Good Reads: Politics of withdrawal, fossil fuels, and media freedom in South Africa

Herewith, a shout out to longer-form analysis stories about President Obama's security pact with Afghanistan, as well as stories on oil, developing countries, and media restriction in South Africa.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai sign the US-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, May 2.

Politics of withdrawal

This week, when President Obama marked the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, US Sen. John McCain took him to task for “politicizing” that event. When President Obama flew out to Afghanistan to praise US soldiers for their efforts over the past decade, and to sign a security pact with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Senator McCain said that Obama's trip was a “good thing,” because it involved long-term US national security interests.

For Americans, this should be fair warning: Every act by the president this year will be examined and deemed political or not, often depending more on political viewpoint than objective reality. But for the rest of the world, actions of the US president are too important to be seen in purely political terms.

Consider the Economist magazine’s article this week about the US-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), which Mr. Obama and Mr. Karzai signed on May 2. The Economist admits that little is known but the broad outlines of the agreement, including the expected continued presence of at least some US troops in Afghanistan beyond the announced end of US combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014. This, the Economist says, is good news.   

Ever since Mr. Obama first announced when American troops would begin to withdraw, many Afghans have been stalked by the fear of a return to the early 1990s, when the world abandoned them and the country imploded under the pressures of ethnic tensions and scheming neighbours. The result was a gruesome civil war and the rise of the Taliban

The SPA is an attempt to tell both Afghans and their neighbours that this will not happen again.

Vice presidents and foreign policy

Last week, Sen. Marco Rubio gave a speech on foreign policy at the Brookings Institute, which the Monitor’s Dan Murphy and others saw as Senator Rubio’s coming-out party as the likely vice-presidential candidate on Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign ticket.

The press has assessed Rubio, and found him to be thoughtful and not overly hawkish. While Rubio is by no means likely to push for a return to the “with us or against us” unilateralism of the Bush administration, his speech signaled that he believes the US should lead international organizations from the front, rather than seeking consensus and compromise, writes Mario Loyola in this week's National Review.

… in Rubio’s view, diplomacy doesn’t mean bowing to international organizations where the lowest common denominator can kill collective action. Diplomacy means American leadership. ‘Effective international coalitions don’t form themselves,’ Rubio said. ‘They need to be instigated and led, and more often than not, they can only be instigated and led by us.’

Oil and politics

Americans might be surprised at what the citizens of other countries think about them. In many countries of Africa, for instance, it is thought that the only reason the American government does anything these days is to get control of oil.

The Iraqi war? “Oil.” The NATO operation to support Libyan rebels against Qaddafi? “Oil.” What about the billions of dollars spent by the US government to prevent the spread of HIV in Africa? “That is just a program to distract the world from America’s main preoccupation, which is oil.”

A piece in the most recent Foreign Affairs magazine suggests that America may have to wean itself from fossil fuels, if only out of pure selfish national interests. As the writer Amory B. Lovins writes, the US spends about $2 billion each day buying oil, and you add in other costs of transport and so on, the burden ends up being about one-sixth of the country’s gross domestic product. “Even if oil and coal prices were not high, volatile, and rising, risks such as fuel insecurity and dependence, pollution-caused illnesses, energy-driven conflicts over water and food, climate change, and geopolitical tensions would make oil and coal unattractive,” Mr. Lovins writes.

IQ and development

Racism and development work don’t usually get along. Those who want to make a difference in developing countries, helping poorer nations create vigorous economies, achieve self-sufficiency in food production, or build drinking water or public health systems, generally are not the types of people who believe in spurious theories of racial superiority.

The same can’t be said, unfortunately, for academics who write about development. Recently, a spate of articles argue that some countries are less developed than others because, well, because their citizens are stupid. Charles Kenny rebuts that in a Foreign Policy piece about these spurious academic studies, called "Dumb and Dumber." Mr. Kenny admits that IQ levels are higher in richer countries with better schooling systems, but then adds that as poorer countries get better nutrition and better educations, their IQ scores improve, something that scientists now call “the Flynn effect.”

The good news is that decolonization began a process of leveling the playing field, with rapidly climbing and converging indicators of health and education worldwide. Thanks to the Flynn effect, IQs are doubtless on a path of convergence as well, and the poisonous idiocy of genetic explanations for wealth and poverty will soon lose what little empirical support they might appear to have today.

Media freedom in South Africa

Finally, please read Nadine Gordimer’s fine piece in the New York Review of Books, about the troubling set of proposed laws that would sharply restrict press freedom in South Africa. Ms. Gordimer, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for literature, writes that she continues to support the African National Congress, but she opposes the proposed laws because they would essentially take South Africa back to the days of apartheid, when criticism was tantamount to treason.

For those who supported the freedom struggle in South Africa, the African National Congress’s rise to power in 1994 was an affirmation that truth and justice occasionally win out over racism and repression. But just 18 years later, Gordimer writes,“we now have the imminent threat of updated versions of the suppression of freedom of expression that gagged us under apartheid.”

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