Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year to All

2008 Taipei City New Year Countdown Party: The...
Thank you loyal readers and to all, a happy, prosperous and healthy New Year.
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US Foreign Policy Gains with Recess Appointments

Fortunately, President Obama has finally shown some backbone and made several important recess appointments that are critical for US foreign policy. Three of the key appointments are those of ambassadors to Turkey, Syria and Azerbaijan.

Frank Ricciardone is the new ambassador to Ankara ending five months without representation in Turkey, a key player in the region. In proceeding with the recess appointment President Obama has filled a gaping hole in the ability of America to have a voice on the ground in a critical area of the world. A gaping hole produced by the rank stupidity of the Republicans and their anti-Turkish allies who would sacrifice a relationship with the most powerful and influential country in the region for the pitiful, Russian ally, Armenia.

Similarly, American, not Armenian or Israeli interests, will be served well by the appointment of late Wednesday, Obama announced recess appointments of Matt Bryza to be ambassador to Azerbaijan and Robert Ford to Syria.

Bryza’s confirmation had been put on hold by pro-Armenian Democratic senators Barbara Boxer and Robert Menendez; Obama’s recess-appointment decision was protested by the largest and most influential U.S. Armenian group.

Bryza is a career diplomat but was opposed by some in the Armenian-American community because of comments he made in his previous position as deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs while trying to negotiate an end to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, an intractable issue largely controlled by Russia.

Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America said “Armenian-Americans are deeply troubled by President Obama’s decision today to circumvent the U.S. Senate and use a recess appointment to send a deeply flawed diplomat to represent America in Azerbaijan” .

“The president’s push to send Matt Bryza to Baku without Senate approval represents a disservice to American diplomacy that will, sadly, undermine our nation’s ability to advance our interests and values in the Caucasus region”.

Mr. Hamparian, with all due respect, is full of it. Armenia is a Russian ally. It is unbelievably corrupt and undemocratic despite, or perhaps as a result of, being the recipient of hundreds of millions of US aid dollars. It recently signed a treaty with the Russian Federation renewing the military base in Gumri and all its borders are guarded by Russian troops. The California Armenians are very willing to fight to the last local Armenians in defense of retaining the NK as a part of Armenia. Yerevan’s values and interests have nothing to do with Mr. Hamparian’s values and interests. Furthermore, from a geo-political standpoint, keeping Azerbaijan independent of Russia is vastly more important despite it’s less than stellar political system.

For a taste of what Mr. Hamparian is touting as Armenian values, one case currently before the European Court of Human Rights is an appeal to review the case of Armenian opposition activist and former newspaper editor-in-chief Nikol Pashinian.

His attorney filed suit at the Strasbourg court against Pashinian's unjust prosecution, prison conditions and limitations to visiting hours. Pashinian was arrested in 2009 on charges of inciting violence against the authorities and organizing mass unrest on March 1, following a February 2008 election, an election that was questionably handled.

He was convicted by an Armenian court and ordered to serve a 7 year sentence. He is currently being held in Artik prison. Artik prison is an atrocious facility.

Pashinian is the editor-in-chief of the daily Haykakan Zhamanak (The Armenian Times), a popular daily known for its support for Armenia’s first president Levon Ter-Petrosian, and has written a number of severely critical articles about President Serge Sarkisian and his predecessor Robert Kocharian.

His lawyer is not allowed to see his client in private to discuss the course of the trial. This is an open violation of human rights and, I might add, violates even Armenian laws. Further, his wife has claimed that he had been assaulted in prison several times in the last two months by masked people. Having lived and worked in Armenia, I would give this claim credence. She has said she feared for his life and is only allowed to see her husband once a month for four hours.

His situation is just an example of the crippled state of Armenian democracy and how human rights and the freedom of speech are persecuted in the country for the political ends of the few.

And here is another: Armenia has denied a broadcast license to an independent television station, A1+, despite a European Court of Human Rights judgment that previous denials violated freedom of expression, an international Human Rights watchdog reported this week.

"Today's decision is another setback for freedom of expression and information in Armenia," said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. "It's clear that keeping a critic off the air is more important to this government than its international legal obligations.

So when a head of an Armenian-American lobbying group talks about values he needs to take a pill and face reality. It is not in American interests to support an un-democratic Russian ally with delusions of regional importance.

The Turkish appointment is vastly more important than the one to Azerbaijan. Turkey is a NATO member and a balancing force with a vibrant economy and strong military. The Russian Federation actually pays attention to Ankara and as the US has found out, without a voice on the ground it has far less influence in Turkey’s foreign affairs decisions.

Also, from a geo-political standpoint, engaging with Syria is a major component in US middle-eastern foreign policy. As much as the current Israeli government, under the control apparently of its thuggish foreign minister, might prefer to isolate Syria that policy has been a mistake. Syria is intent on regaining what it considers historical control of Lebanon and to that extent is not entirely happy with the level of Iranian intervention through Hezbollah. Turning Syria would only help Israel as nothing gets to Hezbollah from Iran without Syrian acquiescence. Iran knows this as well so the appointment of a US ambassador to Damascus will be of great concern to Tehran.

Good for President Obama.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Random End of Year Thoughts

I've been away from my usual place of work, recouperating in the Seychelles which improved my less than stellar French and driving on the left without careening into trees or oncoming traffic.  At least there - as opposed to here - driving is civilized, correct and polite.

My objective while away was to refrain from outside contact.  I succeeded - with no computer, no phone(mobile or otherwise) and no newspapers (which I've largely stopped reading anyway).  On returning to my terribly unique place of work (so the natives seem to believe) I noted a couple of things happened in the world despite my vacation.

The first is that President Lukashenko was re-elected in a landslide.  I'm shocked. Let's see if Brussels can figure out a greater than submissive response to the joke of Eastern Europe. It is time to dump the Eastern Partnership Program as it applies to Belarus. It may be time to seek alternative means to rid Europe and Belarus of Mr. Lukashenko - whether the Kremlin likes it or not.

Speaking of the Kremlin, a Moscow court on Monday found jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky guilty in his second fraud trial, a judgment that should be seen as a pivotal moment in Russia's post-Soviet history . This joke of rule of law should be a warning to potential investors that Russia is not a safe place to do business, that democracy of any form is dead and that it is time for the world to see the back of Putin and his concept of "controlled democracy".   Foreign policy dealings with Moscow should reflect that this is not a free country but is rather one with no press freedom, saddled with a legal system riddled with corruption and a government that is little better than a dictatorship, marginally better than China, but without the grace.

Then, of course, there is Israel whose foreign policy is being run by the boorish, dangerous, car-salesman from Moldova. If anyone must go, and go soon, it is the current government.  It is isolating Israel through genuinely stupid remarks made by Lieberman, a simpleminded thug. Although both Turkey and Israel have been trying to reconcile behind closed doors, Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the fundamentalist wing of Netanyahu’s right wing government appears determined to be a total spoiler of any rapprochement between the two. The fact that Lieberman is under investigation for corruption yet still controls the foreign policy of the country is appalling.  In 2011 there will be recognition of an independent Palestinian state wheter Israel likes it or not. The war for more bedroom space will enter a new phase.

Then Hugo the Pompous of Venezuela didn't like the last election result so he has arranged for the lame duck legislature to allow him to rule by decree for 18 months.  Now, a true dictator, he too needs to go.

Finally, Africa remains itself.  The refusal of the Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo to step down following his election loss is an African leadership disease. It remains to be seen whether Africa will back up its threat to oust him by force. They failed with Mugabe.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Petro Morgos, RIP

I am very sad to post that Petro Morgos succumbed to a an insidious cancer which he fought with perseverance, grace and gallantry for almost two years. He lived a life that many would envy for its fullness.

He was my friend.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

USAID Closes Down a Contractor

A little scandal in the development world is always fun – except for the people who are the cause of the scandal.

AED, it was reported in yesterday’s Washington Post, has been suspended from future USAID contracts while the Office of the Inspector General completes an investigation of the non-profit.  The Post reports that according to a statement from USAID, the initial findings by the inspector general's office "reveal evidence of serious corporate misconduct, mismanagement, and a lack of internal controls, and raise serious concerns of corporate integrity.  AED holds 65 contracts with USAID worth over $640 million. The article also points out that USAID said it decided to suspend AED after the inspector general's investigation started in spring 2009 and found "substantiated evidence of misconduct by AED.”  AED had to return money following an investigation into its Pakistan project.  AED also has significant contracts in Afghanistan. 

How much of the misconduct is related to shorting consultants and pocketing the difference?  the article does not say, but if you are in development, you know what I mean.  Example. Hotels can be expensive but if the organization tells the consultant that he or she can only bill for $100 per night and USAID allows up to $250 per night – what happens to the difference if the firm charges USAID the full permitted rate?

Now, this sort of thing has happened before.  I was once brought in to resurrect an organization where one or two staff (out of 15) had colluded with outsiders to fraudulently obtain about $185,000 during the previous two years and the OIG had shut down operations.  In that case, however, my organization had discovered the fraud, reported it to USAID, paid the money back, took responsibility for the sloppy internal financial management but USAID panicked, called in the OIG resulting in a further investigation that held up operations for another 9 months after the situation had been resolved. Nevertheless, this sort of thing happens.

The venerable Harvard University sponsored Russia development program back in the 990s was also involved in some shady practices through some subtle maneuvering by its senior person in the field.  They were found out and black-balled with ramifications all the way to the top at Harvard.

However, my question is, if this investigation started in 2009, why was AED just awarded a USAID contract in Ukraine – the kick-off of which is supposed to be on Monday, 13 December?  How on earth does USAID justify that?  By saying it’s a signed contract?  So what?  On what planet do they live?

Oh. And the CEO of AED reportedly earns close to or over $800 thousand a year. This is rumor, of course, but if true,  nice work in the Not-For-Profit universe for someone who doesn’t have to spend time in the field in the garden spots of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Israel's Poodle

The Telegraph and BBC report that the US has abandoned its efforts to convince Israel to stop building settlements on illegally held Palestinian land. This is quite a walk-back from the tough talk that Obama exhibited early in his first term when he challenged the leader of the Israeli apartheid movement, Benjamin Netanyahu. Much of this has to do with the rise of theocratic true believers in the US.  Those recnetly elected were supported by Americans who manifest their hate by attacking civil liberties, suppressessing women, and undermine science and education to suit their superstitions – just like Islamic fundamentalists. The election of far right representatives and senators, bought and paid for by AIPAC has made confronting Israeli excesses and breaches of international law difficult at best. But this cave-in is still a cowardly concession to right wing Americans who would have opposed any action against the South African apartheid regime regardless of whether they could find South Africa on - as that deep think Sarah Palin would say - the "country of Africa".

The only solution is the removal of Netanyahu and his apartheid policies by the Israeli's. In the long term, the Netanyahu approach will continue to isolate Israel from Europe and collapse it from within. The continuance of past US foreign policy in the region, slavishly toeing the Netanyahu line, without regard to US foreign policy interests, will leave Israel with only two friends – the US and a bankrupt, perpetual anarchic Greece. Add to this the advance of Iranian Shiite interests in the region over the past five years – a pro-Iranian government in Iraq made possible by George W. Bush; fence mending visits to Tehran by the Lebanese Sunni leadership; growing Syrian influence in Lebanon after being tossed out; and, Israel’s loss of Turkey as an ally through its criminal blockade of Gaza, and US foreign policy aims, if anyone really knows what those are in the region, are doomed.
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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Wikileaks Again

Yet again, the media (and for the benefit of a friend in Afghanistan likes to parse this sort of thing, I mean both broadcast and print) is touting as news the cables being dumped by the gossip channel Wikileaks.

Yes. I find the cables entertaining. I also think that the field staff for the US Department of State come off extremely well, exhibiting incite and knowledge in their recommendations and comments. Too bad no one in Washington listens to them. As for the releases in general, they are not, contrary to some hyper-ventilating politicians, particularly secret. The cables themselves were officially available to about 3 million people. None of the cables is labeled as top secret. Furthermore, all the cables are vetted and redacted not only by Wikileaks – but by its partners in the press. Rinse, repeat. All the cables are vetted and redacted by both Wikileaks and its partners in the press.

After a little digging, I find it hard to justify any legal recourse against Julian Assange and his people under any US law, which is why they are going after his bank accounts and convinced Amazon to drop dissemination. As for the purpose of Wikileaks, unfortunately it may actually produce exactly the opposite result that it contends to promote – transparency.

You can be sure that from the day of the first publication, fewer people in governments will have access to or be able to provide candid information about their local political and economic environment. This will actually hamper diplomacy and might lead to some unforeseen consequence. The Chinese government may be a little less ready to work with South Korea now that its cover has been blown with the non-revelation that it is not happy with North Korea. It’s sort of like telling someone who spent $10 million on a Picasso that it is a fake. It is not in their interest to prove you correct.

Nevertheless, it is nice to have confirmed that western nations are worried about Pakistan losing control of her nukes. But that is all it is – confirmation. Today’s release also confirmed that NATO and the US developed a plan to protect the Baltic states from Russia following the latter’s invasion of Georgia. Wow.Given the complaints by Russia regarding the treatment of ethnic Russians in those countries, and particularly in Estonia, around the time Russian tanks rolled across the Georgian border this could hardly have been surprising. I’m sure the Russian military was so shocked it needed to take a collective rest in a sanitorium in Crimea.

From a historian’s perspective, these documents are a gold-mine. They provide the type of background that helps to explain the context within which actions are taken. Expect a flood of books that re-write history as we know it based on the information contained in the cables.

In the meantime, the cables are like potato chips – addictive but without any substance.

Late addition:  Assange has said that he developed a poison-pill if he is arrested (likely) or killed (melodramatic self-importance) which will dump a massive amount of the really good stuff. Wait for it.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wikileaks, Nothing New - except the DNA stuff

From left to right, the structures of A, B and...
I'm still not astounded at anything in the diplomatic chatter released by Wikileaks.  It is not surprising that elements of China's leadership think that North Korea 1) behaves like a child; 2) needs to be brought under control and (least surprising of all) 3) believes that the Korean peninsula would be better off unified by the South.  It is also not surprising that most Arabs would prefer to see Persians vanish.  All this is a BGO - blinding grasp of the obvious.

What is surprising is why US State Department officials would want their diplomats to acquire DNA and other biometric data on foreigners. Not to mention how they were to go about it.
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