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April 30, 2012

America's Political Campaign Won't Scare China

Jacob Stokes comments on China's role in the U.S. presidential race:

Ultimately, the 2012 U.S. presidential election will have a long-term effect on Sino-American relations to the degree that it increases or decreases strategic mistrust between the two countries. The Chinese leadership understands that the rough and tumble of U.S. politics is often more smoke than fire—that most heated rhetoric gets moderated when it runs up against the demands of real-world policy making.

But a political discussion that frames the relationship between the two countries as an exclusively zero-sum competition, one that mirrors the ideological and strategic dimensions of the Cold War--instead of a process of managing differences and identifying common interests--risks creating an atmosphere of strategic distrust that will do long-lasting damage in relations with China. While it’s essential for the U.S. leaders to stand firmly in support of American interests and values, candidates should be wary of letting political point-scoring damage the world’s most important bilateral relationship.

I think the atmosphere of strategic mistrust predates the presidential campaign and that, as Stokes notes, the Chinese almost certainly discount everything they hear from the candidates until election season is over. That's probably a good strategy for the rest of us, too.

April 27, 2012

Georgia's President to Putin: Take My B@lls, Please

Sometimes international politics can be fun:

Speaking to journalists, Saakashvili reiterated accusations that the Kremlin wants to oust him from power.

​​On a more bizarre note, Saakashvili said he was even willing to sacrifice parts of his body that Moscow has "shown interest in" -- a hint at then-President Vladimir Putin's infamous 2008 pledge to "hang Saakashvili by the balls."

"In addition, I am ready to cut off and send them those parts of my body which they have shown interest in more than once," Saakashvili said. "I am really ready to do it, and I say this without a hint of irony, as long as they pull out their forces from here and give Georgia's people -- its multiethnic population -- an opportunity to develop within the internationally recognized borders."

How Mexico Handles Dog Poop

With free Wi-Fi:

...Mexican Internet portal Terra is tapping into the online pulse of the modern era and has come up with a truly contemporary way to inspire dog owners to get out their plastics bags....

After pet owners pick up their dog's turds, they can place the bag in a special box that calculates its weight in exchange for a few minutes of free Wi-Fi. Ladies and gentle, welcome to 21st Century.

April 26, 2012

So Is Obama Really Bluffing on Iran?

In a speech defending Obama's foreign policy, Vice President Biden is apparently going to invoke the prospect of another war as a knock on Romney:

Electing Romney could again "waste hundreds of billions of dollars and risk thousands of American lives on an unnecessary war," Biden said in a clear reference to the unpopular Iraq war that Obama ended.

This would certainly be a useful contrast to draw, but how well positioned in the Obama administration to make it? I'm assuming here that this "unnecessary war" is against Iran. But here's Biden's boss a few weeks ago:

I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff. I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say...

I think it's fair to say that the last three years, I've shown myself pretty clearly willing, when I believe it is in the core national interest of the United States, to direct military actions, even when they entail enormous risks. And obviously, the bin Laden operation is the most dramatic, but al-Qaeda was on its [knees] well before we took out bin Laden because of our activities and my direction.

Now we have Biden running around warning that to elect Romney is to court a war with Iran. Does that mean that President Obama was bluffing and that he actually has no intention of using military force against Iran's nuclear program? Or maybe Obama was being honest and it's Biden who's playing fast-and-loose in an effort to court a war-weary public? Or maybe President Obama has an unbelievably optimistic view of what his diplomacy can achieve? Either way, Biden's line of attack raises some uncomfortable questions.

Did Marco Rubio Give a Serious Foreign Policy Speech?

I listened to Marco Rubio's speech yesterday and while I thought it was an effective recitation of the neoconservative worldview, I didn't think there was much else to it. Then I see Time's Michael Crowley describe it as "learned and substantive" and it got me thinking if we actually listened to the same speech. It's not a matter of ideological disagreements or even a matter of policy disagreements but the fact that in key areas the speech lacked substance. Take Syria, which I think provides the best example.

Here's Rubio:

The goal of preventing a dominant Iran is so important that every regional policy we adopt should be crafted with that overriding goal in mind. The current situation in Syria is an example of such an approach. The fall of Assad would be a significant blow to Iran’s ambitions. On those grounds alone, we should be seeking to help the people of Syria bring him down.

But on the Foreign Relations committee, I have noticed that some members are so concerned about the challenges of a post-Assad Syria that they have lost sight of the advantages of it.

First, Iran would lose its ally and see its influence and ability to cause trouble in the region correspondingly reduced. But Hezbollah would lose its most important ally too, along with its weapons supplier. And the prospects for a more stable, peaceful and freer Lebanon would improve.

Second, the security of our ally, the strongest and most enduring democracy in the region, Israel, with whom we are bound by the strongest ties of mutual interest and shared values and affection would improve as well. And so would the prospects for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors improve.

Finally, the nations in the region see Syria as a test of our continued willingness to lead in the Middle East. If we prove unwilling to provide leadership, they will conclude that we are no longer a reliable security partner, and will decide to take matters into their own hands. And that means a regional arms race, the constant threat of armed conflict, and crippling fuel prices here at home due to instability. The most powerful and influential nation in the world cannot ask smaller, more vulnerable nations to take risks while we stand on the sidelines. We have to lead because the rewards for effective leadership are so great.

Forming and leading a coalition with Turkey and the Arab League nations to assist the opposition, by creating a safe haven and equipping the opposition with food, medicine, communications tools and potentially weapons, will not only weaken Iran, it will ultimately increase our ability to influence the political environment of a post-Assad Syria.

Crowley thinks this is a "reasoned argument" but it's literally the opposite. There are simply no reasons given for why anyone should believe that any of the positive outcomes Rubio lists would actually occur if the U.S. followed his advice. Rubio treats as self-evident assertions that actually need to be supported with evidence and argument. For instance: what about the balance of forces inside Syria gives him hope that a post-Assad regime would be friendly to U.S. and Israeli interests? Why does he believe the opposition would listen to the U.S. following Assad's overthrow - or that it would be even possible to stand up a government rather than have the country collapse into a civil war? Why, in short, does Rubio believe what he believes about U.S. involvement in Syria's uprising?

There is literally no "reason" given for us to believe that any of the beneficial outcomes listed by Rubio would actually occur. Doesn't the U.S. deserve more?

April 25, 2012

UK Enters Double-Dip Recession


UK government data indicate that it has suffered back-to-back quarters of negative economic growth - which means a double-dip recession is now official in Britain.

Britain has sunk back into recession, its first double-dip downturn since the 1970s, piling pressure on the government to soften its austerity drive.

GDP unexpectedly shrank by 0.2% between January and March, following a 0.3% contraction in the fourth quarter of last year, according to the Office for National Statistics.

One wonders if their austerity program was a good economic decision. The U.S., which instead implemented a stimulus package, is expected to grow 2-3% this year. Time will tell.

(AP Photo)

The Future's Uncertain and the End Is Always Near

The pivot, we tell the Chinese, is not about them. But then Manila and Tokyo ask: "What do you mean the pivot isn't about China. The Chinese are unwelcome visitors into our waters at least once a week!"

Oh, and we have new battle plan called "Air Sea Battle" that again is not about China. However, it is meant to operate in "anti-access" environments -- those in which enemies have many missiles, submarines, and cyber warfare capabilities. Sounds like China. We will be able to operate again in those environments once the plan is executed, but we will not execute it because we are cutting the defense budget, so China should worry a bit but not too much. Our allies should have just a little dose of reassurance to go along with their fears. - Dan Blumenthal

I wonder if "uncertainty" is actually the problem. What Blumenthal highlights is not really "uncertainty" but the administration's mealy-mouthedness (my word) with respect to what's it's doing in Asia. As Blumenthall notes, it's putting in place a semi-militarized containment strategy with the pivot, but is also taking great pains not to call it that lest it damage relations with China, which are rather important.

So what's the problem with this? There is nothing "uncertain" about establishing military bases in Australia and holding naval exercises with countries at China's perimeter. Does Blumenthal think U.S. allies in Asia would be more reassured if the administration actually took a sharper tone with China or explicitly framed its "pivot" in terms of Chinese containment?

He also writes:

Here is another part of the uncertainty doctrine that must leave Europeans and Middle Easterners scratching their heads: The United States is pivoting to Asia (under fiscal constraint) but not abandoning its allies in Europe or the Middle East.

I agree this is silly. If we're prioritizing Asia then it means we must correspondingly de-emphasize other regions. So imagine if President Obama said: "the U.S. is under fiscal strain and has to prioritize resources accordingly. That means we must shift our attention from a Europe that is peaceful and secure to Asia, where our interests will require more attentive monitoring."

Would Blumenthal hail this as providing clarity or would he condemn Obama for betraying U.S. leadership? The president's current rhetoric is designed to shield him from just such an accusation because Washington is unable to have an adult conversation about this stuff.

No, Germany Is Not About to Start a War

I've heard many criticisms of President Obama's foreign policy but I think Victor Davis Hanson mines new ground by suggesting that the president is stoking a potential war on the European continent:

Historical pressures, well apart from Putinism in Russia, are coming to the fore on the continent — pressures that were long suppressed by the aberrations of World War II, the Cold War, the division of Germany, and the rise of the EU. The so-called “German problem” — the tendency of Germany quite naturally at some point to translate its innate dynamic economic prowess into political, cultural, and above all military superiority — did not vanish simply because a postmodern EU announced that it had transcended human nature and its membership would no longer be susceptible to ancient Thucydidean nationalist passions like honor, fear, or self-interest.

If you have doubts on that, just review current German and southern-European newspapers, where commentary sounds more likely to belong in 1938 than in 2012. The catastrophe of the EU has not been avoided by ad hoc bandaging — it is still on the near horizon. Now is the time to reassure Germany that a strong American-led NATO eliminates any need for German rearmament, and that historical oddities (why is France nuclear, while a far stronger Germany is not?) are not odd at all. In short, as the EU unravels, and anti-Germany hysteria waxes among its debtors, while ancient German resentments build, it would be insane to abdicate the postwar transatlantic leadership we have provided for nearly 70 years.

I admit I had to read this last graf three times to fully convince myself that Victor Davis Hanson was actually arguing that the upshot of the European debt crisis will be a return of a militarized "German problem." (There is, clearly, a financial "German problem" on the continent, depending on how you view the austerity debate.)

Look, economic dislocation is going to lead to radicalism in Europe. It is arguably already in evidence. German-mandated austerity is roiling the continent. But just to straighten it out: the most likely German reaction to having to use its money to bail out a broke European periphery will be to continue to insist on austerity or to eject Greece and other indebted nations from the Eurozone (or even to have a change of heart and embrace Keynesian pump-priming, although that's unlikely). Re-arming, acquiring nuclear weapons and soothing over "ancient resentments" via military force doesn't strike me as the most plausible German route at this point.

Update: Larison has more:

In case Hanson hadn’t noticed, using its military to project power is the last thing that modern German governments want to do. President Köhler was forced to resign in 2010 after he seemed to suggest that securing German economic interests might justify the use of force overseas. Germany was the most outspoken European opponent of military intervention in Libya. Following the Fukushima meltdown, Merkel reversed her position on nuclear power, which means that Germany is not not going to be interested in acquiring nuclear weapons. Its official position is more radically anti-nuclear than most other Western governments. The “German problem” as Hanson describes it here is not a real problem for the foreseeable future.

Who's Spamming Your Inbox? Indians

According to cyber-security firm Sophos, India leads the world in generating spam email. The U.S. comes in second, South Korea third and Indonesia and Russia are tied for fourth. Italy is the leading European spammer in fifth place.

April 24, 2012

Bolivia: Venezuela Has Five Military Bases in the Country

Bolivian legislator Norma Piérola has denounced the existence of five Venezuelan military installations in the countryside. Piérola, member of the Convergencia Nacional (National Convergence party), asserted that the military bases have existed since at least 2010.

Piérola made the statement during a session of the Legislative Assembly, in the presence of Defense Minister Rubén Saavedra and Government Minister Carlos Romero. Saavedra denied the military bases' existence but declared that there are Venezuelan army personnel in Bolivia as part of an "educational exchange program" with friendly countries.

The Bolivian Constitution forbids any military installations from a foreign country.

Cross-posted at Fausta's blog.

April 23, 2012

Obama's Solar Trade War

The Obama administration decided last month to slap tariffs on Chinese-made solar panels because, they claim, Chinese subsidies undercut U.S. manufacturers. It's an odd industry for the administration to target - all those Chinese subsidies have made solar roughly price-competitive as an energy source for the first time, something the supposedly environmentally-minded administration would approve of. Now the administration wants to make it more expensive.

Yet as DigiTimes notes, Chinese suppliers may be able to skirt the costs:

China-based solar firms, however, have been finding ways to avoid paying the tariff such as transfering solar cell orders to Taiwan. Taiwan-based solar cell makers have been experiencing rising capacity utilization rates but indicated that orders from China-based firms often have unprofitably low quotes. China does not want to give up on the US market because it is one of the fastest growing solar markets in the world.

Beyond that, it's very odd that the Obama administration would go to such great lengths over Iran, including, potentially, using military force but won't countenance cheap solar panels from China. One policy potentially threatens the lives of American service personnel and runs the risk of a near-term recession if a brief war in the Gulf causes oil prices to soar (among a host of other potentially negative outcomes). Letting cheap Chinese solar panels into the U.S. market, however, hurts the employment prospects of a small industry (unless these panels are somehow dangerous - a case I've not yet heard).

Obviously these two events are not tightly correlated, but they are related. Solar power isn't going to ween the U.S. off of oil as a transport fuel in the short-term (as I understand it, the solar roof experiment on the Prius was a bit of a flop), but the more alternative energy sources go online, the more the overall energy mix will tilt away from oil and the greater the chance that Washington can finally stop obsessing about the Mideast.

Yoo on Syria

As Iran closes in on its nuclear prize and props up Assad’s bloody regime in Syria, the United States has the opportunity to deal a crippling blow to its oldest, most dangerous enemy in the region. U.S. military strikes could topple Tehran’s close allies in Damascus and destroy the mullahs’ nuclear infrastructure, potentially ushering in more democratic regimes that would be at peace with their neighbors. - John Yoo

Seems like "potentially" is doing an awful lot of work in that formulation.

Rosy scenarios aside, the bulk of Yoo's piece is devoted to arguing that Mitt Romney can helpfully draw a contrast between an administration that defers military action to UN authorization or one that unilaterally starts a war with both Syria and Iran. I think it both overstates the extent to which Romney would start a war with Syria and understates the possibility that the Obama administration would take military force against Iran, should push come to shove. As a bit of political salesmanship though, "vote for me and I'll start not one, but two more wars in the Mideast" sounds like a tough sell.

April 20, 2012

China-India Media War

Chinese media has reportedly mocked India's recently-tested Angi V long-range missile as a "dwarf." The Hindustan Times takes on the story with its own provocative headline. I guess it's still better to jaw, jaw...

U.S. and Israeli Interests

Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin was asked whether she saw any divergence of interests between the U.S. and Israel. Her answer did identify two areas in particular where she saw a divergence, but she starts her answer by wondering why a similar question isn't asked of other allies "like Great Britain or Australia." I don't know if she's genuinely confused on the point or just insinuating that the question itself is somehow suspect, but the answer is obvious: those countries aren't currently edging toward a military conflict that implicates the United States.

If Australia were threatening to attack China and there were a strong likelihood that the U.S. would become ensnared in the ensuing conflict, I'm pretty sure people would be asking similar questions of the U.S.-Australia alliance.

April 19, 2012

Drone War into Yemen

According to the Washington Post, the CIA is looking to blow up people if they're acting suspicious in Yemen:

The CIA is seeking authority to expand its covert drone campaign in Yemen by launching strikes against terrorism suspects even when it does not know the identities of those who could be killed, U.S. officials said.

Securing permission to use these “signature strikes” would allow the agency to hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior, such as imagery showing militants gathering at known al-Qaeda compounds or unloading explosives.

The practice has been a core element of the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan for several years. CIA Director David H. Petraeus has requested permission to use the tactic against the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, which has emerged as the most pressing terrorism threat to the United States, officials said.

We're frequently told that the drone campaign has succeeded in destroying al-Qaeda in Pakistan. But this is apparently a qualified success, since the same tactic now has to be ported over to Yemen. Presumably, if put into practice, it will succeed in doing what it did in Pakistan: killing many alleged terrorists, some untold number of civilians and angering a broad swath of Yemenis, a very small fraction of whom may try to attack the U.S. in revenge. The risk of destabilizing the Yemeni government is obviously lower, since what government exists is already fractured. And Yemen doesn't have nuclear weapons. So there's that.

Is this a good idea? Who knows. Personally, the very limited use of drones makes sense to me, but the scale, pace and targets matter. We don't yet know if the drone war in Pakistan was the success it appears to be: it's not just a question of whether it managed to kill all of the right people, but whether it so irreparably harmed U.S.-Pakistan relations and radicalized enough Pakistanis as to offset the benefits. (Also: will militants flood back into Pakistan's tribal areas once the drones fly elsewhere?)

The pattern we see here should give us pause: the U.S. drove al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan. They set up shop in Pakistan. We have mostly driven them out of Pakistan. They have established themselves in Yemen. It should be clear by now that there's not going to be a death-blow here.

Getting 'In This' with Syria

From the sounds of Josh Rogin's reporting it looks as if the Obama administration is edging closer toward a more forceful policy towards Syria. It is being driven, in part, from outside pressure:

Lieberman and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) spent their Senate recess on the Turkish side of the Turkey-Syria border, meeting with Turkish officials, FSA leaders, and refugees.

"What they want us to do is to lead. They want us to lead the Friends of Syria, who have given them increasingly sympathetic rhetoric but not the wherewithal to defend themselves," he said.

The Syrian internal opposition is buying weapons and ammunition on the black market at exorbitant prices and claims that large parts of the Syrian military are demoralized but are unwilling to break with the government until they see the opposition has real international support.

"They are all waiting for the U.S. to say ‘We're in this,'" Lieberman said.

It's nothing new, but this seemingly infinite desire to get Washington "in this" is something to behold. It would be one thing if the U.S. had a magnificent track record in this respect. But the record of mixed-to-poor outcomes following U.S. military intervention and/or armed assistance to rebel factions never seems to figure into the equation.

April 13, 2012

High Drama in the Polish Lower House


Major drama broke out on the floor of the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish Parliament, late Friday morning. The major players were Prime Minister Donald Tusk and two opposition leaders - Jaroslaw Kaczynski and frequent mischief-maker Janusz Palikot.

Two years ago, President Lech Kaczynski - the twin brother of Jaroslaw - was tragically killed in a plane crash in Russia. Since then, Jaroslaw, the leader of the right-wing Law & Justice Party (PiS), has used his brother's death to advance his own political career. Additionally, each anniversary, he has gathered his supporters to spread conspiracy theories about his brother's death. His most infamous theory is that the Russians created the foggy conditions that fateful day and/or planted a bomb on the plane. He has others.

Today, on the floor of the Parliament, the endless politicizing of the disaster came to a head. The Prime Minister, in no uncertain words, told Kaczynski to stop: "I would prefer not to be born, than on the graves of the dead to build a political career." (Note: The accompanying link was translated using Google Translate.)

Kaczysnki responded by blaming Tusk for his brother's death. His logic is twisted: The tragedy would never have happened if then-President Lech Kaczynski and Prime Minister Tusk flew together in the same plane to Russia.

A second opposition leader, Janusz Palikot, then bluntly implied that Jaroslaw Kaczynski was in need of medical attention.

And people think that American politics is polarized.

(Many thanks to my father-in-law and wife, both of whom helped translate the debate.)

(AP Photo)

April 12, 2012

Does NATO Still Serve American Interests?

Stanley Sloan makes the case:

Most would agree that the most vital American interest is defense of the homeland and protection of its citizens. An active alliance with America’s leading partners would seem to address that vital interest, even if the United States does not currently face threats of a truly existential nature. Having allies dedicated to considering an attack on one as an attack on all, as provided in the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article 5, is not a bad insurance policy – one on which the United States collected after 9/11....

The main strategic value of America’s European allies, however, is in the capabilities that the Europeans bring to the table, as they did in the case of Libya. Granted, European military resources have shrunk over the years, and the Libya “model” may or may not work for some other contingency. But as European allies reallocate resources as part of their withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is in the interest of the United States that they do so in ways that enhance their ability to assist the United States in dealing with future security challenges. NATO consultations can facilitate such an outcome.

I think Sloan was closer to the mark in the first graf: While it's difficult to see the U.S. entering into any conflict where it is the weaker power and thus actually in need of European help, a defensive alliance with mostly like-minded countries does provide something of an "insurance policy." In fact, as powers like China and Brazil pull more weight globally, having an alliance such as NATO ensures that the Euro-Atlantic region is firmly defended. It also makes economic sense for indebted Europe (and America) to leverage the alliance to achieve cost-savings in defense.

But this really isn't the case for NATO today, as Sloan makes clear. Rather, it's to have a set of allies to provide the U.S. with some additional capabilities (and legitimacy) for its international adventurism.

The insurance policy metaphor is apt. We would typically describe a person as insane if they deliberately hurt themselves just to luxuriate in the fact that they have medical insurance. By using the utterly unnecessary Libyan intervention as an example of NATO's worth, supporters of the alliance are chopping off their fingers, rushing to the ER and then waving the bandaged stumps around as proof of how important good medical coverage is.

To my mind, the case for NATO is actually closer to auto insurance - something that is important to have but that you try never to draw on unless something serious happens.

Putin Supports Term Limits


There is a catch, however: He only supports term limits for the next president. The Los Angeles Times reports:

...Putin made it clear that the two-term limit he was endorsing "wouldn't be retroactive," meaning it wouldn't apply to him.


If Putin seeks yet a fourth term, as expected, he would be leader of the Kremlin longer than anyone since dictator Josef Stalin.

It is often said that Belarus is "Europe's last dictatorship." Unfortunately, that may no longer be the case.

(AP Photo)

April 11, 2012

Arab Middle East Doesn't Fear Iran

A new poll of Arab public opinion (via Patrick Appel) should help to frame the debate over U.S. mideast strategy:

The vast majority of the Arab public does not believe that Iran poses a threat to the "security of the Arab homeland." Only 5 percent of respondents named Iran as a source of threat, versus 22 percent who named the U.S. The first place was reserved for Israel, which 51 percent of respondents named as a threat to Arab national security. Arab societies differed modestly in their answers: The largest percentage viewing Iran as a threat was reported in Lebanon and Jordan (10 percent) and the lowest (1 percent or less) was reported in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, and the Sudan. Even when respondents were asked about the state that poses the greatest threat to their particular country, the pattern held: Iran (7 percent), U.S. (14 percent), and Israel (35 percent). Interestingly, while Saudi Arabia is often cited as the primary Arab state in support of belligerence against Iran, the data indicate that this view doesn't seem to extend to its public. In the Saudi Arabian sample, only 8 percent believed that Iran presents a threat -- a lower percentage even than that which viewed the U.S. as a source of threat (13 percent).
Ponder this last finding. Saudi Arabia - a U.S. ally, showered with advanced American weapons, protected in 1991 from Saddam Hussein's approaching army - thinks the U.S. is a bigger threat to it than Iran.

It's little wonder why the region's autocrats want America to do the dirty work of attacking Iran for them. They not only get to hold America's coat, but the outrage from their own publics gets deflected off of them and onto the U.S. The real question is why on Earth Washington would oblige them.

Can Iran Shut Down Its Internet?

Iran has threatened in recent days to shut itself off from the Internet and replace the global network with its own national, government-approached network. But can that actually work? According to David Talbot, Iran could technically shut itself off but censorship expert Hal Roberts thinks they might not want to:

But as China has come to realize (see our feature on the Chinese way of Internet control), their economy has come to depend on the Internet. Business, not just dissidents, need the global connections. And this is true in Iran, too, sanctions notwithstanding. So as Roberts put it: “The much more interesting, important, and difficult question is whether shutting its citizens off from the rest of the Internet for an extended period would be socially, economically, and politically feasible for the Iranian government.”
It would be feasible, if its vision for the future is turning into another North Korean-style Hermit Kingdom.

April 10, 2012

Africa Is Splitting Apart - Literally

A new report in Nature Geosciences describes how Africa is, quite literally, splitting apart. Eric Tohver explains:

The researchers observed that the Cretaceous Congo River was largely flowing to the north west, with sediments mainly derived from the geological provinces to the south east. (This is the same direction the Congo River currently flows in.)

But by the Oligocene (roughly 34-23m years ago), the river had reversed course entirely, flowing to the south east.

Since changing the direction of a river’s flow requires a major reorganisation of continental topography (picture the Amazon River flowing west, towards the Andes), the researchers conclude that uplift of eastern Africa was already underway some 25m years ago.

The changing record of this ancient river’s flow direction now demonstrates when and where the uplift of the eastern African continent began. The first step in the break-up of Africa is well-underway.

April 9, 2012

What the French Want

CNN asked several Parisians what it is that they want from the 2012 American election:

There are two interesting (and similar) comments. The first is at 0:37. The woman being interviewed responds, "What I want is... America understands that it's a global world." At 0:55, another woman says, "There are a lot of us in this world, it's not just the United States and everyone needs to work together with regards to the economy."

Both women gave good advice. The French should follow it themselves.

It is true that recognizing we live in a global world is very important. But the French government doesn't always act that way. In 2010, the lower house of parliament passed a ban on burqas 335 to 1. Last month, President Sarkozy threatened to pull France out of the passport-free travel agreement known as Schengen due to a disagreement over European immigration policy. (He wants to cut the number of immigrants allowed into France.) And for good measure, he demanded support for the economically protectionist "Buy European Act," which would force EU governments to purchase European products over foreign ones. If Sarkozy doesn't get his way, he has threatened to implement the plan unilaterally.

The French are correct that the U.S. should embrace a globalized world. But the French need to recognize that there is a world beyond the borders of the European Union.

Testing Obama's Iran Hypothesis

It's not clear why the Obama administration wants to leak its "opening position" in the upcoming nuclear negotiations with Iran, but doing so has helped clarify one issue:

Still, Mr. Obama and his allies are gambling that crushing sanctions and the threat of Israeli military action will bolster the arguments of those Iranians who say a negotiated settlement is far preferable to isolation and more financial hardship. Other experts fear the tough conditions being set could instead swing the debate in favor of Iran’s hard-liners.

“We have no idea how the Iranians will react,” one senior administration official said. “We probably won’t know after the first meeting.” But the next round of oil sanctions, he noted, kicks in early this summer.

It could simply be that Iran will not negotiate away the option to develop a nuclear weapon no matter what. In that case, no clever combination of U.S. threats and sanctions will really work (and military force will only delay the inevitable). Unfortunately, no one knows what Iran's true intentions are - and it's possible that the Iranian leadership doesn't know either.

So if obtaining a nuclear weapon is still an active question among Iran's leaders, how does the West dissuade them?

The doves usually insist that only a good-faith negotiation aimed at rapprochement with Iran will yield anything on the nuclear front, while the hawks demand a confrontational approach with threats and promises of regime change.

While its critics will be loathe to admit it, the Obama administration is essentially reading from the hawkish script, betting that Iran will knuckle under to threats and warnings about "last chances."

It would be nice if this is seen as a test of the hawkish hypothesis. If Iran does yield under the combined pressure of sanctions and military threats (and assassinations and sabotage), then the hawks can point to a policy success. But what if this approach fails?

Again, maybe it was destined to fail because Iran simply can't be talked out of a nuclear deterrent. But in a rational world, we'd test the alternative hypothesis before taking costlier steps (and not the "single roll of the dice" diplomacy attempted in the opening weeks of the Obama administration). Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen both because it may be preempted by an Israeli strike and it runs contrary to logic (i.e. the dovish approach really needed to be explored comprehensively first, not second, when the clock is ticking).

April 7, 2012

Chavez Heading Back to Cuba

Contradicting reports that he was traveling to Brazil for emergency medical treatment, after begging God for life, Chavez announced last night in a telephone interview that he's heading back to Cuba tonight for more radiation therapy:

He said the daily radiation treatments in Havana would help him continue what he calls a "battle for health and for life".

According to Brazilian journalist Merval Pereira, the Venezuelan government wanted to vacate two floors of the Hospital Sírio e Libanês in Sao Paulo, install the Venezuelan army in charge of clearing all visitors to the hospital, and demanded a news blackout regarding medical updates.

Pereira says Chavez may be suffering of colon-rectal cancer with tumors in the colon, rectum and appendix, but this diagnosis is based on bits of information.

Venezuelan journalist Nelson Bocaranda reported yesterday that Chavez suffered burns from his latest radiation treatment, which has not been as on-target as it would have been in countries with state-of-the-art equipment, unlike Cuba. Chavez may have to undergo additional exploratory surgery.

In between cries to the divinity, Hugo didn't waste time, and accused the U.S. of using terrorism to try to topple Syria's Assad:

"I had been trying to talk with him for several days," Chavez said of Assad, adding that the Syrian leader gave him a detailed rundown of the situation there during a half-hour call.

"Bashar told me that the political plans continue forward and that the security situation is improving, and he hopes and he's sure … and let's hope it's the case … that with less bloodshed in the coming days, soon that brother Arab nation will be totally under control and will return to normality," Chavez said.

Chavez, who has long had an antagonistic relationship with the U.S. ­government, has repeatedly accused Washington of trying to stir up violence in Syria similar to the fighting in Libya that led to the ouster and killing of his ally Muammar Gadhafi.

"The pressure by the Yankee empire and its allies continues, trying to use arms to topple President Bashar Assad, using terrorism," Chavez said, adding that such actions were responsible for the violence in Syria.

Chavez has been selling Syria diesel fuel.

Cross-posted at Fausta's blog.

April 6, 2012

Chavez Medical Emergency?

Hugo Chavez may be en route to a Brazilian hospital with complications:

Brazilian media is reporting that ailing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez will make an emergency trip to Brazil after allegedly suffering intestinal burns during his radiation treatment in Cuba.

Chávez, who in June of last year revealed that Cuban doctors had removed a cancerous tumor from his abdominal region, has been going back-and-forth from the island nation for treatment. The Associated Press reported earlier on Thursday that the Venezuelan leader had returned to his country on Wednesday night from radiation treatment in Cuba.

He may be headed to the hospital Sirio e Libanês in Sao Paulo, where Dilma Rouseff, Lula and Paraguay's Fernando Lugo have been treated for cancer.

Brazilian journalist Merval Pereira says that the emergency trip is being spun by the Venezuelan government as a visit to Lula. Pereira has spoken to doctors at the hospital who so far have made no preparations for Chavez's arrival, but allow that Chavez could be admitted for tests. Pereira also says that there is a big fight going on between chavistas as to whether Chavez should travel or not, due to security and secrecy issues.

Just yesterday Chavez was begging God to let him live longer in front of a very small audience:

“Dame tu corona, Cristo. Dámela que yo sangro, dame tu cruz, cien cruces, que yo la llevo, pero dame vida. No me lleves todavía, dame tus espinas, dame tu sangre, que yo estoy dispuesto a llevarla pero con vida, Cristo, mi señor. Amén."

Give me your crown, Christ. Give it to me as I bleed, a hundred crosses, that I carry it, but give me life. Don't take me away yet, give me your thorns, give me your blood, that I am willing to carry it, but with life, Christ, my lord. Amen.

(My translation. If you use it, please credit me and link to this post.)

Cross-posted at Fausta's blog

World to End in 2030

According to Australian researcher Graham Turner, who has re-examined findings from a 1970s study making the same prediction:

The study, initially completed at MIT, relied on several computer models of economic trends and estimated that if things didn’t change much, and humans continued to consume natural resources apace, the world would run out at some point. Oil will peak (some argue it has) before dropping down the other side of the bell curve, yet demand for food and services would only continue to rise. Turner says real-world data from 1970 to 2000 tracks with the study’s draconian predictions: “There is a very clear warning bell being rung here. We are not on a sustainable trajectory,” he tells Smithsonian.

Color me skeptical.

April 5, 2012

Explaining the China Exception

Freedom House's Arch Puddington thinks the world is giving China a free pass when it comes to human rights abuses:

More than anything else, it is this calibrated economic integration, and the opportunities it represents, that has allowed China’s government to evade international opprobrium for its acts of repression. To be sure, the regime’s crimes are not entirely ignored. Human rights organizations regularly denounce the jailing of dissidents, the mistreatment of minorities, and the lack of anything resembling the rule of law. Occasionally, foreign governments are compelled to speak out, as when Beijing launched a campaign against the Nobel committee after jailed democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo was given the peace prize. But in an age when Hungary, Ukraine, and Turkey are rightly chastised for breaches of democratic standards, China usually gets a pass for policies that have brought pain and misery to millions. The separate category that China has carved out for itself goes beyond the usual double standard that has historically been applied to “progressive” dictatorships—to Cuba, or Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, for example. Instead there is a kind of stand-alone China Exception, under which repression and autocracy are quietly acknowledged but actual objections are seldom voiced.
This is no mystery: China is a powerful country and countries have to tread more carefully when criticizing it than they do with smaller, less powerful states. It's also not clear that publicly scolding China will accomplish anything because, again, China has gotten itself into a position where it doesn't really need to listen to anyone.

Puddington will have none of it:

The one-child policy and the persecution of the Uighurs are but two in a long roster of odious practices that, taken together with the world’s indifference, make up the China Exception. This indifference is a choice, often by people who hope for economic gain, or fear economic losses.

The fear of economic loss might strike Puddington as no reason to tread cautiously with respect to China's internal governance, but it's a perfectly legitimate concern. Any government has a primary obligation to the welfare of their own citizens. Putting that welfare at risk to deliver moral lectures to China about how China behaves internally would be an abdication of that responsibility.

And it's unlikely to even work. When some (democratic, human rights-abiding) European capitals objected to the U.S. push for a war with Iraq, the American response wasn't measured self-reflection and changed behavior but adolescent petulance and "Freedom Fries." Is China really going to behave differently?

April 3, 2012

The Value of European Currencies if the Euro Breaks Up


From a paper authored by Jens Nordvig and Nick Firoozye, an estimate of how European currencies would be valued following a break-up of the Eurozone. Via Business Insider. (Click on the image for a larger picture.)

The Bigger Threat to World Security: Food or War?

According to Lester Brown, it's food:

Grain yields are beginning to hit a “glass ceiling” in many countries, Brown said, where farmers have already taken advantage of what science has to offer for improving yield. As more and more countries hit an upper limit on productivity, the world grain harvest will begin to plateau, even as demand for food continues to rise, causing a rise in prices. More worrisome, the global food market is vulnerable to external shocks such as prolonged drought. “We don’t have idle land, we’re flat out,” says Brown. “We don’t have [food] stocks. We’re living harvest to harvest. The question becomes, what if we have a major shortfall in the world?”

Brown noted that war isn't a "top five" global security concern, but that seems to overlook the fact that possible food shortages and food price spikes could very easily lead to war.

April 2, 2012

Kissinger on the Mideast

Henry Kissinger offers his views on the Arab Spring:

For more than half a century, U.S. policy in the Middle East has been guided by several core security objectives: preventing any power in the region from emerging as a hegemon; ensuring the free flow of energy resources, still vital to the operation of the world economy; and attempting to broker a durable peace between Israel and its neighbors, including a settlement with the Palestinian Arabs.

Kissinger is wary about backing revolutionary regimes in the region lest they upset the apple cart with respect to these core objectives, but I think the Arab Spring and nascent civil wars in Syria and Libya represent an important occasion to re-conceptualize U.S. policy toward the region.

There are two predominate and competing impulses when it comes to America's approach to the Arab Spring - either we back democracy, come what may, to be on the right side of history and the Middle East's true aspirations. Or we back the forces of stability (and repression) to safeguard our core objectives and keep Islamist movements at bay.

Both of these impulses reflect a desire to meddle in affairs that cannot really be controlled by outside powers. In the Cold War context, a degree of interference in Middle Eastern affairs had a strategic rationale. Today, there is arguably much less of a need.

Consider Kissinger's list of "core" security requirements. The only item on his list that could seriously damage U.S. interests would be if oil were no longer flowing from the Middle East. Who lives where, in and around Israel's borders and which country exercises greater power relative to other states in the region are really subordinate concerns. Stated in this way, the U.S. really has one simple "requirement" from the region and it just so happens to align neatly with the economic interests (indeed, the very survival) of any regime of any ideological disposition in the Middle East.

Any attempts to press the scales of internal development probably won't work - the U.S. couldn't predict the Arab Spring before it sprung and is unlikely to be smart enough or well-positioned enough to guide it to an acceptable end point. Our interference will, at best, generate resentment among the very people we're attempting to help (or marginalize) and at worst, instigate violence. We shouldn't insist on making our Middle East policy more complicated than it needs to be.

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