Monday, August 31, 2009

Money or guns

One of the luxuries of being an empire is that you seldom have to fight a war. Instead you buy proxies to do the fighting for you. Being an empire is mostly about skillfully spending money. The imperial way of fighting for the US in Afghanistan would be to buy most Taliban commanders and to buy some treachery to undermine the rest. That instead the US finds itself in a war that looks hard to win means that something is seriously wrong.

One problem the US has is a lack of knowledge. There are hardly any people who speak Pashtu or Persian in the state department, the CIA or the Pentagon. The result is inferior intelligence that has led the US to attack groups of people who had been falsely accused of being Taliban or Al Qaeda. It has also led to a flawed policy of investing money in Afghanistan. The logical policy would be to invest a lot in good roads. That is what the American military needs, but it will also improve the economy and provide the Afghans with money for other improvements. Instead the investment in roads is seriously flawed, with US firms getting the orders and then subcontracting it to Turkish firms who subcontract it to Afghan firms. A lot of money is wasted this way. But the most serious problem is that this lack of knowledge makes it difficult to discern enemies from friends and to get an accurate view of those somewhere in between.

Another problem arises when someone else is spending money to undermine your imperial plans. If you can't stop him you have a problem. That happened to the US in Vietnam, to Russia in Afghanistan and is now happening to the US in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan the money is coming from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states. All those countries are officially America's friends. But with friends like that, who needs enemies?

If you have a close look at America's friends they are all dependent on the US. The US doesn't like too independent friends, specially not outside Europe. And so it prefers the Saudi royal family above a more democratic regime that puts the interests of the people first. Given their precarious power position in their countries these "friends" get considerable freedom from the US for US hostile policies.

It could be otherwise. The US could build relations with Iran, by far the strongest country in the region. Sure, they would occasionally have to do some arm twisting and they will have to accept some policies that are not very US friendly. But together with Iran the US would have a much better chance of stabilizing the region. Not because Iran is now so harmful to US interests now (it isn't), but because Iran's knowledge of the local setting could be combined with US money.

Iran has now a bad name as "sponsoring terrorism". But when one considers how they have improved the life of the Shiites in Lebanon they certainly had a point. And their support of Hamas has finally forced the PLO to do something about its corrupt inefficiency. Compare this to China's policies towards North Korea, Pakistan, Burma, Iran and several countries in Africa that create much more fundamental trouble. And Iran may support some Shiite minorities. But should we really complain given that we ignore the "ring of fire" of Saudi sponsored insurrections by Muslim minorities around the world? So our problems with Iran are not larger than what we find acceptable with other countries. And if we build better relations with Iran we may get them to give up or ameliorate at least some of the policies that we don't like.

What is stopping the US from this? Basically, hubris and Israel. Hubris tells the US that it doesn't need anyone and that relying on really independent allies would be a sign of weakness. Israel believes that beating up any Muslim who resists is the only plausible option towards a culture that despises signs of weakness.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Lessons from failed states

I encountered this article from BBC reporter Humphrey Hawksley. He seems to share my doubts about "democracy" as the solution for everything and to share my belief that "good government" is more important. With Khalilzad he doubts whether the elections in Afghanistan were a good idea: it leads to rising ethnic tensions and harmful populist policies. His latest book “Democracy Kills: What’s So Good About Having the Vote?” will be released in September.

What may be interested for Balkanians is his opinion about international rule. He compares Liberia - where the internationals took over - with Sierra Leone:

For examples of missions still in progress, one can look at West Africa where interventions in Sierra Leone in 2000 and neighbouring Liberia in 2003 have stopped wars, but have yet to secure enough confidence for a lasting peace. Given the ethnic and religious mixes, the poverty, corruption, collapse of institutions and infrastructure and a tendency toward warlordism and violence, these two countries present us with important tests in dealing with the failed state — and all it implies for the security and welfare of their citizens and that of the wider world.

Most Liberians and Sierra Leoneans bought into the interventions and stopped fighting. As in Bosnia and Kosovo, Liberians accepted infringement of their sovereignty — albeit to a lesser extent. The Governance and Economic Management Assistance Programme (GEMAP), initiated by Liberia and international institutions, gave foreign technocrats budgetary control of government ministries. The aim was to ensure that corruption did not hamper rebuilding.

GEMAP was not implemented in Sierra Leone which, arguably, is facing more problems in its transition from emergency conflict-prevention to long-term nation-building. Corruption continues to strip main hospitals of essential medicines. Roads to the eastern area where the civil war began are virtually impassable. Young men, who used to be child soldiers, have no jobs.

In Liberia, most hospital pharmacies are well stocked. Lawyers and administrators in remote places have trained at some of the best Western universities. Officials have canvassed at the grass roots to determine exactly what the people want.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

New ICTY website

I hadn't visited the ICTY website for some time and was surprised by the new look. You have now access to the court documents and can search in them. For this section you need to register. Their is also a section "Voice of the Victims" where you will find quotes from testimonies and a section "Statements of Guilt". The quotes of the victims link to full testimonies that seem to have been edited for readability - they miss all the interrupting questions that can make live court testimonies so boring.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Honduras coup

I finally encountered an article that sheds a different light on the coup against president Zelaya in Honduras. It claims that the reproaches against the exiled president are bogus: the referendum he wanted would be too late for him to get a second term. At best he might participate again in the elections four and a half year from now. His real "crime" should have been that he wasn't "friendly" enough to some business interests - specially in telecom. According to the article Zelaya is a moderate reformer, quite different from Chavez.

The article also points out a range of shady characters involved in the coup, including a former Honduran death squad leader, a Venezuelan lawyer who played a central role in the failed coup against Chavez a few years ago and some Americans with an Iran-Contra background.

Postscript 22-10-2012: Honduras Gone Wrong tells about America's duplicity about the coup and its continuing military support for the regime. It tells also about how Republican left-overs at the State Department have the upper hand in America's Latin America policies - as could also be seen in ist support for the coup in Paraguay.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Our economists are blowing bubbles again

The economic world news seems rather optimistic nowadays. In the US the Fed thinks the recession is ending.

The Fed is "more worried about unemployment than a resurgence of inflation". I think they are wrong. There are different kinds of inflation and the one we are seeing now is asset inflation. Look at the hause on the stock exchanges and the fact that house prices are starting to rise again in regions where they hadn't bottomed out to historic prices.

That is exactly how the economy was propped up during the last decade. Then too there was too much money that couldn't be invested productively and it ended up in speculation.

In the 1929 economic crisis many believe the problem was too much inequality. Rich people tend to spend a smaller percentage of their income on consumption than poorer people and so you get underconsumption. Throughout the 1930s the economy stumbled along. There seemed to be some recovery after 1933, but when government started to address its deficits in 1937 the economy dived again. In the meantime the inequality stayed essentially the same. World War II lowered the inequality very fast and after that it stayed low for decades - while the economy kept humming.

But addressing inequality is hard. The rich people have most of the power and it looks like only a real war gives them enough sense of community that they see the benefit of sacrificing some of their possessions for the community.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Kissinger on North Korea

Henry Kissinger is a very busy and influential man. His company - Kissinger Associates - has employed many of America's security top. And he himself occassionally writes about hot international issues. For example on North Korea (NK) he has written recently this and this.

The older piece (from 8 june) looks hopelessly outdated as it claims that the NK doesn't want to negotiate as it wants to look strong at a time of succession. Outdated because NK nowadays is prepared to negotiate. It makes one wonder why Kissinger made such a mistake. I think it was because he hadn't looked at the US side of the deal. NK didn't want to negotiate because the US had nothing to offer. The opening came after the US and South Korea had declared that they were working on a financial support package for NK.

Kissinger is more to the point when he states that the US needs to coordinate better with NK's neighbours, specially China. I like it that he writes that the US needs to agree with China on what should be done when the NK regime might fall. The Chinese are worried about that so there is a need for a good plan.

The newer piece (from 9 august) had blackmail in the title and as such it nicely connects the release of the journalists with the nuclear question - both of which are seen as NK blackmail. Kissinger describes the risk of Bill Clinton's trip as that it "will enable Kim Jong-il to convey to North Korea, and perhaps to other countries, that his country is being accepted into the international community — the precise opposite of what the U.S. secretary of state has defined as the goal of U.S. policy until Pyongyang abandons its nuclear weapons program."

Here I disagree with Kissinger. There is nothing wrong with showing NK and the world that the existence of the NK regime is accepted. It looks as if Kissinger has been stuck in the 1970s and has missed the recent "regime change" mania in the US. Telling NK that it is not accepted no longer means that they will be put in a similar position as South Africa before 1990. It means that they are ripe for a "regime change". Given this context it is not good to tell NK that it is not accepted as it will drive them towards nuclear armament.

Kissinger continues on the issue of the two (the US and NK) or six party (with China, Russia, South Korea and Japan) negotiations. NK wants two party negotiations. The US insists on six party negotiations. Kissinger finds that the only right position. I can only partially agree. I agree that the final agreement should involve all six parties. But negotiating with six parties is very cumbersome. And the US is likely to dictate the desired outcome on the nuclear and missile issues anyway. So I can't see anything wrong with two-party negotiations. But the US will need to put a lot of effort in coordinating with the other four countries.

That brings me to the last point. Kissinger is very negative on finding real solutions with NK. He writes: "North Korea may return to its well-established tactic of diverting us with the prospect of imminent breakthroughs. This is exactly what happened after the last Korean nuclear weapons test in 2006. Pyongyang undoubtedly will continue to seek to achieve de facto acceptance as a nuclear weapons state by endlessly protracted diplomacy.". Deep distrust.

What I am missing here is a long term view. It might run something like this: South Korea and the US will invest in NK and help to make the country prosporous. After 15 or 20 years the Kim clan will open the country to democracy. As a rich business clan they will stay influential, but they will no longer rule the country. It may be awkward at first to discuss such a scenario, but one of the reasons that the negotiations always go wrong is that the parties have different hopes for the long term: the NK regime hopes to rule forever and the US hopes that the regime will soon be toppled. This leads to distrust.

Also one has to take in account that relations may temporarily sour in the future. I think it was a mistake in 1994 to offer North Korea light water reactors. Such reactors would always be a source of suspicion. It is better to build dams and wind farms.

Iraq's future civil war

A former mayor of the Iraqi town Afar who now works in the US for the National Defense University has written a report in which he warns that Iraq may be drifting towards civil war. In each region the military and the policy are staffed by the party that is there in power. In his opinion Iraq should do much more to mix those people and to develop a trulely national army and police.

I don't know enough about Iraq to evaluate if he is right. But he is certainly a man to be taken seriously.

The report can be found here.

Between Russia and Germany

The New York Review of Books has an article Holocaust: the ignored reality. It asks for attention for the area between Germany and Russia that suffered most in the war. For example:
- Two thirds of the Jews who would be killed during the war were already dead by the end of 1942. The main victims, the Polish and Soviet Jews, had been killed by bullets fired over death pits or by carbon monoxide from internal combustion engines pumped into gas chambers at Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor in occupied Poland.
- Most of the victims in the Soviet Union were not Russians but people from those people in between, like the Belarussians and the Ukrainians. The Germans never occupied more than a very small part of Russia.

These areas were so contested because both Germany and Russia saw them as sources of minerals and food. It was their way of having colonies.

There same countries are now again "in-between". When there are elections in Germany and France we read about Social-Democrats and Conservatives. When it comes to Ukraine or Moldova it is at one about pro-EU and anti-EU parties. It is a pitty that our politicians find it so hard to see those countries are really independent and not as something we need to control.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Taliban's Winning Strategy in Afghanistan

Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie endowment has published a report "The Taliban's Winning Strategy in Afghanistan". I think it is the best report on Afghanistan so far. Key points are:

  • The Taliban have built a parallel government in areas they control to fulfill two basic needs: justice and security. An almost nonexistent local government and the population’s distrust of the international coalition allowed the Taliban to expand their influence.

  • Focusing resources in the South and East, where the insurgency is strongest, is risky, especially since the Afghan army is not ready to replace U.S. forces there.

  • The Taliban have opened a front in the northern provinces, having consolidated their grip on the South and East. If the International Coalition does not counter this thrust, the insurgency will spread throughout Afghanistan within two to three years and the coalition will not be able to bear the financial and human costs of fighting.

  • The insurgency cannot be defeated while the Taliban retain a safe haven in Pakistan. The Taliban can conduct hit-and-run attacks from their refuge in Pakistan, and the North remains open to infiltration.

  • The United States must pressure Pakistan to take action against the Taliban’s central command in Quetta. The current offensive in Pakistan is aimed at Pakistani Taliban and does not indicate a major shift in Pakistani policy toward Afghanistan.

Here is a a direct link to the report. US admiral Mullen seems to agree with much of the report.