Sunday, March 24, 2013

The wrong lessons from Iraq

A lot of articles have appeared about the US invasion in Iraq and the faulty intelligence that justified that invasion. Yet I think they miss the point. The Bush administration did provide some false information - but that played only a marginal role in the invasion. What really counted was the hysterical culture in the Western - and specially US - foreign policy debate. And that culture is still there.

A good example is Obama's recent remark about chemical weapons in Syria. The Syrian government had accused the rebels of using chemical weapons and in reaction the rebels had accused the government of using them. The UN is investigating and until now there is no strong evidence for either accusation. That didn't stop Obama from - once again - saying that if Assad used chemical weapons the US would react.

On the surface this was just a repeat of the US policy that it would be unacceptable if Assad used chemical weapons. But that ignores the emotional tone of Obama's statement and the fact that he ignored the possibility that rebels had used chemical weapons. The results were clear: soon afterwards we saw a small wave of newspaper articles and statements by politicians asking for a more active intervention in Syria.

This was exactly what we saw with Iraq. There too we saw a steady stream of statements by Bush and others from his administration about the possibility that Saddam might have chemical weapons. They tended not to bring this as facts but rather to bring it as possibilities that were absolutely unacceptable. Then too we saw the newspapers and politicians picking up the emotional cues and asking for intervention: the Iraq intervention was approved by the US Congress with a wide majority. Those providing false information were members of this mob who went a bit farther then the others.

For a part this reflects the fact that both leaders have aggressive intentions: Obama wants regime change in Syria just as much as Bush wanted it in Iraq - he just tries to do it with less political costs. But for another part it reflects a lack of leadership: it is easier politically to claim Saddam has chemical weapons while he has none than to claim that he hasn't and be confronted later on with evidence that he has. Yet the former position creates a culture of mistrust that makes it almost impossible to live together peacefully on this planet.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Finally an answer to executive pay excesses

Europe's most democratic country - Switzerland - has found a way to limit executive pay (see Swiss Voters Approve a Plan to Severely Limit Executive Compensation). It was decided in a referendum:
The vote gives shareholders of companies listed in Switzerland a binding say on the overall pay packages for executives and directors. Pension funds holding shares in a company would be obligated to take part in votes on compensation packages. In addition, companies would no longer be allowed to give bonuses to executives joining or leaving the business, or to executives when their company was taken over. Violations could result in fines equal to up to six years of salary and a prison sentence of up to three years.

Property rights and the Arab Spring

Hernando de Soto is well known for his books about how a lack of property rights keeps the "Third world" countries back. His thesis is that because for example many people in the slums of those countries don't have good property rights for their houses (they built them themselves but on occupied ground) they cannot borrow money against their houses and for that reason they are not able to grow businesses.

Now he has written an article in the Wall Street Journal (The Secret to Reviving the Arab Spring's Promise: Property Rights) in which he claims that the problem plays in the Arab world too. He sees the problem of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor whose self immolation was the start of the uprisings as a property rights problem too given the ease with which he could be expropriated.

How to promote order and property rights under weak rule of law? discusses one approach: Mass education campaigns to promote alternative dispute resolution (ADR) are common examples. We study short-term impacts of one campaign in Liberia, where property disputes are endemic. From 246 towns, 86 were randomly provided training in ADR practices and norms, training 15% of adults. One year later, treated towns have higher resolution of land disputes and lower violence. Impacts spill over to untrained residents. We also see unintended consequences: more disagreements (mostly peaceful) and more extrajudicial punishment.

Roma crime in Bulgaria

EUObserver has an article (Roma exploitation: end of the dream) about how Bulgarian Roma "kings" become rich by sending Roma to the richer parts of Europe where they have to make money for them.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Tunisia's dilemmas

How Tunisia is Turning Into a Salafist Battleground tells how Gulf money is undermining Tunisia's democracy and promoting Islamist radicalism instead.

The article Tunisia's Post-Revolution Blues outlines the problematic state of Tunisia's revolution. The economy is bad. The writing of the constitution takes forever and the main political streams - Ennahda and the liberals - are at loggerheads and fear and distrust each other.

Springtime for Salafists tells many stories of Salafist violence in Tunisia.

Tunisia Now Exporting “Jihadis”: On Mar. 29, local sources reported that between 6,000 and 10,000 men have left the country, while the Algerian press say the number could be closer to 12,000. Families tell IPS the self-proclaimed jihadists leave in secret, often under cover of darkness, and change their names en route so that Facebook and internet searches yield no results. They believe mosques and charity organisations serve as fronts for this “recruitment” process.

Most families who spoke to IPS were too afraid to give their names, fearing reprisals. They suspect powerful and wealthy interests have a hand in the smuggling of fighters, since some families have received as much as 4,000 dollars in “payment” for each jihadi recruit. Those who spoke to IPS under condition of anonymity believe the recruiters themselves also receive a fee. Many denounced the government for allowing this “business” in human lives to thrive. A local journalist who has been investigating the process, but did not want to be identified by name, told IPS the government almost certainly makes money off this racket as well. Experts believe Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi’s statement, issued through the Ministry of Religion, that “we don’t suggest young people leave… but we have no right to prevent them” is tantamount to an admission that the government has no plans to put a stop to the practice, or apprehend those involved.

Still a low way to go for Tunisian democracy: The attack of the US embassy in Tunis last 14th September, the lynching soon afterwards of an member of Nidha Tunes, Lotfi Naguedh, the attack by Nahda militias of the trades union headquarters in Tunis last November, the torching of sixty Sufi shrines – zaouias – and the murder of Chokri Belaid cast serious doubts about Nahda’s real intentions, all the more as the culprits are seldom brought to trial. [..] The grand mufti of Tunisia has recently spoken out - adding his voice to many Tunisians who object to mosques being used to recruit young men to fight in Syria and Mali. [..] what is new is that the ministry of the interior has dismantled five networks which specialised in sending young Tunisians to Syria, via Libya and is cracking down on others. An important military operation, coordinated with 9000 Algerian troops is currently trying to dislodge well entrenched jihadi fighters from the Djebel Chaambi region near the Algerian border.
in one of the more incisive analysis of the Arab revolts, Le Peuple Veut [..], Gilbert Achcar argues that the Tunisian Islamists, as Islamist elsewhere hold a “magical view” of how to govern a country: in particular they chose to believe that the success of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey results from its founders overtly religious posturing rather than hard socioeconomics facts.
It is also worth noting that ministers have very little power: their chef de cabinet, the key directors in each ministry and the heads of state companies which come under their authority are now appointed by the prime minister. Until January 2011, that was a prerogative of the head of state.
the downfall of Ben Ali. This was, according to a book, which reads like a thriller and is authored by two exceptionally well informed Tunisians, the result of a coup within the security apparatus not, as some observers choose to believe some western plot.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Iraq's continuing problems

The Independent discusses (Ten years on from the war, how the world forgot about Iraq) the ongoing problems in Iraq. Some quotes:
- Iraq is disintegrating as a country under the pressure of a mounting political, social and economic crisis, say Iraqi leaders. They add that [..] the conflict between the three main communities – Shia, Sunni and Kurd – is deepening to a point just short of civil war.
- One of the reasons many Iraqis welcomed the fall of Saddam in 2003, whatever their feelings about foreign occupation, was that they thought that his successors would restore normal life after years of sanctions and war. To their astonishment and fury this has not happened, though Iraq now enjoys $100bn (£66bn) a year in oil revenues. In Baghdad there is scarcely a new civilian building to be seen and most of the new construction is heavily fortified police or military outposts. In Basra, at the heart of the oilfields, there are pools of sewage and heaps of uncollected rubbish in the streets on which herds of goats forage.
- It is not just political violence that darkens lives, but a breakdown of civil society that leaves people often looking to tribal justice in preference to police or official courts. One woman said that: “If you have a traffic accident, what matters is not whether you were right or wrong but what tribe you belong to.”
- If there is not quite the same fear as under Saddam, it often feels as if this is only because the security forces are less efficient, not because they are any less cruel or corrupt
- The administrative apparatus has in any case been degraded by departure of able officials abroad and the allocation of jobs solely through political patronage rather than experience or ability, membership of al-Dawa, the ruling Shia religious party often being the essential qualification. One study of Iraqi officials revealed that on average they put in just 17 minutes’ productive work during the average day.
- Ordinary Iraqis are pessimistic or ambivalent about the future. Professor Yahya Abbas says: “If you ask my students ‘What do you want?’ About 95 per cent will answer ‘I want to leave Iraq.’”

What doesn't help are the continuing shocks to the power balance. Iraq has just processed the shock of the departure of the Americans - who played an important role of king makers - and now there is the trouble in Syria.

A document of interest is Learning From Iraq: A Final Report From the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. His colleague for Afghanistan is the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

The Atlantic also wrote a piece about the same subject.

In contrast it is interesting to note that the economy has boomed in Afghanistan since the US invasion. The question is whether this will be sustained once the US leaves and stops infusing billions of dollars. Peter van Buren notices that many of the US people initially working on Iraq "reconstruction" later moved to Afghanistan to do the same thing.

This article (Notes From The Underground: The Rise of Nouri al-Maliki) provides a good biography of Maliki, a hard-line Shiite who after years of exile is bitter and distrusting and believes in revenge.

The BBC has made some nice graphs showing where Iraq has advanced and where not.