Monday, March 31, 2008

More Climate Change Boondogle

Government negotiators who met in Thailand on 31 March to begin talking about how best to continue efforts at controlling global warming should have waited a day; it would have been appropriate to begin their session on April Fool's Day.

As I've noted before (see post of 2-20-08), it is ludicrous to imagine that cutting the emission of greenhouse gases is effective action to protect the world from environmental disaster. Greenhouse gas emissions are only a symptom of disease, not the disease itself. To treat it separately and ignore the underlying malaise is a complete waste of time. The disease in this case is the web of concepts, expectations and activities which constitute what we refer to as "industrial civilization." It's driving force, the virus, if you will, is the giant commercial corporation, guided purely by its own need for profit, no matter how deadly the impact of its activities on human societies and Nature.

Nothing illustrates the prevailing schizophrenia that separates environmental and economic concerns as the national shoving match set in motion by the prospect that under the melting Arctic ice cap lie one quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas resources (according to the United States Geological Survey). Russia initially claimed more than half the Arctic Sea, asserting that an undersea projection of its continental shelf brought the North Pole itself within its territory. The claim has been disputed by other Arctic nations, including the United States. (As David Letterman interpreted it: "President Bush was very angry about this. He said the North Pole belongs to Santa.) Canada is spending millions to develop the little used port of Churchill, hoping that the melting ice will bring new shipping routes, fisheries and development. "It's the positive side of global warming, if there is a positive side," Ron Lemieux, the transportation minister of Manitoba, told The New York Times in 2005.

It's not just in the Arctic that environmental and economic trends are in direct opposition. In India, the giant conglomerate Tata, which has just bought the luxury car brand Jaguar, earlier unveiled its $2500 "people's car," the Nano. If even a fraction of India's billion-plus population takes to driving the Nano, we can kiss all emissions targets goodbye. The Chinese are already on the road to mass car-ownership, as participants in the forthcoming Olympics will discover as they gasp in Beijing's sooty air.

At the Bangkok meeting, where representatives from 163 countries will launch a 21-month process to conclude a climate change agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, the India-China problem is manifested as a division between developed and developing countries. Developing countries argue that they cannot be held to their much lower emission levels, that there has to be greater equity in trashing the environment. Developed countries, with the United States pilloried as bad boy for speaking frankly, want to continue their current wasteful economic patterns while doffing their hats at the environment.

Everyone is aware that the effort to set targets will be difficult, but the professional optimists who run UN negotiations are upbeat. "With the 2009 deadline, we have just one and half years in which to complete negotiations on what will probably be the most complex international agreement that history has ever seen," Yvo de Boer, the UN official overseeing the talks, told the International Herald Tribune: "and I'm confident that it can be done." Caught in their karmic positions, no one seems to be paying attention to the overall futility of the project: as long as we have a world economy entirely obedient to corporate balance sheets, controlling emissions will do nothing to ameliorate the human assault on the environment.

The current patterns of world trade were established at a time when wind-driven ships were the main means of transportation. The transition to coal and then to oil-powered ships happened without the environmental cost of those resources being factored into the price of traded goods. Today they are still not part of the accounting; if they were, no one in his right mind would think it sensible to produce cheap plastic toys in China and ship them across the oceans so that Walmart could turn a profit.

Ducks, Rice and Bird Flu

The Food and Agriculture Organization reports that chicken are not the main agents in the spread of avian influenza in South-East Asia. It's ducks and rice paddies.

Research in Thailand, Vietnam and other countries of the region, the agency says, indicates that the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus is spread mostly by ducks flying around post harvest paddy fields in search of left over grain. FAO experts say in a paper published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States that flights of free range ducks have been strongly linked to outbreaks of bird flu. Their findings are based on research in 2004-2005 which used satellites to map the movements of birds and linked them to outbreaks of disease. According to FAO, its experts now have a much better idea of when to expect outbreaks of avian flum and can plan preventive measures. Evolution of the H5M1 virus may also become
easier to predict.

An estimated 90 per cent of the world's 1.044 billion domestic ducks is in Asia, with China and Vietnam accounting for 775 million of the birds. Thailand has some 11 million ducks.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Cures for Iraq Without Diagnosis

In the Washington Post today Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser (to Jimmy Carter) and first head of the Trilateral Commission secretariat, has a prescription to end the war in Iraq. Like all three candidates for the presidency of the United States, he offers a cure without a diagnosis. None of the movers and shakers has yet said why the United States is in Iraq.

Obviously, it is not because Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons or a program to develop them; and there are few who believe that the hard-eyed neo-conservatives of the Bush administration initiated the Iraq adventure to spread democracy in the Arab world.

What then?

The closest Brzezinski comes to an answer is when he says
"The case for terminating the war is based on its prohibitive and tangible costs, while the case for 'staying the course' draws heavily on shadowy fears of the unknown and relies on worst-case scenarios. President Bush's and Sen. John McCain's forecasts of regional catastrophe are quite reminiscent of the predictions of 'falling dominoes' that were used to justify continued US involvement in Vietnam. Neither has provided any real evidence that ending the war would mean disaster, but their fear-mongering makes prolonging it easier."

The comparison with Vietnam is misleading, for there is nothing comparable to the fear of international communism actuating American foreign policy. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was in no danger of falling to jihadist Islam; nor is such a fear realistic today; "al-Qaeda in Iraq" wouldn't last long in a post-occupation situation dominated by the Shiite majority and Sunni tribal leaders intensely protective of their turf.

Nor is fear of Sunni-Sh'iah carnage in a post-US Iraq an acceptable explanation for continued occupation of the country. If Washington announced today that it intended to pull out of Iraq and that it wanted an international force to oversee the transition, the rest of the world would be eager to help. That is not happening because continued conflict is enormously profitable to a handful of corporations and people; and it's not just military contractors: look at the balance sheets of the major oil companies. The geopolitical situation the war has created also benefits the same interests. Unless there is a public debate about all this, clearly identifying who loses and who benefits from the situation in Iraq, we are unlikely to see the path to peace.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Spitzer, the Sub-prime Mess, and China

New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer's spectacular fall from power because of a cheesy sex scandal is cast in an entirely new light in a new Brasscheck TV posting that's definitely worth a look:

Brasscheck TV is alleging that Spitzer did not merely trip on his own dick but was taken down because of an article he had in the Washington Post on 14 February, accusing the Bush administration of being a "partner in crime" in the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Spitzer said that the Justice Department had prevented action by the legal authorities of 50 states to curb predatory mortgage lending. It had invoked an 1863 banking law to nullify state laws and law suits to protect consumers.

Brasscheck TV concluded its report by saying that the White House had colluded with greedy and corrupt bankers in search of a quick buck; the implication was that the motivation was essentially financial. But could it be more? Could there be political method in the madness of the sub-prime mortgage crisis?

The answer is Yes. In fact, since Alan Greenspan began lowering interest rates to get the US economy out of the post 9/11 recession, there has been a descent into economic madness that can only be explained as politically motivated. The sub-prime mortgage mess has two elements: one is that people with little capacity to repay were given mortgages; the other is that the mortgages were then packaged into investment grade securities. That in itself can be explained away as greed overwhelming reason. But how was it that financial maestros in the United States and Europe invested so massively in those securities? Surely, greed is constrained by the foundation it is built on, self-preservation?

There is much evidence that bankers with the most sophisticated capacity for economic prognostication were the ones who plunged most deeply into the sub-prime mess. Stories about the extent to which major banks, insurance companies and hedge funds are burdened with bad debt invite disbelief. The New York Times reports on an arcane form of risk insurance in the bond market has led to an inverted pyramid of obligations amounting to $16 trillion. Another piece of punditry ricocheting around the the Internet notes that the funds available to the FDIC, which guarantees individual bank deposits, are only about a quarter of what would be needed in case of a general financial collapse.
The ratio of American personal debt to GDP is reported to be the highest it has ever been, standing now at some $3 trillion; if mortgage debt is included, personal debt is over $13 trillion, almost as much as the $14 trillion GDP. The entire international financial system seems more and more like a ponce scheme ripe for collapse.

How is this political?

To understand how, we have to look to Asia.

I am among the many who do not believe that the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 in an idealistic neocon attempt to bring democracy to the Arab world. Nor do I believe that the mess created under American auspices in Iraq is the result of ignorance and miscalculation. To me the bloody dismantling of the country seems coldly calculated. "Stuff happens," as Donald Rumsfeld put it, but for it to happen so consistently, and not just in Iraq, points to deliberate intent. The saber rattling over Iran and persistent talk of attacking its nuclear installations, the worsening situation in Afghanistan, the traumatized state of Pakistan reeling from terrorist attacks and political assassinations, the political fragility of Nepal in the aftermath of a brutal civil conflict, the insurgencies perking away in parts of India rich in resources or strategically important, and now the insurrection in Tibet, all seem to support the thesis that Asia is being destabilized.

To what end?

It might be to pull the rug out from under the totalitarian regime in China.

In a stable world economy, with peace in Asia, China would grow into a formidable and dangerous power. If the world economy tanked and there was general turmoil in Asia, Beijing would have little room for maneuver; key decisions on investments and exports are now made in the board rooms of foreign corporations. If the Chinese boom turned rapidly to bust, if there was massive unemployment accompanied by inflation or deflation (both possible under different scenarios), Hu Jintao and his party could lose the "mandate of heaven" in very short order.

How events will actually play out depends crucially on the responses of Asia's ruling elites. A firm commitment to avoid violence, to seek dialogue and compromise internally and externally, could lay the basis for a regional capacity for independent economic growth. This is especially true of China. If the regime there moves towards democracy in orderly fashion -- Tibet would be a good place to start -- the consequence would be enormously positive. If it tries to maintain itself with violence, we could be looking at a period of chaos, not just in China, but in the region as a whole. A global economic downturn and the major dislocation of China would seriously threaten the stability of South East Asia and India. Much of the Muslim world is already in turmoil, and things could get rapidly worse amidst growing regional distress.

In the scenario described above the United States and Europe would also be profoundly affected, but for them there would be an upside: the economic and political challenge of Asia would be laid to rest for the foreseeable future. It is possible that slowing economic growth and depression-level unemployment could cause upheavals in Europe too. The Kosovars, the Chechens, the Serbs, Croats and other volatile people in the European mosaic might feel the need for cathartic violence in the "Clash of Peoples" scenario outlined in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs (see post of 2-25-08). Social unrest is possible in the United States too, but if things tend that way the Patriot Act provides the means to maintain order.

Those who want peace, civil rights and democracy better start organizing right away (see my post of 2-20-08).

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Wind-power Rankings

Wind power supplies a small but rapidly growing proportion of world energy supply. According to Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, "global installed wind power capacity will top 100,000 megawatts in March 2008."

The Institute says in a new report that the "cost of onshore wind power has decreased by more than 80 percent since the early 1980s to roughly 7¢ per kilowatt-hour at favorable wind sites." Wind is now competitive with conventional power generation in some markets, but in most others subsidies for conventional energy sources makes it uncompetitive. "If the full cost of carbon emissions were incorporated into the price of natural gas and coal, onshore wind would become the cheapest electricity source."

Some highlights of the report:

Germany leads the world in installed wind power capacity, with 22,200 megawatts, but it seems to have run out of offshore sites for installation of new capacity while other countries have scope for rapid growth. In 2007 the United States, Spain, China, and India installed more new capacity than Germany.

The United States installed a quarter of the world's new wind energy capacity in 2007: 5,240 megawatts. Spain was second, with 3,520 megawatts, and it now ranks third in the world in total installed wind capacity with 15,100 megawatts. India installed 1,730 megawatts of new wind power capacity in 2007, for a total of 8,000 megawatts. China installed 3,450 megawatts of wind capacity for a total of 6,050 megawatts.

France, which aims to generate 25,000 megawatts of wind energy by 2020, got off to a running start in 2007 with a 57 percent increase in captity, to 2,450 megawatts.

Displaced Iraqis: Image and Reality

Although the issue of Iraq has subsided from public consciousness in the United States because "the surge has worked" and attacks on American troops have been dramatically reduced, things have hardly gone back to normal for Iraqis. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that five years after the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, "more people than ever before are displaced from conflict and sectarian violence" in Iraq. Increased media attention to the return of refugees and displaced people to their old neighborhoods has created the impression that the situation has improved, but in reality, returnees are only about one per cent of those who fled.

"Although the rate of displacement has slowed over the past year due to improved security in cities such as Baghdad and to sectarian cleansing of previously mixed neighborhoods, there are now more 5.1 million Iraqis who are either displaced within Iraq or are living as refugees abroad," IOM says. Of that total, 2.7 million are Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and more than 2.4 million are refugees, most of them living in neighboring Syria and Jordan. These numbers represent successive waves of displacement: those who fled their homes to escape persecution by the Saddam Hussein regime, those who fled the American-led invasion, and those who fled the chaotic sectarian violence that followed. The third wave was the largest, peaking in 2006, when more than 60,000 people per month were fleeing their homes.

IOM says that conditions for the displaced have worsened over time. Shelter, food, and employment for IDPs and refugees remain in very short supply because of "a major lack of funding for humanitarian relief." A two-year IOM appeal to assist Iraq’s internally displaced is still only 28 per cent funded. Over 75 per cent of IDPs do not get government food rations, and nearly 20 per cent are without clean water; 33 per cent do not get the medical help they need. Only 20 per cent has received any assistance from a nongovernmental organization or an international humanitarian agency.

None of Iraq's provincial authorities has the capacity to deal with the situation, and some have refused to accept any new flows of displaced people. Neighboring countries "have imposed strict visa requirements that also restrict Iraqis from fleeing the country."

Friday, March 14, 2008

Drug War Idiocy

"The only thing worse than a fool is an earnest fool" said Mark Twain, and the living proof of that is Antonio Maria Costa, the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC).

A longtime mid-level UN bureaucrat who skipped his way to
the level of Under-Secretary-General by detouring his career through the OECD, the European Commission and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Costa has a Roberto Benigni capacity to sound utterly sincere saying the most absurd things.

In 2006, for instance, he turned up at NATO headquarters in Brussels, convened a Press conference, and called on the multinational force in Afghanistan "to destroy the heroin labs, disband the open opium bazaars, attack the opium convoys and bring justice to
(sic) the big traders." It didn't seem to matter to him that a week earlier NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer had said publicly that such a role was out of the question because the alliance lacked both mandate and resources. Actually, the multinational force in Afghanistan can barely protect itself, much less try to dismantle a fiercely guarded industry that produces some 90 per cent of the world's heroin supply.

Costa was in fine fettle also a
t the meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna last week. In his opening speech to the CND he argued against the "legalization" of drugs, referring inaccurately to the view of many experts that decriminalization of the drug control regime would deflate the profits to be made from trafficking to a level at which organized crime would no longer have an incentive to be involved. That argument has come from people across the political spectrum, from the late lamented William Buckley to ex-narcs to the leadership of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The breadth of opposition to the existing international drug regime reflects the variety of concerns at what has been happening ever since the effort to ban narcotic drugs began in 1909 with the first International Opium Convention.
The ban was thought to be necessary to stop the opium trade pioneered by the East India Company, which had created a very large body of opium addicts in China, but it proved entirely counterproductive. The corporate interests involved in the trade merely submerged it into a hugely profitable international black market for drugs, with annual proceeds now estimated to be between $500 and $600 billion.

Organized crime, national intelligence agencies, and corrupt politicians and police have been the main beneficiaries of that enormous flow of money. The main losers have been ordinary people who have to contend with drug pushers targeting their children, and addicts driven to crime to pay for their habit
. Efforts to enforce the ban have led to ever more invasive surveillance, draconian anti-drug laws and sentencing guidelines, and weakening of civil liberties. A third of the American prison population is serving time on drug related charges.

The cost to taxpayers has been massive. As the Washington Post reported in February, the White House has asked for over $14 billion for the Drug Enforcement Agency in 2009, two-thirds of that to be spent on enforcement activities. The DEA expenditures are only a fraction of drug-war related costs incurred by 25 other government agencies, and Congress has asked the administration to resubmit a more transparent statement. There has been mounting concern in Congress at the lack of success of enforcement.

Unperturbed by such realities, Costa declared at the CND that the prohibitionist approach was a great success. It was perceived as a disaster only because of an "image problem," he said. As evidence of success he cited the following:
  • "illicit drug use has been contained to less than 5% of the world adult population, as opposed to 5 to 6 times this proportion for people addicted to tobacco or alcohol;
  • "there are no more than 25 million problem drug users - that's less than 0.5% of the world "population. There are more people affected by AIDS;
  • "deaths due to drugs are limited to perhaps 200.000/yr, namely 1/10 of those killed by alcohol and 1/20 of those killed by tobacco;
  • "world-wide, drug cultivation has been slashed (with the obvious exception of Afghanistan where the issue is insurgency, more than narcotics);
  • "adherence to the international drug control regime is practically universal, with the principle of shared responsibility unanimously accepted;
  • "the regulatory system of production, distribution and use of drugs for medical purposes, functions well."
He then proceeded to gut his own argument. The "fundamental objective of the [anti-drug trafficking] Conventions, namely restricting the use of controlled substances to medical purposes" had not yet been met, he said. "Yearly, world markets are still supplied with about 1.000 tons of heroin, another 1.000 tons of cocaine and untold volumes of marijuana, cannabis resin and ATS. Furthermore, while trying to seize these rogue amounts (with varying degrees of success), the drug control system has created a number of (let's call them) unintended consequences." Those "unintended" consequences were the huge international black market in drugs, the booming expense of enforcement efforts, and the social costs of their continued failure.

"Drugs are not dangerous because they are illegal: they are illegal because they are dangerous," Costa said. "In general, a hard-to-tackle problem cannot be spirited away by making it a matter-of-fact. Human trafficking is another crime out of control: should we legalize modern slavery just because it is difficult to stop? As I told a rowdy pro-drug conference in New Orleans a few months ago, legalization of an anti-social behaviour is a poison pill, not a silver bullet. It is a dangerous dialectic to call for a world of free drugs as opposed to a world free of drugs: they come with different degrees of collateral damage. With vision and resources we can enforce the UN drug conventions in a manner that, on balance, represents by far the healthiest and the safest option."

By conflating commercial promotion with decriminalization Costa obscured the reformist argument; by comparing the trafficking of drugs and human beings he muddied the moralities of both. But worse was to come. Appearing before a nongovernmental forum at the CND, he recalled a meeting on drug control reform he had attended in December:
“I attended the meeting of the Drug Policy Alliance [DPA] in New Orleans last December, 1200 participants, 1000 lunatics, 200 good people to talk to. The other ones obviously on drugs.” He didn't realize that most of the sober people listening to him were also at the New Orleans meeting.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Editor of Slate at Columbia J-School

Jacob Weisberg, who edits Slate, the award-winning general interest web magazine, has a more than passing resemblance to Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. He is at Columbia University's Journalism School on 6 March, delivering the latest of the Delacorte Lectures on magazine journalism.

Weisberg has been with Slate since its founding in 1996, serving as political correspondent and columnist before becoming editor. Before Slate he wrote for the New Republic, Newsweek, New York Magazine, Vanity Fair and the New York Times Magazine. He co-authored with former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin the 2003 book In an Uncertain World. He also wrote the 1996 book In Defense of Government, the 2000 eBook The Road to Chadville, and several books on Bushisms.

Among Weisberg's many credits, says moderator Victor Navasky, is that at Yale he declined an invitation (from John Kerry) to join the Skull and Crossbones secret society -- on the grounds that it would not admit women. His brother "wrote a book about the CIA;" and his mother was also "a literary figure." Navasky does not expand on that, but googling later I find that Weisberg's mother, Lois, was a major arts and culture figure in Chicago, whose 1999 profile in The New Yorker began: "She's a grandmother, she lives in a big house in Chicago, and you've never heard of her. Does she run the world?" Brother Joseph Weisberg is a former CIA agent who wrote the critically acclaimed novel An Ordinary Spy (December 2007).

Weisberg begins the lecture by calling up on the screen behind him a computer-generated image of Slate. Founded in 1996 as a web publication. From the beginning it has been "a native speaker of web." That was a distinct advantage over print magazines struggling to adapt. Web style is different from print. It is less formal, more personal, a "cross between an expository print essay and e-mail;" there's humor in it, a certain intimacy with the reader; online readers treat writers like people they know. At Slate some readers have an established presence; one specializes in finding mistakes; "he's the only fact-checking we have. "Post-publication fact-checking."

The online medium is not friendly to long articles; if you have a long piece it must be broken up. But short pieces add up. Slate "puts out the equivalent of a short book every week." The medium does allow innovations like group blogs; links within an article can nest a a great deal of information, different perspectives. The medium is addictive. Slate's daily report on what's in the newspapers is an addictive element; so are its videos, offering crisp, short, humorous takes on stories, always with a point. One on Hilary was downloaded 400,000 times.

Journalists of the future will be able to write articles and code, work with developers to convey information in new and innovative ways. Slate staffer Chad Wilson produced a new feature: "Map the Candidates," using Google Maps. Weisberg calls it up on the screen. You can also map correspondents, know where they are, where they've been. Some reporters now file "twitters" from cell phones, each fewer than 140 words. There's a strange haiku affect, but the story gets through. News about Fox anchor Bill O'Reilly misbehaving at an Obama event came through first as a twitter. The New York Times has labeled it "micro journalism."

There is constant innovation online. An example is The Root, a new launch that allows readers to input genealogical data, and see where it leads. One tool on the site allows African Americans to input DNA information and "reverse the middle passage" -- find out where in Africa their ancestors came from.

Answering a question about the ideal length of web articles, Weisberg says short is better; but "long form journalism" is not excluded; it has to be presented in shorter bits. There's been an extended dialog on Slate about the HBO series The Wire; probably 25,000 words by now. Another book-length effort is "Blogging the Bible," which intends to cover every chapter and verse.

Questions about the model for successful online magazines brings some obvious responses -- no printing costs, all the money can go towards content and design -- and unearths some unexpected revelations: "investigative journalism doesn't fit closely with what we do." News gathering is very expensive, and it is not something Slate has contemplated. In the beginning -- 1997 -- Slate was available only to subscribers. It had 20,000 readers. It is now owned by the Washington Post Company and offered free to a much larger readership. Advertising pays for it. Slate makes money.

Who reads Slate? About 85 per cent of readership is within the United States; the rest is mostly expatriate American or other native English speakers. The number of readers ranges from 500k to 1.5 million a day. There are about 10 to 11 million unique users per month.

After the presentation I go up and ask Weisberg if Slate tries to put a frame on the world as print magazines seek to do. He seems momentarily nonplussed, so I explain. Do you try to make sense of the world for your readers? Define what is important? Foreign news? He still seems puzzled, so I get really concrete. Does Slate, for instance, try to cover Africa? Oh yes. We have a Foreign Editor. We've had quite a few articles on Africa.

I checked for foreign content in Slate all week. There was little. Maybe because of all the excitement generated by Geraldine Ferraro's novel insight into the role of race in presidential politics, or the crash and burn of Governor Spitzer's political career.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

UN Says 2007 Worst Year Yet in Afghanistan

The United Nations says there was a dramatic worsening of the situation in Afghanistan in 2007. Some 8000 people were killed in the continuing conflict with the Taliban, 1500 of them civilians. That is the highest death toll recorded in the six years the United Nations has kept tabs on the international effort to reclaim the country from the harsh rule of the Taliban.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has reported to the UN Security Council that there were, on average, 566 incidents per month. There were 160 suicide attacks; the deadliest of them was on 17 February 2008 in Kandahar Province when more than 67 people were killed in a single blast. Taliban insurgents killed the most civilians, but US and NATO forces also took many innocent lives in indiscriminate bombing and artillery attacks.

There have been increasing attacks on aid workers: over 130 incidents in 2007, involving the murder of 40 and the abduction of 89, of whom seven were later killed.

Rocky Road for UN Peacekeeping

It's the best of times and the worst of times for United Nations peacekeeping. With 20 missions and nearly 130,000 authorized military, police and civilian personnel, it is obvious that the UN's "blue helmets" are much in demand; but strangely, there seems to be waning support for peacekeeping in important ways. There seems to be growing reluctance among key States to support operations seen as too politically unsavory or dangerous; and some of the supposed beneficiaries of peacekeeping seem to be not grateful at all.

Jean-Marie Guéhenno, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, warned the General Assembly's Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations yesterday that the faltering support could mean big trouble for UN authorized operations in the Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan and Eritrea.

Even as he spoke, some 700 UN troops from Eritrea were headed home to Jordan and India. Frustrated by the Eritrean government's blockage of fuel and food supplies to UN peacekeepers, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had tried to temporarily relocate them to the Ethiopian side of the disputed border, but finding that effort blocked too, resorted to a complete pull-out. He said in a report to the toothless Security Council that the Eritrean government's obstructions had put peacekeepers in an "untenable position."

Guéhenno, who is reported to be leaving his post because Ban, under pressure from Washington, "reformed" his department by taking away its logistics capabilities and putting it under a new Under-Secretary, warned that a "serious failure in one of our missions would be enough to put at risk the credibility of the whole of peacekeeping, which we have worked so hard to restore over the past few years."

What he meant by "credibility" is a mystery, for UN peacekeeping has a record of grand failures that includes Palestine (where the first UN mission was mandated in 1948), Rwanda (where a force was pulled out even as the 1994 genocide was in progress), and Bosnia (where peacekeepers stood by as the "safe area" the Security Council had declared in Srebrenica was overrun and subjected to mass murder and rape).

In the Sudan, where the savageries of Darfur were not even acknowledged by the Security Council till a solitary UN official quit his job to publicize the Organization's embarrassing inaction, the Kharatoum regime has stalled deployment of a 26,000 UN-African Union force. At present, the Darfur force consists of little more than the 9,000 or so African Union troops who have been there ineffectually for over a year.

In other crisis spots UN peacekeepers have gone into the field never to return: they have been stuck in Cyprus and the India-Pakistan border for decades. Where they have succeeded -- including Liberia. Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and Timor-Leste, all in the last decade -- it is because the outside Powers which sustained conflict (and that includes not just States but mining companies), achieved their ends or decided to call it quits.

In Afghanistan, where the murky geopolitics of resource-rich Central Asia collide with the trade in heroin and "extremist Islam" (represented by the Taliban and rogue elements of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence), "peacekeeping" is hardly the word for what is going on. The UN has subcontracted its pacific role to NATO, which has tried in recent months to overshadow the Karzai government on the grounds that it is politically incompetent and logistically inefficient. The high point of that effort was the unsuccessful effort to place a British spy turned politician
in combined charge of the UN, NATO and EU operations in Afghanistan (see February 10 post "Why Karzai Nixed Paddy Ashdown").

The net result of all this is that the moral authority of the United Nations (which it retains mainly by default, there being no other institution to represent the universal hope for peace), is being undermined. That would be undesirable at the best of times; when the world is entering a period of major instability caused by a tectonic shift of economic and political power to asia, it could be disastrous.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Interesting Links in India-US Media

Monday, March 10, 2008

International Women's Day

Saturday, 8 March, was International Women's Day. It was observed on Friday in many places because not many working people today are willing to give up part of their weekend for an official observance, no matter how worthy. But that itself is cause for celebration, for it was not that long ago that Saturdays were working days for women -- and children and men. -- even in affluent countries.

There are various explanations of how IWD came to be on 8 March. The most popular is that it is tied to an 1857 demonstration by women garment workers in New York city to press for better working conditions. Their peaceful march was broken up by club-wielding police. A half century later (51 years, to be exact), another demonstration was held on 8 March to commemorate the 1857 event; in addition to demanding improved working conditions, it pressed also for universal suffrage and an end to child labor. As at the earlier event, the New York city police made their presence felt.

In 1910, at the Second International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen, Clara Zetkin of Germany -- “the most dangerous sorceress in the empire," the Kaiser called her -- proposed the date for an annual observance to honor working women. It remained a socialist observance till the United Nations, in organizing International Women's Year and the first World Conference on Women (Mexico City, 1975), decided to make the Day a universal observance. (By the way, the official UN book on the conference, Meeting in Mexico, has an interesting back story. The head of the UN Center for Economic and Social Information, a man who regularly got too happy at lunch, got into conversation with the woman driving his post-prandial taxi to the UN, and on the strength of her claim to be "a writer," gave her a consultancy to produce the book. I had to completely rewrite the ragtag manuscript that emerged some $15,000 later.)

At the UN, International Women's Day has come to be an annual opportunity to take stock of progress -- or lack thereof. This year, the theme for the Day was "investing in women." Some twitters:
  • The International Labour Organization said in a new report that more women are working than ever before – 1.2 billion in 2007 -- but they continue to do low-paid jobs.
  • Unicef reported that "one in four pregnant women currently receives no antenatal care, and that more than 40 per cent give birth without the assistance of a skilled attendant
  • Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that while rape was almost universally recognized as a crime, it was often not punished because legislation was lacking or local customs prevented laws from being enforced. “In addition, at least 53 States still do not outlaw rape within marriage, and men frequently enjoy total impunity for physical as well as sexual violence against their wives.”
  • Joanne Sandler, Executive Director of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), announced a fund-raising partnership with the Avon Foundation that will involve its "global ambassador," the actress Reese Witherspoon, publicizing the "hidden pandemic" of violence against women. Avon will sell a "new fund-raising product" -- the Women’s Empowerment Bracelet –- the profits from which will go to an "Empowerment Fund" managed by Unifem, to "support initiatives to improve implementation of laws and policies focused on violence against women." Witherspoon, whose stardom in Legally Blonde makes her a natural to straddle the worlds of cosmetics and law, modeled the bracelet at a UN Press conference.
  • Inez Murray, Vice-President of Women’s World Banking, said at a UN Press briefing that her network of microfinance providers had given loans averaging $491 to 11 million people, 73 per cent of them women.
  • Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), noted that without a greater investment in women, the UN's Millennium Development Goals could not be met. Investment was particularly important, she said, in improving "reproductive health;” that would help reduce poverty, slow the spread of HIV/AIDS, and "meet the need for family planning."
  • Over one hundred representatives of non-governmental organizations from forty countries met at a seminar in Geneva organized by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). In a joint statement they noted that the combined budgets of UN bodies working on women's issues is $65 million, 0.005% of world military expenditures. Of $20 billion in bilateral aid in 2001-2005, only $5 billion was allocated to projects promoting gender empowerment,"the cost of approximately 2 weeks of the occupation of Iraq." The statement said: "We need to examine the relationship between masculinity and war as much as the relationship between women and peace. Men and women experience war very differently, from war-making to peace-building and everything in between. In any given army, 90 percent of the soldiers are men while in any given refugee camp, 80 percent of the adults are women."
Perhaps more than any of the official events at the UN, the most meaningful observance of International Womens's Day was the "women's fair" organized by its agencies in Kabul. It was well-attended by women who a few years ago under the Taliban regime were unable even to emerge from their houses without a male minder. There was music and dance at the fair (both anathema to the Taliban), and agency staff provided information on education and health.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Top Human Rights Official Calls it Quits

Under strong pressure from Washington, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour of Canada, has decided to step down in June, at the end of her first four-year term. That makes it an unbroken record for those who have held the office: none has lasted more than a single term. Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil, Arbour's predecessor, lasted less than a year: he was appointed on 12 September 2002 and killed in Baghdad on 19 August 2003.

De Mello was in Baghdad at the request of his long-time friend,
Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who had asked him to put aside the Human Rights job temporarily and go as his Special Representative to post-invasion Iraq. In Baghdad, de Mello ran afoul of J. Paul Bremer III, the retired diplomat (and ex-Kissinger Associates executive), who had also been hastily sent to Iraq to take charge of the occupation. De Mello refused an office in the hermetically secure "Green Zone" where the American top brass held court, ignored advice not to have his office fronting a busy street, and spent his time establishing contacts with a wide range of Iraqis. On 19 August, as he was nearing the end of his short-term assignment, a truck bomb destroyed the office and killed him, along with 22 others.

De Mello's predecessor, Mary Robinson of Ireland, lived out her term (1997--2002), but also left under American pressure. Her office had helped organize the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, from which the United States and Israel walked out, complaining that it had been hijacked by the Arab-Islamic States.

The first High Commissioner for Human rights, Jose Ayala-Lasso of Ecuador, who spent his time establishing the office and making a series of low key visits to world capitals, left after one term because he was judged a disappointment; Western countries wanted someone in the post who would rock boats and confront bad guys. It did him no good to point out that when the June 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna agreed on the post, it was on the explicit understanding that human rights would no longer be the political football it was during the "Cold War." The conference had acted on the assumption that the whole UN approach to promoting human rights would change; there would be no more finger-pointing at offending countries; the High Commissioner would lead the effort to deal quietly and concretely with problems.

It should probably be clear by now that there is no hope of realizing that aim. For the foreseeable future, we should expect -- indeed we should hope -- that those appointed to the job will displease everyone. Not to do so would imply a lack of integrity.

Lament for Iraq

This simple but powerful lament for what has happened to Iraq is in Malayalam, my mother tongue (which I can scarcely claim to know anymore, having been away from Kerala for so long). But it is worth seeing even if you do not understand the words. The images tell it all.

The refrain about Baghdad is the same throughout: "This is Baghdad now, that my mother used to tell about in her tales of Arabia."

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Foreign Affairs Editor at Columbia J-School

James F. Hoge, who has been editor of Foreign Affairs since 1992, looks like Kirk Douglas and, at 72, has the same rock-like affect. He is trimly suited, silver-maned, entirely comfortable before an audience that has left a wide swathe of seats unoccupied in front.

Hoge began his career at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he worked for over a quarter century and was successively, Washington correspondent, editor and publisher. He went to the New York Daily News as publisher in 1984, and in 1992 was the unlikely pick of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) to edit Foreign Affairs, long the gray and solemn voice of the "Eastern Establishment." Picking a journalist from the world of tabloids to edit the most important policy journal of international diplomacy was a daring move by CFR. It worked, for the circulation of the magazine has gone up by about 60 per cent since Hoge took over, and now stands at 160,000 (ABC figures for December 2007).

The Council was founded in 1921, in the wake of the First World War; Foreign Affairs began publication a year later. Americans discovered there was a "lethal world out there" which had to be engaged. CFR is no longer the voice of the "Eastern Establishment" Hoge says; "that doesn't exist any more; it's national now." He does not go into the exclusive nature of CFR membership (it is open only to American nationals) , but the Foreign Affairs web site boasts about its elite cachet:

"Its 3,400 members include nearly all past and present Presidents, Secretaries of State, Defense and Treasury, other senior U.S. government officials, renowned scholars, and major leaders of business, media, human rights, and other non-governmental groups. Each year the Council sponsors several hundred meetings including televised debates and other media events, and publishes Foreign Affairs, the preeminent journal in the field, as well as dozens of other reports and books by noted experts.

Since 1922, the Council has published Foreign Affairs, America's most influential publication on international affairs and foreign policy. It is more than a magazine — it is the international forum of choice for the most important new ideas, analysis, and debate on the most significant issues in the world. Inevitably, articles published in Foreign Affairs shape the political dialogue for months and years to come."

That is not hype. The magazine's reputation for heralding the agenda of American foreign policy has made it required reading for generations of diplomats.

The magazine is nonpartisan, self-funding and editorially independent, Hoge says. It has a small staff, no more than himself, a managing editor (now Gideon Rose), and support staff. As a "contributor magazine," Foreign Affairs is a forum for a wide range of opinion. "I spend a lot of time traveling, attending conferences ... finding out what people think." About a third of the articles are commissioned. Others "come in over the transom ... I wonder why we say that when we don't have transoms any more."

The magazine's primary aim is to educate people on foreign policy issues; there is also a "think tank aspect" in that it seeks to influence policy makers. "Every so often, we'll have a direct impact." George Kennan's anonymous article on "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" (signed by X) in the July 1947 issue outlined the need to contain the Soviet Union. "That was the basis of American foreign policy for 50 years."

Another influential article was by Samuel Huntington on the "Clash of Civilizations," in the Summer 1993 issue. There have also been cases when articles in Foreign Affairs had no impact: one such was a piece by Bernard Lewis warning about Osama bin Laden that appeared well before the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center. It went completely unheeded.

After every issue "there's usually someone protesting." The most recent notable flap was the "Lavrov affair." Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister (former UN ambassador), had submitted an article which needed to be edited. After he had signed off on the edit, just as the magazine was about to go to the printer, he called a press conference in Moscow and accused us of grossly distorting his article. "It was just to get on Putin's good side." No harm was done; when Lavrov was next in New York, he called and he was once again the smooth UN diplomat.

Much more unpleasant was the Kissinger affair. He objected to what an article on Chile said about his role there in the 1970s, threatened to resign from the Council, wanted Hoge fired. Also unpleasant was the fallout from an article detailing the "unethical maneuvering" of Zbigniew Brzezinski in pushing for the American recognition of China before the signing of the first US-Soviet Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), which Cyrus Vance had labored over. Brzezinski too threatened to resign from the Council. As editor, Hoge said, "you've got to be prepared to take the heat."

Then there are the "expose pieces."

In 2001 Foreign Affairs printed the "politbureau transcripts" -- a record of the discussions of China's top leaders at the time of Tienanmen. "There were doubts about its authenticity, but we printed most of it." Authentification came when the Chinese didn't make a big fuss about it, and had a low-level spokesman dismiss it as a fabrication. They banned the issue, but it was widely available on the Internet. "There was no firewall then."

Another notable expose came from the thousands of secret documents the US Army discovered in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein. "We devoted most of an issue to them. They made blood-curdling reading." Saddam's view of reality was remarkably distorted. Even as he could hear the rumbling of American tanks approaching his bunker, he believed that Iraqi forces were winning.

Hoge considers the situation in Afghanistan the "most dangerous" today. More broadly, there is danger in the fundamental shift of power from West to East with the rise of Asia. The last time such a shift occurred, when Germany and Japan tried to find place in the imperial European world order, it led to war. Properly managed, such a power shift need not cause conflict.

The Worldwide Web was not expected to make much difference for a magazine with 5,000-word essays, but it had a radical impact. It opened up an "enormous international audience." Hoge and his staff now spend "as much time enriching the web site as on the print magazine." The period after the end of the Cold War has also seen "an explosion of content." And Foreign Affairs is becoming a truly global publication. It is preparing to put out an edition in Chinese, and another in India. There are already versions of the magazine in Japanese, Russian and Spanish.

Foreign Affairs is now fully archived on the Web. (Hoge did not mention this, but subscribers to the magazine can access only a year of content.) The electronic archiving makes it possible to produce customized books for classroom use, instant books tailored to events. After 9/11 they ran off an instant best-seller titled "How Did This Happen?" which is still selling.

The circulation of Foreign Affairs has grown "dramatically" in the last ten years; in readership it is in a "league by itself." Other policy magazines like Foreign Policy (which was founded to remedy perceived shortcomings in the public discourse during the Viet Nam war), and World Policy Journal (intended to give the "thinking left" a voice), only have small circulations (below 20,000). Foreign Policy would not even be financially viable without a foundation to support it. The New York Review of Books, The Nation, The New Yorker and The Economist also dealt with policy issues, but there was no "head to head competitor" for Foreign Affairs.

Questions range widely. Is he was aware of his own political biases? (Yes) Does the magazine have a position on the Iraq war? (It has carried articles pro and con.) How do you edit big-name writers? ("We call them big foot writers; I talk to them before editing.") Do you ever look back and say, "Man! I can't believe we ran that! (Yes, but nothing specific comes to mind right now.) Did Ronald Reagan read Foreign Affairs? (He read a lot but not FA. Other presidents did. Kennedy, Carter and Clinton were especially close readers.) Would you like Condi Rice as a reader or 4 million ordinary Americans? (I'll take the 4 million; that will make Condi pay attention.) If John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt had offered their article on The Israel Lobby to Foreign Affairs, would you have published it? (I was mad that they didn't.) But would you have Published it? (With another balancing article, with some editing.) So you wouldn't have!

I want to ask why Foreign Affairs is so relentlessly committed to manipulative politics, whether he sees any hope for a world in which (according to the latest issue), a "Clash of Peoples" is to be laid over the "clash of civilizations." But I hold my peace. I know it will come out wrong. Americans of a certain age and background get very uptight at questions like that. But a
fter the presentation, I go up and ask Hoge when the Indian edition of Foreign Affairs will be out. It's already out, he says. It's called "India and the World." Can I get a copy in New York? He shakes his head. Who is the publisher in India? He shakes his head again. It is very strange. I pose the question on the discussion forum of the South Asian Journalists Association, and find out that the Sakaal Group in Pune has the contract to publish the magazine in India, with former Times Of India editor Dilip Padgaonkar in charge; the content will come from New York. Hoge's reluctance to tell me that is mystifying. The inscrutable West.

One final note of interest:
Warren Hoge, the UN correspondent of the New York Times, is the younger brother of James.