Monday, August 28, 2006

Iggy, Philosopher King

The Globe has a really, really great profile of Michael Ignatieff online at the moment. It illustrates quite a bit of why he is the Liberal leadership frontrunner, perhaps as much as anything because no one seems capable of not talking about him. The article’s great. If you don’t have the time, here are my thoughts.

Ignatieff is the product of elevated status, both politically and intellectually. On his father’s side, he is two generations shy of Russian aristocracy, were it not for the Bolsheviks. On his mother’s side, he is descended from homegrown Canadian intellectuals. His blind, potentially amoral political ambition is as much a commonality with Nixon as with Trudeau.

As a political aristocrat in a fairly classical sense, however, he reminds me as much as anything of a would-be philosopher king. I spend too much of yesterday (for unrelated reasons) picking through Plato’s Republic. Might just be my immersion in both this and the Globe piece at the same time, but the similarity is striking. The impulse to intellectual leadership, the high-mindedness, the remarkably well-rounded education away from home, the dispassionate willingness to judge and praise or condemn—all of these either implicitly or explicitly typify Plato’s ideal ruler.

Regardless of what you think of Plato’s political scheme (I doubt anyone much takes it seriously these days), what’s interesting about the comparison is where it doesn’t measure up. The biographical cracks in Ignatieff include a cold aloofness, a palpable personal ambition, and an all too visible history of ruthlessness. Quite a bit of this is apparently typified in his poor treatment of his younger brother (the first to bear the nickname Iggy) as a child. His disowned his brother at boarding school and, later, wrote him entirely out of a magazine article about their family.

All this is belied by a social conscience—Ignatieff volunteered for years at a Massachusetts prison while completing a doctorate at Harvard. After a prison riot, he and a group of students he recruited volunteered to serve as civilian buffers between inmates and guards. Even here he seems to have been deeply single-minded, immersing himself completely in the project and volunteering to serve himself in the maximum security wing, containing the most dangerous offenders.

No one questions Ignatieff’s general brilliance or breadth of achievement. Never mind that he’s the only candidate to be a journalist, novelist, academic and filmmaker—he’d likely be the only Prime Minister to be all of these. His intellectual achievements might well outstrip Trudeau. His political waverings can largely be couched as an innate moral-political ambivalence. This is something with which I sympathize, frankly, and that I admire as a quality in a policymaker. I also share his preference for liberalism over socialism.

Nonetheless, for all his pragmatism and ambivalence, Ignatieff show a propensity for grand, extreme policies (like the war in Iraq) that is just plain dangerous. This is the worst of Trudeau, a temptation toward high-minded solutions without thought for their consequences. The careers of idealistic leaders tend to go either very well or very badly. Were Canada in crisis this might be a risk worth signing on for, but it isn’t— actually, it’s in great shape, by and large. Even as foreign policy stagnates and corruption appears at the top, what is wrong is that things are right. Things stay the same because we don’t have much we need to change. Caretaker Liberal governments resulted from a period of largely successful reform under Trudeau. The current Tory hiatus, if it is one, will likely give way to more of the same. At least, it should. Ignatieff represents something altogether different: the radical intellectualization and personalization of Canadian politics. This is something we can do without.

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

"God Doesn't Reject People"

Progressive Christianity exists in the US, but one would be hard pressed to find it, given that the major networks apparently won't let them advertise. Of course, its a fair question why churches are advertising at all, but its hard to see what's so controvercial about this United Church of Christ spot. I think its kinda cute, actually.

Elsewhere in the vast Christian right-wing conspiracy, the Vatican managed to reject a new form of stem cell research that preserves the 'lives' of frozen embryos. Its hard for me to see this as anything less than a bit bizarre. I really can't think of another instance of a life-preserving ethos that habitually opposes a groundbreaking form of medical research.
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Saturday, August 26, 2006

What's the Texas of Nepal?

A few friends and I concocted an amusing game over drinks the other night. Pick a country or region, and try to identify the subregion that most resembles the lone star state. Risk factors include libertarian conservatism, nationalism, oil wealth, and an entrenched culture of jovial bullheadedness. Bonus points for getting the geography right, by nominating a place in the central south of the region our country in question.

It’s trickier than it sounds. Austria, for example, is partially qualified to be the Texas of the EU, but it misses out on the geography and the oil. Scotland could be the Texas of the UK, having oil and nationalism, but it misses out on the geography, and perhaps fails the test on conservatism. Alberta is the Texas of Canada through and through, excepting geography, and gets extra credit for its volume of ranchland.

Anyone care to nominate the Texas of West Africa? Of the South Pacific? Of Peru?

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Friday, August 25, 2006

"Foreign Policy" Reports

Just a couple of fun links today, both from Foreign Policy magazine. Their annual Commitment to Development Report has some neat numbers, and surprising rankings. Canada’s commitment is around the same as the US, belying assumptions about its supposedly superior intentions, and Japan runs dead last among 21 ranked rich countries, despite its reputation as a generous donor. The top half a the chart is skewed towards Scandinavia and Australasia.

Also amusing is their failed states index, a Herculean effort to quantify the unquantifiable. How on earth does one represent something like “delegitimization of state” with a number between one and ten? Well, they’ve done it, for better or worse. The results are surprising, although I’d question them a little (how on earth does a state out-fail Somalia?). Interesting reading.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Perelman and the new Russia

Russian geniuses tend to ere toward the inscrutable. Consider Garry Kasparov, probably the greatest chess player in the game’s long history, famed for his arrogance, who publicly played the world’s greatest chest computers and lost bitterly. He followed this by retiring from chess to launch a quixotic political career (all political careers are quixotic in Putin’s Russia).

Grigory “Grisha” Perelman, a St Petersburg mathematician has the formula down to an art. After studying in Russia then teaching in the US, he returned home to a St Petersburg college of mathematics. In the last few years, he has become an unemployed recluse, moved back in with his mother, and solved one of the great mathematical puzzles of our time.

Tall and bearded, Perelman eerily resembles popular images of Rasputin. His solution to Poincare’s Conjecture, a hundred year old puzzle in topology, first appeared a few years ago. Eschewing peer review, he published two articles on the internet, and has spoken in the US about his solution. To date, no one can find anything wrong with it.

Perelman has made the issue rather more newsworthy by apparently declining a Fields Medal for his work. This is the second time he has declined a cash prize. (By some accounts he refused the Fields because he could not afford to travel to accept it.) A million dollar one-time prize for a solution to the problem remains unclaimed, so his not-in-it-for-the-money resolve stands to be tested further.

Although the mathematician doesn’t look likely to run for office anytime soon, he and Kasparov make interesting points of reference for current Russian politics. The inscrutable, bullheaded authoritarianism of Putin’s government is reflected in these moody geniuses. Just as the two seem to experience fame with a certain removed arrogance, Russia has come to seem arrogant and intransigent to the outside world—unmoving on regional politics, and content to bully its neighbors, not long ago its colonial possessions, over natural resource issues. Putin, Perelman and Kasparov are not the types to explain their motives. They are far too concerned with carrying them out.

Kasparov’s pro-western, anti-Putin politics seem belied by his own personality—in any case they aren’t likely to get him too far, given the strength of support for Putin and the murky state of the Russian electoral system. Perelman’s politics don’t look likely to be anything other than a mystery to the rest of us. But they reflect the character of an increasingly revanchist and potentially imperial new Russia. Moscow and its intellectuals remain inclined to reveal their intentions through action.

Here’s a BBC bit on Perelman. The New Yorker apparently has a profile in the current issue, but it isn’t online and I’ve not yet read it. Here’s the wiki on Kasparov.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Ryanair

Making political advantage out of terrorism is easy enough. Making economic advantage probably isn't much harder. Combining the two, however, is a neat trick, I reckon. Ryanair is currently running the following ad on their site (in the original Churchill actually waves). No word on whether or not freedom fries will be available on flights.

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After Europe

Gavrilo Princip, the man who killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, was emblematically Balkan—politically radical, culturally passionate, intensely nationalistic. Perhaps more importantly, though, he was classically European, for many of the same reasons. As the Balkans finally begin the process of integration into the European project, it might be worth looking back at the man, the curious nature of 20th century Balkan politics, and why they are more European than anyone in the West cares to admit.

Arguably, the 20th century as a period in western history begins and ends in Sarajevo. The assassination of the Archduke, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, triggered World War I, and in turn provided the catalyst for a second Great War, the Cold War, the division of Europe, the creation of the European Union, and the existence of the Euro-Atlantic alliance. It is among the defining facts of modern western history. 70-odd years later, the siege of Sarajevo in turn signaled the end of this period. It was the central event of the first major post-Cold War European conflict, and was emblematic of an ever-more-complex global order after the fall of the fall of the Soviet Union.

The siege represented everything European reconstruction was supposed to exclude—radical nationalism, political violence, irrational destruction, genocide. Nationalism was perhaps the central fact of pre-1914 European politics. The post-1945 (and post-1989) European order is arranged to efface nationalism. The EU is, in effect, a retirement community for states: a place where populations can enjoy a comfortable standard of living and an easy, relaxed internationalism, without much in the way of nationalist politics and without much concern for outside politics coming in. It imagines itself as a sort of post-historical world order, where radical politics no longer occur. Europe’s failure to intervene in the Bosnia represents this—as long as the conflict was outside, the poison of nationalism and the scourge of war belong to other peoples and other places.

Bosnia is, haltingly, becoming a nation. Reconstruction has been slow and faltering, but progress has been real. Brussels has acknowledges that eventually it and its neighbors will have to be admitted to the EU. Bosnia will recover from its violent role in the last century, and perhaps be permitted to live the new century for itself rather than in the historical service of bloodshed. A better question might be what will become of Europe itself, where radical far-right politicians still beg at the door of mainstream politics, and no one seems to quite know what they want the EU to do for them or for itself. The real European crisis has not occurred on the margins but at the centre. Europe has tried, since the last War, to retire from history. This has been a dangerous mistake, abandoning global geopolitics to American unipolarity, and setting Europe itself back from more concerted political change internally. If the EU institutions are to find a place for themselves in both Europe and the world, then the implicit fiction that a post-national Europe must be post-historical and post-political needs to die. Europe, which learned the lessons of war all too well, must learn to better articulate them to the rest of the world, especially to its partners across the Atlantic, who seem so forgetful of history.

Princip represents the worst not only of the Balkans but of Europe itself: an idealism that knows no peace. He is reflected today in the Tamil Tigers, in Chechen separatism and Russian ethnic oppression, in Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms. He is the neurosis not only of the Balkans, or even of Europe, but of the world. A retired Europe, one that fails to share its lessons with the rest of us, hasn’t learned them properly at all.

Princip monument in Sarajevo, on the site of Franz Ferdinand's assassination.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

On Leaving Brussels

Brussels is a city of impermanence, a drift-zone of short term bureaucrats and long term inertia. It’s the kind of place that never really changes, and where no-one ever intends to stay. I’m coming up on the end of a year here—one of my roommates has already left for good. I understand it no better than I did on arrival.

Among international cities (London, New York, etc) Brussels is rather the runt of the litter. It’s an odd town—barely a million people, far too many of them foreigners living here only for a year or two, the locals divided along linguistic lines, and an almost grand history of mediocrity. The result should be vibrant. Instead, it’s quite grey.

So what’s there for me to miss? A few good friends, all of them foreign and most of them leaving or already gone (I’m celebrating more departures in the present month or two than I have in the previous few years). A handful of conveniences—decent public transport, and so on—nothing one can’t replace anywhere in Europe and in much of North America. A favorite coffee shop, from which I write this.

North of here in Antwerp there’s a national identity, that of the Flemish, and it’s as strong as ever. In all directions, in fact, there are clearly demarcated European cultures—Dutch, French, German, even Luxembourg knows what it is and wants to be. Brussels is the exception. It would be nice to say that it represents European culture as such, but that isn’t true. The culture here is that of the EC—bureaucratic drag, confusion, an identity shaped in endless paperwork. The bars swell with Eurocrats and ‘European studies’ majors trawling for jobs at the Commission. They come from anywhere but here.

This is perhaps the cultural crisis of the place. Brussels is defined by foreign presence; it’s a city under willing foreign occupation. The capital of Belgium vanishes beneath the capital of Europe. The old capital city, the national identity of the Belgians (such as they are a single people at all), has been geopolitically bulldozed under the weight of the European project, a sacrifice on the altar of post-national politics. Brussels represents the hopes and fears of post-war Europe. It is Europe at peace. It is also Europe deprived of cultural identity. It’s a harder trade-off than one might think.

In a few weeks, perhaps a little over a month, this blog will start broadcasting from London, the most Eurosceptic capital in the EU (barring disaster, at least). It’s actually been a great year. Thanks to those who’ve share it with me—I hope you had as much fun as I did.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Columbia

The International Crisis Group has a great little op-ed on their website about the conflict in Colombia, one of the longest ongoing civil wars in the world. Read here.

As I was reading it, it occurred to me that US foreign policy in Colombia is not only misguided and destructive (read the article for more), it represents monumentally misspent money: funds directed to destroying coca crops and arming the military, while new fields are planted, the FARC rebel group becomes more violent, and human rights abuses continue apace.

Here’s what I’d do: pull funds from crop destruction and from some military aid, and use them to buy up agricultural land. Replanting a burned off crop of coca is easy enough, but if the land in use is government owned and secured then there’s no question of growing on it. Farmers who take the buyout can relocate to urban areas, breaking the chain of connections between growers and cartels. The government can repurpose the land for other crops (eg, off season produce for northern consumption). New farmers can be brought in, the land leased to them at low cost, and the resulting income could be used to agricultural training. Successful farmers could be given their new land outright and the end of a trial period. Meantime, the cartels would be robbed of the only thing that is truly scared in a country awash in foreign cash and cocaine: farmland itself.

For this to work, it would have to be accompanied by a program of urban economic developmentperhaps growth in manufacturingto fund ex-farmers moving to the city. Also, the other recommendations of the ICG piece are probably at least as important—poverty reduction, fighting corruption, improved rural governance, rule of law, and so on. Perhaps most of all, the decommissioning of right-wing paramilitaries (whose numbers seem to be almost twice those of FARC) needs to be addressed. Confiscation of their financial resources might help to fund all of this.

Of course, the Bush administration would rather fund a policy that limps along by perpetuating a needless civil war, human rights abuses, and other mindless violence and poverty. The North American press pays no attention to speak of at all. Colombian president Uribe, perhaps a well enough intentioned leader, is eluded by the one thing he claims he wants: a peaceful nation.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Roundup

Just bits and pieces today folks:

First up, this guy’s assessment of the fallout from the recent terror arrests in the UK. A bit loud, but he’s basically right. The police anti-terror system we’re got in place basically works—arrests prove it. Were the issue not being effectively dealt with, something a lot worse would be happening. As it happens, I don’t think there’s been a single terror-related death in North America in the last three or four years. (The link’s been drifting around several days now, but I just couldn’t resist.)

The winners from an Iranian contest for Holocaust-themed political cartoons are now pretty easy to find online. The contest was held in response to the Danish cartoon scandal of a while back. The Israeli government news agency had cleverly pre-empted their availability by making some of them available online themselves, with their own commentary. This has been so effective that I’ve had trouble finding any other source. (Surely Google will sort you out if you want one.) In any case, the Danish Mohammed cartoons are here. Both sets are pretty appalling—some of the Holocaust ones are truly bizarre. Nonetheless, free speech being a great thing, I thought I’d pass this along. I’m linking them strictly, as they say, for educational purposes. If you’re easily offended, feel free to read neither.

Lastly, the truce in Lebanon. No particular link for this, but I thought I ought to say something. Hezbollah and Israel have both gone to great lengths to declare victory in the last few days. It seems to me that the conflict, in addition to being needlessly bloody, was monumentally inconclusive for both. Neither achieved their objective, although the military weakening of Hezbollah probably represents a partial if bitter achievement for Israel. This is matched on the other side by Hezbollah’s increased political profiled regionally. Regardless, the only real losers or winners will be the Lebanese people and the Lebanese state—and their fate remains largely to be seen.

This is probably the last entry for a few days, as I’ll be out of town. Have a good weekend and all that. Will probably at it Monday.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Liberal Leadership

On the occasion of Maurizio Bevilacqua’s withdrawal from the liberal leadership race, here are some predictions.

1. There will be no surprises. One of the four perceived frontrunners (Dion, Ignatieff, Kennedy, Rae) will win.

2. It’ll probably be Ignatieff or Kennedy.

3. Ignatieff wins if he can overcome his association with the war in Iraq (his fumbling on the war in Lebanon doesn’t bode well for this).

4. Kennedy wins if Ignatieff can’t overcome this, or if there is a strong enough anyone-but-Ignatieff vote, or if Rae fairs poorly in the first ballot and drops out to support him, as the other leading left-progressive candidate.

5. Rae wins only if Kennedy does poorly early on. Unlikely, in my view--Rae is likely to be be dragged by his status as a fence-jumper, and by the ghost of Rae Days. Bevilacqua's support cuts both ways, insofar as it brings in a small number of outside supporters, but risks alienating progressives because of Bevilacqua's right-leaning program.

6. Dion wins only if there is a need for a consensus candidate after several ballots. The advantage of his status as the only Quebecois candidate is dulled by his attachment to the Clarity Act.

7. Anyone else wins only if there is a need for a consensus candidate and none of the four frontrunners will do for some reason. This is quite unlikely in my view, but if it happens it’ll be Dryden, who has a clean record and a warm public image. Anyone else is pretty much in it to network at the convention at this point.

8. It'll probably be Kennedy, in the end. He is, quite simply, the frontrunner with the least baggage, and has momentum at the moment. Being a provincial Liberal makes him at once an outsider and an insider to the federal party. He represents a clean break for the party, an appeal to young voters, and an oppoartunity to snag NDP votes. None of the other three have his balance of electoral advantages without hindrances to match.

A more interesting question is what happens if the Liberals don’t win the next election. The new leader could become unpopular easily (none of these guys are exactly stars, barring Ignatieff marginally). The real prize might go to the runner up—the chance to enter the next leadership race with an edge.
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Monday, August 14, 2006

Karimova Video

Gulnara "GooGoosha" Karimova's music video, thanks to YouTube. Simply too weird for words (and rather expensive looking for the Uzbek market). It comes much recommended. Here, again, is a link to the relevant BBC story, and to an Uzbek source. Thanks to Farrah for the link.

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Turkey, EU, Genocide

The New York Times has a pretty good 15 minute or so video interview with Turkish author Orhan Pamuk here. Subjects covered include Turkish EU accession, the Armenian genocide and the author's legal troubles to do with his public comments about it.
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Friday, August 11, 2006

Uzbek Popular Music

Apparently Gulnara Karimova is to Central Asian dictatorships what Paris Hilton is to the American hotel business. No, really--I'm not kidding. Read on.
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Congo Again

“People here see their state primarily as a predator. It is not there to serve its citizens but to run a massive extortion racket… In a recent survey carried out by the World Bank, Congolese were asked how they would treat the state if it was a person. “Kill him” was a frequent reply.”

—Jason Stearns and Michela Wong, International Crisis Group, in the Financial Times

We don’t know who won the Congolese elections yet, and we might not for a little while yet. Given the wait, it might be worth reflecting on a few things that are likely more important than the result itself.

First, the quote above suggests that the state itself in DRC appears to be in the midst of a worrying transition. It has emerged from abject state failure, insofar as violence has abated and some order returned across most of the country. However, it is becoming something not much better—a predatory state, providing few if any basic public goods, and praying on the socioeconomic wellbeing of the population through a pattern of bribery and extortion. The state has stopped doing nothing, but it isn’t doing much for the population. It’s doing things to people. Regardless of who is in power, a significant campaign of reform and reconstruction is badly needed in the most basic areas: security, health care, the prevention of hunger.

Second, the election result is a lot less important than the perception that it was reasonably fair. This is holding up pretty well so far. A perception of fairness will determine whether or not the result is peacefully accepted by an important constituency—the many losing candidates, who will be relied upon to fall in line behind the newly legitimized government. Given how many of them were until recently criminals, warlords, and the like, this is a big question. It's also important that accusations of vote mishandling are taken seriously and publicly cleared up. A perception that the election result was an inside job in which the international community acquiesced would not be a good thing for anyone.

Lastly, turnout matters. Voter turnout was high in the recent constitutional referendum. The legitimacy of the election, and the prospects for elections in future, depend not only on the cooperation of candidates, but on the level of participation.

This last point seems already to have been a success. Turnout was apparently fairly high again, suggesting that the population is serious about democracy, and that they believe it will help improve their standard of living. They probably believe this in part because it has been a large component of the international community’s message to them. The relative success of the elections so far is significant, but it isn’t everything. If the rest of the world fails to ensure follow through on developmental issues, irreparable damage will be done to Congolese faith in democratic governance as a vehicle for reconstruction.

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

New Torture Law

The folks in the Bush administration have belatedly discovered the meaning of the word ‘prudence’.

A new draft law will protect some US personnel retroactively from legal action, by removing from existing law some tactics used in interrogations by the CIA and others. The draft, an amendment to legislation enacting the Geneva conventions, would remove the Geneva protection against “outrages upon personal dignity”: eg, the wearing of hoods, sexual humiliation, and so on.

The logic is reasonable enough. If something (the law) threatens your agenda, and you have the power to change it, then that’s what you ought to do. A court ruling in late June that guaranteed Geneva Convention protections to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, thereby confirmed made the use of these tactics there illegal. Given that the practices were entrenched by then, the administration had to protect itself and its people.

This is really just fairly basic political science. According to Hobbes, in the Leviathan, there is no distinction between the law and the sovereign—no distance between the content of law and the will of the government. Constitutional government is supposed to mitigate this, by imposing checks, balances, and so on, not least in this case the power of the Supreme Court to rule the actions of the executive branch illegal.

The effort to legalize certain instances of torture after the fact belongs to an ongoing pattern by Dick Chaney and his aids to cut through limitations on the power of the executive branch (they actually believe that the post-Watergate blocks again Whitehouse abuses of power were a mistake). It probably shouldn’t be surprising that this is going on. If you’re convinced that your right, and enough people appear to disagree with you (and are therefore wrong), then you’d better do what you can to protect your position.

What is worrying is how well it seems to be working. That an unpopular president and his inner circle are willing to short circuit the existing separation of powers to protect themselves probably comes naturally. That they might succeed is cause for alarm.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Kyrgyzstan:

A popular Imam has been killed in Southern Kyrgyzstan, in what the state has reported as an attack on Islamic militants in the area. Two members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan appear to have been killed along with him. His family has denied his involvement with the group.

Kyrgyzstan is an unhappy country. It is troubled by an assortment of things left behind by Russian colonialism, in both its Tsarist and communist forms: poverty, corruption, crumbling infrastructure and rampant alcoholism.

It’s the only one of the former Soviet Central Asian states to have meaningfully cast off the remnants of communism. A couple of years back, they booted out the Soviet era ‘elected’ president in a more or less bloodless revolution. Instead of improving, though, the country’s been on a slow slide ever since. The government lost control of the prison system a while back, and for a time literally pulled all the guards out of the jails. Poverty, corruption and alcoholism have remained entrenched. Law and order have been in broad-based decline for years. The elected post-revolutionary government (in fact anointed when the two chief rivals for the presidency cut a deal) has proven unable to address any of this.

Perhaps these other failures help explain why the government has begun to attack Islamic fundamentalism with such gusto. As a foreign relations issue it’s a winner—Washington, Moscow, and the neighbors in Uzbekistan are all actively fighting it as well. It also works as a reliable domestic issue, insofar and almost any violence can be blamed on extremists.

However, rapprochement with the post-communist dictatorship of Uzbekistan might prove the new Kyrgyz government’s big mistake. The Karimov government in Tashkent represents everything the Kyrgyz revolution stood against—corruption, institutional violence, and an intrusive, totalitarian state that does almost nothing for its own people. Karimov appears to fear Islamists more than anything else, and rightly so. Armed extremism is the only channel of opposition open in a country where all peaceful resistance to the government is crushed. It’s the only serious challenge he faces.

So why would the Kyrgyz government associate with him? Well, no one likes to make an enemy of one’s neighbors, and Islamists are a genuine cause of instability in both countries. But the country might be better to attack the root causes of the issue—most pressingly, the grinding poverty that affects a large portion of the population. The country has serious unaddressed social issues, including unemployment, ethnic tensions, collapsed infrastructure and substance abuse—Afghan heroine has now joined vodka among the nation’s drugs of choice. The government needs to give its youth less reason to turn to violence.

Cozying up to the dictator next door and killing the clergy won’t do it.

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Monday, August 07, 2006

Middle East, etc:

Some Iran stuff. Here are Seymour Hersh’s two excellent (and rather frightening) articles for the New Yorker on the prospect of an American military action in Iran, one on the planning and another on the military chain of command’s resistance to the prospect. Neither are exactly brand new, but are extremely insightful. Anyone who hasn’t read ‘em should. Here’s a listing of Iranian and Iranian diaspora blogs. Also, some neat-o Iranian graffiti. Lastly, for anyone wanting to make travel plans, may I suggest the following: the Wikitravel article and a service for procuring an Iranian visa.

Back in Canada, something else I’ve let slide a bit. Michael Ignatieff’s reading of the Israeli-Lebanese conflict has gotten a bit uglier since I last wrote on it. Or maybe it always was—its hard to tell with him, frankly. Here’s a blog entry that quotes him extensively and criticizes well (if a bit harshly), and here’s Bob Rae and some others responding a few days ago. More recent analysis in the Ottawa Citizen and background to Canadian foreign policy in the region in the Toronto Star. A previous post of mine and the blog entry linked above both have access to a Star piece on the other 10 candidates views.

Lastly, rather a long way from the Middle East, the deputy leader of the Maoist insurgents in Nepal has announced that peace talks there are at the verge of collapse. The issue seems to be the fate of the Monarchy (whether it will recede to figurehead status or vanish entirely). On the other hand, they seem to be moving along nicely on the question of arms, on both sides. The Maoist announcement itself is probably not surprising exactly—there were bound to difficult patches on issues like this, and it might well just be a way to pressure the provisional government. A more interesting question might be what Maoists are doing making public statements to meetings of business leaders (see the first link). Doesn’t exactly suggest canonical communist values at work.

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Saturday, August 05, 2006

Citizen Mel


I just couldn't resist.
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Friday, August 04, 2006

Ugandan Ceasefire

Well, here’s good news for you folks. The LRA, probably one of the most bloody minded organizations on the planet, has unilaterally laid down arms in northern Uganda.

Catch? Full amnesty for LRA war criminals wanted by the ICC. Meaning that the court will now most likely not get to try the leaders of the organization. Quite a trade off—a turning point in Ugandan history, in exchange for one in the history of international criminal justice.

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Yesterday's News

Yesterday was one of those news days that kind of hurts to read about, and this morning doesn’t seem much better. Beirut is under fire again. The provisional government is Somalia is splintering under the weight of outside pressure to negotiate with the Islamic Courts militias (and pressure not to). On (or off) the home front, Canada lost another 4 soldiers in Afghanistan. Including injured, this is apparently our “bloodiest day yet.” Easy enough to miss locally, though, amid a bombing in a market and a number of dead Taliban gorillas.

No result in the DR Congo elections, but one a candidate other then the favored incumbent has already declared he expects to win, and another has already declared that he’ll reject the result regardless of what it is. If there’s no majority candidate, there’ll be a runoff in October. Meanwhile others speculate that provisional results are arriving slowly to allow the government time to rig the results. And, of course, no one knows what will happen in government and in the street when a result is finally announced. Mainly the news seems to be foreign leaders praising the orderliness of it all, and (belying this) protests by election workers who say they have not been paid.

Odd things, though. In Cuba, after Fidel Castro handed power temporarily to his brother, it seems reasonable that he has not been seen for a while, as he recovers from surgery. However, his brother hasn’t been seen since the announcement either. Raul Castro has yet to address the nation—a rather light touch, seems to me, for one of the world’s great police states. Fidel himself has not been seen in a week. After an initial burst of rallying behind him, the public is reportedly anxious—no one knows what’s going on. The streets are apparently quiet. Kim Jong-Il has sent a get well note; Washington has said nothing new. Cuba is suspended, waiting, as Robert Lowell wrote, for the blessed break.

And this, the discovery of two strange objects in deep space. They are half star and half planet, orbiting one another, twinned, about 400 light years from us. They contradict an assortment of existing theories. No one knows what they are or where they came from. They have in common with the rest above that no one knows where they are going.

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Beirut from Above

Here are some satellite images of Beirut before and after Israeli bombing.

Before:



After:


First image from Google Earth, second from DigitalGlobe. Here's Google Earth link with the latter image overlaid. Note the blank spots in the lower middle of the second shot. These photos and varients seen to be pretty widely available at the moment, and I really can't think of anything to addthey kind of speak for themselves. I believe someone compared them to Dresden after the wasa bit over the top, my view, but it's pretty bad.

At the time of writing, the IDF had leafletted south Beirut with a warning to evacuate, then resumed bombing. Hence, the image may longer be accurate.

Images compiled from here.
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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Bankrupt

Its a bit over the top for my taste to make a show of describing one or another American foreign or domestic policy as 'morally bankrupt'. Turns out, though, that the term might be quite applicable in the erconomic classic sense. American fiscal policy may be so out of wack that the country is functionally no longer solvent in the long term, as argued here. The argument is not a new one exactly (doesn't Paul Krugman take this up somewhere?). Nonetheless, it's alarming reading.
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Crisis Group Pessimism

“July 2006 was the grimmest month for conflict prevention around the world in three years. In 36 months of publishing CrisisWatch, the International Crisis Group has not recorded such severe deteriorations in so many conflict situations as in the past month, and several have significant regional and global implications.”

CrisisWatch, the International Crisis Group’s monthly report, is habitually a bit grim, generally counting more conflicts deteriorating than improving globally. (The Human Security Report suggests a broad trend in the other direction since the end of the Cold War.) Nonetheless, this month’s report is in a class by itself.

The negative assessment isn’t unfounded: July was bad month. ICG cites not only the new wars in Lebanon and in Gaza, but the destabilizing influence of Ethiopia and Eritrea in the Somali conflict, the Mumbai bombings, and increased violence in Sri Lanka as significant regional deteriorations. Throw in an increase in poor North Korean behavior and it’s hard to find reasons to celebrate, other than perhaps that the DR Congo elections we not a disaster.

It would be easy to throw up one’s hands in frustration at all this. It would also be easy to point fingers—most if not all of the conflicts involve the negative influence of one-sided American foreign policy. It might be more useful, though, to point out what has not happened. No third country in the region has, as yet, been dragged militarily in the conflict in Lebanon. Perhaps more interestingly, nothing terrible has arisen out of the Mumbai bombings. One nuclear power, India has nominally blamed another, Pakistan, for supporting terrorists on its soil, and not for the first time. But India has responded mostly with police actions—a few arrests, security improvements. There has been no nuclear standoff and no international diplomatic crisis. Not long after the bombings, the biggest news out of India was a boy trapped down a well.

That the conflict over Kashmir has become this stable, after decades of violence and two wars, would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The capacity of terrorists to destabilize the region has been largely neutralized. We should all be so lucky as to have an Israeli government that was this measured in its security policy.

The worst of it is probably the Horn of Africa, where Somalia may become the site of a proxy war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The two have been in and out of conflict since the latter’s independence, and Somalia is utterly ill equipped to resist. The brief prospect of a stable, organic (if not quite democratic) government emerging there is vanishing. Tens of millions of people in at least three countries stand to have their lives disrupted if not threatened for some time.

Washington, with its hands at least a little on all of these, could well learn a lesson—its balanced policy of engagement on the Indian Subcontinent, however wobbly, has borne fruit. Its one-sided interventionism in the Middle East and the Horn are proving disastrous. One hopes they will notice.

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Senator Joe

Anyone following the Lamont-Lieberman senatorial primary in Connecticut will probably find this article in The Nation a pretty good assessment of the race’s importance. Anyone not following it might find it a handy intro.

For anyone outside the US, the significance of the race is that a sitting senator and one-time vice presidential candidate looks set to not even get nominated for his senate seat. The movement against him suggests a progressive-reformist shift in the politics of the Democratic Party, and this in turn a possible shift in US politics—and consequently in US foreign policy. So it’s worth watching, eh?

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Working Too Hard

McGill Management prof Karl Moore, in a discussion on the Globe website today:

“Statistics show that Americans, and Canadians aren't far behind, work more, considerably more than any other country, in the area of 2000 hours a year. Ahead even of the Japanese, who have the reputation as very hard working.”

Anyone else find that worrying? I write this from the geopolitical heart of the European Union, where the population by and large still worships at the altar of the 35 hour work week. When polled, their primary concerns about employment tend to be things like good benefits and job security, over financial ambition and career advancement. People have time to spend with their kids. They measure their annual vacations in weeks not days. They make a priority of early retirement.

It’s a trade-off. Western European economies grow sluggishly compared to North America, and are left in the dust by emerging states in the developing world. It’s a trade-off at the local level, too. Service here of almost any kind had become a joke among my friends—its consistently awful. No one works too hard at it.

But you gotta wonder if Moore isn’t onto something. Having lived in Europe for a few years not too long ago, he reflects that, “he Europeans, at least in my experience, and statistics bare this out, are more balanced about taking time off and getting life and work in more perspective.”

So a suggestion (and not a new one): how about an increase in the minimum annual paid vacation in Canada? I reckon that people with more time off work will be more productive (and happier) when they’re on—a trade-off on the national work ethic. It won’t bring about peace in the Middle East and it won’t cure AIDS and it won’t feed the hungry. But it would improve quality of life for a few million people who are probably still getting by on 10 days a year.

I reckon that’s pretty good, no?

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Somalia

I was gonna write an entry on the situation in Somalia, but Gwynne Dyer has, in his usual fine form, already said it all. I would add only that the interim government has been affected by a number of resignations and a no-confidence vote since he wrote. Additionally, Eritrea has apparently begun arming the Islamic Courts, mirroring Ethiopia’s support for the transitional administration.

The Dyer link, by the way, is to his column in the Salt Lake Tribune. I wonder what on earth they think of him in Utah.

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Ignatieff, Kennedy, Harper on Lebanon

I should probably back down an inch or two on my comments about Michael Ignatieff a few days back. Liberal blogs (I won’t even try to link ‘em all, but progressive bloggers has a bunch) have been crawling with complaints about his silence. In any case, he does seem to have had an ongoing family emergency—heck, his campaign couldn’t seem to find him at one point. Seems he was in Budapest visiting his wife’s very ill parents, and had a flight cancelled. We should all be more sympathetic.

Here, finally, is his fairly comprehensive view—leave it to him to score his very own column inches in the Globe to make up for days of silence. I largely agree, although it rather lacks the flair of Gerard Kennedy’s recent open letter to Harper, re: a recent conservative fundraising appeal capitalizing on the crisis in Lebanon. Hope I don’t have to tell anyone to be appalled by that last bit.

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