Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Upcoming Surprise War

de Südsudan en Southern Sudan ru Южный СуданImage via Wikipedia
It will be a surprise in the West, at least.  Get ready for a vicious little war in Sudan that will spill over into Uganda and Ethiopia. And it will be about oil.

Come January, the independence referendum in southern Sudan will either have been approved resoundingly or Khartoum will delay the vote.  Both will result in war and if anyone thinks that Darfur is bad - well, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

The proposed border is vague, to say the least. The oil resources straddle the border. Northern Sudan has been at war in the south for three decades. Over 1 million people have died. Both the north and south depend on the oil revenues while China and India depend on the oil. The rest of the planet is distracted - there will be no US or EU intervention.  The African Union is weak and broke.

The factors coming together - oil, religion, geography and no prospect of outside intervention - are deadly.  The importance of avoiding a major conflict cannot be overstated.  If Uganda and Ethiopia become destabilized the prospects of penetration by trans-national Islamic militants is huge and their own internal problems will be made worse.  Loss of oil production will force China and India to look elsewhere - and prices will go up.

Three months and counting.
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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Good Night Mayor Luzhkov

TVERSKAYA SQUARE, MOSCOW. At Moscow City Day c...Image via Wikipedia
President Medvedev dropped the other shoe and summarily dismissed Mayor Luzhkov. The face - either loved or despised - of Moscow for almost two decades is gone. A fake populist, sometimes corrupt, always in-your-face politician who nevertheless always kept his word if you kept yours, is going to be a hard act to follow.  But Moscow and Russia have grown up. Luzhkov did not grow with it.

Yuri Luzhkov was a national figure and transformed the city - some say for the worse.  There is no doubt that he changed its face from a somewhat dreary, grey and graceless city that I remember from 1969 and on my next visit n 1989 to a center of fashion, art, night-clubs and expensive shops and five star hotels it is today.  But it did lose a certain poetry.  Old, quiet neighborhoods such as the one I lived in for three years in 1994 were transformed as high-rises with apartments selling for  $3,000 a meter or more concealed the sky while parks vanished as land became more valued than quality of life.  I tend to cringe now if I need to travel there, dreading the truly astonishing traffic jams that make New York City look vehicle free.

But, he put Moscow on the map.
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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Iran and US on Common Ground

Isn't it nice to know that those in the US who so despise Muslims in general and Iranians in particular are on the same level as Iranians when it comes to the death penalty?

German Technology to the Rescue

A wreath Kolsch Beer - LA Times of Kölsch.Image via Wikipedia
OK.  This is cool and out of Agence France-Press (sorry, no link available):

Germany's giant Oktoberfest beer party, now celebrating its 200th birthday, is rising to a new challenge, stinky drinking halls, with a new weapon: stench-eating bacteria.

In past years, olfactory offences in the giant tents emanating from stale beer, sweat and bratwurst could simply be masked with cigarette smoke.
But now smokers hoping to enjoy a puff with their brew were advised to leave their packets at home after the southern state of Bavaria decided to ban smoking across the state in all pubs, cafes and beer tents.
This development led one enterprising German, Hubert Hackl, to cook up a cocktail of bacteria that "eat" the putrid smell of partying. Hackl's magic potion is a "brownish liquid with the pleasant scent of humus", or mature compost, he said, rounded off with a hint of seaweed and molasses then left to ferment.
The beer halls, where up to 7,000 revelers can gather, are usually poorly ventilated. The stale air combined with rotten food scraps, spilled drinks and body odor can form a noxious mix. Spread across the wooden floorboards of the beer tents at a volume of 200 milliliters per square meter per day, Hackl's concoction travels the same route as the spilled beer, seeping between the planks and into the soil.  The process eliminates the undesirable organic materials nestled under the tents, ensuring that what wafts back up has a neutral earthy smell.

What remains is "a natural fertilizer for grass growing back in the spring," said Hackl, who has been supplying detergents and other cleaning products to the beer festival for 28 years.
As I said - pretty cool. 
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Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Russian Are Coming - Again

Back in August, 25 Islamic militants escaped from a high security prison in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.  The government immediately initiated a hunt.  It's not going well.  On September 19 in the northeastern valley of Rasht, militants ambushed a Tajik patrol and killed at least 25 soldiers.  Nothing like this has been seen in a decade.

There are a whole variety of different militant groups operating in Tajikistan whose terrain is difficult, to say the least. Similar groups exits in Uzbekistan and the Kyrgyz Republic. The sudden increase in activity coupled with the upcoming withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan just to the south may spell trouble for the entire region.

Which is why the Russians are coming.  They have never rally left and have bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, most notably along the Uzbek border who the Russians fear may have designs on becoming the regional power since it has the largest population and a ruthless military. But all the countries have an interest in making sure the conflicts of the 1990s don't return, especially in the form of Islamic militancy. So the Russian just sent around 25,000 troops to Tajikistan.  More will be coming and China will certainly take an interest as some of the militant groups spill over into their territory. 

As the US pulls back and the latest iteration of The Great Game dials down, these Central Asian republics are in for a ride.  It will be left to the Russians.

The US Congress Gets Broken

To honor my commitment by its breach to avoid discussing American politics, I could not avoid watching the tube of Steve Colbert testifying on immigration before Congress.  It's easy to find - go do a search. 

However, it is interesting to note the outrage it generated from, mostly, those intellectually challenged tea baggers the Americans are going to put in power in November (or in the case of one particularly galactically stupid Republican (sorry for the redundancy) Congressman - Representative Steve King.  Anyway, I particularly enjoyed this from Colbert:
I don't want a tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, sliced by a Guatemalan . . . and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian.
And the only ones who took his character seriously were - well, you guessed it.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Who Lost India? Courtesy of Robert Kaplan

getting startedImage by amanky via Flickr
Robert Kaplan has been around for some time now and could be characterized as a "reasonable" neo-con. He supported, indeed promoted, the invasion of Iraq before he opposed the war.  He is all for intervention by the US against leaders like Saddam Hussein. Still.  Because he travelled to these oppressed countries and saw for himself the suffering of the population.  Now, in this paper he explains why, if the US deserts Afghanistan it is deserting India and because of the geography of the sub-continent and its history, India will be driven into the arms of China.

Although Kaplan does not explicitly state that the US should remain in Afghanistan, its pretty much there in the background.  He says that the US should not spend enormous amounts of money in Afghanistan specifically to impress India, but it must be part of the considerations regarding the Afghan strategy.

I find this whole line of reasoning to be somewhat STRATFOR-ESQ (one of the leading foreign policy analyst publications with a geo-political bent).  This is not a zero sum game among China the US and India. India is concerned about a Taliban takeover after the US leaves next summer. But so does Russia and China.  Pakistan might benefit as their security apparatus uses the Taliban to its own ends - but that particular relationship is pretty much soured - and provide them with a secure rear when facing India.  But that's not the point. India was not leaning toward China before the Afghan war despite Taliban control. It is unlikely to jump into the arms of the Chinese - a major competitor both economically and politically - after the US withdraws.

Therefore, Kaplan is just throwing up his straw-man of the "who lost India" genre in order to forestall the end day of US involvement with Kabul on a military basis.
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About Time

It's good to see an article like this.   At a time when US foreign policy is about to be hijacked by those who accept the support of the worst and highly ignorant elements of US society, more of this type of journalism will be needed.

Iran Losing Key Support?

In a surprising move, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has signed a decree banning the delivery of the S-300 air defense system and a host of other major arms to Iran, apparently in response to the new UN sanctions.  Since the S-300 system doesn't even make it to the UN list of conventional arms and would be entirely justified, the move is clearly a sign that the deal made between Washington and Moscow for more investment into Russia had a catch.  More investment, fewer supplies to Iran. 

Also included in the ban was entry to and transit through  Russia for a Iranians connected with Iran's nuclear program while simultaneously banning Russians or Russian firms from rendering financial services if the services relate to Iran's nuclear activity.

The move by Moscow is a big deal.  It signals that Russia's foreign policy may be returning to a more pragmatic view of the world based on self-interest.  Ultimately, it is not in Russian's interest to have a strong Islamic state to the south that is very capable of causing trouble in Russian dominated regions of its neighbors or even its internal trouble spots of Chechnya and Ingusetia.  It is in its national interest to attract Western investment of every type.  In that scenario, Iran is dispensable.

The UN sanction regime still won't work in and of themselves - but losing allies like Russia at a time when Iran cannot be certain that the US may be changing its tactics regarding military intervention, may be the beginning of a change in Iran's tactics overall.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Fighting Mayor of Moscow

Yuri LuzhkovImage via Wikipedia
On a light note, your blogger has been reading the gossip pages of the Russian print media (no access to state controlled TV) and following the Luzhkov Chronicles.

This guy has been around for as long as I can remember. I actually was there when his predecessor – a very forgettable fellow and why his name escapes me – was in power. Luzhkov has been the powerful, contentious, outspoken mayor of Moscow for almost two decades. Now he seems to be on the way out.

The Kremlin wants him to go. He says he intends to stay until his term expires in mid-2011. The Kremlin reminded him that he is appointed and can be removed by the Kremlin. Others have noted that, indeed, the Kremlin can fire him. But, unfortunately they need a reason. Fire him without a reason and the political campaign could be adversely affected as he is not short on popularity.

Putin is his friend. Medvedev is not. Putin and Medvedev are partners and Luzhkov has been doing his very verbal best to divide the two. After taking a not-so-subtle shot at the Kremlin after he was told to resign and refused, Luzhkov announced last week that he was heading on vacation to Austria.

Except his wife took over. Yelena Baturina is anything but subtle. She tends to name names. She is Russia's richest woman, making her fortune as the head of a construction equipment manufacturer. She has always stayed out of the public eye. Until now.

Her husband's fight with the Kremlin and the media onslaught unleashed on him by every major national broadcaster has brought her out of the closet. Using slightly less vague and diplomatic language and naming names, Baturina accused the Kremlin of orchestrating the media's smear campaign against her husband. This is a blinding grasp of the obvious, but nevertheless something that is usually uttered in subdued locations over tea. She said that there are people "who fear that in the 2012 presidential campaign, Luzhkov will back Prime Minister Vladimir Putin over President Dmitry Medvedev."

And who said politics in Russia was predictable?
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Globalization and Foreign Policy Choices

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama famously erred when he declared the end of history and subsequently admitted he was wrong. Many – if not most – people wished he was right because economic globalization coupled with the perceived triumph of democratic regimes over totalitarian would herald in a new age of peace and prosperity. How’s that working out?

The military and economic hegemony – characterized best, I think, by The Economist cover of the US soldier in Roman garb standing guard on the walls, lasted a whole ten years. Now we are well into the era of renewed nationalism and economic competition that leans toward protectionism. The hubris accompanying the US and UK invasion of Iraq for no legitimate reason slammed the door on two trends. One was of less conflict and the other of economic liberalization.

By bankrupting the US economy, alienating just about everyone and fulfilling the dreams of transnational jihadists, the Iraq adventure significantly changed how the major economic and military powers viewed their positions and actions for the future. US foreign policy has barely adjusted to the multi-polar world that has emerged, much to its diminishment except for its military.

Europe, despite numerous opportunities to develop a unified foreign and economic policy, has fallen back to a barely concealed competition among EU member states with France and Germany leading the way while losing control over some of its poorly managed members.

China, not a poster child for a model democracy, is now the second most economic power on the planet and surging. And make no mistake – military power follows economic power. Its neighbour, India, is also growing rapidly and, fortunately does not harbour the same command economy and totalitarian regime.

Economic competition for energy resources has increased dramatically, putting the old war zones of Central Asia, the Caucuses and the Gulf back into play.

The new world order is beginning to look a lot like the old world order. It’s going to last a good bit longer than a decade.

Foreign policy in the US has focused on terrorism and the threat of Islamic extremism and in particular, the transnational jihadist threat. It is a threat of course, but to place it first on the list of concerns requiring action is a mistake. Globalization has been remarkably successful, of course, in shifting economic power to non-Western countries. US foreign policy, which now appears to be driven by fear, has yet to come to terms with this phenomenon which could be looked at as simply a return to normal.

During the 19th century, China accounted for around 30 percent of the world economy. During the same period India could claim 15 percent while Europe was over 20 percent. It should surprise no one that even toward the end of that century the US held its own at 2 percent. In the mid-twentieth century the situation was reversed for China and India while the US and Europe controlled over 25% percent each. At present, although the US still remains at the top at over 25%, China and India have rapidly regained their old seats. Pay-back can be painful.

This economic shift informs foreign policy in general. The strong growth we are witnessing in China and India needs to be fed and Europe and the US, not to mention Japan and Brazil, are all in competition to secure energy resources. The problem is that energy sources are largely located in regions not known for stability, creating flashpoints. US policy after 9/11 was dictated by energy – a point that did not go unobserved by critics of the Iraq invasion. That has not worked out as planned and the use-force-first policy of the Bush administration has, at least in the Middle East where it was exercised with a vengeance, resulted in elevating the power status of Iran. Not exactly the desired result.

US foreign policy is changing under the new administration from one of obnoxious unilateralism to its traditional multilateralism. It recognizes the need for cooperation with Europe; compromise with other powers and to engage. US foreign policy has also begun to revert to a working relationship with China based on mutual dependence. A partnership with China will be essential to maintain peace and economic growth. If the relationship goes south and the status quo is changed then conflict is likely sometime in the future.

A new US policy of engagement in the Middle East is also critical. Except for the war in Iraq, the previous US administration studiously ignored the rest and refused to challenge Israeli policies or engage with other players, such as Syria. There are clear signs of improvement, but all this can and will unravel with a return to the policies of the Bush administration which seems likely due to the rise of the religious right in the US; so progress needs to be made and solidified before that happens.

Europe has a huge challenge. A visitor from the planet Zog who analysed the potential of Europe as a whole, would likely be astonished at its low economic and military standing on the planet relative to the US, China and Japan. It simply does not make sense.

Germany and France need to first help put the EU house in order by leading and not dominating. This may be a difficult process given Germany’s recent proclivity toward bullying Eastern European and other economically challenged members. Nevertheless, there have been signs of an easing of German attempts to shape the EU to its purposes at the expense of everyone else. Simultaneously, Europe needs to begin to engage the world as a unit. This will be a much harder, but necessary task but commonalities with other countries exist in Africa and the sub-continent.

Finally, for now, the Western world needs to actually complete the Doha round which has been languishing for a decade in an unfinished state. Clearly, the process of Doha is not working. It is time to come up with another.

Engagement for the West with the rising powers must take priority but without illusions. China is not a democracy and not a free market so dealing with non-democratic countries will take time and CNN, BBC and Sky News will need to do without their requisite sound bites.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Afghanistan Nation Building

The title of this post is wrong.  Afghanistan has never been and will never be a nation except in the short-lived case of control by a ruthless local chief who happens to have, for an instant in time, overwhelming force backed by financial deals and power sharing.  He too shall pass.

It is still a strange turn of events that led the US from its principal, strategic reason for striking in the first place - severely damaging Al Qaida  and denying it and other jihadist groups from establishing a base in the future. In that, the US policy has succeeded. Nation building has nothing to do with it and still does not - or at least should not.

Once US military forces are withdrawn, the infighting will begin again with local forces manipulated by Russia, Pakistan, India and Iran.  In January I suggested that the best policy for the US was withdrawal of most combat troops and a reversion to tactics that reflected the only legitimate and achievable US strategic objective - preventing the use of Afghanistan as a base for terror operations and so degrading and destroying the central command of Al Qaida that it would be unable to mount any trans-national operations. The latter has been achieved and can be maintained through the use of much smaller, quickly deployed ground units and air strikes. Instead, a surge was initiated to defeat the Taliban and create a nation around President Karzai. This is simply not going to succeed.

The US will need to find a political solution and leave with grace - unlike the English and Russians before them. Afghanistan is simply not worth the candle.

Iran Follow-Up Saudi Build-up

Speaking of Iran and the concerns of Saudi Arabia - the US withdrawal from Iraq has shaken the Saudi's.  As I mentioned, it is not the nuclear threat that Iran may pose - it is the conventional.  In the previous post, I neglected to mention this.

Iran Again

The chattering classes in Washington and Europe have been quiet of late regarding Iran, particularly in light of the withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq - save for the 50,000 or so that remain.  But in light of the new sanctions imposed, what is being planned in response to the continued intransigence of the Iranian government? Frankly, anyone outside the White House, Pentagon and CIA who says they know, doesn't. 

The US foreign policy of force first, talking later, has produced a profound imbalance in the Middle East. Bush dismantled Iraq - the only power capable of presenting a problem to Tehran. The hand wringing over potential Iranian nuclear capability and the threat to Israel remains in full view and is dutifully reported by a compliant media, particularly in the US.  That is not the problem.

The media conveniently forgets that Iran has a significant, well trained military force capable of stirring the pot in the region. The country that is most concerned is not Israel. It is Saudi Arabia. And it is about oil.  Iran's trump card is not nuclear, it is messing about in the Persian Gulf.  So, aside from the fact that even a nuclear armed Iran would not pose a threat to the US, disrupting oil supplies would. 

Let's assume that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon next Saturday.  If an attack were launched to destroy all its nuclear facilities, and succeeded (far from a certainty) - so what?  The loss would be annoying for Iran, but still would leave it capable of disrupting oil flows, destabilizing Iraq completely and interfering with activities of NATO in Afghanistan.  This is not a nice scenario and which is why I dismiss all the talk about bombing Iran and taking out its nuclear facilities. 

Sanctions are ineffective and bombing would collapse the economies of the world as oil vanished  from the Persian Gulf.  Time to find a different way to get the attention of Tehran in a way that makes it reconsider its policies.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Turkey Rising - Redux

Flags of the EU and Turkey.Image via Wikipedia
I admit that I am somewhat of a Turkophile, but the recent referendum on constitutional reforms has again demonstrated that Turkey is a key player – if not the key player – for Europe and the West in the Middle East.

For all the puffery of the prior US administration regarding building democracy in the Middle East by invading Iraq and threatening Iran, the foreign policy of Bush studiously ignored the growing democratic movement in Turkey. It is now taking the lead and, given European attitudes of exclusion toward countries and, more recently, ethnic groups, is likely to move forward without Europe or the US.
The first attempts at a renewed democratic movement ended with a whimper in the early 1990’s.

The conclusion was that liberalization and policies of inclusion - of the Kurds, non-Muslims and other ethnic groups – had failed. The trouble with this conclusion is that it is based on the childish assumption that people will support initiatives that improve society rather than voting against their own interests. People are generally inclined to only think of themselves. Just take a look at the return to the disaster of Republican policies in the US which brought that country an acceptance of torture, use of military force as the first resort. an economy geared to reward the wealthy and election of truly dangerously ignorant people who knew how to use fear of change and outright lies to retain power. Turkey has turned the corner on that particular obstacle with the 58% vote in favour of more democracy.

Turkey achieved this European Union sanctioned step-forward by a hitherto impossible alliance between conservative Moslems and liberals, both of whom suffered under what had become a limited democracy imposed by the military and the Kemalists who were stuck in the wrong century. Continuing this progress will not be easy, however, as the PKK terrorists have made very clear with continuing political violence to extent that they, like their Taliban counterparts, opposed participation in the national referendum.

From a foreign policy standpoint, the results for the government will strengthen their resolve to pursue their “peaceful neighbourhood” policy - much to the annoyance of those wishing for an attack on Iran and a continuance of the apartheid policies in Israel. This policy includes economic cooperation with its ancient competitor, Iran. Khodro, an Iranian carmaker, plans to manufacture automobiles in Turkey in a “free zone” to be established on the border between the two countries. This involves some risk as it is clear that Iran continues to pursue policies which, sooner or later, may have adverse consequences of a military nature. But, it expands Turkish influence.

The US/Turkey relationship is more complicated than that of Europe’s with Ankara. Both the US and Turkey foreign policy concerns interact regarding Israel and Iran. Unfortunately, the US Congress, about to be taken over by the most regressive minds of the country, will soon become more hostile and less pragmatic toward Turkey which is the straw-that-stirs the drink in the region. US foreign policy in the region is not reflective of its national interests. However, it would be a gross mistake to think that US policy will be able to influence events without Turkey’s assistance. Israel is no longer enough and, in any event, has managed to hold hostage US foreign policy for too long.

Turkey, on the other hand, cannot overplay its influence as, regardless of the growing economic ties with Iran, the latter remains a significant competitor which can upset any move toward peace in the region. Iran has a significant conventional military capability as well which, though no match for Turkey’s, could make matters worse in the Gulf region and Iraq. Turkey cannot afford to become too estranged from the US in that case.

The European Union, though not any closer to accepting Turkey into its club, will likely forge ahead with developing other forms of cooperation with Turkey. Turkey’s recent referendum which produced extended praise in Brussels will help to develop a closer relationship. This is no doubt on the minds of the AKP in Ankara as it ponders what to do with its soon to be far worse relationship with the US as a result of the Greek and Armenian lobbies as well as the religious far right take-over in the US. This is an opportunity for Brussels for political and economic diplomacy after a summer of disastrous economic problems triggered by the financial melt-down of an irresponsible Greece.

Finally, should it be necessary to point out that the US is far away and its only super-power status is its military reach? Moscow certainly has taken notice of this weakness and has vastly increased its influence in Turkey. Moscow holds the key to the Ngorno-Kharabakh and its recent military treaty with Armenia should, but won’t, wake up the Armenian diaspora in the US which continues to wield political influence far beyond what it should to prevent any sort of agreement among Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Ankara wants a solution in the NK. The deal it strikes with the Kremlin and Baku in the future will stun the diaspora. Any deal will increase Russian influence in the South Caucuses but will fall into the Turkish foreign policy framework established by the AKP – whether the US likes it or not.

Barring a major outbreak of violence or an attack on Iran by the US (Israel has no hope of doing that alone) Ankara will become the overwhelming “go-to” country in the region.
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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Florida Pastor and the Koran

Nice to know that an insignificant, red-neck Christian taliban preacher from no-where Florida can adversely impact US foreign policy interests and threaten to burn the religous text of a billion or so people.  As the US electorate is poised to re-enter the Bush era where US foreign policy offended everyone, they should recall that their troops are still in Iraq (and not leaving anytime soon despite their withdrawal from cities) and are in active combat in Afghanistan protecting a corrupt Molselm government from a fanatical Moslem group.  Their oil comes from Moslem countries which happen to be considered important US alllies and they are paying large amounts of their tax dollars to Inida's Moslem neighbor.

Oh. One other thing. As a born and raised New Yorker, I'd like to suggest to red-neck Republican America to keep their bigoted noses out of New York City.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Winter Break

For about a month I have been too busy with actual work to post.  I've chosen to call it my double super secret winter break ("Animal House" version).  It is now over and spring is here.  For those who don't know, I am currently in Lesotho.

I'm hoping to add my two cents to the prognostications (all bad to grim) regarding the renewed Israeli - Palestinian talks as well as the dangerously fluid Iraq political situation and the off-the-front page Central Asia region and the foreign policy shifts in Russia.  I hope to avoid any comments, as usual, on the increasingly dangerous movement in the US toward an intolerant, ignorant, right wing society - but will comment on the risk that shift poses to the rest of the world.  Finally, I hope to add more posts on thrusts within the development community and the impacts of aid interventions.

Posts begin today.