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Azubuike Ishiekwene: Sudan Puts Africa in Tight Spot

This was not how Muammar Gaddafi wanted to start his tenure as chair of the African Union. The priority of the Libyan leader was to hit the ground running with his dream to create a United States of Africa. Now, the urgency of Gaddafi’s grand ambition must wait as the continent’s leaders struggle to come to terms with last week’s arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir issued by the International Criminal Court. For decades, Africa has been plagued by notorious leaders. When one of the continent’s most gifted writers, Chinua Achebe, says in his book that the trouble with Nigeria is squarely that of leadership, he is perhaps speaking not only of his nation, but of Africa as a whole. From Mobutu Seseko to Idi Amin and from Sani Abacha to Robert Mugabe, the continent has had to grapple with leaders who would rather destroy their countries than give up political power. Once in a while, a Julius Nyerere, Joachim Chissano, or Nelson Mandela comes along to renew hope and the promise of a future. But, more often, the continent’s landscape is blighted by tyrants who start off on a promising, even messianic note, and yet end up leaving their countries in the throes of war, disease, and deeper misery than before. That’s the story of al-Bashir, who the continent’s political leaders condoned for six years—because confronting him meant confronting the very demon that haunts many of them. So, what will the African Union do about al-Bashir’s indictment? It has called for a suspension of the sentence. There are muffled concerns about the safety of the civilian population, especially around the Darfur area, and also the fate of the 7,000-strong AU troops that had only in January received UN reinforcement. In a foretaste of the grimmer days ahead, Khartoum kicked out 10 major humanitarian agencies struggling to provide food and water to about 1.5 million people, prompting suggestions of a possible AU emergency meeting to discuss Sudan. But talk is cheap.

Jonathan Power: To Help Afghan War, Talk to India

Today Pakistan is probably the most dangerous country in the world. But it is India, not Afghanistan and Al Qaeda, that now bears much of the responsibility for this and arguably is the country that holds the key to the beginnings of a solution. More the pity that President Barack Obama backed straight down when India protested at the mandate he wanted for his sharpshooting diplomat, Richard Holbrooke­—including India, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan. So Holbrooke is reduced to dealing with only two sides of the triangle of madness. Of course, it is an over simplification to finger India first. It ignores history, not least the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which left behind a raging civil war in Afghanistan, enabling the rise of the dogmatic Taliban, who in turn gave a home to Osama bin Laden. In 1986 I visited Peshawar, capital of the North-West Frontier Province in northern Pakistan, at the eastern end of the Khyber pass. The town, even then, was full of armed encampments in its outer suburbs settled by Pashtun chiefs who had escaped from the Afghanistan war with their people, building huge, well-defended compounds to house the refugees from their kin group. It was clear then that the hospitality Pakistan felt it had to extend to the displaced Pashtuns would cause trouble up ahead. Two million such refugees bred violence and extremism.

Jodi Liss: China, Rio Tinto, and The Future of Diplomacy

Help is the sunny side of control.”—Saying among social workers

Consider the following bit of news: two weeks ago, Chinalco, a Chinese state-owned aluminum mining company, invested more than $19 billion in faltering international mining giant, Rio Tinto. They paid $124 million above market value for what they got. While everyone knows oil has cratered to less than $40/bbl, mining of all sorts is equally calamitous. Copper, for example, has plunged 60 percent. Mining giants like southern Africa’s Anglo American, Freeport McMoRan and BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, have laid off tens of thousands of workers and closed mines everywhere. Rio Tinto, Fortescue, and others are desperately seeking investors to stay afloat. The investor they see on the horizon is China. And that is just the private sector. In the past week, China offered cash-strapped Russian oil company Rosneft and Russian pipeline giant Transneft $25 billion in exchange for 15 million tons of oil a year for twenty years. China has lent Brazil’s state-owned oil company Petrobras $10 billion in exchange for a long-term oil relationship. Venezuela has borrowed another $6 billion from them. Most people interested in geopolitics prefer to spend countless hours analyzing the power politics and security aspects of it all. But since the end of the Cold War, geopolitics has changed radically because the relationship in the developing world between money and power has profoundly changed. No longer can developing countries line up for cash behind a chosen sponsor, the United States or Russia. In many places, the economy is heavily dependent on commodities. He who owns the commodity (the money) has the political power; the commodity is the source of the power. The two are inextricably intertwined.

Michael Deibert: Australia’s Parched Landscape

When Australia was ravaged by wildfires that killed over 200 people earlier this month, the acts of arson that police suspect were behind at least some of the blazes were made even worse by the decade-long dry spell the country has been enduring. Though this heavily eroded and sparsely populated continent has experienced two other major droughts over the last century, both the intensity and duration of the current lack of rainfall has scientists worried that the country’s environment may be permanently shifting to a drier regime. The Murray-Darling Basin—a river system in the southeast that drains one-seventh of Australia's land mass—has been particularly hard hit, with official figures showing that, from 2006 until 2007, the amount of water flow into the basin was just 1,000 gigaliters. Normal inflows into the basin previously measured about 10,000 gigaliters a year.  From 2007 until 2008 it improved marginally to a still-meager 3,000 gigaliters. The region had record low inflows of water between 2006 and 2008, with the inflows for 2006-2007 less than 60 percent of the previous minimum—a figure based on 117 years of records. Helping to irrigate such states such as Victoria, the site of the worst wildfires, as well as New South Wales and Queensland, the basin was once wet enough to irrigate crops that produced 1.2 million metric tons of rice. Last year, the rice harvest fell to 18,000 metric tons. Across southern Australia, scientists have also witnessed an intensification of the subtropical ridge phenomenon, a swath of high pressure characterized by a reduction in the amount of rainfall in autumn and late winter. The expansion of the ridge has been closely linked to global warming.

Jonathan Power: The Great Khan of Pakistan's Nukes?

Whenever I introduced Munir Khan to a friend I would say light-heartedly "and this is the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb"—just to enjoy the pleasure of watching the reaction. Khan himself would give a self-deprecatory smile. As Hans Blix, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world's nuclear policeman, once put it to me, Khan was "a cheerful soul."

The world has been told over and over again that the father of the Pakistani bomb was A. Q. (Qadeer) Khan, the famous metallurgist. But he, in fact, ran only one part of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, which Munir Khan chaired. More correctly, we have been told that Qadeer Khan secretly set up an international network to supply the likes of North Korea, Libya, and Iran with blueprints and materials for the manufacture of their own nuclear weapons. This was done for his private profit. Just over one week ago, after five years of house arrest for this offense, Pakistan's top court restored his freedom. Khan and Khan. Too many got the two men muddled. This worked in Qadeer's favor. He was a man who had no compunction about claiming every bit of credit for himself and who loved to woo gullible journalists and parliamentarians with his tales of achievement. No wonder that when he was finally exposed as a nuclear racketeer five years ago, President Pervez Musharraf couldn't have him formally arrested and tried. Musharraf, in fact, pardoned him for his alleged crimes. Qadeer—a popular icon in Pakistan—was untouchable.

Peter Wilson: Chávez Ad Infinitum?

Peter WilsonVenezuelan President Hugo Chávez had much to crow about following Sunday's decision by voters to back his proposal to abolish term limits, enabling him to run for re-election in 2012. Chávez, who first won election in 1998, called the vote a fresh mandate for his "socialist" revolution. The victory, which is the fourteenth he or his supporters have enjoyed in 15 elections since 1998, paid tribute to his political skills. When he first announced plans to put a proposal to repeal constitutional term limits (an earlier effort in December 2007 failed) to a fresh vote, polls showed his request likely to be rejected. But with massive state spending, heavy saturation of the country's air waves, and the helpful indulgence of the national election agency, he coasted to a 10 percentage point victory. Chávez was also helped by the lack of a strong strategy from the opposition. And finally Chávez, who remains personally popular—although his government is not—made the issue into a personal referendum. He repeatedly told supporters that if he lost the vote, the opposition would then seek to recall him. "My political future is in play today," Chávez told supporters after casting his ballot.

Zachary Karabell: Enough Already

The financial markets are again getting pummeled, both domestically and globally. The nearly $800 billion stimulus package signed with fanfare by President Obama has done little to alter the mood. In fact, if you read through financial websites and assorted blogs on politics, economics, or anything related to those, you will find a nearly endless sea of misery. The level of anger, pessimism, despair, and sheer hopelessness seems to reach new highs every week, in inverse relation to the movement of global equity prices and the size of individual retirement accounts.

It’s been said but bears repeating: global economic activity fell off a cliff after October last year, and has remained there. The implosion of the credit system—built as it was on the flimsiest of foundations, layered as it was onto a few million sub-prime mortgages of homes predominantly in Arizona, Nevada, Florida, and California—led to a near halt of buying, spending, and investing.

But bad fundamentals are only one aspect of what is going on. What makes the present that much worse is a complete meltdown of confidence about the very possibility of a more balanced future. And it’s not just an erosion of confidence. It’s the flourishing of our destructive instincts, the opposite of the “better angels of our nature,” the demons, the whispers in the night that all is about to go up in flames. We all have our fears, whether we admit them or not. But this has gone too far. In the financial world, there is a game of one-upmanship to find more dire adjectives, and any who dissent and suggest that yes, there will be a tomorrow, and yes, there will be a future of growth, moderate and different but still motion forward and movement upward, they are treated with contempt. Indeed, contempt on the order of those made to walk the streets during the Cultural Revolution with dunce caps and signs of shame around their necks. Those who bet that the market will go down until there’s nothing left to lose, who are convinced that value will be permanently wiped out—the shorts and the traders—they are enjoying their moment in the sun, and some are undoubtedly profiting from the collective misery. There’s nothing wrong with that in small doses, and almost everyone can benefit from hedging their bets in the market. But you can’t be short forever, and you can’t ultimately profit from everything going down. A few can make money for a while, and if you believe that it’s all survival of the fittest, then you probably don’t care if 99 percent suffer as long as you’re part of the 1 percent that prospers. The sheer delight in “burn, baby, burn” is hardly unique to our age. We’ve been there before, and it leads nowhere, except to a whole world in flames.

Caroline Stauffer: Venezuela Votes on Chávez for Life

As voters head to the polls in Venezuela this weekend, the larger-than-life persona of Hugo Chávez looms heavy over the proceedings—now, and potentially, for years to come. Venezuelans will vote on a referendum to abolish term limits, which would clear the way for Chávez to run for president indefinitely. A close vote, leaning either in favor or against the referendum, would inconclusively answer the question of whether elected officials in the executive and legislative branches of government can seek reelection. Yet this is the likely outcome of the February 15 referendum, in which a simple majority of the population could further erode the tradition of single term limits in the country. Under Chávez, who was first elected president in 1998, Venezuela adopted the 1999 constitution that increased presidential term limits to two elected periods of six years. A January poll by the Venezuelan firm Datanalysis found that 51 percent of the population supports amending the constitution to allow officials to seek reelection. The firm has compiled four polls since President Hugo Chávez announced the referendum last December. Two polls indicated a vote in favor of amending article 230 of the Venezuelan Constitution and two predicted an oppositional triumph in a “no” vote. During a panel discussion at the Council of the Americas in New York on Tuesday evening, Luis Vicente León, the director of Datanalysis, said the inconsistencies were unprecedented. A similar referendum was narrowly voted down on December 3, 2007, and Chávez admitted defeat. But almost overnight, Caracas was covered with billboards threatening another referendum with the phrase “por ahora” (for now).  The battle had been lost, but not the war. Chávez says the re-vote is necessary now, just 14 months later, to allow him to stay in power and consolidate his socialist-inspired Bolivarian revolution, which will take at least 10 more years in his estimation.

Shaun Randol: And the Ox it Rode in On — China’s Charter 08

This year is shaping up to be a remarkable one for the Middle Kingdom. Protests and civil unrest are on the rise, and chatter surrounding the pro-democracy petition called “Charter 08” is making waves across the country. What began with 303 signatories, many of whom are the usual suspects (i.e. human rights lawyers, professors, etc.), and who promptly received complementary state surveillance for participating—has grown into a percolating movement bringing more and more “everyday” citizens into the fold. At just over 8,100 signatures (and counting), Charter 08 appears to be the first promising movement in support of democratic reform since the tragic Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4, 1989. Released on the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 2008, Charter 08 calls for rewriting the Chinese constitution to allow for more democratic freedoms and an end to one-party rule. The document extols the value of freedom, announcing: “Freedom is at the core of universal human values. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom in where to live, and the freedoms to strike, to demonstrate, and to protest, among others, are the forms that freedom takes. Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilized ideals.” Charter 08 warns that if fundamental changes are not installed system-wide, violent and militant unrest cannot be stopped. Since China opened its doors to the wider world, Beijing has maintained a shaky agreement with its citizens, exchanging economic freedom for political liberty: feel free to rise as high and as far as you want economically—but if you complain about a lack of political rights, consider the deal kaput. Lately, however, Beijing has been unable to promise the stable economic environment that allows for unfettered economic freedom. Whereas recent U.S. jobless claims are reported in tens of thousands, in China they come in millions. Chinese economic growth shrank to 6.8 percent in the last quarter of 2008, the slowest pace in seven years and far below the estimated 8 percent needed to sustain new entries into the employment ranks and stave off mass unrest. Some economists predict China’s growth rate will contract even further, down to somewhere between 3 percent and 5 percent, in 2009. According Beijing, exports plummeted 17.5 percent in January, compared to the same time last year (imports fell off a precipice, dropping by a whopping 43 percent over the same time). The official urban unemployment rate stands at 4.2 percent, up from 4 percent last year (Beijing does not keep official statistics of the rural jobless). But currently, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates the nationwide unemployment rate to be around 9.5 percent—a number expected to rise through the year. Upwards of 15 million workers may join the ranks of the unemployed this year. In just the past few months, we have witnessed a widespread reverse internal migration—poor urban workers are now returning, by the millions, back to the rural lands from whence they came.

Jane C. Loeffler: Building Hope Abroad

In his inaugural address, President Obama called on Americans to “reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” With these refreshing words he has joined a conversation launched in the late 1990s by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan—but largely ignored ever since—on how our public buildings can better balance security with the openness that is the hallmark of our democracy. This is important for government buildings at home but all the more important abroad where our embassies present our face to the world. Bastion-like buildings that advertise only fear adversely affect America’s image abroad. Such structures convey none of the optimism that can be associated with forward-looking and accessible architecture. Of course it is fair to ask whether the president was thinking about these sorts of buildings when he made his statement? Evidence suggests that he was. On the campaign trail in Iowa, for instance, he specifically condemned the new fortress-like U.S. embassy in Baghdad for the negative image it conveys. “First of all, it sends out a signal as if you are going to be a permanent occupier,” he said. “Secondly, it starts looking like a permanent base.”  Indeed, it is wise to question how an unfettered security mandate can actually undermine the diplomatic mission that such buildings are meant to support.   Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now heads the effort to strengthen America’s foreign representation and protect personnel serving abroad. This is a daunting challenge in a world where we have many enemies. But she is tackling this task head-on, already calling for “smart power” as the basis for foreign policy. As our embassies are the most visible symbols of U.S. presence in capitals worldwide, this seems to presage embassies that are not just “smart”—in the sense of buildings equipped with integrated technology—but truly intelligent buildings that express America’s commitment and goodwill through excellence in design. To accomplish her agenda, Mrs. Clinton will have to convince Congress of the need to define security in new and broader terms—terms that enhance America’s long-term diplomatic objectives as well as immediate safety considerations.

THE INDEX - February 10, 2009

The polls open today in Israe

Jonathan Power: The Pope Should Retire

A range of people—from cardinals to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel—have told Pope Benedict XVI, or communicated to the press, their profound unhappiness at his lifting the excommunication of an ultra-traditionalist British bishop, Richard Williamson, who has questioned the extent of the Holocaust and denied the existence of gas chambers in Nazi death camps. The notorious interview on Swedish radio was only broadcast last month, but a Google search of the bishop reveals that he has long held these views.

In June 2006, during a visit to the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, the pope seemed to pass over the culpability of ordinary Germans in the atrocities of the Holocaust. Only four months later, at a major speech in Regensberg, he seemed to tar the whole of Islam with the violence of one long-forgotten aggressive Muslim leader. Can he be allowed to make another big mistake, alienating millions? Pope Benedict XVI lives in the twenty-first century, but the values of the Church are begining to look totally anachronistic—more like that of the last German pope, Victor II, who took office in 1055. Benedict lives in more sensitive times. The Regensburg “Islam” speech showed oddly inconsistent thinking, at least compared to the way Anglo-Saxon scholars are trained. One point did not feed logically to the next. It is difficult, reading the whole text, to discern exactly the principal theme of the speech. Yet his use of a quote from the fourteenth century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, on the violent nature of Islam and the pope's concluding remarks, it seems quite clear that the speech was aimed at the issue of Muslim/Christian relations.    These relations have a fraught and complicated history.

Azubuike Ishiekwene: Is Obama the anti-Christ?

I first heard it from my son on January 20. As we joined millions around the world to watch the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama on television, my 14-year-old son dropped the bomb. He said the Internet was blazing with a controversy that the new U.S. president could be the anti-Christ, the great beast that the bible predicts will capture the world with his charisma and whose reign will only end after a fight to the finish with the messiah. I asked my son if he thought it was true. He replied that he didn’t believe the rumors, but seeing the record numbers of people who braved the bitter cold to watch the historic event at the Capitol on that day—and the billions more watching on televisions around the world—he was not sure what to believe. The world has gone crazy for Obama; his charm is beyond words. A mountain in Antigua may be named after him. He is every mother’s dream child. Millions worship daily at his portal. Some are even calling him The One (not “that one” as Sen. John McCain famously condescended). Yet, if charisma is all that is needed to be the anti-Christ, Obama will be in good company in a long list that includes Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Mohammed Ali, Nelson Mandela, and Harry Porter. But the religious right-wing argues that it’s not about charisma alone. They say that he speaks with the beguiling empathy of the fallen angel, promising change on a messianic scale and hinting at the possibility that this change can only come about under a world government. Didn’t he say in Berlin that global citizenship is a requirement and not an option? If the rhetoric of Obama as the anti-Christ was the fare of fringe blog spots and evangelical scaremongers on talk shows before November 4, the matter moved to the mainstream media after one of Obama’s first executive orders reversing the ban on funding international charities that perform or provide information about abortions and his approval of the first human trials of embryonic stem cells research. The moves touched many a raw nerve and sparked a feeling among the right wing that their worst fears were about to come true—the resurgence of reason as the basis for public policy. Obama seems not to wear religion on his sleeve. He’s certainly not as spirit-filled as Ronald Reagan, who scrapped the theory of evolution for that of creationism and yet despised the teaching of history in American schools, or George Bush, who smelled the Axis of Evil many thousand miles away but denied the reality of climate change. Sure, as evangelicals, Obama’s support for abortion rights and same sex union makes us queasy—but if these are his mortal sins, they make him no more or less the anti-Christ than did Reagan’s love of shamans. The conflict between those who seek to use science and reason to advance the common good on the one hand and religious demagogues on the other is centuries old.

Jonathan Power: Undermining Afghanistan's Opium Trade

Quite right: the Obama administration is gearing up to pressure the Europeans to put more boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Quite right: the Europeans don't want to engage in a war of attrition—à la the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s or as the United States did in Vietnam a decade and a half before. There's nothing worse than having to pull out with your tail between your legs and confront the electorate for the needless deaths of thousands of your brave and young.

The answer to this paradox is that the Europeans, using their nous as well as their military might, should confront the issue of the Afghanistan poppy crop—a crop that provides 90 percent of the heroin sold in Europe and is the source of funding for over 80 percent of Taliban activity.

This brings me to a memorable conversation I had in Islamabad with President/General Pervez Musharraf two years ago (published in Prospect magazine in March 2007). He suggested that the West should introduce a common agricultural policy for Afghan's poppies. In other words, to do as both the EU and the United States do with some other agricultural crops: buy it up with government money. “Buying the crop is an idea one could explore,” said Musharraf. “Pakistan doesn’t have the money for it. We would need help from the United States or the UN. But we could buy up the whole crop and destroy it. In that way the poor growers would not suffer.”
Texas A&M University

 

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