Monthly Archives: August 2009

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

Japanese elections took place on Sunday, marking a dramatic shift in political power in the country. The Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan for nearly all of its post-World War II history, looks set to lose handily to its main rival, the Democratic Party of Japan. Some analysists are projecting the DPJ may win as many as 320 seats in the lower house, giving it a two-thirds majority and eliminating any need to form coalition partners. Prime Minister nad LDP leader Taro Aso has already conceded defeat and announced his intention to resign as party leader. With the DPJ’s victory, Yukio Hatoyama looks poised to become the country’s next prime minister.

In other news from the previous week:

1. The dispute over the status of last week’s Afghan election continues. Although incumbent President Hamid Karzai has extended his lead in the most recent results, the current tally (in which Karzai leads his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah 46% to 31%) would still force a runoff election in October. Although final results are not expected until the end of September, Abdullah has accused the government of engaging in a “massive state-engineer[ing]” of the election results, alleging voter intimidation, ballot-box stuffing, and other election irregularities. The United States has also expressed concerns over the accusations, with U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan “mak[ing] it very clear” in a meeting with Karzai last week that the election should be free and fair.

2.  Fighting between the government of Burma and a rebel militia known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army broke out last week, ending a ceasefire signed between the two more than twenty years ago. The fighting, which has led to a massive exodus of refugees into China, drew criticism from the Chinese government over the weekend. China has been one of the few countries to maintain close ties to the Burmese government, but those ties have been challenged after a reported 10,000-30,000 people crossed into China to flee fighting. The Burmese government is attempting to reassert control ahead of next year’s elections over a region which has large ethnic minorities who reject the central government’s authority.

3. The United Arab Emirates announced it had seized a ship carrying North Korean arms to Iran. According to a report issued by the government of the UAE to the United Nations, the ship, which was seized several weeks ago, was carrying ammunition and small arms, including rocket-propelled grenades, in contravention of a UN embargo established under UN Security Council Resolution 1874 (2009). That resolution was passed after North Korea’s second nuclear test in May. The United Arab Emirates is a close U.S. ally in the region, and has been under pressure to step-up its screening of  shipments bound for Iran.

4. The longstanding trade dispute between Brazil and the United States will take a new turn on Monday, when the World Trade Organization is expected to rule that Brazil may infringe patents on U.S. pharmaceuticals in retaliation for U.S. subsidies on cotton. Brazil successfully challenged U.S. cotton subsides in 2002, when the WTO ruled that the $3 billion annual cotton subsidies paid by the U.S. government unfairly distorted global cotton prices. Despite the victory, the United States has continued to pay the subsidies, and the Brazilian government has struggled to find a way to enforce the ruling. If the WTO does indeed rule that Brazil may bypass U.S. intellectual property protection in the case, it may represent a new avenue for developing countries to enforce WTO rulings. More on this in a future blog entry.

5. South African President Jacob Zuma stated last week that he will be quick to condemn any “deviant” behavior during his upcoming visit to Zimbabwe. The South African government has historically been very slow to criticize the Zimbabwean government or to bring pressure on the country, which has been in the throes of an economic and political crisis for the more than five years. Meanwhile, a United Nations report last week contended that international humanitarian assistance for Zimbabwe has fallen well short of the amount needed to address the food shortages and disease outbreaks facing the country. The UN estimates Zimbabwe will require $718 million in humanitarian aid this year. So far, only $316 million has been pledged.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

Afghan elections took place last week, and both sides are claiming victory at the polls. President Hamid Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion which displaced the Taliban government, declared victory on Friday. Meanwhile, his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, accused Karzai of rigging the poll but said that Karzai would not win enough votes in the first round to avoid an October runoff election. Voter turnout in the election had declined sharply from the previous presidential elections, amid accusations of voter fraud and threats by the Taliban to cut off any fingers marked with the indelible purple ink identifying voters. The election is an important component of President Barack Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan, where the United States has maintained a troop presence for more than seven years. 

In other news from the last week:

1. The Scottish government on Thursday released Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi from prison, returning him to his native Libya. Al-Megrahi had been extradited from Libya to the United Kingdom in 1999 in exchange for the United Nations agreeing to drop sanctions imposed on Libya. Al-Megrahi was convicted by a Scottish jury of conspiracy for his involvement in the 1988 bombing of Pan-Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Although sentenced to life in prison, al-Megrahi served 8 ½ years before being released on compassionate grounds on Thursday. Al-Megrahi has terminal prostate cancer. The United States condemned al-Megrahi’s release and his welcome by Libya’s President, Muammar Gaddafi.

2. Efforts to protect intellectual property gained a boost in China and the United Kingdom last week. In China, the founders and executives of Tomato Garden, a website which that provided free downloads of Microsoft Windows XP and other programs, were convicted of piracy and sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison and a fine of $146,000 each. According to Microsoft, approximately 90 percent of all software sales in China are counterfeit, costing the company an estimated $6.68 billion in sales annually. The Business Software Alliance, the leading lobbying firm for the software industry, celebrated the decision, noting that “This shows that the government [of China] is really taking action.” In the past, the United States has accused the Chinese government of not doing enough to protect intellectual property rights, going so far as to threaten suit before the World Trade Organization.

Meanwhile, the British government has begun consideration of a number of proposals intended to reduce illegal file sharing in the United Kingdom by 70 percent. The proposals under consideration now could slow the speed of internet connections for people found to be downloading protected content, and access to some sites could be blocked altogether.

3. A prolonged drought in Kenya has resulted in a 50 percent increase in the number of people requiring food aid, according to a report released by the World Food Programme. The report also notes that some regions of the country are suffering from shortages of power and water. Although triggered by the ongoing drought, the country’s weak coalition government faces widespread popular discontent as a result of its inability to carry out much needed political and economic reform.

4. Despite some positive developments over the past several weeks in the United States, Germany, and elsewhere, the global economic crisis continues. On Thursday, the government of Mexico announced the economy shrank by a record 10.3 percent in the second quarter of this year, the fastest rate ever for the country. The global economic crisis has affected Mexico particularly had, as the country has been impacted by the U.S. recession, declining oil revenues, and the H1N1 swine flu virus which decimated the country’s tourism industry.

5. A series of bomb attacks killed almost 100 and wounded almost 500 people in Baghdad on Wednesday. The attacks, which mark the deadliest day since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the city in June, targeted two central locations and the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the U.S. embassy and many Iraqi government buildings are located. Although no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, they nevertheless illustrate the challenges facing the Iraqi government.

German Elections

German elections are scheduled to take place on September 27, and the country’s five major political parties are busy campaigning for parliament. Although polling data suggests that Angela Merkel should handily win re-election, Germany’s parliamentary system will certainly force Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats into a coalition with at least one other party. An interesting article by Bertrand Benoit in Monday’s Financial Times suggests that the increase in the number of parties represented in the Bundestag, the national parliament, from three to five makes it difficult for traditional allies (the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Free Democrats on one side, and the Social Democrats (SDP) and Greens on the other) to effectively govern. Instead, what we are likely to see is a broader coalition incorporating either the two historical ideological rivals, the center-left SDP and the center-right CDU into a Grand Coalition—such as the one that has ruled Germany for the past four years—or a coalition involving three or more parties. Such an arrangement, Benoit believes, makes it impossible for parties to deliver on the promises made during the campaign and therefore runs the risk of leading to a greater sense of frustration and apathy among voters.

Benoit may be correct insofar as coalitions do indeed tend parties to moderate their platforms. However, this tendency for moderation is a strength of Germany’s parliamentary system. Parliamentary systems based on proportional representation (or in Germany’s case, a mixed proportional representation system) permit a broad range of parties to compete for representation. Germany’s mixed system imposes limits so that radical parties are unlikely to compete effectively, requiring, for example, that parties receive at least five percent of the national vote to receive any representation in the Bundestag. Once in parliament, the parties are forced to balance their desire to secure a seat at the table by moderate their positions against their desire to maintain their “ideological purity” by refusing to compromise.  In such a system, voters can cast ballots for parties which represent their views on the most important issues, reducing rather than increasing voter apathy. At the same time, radical parties are generally excluded from positions of authority.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

With the Congress in recess, the U.S. political scene has been dominated by coverage of town hall debates over health care reform. In the debate, the British National Health System (NHS) has been trotted out as representative of the dangers of government-run health care, charges to which the British government has responded. The Financial Times on Friday offered a balanced comparison of the U.S. and British health care systems, which debunks the selective use of statistics in the current debate.

In news from outside the U.S. health care debate last week:

1. The Taliban has stepped up attacks in Afghanistan ahead of nation-wide elections scheduled for Thursday. On Saturday, the Taliban launched a suicide bomb attack against NATO’s heavily fortified Afghanistan headquarters in Kabul, killing eight and wounding nearly 100 people. With observers already worried about the ability of the Afghan government and international elections monitors to conduct a nation-wide poll in the country, observers fear that the Taliban may attempt to disrupt the elections. The relative period of peace which had preceded Saturday’s attack had led some to believe that the Taliban would allow the elections to take place.

Thursday’s poll will pit incumbent President Hamid Karzai against former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. Although many observers believed Karzai’s campaign enjoyed an insurmountable advantage, Abdullah’s campaign has managed to close the gap, and some are now forecasting the need for a run-off election in October. A runoff would be necessary if neither candidate manages to secure an absolute majority of the vote.
 
2. Palestinian authorities in Gaza engaged in a series of small battles against Jund Ansar Allah, on Friday. The shootouts resulted in at least 13 deaths and dozens wounded. The battles represented the latest—and perhaps most serious—challenge to the Hamas-led government in Gaza. Jund Ansar Allah is one of several small extremist groups pushing for the introduction of strict Sharia law in Gaza. Jund Ansar Allah, which claims ties to al-Qaeda, had labeled Gaza an Islamic emirate subject to theocratic law, a claim which Hamas rejects. For its part, the Hamas government has dismissed challenges to its leadership as “Zionist propaganda” sponsored by the Israeli government.

3. The French Minister for Urban Regeneration, Fadela Amara, sparked a national debate last week when she called for a nation-wide ban on wearing the burka in France. Amara, a French national of Algerian decent, said that the burka represents “the oppression of women, their enslavement, their humiliation.” Banning the burka, she said, must be part of a broader effort to welcome moderate Islam while fighting the “gangrene, the cancer of radical Islam which completely distorts the message of Islam.” Amara’s comments are part of a broader debate in France. The national parliament in July established a committee to determine whether the wearing of the burka is “compatible with France’s republican tradition of equality between men and women,” and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in June said the burka “will not be welcome on the territory of the republic.” An estimated 5-10 percent of the French population is Muslim, though only a few thousand wear the burka.

4. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak last week attempted to re-open talks with North Korea, offering to negotiate troop reductions along the border between the two countries. The border between North and South Korea is among the most militarized in the world, with more than one million troops, including 30,000 U.S. troops, based in the area. However, in his offer, Lee reiterated the South Korean position that a comprehensive peace deal between the two countries would be predicated on North Korea abandoning its nuclear efforts, a proposition with the North has consistently rejected in the past.

5. Continuing her Africa tour with visits to Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out on several of the continent’s hot spots. Last week, she urged political reconciliation in Kenya and offered support for Somali efforts to fight piracy and Islamic extremism, During her tour, she has not shied away from provoking controversy. In Nigeria, she criticized “the lack of transparency and accountability [which] has eroded the legitimacy of the government.” She also called for African governments to toughen their stance on Robert Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe.

National Security and Climate Change

A great article in the New York Times on Sunday outlines the intersection of global climate change and national security. According to the story,

The changing global climate will pose profound strategic challenges to the United States in coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics, military and intelligence analysts say.

Such climate-induced crises could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions, say the analysts, experts at the Pentagon and intelligence agencies who for the first time are taking a serious look at the national security implications of climate change.

Recent war games and intelligence studies conclude that over the next 20 to 30 years, vulnerable regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia, will face the prospect of food shortages, water crises and catastrophic flooding driven by climate change that could demand an American humanitarian relief or military response.

Climate change legislation has been stalled in the United States Senate, as Senators from coal producing states have resisted efforts to create meaningful legislation. Despite movement on the policy front, however, the article points out that the U.S. military is already preparing for the challenges arising from climate change, gaming scenarios resulting from climate change and studying ways to protect U.S. military installations from extreme climate events.

The National Intelligence Council has already produced a number of reports on the challenges, including reports on China, India, and Russia, in addition to testimony by the Chairman of the National Intelligence Council Thomas Fingar to the U.S. Congress, in which he asserts that

We judge global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for US national security interests over the next 20 years. Although the United States will be less affected and is better equipped than most nations to deal with climate change, and may even see a benefit owing to increases in agriculture productivity, infrastructure repair and replacement will be costly. We judge that the most significant impact for the United States will be indirect and result from climate-driven effects on many other countries and their potential to seriously affect US national security interests. We assess that climate change alone is unlikely to trigger state failure in any state out to 2030, but the impacts will worsen existing problems—such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions. Climate change could threaten domestic stability in some states, potentially contributing to intra- or, less likely, interstate conflict, particularly over access to increasingly scarce water resources. We judge that economic migrants will perceive additional reasons to migrate because of harsh climates, both within nations and from disadvantaged to richer countries.

A new impetus to address the challenges of global climate change? Perhaps. But will national security be able to overcome the interests of coal producers and climate change deniers? The outcome of that battle remains to be seen.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

Economic data out this week suggests that the end of the global recession may be nearing. The most recent jobless numbers out of the United States gave economists reason to celebrate, as the unemployment rate declined by 1/10 of a point, leading to a price rally on Wall Street. Germany, which has seen a sharp decline in gross domestic product (glossary) during the global recession, benefitted from an unexpected expansion of exports—7 percent in June. While other countries continue to struggle, including Russia and Iceland, many economists now believe we are seeing the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

In other news from the previous week:

1. The trial of dozens of people, including a French national and two Iranians employed in the British and French embassies began in Iran on Saturday. The defendants are charged with espionage and “acting against national security” by taking part in and reporting on post-election protests to Western embassies. Under Iranian law, a conviction on either charge could be punished by death. Several of the defendants have confessed, but Western governments have dismissed the charges as “baseless” and contend the confessions were made under duress. The government of Iran accuses the United States and Britain of interfering in its internal affairs by “proving financial help to Iran’s opposition.” Meanwhile, the trial of 100 opposition leaders continued last week. The opposition leaders have condemned the trials as a spectacle, but the defendants face charges punishable by death. Opposition leaders continue to assert that the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad in June’s disputed presidential election was the result of electoral fraud. Nevertheless, Ahmadi-Nejad was sworn in on Monday.

2. A power struggle inside Taliban in Pakistan emerged over the weekend after the organization’s top leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a U.S. drone strike on Friday. Mehsud was a powerful figure in the Waziristan district of Pakistan, and Pakistani officials believe he was responsible for nearly all of the major terrorist attacks in Pakistan over the past two years, including the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and the bombing of Marriot Hotel in Islamabad in 2008. Many analysts believe that Mehsud’s death will undermine the ability of the Taliban to operate in Pakistan. Already, political infighting in the Taliban in Pakistan’s leadership has led to the murder of one top leader by another, as Waliur Rehman, a leading contender to lead the organization, killed Hakimullah Mehsud, a rival for the same position. Pakistani intelligence now believes the organization is likely to splinter into several factions, each operating independently, but collectively much weaker than the original organization.

3. Former President Bill Clinton met with North Korean President Kim Jong-il this week, securing the release of two American journalists who had been sentenced to twelve years of hard labor for illegally entering the country. The meeting, which the White House maintains was not part of its official diplomatic efforts to address the challenges posed by the North Korean regime, was the highest level contact between the two countries in more than ten years. The Obama administration also reminded North Korea that, despite Clinton’s trip, that the United States will continue its efforts to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the North Korean state unless it abandons efforts to secure nuclear weapons.

4. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began her Africa tour this week, meeting with Kenyan officials on Wednesday. Clinton is hoping to apply pressure on the coalition government to move forward with political reforms intended to bring grater stability to the country and to prevent another flare up of the violence which rocked the country after February’s disputed presidential election.

On Thursday, Clinton met with Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, the embattled president of Somalia. Clinton used the opportunity to reiterate U.S. support for the Ahmed government, pledging to provide more military and economic assistance as the government continues its battle against Islamist insurgents. Meanwhile, in neighboring Eritrea, President Isaias Afewerki, who is believed to be a supporter of rebel groups in Somalia, dismissed U.S. efforts, saying that it is unrealistic to try and “imposing [a government] that doesn’t exist in reality.” Somalia has long topped Foreign Policy’s list of failed states. The lack of an effective central state has also made the country a haven for pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

5. A series of cyber-attacks aimed at social networking sites last week were believed to be directed at one individual—a blogger posting under the name of Cyxymu Livejournal. The denial-of-service attacks targeted several popular sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the blogging site Livejournal. Cyxymu Livejournal is a critic of Russian policy in the Caucuses, particularly Georgia. According to some sources, the Russian government has used denial-of-service attacks in the past, targeting sites critical of the Russian government in Georgia, Estonia, and Eastern Europe. But if responsible for the most recent round of attacks, this could represent an expansion of the strategy. Leading credence to the theory is the fact that this week marked the one year anniversary of the Russian-Georgian War over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

A Realistic Policy in Iranian Nukes?

Stephen Walt offers an interesting critique of John Bolton’s “unrealistic realism” this week. Bolton was on the Daily Show  last week,  offering his usual policy advice on Iran, namely, that the United States should do whatever is necessary to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

But what is interesting about Walt’s analysis is his discussion of how unrealistic such a policy is. According to Walt, any U.S. efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons will likely either involve the use of coercive diplomacy, which runs the risk of helping Iran to overcome internal political differences which might produce a more open government or runs the risk of involving the United States in another protracted ground war with no clear end in sight. Neither case seems particularly promising.

Yet Bolton’s dream of a world in which the United States is the sole nuclear power, able to cajole others into ceding to its demands, is—as Walt discusses—also highly unrealistic. Such a world would only create greater impetus for other countries to acquire nuclear weapons for themselves. And contemplating such a world only creates greater incentives for countries to acquire the deterrent capabilities (glossary) nuclear weapons afford. So, in essence, the greater the force the United States brings to bear on a country to end its nuclear program, the greater the pressure for that country to actually develop and deploy its own nuclear weapons.

It is worthwhile to recall that South Africa is the only country to ever give up its nuclear weapons after developing a nuclear weapons capability. And it’s even more important to remember that it did so not because it was under immense external pressure (or indeed threat) to abandon its nuclear weapons program.  South Africa gave up its nuclear weapons because of (1) domestic political pressure to do so, and (2) because its external security situation no longer warranted the need for such weapons. Bolton’s proposed stance ensures that neither of those two criteria would be met in the case of Iran. Hardly a hopeful situation.