Monday, February 22, 2010


I thought this was an interesting news snippet. Oddly enough, it seems that despite the coup Niger might be moving towards more stable footing than Nigeria--where Goodluck Jonathan will face significant obstacles in bringing stability following Yar'Adua's illness/disappearance to Saudi Arabia and the subsequent constitutional crisis. In contrast, "crowds of demonstrators in [Niger's capital, Niamey,] and elsewhere greeted Niger's new military rulers with outpourings of support in the streets," according to the NY Times.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Tear down that firewall

I strongly agree with Secretary of State Clinton’s decision to make unrestricted Internet access a key component of US foreign policy. It is a critical tool for encouraging democracy abroad, and sure works a lot better than neoconservative state building or sending troops abroad.

Today, 30% of the global population live in countries that censor the Internet (WSJ). Considering that a huge chunk of that 30% is China, that’s not that huge a number. The possibilities that Internet freedom holds for the other 70% of the world are tremendous. Here are two of the most exciting examples.

Moldova & Iran

Following the announcement by Moldova’s communist party of electoral victory, young Moldovans organized via the Internet and took to the streets. In the 48 hours after the communist party’s declaration, “#pman”, became one of the most popular Twitter hashtags worldwide. “pman” stands for “Piata Marii Adunari Nationale", which is the name of the largest square in Chisinau, Moldova's capital, and the rallying grounds for protests. blogger, Evgeny Morozov, termed the Moldovan protests the Twitter Revolution.

In addition to using Twitter to organize protests, Facebook and YouTube (which I waste too much of my workday on) also were used to organize dissent. Videos and photos were uploaded on YouTube and Facebook respectively, and blogs had up-to-the-minute posts, allowing young Moldovians abroad to stay informed.

I think this is absolutely incredible. These tools can help expose government corruption and rally against it. They open up closed societies. And the Moldova example is even more fascinating when you consider that it’s a tiny, underdeveloped former-Soviet backwater. If these social tools can be used so powerfully in Moldova, the opportunities in other less-developed nations are equally strong—not to mention the possibilities for political activism in wealthier and more educated societies.

A similar phenomenon happened in Iran last summer as well. After Ahmadinejad by most accounts stole the election, Moussavi and his “green” supporters rallied via Twitter. Some of their tweets were even in English to make it easier for non-Iranians to follow their protest movement. What’s more, a YouTube video of a young woman bleeding to death after being shot at a rally, spread throughout Iran and the world, galvanizing pro-democratic rallying.

The State Department has taken notice of these two protests. They’ve organized trips to meet with foreign leaders to discuss how technology can be used help to rebuild in Iraq and fight drug violence in Mexico. I have no clue how the Internet could facilitate this, but I don’t doubt that it can. The Iranian and Moldovan examples are from the past year alone! As technology becomes more sophisticated in accommodating social communication, the possibilities for organizing and voicing dissent against repressive rule will grow.

That’s my euporhic rant on the Internet as salve; however, two stories from today have tempered idealism, making me realize that as pro-democracy Internet-activism grows and becomes more sophisticated, so will state repression.

China & Iran

Today marks the 31st anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, and fearing that the Twitter revolts of the summer will flare up again, the government has suspended Gmail indefinitely. The New York Times writes that unlike past holidays where the opposition movement was firmly in the spotlight, the anniversary today “belonged to the leadership and its security forces.” Cracking down on the Internet freedom has certainly helped them to achieve this.

In the Xinjiang province this summer, the Chinese government took even more extreme measures that the Iranian government. In the separatist province, the government shut off nearly all Internet access following protesting and rioting by Muslim Uighurs. Since then, the government has only allowed a trickle of Internet access into Xinjiang. Yesterday, Xinjiang residents could access 3 websites. Today, that number has blossomed to 30 government-run sites.

These two examples temper my optimism. Even with Google’s “Don’t be Evil” motto, and Twitter’s explicit aid in Iran, governments are still able to silence Internet dissent. Just as books can be burned, firewalls can be erected and cell-phone signals blocked. The Internet has the ability to educate, liberate, and organize people—and thus promote democratization—but it’s not immune to propaganda or, more likely, censorship.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Possible turmoil?

I've been watching highlights of all the Africa Cup matches--if the games were on television, I'd be trying to watch them in full--and it's been surprisingly very exciting to follow. While Africa may be lacking in infrastructure and good governance, the continent certainly is not lacking in quality soccer. I'm no expert, but the quality of play seems to be very high. I would not be surprised if an African team like Cote d'Ivoire or Cameroon pulled off some upsets in the World Cup this summer.

This Monday, Angola will face off against Algeria while Malawi will take on Mali. The host nation, Angola, is currently at the top of its group with a slight edge over Algeria and Malawi. However, with two group games left, any two teams could move on. Angola has the best chance to advance, but there are no guarantees.

What I find most interesting/startling about Monday's matches is that if Angola finishes second in the group, then they will have to travel to Cabinda for the quarterfinals. Cabinda was the sight of the Togo tragedy which opened the tournament. If Angola travels to Cabinda, it could put a lot of pressure on an already tense situation; Cabinda's instability could brim over into another flare of violence. After all, the target of the FLEC rebels were the Angolan security forces escorting them--not the Togolese team itself. At the very least, if Angola's team travels to Cabinda, the government could begin their (inevitable) harsh security crackdowns on the Cabindan populace. In all likelihood, Angola playing in Cabinda will be a non-story. Angola purposefully scheduled games in Cabinda to show the stability of the separatist province and Luanda's control over it.

Nonetheless, Angola playing in Cabinda would highlight the tensions that Angolan officials would much prefer to keep hidden and dormant. As Angolan defender Rui Marques told al-Jazeera correspondent, Paul Rhys, "We would like to stay here because we feel used to it. But there's no problem. If we have to move town I'm sure the people there will support us. We'd like to be first in the group though." I imagine Angola's government feels the same.


Some other notes, these matches don't seem particularly well-attended. For the second game of the tournament, Malawi versus World-Cup bound Algeria, there were only 1,000 people in attendance. When you look at the highlights of the game, the stadium looks even more deserted than an MLS game. Why is this? Expensive ticket prices? I doubt its due to lack of interest. Based on info from ESPN, Angola's two matches have had an average of approximately 47,000 people in attendance; all other matches have had an average of just under 12,0000 fans.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Africa Cup: Cause for Optimism, Cause for Despair

Last Friday, FLEC rebels opened fire on the bus of the Togolese national soccer team which had been travelling from their training facilities in the DRC to Cabinda for the start of the African Nations Cup. Three were killed in the ambush, and 8 were injured. And this weekend, the Togolese team flew home, to mourn their dead and await improved security.

The event is terribly sad. Angola's hosting of the Cup was meant to showcase Africa's fastest growing economy, a debut after decades of civil war. Instead it had showcased the steep domestic problems that Angola faces.

In September, I wrote a post on Cabinda. The odd geography of the Puerto Rico sized province, and its contested history interested me. Cabinda formed in the later 19th century, as three independent African kingdoms (sandwiched between Belgian, French and Portugues colonial ventures) fearing King Leopold's cruel rule, asked to be a protectorate of Portugal. Tied as a Portuguese colony to the rest of Angola, Cabinda nonetheless considered itself independent and culturally distinct from the rest of Angola. Yet immediately following the nation's independence in 1975, MLPA troops occupied Cabinda. Since then the separatist conflict has persisted. What's more the discovery of oil off the shores of Cabinda has only heightened the stakes and the fierceness of the fighting. Some might say, offshore oil is the conflict, although FLEC rebels claim that their fight is for cultural and political freedom rather than exorbitant resource wealth. Nonetheless, its necessary to acknowledge that, today, 71% of Angola's oil revenue comes from Cabinda. And as John Ghazvinian, author of Untapped, writes, while the conflict between UNITA and MLPA may have ended, there has been little resolution to the Cabinda conflict.

I revisited Ghazvinian's book, and found this quote which seems relevant:

The only people given a voice throughout Angola's history have been those with guns. Perhaps nowhere is this tortured legacy more visible than in Cabinda, where the only political discourse available to young activists is one of hatred and violence.

Crackdowns on Cabinda rebels have been harsh. In 2004, "Human Rights Watch issued a briefing paper that included reports of gang rapes, torture, and sexual humiliation carried out by the Angolan Armed Forces" (Ghazvinian, 160).

While seemingly unrelated, what I take from the tragedy at the Africa Cup, is the extreme difficulty for oil-rich nations to positively harness their resource wealth. Although Angola experienced insane growth rates (its GDP grew by nearly 20% in 2008!), a number of substantial obstacles have arisen. The cost of living in Luanda has skyrocketed to Central Park South-levels; the national government is heavily centralized and does not disclose the amount of oil money it is awash with; and, as sadly shown last week, a separatist movement that is perhaps fueled by harsh crackdowns still simmers bringing the nation's stability into question.

This is not say that Angola is doomed; quite the contrary, many African nations envy the potential Angola has. At times, it seems fitting to compare it to rapidly-growing, lusophone Brazil; in optimistic moments, BRIC seems a more likely future than MEND. But the difficulty of oil persists.

I don't want to call it a curse, but oil (combined with Angola's history which offers conflict rather than multiparty politics or democracy as a model) presents substantial political and economic challenges. And while the Africa Cup does certainly highlight the incredibly exciting potential of one of Africa's pivotal nations, it also highlights the substantial and frustratingly sad obstacles that a bright future must overcome.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Book Review: The Good Soldiers, David Finkel

The Good Soldiers by David Finkel

The crack of thunder woke me early this morning. The lighting was so close that I saw its flash through my closed eyelids. It woke me up, and I felt just like how an animal feels during a thunderstorm; I was scared. My heart was racing, my breath was short and quick.

I took some deep breaths and I was able to fall back asleep. When I woke up later that morning, I was thinking about The Good Soldiers. I thought that the way I felt, waking up to thunder, might be how those soldiers feel leaving their compounds (their FOB—forward operating base). Of course, I know that my waking-up-to-bad-weather fright paled in comparison to their stays in Fedaliyah, Iraq. Nonetheless, I felt that I had gotten a taste of the ubiquitous fear and anxiety that invades their subconscious during and after their service. A life of IEDs, EFPs, mortars, and street patrols through dicey neighborhoods where American troops are not looked on favorably.

And, as Finkel captures, one of the things that makes service during the surge so scary is that it’s all chance; your fate is out of your hands. Every time, a soldier hops in a Humvee (just to travel from one point to the next—not necessarily to go on an aggressive mission after insurgents) they are relinquishing control of their life and their limbs. They are at the mercy of the road and the EFPs that may or may not be buried underneath it. These cheap, gruesome weapons account for most of the deaths in Iraq. Detonated by a frustratingly-invisible enemy, they blow through the bottom of Humvees and spray shrapnel throughout its interior.

The Good Soldiers, however, is about more than just the paranoia and fear of serving in Iraq during the surge. As its title suggests, it’s about the soldiers, young and middle-aged (but mostly way young--my age). Their lives and their brotherhood during service. It just so happens that serving in Iraq during the surge is a pretty damn scary, so much of Finkel’s writing captures this fear and frustrating helplessness.

Finkel captures their fear and frustration with poignancy. He writes with an astounding intimacy. There are a couple of quotes I’ve written down below that I feel capture this sad proximity to the soldiers; he articulates their struggles astoundingly well, capturing their complex war-stretched emotions with an intimacy and a truthfulness as though he is one of them. It’s pretty astounding.

And as his writing is soaked with a powerful closeness, it is also structured in a clever and striking way. The first few pages of the book, are enough to serve as an example: this was before, the soldiers hadn’t yet, he would say it…"Except now, on April 6, 2007, at 1:00 a.m., as someone banged on his door, waking him up, he said something different. ‘What the fuck’ he said, opening his eyes."

The comparison to The Things They Carried is apt (although FSG’s is the author of this flattering comparison). Finkel writes with the same intensity as O’Brien, and it loyally captures (at least I think), with a difficult intimacy and cleverness, these good soldiers lives.

This book was especially powerful for me because it’s the first book on war where my peers are the ones fighting. 19, 20, 21, 22 year olds just like me. Books and films about Vietnam or World War II seem so far removed from my life. I’m able to understand the morals and feel the emotions of these soldiers—Charlie Sheen in Platoon, Private Joker in Full Metal Jacket—but they still end up feeling a bit distant—removed form my life. But as I read about the good soldiers, and the difficult passages of young men like me dying in gruesome ways (19-year olds burning alive in cars, their bodies full of shrapnel) it felt more realistic, more disturbingly tangible and powerful.

My one caveat about the book would be that it’s told almost purely from the soldier’s perspective. As a result, there are a lot of generalizations, and the macro-level details of the conflict aren’t captured. Finkel makes it clear that his intention is to capture the soldiers perspectives—which is different from what think tank scholars and talking heads focus on. Nonetheless, there’s little info on Muqtada al-Sadr or the Jaish al-Mahdi. Nor is there any information on West Baghdad, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the Sons of Iraq. So if you’re looking to understand who the they are that Finkel refers to, or what motivates insurgent attacks (or most interestingly, why the Muqtada’s cease-fire declaration resonates) then this book won’t be of much help. But Finkel’s goal is to capture the lives of these young, good soldiers, and this he does with a remarkable poise and weight that their service deserves.

Small rocky islands with disproportionate foreign policy impacts

I just got back from a vacation in Argentina/Uruguay. On the flight down to Buenos Aires, my dad, brother and I started talking about the Falklands War. This war lasted for two and a half months in 1982, and began when junta-led Argentina invaded the British-held Falkland Islands. The war was more of a sign of Argentine instability than anything else. Argentina was experiencing a deep economic crisis, and the military dictators leading the country were facing growing resistance to their rule. So the idea to grasp a few rocky islands off their coast was an attempt to distract the Argentine people from their faltering rule and, instead, inspire patriotism and national unity. Needless to say, it didn't end well for Argentina. More than 600 Argentine soldiers died, and the military junta was completely discredited, leading to transition to democratic rule.

What struck me about this brief conflict, was that as my Dad says, "it was over a bunch of rocky, miserable islands where only a handful of sheep herders kick around." And yet, it was mentioned in nearly every IR class I took in college (it's generally used as an example of domestic politics spurring intrastate war), and the conflict had large national affects on the two states that briefly fought over these islands.

In Buenos Aires, I was shocked by the number of Malvinas War (Spanish for Falklands) signs and monuments I saw. The two photos above were taken at B.A.'s Plaza del Mayo where veterans of the Malvinas protested for greater government compensation. In Britain, the Falklands War gave Thatcher a significant popularity boost at home. Patriotism abound, her approval rating nearly doubled (source via wikipedia) following Britain's victory. Some argue that Britain's victory propelled Thatcher and the Conservative Party to victory in the 1983 election.

So, I got thinking, what are some other tiny islands that have had a disproportionate affect on foreign policy?

And so, here are some other small islands whose mention is most often coupled/followed with the logical question, "where the hell is that?"

The South Pacific islands of Palau made international news when they agreed to take 17 Uighurs from Guantanamo Bay. The US pledged to give the nation of 258 tiny islands, $200 million in long term aid. More importantly for the US, these tiny tropical islands helped the US take its first step toward closing Guantanamo Bay. Although Barack Obama's had to revise this promise, Palau--an exotic dot on the map--was able to help the US take its first, strange strange step towards filling its promise and restoring its values. And I still have to look it up on Wikipedia because I can never remember its name.

You think Palau's small? Ha! Nauru is half its size. What it lacks in size, it makes up for ininteresting history. During the 1960s and 1970s it boasted the highest per capita income of any sovereign state (wikipedia) as a result of its phosphate reserves (note: the island is a big phosphate rock). With its phosphate reserves having been spent for years, it recently received some much needed money and made international news when it became the 4th nation in the world to recognize Abkhazia's sovereignty from Georgia. This small island--approximately 1/3 the size of Manhattan--followed Palau's lead in taking a decisive stand on a sensitive international issue. In the larger scope of things, Nauru's recognition of Abkhazia's existence is meaningless. But, at the very least, it briefly drew attention back to the still-delicate Russia-Georgia conflict and the larger issues that surround it. Then again, maybe Nauru really was impressed by Abkhazia's awesome size: it's 20 times bigger than Nauru.

(to be continued / updated)

Cape Verde = "African Success Story"
Sao Tome and Principe = uninhabited island until the Portuguese...future in oil? (Ghazvinian)
South Pacific in WW2
Carribean in age of exploration--a battleground for colonial supremacy

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Copehenhagen Cynicism

The Copenhagen climate talks, like Health Care reform, seem so detailed and nuanced that a casual reading still leaves a lot unclear. In other words, my head spins a bit when I think too much about it.

This is what I understand; There are two big obstacles: compensation and enforcement. First, enforcement. Developing nations (both poor African/Asian nations and growing behomeths, like China and India) want compensation from developed nations. Many of these nations will feel the adverse affects of climate change much more than Western nations. For instance, Bangladesh and the Netherlands are both low-lying nations, nearly below sea-level. But those smart, well-to-do Dutchmen and Dutchwomen have state-of-the-art dykes which will help them cope with rising ocean levels, while Bangladeshis do not. Similarly many African nations will be hit hard by the dry rivers and more frequent droughts that climate change will cause, while Westerners will just have to pay a few cents more on food products at the supermarket. Famine is thankfully not an issue here.

Additionally, developing nations don't want to hinder their growth by agreeing to emissions caps. Which makes sense; the US and Europe were allowed to industrialize and grow to the economic powerhouses they are today (all the while massively polluting the world) without any stringent emissions caps, so why should developing nations have to? And the responsibility of poor, developing nations is to improve the quality of life of their citizens--to give them jobs and cars--not to shackle themselves to any agreements that Western nations never had while they were industrializing. So developed nations should compensate the developing world, it's just a question of how and how much.

Secondly, enforcement is an issue. The only thing tougher than agreeing to emissions caps is actually living up to them. The US or China can boast they'll cut carbon emissions by X%, but there's currently no way to see that they meet their goals. And even if they don't meet their goals, there's not a whole lot the rest of the world can do. The rest of the world can yell at them a bunch and tax their products, but that's not that scary.

So, I'm pretty pessimistic about any major agreements happening in Copenhagen. As Bruce Bueno de Mesquita writes, it's extremely difficult for 170+ disparate nations to agree to anything--even if the health of our planet is at stake. Either the problem will have to become drastically bigger--to the point where we're standing on the cliff's edge--or clean energy will have to become cheaper and more accessible. In other words, the costs of change will have to go down or the felt impact--the fire's breath on our necks--will have to become impossible to ignore. I'm all for multilateralism, but sadly I think that chaos or luxury are the most likely ways to jolt disparate interests into alignment.

Monday, December 7, 2009

What's going on...

Last Thursday night, Dadis Camara, military leader and de facto ruler of Guinea was ambushed and shot in an assassination attempt.

Although junta leaders have stressed that Camara's injuries are not serious, he was flown to Morocco. As junta officials have released more information about the assassination attempt, the situation seems increasingly precarious. Camara is apparently recovering from a gunshot wound to the head, which knocked a splinter of bone into his brain. Sounds serious. I haven't heard of too many non-serious gunshot-wounds-to-the-head-with-bone-splinters-in-the-brain injuries, but then again I haven't heard of any such injury. Junta officials say Camara is stable and that he is recovering well. But who really knows. I guess it's not much of a surprise that the military would try to downplay this assassination attempt and occlude details. Releasing more information might destablize an already extremely unstable situation. Guinea's junta leaders have, however, arrested a man suspected in the attempted assasination.

What's more, on Friday BBC's Africa Today podcast said that the top 3 CNDD officials (the National Council for Democracy and Development, the junta which Camara heads) were out of the country. In the last few days, however, General Sekouba Konate, Camara's second-in-command, has apparently returned from Lebanon where he was last week.

I don't fully grasp the details of this. From just a superficial reading of the events I can conclude the obvious: there is a serious crisis at hand. The Camara junta may be losing control, and a serious fight (between factions of the military?) for rule of the nation may be under way. But that's just a guess. What is more certain, however, is that the prospects of this upcoming January's presidential elections took a serious blow. Camara's post-coup vow (from last December) to "return to the barracks" after these elections now seems unlikely. Camara (or his assassin-successors) will now view elections as to risky to their tenuous hold on seized power.