A small boat approaches a US Navy ship in the Persian Gulf. The US Navy ship fires warning shots to alert the small boat to stay clear, and when it doesn’t comply, the US Navy ship opens fire on the boat. One unarmed fisherman is killed, and two others are wounded.
These are the details that have emerged thus far from yesterday’s incident, between the USS Rappahannock – a refueling ship with US Fifth Fleet – and a tiny fishing boat registered to a company in the United Arab Emirates, but manned by Indian nationals. Both the US Navy and the government of the UAE have promised an investigation, and the US State Department has offered its condolences to the families of the killed and wounded.
With the US Navy patrolling the Persian Gulf, ramping up pressure on Iran to abandon what Washington alleges is an advanced Iranian nuclear weapons program, incidents like this one are sadly predictable.
The Persian Gulf is one of the busiest commercial sea lanes in the world. About 40 percent of the world’s seaborne oil exports passes through the Strait of Hormuz, and commercial fishermen still ply these waters to supply fish to the increasingly wealthy citizens of both sides of the gulf. The chances of US navy ships, Iranian naval ships, and commercial vessels coming into close proximity are great.
The US State Department said that the Rappahannock had opened fire on the fishing boat only as a last resort.
"An embarked security team aboard a US navy vessel fired upon a small motor vessel after it disregarded warnings and rapidly approached the US ship near Jebel Ali," the State Department statement said. Jebel Ali is a port city in the UAE.
"The US crew repeatedly attempted to warn the vessel's operators to turn away from their deliberate approach,” the statement said. "When those efforts failed to deter the approaching vessel, the security team on the Rappahannock fired rounds from a .50-calibre machine gun."
While firing on a small fishing boat may seem excessive, it was precisely this kind of scenario that US Navy planners fear the most in tense times like this. In October 2000, a small boat packed with explosives rammed into the USS Cole while it was refueling in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 sailors. In May, a US military drone strike killed the suspected Al Qaeda militant who is believed to have organized the attack on the USS Cole.
US Ambassador to India Nancy Powell conveyed her condolences to the Indian families of the killed and wounded, and promised an investigation. And India’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it would request an investigation by both the US and the UAE governments.
Iran, however, is not letting the incident drop, and has warned that the increasing US military presence in the Persian Gulf is a national security threat, not just to Iran but to the whole region.
“We have announced time and again that the presence of foreign forces can be a threat to regional security," Reuters news agency quoted Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast as saying.
"Certainly regional countries with the help of one another can provide security in the best possible way. If they join hands, with their defensive capabilities, they don't need the presence of foreign forces. Anywhere where you see insecurity we have always seen the hand of foreign forces there."
Iran itself has threatened to choke off the Strait of Hormuz, if it feels threatened by Western pressure over its nuclear weapons programs. Iran sees those threats more as a “deterrent” to the West, since a cutoff of oil exports would have profound effects on Western economies reliant on Middle Eastern oil.
Who has the upper hand?
The West would appear, at first glance, to have the upper hand in this dispute with Iran. The US Navy is predominant, not just in the Persian Gulf, but globally. With its naval base in Bahrain, and good relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman), the US can sustain its naval pressure on Iran, and its protective presence in the Strait of Hormuz for quite some time.
But as the Suez Crisis of 1956 shows, overwhelming force is sometimes not enough. Western alliances can fall apart quickly if oil supplies are threatened, something that the British and French governments learned when US President Dwight Eisenhower failed to back them up in their Suez Canal intervention.
Incidents such as yesterday’s firing on the fishing boat, too, can create pressure of a different sort. If it turns out that the US Navy was at fault in the incident, GCC governments may come under increasing pressure from their own citizens to demand the US to scale back operations.
With congressional leaders threatening to gather up all of the Ralph Lauren-designed, Chinese-made US Olympic uniforms and give them the Joan of Arc treatment, I think it’s fair to say that we have officially entered the silly season.
Here’s a list of headlines in some of our finer newspapers and TV news channels.
Outrage, fury, shame... and US Olympic uniforms. It's a wonder we can all bear to face the day.
Pop Quiz – How much do you know about China?
It is perhaps unfair to point out the gap between the outrage exhibited to US Olympic team uniforms on one hand, and the lack of outrage over, say, the continuing civil war in Syria, the European economic crisis, or the growing drought in the African Sahel region.
Let us be clear: Ralph Lauren’s choice of hats for the US Olympics team is atrocious. But the debate over “made in China” is really a debate over US jobs and the collapse of American manufacturing.
In America, where the overall jobless rate remains around 8 percent, and where youth unemployment rates may go as high as 70 percent, this is a serious issue.
Not so long ago, ABC News asked people in New York’s Grand Central Station terminal how many of their clothing items were made in the US. Actually, they asked those passengers to take off clothes that were not made in the US. The result, ABC News memorably said, was “eye-popping.”
Some 98 percent of the clothing purchased in the United States is imported from abroad. Just two percent of clothing bought in this country is manufactured on U.S. soil.
Morgan Housel, a writer at the Motley Fool economic news website, says that focusing on clothes gives us a skewed sense of how much foreign stuff we actually buy. In an October 2011 blog, he points out “Just 2.7 percent of personal consumption expenditures go to Chinese-made goods and services. 88.5 percent of US consumer spending is on American-made goods and services.”
A common rebuttal I got was, "How can it only be 2.7 percent when almost everything in Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT) is made in China?" Because Wal-Mart's $260 billion in U.S. revenue isn't exactly reflective of America's $14.5 trillion economy. Wal-Mart might sell a broad range of knickknacks, many of which are made in China, but the vast majority of what Americans spend their money on is not knickknacks.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics closely tracks how an average American spends their money in an annual report called the Consumer Expenditure Survey. In 2010, the average American spent 34 percent of their income on housing, 13 percent on food, 11 percent on insurance and pensions, 7 percent on health care, and 2 percent on education. Those categories alone make up nearly 70 percent of total spending, and are comprised almost entirely of American-made goods and services (only 7 percent of food is imported, according to the USDA).
I’m going to go out on a limb here: I think Americans are concerned about jobs in the US, and get frustrated when it seems jobs are being sent overseas. Still, if given the choice between watching their favorite sport on TV this summer and “burn baby burn,” they’re probably going to choose the former.
Polls conducted by Gallup in November and December 2011 bear this out. Asked whether China’s economy is a good thing or a bad thing for America, 45 percent of respondents said it was a good thing, 48 percent said it was a bad thing.
I suppose this means that the 93 percent have spoken.
Pop Quiz – How much do you know about China?
How South Sudan was born
For those who follow the births of nations, this was a pretty big week. South Sudan celebrated its first year as an independent nation, after formally seceding from a unified Sudan in July 2011.
The birth wasn’t an easy one. Boundary disputes between Khartoum and Juba broke out almost immediately, as did arguments over how much South Sudan should pay the north for the service of pumping southern oil out to international markets at Sudan’s main port city, Port Sudan. Minor skirmishes have turned into major battles. The number of displaced people has swelled into the tens of thousands.
And yet, the story of how South Sudan came into being is a remarkable one, wrapped around the personal stories of human rights activists, academics, and political players who helped the South Sudanese sell their story to the men and women in Washington, D.C., who could give the idea the political and financial backing that it needed to survive.
Rebecca Hamilton, a Sudan expert and sometime writer for the Monitor, writes for Reuters a marvelous series about these hidden players, and how they made President George W. Bush, members of Congress, religious activists, and modern-day abolitionists care about a country that, at that point, still wasn’t on the map.
India, beyond the hype
If South Sudan is a virtual unknown for most Americans, India has the opposite problem: it is all too well known, and often for the wrong reasons.
Long gone are the stories about starvation and poverty, about overpopulation and religious conflicts. Those problems still exist, to be sure, but most editors would rather read about India’s economic promise, about its democratic system, its embrace of free-market capitalism, its newfound strategic alliance with the United States against a surging China.
All very well, writes academic Sumit Ganguly in this week’s Foreign Policy magazine. But the reality is that India doesn’t live up to the hype, and unless it begins to make some hard choices soon, it may have to resign itself to being a B-list player for years to come. Mr. Ganguly, a political scientist at Indiana University in Bloomington, writes:
Unfortunately, the fascination with India's growing economic clout and foreign-policy overtures has glossed over its institutional limits, the many quirks of its political culture, and the significant economic and social challenges it faces. To cite but one example, at least 30 percent of Indian agricultural produce spoils because the country has failed to develop a viable supply chain. Foreign investors could alleviate, if not solve, that problem. But thanks to the intransigence of a small number of political parties and organized interest groups, India has refused to open its markets to outsiders. Until India can meet basic challenges like this, its greatness will remain a matter of rhetoric, not fact.
All the way to Timbuktu
As a bureau chief in Africa, I could feel the tug of Timbuktu all the way down in South Africa. In ancient times, this city in the Sahara desert was a cultural center, a city of libraries and universities, a target for European explorers, who invariably ended up dying on the way.
I’m glad I got there when I did.
Timbuktu is now under the control of Islamist ideologues who have begun a campaign to destroy historic monuments, shrines, and tombs that are not deemed sufficiently Islamic. The alliance that the Islamists had with Tuareg rebels, who shared a contempt for the Malian government but not the Islamist ideology, has fallen apart. Now the Islamists have turned their eyes on the untold number of manuscripts, some of them dating back 1,200 years or more, that make up a largely unexplored history of precolonial Africa.
A fine piece of reporting by Agence France-Presse shows that the Islamists have at least one obstacle in their road to total destruction: Timbuktu’s small Arab minority.
AFP quoted one Arab militia leader, Tahel Ould Sidy, as saying, “We are not going to allow people who know nothing about Islam to come and destroy our treasures."
Insha’ Allah (God willing).
Now for some good news about journalism
Probably the best news one can find about journalism is that readers still care desperately about the quality of the news they receive. We know this not because of a flux of letters full of praise, but rather the opposite. With the economic viability of the news industry, in its current form, under increasing scrutiny, more journalists are beginning to take a serious look at the way news is gathered and written.
Has the time come to abandon “he said, she said” journalism? asks Linda Greenhouse, former New York Times writer in Nieman Reports, a magazine for Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism.
How about truth for a goal? "We may not have a journalism of truth because we haven't demanded one," the cultural critic Neal Gabler wrote in response to the media's performance in covering the health care debate. He noted that by simply reporting the latest guided missile from Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh, the media "marshal facts, but they don't seek truth. They behave as if every argument must be heard and has equal merit, when some are simply specious."
Why is it just so difficult to make the search for truth the highest journalistic value?
Afghanistan, the land of forever wars
In March 2001, I took my first trip into Afghanistan. The Taliban were firmly in power then, or so it seemed to me, but they seemed incapable of finishing off their main enemies, the Northern Alliance led by Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Last March, I went back to Afghanistan after having been away for six years. President Hamid Karzai was still jokingly called the “mayor of Kabul,” because that was about as far as his influence stretched. And the combination of NATO troops and the Afghan National Army seemed incapable of finishing off their main enemies, the Taliban. The story I wrote then found important signs of progress, but worrying signs that much of this progress could be undone if Afghan leaders don’t start getting serious about the challenges they face in security, ethnic reconciliation, and corruption.
Historians and pundits like to describe Afghanistan as the “graveyard of colonial empires,” but the reality is that Afghanistan is a really hard place to rule, for foreigners and Afghan rulers alike. When Mr. Karzai steps down, as the current Constitution says he must at the end of this term in May 2014, his successor will face the same Sisyphean task of pushing for incremental improvements, and then watching gravity bring it all back to the same old chaos.
In this week’s New Yorker, Dexter Filkins brings his own long-view perspective to the question of Afghanistan’s future. The prevailing view is not, despite the best efforts of Osama bin Laden and his band of merry men, a hatred of America built on Islamist values, but rather, a profound disappointment at a wasted opportunity for Afghanistan. The Americans, with all their military and economic might, should have achieved more during their decade-long presence.
“The Americans have failed to build a single sustainable institution here,” Filkins quotes TV journalist Abdul Nasir as saying. “All they have done is make a small group of people very rich. And now they are getting ready to go.”
The drone blowback 'fallacy'
It has become conventional wisdom that America’s newest military weapons, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, have become so controversial in the societies where they are used that they actually end up aiding the opposition. In Pakistan’s borderlands, in Afghanistan, and increasingly in Yemen as well, drone strikes – no matter how precise – inevitably kill civilians as well as enemy combatants, a fact that diminishes the US’s military gains because it causes more people to join the anti-American cause.
Christopher Swift, in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, visits Yemen’s conflict-ridden tribal areas and concludes that the “blowback” effect of America’s drone war is a bit overstated.
Al Qaeda exploits US errors, to be sure. As the Yemen scholar Gregory Johnsen correctly observes, the death of some 40 civilians in the December 2009 cruise missile strike on Majala infuriated ordinary Yemenis and gave AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] an unexpected propaganda coup. But the fury produced by such tragedies is not systemic, not sustained, and, ultimately, not sufficient. As much as al Qaeda might play up civilian casualties and U.S. intervention in its recruiting videos, the Yemeni tribal leaders I spoke to reported that the factors driving young men into the insurgency are overwhelmingly economic.
Problems at German spy agency
The resignation of Heinz Fromm, the president of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, has given a quick peek into the spooky world of intelligence gathering. Mr. Fromm stepped down because of his agency’s inability to keep tabs on Germany’s growing and increasingly violent neo-Nazi movement. (Even a casual viewer of “Hogan’s Heroes” can see why that might be a problem.)
According to this week’s Der Spiegel, Germany’s intelligence agencies suffer from many of the same problems that American spy agencies do, specifically “regional fragmentation, complex chains of command and an excessively bureaucratic system.” The parallels go beyond those structural flaws, of course. Just as American political leaders often failed to grasp the worrisome intelligence reports about Al Qaeda in the early months of the Bush administration, so too did German politicians fail to pay attention to Fromm’s own warnings of the growing far-right menace in Germany.
How Britain’s press covered the American Revolution
Remember that moment a year and a half ago, in the early days of the Arab Spring, when it didn’t seem clear which side the Americans were on? Some elements of the Obama administration voiced support for the pro-democratic demands of Egyptian and Tunisian street protesters, while others, notably Vice President Joe Biden, voiced support for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as a key ally in the region.
In a fascinating story in Foreign Policy, Eliga H. Gould writes about how the British press covered the American Revolution, 236 years ago, and finds parallels to the American reactions to the Arab Spring, both among the news media and the political class.
As with the Arab Spring today, the British felt threatened by the American Revolution in part because their own country had done so well under the order that the revolution sought to topple. Writing in 1776, the author of an English pamphlet warned that the loss of America would dismember Britain's empire by "inclosing [sic] us within the confined seas of England, Ireland, and Scotland." Mindful that Congress was seeking allies in Europe, others worried that Britain's rivals, especially France and Spain, would use the Revolutionary War to expand their empires at Britain's expense, and there were fears that George III's colonies in Canada and the West Indies might someday follow the Americans' example. Whether America's bid for independence succeeded or failed, Britain stood to lose a great deal from the attempt.
As if Salman Rushdie didn’t have enough stress in his life, living in the shadow of a 23-year-old death sentence imposed on him by the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Now there is a video game, “The Stressful Life of Salman Rushdie and Implementation of his Verdict,” announced in Tehran at Iran’s second annual International Computer Games Expo, which will allow gamers to carry out the Ayatollah’s death sentence against Mr. Rushdie.
Ayatollah issued a fatwa, or religious directive, against Rushdie in 1989, because Rushdie had authored the book “Satanic Verses,” which many Muslims thought had defamed the founder of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad.
It’s tempting to see Rushdie, who spent the first few years of his fatwa living in hiding, as a champion of modernity against the superstitions of ancient prejudice, and for the non-curious among us, that is how he will likely remain. But consider this irony. Rushdie himself is an unapologetic Luddite, a man who prefers to practice the art of writing with pen and paper, a man who once told an interviewer that Steve Jobs, whose Apple computer company had given the world the iPad, had “destroyed the world of literature.” And in Iran, the successors of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the presumed defender of a 1300-year-old religion, are the ones allegedly developing nuclear weapons, and now, creating video games to virtually snuff out a writer.
"We used to have only two weak [Iranian-made] games, but after the issue of computer games came on the agenda of the Council at the order of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution [Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei] we developed around 140 games with Islamic and Iranian contents which can compete with foreign products," Mokhber Dezfouli, secretary of the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution, told the Fars News Agency.
In the Clash of Civilizations, the lines can get pretty blurry.
Rushdie, whose novels “Midnight’s Children,” “The Moor’s Last Sigh,” and “Haroun and the Sea Stories,” never set out to tweak the nose of the Ayatollah, or to offend the faith of his fellow Muslim brethren. But despite the Asian locales and Muslim themes that embroidered Rushdie’s fiction, there was an underlying spiritual core of doubt in the Divine, a challenge to religious authorities, a preference of the individual over the group that Islamists like Khomeini found much more threatening than the latest pot-boiler spy novel from a Western novelist. Ultimately, Rushdie’s greatest sin, in the eyes of Khomeini, was not that he was modern; he was a traitor, a “bad” Muslim.
Since 1989, Rushdie became a media darling and a symbol of free artistic expression. Technology surely should have made it possible for Rushdie to engage with the public, remotely by teleconference, rather than put himself or his audience at risk. But there is a part of Rushdie that remains stubbornly old fashioned. His arguments with Steve Jobs and with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg are famous. Last year, Rushdie engaged in a public battle with Facebook to keep his Facebook identity as “Salman Rushdie” rather than follow the Facebook rules of using his legal first name, “Ahmed.”
And in a panel discussion at Emory University, Rushdie admitted he prefers the low-tech nature of writing.
“One of the things I have liked about the business of putting words on a page is that it is incredibly low technology,” Rushdie said during a panel discussion at Emory University. “You need a piece of paper, a pen, and a room, and even the room is not essential.”
Rushdie is by no means the only celebrity to be the target of violent video games. After President George W. Bush was attacked in Baghdad by a shoe-throwing journalist, dozens of games were created to give gamers the chance to try their own luck with the 43rd president of the United States.
There are games for giving former French President Nicolas Sarkozy a hard slap in the face, and games (unfortunately in Russian) allowing gamers to experience a day in the life of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
And yes, there is a game for those who want to kill Osama Bin Laden, who it must be said, is already dead.
When Islamist militants began this week to destroy ancient tombs of some of Mali’s most famous poets and Sufic teachers, they claimed that they were doing the work of God.
According to Ansar Dine – a relatively small militant group that shares control of much of northern Mali with other rebel groups and shares the theological outlook of Al Qaeda – the tombs had to be destroyed because “the population loves the saints like God.”
Today’s Ansar Dine, of course, is just the latest in a long line of religious dogmatists who came to town and destroyed stuff in the name of God.
In 1192 AD, the Turkic commander Qutbuddin Aynak destroyed a number of Hindu temples near present day New Delhi to provide building stone for his self-named Qutb Minar. To this day, Hindu nationalists point to this act as an example of Islam's intolerance of other faiths. Yet some scholars, notably Buddhists, contend that Hindus had done similar work with the defunct temples of their Buddhist rivals.
Roman historians documented how Christian rulers ordered the destruction of pagan temples, and reportedly, the Library of Alexandria itself in 391 AD. During the Spanish Reconquista, Roman Catholic rulers razed many Islamic prayer halls, although, to their credit, they did leave many magnificent Moorish structures, such as the university at Alhambra, standing.
More recently, of course, the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar ordered the destruction of the Buddhist statues in the Afghan central province of Bamiyan in March 2001. “All we are breaking are stones," the Taliban leader told reporters in Kandahar at the time, adding, "my job is the implementation of Islamic order."
Each of these perpetrators of destruction, though belonging to different faiths, saw themselves as defenders of their faith, reformers of society, and enemies of superstition. While some of these so-called reformers may have halted the religious practice of others – as Ansar Dine has halted the reverence of Sufi teachers and saints in Timbuktu this week – in other cases, the destruction of religious monuments is largely a symbolic and political act. There were no local adherents of Buddhism in Bamiyan, when the Taliban artillery pieces used Buddha’s stone face for target practice. But their action had political power: It signaled to the world, and to the Islamic faithful, that the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan was total. There might be rivals, such as the Northern Alliance of Ahmed Shah Masood, tucked away up in the Panjshir Valley, but there was very little they could do to stop the Taliban from doing what it wanted to do.
Mali’s government, which lost control of northern Mali after its own Army launched a coup in March to topple the civilian government, has condemned the Ansar Dine destruction of shrines as a “war crime.” But with Mali’s politicians primarily focused on finding their place in the current political structure, and with Mali’s Army focused primarily on maintaining its own tenuous control of the political process, there is precious little they can do to stop the Ansar Dine from doing what they want to do up in Timbuktu.
Now, the question will be what will Ansar Dine do with all those private libraries and ancient books from the days when Timbuktu was a famous center of Islamic learning.? Will they revere these books as examples of Islam’s proud history? Or will they see all of those books as threats to the pure true faith taught by the prophet Muhammad in the Quran.
If they do the latter, then we can expect Malians to start smuggling out ancient manuscripts from Timbuktu, just as Afghans smuggled out ancient Buddhist artifacts from Afghanistan during Taliban rule.
The euro: doomed again
Just a few weeks ago it looked like Europe’s single-currency deal was beginning to settle down.
The Greeks had elected a new government that was willing, finally, to negotiate and chip away at all of their expensive social benefits (and deal with their debt). The French had elected a government that was popular and would have the mandate to make tough choices.
Now, Europe is back to “imagining the unthinkable,” as Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine puts it. German central bank officers are starting to think that the collapse of Europe’s common currency, the euro, is a “very likely scenario.”
IN PICTURES: Europe in crisis
That’s bad not just for “old Europe,” but for America and anyone else who might have wanted the global economy to pull out of the current doldrums. As Der Spiegel puts it:
It would be a dream for nationalist politicians, and a nightmare for the economy. Everything that has grown together in two decades of euro history would have to be painstakingly torn apart. Millions of contracts, business relationships and partnerships would have to be reassessed, while thousands of companies would need protection from bankruptcy. All of Europe would plunge into a deep recession. Governments, which would be forced to borrow additional billions to meet their needs, would face the choice between two unattractive options: either to drastically increase taxes or to impose significant financial burdens on their citizens in the form of higher inflation.
American values, revisited
Thankfully, our Founding Fathers had the foresight to put a very large and deep body of water (the Atlantic Ocean) between us and Europe. Newspaper pundits periodically remind us that the American values that built this country into the resilient economic power (hard work, faith, self-sacrifice) will carry America through even rough economic waters.
Values change, of course, and a recent poll by The Atlantic magazine and the Aspen Institute shows us how much.
In the survey, two thirds of respondents said the country was going in the wrong direction, 70 percent said that people’s values were getting worse, and 46 percent thought that American values were likely to decline even further in the future.
Here’s my question: Did the respondents think that their own values were getting worse, or that the values of all those other bad people out there were getting worse? The survey suggests the latter.
Half of the respondents admitted that they rarely attend church. But more than 62 percent said they believe they are more tolerant of other people's values than their parents were.
The problem with America, it appears, is other Americans.
More than 77 percent believe that people are generally motivated by self-interest, 71 percent believe elected officials reflect the values of the wealthy (rather than the middle class), and 89 percent believe the values of American executives on Wall Street are worse than those of ordinary Americans, because they are just plain greedy.
The future generation
This is the point in time when politicians usually talk about the promise of the future generation. Times are tough now, a politician might say, rolling up his sleeves, but at least we know we are preparing our children to meet the challenges of tomorrow. But what if the future generation is, well, spoiled?
In this week’s New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert looks the anthropological work of Carolina Izquierdo and Elinor Ochs, comparing the values of children in the hunter-gathering tribes of the Peruvian Amazon and back home in the Los Angeles area. While Peruvian children often volunteered to make themselves useful, sweeping up the hut or gathering leaves for roofing material, American children seemed to lack even the capacity to set the table or to tie their own shoelaces.
It’s a fascinating study, and provides food for thought.
For the past decade, American politicians and military planners have complained about the perfidious nature of its frontline ally, Pakistan, in the global war on terror. Pakistan was playing a double game, columnists wrote, by openly supporting the American fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda on one hand, but quietly supporting those very same groups as a way to serve their own regional interests.
Excuses have been made for Pakistan’s apparent inability to deal with its internal demons, including weak or corrupt leaders, ill-educated citizens, messianic mullahs, and double-dealing generals. Now, in this week’s edition of Foreign Policy, Robert Kaplan has given us another excuse: geography.
With its unmanageable terrain, following the drainage of the Indus River from the unreachable Himalayan mountain range, past the hostile Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan on one side and the hostile Indian population on the other side, Pakistan is a nation that is practically designed for failure, Mr. Kaplan asserts.
Pakistan encompasses the frontier of the subcontinent, a region that even the British were unable to incorporate into their bureaucracy, running it instead as a military fiefdom, making deals with the tribes. Thus, Pakistan did not inherit the stabilizing civilian institutions that India did. Winston Churchill's first book as a young man, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, wonderfully captures the challenges facing colonial border troops in British India. As the young author then concluded, the only way to function in this part of the world is through "a system of gradual advance, of political intrigue among the tribes, of subsidies and small expeditions."
Agree or disagree, there is a lot to learn in Kaplan’s piece.
IN PICTURES: Europe in crisis
Egypt’s game of Calvinball
As a longtime correspondent and professor at George Washington University, Marc Lynch is a highly trained observer of Middle Eastern politics. So when he looked at the chaotic nature of Egypt’s current political scene, after the Arab uprisings, he quickly saw a pattern.
The pattern went like this: There was no pattern.
Just when political parties and candidates felt like they were beginning to understand the system, the system changed. Parliamentary elections were held, only to have one third of the elected parliamentarians declared ineligible after the fact. Behind all these changes was the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which midway through the elections gave itself more power and diminished those of any future elected president.
It reminded Mr. Lynch of the cartoon characters Calvin and Hobbes and their favorite game, “Calvinball.” Lynch writes in Foreign Policy:
“Calvinball sometimes resembles recognizable games such as football, but is quickly revealed to be something else entirely. The rules change in mid-play, as do the goals ("When I learned you were a spy, I switched goals. This is your goal and mine's hidden."), the identities of the players ("I'm actually a badminton player disguised as a double-agent football player!") and the nature of the competition ("I want you to cross my goal. The points will go to your team, which is really my team!"). The only permanent rule is that the game is never played the same way twice. Is there any better analogy for Egypt's current state of play?”
The funny part about Calvinball, of course, is that it’s so chaotic that Calvin sometimes ends up losing. That’s a fact that might give the generals in the SCAF some cause for concern, Lynch notes.
Land of the Free
Every age has a central political or social phenomenon that gives citizens a sense of focus. During the roaring ‘20s, it was the feckless abandon that came after a senseless war. The Great Depression followed up swiftly with austerity and sacrifice, World War II ushered in courage and persistence, and the cold war brought with it the “Red Menace,” in which Communist sleeper cells attempted to undermine free societies.
The central narrative of the past decade was determined by the terrorist attack of Sept.11, 2001, and the desire that Americans felt for security at all costs. This was a time when US courts allowed the most significant suspension of judicial and legal rights seen in modern times. Those suspected of terrorism could be locked up indefinitely, with very little evidence.
Some of these suspects, such as University of South Florida’s Sami al-Arian, remain either in jail or under threat of prosecution, merely for expressing what Mr. Arian’s daughter Laila calls his constitutional right of self-expression as an American of Palestinian descent. Read Laila al-Arian’s story in this week’s The Nation for a warning of how a hyped-up legal system can go horribly wrong.
Canada’s polite spying
Most Western countries ramped up security after the 9/11 attacks, but each in its own way. Canada, ever the counterpoint to its rough-and-tumble southern neighbor, informs citizens in advance that it is listening in on their conversations in public places, and does so politely, as Megan Garber reports in The Atlantic magazine.
“At Ottawa's airport, the Ottawa Citizen reports, signs will be posted referring passersby to a ‘privacy notice’ – which will, in turn, be available on the CBSA website. You can load up the site and learn exactly how – and why – the government is watching you. The CBSA will also provide a help line ‘explaining how the recordings will be used, stored, disclosed, and retained.’”
If you have started to look at your cellphone as some kind of spy – tracking your movements, archiving your every purchase, and passing that information along to governments, or worse, advertisers – here’s something that might repair the relationship a little.
Cellphones might save lives during natural disasters. In a study published in this week’s edition of “Science” magazine, Nicholas St. Fleur writes that epidemiologists Linus Bengtsson and Xin Lu from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden tracked the movements and call patterns of 2 million anonymous cellphone users in Haiti, both before and after the devastating January 2010 earthquake. What they discovered was that they could predict where people would go in an emergency, based on where they traveled for holidays.
The team found that after the earthquake, "people seemed to have traveled to where they had their significant social bonds and support," says Bengtsson. Specifically, Haitians went to the same locations where they had spent Christmas and New Year's. For example, departments (Haiti's major administrative divisions) Sud and Ouest received the highest influx of people. By understanding where people go during their holidays, the researchers say that they can accurately guess where people will go during times of disaster.”
And that is good news for emergency aid groups.
With Russia sending weapons to the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad – weapons that have helped the regime murder thousands of Syrian citizens – and with Russian marines arriving at the Syrian port city of Tartous, reportedly to evacuate Russian personnel there in the midst of a 17-month rebellion, it might seem like Russia is determined to play the spoiler to any kind of resolution of the Syrian crisis.
But French Ambassador to the United States Francois Delattre, during a visit to the Christian Science Monitor in Boston, suggests that Russia may be more flexible and realistic behind the diplomatic stage than it at first seems to be. Russia's influence and reputation have suffered among other Arab nations – the majority of the Arab League supports UN intervention in Syria – and it is “beginning to understand that Assad is part of the problem, and not the solution, which is good,” says Ambassador Delattre.
While former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan attempts to pull together a peaceful end to the hostilities and a transition of President Assad out of power, France will continue to support what it views as “Plan A.” But France and several other nations, including Russia, are aware that armed intervention – or “Plan B” – may end up becoming the only remaining option, Mr. Delattre says.
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“Assad is a murderer of his own people, and the sooner he leaves, the better,” Delattre says. “As a bridge between the West and the Assad regime, the Russians are having to plan for an exit strategy. In either case [with Plan A or a move to Plan B], the Russians are key players.”
A two-hour meeting yesterday between President Obama and newly reelected Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the fringes of the G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, produced broad agreement that violence needs to stop in Syria, but no specific plan for how to effect an end to hostilities. President Putin told reporters afterward, "From my point of view, we have found many common points on this issue [of Syria]," Reuters news agency reported.
With violence ever increasing in Syria – Syrian armed forces pounded opposition positions in the town of Douma on Monday, killing 23 – it might be hard to see any signs of progress in the crisis. Opposition rebels seem to have consolidated control in rural areas, and have holed up in several major cities, including the town of Douma, just nine miles from the capital of Damascus. But the Syrian military has shown no compunction about using the full force of its Russian-made hardware in pounding rebel positions, including those in heavily concentrated urban areas. The head of the UN’s observer team in Syria says that recent spikes in violence could undermine his mission and Kofi Annan’s peace process.
Russian and Chinese opposition to intervention at the UN Security Council – the same body that approved humanitarian intervention in Libya in March 2011 by NATO forces – may be waning, Delattre says, particularly as it becomes clear that much of the Arab world supports intervention. Russia is clearly keen to maintain its relationship with Syria, he says. But in the meantime, the US and France should keep talking with Russia about how to encourage an end to the violence in Syria.
That France is able to see itself as a full partner with the United States in conflict resolution is a major step forward, Delattre says. “In Europe, we say it is a multipolar world, and President Obama says it is a multipartner world, but the key change is to move to a world that is not confrontational, but is based on cooperation,” he says.
There is still much work to be done in restoring the developing world’s faith in international institutions, like the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, and the International Criminal Court, by including emerging nations like India in permanent positions on the Security Council, he says.
The good news is that France and Germany remain strong partners in the effort to resolve Europe’s ongoing financial crisis – specifically the heavy debt burdens of Europe’s poorer southern countries, Greece, Spain, and Italy, and the strains on Europe’s common currency, the euro. Greece now seems ready to make some hard decisions in cutting back its public spending, as Greek voters have elected a coalition government that is willing to work with other European countries on a bailout plan.
The election last month of French President François Hollande, a Socialist, ensures that there will be a “balance” between Germany’s push for fiscal discipline and France’s preference for financial stimulus programs, he says, such as a $1 trillion bailout fund, and creating a European investment bank for infrastructure projects.
“The center of gravity of the Euro zone has changed since the French election,” Delattre says, “and there is more of a focus on growth oriented policies versus fiscal discipline.”
Delattre rejects predictions that the eurozone is headed toward collapse. Other currencies have been volatile, but the euro has been strong and stable, and 14 million jobs were created in the eurozone during the past 12 years, compared with 8 million jobs created in the same time period in the US.
“The euro is a young teenager, just 12 years old,” says Delattre.
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So what happens if you hold a UN conference on sustainable development, and world leaders make speeches, and sign treaties, and then nothing happens?
This, of course, would be absurd. The problem, says Bill Easterly, a development expert at New York University, is that nothing has happened in the 20 years since the first Rio Earth Summit, in which all the world’s nations gathered and promised to address major environmental problems and then held more environmental summits, and then a few more.
As Mr. Easterly tweeted, “Delegates gather in Rio to commemorate 20 years of nothing happening since a UN Summit where nothing happened.”
The most charitable way to look at the past 20 years of environmental conferences is to see them as the beginning of a global conversation on the common threats of carbon emissions (also known as air pollution) and greater awareness of the dire consequences we all face if nations don’t get serious about developing in a cleaner and environmentally sustainable way.
The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, “too important to fail,” in an interview with the Guardian. "If we really do not take firm actions, we may be heading towards the end – the end of our future," Mr. Ban said.
At issue is the question of how poorer nations can develop their economies, build factories, create jobs, and create the same sort of wealth that richer nations enjoy without creating all those belching smokestacks and carbon emissions that have put the world in such a precarious position in the first place. Alternative energy sources – such as solar power, bio-fuels, wind-power, and hydroelectric dams – are much more expensive than the fossil fuels that richer nations used to reach their current state of development. Poorer nations argue that richer nations should provide financial support for poorer nations to fund all those cleaner energy projects, but as the BBC’s environment correspondent Richard Black points out, richer nations are making no promises. US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and British Prime Minister David Cameron are not even attending the Rio conference.
Western leaders do have a lot on their minds these days. Several Western countries are trying to find new and innovative ways to pay off old and unfathomable amounts of debt. Portugal – which owes 400 billion euros, or twice its gross domestic product, to creditors – has recently turned to a former African colony, Angola, for financial assistance. Brazil, the Rio+20 conference host, and another former Portuguese colony, meanwhile, has offered plane tickets, food, and accommodation to any poor nation that can’t afford to send representatives to the Rio+20 conference. And the US, with its massive economy lumbering out of recession, and its political leaders focused on the November presidential and congressional elections, simply isn’t giving Rio+20 its full attention.
As Francis Vorhies, a reporter for Forbes magazine writes, “The elephant in the room, of course, is finance. With the Europeans less willing and able to transfer new and additional resources to developing countries, where is money for any new Rio+20 commitments to come from?”
The lack of attention by Western leaders on Rio+20 has been translated into a lack of commitments to make major environmental policy changes this time around. The Guardian’s reporter Jo Confino notes that the Rio “zero draft” under discussion this week uses the squishy word “encourage” 50 times, but uses the firmer word “must” only three times.
Does this mean that the world is “sleep walking to catastrophe,” in that winsome phrase used by Britain’s environmentally sensitive Prince Charles? Perhaps. It would be tempting to see catastrophe as inevitable, to see the Rio+20 as a useless exercise, and to suggest that each nation should simply fend for itself. Good luck, Burkina Faso and Chad.
Sometimes failure itself can be a wakeup call. Environmental activist groups have struggled in recent years to get news organizations to pay attention to warnings that, frankly, have begun to sound like a funeral march. News organizations bear the responsibility of turning hard-to-visualize terminology like “atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations” into simple English, and to foster a constructive discussion on what can be done to slow down if not prevent a catastrophe.
Schools already educate students who are more aware than their parents about environmental issues, and a small percentage of those students go on to get scientific degrees that give them the tools to solve environmental problems. Private companies – whose economic power often dwarfs the economies of several national governments – also have the tools to change the way they do business, by cutting their energy consumption and the emissions from their factories and offices. Consumers can reward those companies who are environmentally responsible by paying more for greener products. Young people, who pollsters tell us are increasingly tuning out politics, can reengage with the system to help change it for the better.
Catastrophe is not inevitable, but it will take sustained public pressure, and a few key leaders who see dramatic change as in their national interests. This has happened before. In the 1970s and 1980s, student protests against nuclear weapons seemed like folly, when US and Soviet leaders were at the peak of their rivalry. But in 1987, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement, the first treaty to limit the number of nuclear weapons, during negotiations held in Washington.
The Soviet Union was exhausted then, and deep in debt. Sometimes debt makes people flexible, and creative.