Thursday, February 08, 2007

This Year in the Free World

It’s been an odd new year to date for dictatorial government. Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niazov (a.k.a. Turkmenbashi) suddenly died, leaving a bizarrely glaring power vacuum. Fidel Castro, the world’s longest serving state leader, appears to be on his deathbed. And the government of Zimbabwe, led by Robert Mugabe, wobbles above a state in near total collapse.

Niazov, a post-Soviet strongman, built an endemically corrupt mafia state around a North Korea-sized personality cult. He was perhaps the only post-Soviet head of state to actively lead his new nation-state away from democratic reform. The consequences have included relative international isolation (‘neutrality’, in his terms), a collapsed healthcare system, and agricultural policy so wrongheaded as to risk widespread malnutrition. All this in a state with some of the largest natural gas reserves on the planet. Recent elections were (in the interest, absurdly, of the sitting health minister), but it’s anyone’s guess what will happen in the long term. Neighbouring Afghanistan, Iran, and an unaddressed powder keg in Uzbekistan hardly helps matters.

What happens after Niazov might be an interesting test case for Cuba. Castro at least has an anointed successor in his brother Raul, but the younger Castro has none of his brother’s charisma, and in any event is only a few years younger and is an unreformed alcoholic. After Raul, it’s anyone’s guess.

Robert Mugabe is in his eighties, but if nothing else he’s in the best health of the three. That said, it would be hard to find many people given to celebrating this. His disastrous land reform programme (which involves neither positive reform nor programmatic policy) has turned the breadbasket of Southern Africa into a net importer of food, with a significant risk of famine. Meantime, the opposition is disorganised and repressed. Mugabe will go some day—in a coffin or at the hands of his own increasingly restive party—but no one really knows what will replace him.

The lesson, perhaps, is not that any of these leaders are anything less than appalling, but that its genuinely hard to imagine their respective states without them. No one seems to know what to do about them—or what to do without them. Indeed, pitching out a dictator at the wrong moment can lead to more of the same. Mugabe is himself the revolutionary replacement for the pariah regime of Ian Smith, Castro’s government replaced the Batista dictatorship, and Niazov arose only in the contact of the Soviet collapse.

These are big problems, and there are no easy fixes.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

French Politics

It's amazing the trouble one can get in for telling the truth, especially if one holds elected office.

It's been a gaffe-prone few weeks for French politics. First Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royale accidentally endorced Quebecois independence. Then, in a Thursday New York Times article, outgoing president Jacques Chirac intimated that he saw nothing terribly threatening about a nuclear armed Iran.

The funny thing here is that there's a fair sized kernel of truth in both instances. Quebecois independence probably poles pretty well in France these days, and Royale would not be the first French President to endorse it--one need think only of de Gaulle's "Vive la Quebec libre!" moment.

On the other hand, Chirac's gaffe is an outright statement of fact. A nuclear-armed Iran would be easily enough deterred from using any weapon it had. Further, any state launching a nuclear attack on Israel, the most obvious target, would promptly be removed from the map by a western counterattack. The real issue in this is that a nuclear power in the region would permanently reduce western (mostly American) influence in the region by providing the first regional great power in the Mid East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Chirac's slip will probably cost him a week's worth of bad press before we all forget--maybe less. Royale's comment, coming as it does among an assortment of such errors in the middle of the campagne, might be a bigger problem. But either way, we might all want to thank them for at least holding their noses and being honest about things--however questionable their views may be.
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It's amazing the trouble one can get in for telling the truth, especially if one holds elected office.

It's been a gaffe-prone few weeks for French politics. First Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royale accidentally endorced Quebecois independent. Then, in a Tuesday New York Times article, outgoing president Jacques Chirac intimated that he saw nothing threatening about a nuclear armed Iran.

The funny thing here, is that there's a fair sized kernel of truth in both instances. Quebecois independence probably poles pretty well in France these days, and Royale would not be the first French President to endorse it--one need think only of de Gaulle's "Vive la Quebec libre" moment.

On the other hand, Chirac's gaffe is an outright statement of fact. A nuclear-armed Iran would be easily enough deterred from using it, and any state launching a nuclear attack on Israel, the most obvious target, would promptly be removed from the map by a western counterattack. The real issue in this is that a nuclear power in the region would permanently reduce western (mostly American) influence in the region by providing the first regional great power in the Mid East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Chirac's slip will probably cost him a week's worth of bad press before we all forget--maybe less. Royale's comment, coming as it does among an assortment of such errors in the middle of the campagne, might be a bigger problem. But either way, we might all want to thank them for at least holding their noses and being honest about things--however questionable their views may be.
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Tortilla Scare

All politics may be local, but consequences can turn out to be global in the funniest ways. By some accounts, the rise of environmentally friendly fuels in the US threatens malnutrition in Mexico.

The story goes like this. Mexican torilla prices have recently risen 400%. The government has this largely down to hoarding, speculation, and so on. The problem may be, however, that cheaply grown American corn, once used to make bargain tortillas in Mexico, is now being consumed north of the border for the production of environmentally friendly fuels. Tortillas are, apparently, the chief source of calories for a majority of poor Mexicans, who are in turn most of the population.

I have, of course, no idea how this is best addressed, but it represents a fascinating little problem for lefties like me who tend to assume that feeding the hungry and protecting the planet are a) self-evidently good and b) generally compatible with one another. It's probably healthy now and then to be reminded how blindingly complex these issues can be.
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