Monday, February 28, 2011

Things Could Get Ugly (Uglier?)

Events in Libya seem to be dragging out a lot longer than people had hoped for. For the people of Libya, that is not good news. Factional in-fighting and the recalcitrance of Ghadafi himself could greatly escalate the number of civilian casualties, though at this point it is nearly impossible to identify civilians as such. Everybody looks like a combatant.

A few oddities about Ghadafi: The first is that nobody in the media can settle on how to spell his name -- seen at least three, maybe four versions. Another matter came up when an associate asked, "How come he's just a colonel?" I think his rank was self-imposed as he did begin life as a socialist, and has managed to spin a lot of mileage out of his own version of an 'egalitarian society' -- only difference being that his version of socialism is practiced with $60 billion in various off-shore banks. Well, $30 billion after the US seized a few accounts.

Another item that got lost in my shuffle was that al qaeda tried to assassinate him about 20 years ago. Ghadafi had a rather interesting relationship with the various radical elements of Islam, in that he financed and gave shelter and sanctuary to many of these fighters. But it seems that they quickly became competition in his own theater of revolution, particularly in the case of Osama bin Laden. Pan-Arabism was one thing, but an Islamic revolution was quite another animal in Ghadafi's eyes. An Islamic jihad was not particularly palatable to an Arab (Libyan) nationalist. Ghadafi couldn't see himself relegated to the back burner -- one fish among many, so he sicked his security forces on al qaeda and removed them from the country. They in turn, attempted to kill him. The whole affair seemed like a Clint Eastwood western.

At this point, the call for outside intervention is growing feverish on quite a few fronts. It seems that few Arab countries would object. On one hand, Libya's problems are an excellent distraction from their own internal problems, but at this point, no nation, Islamic or otherwise is going to offer even lip service to the Ghadafi regime. And on all nation's minds is the question of just how long the world can afford to stand by and watch. Previous events in the Balkans, Rwanda and the Congo serve to remind us just how costly the seat on the sidelines can be. It is rapidly approaching a point where conversation needs to be tabled and action begin.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Real Price of Bread

Thought I'd take a break from Ghadafi-bashing to look at a problem that most Americans tend to not notice on those weekly trips to Safeway. The price of grain -- grain that is turned into flour, that in turn creates a loaf of bread. A staple throughout the world.
Most Americans wouldn't take much notice if bread went up a nickel. Or a dime, a quarter, maybe even a dollar. We're like that. We just suck it up, bitch to the cashier and go home and make a sandwich.
World grain prices have been soaring. Strategic reserves (yeah, just like oil, only grain happens to be edible) are shrinking -- in some cases (like the Middle East and North Africa) non-existent -- some of the besieged governments throwing the reserves on local markets as an appeasement to very unhappy citizens. In countries like Saudi Arabia, the reserves are gone.
Other issues are also at play. Weather conditions are high on the list. Russia's drought of last year has forced the country to go from producer to importer. Severe weather conditions in Australia, Pakistan, Latin and South America have added to world shortages. Speculators are busy manipulating these volatile markets in an endless search for quick profits. China has become a huge consumer of grain stocks -- along with everything else -- their needs are great and due to world economic conditions, they are cash heavy and food poor.
And one other surprise: the proliferation of bio-fuels. The majority are produced from grain stocks -- put another way -- food stocks. This puts the petro-chemical industries and refineries in direct competition with food producers for agricultural commodities. And it is a double hit, for the production of bio-fuels has been shown to be a contributor to the very climate changes that are under indictment for crop destruction around the world. Converting food into fuel is no different than what many vegetarians lament about the western diet: "Instead of eating the cow, why not eat what the cow eats instead."
Philosophy hardly matters here. Starvation does. You take that nickel or dime and add it to the cost of a bushel of wheat in the developing world, and it becomes a dire struggle between mere subsistence and the social destruction reaped by an insidious and selective famine. Despots and dictators are capable of creating all sorts of chaos in their own neighborhood, but it pales in comparison to the havoc that can be reaped by a simple loaf of bread.

Friday, February 25, 2011

NATO Through the Back Door Again

A Little Incidental History on Libya

I love flags. This one belonged to the old province of Tripolitania on the northwestern coast of Libya, hence the shortened capitol name, Tripoli. Following WW I, it was annexed as an Italian colony, one of the few pieces of real estate that the Italians managed to capture. Like most land grabs, this one was done under the guise of saving the Ottoman Wilayats from...well, apparently some other Ottomans. Seems the Ottoman Sultan was in the rather uncomfortable position of having picked the wrong side in 'the big war,' and Turkish nationalism was just hitting the prickly-going-on-dangerous period of its development. The movement was headed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk -- 1st President of what would become a modern and secular nation-state. Kemal himself could fill two or three pages on his own, but the point here is that if he didn't make a move following WW I, the big powers would turn Turkey into a garage sale.

Back to Italy in Libya. By 1920, both the Sultan & the Caliphate (more on that later) were sent somewhere more sympathetic, and while Italy granted Tripolitania a degree of autonomy, they quickly reneged on the deal and occupied the territory. WW II trashed the whole area and Libya was pretty much occupied by allied forces until about 1947. Most of the Italians were sent home. 1951 saw the establishment of Libya as a constitutional monarchy of sorts. Oil was discovered, the king got a little too rich and it seemed like BP, Chevron & the US Air Force were running the place. While the King was being medically treated in Turkey (1969), a young Gadhafi & some military buddies staged a coup. Arab nationalism was on the rise and running fast throughout the middle east and northern Africa.

Now to the present and probably the real point at hand. First we had the 'Great Game' with all its various ramifications, intentional diversions and subterfuge. Once the Soviet Union swallowed its own tongue and left the US as the predominant military power in the world, the UN playing field didn't really level out -- just tilted a little more toward the scary idea of independent thinking making an impact on that indecisive mob hunkered down in New York. Nobody was offering 'free bridges to nowhere' -- at least in the short term. At the same time, China was elevated to the 'big table,' allowing it the opportunity to finally be a 'deal-breaker.' The changing world structure also seemed (emphasis on seemed) to render NATO a little redundant as a military deterrent to the Red (now red, white & blue) Menace.

So a couple of Bush [es] and probably creative folks like sure-shot Dick Cheney thought, "Gee, the UN won't cooperate on our invasion plans, so lets use NATO." We should remember here that NATO means 'North Atlantic Treaty Organization' and its stated manifesto is to defend western Europe from the not-so-red menace. Basically, a mutual-defense treaty.

That brings up two important questions: What's NATO doing in Afghanistan when that country is south, not north and a damn long way from any ocean, much less the Atlantic one. And second, why would a NATO spokesperson state today that, "[Libya] is in our immediate neighborhood," that statement inferring some kind of legitimate agenda for...what? Hopefully just a geography quiz. And both questions are rhetorical.

So what we have in NATO, I guess, is our own little United Nations, and since we probably finance most of the costs for defending the North Atlantic through our branch offices in Kabul and Baghdad, everybody dances to the music. Seems the only solution is to have the UN denounce NATO as a mercenary force. Gee, it sort of is actually.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Much Ado About Everything -- Punting the Pundints

Where to Begin?

Looking a Little Worn

Hate it when my router explodes on a great news day. Ah, Libya. Interesting debate today between Ted Koppel & someone forgettable from a DC think-tank on...I'm not sure really. Seemed like it was foreign policy with an emphasis on foreign -- to the ear. For the most part Koppel seemed irritated (nothing unusual) and the other guy had a bad habit of interrupting everybody -- hence the former.

The debate (this is going on over at the White House as well) is centered on 'what to do?' Buying 'oil futures' seems pretty smart, but profiteering wasn't the real subject at hand -- or was it? Certain folks were crying for intervention -- maybe create a 'no fly zone,' a fig boycott -- something resembling a decision wrapped in a sentence.'s the problem:

The Great Game

Sometime around 1990 or so, the Game kind of changed. In case you're wondering what sport we're talking about, it is roughly a competition involving pimps and prostitutes. The pimps were the United States and the Soviet Union, the 'girls' -- well, whoever that wanted to play. The goal (murky as it seemed) was to stack the UN with malleable (though pathetically crooked) despots, dictators and barn burners who would be more than happy to vote on a pimp's resolution to say, ah, bomb Cambodia without permission. In exchange, they got a bridge to nowhere, a water purification plant without any water, or the best: obsolete big power military hardware that negated any need for honest, dishonest or really, any kind of elections. This was how colonialism branched out into imperialism and other naughty stuff. This went on blatantly for over forty years -- the more subtle stuff lurking in the background -- most notably: "Who's got the oil?" Or, who's going to keep Israel from causing trouble, or, who's going to off-set Iranian influence or, where the hell can I keep the 5th Fleet so it can defend the oil...see where this is going.

That leaves the US as a pretty dishonest broker and a lousy friend overall. You could also blame the Soviet Union, but we know what happened to that experiment. So, over at the State Department where every other sentence contains the word "unacceptable" no plan exists because that would require a rather unpalatable side-note or two on past/current affairs. Those kind of confessionals are normally conducted with a priest -- not American voters.

If Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen don't dwell on the origins of their unique political problems too long, they might offer friendship at some future date. Or not. A certain kind of stench hangs over their need to revolt and it has an American odor to it. One can only hope that in the longer run that these folks can be better people than our example in the conduct of international relations.

Muammar Gadhafi, aka 'Guide of the First September Revolution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.' Gotta remember that Gadhafi is (was) both a socialist and a big fan of pan-Arabism. Certainly a megalomaniac -- and not short of cash. Dangerous combination. He did follow a sort of socialist/Islamist ideology for a time in the early years, but it morphed into more of a nationalist platform once it became apparent that he wasn't going to be Emporer of Africa. Given his past, and more importantly, his personality, it is not likely that he will follow Murbarak's example and quietly go on vacation. The assumption is that he covets the shroud of the martyr -- a goal that hopefully will be reached sometime soon.
At the moment, the US should probably do little other than to try to protect US nationals in the area and offer what humanitarian resources that might seem feasible -- which is probably nothing, given the instability in the current situation. Libya's military is fractured into various camps and the presence of mercenaries only adds to the chaos. Quite likely -- and shortly it seems -- the military, or factions thereof, will press their own agenda and unlike Egypt, it quite likely could become factional. Libya is a tribal state, which given the absence of a strong central leadership figure (like Gadhafi), the country could easily Balkanize -- opening up the possibility of worsening violence and bloodshed.
So, the US has a lot to ponder. How does one not engage The Great Game in all the nasty forms it adopts? The problem with international engagement is that force and naivety are both unacceptable in the conduct of geo-political conversations. One is deemed bullying and the other viewed as weakness. Yet, the US remains the model for struggling democracies around the world -- in spite of the associated scorn. It's a paradox. If we don't (as a policy) manipulate the world system -- then what becomes of those that struggle? It seems that bad faith sometimes serves a purpose if you can just survive that long process of getting to the destination on your own steam.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Buy the Army a 7-11 Franchise

Interesting background material emerging on the Egyptian Military. Seems they have a few outside interests including farms, factories, resorts -- probably a cable shopping network. Finally explains why they went along with the Egyptian/Israeli peace accord. War is bad for business!! Same negative impact on squashing revolutions. Can't shoot your own customers!

Might drop President Obama a note. Could cut defense spending by 60-70% if we let the Pentagon open some KFC franchises around Kabul. Just a thought.

ADDENDUM: How could I be so dumb? We need to offer the franchises to the Taliban. Get these guys going on commerce and they'll probably lose interest in shooting their customers. Of course, like I said, they'll still need some electricity.

More on Afghanistan: Cairo vs. Kabul. Can't imagine Afghans taking to the streets with signs reading "Oppress me! Oppress me!" Don't see that notion gaining much traction. Plus, there is the problem with the word 'fundamentalist.' Root word: 'fundamental.' Discount the prefix 'fun.' Doesn't work here. Fundamental means basic. Leaves out any room for discussion, which is a moot point if you have managed to deny a population the other fundamentals: readin,' writin' and arithmetic. If you stretch both my lines of thinking here the dots do connect.

Best to the Egyptian people. The really hard work begins today. It is going to take more patience and civility than anyone can possibly imagine.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wrong Speech!

Seems Hosni Mubarak wrote two speeches and recited the wrong one. Midway through it was pretty evident that he didn't have a bus ticket out of Cairo. He may soon wish otherwise. But to be fair, giving up power, particularly at someone else's request (well, a lot of 'someone's), is both difficult and not particularly palatable. Plus, there is the part where delusion has either set in, or has been a continuing element of the psychosis that develops in the mind of those who cherish absolute power. Whatever the motivation may be, it should be remembered that his faults should be weighed against the positives. He has maintained a very delicate treaty with Israel -- not happily, mind you, but a great many lives have been allowed to go forward by the very endurance of that agreement. Okay, credit where due, but he needs to go. Popular uprisings will not accept 'maybe tomorrow' as a credible alternative. Ignition has occurred.

Now the tricky part. Two things: His call for constitutional change to necessitate his departure is both a marginal truth and a whole bunch of smoke. The country has been under 'national emergency' administration for...a damn long time. That negates the power and authority of a constitution anyway since most provisions went out the window with the bath water. I'm pretty sure there are a few adults around to manage an interim government until substantive changes can be made. That cannot happen with a half-million people tossing bricks at each other. That stifles most kinds of constructive engagement.

Secondly, and far more problematic is the military. Fence-sitting is not a military attribute. It is quite likely that they will stage a coupe as the only available option in restoring some kind of order. History shows that when the military is forced to execute this option, they are not likely to surrender power in anything resembling the short term. Egypt could offer a separate or somewhat diluted paradigm, but nobody can bet on that at this point.

Another possibility exists. A split within the military. This is perhaps the most dangerous of scenarios in that the general population could get caught in the crossfire. If Murburak goes, other folks (including segments of the military elite) may be requested to join him. Thirty years of enmeshed relationships in a power arrangement is bound to create a number of mutually self-serving relationships and a whole bunch of insecurity. Who falls and who remains standing? Scary shit shows up here.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Media Misfires All the Way Around

I often wonder if anyone (except perhaps NPR) can ever again discover the true value of in-depth reporting, semi-in-depth or maybe even scraping the surface of a story with a dull knife-type-in-depth, though the latter would be about a cross between an oxymoron and a catatonic delusion. Of course, this is America and if you can't find the truth in under three-seconds, then it probably isn't worth finding anyway.

First item: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. As soon as somebody put 'Muslim' and 'Brotherhood' in the same sentence, mass hysteria erupted over the possibility of an Islamic state in Egypt. Sorry, population is too young and far too educated. Besides, the Muslim Brotherhood is more akin to an Elk's Club in a dry county. Same thing if you found five conservative Republicans standing on a street corner in front of an abortion clinic. What, the building is going to explode? Journalists need to do their homework. And yes, the Muslim Brotherhood needs to be included in any political settlement on Egypt's future. They are Egyptians after all.

Second item: This is a little funny in a twisted sort of way. Al Jazeera (one of the primary media outlets for the Islamic world) has had kind of an odd niche in both reporting and commenting on issues both inside the Islamic world and how the Islamic world views world issues. Americans have always viewed their reporting as slanted and bias. (Gosh, ours isn't?) Well last week in a rather odd turn, Hezbollah accused Al Jazeera of biased reporting over the organization's actions in Lebanon. Al Jazeera seems to be caught between a kind of group nepotism and a more progressive sign of modern realities: credibility.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Happy Birthday Ron!

Ronald Reagan turns 100. Probably the only Republican I ever voted for in a presidential election. Mostly because I am an optimistic cynic, a political agnostic and find ideas far more appealing than affiliations.

I often credited Reagan with ending the Cold War. And of course, Gorbachev as well. They each played a unique role in the unraveling of an empire, but hindsight (always perfect) and foresight (fraught with danger) really makes me think that access to information (communication) destroyed the party line. It also proved that the only person you can brainwash is yourself. The old idea of mass indoctrination to any way of thinking is categorically flawed. It is why two people can't own the same secret. The moment the Berlin Wall cracked, all bets were off. What had really trapped these folks for 40 years was bullets, barbed-wire and hopelessness. Ideology was merely static on the line. However, in the very beginning, socialism did hold a kind of beguiling charm. More on that later.

Social Security going broke? How about this: Got my pathetic list of income & expected benefits for my 'golden years' the other day. Here's what I'm thinking. I have no relatives or beneficiaries, etc. Social Security is going to hand out $255 to nobody in particular when I tip over dead. The rest they are going to keep. Why couldn't I get something like a reverse mortgage on my body, whereas I either promise to eat really healthy from now on -- or more realistically, get half the money up front and promise to drop dead in five years. I mean, there must be a lot of people that only make it to 64 7/8 years of age -- then boom! It ends up in your neighbor Bob's account and you don't even like the son of a bitch. Anyway, just a thought.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Little More Musing in South Asia

Funny, but just today Pakistan's nuclear capacity found it's way into the news again. Seems they have been busier than most people might have assumed. By recent accounts, Pakistan has probably achieved nuclear (warhead) parity with India. That's not particularly alarming in itself as Pakistan maintains the 'nuclear card' as a deterrent to India's overwhelming advantage in conventional forces and to a lesser degree, India's geographic insulation. The latter deals primarily with delivery system capability, which remains questionable where Pakistan is concerned. Still, that conventional superiority that India possesses comes with a risk. It creates an imbalance (similar to the overwhelming conventional forces of the Soviet Union in eastern Europe during the warmer chapters of the Cold War) and such asymmetrical relationships have the capacity to initiate a nuclear option by the weaker antagonist. That's the real downside of deterrence as it leaves Pakistan with a 'first use' option virtually by default.

It is also important to remember that India's nuclear ambitions were not fueled by issues with Pakistan, but rather China. These two fought some rather sharp border clashes in (I believe) the 1980's. India's need for a credible deterrence against China actually created Pakistan's own need against a nuclear-armed India. This was what the theory of 'non-proliferation' was hoping to avoid, but who is going to surrender the option first, or better yet, actually believe the intentions of the other party? That's exactly why we carried on a Cold War with the Soviets for some 40-odd years. Trust is hard to find here.

Oh -- World view of India and Pakistan is not concurrent with the antagonist's view of each other. India is also viewed as a 'status quo' power. Pakistan isn't. That makes for an unhealthy assumption or two.

On Afghanistan -- I alluded to the Texas electrical co-ops of the 1940-50's. Just to be clear, they were not financially successful, but they were established just the same.

Something to consider: Afghanistan's literacy rate runs about 25-28%. That may be optimistic. This plays well into the hands of the fundamentalists because ignorance and fear are a formidable force and they know how to use it. They've been pretty successful at it with us. Can't get on a plane without getting your spleen photographed. Egypt's literacy runs about 66.4%. Democracy requires educated participants. America has been fiddling around with the concept for over 200-years and it is still screwed up. For Afghanistan, we need to forget the adults and put a hard press on the children. It will take at least a generation (maybe 30 years) to form a nucleus of a literate public in that country. Turn on the juice -- turn off the rhetoric. Only then will the Afghan people really control their own destiny.

No, not an easy task. But then the really difficult jobs never are.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Always the 'Why' Question About Afghanistan

Recently I responded to a commentary written by Tom Gallagher at, a site I cruise through occasionally and sometimes contribute content. The 'why' question came up in a December 10th piece and I wanted to expand on my own comments here, primarily because far too many Americans favor the knee-jerk analysis of their favorite pundit or simply offer the Vietnam paradigm -- neither of which will put this conflict into a worthy perspective. Try this one instead:

"The 'why' question always seems to top the list when it comes to Afghanistan. The answer is both simple and complicated. One word answers both sides of this weathered argument and it tends to inhabit the complicated side of things: Pakistan.

I think it is also important to remember that this conflict was an inheritance and not an instigation -- as such, not a direct agenda by the current administration, but rather part of an on-going security status quo. As such, President Obama's options are limited by the ramifications of any sort of timely withdrawal, regardless of the popularity of such a move by many Americans.

What we have in the area are two nuclear-armed antagonists (Pakistan & India), parked in a pretty volatile section of the planet. It is estimated that 100-180 combined nuclear devices exist in both nation's stockpiles. For a decade or so, India has been the jilted lover in the three-way relationship that has existed between India, Pakistan and the US. Most of this is due to 'our' perceived need to prop up the Pakistani government as a foil against both the Taliban and Pakistan's own fundamentalist factions. If the Taliban manage to prevail in Afghanistan, what will stop these elements from pushing a similar agenda in Pakistan? And how will India react? And further, how will the US respond to a radical Islamic state with a readymade nuclear capability? That's a lot of cards stacked on one very small table.

However, some options due exist on a viable exit strategy. The events of the last few weeks in both Tunisia & Egypt (and apparently in Jordan) do offer an interesting alternative to holding onto Afghanistan at the point of a gun: Electricity. As reported last year (Mother Jones) the Afghans themselves (in a rather broad-based internal survey) when asked, placed electricity (and what it meant for communication, education & discourse) at the top of their 'wish' list. Things like internet and satellite communication & cell systems. Peace was about third on the list, in a somewhat odd tie with American/coalition withdrawal.

The real question then is, "Why not?" If the US could electrify Texas in the 1940-50's through electrical co-ops (the user being invested in the system), then the same could be said for Afghanistan. The Taliban thrives on both the inability of the average Afghan to communicate internally and the far more dangerous consequences that result from an under-educated populous, ignorance a pernicious enemy of the truth.

It would seem realistic to assume that the Afghan people would not only rally to this cause, but defend the infrastructure as well. They would finally be invested in the technology that has proven so powerful in bringing both political discourse -- and perhaps meaningful change -- to both Tunisia and Egypt. Perhaps then, the Afghan people could finally have the resources needed for an honest conversation on the future of their country.