Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Lone Wolf in Belguim

Hasn’t been the greatest of ninety day periods for the Belguim people. After they formed a government after a year and a half of uncertainty, a lone gunmen went on the attack in the industrial city of Liege with a grenade and several guns killing four and injuring a hundred.

 The Belgium government was very quick to say that the attack was not related to any coordinated terrorist organization and was apparently just a disturbed individual who decided to go on a shooting spree in the busy shopping district of Liege.

This is part of a disturbing pattern of lone wolf type attacks committed by the criminal element, or people who have been overstressed by the poor economic conditions and the stress of family and personal lives. Many of these are coming together to create mass shootings like the unfortunate incident that occurred in Belgium last month.

I’m very much afraid that with the sluggish global economy and the cuts that are occuring within mental health services at the state and federal level, that we are only providing the ammunition for further mass shootings.

Jihad: A Matter of Love and Hate

Really enjoyed Terrorists in Love: Real Lives of Islamic Radicals by Ken Ballen because it presented a look at jihadists that few have attempted before.

 It’s easy to view every terrorist as a monster, but Ballen went deeper and delved into the lives of five Islamic radicals and discovered that rather than burning hatred motivating jihadists, there was an overarching, all consuming love that motivated them to commit their acts of hatred. This love either took the romanticized form of Islam practiced by Al Qaeda and related groups or the actual loss of a love that radicalized them.

I’ll admit the perspective Ballen takes had never occurred to me before reading this book. I belonged to the school of thought that treated terrorists as though what motivated one, motivated all. Ballen broke through this static view and showed the variation that can exist from one jihadists to another.

 Ballen accomplishes this feat without sounding over sympathetic or apologetic for the terrorist actions. I highly recommend this book for anyone who’s interested in understanding something about the motivations of terrorists and maybe just a little something about us in the process.

Amazon Link: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1451609213

The Hezbollah-Latin America Conspiracy

Moving away from the United States onto some older stuff I didn’t get the chance to comment on during Nov. and the first part of December.

 Ayman Joumaa, a Lebanese citizen who has laundered millions of dollars for Hezbollah while assisting with cocaine-trafficking routes out of Colombia and Venezuela. It appears his focus was routes through Europe, but he has also moved drugs through Mexico in coordination with the Zetas.

 Source: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Americas/Latin-America-Monitor/2011/1215/Hezbollah-terrorist-financing-and-Venezuela-Don-t-panic.

As the CSM story indicated these have all the buzzwords that cause terrorism analysts sleepless nights and give fiction writers their latest bestsellers. But how realistic is the threat? Hezbollah has made a career of operations like the ones outlined above within Latin America, as explained in the recently published Black Market Billons:

This does not automatically mean that Chavez and Hezbollah are in bed together. Further, it would make little sense for Chavez to allow any organized activity to take place on Venezuelan soil because it creates a Pakistan type problem where you train operatives for operations in a foreign land, but if your zone of action should dry up, there’s insurgent elements that may reek havoc on the homeland.

 Surely, no government would be stupid enough to follow Pakistan’s example?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Why Not Ron Paul?

Four words that I never thought I’d utter. Ron Paul has been treated more as a third candidate sideshow behind Mitt Romney and whomever is occupying the favorite candidate of the month position. However, it is exactly because of the unsettled, chaotic nature of the race that Ron Paul may pull off an Iowa surprise.

 He has strong organizational system and a youthful and excited base of supporters who carry their signs and just might be willing to turn out and vote on caucus day. And in a race where every vote matters: turnout is the kingmaker.

Iowa hasn’t exactly shied away from the unconventional candidate choices before. While Ron Paul may not be a winning candidate ultimately, I believe he has the goods to compete in Iowa, particularly among the young and disaffected voter who see him as a man of different ideas than the status quo.

 In a race where it pays not to be Mitt Romney someone is going to have delegates at the convention that allow them to speak loudly. Maybe Ron Paul gets an eleventh hour surge and defeats Mitt Romney in Iowa and can then ride a domino wave in New Hampshire. Similar things have happened before, everyone remember John Kerry in 2004, he won Iowa and then swept most everything else to win the Democratic nomination.

In electoral politics a big guy named Mo plays kingmaker.

Newt Gingrich: Flavor of Moment?

As much as I don’t jive with many of Newt Gingrich’s views, he is a crafty politician and a skilled debater. You don’t have a decades long political career that culminated in his role as Speaker of the House during the 1990’s without it.

However, he feels like a Baskin Robbins flavor of the month candidate that will ultimately make Barack Obama, a two term president should he happen to win the nomination. Gingrich runs counter to everything the average American claims to be demanding in a candidate.

A popular tagline among the Presidential candidates is that Washington is broken. So to glue Washington back together, the Republicans are going to turn to a politician with a thirty year plus Washington career…who was at least partially responsible for the 1995 government shutdown?

Gingrich has a record that is too easily open to attack. Barack Obama no doubt has brilliant campaign people that will dissect this record like a vegetable platter.

1994 wasn’t all that long ago…If Gingrich wins, 2012 is going to look a lot like 1994.

The Politics of Sex Scandals

Herman Cain’s presidential ambitions ended amid a torrent of sexual allegations and policy gaffs on Libya. A quick survey of political figures illustrates that not every politician will be ended by an sexual scandal, some of even thrive after their moral escapades hit the front page: see David Vitter of Louisiana.

This led me to consider why some political figures can survive a moral scandal, while others are road kill to be remembered by tabloids and sitcom writers.

Another strategy used out by many political figures is to change the subject. A candidate may survive scandal if he can push the agenda away from the moral issue onto another issue. David Vitter used this out in Louisiana using great personal popularity and coming clean to shift the focus off of him onto something that the voters of Louisiana cared more about.

 Honesty is the third variable. Politicians who “come clean” are generally afforded more utility than dancers like Herman Cain, who often come off as insincere in the face of new events.

Herman Cain failed in all of these arenas and that is why he is most likely a former presidential candidate.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Elected By Straws

If anyone reads Book Diplomacy with regularity, god bless you. For the last several weeks, I’ve been working on a paper for my graduate seminar on how electoral system change effects party strategy in terms of how political parties or candidates go after voters.

 It was a very fundamentally complicated paper as there aren’t many articles on the topic to be had. I had to look at how the electoral system was, the change that reformers were hoping to enact and the effects of said electoral reform.

After producing a twenty page paper on the topic, I decided that “we should produce a global mandate that we should elect representatives by drawing straws.

I’m only halfway being a smart-ass. There are so many different ways to elect candidates in the world that it’s enough to make one’s head spin. This makes comparative work very difficult because of differences in countries social and political contexts, their methods of election, etc.

 A system where we just draw straws would be much more effective than worrying about things like proportional or majoritarian systems and how they divide up the seats. Plus, the expense of putting on elections would be greatly reduced. And finally, voters rarely know about their representatives anyway, so how would a straw ballot be detrimental?

Iowa: Still Anyone’s Race?

I know many of the recent polls have the Iowa caucuses reduced to a three candidate race between Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, with Ron Paul in third. But anyone who takes these polls too literally may be in for a sting when the results roll in. The polls are a creation dependent upon the fragile nature of human beings. Put simply: PEOPLE LIE. It’s a stunning fact of humanity that PEOPLE LIE.

 I was a campaign worker for two political campaigns in the 2004-05 range and when I called people to ask who they were planning on voting for…I usually got the “undecided” answer. When the election returns came in, the candidate I backed lost by double digits.

Polls are great theatre and they give media types and political junkies topics for conversation, but we should beware of making too much of any one poll. I could probably find a way to produce a poll that says Jon Huntsman will win in Iowa (despite not campaigning there), if one manipulates the numbers enough. That’s why I believe that Iowa is still anyone’s ballgame because polls have been known to decieve us before.

Romney By Default?

Mitt Romney has been picking up a lot of major endorsements from key Tea Party figures like South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and Christine O’Donnell, prompting some to question whether its’ inevitable that Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee for President in 2012.

In considering the question, there are two factors that voters and political pundits need to consider. First, there’s the complex nature of political endorsements and the wide ranging month by month flirtation that has occurred within the Republican primary field.

Endorsements may help candidates garner votes, but they are not votes themselves. My personal calculus when voting has nothing to do with who each candidate has been endorsed by. Rather, I look at my situation and which candidate I believe will be most beneficial to my interests. If people are voting for candidate x because they were endorsed by figure y, than there is something wrong with this country.

Getting to my second point, if Mitt Romney is going to be the presidential candidate for the Republican party, then why hve there been all these flirtations with anyone but Mitt Romney? Everyone except Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum have had their moments in the sun during the candidate stages of this race.

 This says to me that Republican voters don’t have a candidate yet, and no spate of endorsements is going to make it so. There are clearly a large swath of Republicans that belong to the anybody but Romney crowd. So I think anyone crowning Mitt Romney the Republican nominee, needs to take a chill pill.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

WTO: Ten Years with China

China has been a member of the World Trade Organization for ten years. Membership in the WTO has provided a great engine for Chinese economic growth, while China continues to skirt many WTO regulations.

China offers many advantages to nationalized companies that include: free land, low loans, cheap electricity, sneak peaks at government regulation, and bid rigging that make it hard for foreign companies to offer meaningful competition in China…foreign competitors claim.

Source: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2011/1214/How-WTO-membership-made-China-the-workshop-of-the-world

Piracy is a huge problem within China making any company who dares to do business there face a losing proposition because why buy the genuine article at full price when a pirated version can be had for a significant discount?

Membership in the WTO has been a boom for China, but at what cost to the international order of global trade? If global trade has a huge benefit for some countries, while being a money pit for others, can it really be called global trade or highway robbery?

International corporate types have made a bargain with the dragon for profit that will eventually prove to be a loser.

Putin, we Protest?

The recent Russian Duma elections have brought a rare sight to Russian streets: mass protests against Vladimir Putin and his system of managed democracy.

 The polls showed that United Russia had won with almost fifty percent of the vote--a far cry from their 2007 totals, amid allegations of voter fraud and ballot box stuffing. These mass protests seem to have caught everyone off guard because of their size and the youthful core of the protestors.

While no one is predicting a Putin collapse, these protests are a positive development for Russian democracy.

Putin has largely run a dominant party police state that has excluded opposition parties and restricted voter choice. No population is going to stay passive forever against such conditions. Still, most Russians continue to put up with the system of managed democracy and the need for a police state.

It was largely assumed before these mass protests that things were peachy under the Russian sun. These protests offer a flicker of hope for advocates of democracy within the Russian Federation, but don’t expect these protests to lead to anything other than a Putin crackdown because the majority of Russians stand firmly behind Putin.

Belgium: A Model for No Government

Though it lacks the drama of Russ Hodges “The Giants Win the Pennant” call in 1951, Belgium has a government after 541 days! Belgium has been surviving with a caretaker government for the last year and a half. The stalemate seems to revolve around linguistic cleavages between the countries Flemish speaking majority, and its’ French speaking minority.

The case of Belgium has provided plenty of ammunition for libertarians and others who believe that less government is better. Less government in Belgium has meant that it has weathered the European economic crisis better than most others because of smaller government budget and less debt. The main lesson is that less government is more beneficial in a crisis. Source: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-News/2011/1206/What-s-the-hurry-Belgium-Somalia-has-gone-without-a-government-for-20-years.

At the extreme of the no government scale is Somalia, who has not had a consistent national government since 1991. Although there is something approximating government in the northern part of the country, much of the country is plagued by tribalism and warlordism and subject to frequent famine.

 Disputes are often solved via gun or bomb rather than diplomatic means. Meanwhile, there’s always the ever circling band of pirates off the coast of Somalia.

Consider it proof, that no government is just as toxic as too much government.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Chicago: The 51st State?

Per the USA Today, there’s a proposal from two downstate Illinois lawmakers to make Chicago the 51st state, detaching it from Illinois. It’s no grand secret that Illinois is financially screwed because of various incompetent decisions from Illinois politicians. Much of the blame for the current political climate in the state is laid at the feet of Chicago area politicians.

 But would any proposal making Chicago the 51st state actually make a dent in the problems of Illinois?

People from downstate are sick of being dictated to by Chicago. Proof of this statement? Our sitting governor won the three Chicago-area counties and was re-elected much to the consternation of many in the state. Separating Chicago would give the Chicago area the chance to have its’ own more liberal government, while Illinois could then elect a government that would be more conservative in character.

There’s also the matter of debt, Chicago provides the greatest sales tax revenue and is the biggest financial load on the state. Illinois can't just be forgiven for Chicago debt and with a lower revenue stream coming in, the state of Illinois may be in even worse shape, if Chicago is taken out of the state.

Long story short, this deal sounds like a no-win because while proponents would be free of domination from the Chicago machine, they'd still have a massive pile of debt that only a metropolis the size of Chicago could deal with.

Welcome to Corruption Inc.

From my own backyard. Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to fourteen years in prison on various charges of corruption including attempting to sell President Obama’s Senate Seat for $1.5 million in campaign contributions and personal favors.

While I bleed no tears for Blagojevich, this is the latest ugly episode for Illinois politics. Blagojevich’s predecessor George Ryan is still serving a prison sentence for racketeering and fraud. This type of behavior is largely embodied by the strong hold that Chicago-area politics continues to hold over the state, despite the supposed breaking of many of the big political machines during the 1960’s and 1970’s.

The seemingly harsh Blagojevich sentence may be more a symptom of the times, rather than a statement against corruption. With the current climate of anger at Wall Street and big corporate interests that have rotted America, judges may find themselves under increasing pressure to take a stand against government corruption and the prevalence of pay to play politics and other seedy exercises that occur within the political arena.

Will this sentence have an impact on the activities of corrupt politicians? Not likely, because there will always be politicians who believe that they can get away with it. Quite often, the organs of justice allow such behavior to continue, and in some cases encourage it. Rod Blagojevich was just the unfortunate politician who was confronted with a stiff corruption fighting prosecutor in the form of Patrick Fitzgerald.

Back in the Saddle

Alright, I’m back in the saddle of Book Diplomacy after a very grueling graduate seminar. Much has happened since I’ve been away from Herman Cain’s fall from grace to America’s relationship with Pakistan and Iran, protests over elections in Russia, and lord only knows what else I’ve missed over the last three weeks, but I’m going to try and cover it all.