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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

25 August 2005

Let Chavez be

Hugo Chavez is Latin America’s most ambitious leader. Propelled by rising oil prices, he has rushed to spread his newfound wealth to build political friendships in the region, usually exchanging oil for preferential trade agreements, although recently he helped fund The Southern Television, a TV station meant to unite Latin Americans against the pervasive influence of CNN and other foreign news sources. So pervasive is his influence that televangelist Pat Robertson suggested that the United States should assassinate him, a proposition that Secretary of Defense hardly enthused over.

The temptation to think that Chavez is a problem to be solved is, well, tempting. But step back and the picture that emerges is rather reassuring: Venezuela’s political game is unlikely to last long nor will it have the major impact that many fear.

Start by putting the Venezuelan foreign oil policy into perspective. In 2003, Venezuela produced 2.6 million bpd, 2.25m of which were exported. Of that, roughly 1.6m reached the United States (although outdated, these figures help understand the bigger picture of Chavez’s foreign policy) (1). To Cuba, the cornerstone of Chavez’s policy, PdVSA, the state oil company, sold about 90,000 bpd; to Uruguay, the figure is 8,600 bpd (2). In other words, it is easy to sell oil at a discount to your minor customers at a time when your major buyers are paying a steep price.

At the same time, it is not clear what Chavez seeks to accomplish with his oil money; “What is less transparent is what Venezuela is going to get in return—is it good will? Is it Latin American support for the day when Chavez decided to radicalize his revolution, prompting an international reaction?” asks Harvard Professor Ricardo Hausmann (2). In Cuba, the rationale is simple—Chavez is trading oil for “30,000 physicians, sports coaches, and teachers” (2); but his other agreements include giving credit to foreigners to purchase oil or giving oil at below market prices in exchange for importing goods from those countries. That’s trade with an economic twist that doesn’t make economic sense (3).

Put these two insights together: Venezuela’s political game will last as long as oil prices remain sky-high, and the political capital that Chavez will gain is unlikely to count for much. There is one other country that has used oil money to buy influence abroad, with deadly consequences—Saudi Arabia.

But Venezuela is different: Saudi Arabia exported Wahhabi extremism paid for by petrodollars. Chavez’s crusade is different—his appeal is a Bolivarian revolution, but the money to pay for it has nothing to do with Bolivar and his ideals. Saudi Arabia’s financing was deadly because it appealed to extremism and fundamentalism; Chavez’s social model is premised on social ideals that need to appeal to people if they are to force change.

In other words, contrary to Saudi Arabia, or even Fidel Castro, Chavez has only money; he has no ideas and no proven social model to appeal to the public; over time, money can only prolong an inevitable death; if that death is mostly home-grown, Latin America might also learn to be more cautious of revolutionary prophets and their quick fixed in the future.

(1) “Venezuela: Country Analysis Brief,” Energy Information Agency, Department of Energy, (here)
(2) Danna Harman, “Chavez seeks influence with oil diplomacy,” Christian Science Monitor, 25 August 2005
(3) As an economist, I have to admit that there could be a rationale for this; selling oil below market rates would prevent a substitution effect—it would preclude, that is, the potential for countries to turn to less energy intensive (or oil-intensive) products or productions in response to higher oil prices. In the long run, that could secure Venezuelan exports to these countries. But there is little to suggest that this strategy is at play here.


Leaving home

It is the second time I am leaving Greece to study abroad; but this time I sense that I am leaving much behind. There is one Hemingway quote that pops in mind every time I think about my life in Greece these past two years; he wrote in Sun Also Rises,

“Women made such swell friends. Awfully swell. In the first place you had to be in love with a woman to have a basis of friendship. I had been having Brett for a friend. I had not been thinking about her side of it. I had been getting something for nothing. That only delayed the presentation of the bill. The bill always came. That was one of the swell things you could count on.”

That’s my way to say that I will miss some people back home, though probably not in the way Hemingway writes of Brett. What I read in this passage is how the lines that separate emotions get blurred, as familiarity breeds intimacy, pleasure, admiration, and love; and over time, these blend and form a powerful bond which captures in it the intense energy of friendship. It is this energy that was released the day I left Greece—my own “presentation of the bill.”

21 August 2005

Cindy Sheehan's plight

Cindy Sheehan is an angered mother; having lost her son in Iraq, she camped in front of President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas and demanded to see him. What is surprising is that the media have accorded her such airtime, and that her protest is having an effect on the public.

This is not meant to suggest that the plight of soldiers and their families is separable from the overarching question of going to war—after all, the human cost of war is one of the prime considerations in deciding whether to go to war. Rather, what this story reminds us is how malleable that public is—and how emotionally strong images can impact the way that people perceive the Iraq war.

Think of Abu Ghraib. Surely, the news that a dozen soldiers amidst a few hundred thousand troops that have passed through Iraq misbehaved is not earth-shaking. Although it is important to investigate how these abuses came about, their existence should not, in itself, change the public’s support for the war.

Now, think of the call for an exit strategy, springing from the fear that American troops might have to stay in Iraq for longer than expected. Surely, this too should hardly make headlines—one needn’t be a theoretician of war to know that stabilizing a country of 20 million, and one that is divided into three factions, is a difficult task—one that might not be realize within a year or two.

And now, here comes Cindy Sheehan. That her son died in Iraq is regrettable, just as any other death in warfare is, Iraqi or otherwise. But to think that her cries could make a big difference is just as regrettable, for it highlights the light manner in which countries often accede to go to war.

What am I saying here? It’s not that systematic abuses by occupying troops should be tolerated; neither that having an exit strategy is counterproductive; nor that the human side of war should be overlooked. Rather, my point is that these turns in the road to victory should not surprise as much. War is nasty and often ruthlessness is necessary for victory; but war is also unpredictable: force has a dynamic effect—it strains people, it exhausts them, it changes them.

This is probably America’s foreign policy dilemma. From history, America has learned that war is integral to international politics, and that dialogue has limits; but America is also a country that has avoided warfare—more so that most other places on the planet; this often makes Americans forgetful of the tragedy of war and unwilling to tolerate its excesses.

It is this story that should be making headlines because it lies at the center of the public debate on the war in Iraq.


16 August 2005

Air tragedy near Athens

On 14 August, a Cypriot airplane crashed near Athens killing all 121 people on board. The proximity of the accident to where I live, and the fact that it was scheduled for a brief stop in Athens, prompted many friends to send emails extending sympathies and expressing the hope that no one I knew was on board.

In fact, I didn’t know anyone on the plane. Yet a very dear friend was scheduled to return from Cyprus on that day—she was just catching a later flight. This near miss—captured in the few minutes between the time the news broke and when we finally reached her on the phone to confirm that it was not her flight—has produced in me a deep emotional connection to that flight.

Let’s start with the media. Although speculating whether the plane crashed as a result of hijacking or due to mechanical failure, most media outlets failed to convey quickly basic facts—for example, that although the flight crashed right after noon, it had left Cyprus early in the morning. This information, added to the fact that this was a plane that belonged to Helios Airways and not to Cyprus Airways as was initially reported by some stations, would have calmed many people, myself included, who would have found this relevant to determine if they knew someone on onboard. Surely relaying reliable information to help those involved is more important that conjuring baseless hypotheses about what caused the plane to crash.

Next, a word about the company. The investigations thus far suggest that the airplane was found on several occasions to be problematic, with the same kind of failure that analysts believe caused it to crash on 14 August (loss of cabin pressure). Needless to say should this prove to be the case, this would constitute criminal negligence on behalf of the company; but it also highlights a broader danger: when budget airlines, or other suppliers for that matter, offer very cheap products, it is worth asking where they are making their cuts from. It could be that cheap products should attract as much attention from inspectors as they do from consumers.

And, finally, a word about sympathies. I thank all those who were quick to think of me and send me their regards; but I can’t stop thinking that if I had lost someone on that flight, I would have probably preferred to be left alone, at least for now. It is horrifying enough to think that my friend could have been on that plane; and the feeling of senselessness to have died because a company cut corners or, in the earlier scenarios, a fanatic decided to target her plane to make a political point has yet to recede—and neither have the mental images of a personal tragedy that never happened.

15 August 2005

Proposition 77

On Friday 12 August, California’s Supreme Court approved the inclusion of Proposition 77 into the state’s November 8 ballot initiatives; Proposition 77 would transfer the power to redraw districts from the state legislature to a panel of three retired judges.

This follows a long history of redistricting initiatives in California. In 1971, the governor vetoed the legislature’s reapportionment plan, which was then deferred to the California Supreme Court which appointed three people to draw up a plan that was accepted in November 1973. In June 1982, a proposed redistricting plan was rejected by the voters, who then, however, voted down a redistricting reform initiative in November 1982. In 1991, the governor and state legislature were unable to agree on a plan, resulting to mediation by the Supreme Court which appointed three masters whose plan was accepted in January 1992. As lately as 2000, Proposition 24 was meant to deal with this issue, but it was not included in the November 2000 elections (1).

Proposition 77 is both necessary and reasonable. It is necessary because the current plan often leads to deadlock, and because California’s elections are non-competitive: as the Los Angeles Times reports, “In the last redistricting, in 2001, Republican and Democratic lawmakers struck a gentlemen's agreement to draw new districts to protect the existing balance of power. Many political experts called those districts a major reason not one of 153 seats in the Legislature or the state's congressional delegation changed party hands in the last general election” (2). To be sure, California is not alone; as The Economist notes, “In 1998 and 2000, nine out of ten winning candidates in the House of Representatives won with 55% of the vote or more. That was the lowest percentage of close races of any election year since 1946, save one … Only six sitting congressmen were defeated in the general election in 2000, a re-election rate of 98%” (3).

Proposition 77 employs the common standard for resolving the political deadlock in California: appointing three independents to draw up a map. But instead of waiting until the deadlock, it allows the three former judges to redraw the districts by bypassing the legislature. There is certainly something final and non-democratic about giving up this power to three retired judges. Yet the current system, whereby the representatives, as The Economist put it, “get to pick their voters” is even more absurd.

All the same, the prospects for Proposition 77 do not look good. Only 35% of likely voters support the measure, 46% oppose it, and 19% are undecided. Democrats oppose the measure 57%-22%, while Republicans are marginally supportive 45%-38%. Other noticeable spreads are gender related (Males 41% yes; Females 29% yes), geographical (Southern Cal. 39% yes; Northern Cal. 30% yes), and educational (non-college grads support the measures as much as college grads, but college grads oppose it by 53% versus 38% for non-college grads) (4).

This is unfortunate. In 2004, the US Supreme Court decided, in a 5-4 vote, that a redistricting plan in Pennsylvania was not unconstitutional, thereby shouting out the courts from the role of checking legislatures (unless the abuse is egregious, whatever that means). Surely, redistricting can make sense in that people should not be excluded from the political process by virtue of where they live. But the reality is that this process is poisoned by politics, as lawmakers manipulate the rules to suit their electoral needs. If ensuring competitive elections and political enfranchisement is not a case where the people ought to delegate their power to three unelected judges, then what is?

(1) “Proposition 77: Reapportionment” http://www.igs.berkeley.edu/library/htRedistricting.html
(2) Nancy Vogel, “Redistricting back on ballot,” Los Angeles Times, 13 August 2005
(3) “How to rig an election,” The Economist, 25 April 2002
(4) “The Field Poll,” Field Research Corporation, 22 June 2005

11 August 2005

A-bomb at 60

Sixty years have passed since the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet the morality of the decision remains hotly debated, underscoring our own inability to cope with the logic of war.

Our uneasiness with dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki reflects nothing more than our uneasiness with war itself—its barbarity and its senselessness. Yet the quest to offer a definite answer to the perennial dilemma—was Truman right to drop the bombs?— reveals our own limitation in grasping the reality of war; it confuses the moral with the political, and in doing so, leads us to the mistaken conclusion that morality and war can mix well.

Contemporary wisdom believes war has to be clean—few casualties, minimal collateral damage, and only used as a last resort. From this idea have sprung the laws of war—laws to define and codify the rights and responsibilities of combatants and non-combatants. It is easy to think of these laws in moral terms—to think that we have limited the scope of war because it is right to do so; and that when these laws are violated, it is natural to feel outraged.

But the laws of war, much like war itself, is about politics, not morality. Countries have agreed to them because it makes political sense—according your enemy POW status makes it more likely that your troops that are captured will be treated humanely; and the targets that are off limits are largely the targets that offer little tactical advantage once destroyed.

Why is this important? Because the world is entering a new era of warfare where the distinction between peacetime and wartime fades, as does the separation between combatants and non-combatants. All the while, Western societies are changing their perception of war as well: they demand clean wars, “exit strategies,” while their tolerance for the immoral (Abu Ghraib comes to mind) is proving all too limited.

The point is not that warfare needs to be brutal; just that it is likely to be. Consenting to a war on the caveat that it will be clean is the equivalent of going to cook expecting not to get your hands dirty. It is not only that it won’t happen, it’s also less likely that your food will taste good if you cook that way.

Which brings us back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These two bombs remind us that war knows no bounds and that faced with a mortal threat countries will go to any extreme to win. There is no morality, just politics. After all, it is the winners that write the history books.

Robin Cook dies

Robin Cook, former British foreign minister & leader of the House of Commons, died on 6 August 2005, aged 59.

It was on 17 March 2003 that Robin Cook achieved his political peak, when he resigned from the government in protest over the war in Iraq. Cook said:

“Ironically, it is only because Iraq's military forces are so weak that we can even contemplate its invasion. Some advocates of conflict claim that Saddam's forces are so weak, so demoralised and so badly equipped that the war will be over in a few days. We cannot base our military strategy on the assumption that Saddam is weak and at the same time justify pre-emptive action on the claim that he is a threat. Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term—namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target.”

It is a fitting eulogy to read the speech he gave that evening—the only speech ever recorded in the Commons as receiving a standing ovation.

The entirety of his speech can be read and viewed on the BBC website (here).

04 August 2005

Security Council reform

Reforming the Security Council is one of the more complex institutional redraws ever, which is why it is taking so long and why it is unlikely to succeed anytime soon. But the good news is that delay is not a vice, primarily because the Security Council, in its present form, functions well.

To begin with, let’s admit that the veto will never go away; so we cannot compare a veto-bearing council to a veto-less one. Vetoes block resolutions, it is true, but that is not always bad. Remember the saying that it is better for a hundred guilty people to go free than for one innocent to be sent to jail? It’s the same with the Security Council: better for a hundred resolutions to not pass than for one really bad one to be adopted. A bad resolution can convert a political wedge into a legal and institutional one—and could undermine both the UN as an institution and international law as a process.

Which means that a new council will not eschew the political sensitivities that plague it today. There will be no resolutions on Chechnya and there will be no vote on Tibet or Taiwan. It is also unlikely that the Security Council will move into conflicts where it would not otherwise; that’s because the Security Council is usually willing to endorse moves by coalitions of the willing—particularly African missions—even if the P5 will not involve themselves (not, though, when the P5 opposing the moves).

Instead, the main change would be more failed resolutions. More countries will have be persuaded, so the likelihood of any resolution passing will decrease. Even more, with an enlarged Security Council, there will be more national interests that will unveil themselves in council discussions; resolutions will have to be accommodating of more countries’ sensitivities and peculiarities, translating into even fewer resolutions being passed on their merits and value for maintaining peace and security.

What else would a new council do? It can bring more countries to the table and improve its decision-making process. But the idea that unless countries are in the Security Council their worthy ideas will not be heard seems disingenuous. The UN process accords the right to member states to plead their cases with the Security Council, and the UN Charter also gives the Secretary General the option of brining issues on the Security Council agenda. It’s unlikely to find many good ideas about how to manage international politics once more countries are given a seat at the table.

What about the thornier issue: who to include in a new council? To become a permanent member, countries need to have the capacity to maintain peace and security and to add to the Council’s legitimacy.

From the P5, only America, Britain and France have a capable military capacity to enforce their wills in far away lands. Other countries merely have militaries that can play a vital role in peacekeeping. The true problem would be for the deciders to be different from the implementers—for small countries, for example, passing resolutions that the America, British, French, Russian or Chinese militaries would have to enforce. This would never happen because of the veto; it is also unlikely for the P5 to force a resolution onto to another country—force a country, that is, to intervene in conflict to stop it.

In other words, the Security Council capacity to maintain international peace and security would not be enhanced by an enlarged council. What about its legitimacy? On one hand, having more countries accept a resolution adds weight and legitimacy, though a 9-6 resolution (what it needs to pass today) sounds pretty legitimate now too. On the other, more countries can lead to deadlock, and hence raise questions about the efficacy of the United Nations.

The real problem with legitimacy, however, is that there are few unquestionable candidates for the Council. Brazil is a big country, but so is Argentina; and Venezuela carries more influence than any other in Latin America today. A third European seat would reward Germany but it would give disproportionate influence to Europe. An Indian seat would be challenged by Pakistan—imagine the Security Council trying to resolve the issue in Kashmir with India in the Security Council and Pakistan out of it. And an Egyptian seat for Africa would be tricky because Egypt belongs more to the Middle East than to Africa; as for a Middle Eastern seat for Egypt, why Egypt and not Saudi Arabia—or Iran?

Which brings us to Japan and South Africa. Both have an indisputable geopolitical claim to leadership; Japan has spent lots of money on the UN, and South African troops are trying to keep the peace in many of Africa’s wars. Japan’s problem is China, which is unlikely to accept giving its rival a seat. South Africa, though, does not have a similar geopolitical challenge in its way.

It is no coincidence that major institutions are drawn after wars where the balance of power is clear. Today, this task is hard because the world is more complex than at any point in history when statesmen have sat to design a new international order. Reform will be slow and painful. But at least it’s good to know that we shouldn’t lose too much sleep while it takes place.


Terrorism’s half-life

On July 28, the Irish Republican Army “formally ordered an end to the armed campaign” and decided to pursue its goals through “exclusively peaceful means.” This pledge has generated plenty speculation: will the IRA live up to it? And what does this mean for terrorism in general?

It is easy to be cynical about the IRA’s promise, if only because the prospect of ending violence has loomed before, only to prove a fanciful dream. What adds to the skepticism is the IRA’s refusal to produce photographs to document the disarmament process; instead the IRA has invited clerics, Protestant and Catholic, to verify the disarmament—“a cockamamie scheme that anywhere but in Northern Ireland would invite derision,” as Lionel Shriver quipped (1).

All the same, there is plenty to suggest that the IRA might stick to its pledge, if only because it has to. As Quentin Peel of the Financial Times wrote, “the armed struggle is being abandoned because it has failed in both its fundamental goals: to deliver a united Ireland, regardless of the will of the Protestant majority in northern Ireland; and to protect the Roman Catholic minority in the North from intimidation and discrimination” (2).

But the real message to take from the IRA’s renunciation of violence is that terrorism, once unleashed, takes on a life of its own. Terrorism thrives by bequeathing fatal skills to those who are desperate and fanatical. From a political standpoint, this means that compromises with terrorists are unlikely to be all encompassing—splinter groups will form in the fringes. The proliferation of terrorist groups in the Middle East is partly explained by the realignment of terrorists away from groups that have turned soft to those that are more hardcore.

The IRA’s experience also shows how easy it is for terrorism to lose focus. In Northern Ireland, terrorism degenerated into mere criminality; the IRA boasted a bank robbery as part of its recent accomplishments—hardly the way to advance an agenda, and hardly useful to curry favor with the community. In Palestine, too, terrorists seems to have lost sight: they measures success in body counts, theirs and the enemy’s, rather than by Israeli actions that favor them.

Even more, the IRA decision underlines the weakness of terrorism as a strategy, at least when levied domestically. Terrorism drives a wedge between the fighters and the people it is trying to appeal to because it often attacks those it tries to persuade. As David Fromkin wrote, “Che Guevara … warned against the strategy of terrorism, arguing that it hinders ‘contact with the masses and makes impossible unification for actions that will be necessary at a critical moment’” (3).

Put otherwise, the IRA’s farewell to arms proves that terrorism is not a sound long term strategy, and is particularly defective when levied in the terrorists’ back ward. Terrorism wears itself out and morphs into something different; it morphs into a military movement, where the glory of war and the passion of struggle trump the strategic calculation and political grievances that gave rise to terrorism in the first place. This half-life is one of the West’s prime assets in dealing with terrorism.

(1) Lionel Shriver, “IRA’s waste,” Wall Street Journal, 1 August 2005; (2) Quentin Peel, “Proof that terror is doomed to fail,” Financial Times, 4 August 2005; (3) David Fromkin, “The Strategy of Terrorism,” Foreign Affairs, July 1975


03 August 2005


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Nuclear stalemate in Iran

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad just became Iran’s president, heralding a new era of speculation about the country’s nuclear program and the possibility for the West to halt it. But as this discussion takes place, it is worth keeping in mind that the obstacles to resolving the nuclear standoff with Tehran have to do with the differences in America’s and Europe’s approach towards Iran and with the balance of power within Iran.

To begin with, it is doubtful whether Europe and America can cooperate well on Iran. It is easy to presume that their differing approaches—Europe favoring a softer line emphasizing carrots, America preferring a tough line revolving around sticks—form a logical continuum that can be the basis for dealing with Tehran.

But a closer look suggests otherwise. Europe is unlikely to be tough and America is unlikely to be soft, meaning that together they are unlikely to succeed in convincing Iran to give up its nuclear program. On one hand, Europe’s record on Iraq shows that it does not have the perseverance to play tough for long. What is more, Europeans are less accustomed than Americans in equating global problems with national security, and so lack the feeling of urgency that pervades Washington. On the other, although American administrations have made overtures to Tehran, and even this administration has found it cooperative in Iraq (contrasted to what Iran could have done), President Bush’s emphasis on regime change means it is unlikely that America and Iran can find enough common ground to make a diplomatic settlement work.

Add to this Iran’s domestic politics. Many Iranian leaders regard nuclear weapons as the sine qua non of their foreign policy, even if the cost is international isolation and the domestic poverty this entails. Those are the ideologues. But Tehran has pragmatists too. For the pragmatists to gain favor, they have to show that there are benefits from striking a bargain with the West. This, however, requires that America accord an unprecedented degree of trust in Tehran. Or, the pragmatists can gain the upper hand if Iran faces a deep economic and social crisis that forces it to confront its own revolutionary logic and choose butter over guns. But for this to happen, the West needs comprehensive sanctions (i.e. Europe and America working together) that will cripple Iran's economy and trigger the soul-searching that can pave the way for change. It is hard to believe that Europe will go down that path.

In other words, the two factions in Iran can hold their own but cannot change each other’s minds. Iran will be forced to change if Europe agrees to be tough and apply sanctions, but that’s unlikely; on the other, Iran will change willingly if the proper incentives are given, but it is unlikely that Washington will be fully convinced that Tehran’s regime has changed and hence be willing to extend so many carrots.

This is a vicious cycle that will be hard to break.

Further reading:
Kenneth Pollack & Ray Takeyh, “Taking on Tehran,” Foreign Affairs, March / April 2005 (link)

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Terrorist charms

Anne Applebaum wrote a column for today's Washington Post that is well worth reading; it is entitled, "The Discreet Charm of the terrorist cause," and begins:

"Since the bombing attacks in London last month, a welter of columnists, writers, talking heads and ordinary people have puzzled over the mystery of British Muslims, one in four of whom recently told pollsters that they sympathize with the July 7 suicide bombers.

The idea that British Muslims, whose parents received asylum, found jobs, and made lives in Britain, could be so deeply affected by the "oppression" of Muslims in countries they have never visited seems incomprehensible. The notion that events in distant deserts should lead the middle-class inhabitants of London or Leeds to admire terrorists seems inexplicable. But why should this phenomenon be so incomprehensible or inexplicable, at least to Americans? We did, after all, once tolerate a similar phenomenon ourselves.

I am talking about the sympathy for the Irish Republican Army that persisted for decades in some Irish American communities and is only now fading away."

Close the end, Ms. Applebaum writes,

"My point here isn't really about Northern Irish politics, however, but about the extraordinarily powerful appeal of foreign, 'revolutionary,' 'idealistic' violence to the inhabitants of otherwise peaceful societies. You don't have to be Muslim, or poor, or an extremist, to feel the romantic pull of terrorism. You can be a middle-class American and a lapsed Catholic whose grandmother happened to come from Donegal."


01 August 2005

Bolton appointed to UN

President Bush announced on Monday that he is appointing John Bolton as America’s ambassador to the United Nations. A recess appointment that will last until Congress’s next session in January 2007, the decision caused a lot of controversy—both in its substance as well as in the manner in which it was made.

First a comment about process; a recess appointment is surely not the optimum way for anyone to get appointed. But it seems like the whole process had been derailed; the standoff over Bolton seemed impossible to break; not only would it have been irresponsible for America to lack an ambassador as the UN General Assembly returned to work in September, it is also doubtful that having more talks in the Senate would have resolved the questions that Democrats had over Bolton. Given that the Senate refused to hold an up-or-down vote, a recess appointment seems a reasonable way out.

As for substance, it is hard to predict what kind of ambassador Bolton will make. A hard talker is surely necessary when talking about reform, and it is useful to know that he won’t budge in identifying problems in the United Nations as that body contemplates reforms to make itself more effective. As for his presumed aggressive tone, it is worth remembering that Colin Powell’s conciliatory tone could not do wonders for America’s case for war in Iraq.

(Let’s not forget the January 20, 2003 incident in the UN that infuriated Powell; as he went down to the UN for a meeting on terrorism, France’s foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, announced that “nothing” justified war in Iraq, effectively undercutting America’s efforts to secure a second resolution. According to Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, it was Powell’s desire not to “stiff the world organization,” that made him attend the meeting where he embarrassingly heard de Villepin make that statement. In other words, kindness doesn’t always pay.)

My overall feeling is that Bush rightly broke an impasse that dragged on for no reason and with no presumed end date. From now on, at least, Bolton can be judged on his record as ambassador rather than his presumed past actions, that Senators have been unable to affirm whether they were really uncalled for.

(For those who think that Bolton will mean bad things for America and the UN, I leave you with a cartoon from Clay Bennet of the Christian Science Monitor.)

John Garang dies

On Saturday night, a helicopter carrying John Garang back from Uganda crashed, killing him and thirteen others on board. Garang, a former leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), was the country’s vice president and a figurehead for the recent peace deal conducted between the warring parties in the south and the government in Khartoum.

As news of his death hit the country, riots erupted, killing up to 20 people in Khartoum (according to BBC News). Still, his wife has pleaded with the rioters to remain calm; “It is the body who has gone," she was quoted as saying in the New York Times; “His spirit, his vision, his program, we're going to implement them.”

The peace in Sudan is still fragile, to say nothing of the violence that still rages in the Western province of Darfur. But it is worth remembering that the Rwandan genocide in 1994 started when a plane carrying Rwanda’s Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana, was taken down by two missiles. Of course, Garang’s crash has been pinned on bad weather, a claim that remains hitherto undisputed; and the Hutus used the crash as an excuse for violence that had long been in the making.

All the same, the next few days will be crucial; a genocide might not occur (that is reserved for Darfur), but the peace could unravel all the same as the confidence that has taken so long to build is steadily eroded by the absence of Garang’s towering presence.

US asked to leave K-2

Uzbekistan has asked Washington to evacuate the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base (known in the military as K-2) within six months time. Tashkent is apparently irritated with the UN operation that flew 440 Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan to Romania, refugees that reached Kyrgyzstan after the May uprising in the Andijan province in Uzbekistan.

Among those flown out are 14 people that Uzbekistan claims led the May revolt and wants returned so they can be tried. Even now, the BBC reports that Bishkek is likely to comply with Tashkent and turn over up to 15 people; the exact number will depend on Bishkek’s agreement with the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, who has granted refugee status to some of the 15 people in question.

The Bush Administration has been quick to minimize the effect of this expulsion; the New York Times quotes a senior Air Force officer as saying: “It's not a big deal, especially if they continue to grant us overflight rights. Even without the overflight, we're still O.K. It's just a longer routing going into Afghanistan,” while Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld commented that, “We always think ahead. We'll be fine.”

But this latest development shows the growing incompatibility between America’s military objectives in the region and its human rights rhetoric. Even more, it highlights how limited America’s capacity to affect change can be, particularly as it depends on countries for assistance in fighting terror.

In Kyrgyzstan, America has been allowed to maintain its air base in Manas on a conditional basis; the Kyrgyz Defense Minister has said that the US base will remain “as long as the situation in Afghanistan requires.” This suggests a tactical rather than strategic partnership between America and the country.

The BBC has also reported that Pakistan is soon to acquire two F16 planes, the first delivery to that country since a 1990 embargo over Islamabad’s nuclear program; in the future, Pakistan is believed to be after as many as 25 planes (to add to its fleet of 30 existing F16s). There is no doubt that this sale is a reward for Pakistan’s assistance in the “war on terror.”

Pakistan aside, the difficulties that America is facing have much to do with China’s own growing influence in Central Asia—its cozying up to Uzbekistan is surely responsible for the confidence the Tashkent felt in confronting America. In other words, Secretary Rumsfeld might always be thinking ahead, but the latest developments should give a pause to Secretary Rice about a region were America might slowly be edged out of.

CAFTA dissent

Bernard K. Gordon, professor emeritus in economics at the University of New Hampshire, wrote today (1 August 2005) an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal titled, “CAFTA’s false advertising.” Here are two paragraph that merit particular attention:

“But there's an even greater reason to doubt, from the perspective of most Americans, the genuine need for Cafta, and that's the signal it sends elsewhere -- especially in Asia. In that region, arguments on behalf of an ‘East Asian Community,’ as well as for various Asian economic cooperation arrangements, are all the rage. They are increasingly justified as Asia's necessary response to what are portrayed as America's Western Hemisphere economic integration plans. In that light, Cafta, along with U.S. hopes to build an even broader ‘Free Trade Area of the Americas,’ are seen as poster-boys for the view that Asia must do the same.

We say we are pro 'free trade,' but we continue to undermine the WTO's genuinely global Doha Round by pressing for special blocs in this hemisphere. And we further undermine essential U.S. economic and security interests by encouraging the rise of blocs in regions that remain of profound importance to the U.S. That's something to ponder as Cafta moves closer to final approval, and in the light of clear evidence that it brings little if anything new to America's table.”

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