow and hopefully with increased monitoring, any physical or psychological issues can be reported before we have incidents like those that occurred in April 2010. Russians need to understand that most Americans who adopt children from Russia are well intentioned, good people. Unfortunately, this one incident received so much press. You could probably have found a hundred stories of Russian children happy and well cared for by their American family. But prospective American families need to understand that the Russian orphanage system is brutal and no child is going to get out of it without needing major psychological counseling that can be very expensive. The orphanages there are overcrowded, understaffed, it’s going to take a lifetime of love and commitment to undo the damage such unfortunate conditions cause, and its’ a commitment not every American family is physically and psychologically prepared for.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Coming Veteran Mental Crisis?

Last Sunday, Sixty Minutes rebroadcast a very affecting piece on the growing population of American veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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. Some of the numbers are absolutely staggering. The VA told Sixty Minutes that there are already more than 9,000 Iraq and Afghanistan vets who’ve been homeless. Further, the unemployment rate among young returning veterans is about double the national average about 20%. Much of the blame for the high employment rate and homelessness is placed on the multiple redeployments to the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan where soldiers are subjected to repeated and sustained levels of combat stress and brain injuries from roadside bombs. These redeployments create layers and layers of trauma that build on top of each other. Three hundred thousand soldiers (out of estimated two million troops who’ve served in Afghanistan ) have already requested mental health services from the VA.

I hope I never have to experience the horrors these men and women know all too well and thanks to their sacrifice, I’m able to sit behind this computer screen writing this meaningless by comparison blog post. Many of these soldiers have seen their brothers and sisters in arms blown to bits from IED’s, and other unspeakable traumas. I share the worry of the psychologist interviewed for the Sixty Minutes story that the United States is not ready for the complex psychological and emotional challenges that our veterans face reintegrating into society. These men and woman sacrificed comfortable lives in America to protect us, but more than that they sacrificed the people they used to be. No one escapes war untouched. This is one of the unintended consequences of war, war is greater than guns and bullets, good guy on bad guy. Many of the soldiers who return home from war, psychologically haven’t left the battlefield behind. We need to help them, but I’m not sure we can.

The VA can only do so much with the limited government resources that have been provided them. It troubles me that something as delicate and immediate as our Veterans mental health could be left to a government bureaucracy, as bureaucracies have never been noted for speed. The problems are veterans face cannot wait for the bureaucracy to plod through it, particularly if the title wave of veterans materializes as predicted. I’m much afraid that the bureaucratic machinery will get bogged down, leaving a private sector that has been hammered by budget and staff cuts to pick up the slack. We don’t even have enough mental health facilities available for the existing base of people who need them, I’m mortified to consider how were going to deal with this crisis given our dismal track record in this field. But I do know that these people have given so much to us, I think we owe them this one.

War Framing

The inspiration for this post comes from a Michael O’Hanlon article entitled “Staying Power: The U.S. Mission in Afghanistan Beyond 2011” that appeared in the September/October 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs. O’Hanlon does a masterful job of articulating the problems that where facing Afghanistan as of that writing and still holding true today such as corruption at all levels of government and the uneven success the Americans and Afghans have had in insuring security in provinces throughout Afghanistan. Insurgent violence had escalated, committing President Obama to send 30,000 troops in as part of the surge, even as President Obama’s own advisors such as Joe Biden and National Security Advisor James Jones doubted such a strategy. Such a deliberation indicates a reluctance or skepticism about the situation in Afghanistan, shared with the American public. I wanted to take another approach though and ask: Does America have the will to stay in Afghanistan far past the recent announced drawdown of troops?

Although the economy has eclipsed the wars, the American public has a strong distaste for large casualties of war, suggesting that the Taliban and Al Qaeda could in fact, kill us out of war. With the economy weak, the billions of dollars spent in Afghanistan could be seen by a war weary public as a risk that we just don’t need. It would help the American public, if we finally got the definitive answer as to what constitutes winning and what our leaders are hoping to accomplish. Winning is a neat buzz word for everyone from Charlie Sheen to hawkish senators who scream from the halls of Congress about winning the war in Afghanistan. Yet few politicians have clearly defined what constitutes “winning.” Without this definition, defined for the American public, all we see are news reports of x number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan today and another sack of money spent. And politicians wonder why support for the war is so low because the only reason you’ve given the American on Main Street to care about it is by televising announcements of war casualties as we spend more money. Because America hasn’t seen much of success in Afghanistan, IED’s, roadside bombs, mass corruption, and Taliban are the face of Afghanistan. That’s not a picture that would entice a nation of three hundred million to stay in the long term.

The Death of Afghan Utopia?

A more hopeful view of the future Afghanistan comes from another Foreign Affairs article entitled “Defining Success in Afghanistan: What Can the United States Accept”? It was authored by Stephen Biddle, Fotini Christia and J. Alexander Their and appeared in the July/August 2010 issue. The basic argument of the piece is that the Western dream of a centralized Afghan state based in Kabul embodied in the Bonn Agreement of 2001 and the 2004 Afghan constitution is incompatible with the historical past of Afghanistan. The authors argue that decentralized form of government has a proven historical track record of success and could work to achieve the stated national security goals the United States had in invading Afghanistan after 9-11. 1. To prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base from which to stage terrorist attacks against the United States and its’ allies and 2. To prevent, insurgents from using Afghanistan from destabilizing its’ neighbors like Pakistan. Two different types of decentralized government are proposed: decentralized democracy and mixed sovereignty. I will outline the authors argument for each and then add in my reactions.

Afghanistan is a highly decentralized society and any attempts to centralize it like Amanullah Khan (1919-29) and under the Soviet backed People’s Democratic Party in the 1970’s have failed. Following the Soviet invasion centralized authority broke down leading to a diffusion of political, economic, and military power across ethnic and geographic areas. Although years of war and chaos have unsettled the Afghan countryside local communities remain fundamental sources of Afghan identity and accountability. Under a decentralized democracy, Kabul would retain control over matters of foreign policy and national security while giving to the regions responsibility for things like drafting and enacting budgets, the ability to use traditional alternatives to centralized justice for certain crimes, to elect or appoint important regional officials, and perhaps collect local revenue and enforce local regulation.

This approach has the advantage of potentially winning over local populations who are mistrustful of centralized authorities in Kabul and as an added bonus, the clan and tribal structures that exist and have been legitimized over thousands of years meaning that the legitimacy crisis is avoided because they’d be continuing to operate the way they have for thousands of years. From a Western perspective, decentralization fits in with other post Cold War state building (Bosnia, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, others.) and none of those states have failed. The authors list three challenges to decentralized democracy though: Taliban, Afghanistan’s lack of human capital, and Afghan power brokers whose autonomy, status, and ability to profit from corruption would be threatened. The Taliban could be better fought if the population supports the government and if the Taliban see their military options as limited, some of them might be enticed to reconcile (.) The big worry is corruption, the thought is that if we bring financial matters down to the local level councils can see how the officials are spending money in the area and lessen corruption. Further, it could make the central government more efficient by allowing local leaders to focus on local issues.

The downside which the authors acknowledge is that the U.S. would have to fight an extended counter-insurgency campaign, which as mentioned in the Robert Blackwell article, I referenced last week, the Karzi government doesn’t seem willing to let us fight as Karzi prefers a lesser American presence within Afghan cities and villages rather than a larger presence as counter-insurgency doctrine dictates. Furthermore, who’s to say that the local leaders don’t just line their own pockets as the average Afghan still wants for basic things or just serves the needs of his clan or tribe at the expense of minority populations. I think this may be one of the better options that I’ve heard for an Afghanistan that’s not a complete and utter mess, but I’d have to know more like “How are these local councils set up…are leaders elected to terms or appointed through local means. This basic outline sounds interesting, but the nuts and bolts of such a decentralized system worry me.

The other option is a mixed sovereignty, which is similar to decentralized democracy except that it would give local leaders the power to rule without transparency or elections, as long as they didn’t cross three red lines imposed by Kabul: hosting terrorist or insurgent groups, infringing on rights of neighboring provinces, and engaging in large scale theft, narcotic trafficking or exploiting state owned resources. Right there, I have issues because in the first place, Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt places on Earth already and the government has shown no ability to stop it. As the authors acknowledge moderate corruption would be permitted. Everyone’s idea of moderation is different…maybe all the corruption that currently exists is moderate to the Afghans and such a policy of non transparency worries me, who would know whether corruption has exceeded moderation. Afghanistan is not a small place…would Kabul be effectively blind in the outermost regions and lets not get started on the human rights prospects of the people we fought so hard to liberate. To the author’s credit, they share this concern stating that some provinces may go more conservative, but others may be more liberal than a conservative center. Can you tell I’m not a fan of mixed sovereignty? Then again, it really isn’t my choice. Any thoughts readers?

Why World Leaders Fail History

There have been many different variations on the notion that history often repeats itself, particularly when considering political actions like war. I call war a political action because in most of the nations throughout the world, there is a military-civilian divide that puts the decision to go to war in the hands of politicians, even though politicians often seek the advice of their top generals. The question I present today, is: If history repeats itself often, why do our world leaders often fail to adapt to history. Let me add some qualifiers, Afghanistan and Vietnam are similar in that they are unfamiliar lands to American troops, there’s a fairly large insurgency, and our military plan has had to have been altered, they are not the same thing. However, failing to remember and implement the lessons of Vietnam’s insurgency has cost billions of dollars and our most valuable resource: human capital.

Failing history is not just an American problem. Any leader who commits himself to a continued cycle of war and uneasy peace is guilty. I’m thinking of two examples in particular the Lebanon-Israeli conflict and the Russian-Chechen conflict. In all three examples given, the way of fighting war has been the same Cold War model that has been in vogue since World War II. This model includes a large heavy force and bombardment through the air. Our enemies, be they Hezbollah, North Caucasus Islamists, or Al Qaeda have countered this tactic by engaging in insurgent attacks like car and suicide bombings or kidnappings things that our Cold War era battle plans are not equipped for, but conflict after conflict the means are the same: large invasion force and bomb away, which is increasingly leaving conflicts in perpetual state of : go in homeland attacked=bombard = attacks cease = bombing stops= insurgents regroup= repeat Why do world leaders stick with strategies that fail to solve the problem.

There are many possible answers. First is basic human pride and hubris, which make for a dangerous mix in a world leader. In any long term conflict, I would suppose that every leader feels like they can be the man or women who ends it and brings peace into his little corner of the world, this assumption may blind leaders to the realities on the ground and seeing the big picture. When one views themselves as an altruistic savior of his immediate world and is given authority either through a God or an electorate, its’ very difficult to get that leader to change course because doing so would mark a devastating psychological blow to that leader because his perception of the world has been challenged and rebuked, admitting that your strategy failed is like eating chemically treated paper to a world leader, and such an admission is difficult.

Another possibility is the pattern of success generated by previous actions serves as a numbing agent to political leaders Israel has always outgunned Hezbollah in Lebanon or Russia has always militarily dominated the Chechens. Previous success in tactics may be the worst possible thing for future military planning because it provides the false reality that the same tactics will always be effective. This reality was born out during the mid 1990’s Chechen war, when Moscow went in and had hundreds of soldiers killed because the Chechen fighters had prepared for Moscow’s tactics, while the Chechens had changed theirs. Same deal with Israel, they applied a very traditional blow um up approach and confident of military victory where largely driven from Lebanon by a Hezbollah that had adapted itself and learned how to combat Israel’s heavy firepower. Its’ easier to stick with an effectively proven strategy even when that strategy proves ineffective to on the ground realities.

I believe a certain amnesia sets in when considering global conflict. Vietnam ended with Richard Nixon, the fall of Saigon, in the 1970’s much has changed in the world since then. Time makes forgetters of all, to modify the classic Vince Lombardi quote. Decades of relative peace, has clouded our historic memories and led us down the very same mistakes that we made before. Do we intend to lose thousands of men and woman to war? No, but by failing to take into account our own history, its’ successes, failures, and murky areas of active debate, we only allow ourselves to slip back into the perpetual abyss of war, violence, and death…without understanding how we ended up there.

Bottom line: Our enemies have learned from history, why don’t we?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

When a Prayer Just Doesn’t Seem Good Enough

I wanted to step away from the plague of partisan debt wrangling, war, and autocratic government to offer a brief comment. A Facebook friend of mine has a sister who had surgery yesterday. Many people dropped by to offer words of comfort and thoughts and prayers for a quick recovery. But as I sat there, extending my sentiments, something felt hollow as though a prayer didn’t seem good enough. Unfortunately absent a suddenly acquired ability to prevent anything bad from happening to anyone ever again, a prayer is the only thing we mere mortals where given to battle the seemingly unfair forces of the world. I post this mainly as a reminder that there are things more important than politics and partisanship in this life like family and friends that should be coveted above all else and sometimes all we have is an assortment prayers to deal with circumstances that seem so much bigger than us all.

Why Trust These Guys?

Welcome back to my continuing look at Afghanistan and Pakistan. I want to turn my attention towards Pakistan. Much of my base of thinking for this post comes from two books Descent into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid and Deception by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott Clark. It’s an open question: Why should we trust these guys? Both books reveal a Pakistan that has half-truthed and lied to the United States for decades, sliding between military and civilian rule, though truth be told the military has often hung over the civilian leadership like a weighty bag of cement, meaning that the military remained an unquestionably strong institution even as civilian leaders try to relegate it to the shadows. Even when a so called “friendly” general is in charge in Pakistan, American requests for assistance in both the War on Terror and preventing rouge states like North Korea from getting nuclear weapons are greeted with Western friendly rhetoric in public as the ISI supports Al Qaeda and various other groups that operate in the lawless Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.

Our “friend” can’t crack down too hard on this activity because they control the guns and he can be assassinated or driven from power by coup, so he offers rather cosmetic measures hoping to appease the West, with a wink to his generals who know that nothing really changes. The most distressing incident occurred during the 2002 State of the Union address when George W. Bush declared Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Syria members of an Axis of Evil that needed to be stopped from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Bush made these statements as the infamous A.Q. Khan- Pakistani nuclear scientist who stole most of the material used to create Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program from Europe, had or was preparing to sell nuclear plans and materials to North Korea and possibly Iran. A.Q. Khan meanwhile for such deeds was allowed to slip into a quiet retirement with a vaguely worded apology airing on Pakistani television, still a hero figure for many Pakistanis.

The United States was no dream in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear program every President from Carter through Bush II was aware of Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions, spurred by its’ series of wars of with India. They where also handed intelligence that AQ Khan and the Pakistani nuclear establishment where engaging in nefarious deals with Iran and North Korea, Libya came calling at one point as well, but didn’t do much about it because Pakistan was vital to the security interests of the United States…first providing a valuable base for operations during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during the 1980’s and following September 11th 2001. That’s why we have to trust these guys its’ in our security interests, so what if they sell nuclear secrets to rouge states and support the very people who want to kill us? As long as our leaders turn a blind eye to such behavior, how can we expect anything to change?

Resource Curse: A Problem of Leaders not Resources

In political science, one is subjected to many countries plagued by something called a resource curse. A resource curse occurs when a country has large amounts of a valuable commodity most often oil, and decides to build their entire economy around that one plentiful commodity, rather than building a stronger more diversified economy. Other industries are left either poorly functioning or in downright decay. The problems for a country subject to a resource curse are plentiful. First, if a country has one commodity that brings riches on the global market, the supplies of that commodity often end up consolidated in the hands of a few connected leaders who use the funds for their own self gratifying projects such as elaborate palaces for themselves and family members, while thousands of their citizens don’t even have proper roofs to keep the rain out. A second problem with the resource curse is that cursed nations are never economically secure. Oil rich countries such as Russia and The Middle Eastern states are subject to the brutal chaos of the global commodities market. When oil is $100 dollars a barrel, the economy is great, but when oil is $30, the economy isn’t so great. Leaving governments to cut spending on social programs or raise taxes to cover costs.

Today I would like to redefine the notion of a resource curse because it implies that having the resource itself is a curse. Oil, natural gas, precious metals, are not the evil that plagues most of Africa, parts of Asia, and most prominently Russia. The true problem plaguing these countries is that they are governed by a group of elites that won’t, or are unable to diversify their economies, who in turn subject their populations to a perpetual cycle of boom and bust economics. It is ironic these men are labeled strongmen or autocrats simply because they have armies behind them, because leaders of resource cursed states are actually operating from positions of logical weakness. Their entire rule is at the mercy of the global commodities market. The real curse lies not within resources, but rather the men who become so corrupted by power and money that they can’t see the big picture. These men usually wake up when the protesters are streaming towards their opulent dens of corruption and the army stands down letting the title wave sweep him from power.

Friday, July 15, 2011

American Extremity

The average American is looking around at the bickering and partisanship that is the top story on most network news broadcasts throughout the nation with heated disdain and a shake of the head questioning how a group of people we selected for the task of governance can be so dysfunctional when a failure to raise the debt ceiling runs the risk of crashing the global economy, which is pegged to the United States dollar and forcing our so called leaders to choose between paying Social Security checks, paying for defense spending, or any number of other unenviable choices. You leave a group of seniors without their checks for a month and see if you ever see a political office again. Same deal with the defense budget, were sitting in the middle of two war zones, you can’t just say oh sorry we don’t have the money for Afghanistan this month can you? Something big is getting hammered if we don’t raise the debt ceiling. That my dear politicians is the truth on Main Street. But Main Street, this is also the truth: For this dysfunction, we have no one to blame, but ourselves.

I believe the majority of people who support the Tea Party are good, hard working, honest people who believe in the central truth of the Tea Party message that our government spends entirely too much money and has done so for far too long. The Tea Party movement however, has supported a wide array of candidates who are very far right in their policy positions at the expense of more moderate candidates who supposedly represented the broken system and politics as usual. The last election cycle wasn’t terrific for Democrats either as many Democrats were seen as part of the problem and voted out of office. Unfortunately, the Democrats who survived are frankly further left in their policy positions than the “problem politicians” that the Tea Party won elections railing against Let’s summarize, we have a bunch of far left politicians and far right politicians all steadfastly clinging to their favored positions, while a smaller and smaller minority of moderates are pushed into a dark corner somewhere.

The lesson boys and girls is that government from the two extremes clearly does not work and furthermore when it comes right down to it, there isn’t as big a difference between far left and far right as the talking heads want us to believe.

Do I need to Unthaw Harry Truman?

The current squabble over the raising of the American debt ceiling has led me to question where is the strong leader who can make the tough decision ? I could’ve picked any number of United States presidents here…Nixon and Reagan also knew how to make a tough decisive decision on complicated matters, but neither man confronted the idea of dropping an atomic bomb on another country that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese. Truman had to know the consequences of such an action, yeah the war ends, but thousands of people die? Having never read Truman’s memoirs, I can’t verify this, but I suspect Harry Truman was troubled by this choice, but he made it because he felt it had to be made. A land invasion of Japan during World War II would’ve been an unmitigated bloodbath for the Americans, Soviets, and any allied country involved in such an exercise. Truman thought for better or worse, the bomb was the best option. It was decisive, which is not something I can say for any current member of Congress.

All I hear is a group of six years squalling back and forth like they’ve been hit on elementary school playground. No one seems ready to step up and say “We’re doing this, now get your butts in line,” everyone’s too worried about their political future or displeasing the constituents. Do any of these people understand the problem they are going to have if they are branded the group that sent the American, and perhaps global economy into the much feared double dip recession? You’ll be consulting by 2013, that is, if the consulting world even wants you. It’s the same on both sides of the aisle, America needs a leader, now is someone going to step up, or do I have to dig up an ex-President and bring him back to life Frankenstein style ?

What’s in a Democracy and Electoral Fallacy

Among the civilized world, democracy is the undisputed champion of governance for the freedom and tolerance it embodies. That does not mean however, that democracies and democratic governance have not lost their way during their history. Democracy is viewed by some through rose colored glasses as the infallible solution to the problems of bad governance and corruption often experienced with autocratic regimes. Democracies despite their good perception have moments that would make any third world dictator smile. The United States, the moral beacon of human rights and freedom has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism for practices such as water boarding and extra ordinary rendition in prosecuting the War on Terror. In addition, one must also consider the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib that pretty much gave Al Qaeda and other sympathetic groups enough propaganda to last a generation. The United States is far from the only democratic country to turn undemocratic during times of war.

Israel in its’ 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon which lasted a brief thirty four days, proceeded to fire cluster bombs down upon civilian areas of Lebanon in the pursuit of Hezbollah fighters. Cluster bombs have a high incidence of failing to explode. Which left these shiny silver canister ball type things through Lebanon for civilians to pick up off the ground, where they then exploded, blowing off many limbs and causing civilian deaths. Russia meanwhile, is a special case because as my former political science professor Daniel Kempton “there the most undemocratic, democratic country in the world.” They’ve committed a variety of similar abuses against populations throughout the North Caucasus region, but can we really call Russia, a democratic country? They have more freedom in travel, internet, and other areas, but many Russians believe in having a strong forceful hand in the Kremlin and accept heavier handed military tactics as acceptable in battling back an Islamic insurgency.

Which brings me to my secondary point that elections and democracy are not the same thing. Elections occur in autocratic countries from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to Lukashenkos’ Belarus with the “popular” autocrat winning reelection by seventy or eighty percent. From these theatrical electoral exercises, these men brutalize their own people and crush opposition. The decline of the Soviet era and elections throughout Eastern Europe brought men like Imam Karamov of Uzbekistan and most infamously Slobodan Milosevic to power in the former Yugoslavia. Milosevic riding a wave of ethnic nationalism presided over a brutal three way genocide that ensnared Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats. There are election numbers to indicate an election took place, but in may soft authoritarian societies these results are suspect. Still these leaders are “elected” which often gives them legitimacy on the international stage, no matter what they do to their people back home just ask Robert Mugabe. In conclusion, I would say that democracy is not perfect and quite fallible in times of crisis and has actually bought quite unsavory characters to power, that is why the citizens of the world need to be aware, sometimes democracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Why Human Rights Should Be Most Important

Concerns about human rights are often pushed aside by governments because they aren’t in a country self interest. These words have been used out by the regimes in China, Russia, and The United States. The self interest defense has been used to condone policies from summary executions to extra-ordinary renditions. Relying on vague notions such as self interest to bypass or outright disregard human rights is the wrong approach to take. Human rights should be the most important consideration to a regime who seeks to govern a people. If a president or prime minister engages in practices that brutalize and dehumanize his subjects as occurs in many countries throughout the world, he loses the mandate to govern as a free ruler, becoming a dictator in the mold of Stalin and Hitler, if on a less globalized scale.

Modern leaders have camouflaged such human rights abuses underneath the cover of fighting terrorism or threats to the state, in the case of communist and autocratic countries. What some of these leaders neglect in their steadfast zeal to kill or capture the terrorists is that heavy handed tactics that they rely on for their intelligence and to pacify resistant populations can have the opposite effect, radicalizing the population they really  need to be seeking the trust and respect of. This has the further effect of creating generational wars like the Russian struggles within Chechnya, the Arab-Israeli conflict throughout the Middle East and potentially the India-Pakistan conflict over the disputed territory of Kashmir. When governments forget to treat people with basic human dignity, they create generational wars and make the people they claim to rule less secure. Heavy handed brutality doesn’t win wars, a hand of human decency can alter realities.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why Partition is Bad for Afghanistan

“Plan B in Afghanistan: Why a De Facto Partition is the Least Bad Option” by Robert D. Blackwell appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs. Mr. Blackwell argues that a De-Facto partition with Taliban forces controlling the Southern and Eastern parts of Afghanistan, while the central government in Kabul backed by the Afghan National Army and a force of up to fifty thousand U.S. troops controls the rest of the country at least until the national army is strong enough to take back the south and east is the least bad U.S. policy option. Under this option, the United States should accept that the Taliban will inevitably control much of the Pashtun South and East and that the U.S can’t afford the cost of forestalling that outcome and should stop fighting in the South and East allowing the national “correlation of forces” to take its’ course. The U.S. would then use its’ air power and special forces to support the Afghan army and government in Kabul to prevent the North & West from falling to the Taliban. The United States would also make clear that it would strike against any Al Qaeda targets anywhere, any Taliban encroachments across the de-facto partition line, and sanctuaries along the Pakistani border.

Much to Mr. Blackwell’s credit, he describes partition as the least bad option. In Afghanistan, there are no good options for a country that because of economic realities simply cannot go on affording the eight billion dollar a month price tag. As much as the United States would love to claim the victory of a centralized and democratic Afghan government, we can’t wait forever for security to take hold. But yet, we also can’t afford to leave it a chaotic mess, noting that we’ve lost several thousand men and woman to the cause of uprooting Al Qaeda from their base of operation and building a better Afghanistan, we can’t just let them die for nothing. Although I applaud Mr. Blackwell’s contribution to the endless debate, I feel that his analysis misses or grazes briefly some key points on the Afghan and worldwide reality.

Harmid Karzi heads the second most corrupt government in the world (in front of only Somalia) and has been described as a gangster state. If the central government in Kabul is so corrupt than whose to say the Taliban cannot just buy them off or make other promises of security in exchange for greater access in the North and West? Corrupt men frankly have multiple masters and will often say whatever it takes to get the money at any given moment. Which leads us into the even more distressing possibility of having the United States engaging in a bidding war against elements in Pakistan that support the militancy and groups throughout the region otherwise sympathetic to the jihad cause for the loyalty of central government, which is not a good recipe for a country in such perilous economic shape like the United States.

Who manages such a partition? There’s clearly a deep mistrust of the Karzi government and I’m not sure Americans are going to win any popularity contests either. There must be some management so that Afghanistan of 2012 doesn’t become a repeat of Kashmir 1947 where people where literally trampled to death in the panic of it all. Given that the United Nations has proven good at rhetoric and poor at action through multiple genocides and bloody civil wars, I certainly don’t trust them to perform the deed. Blackwell admits that we’d have to leave behind the people of South and West Afghanistan who helped us to whatever their fate be courtesy of the Taliban. If we do that what are the chances, if we have to invade another country in the future, we’ll find people willing to help us, knowing that we left the last people who helped us to be slaughtered by the Taliban.

For Blackwell’s approach to be effective it needs 35,000-50,000 troops over the long term. This worries me because both globally and within the United States war fatigue has set in deeply with international coalition partners disembarking quickly because of the pressures on prime ministers and presidents back home. Furthermore, with the American economy shaky at best will the American public be accepting of such an approach? Few Americans have the stomach to just leave Afghanistan without some sort of order in place, but billions of dollars not spent in Afghanistan would be a relief. I have to say I question whether the general public will have the staying power in Afghanistan. Blackwell argues that a partition effort will require the cooperation of foreign regional partners: China, Russia, India, Pakistan. How is President Obama going to get any of these countries onboard with such a strategy when he has so far failed to get Congressman in his own country to come to an agreement on the debt ceiling.

When has Partition Ever Been a Good Idea ?

The material for the next two posts comes from an article “Plan B in Afghanistan: Why a De Facto Partition is the Least Bad Option” by Robert D. Blackwell, which appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs.

Mr. Blackwell argues that a De-Facto partition with Taliban forces controlling the Southern and Eastern parts of Afghanistan, while the central government in Kabul backed by the Afghan National Army and a force of up to fifty thousand U.S. troops controls the rest of the country at least until the national army is strong enough to take back the south and east is the least bad U.S. policy option.

 In the second post, I will discuss the problems with Mr. Blackwell’s partition idea in relation to Afghanistan. For the moment though, I’d like to take a few paragraphs and discuss the problems created by partition: real or de-facto.

In the post World War II era, there have been several noted instances of partitions or dividing lines. Most of these divisions occurred as a result of war and conflicting ideological stances like East and West Germany, North and South Korea, North and South Vietnam, and the partition of Kashmir in 1947. Has partition ever been a good idea?

If we are looking at partition in terms of the Cold War policy of containment, where the goal was to prevent the spread of communism than many of these results (two Germanys and two Koreas) did their jobs, while Vietnam fell into Communist hands because the war effort was bungled and the North Vietnamese overran the South. If we look at partition through the clouded lens of Cold War good and evil than partition was the right idea, but partition produced a perverse human reality that renders the cost of partition too high, in my opinion.

Lets begin with the 1947 partition of the disputed region of Kashmir between India and Pakistan that serves as the exercise of how not to execute a partition. Thousands of people where crushed to death or otherwise injured in the insuring title wave of humanity that was scrambling to get to either the India (Hindu) side of Kashmir or the Pakistani (Muslim) side of Kashmir.

 These things happen when you manage a partition in the middle of the night because the British where bidding to make a hasty retreat. Furthermore, partition was seen as a way to avoid all out India-Pakistan war…we all know what a brilliant success that’s been. Partition was hastily drawn mess that India received several Muslim areas and Pakistan ended up with Hindu majority areas, giving military minds all the reason they need to draw up war plans and incite incursions beyond the dividing line. Each side can claim they are liberating Pakistani or Indian citizens to justify such incursions. Three wars, several skirmishes, and two nuclear weapons arsenals give world leaders sleepless nights.

North and South Korea following their partition following the Korean War have engaged in similar behaviors to India-Pakistan with a series of gun battles, bomber plans flying provocatively close to South Korea, etc. More disheartening, thousands of Koreans where separated from their families on both sides of dividing line.  That is the true cost of partition, for whatever altruistic reason we give it, partition has forcibly broken apart families, separating them for forty years or more at a time through a restrictive dividing line or in the case of Germany, a large wall surrounded by barbed wire that was tenuously defended.

 I was only two in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was brought down, but the images of people streaming through the gap where the wall had stood have been seared into the human mind permanently as families once again became unified. What purposes do partitions serve? They bottle up dictators who brutalize their own peopl, they break families, and they don’t do a damn thing to prevent bloody conflict unless you erect a Berlin Wall  because the people in charge of the partition find a way to screw it up creating a laundry list of rationale for war.

 I guess one could claim victory in that we contained Communism, great we contained communism and it only cost millions of people their families, I call that a fair trade.