Redrawing the map

I caught up on a lot of podcasts today, notable ones include Planet Money’s final Iceland report and the intriguing birther/Trump vs Obama political wrangling on both KCRW’s Left, Right and Center as well as the New Yorker’s Political Scene. Of course I was consumed, as much of the world was, by the news that Osama bin Laden was killed outside Islamabad early this morning.

What I find most interesting though is the stalemate that has developed in Libya. Last week’s Economist had an article about the siege of Misrata and the necessity for US drone and A-10 support for any real success to emerge for the rebels. It’s become clear though that Qaddafi is not likely to simply be overthrown by emboldened supporters turned against him (either the unwashed masses or those closest to him) nor by that rag-tag coalition loosely headquartered around Benghazi. As such, NATO stepped up its selected “strategic targeting” of military compounds that all just happen to be places where the Qaddafi family hangs out (but this is definitely not an assassination attempt). It seems we’re hoping that cutting off the head of the snake will dissolve the defenders of the status quo. This move succeeded in Iraq – after Saddam’s death no one remained to defend his government really – but it was a frying pan/fire situation at best.

Which is why I found an Economist online poll (http://www.economist.com/node/21256109) interesting. Is simply partitioning the country appropriate?

A simple look at the map of Africa reveals far too many straight lines, a sign of arbitrary colonial cartographers rather than national and ethnic association. Many of the current problems come from this awkward hodge-podge of countries, with Muslim sections fighting Christian regions (Sudan, Ivory Coast, Nigeria) or historical autonomous regions smarting from distant rule (Morocco). Letting these countries redraw the map wouldn’t promote the western liberal multicultural ideal (that few western countries practice despite their preaching, France being only the most recent example). But with each nationality firmly in control of their state, disagreements could be compromised in a meeting of equal heads of state, rather than in contentious, rigged elections for winner-take-all. As the AU gains power, a loose set of guidelines could become prevalent, deferring to an authority that normally would be rejected for internal matters.

Of course, nations wage devastating war and in this instance such a partition would only change the name of Libya’s war, and the end game would still be a unified Libya sans Qaddafi. But such a change might gain some breathing room for the rebels to learn how to govern and save some face for Qaddafi to promote a bloodless (relatively) transition from power.

Media type: Online poll
From: The Economist
Title: Would the partition of Libya be a bad thing?
Ponder at: http://www.economist.com/node/21256109

Ads versus content

I’ve had an iPhone for just over two years now, so you can imagine how eager I am to switch carriers and phones.  In my early research I was leaning towards a smart new up and comer: Samsung’s Galaxy.  The phone itself has some nice features (automatic wifi music sync, no cords necessary) and has been highly reviewed by all the right techies.  Even better was that it was being heavily promoted by T-Mobile, so the discounts would be decent on a cheaper network than the abysmal AT&T.

Assuming you’ve turned on a radio/TV/website in the past week you know where this is going.  I could talk about the crappy state of American telecoms if 4 became 3, the pathetic auctioning of cellular frequencies that will surely be repeated for the 4G services that managed both to not raise much money and to exclude new entrants  (especially compared to Britain’s awesome auction proceeds AND new companies), or the lack of handheld tech innovation we’ll see when Apple et al can only shop their wares at two companies.

Instead I’m going to talk about the Economist.  They wrote a two-page brief on the negative effect this acquisition would have, focusing mainly on rebuffing AT&T’s claims that it would bring infrastructure investment (it didn’t as the Ma Bell monopoly, after a similar promise) and that there still would be regional competitors (consumers focus on national plans, hence AT&T’s marketing campaign about covering 97% of Americans).  As if the Economist wasn’t clear, they dedicated one of their leaders stating just how much they condemned such a deal.  And then, they printed two full-page ads AT&T had bought.

My first thought was: bully for the Economist, not letting advertiser dollars purchase editorial influence.  Afterall, how many of us are brave enough to tell our boss they’re a moron and not to be trusted?  But my second thought was: I wonder if AT&T will buy space in next week’s edition, and why did the Economist take the money?

I know why they took the money, the advertising section is assuredly separate from the editorial staff, I doubt they ever talk (as it should be, to allow independence).  But it would be foolish for AT&T to continue plowing money into a publication that will devote equal copy to their competitors for free.  Of course, that’s not really true, the Economist isn’t arguing that we as consumers shouldn’t buy AT&T, just that their business strategy is harmful.  But in the end, readers of the Economist are going to be more influenced by the articles than the ads, and the telecom’s brand will diminish.  I’d think it’d be better for the company to advertise on more neutral ground: Wired, Foreign Affairs, the Atlantic, etc.  While each of these has published something nasty about AT&T, they do not frequently keep up on on-going stories like the Economist, which surely will carry the AT&T story at every stage.

Case in point: Bahrain.  For months I saw successive ads touting the pro-business, politically-free environment of the Gulf emirate.  And then the Arab Spring started and it wouldn’t matter how many ads King al-Khalifa took out when the Economist covered the riots and editorialized against the government.  AT&T is better served getting its house in order.

Media type: Magazine
From: the Economist
Title: An audacious merger with a poor reception
Read it at: http://www.economist.com/node/18440903?story_id=18440903

Democracy’s nooks and crannies

I’ve been as riveted as the rest of the world as the Arab Spring continues, spilling out in north Africa before hitting the first storm breaks in Tripoli and now Bahrain.  I’ve written earlier about the nearly-neglected democratic crises in Haiti and the Ivory Coast, but today I was caught totally unaware by the recent presidential election in Niger, a country geographically centered between Libya and the Ivory Coast.

Just over a year ago, Niger’s president attempted to amend the constitution in his favor resulting in an eviction notice from the military.  Now, the military is holding to its promise to hand power back to civilian control, specifically to the winner of what looks like a mostly free run-off election.  General Djibo is quoted as being thrilled to return to his post as a humble soldier.  Importantly he has also “appeal[ed] to the two candidates that they respect the outcome…and the loser accepts his defeat.”  No Ivory Coast shenanigans here.

So here we see yet another example of my earlier stated thesis that a focus on divorcing the military from civilian leaders allows for successful evolutions into democratic governance.  To add more support one only need to look at Yemen where the top general, Ali Mohsen, has declared his support for the protesters despite personal and tribal ties to President Saleh, prompting the prognosticators to move his retirement date up.  Saleh is by no means out, he and his family still directly command various elite, well trained Republican Guards and his role in the War on Terror guarantees some awkward shuffling by western leaders.  Still, it seems his tenure is nearly up with tanks ringing the protesters in his capital pointing out rather than in.

When the top leader does not have personal control over the dogs of war, they are less likely to slip the leash.  Countries like Bahrain, Syria and Iran (as well as China, North Korea, Myanmar, and even it seems Gaza) are unlikely to truly see change due to mass uprisings so long as their generals do not feel independent.  It is in democracy-loving peoples interest to focus less on pushing top-down government reform and instead urge independent military control.  While an independent military may not be a sign of stability, such as in Thailand’s numerous coups or Turkey’s tumultuous past, they are able to respond as a counter-weight to any great accumulation of power.

Media type: Online news
From: al-Jazeera
Title: Niger votes in presidential run-off
Read it at:  http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2011/03/201131216474436974.html

A tree fell in the forest

As the west sits back practicing frantic “diplomacy” while waiting for Qaddafi to stabilize his realm, we are starting to witness the ugly aftershocks of revolution. Flanking Libya, both Tunisia and Egypt have seen splinter protests, over everything from wages to a cry that too many old-regime hands are still leading government. New Prime Ministers have been appointed and elections called, but not much actual change seen. Saudi Arabia has sent troops to stabilize Bahrain and Yemen continues to see President Saleh compromising yet failing to disperse the masses.

Today, though, an Arab leader made an announcement that a scant few months ago would have shocked the world: Mahmoud Abbas will not seek another term as president in Palestine. Granted, he’ll only relinquish the position once the West Bank and Gaza are peacefully reunited as a political unit, so who knows when that’ll be. Still, after decades of Yassar Arafat and current events the concept of willing abdication seems surprising.

What this means for the abandoned Israel peace process is anyone’s guess. Perhaps given new economic strength from open borders with Egypt, Hamas will find new support from its constituents in Gaza. As their Hizbullah-allies in Lebanon have recently done, Hamas may find themselves playing a kingmaker even if Fatah retains the presidency. Certainly the sting of failure in the latest round of talks won’t help anyone seen as Abbas’ heir-apparent.

This should be something Israel should watch carefully. Netanyahu’s at best half-hearted attempts at peace may end up causing Palestinians to once again revert away from a diplomatic path. This can only bode ill for Israelis as they continue to brazenly build more settlements and projects in East Jerusalem, seemingly purposefully antagonizing their neighbors. Both Hamas and Hizbullah are suspected of redoubling their missile arsenal and investing in even more sophisticated armament capable of reaching well past the border. Given the stronger political stand of both Shia militias, and the constant distraction in the region, now is not the time for Israel to be the rude neighbor.

Media type: Online news
From: Wall Street Journal
Title: ‘Abbas Offers Hamas an Olive Branch’
Read it at: Wall St Journal

What a difference a desert makes

I mentioned yesterday that only those who live in a state with near-absolute media control are unaware of scenes from the Arab street, specifically the outright rebellion in Libya.  How interesting that a few hundred miles southwest is another African country suffering a leadership transition, but unless you are checking the BBC or Al Jazeera you’ll have barely heard of it.

I’m talking of the disputed election and its aftermath in the Ivory Coast.  Since late last year, incumbent-president Laurent Gbagbo has refused to recognize the election results placing him in second (that is, losing) to Outtara.  During the initial counting and announcement, Gbagbo tried numerous tricks including having an ally rip up the election results on television before they could be officially announced by the election commission!  Can you imagine if on election eve Karl Rove had stormed onto CNN’s set and smashed the colored electoral map?  Ok, maybe it’s not quite as absurd as I initially envisioned.  Regardless, Gbagbo holed himself up in official facilities refusing to leave like a spoiled toddler.

After a UN-certification of the results, Gbagbo did the usual thing: he called for demonstrations in the street of his supporters, brought the military to bear, accused his opponent of being a foreign-backed puppet, and refused to meet with the carousel of African leaders who requested a visit.  Currently rebel forces (that is, militias in support of the recognized winner, Outtara) are pressing around the capital.  Outtara has called for an embargo on his own country, denying the Gbagbo-controlled ports and banks the ability to collect dues from the immense cocoa trade.

It all makes for quite high-drama.  All the more so considering the fragile democracies that emerged in west Africa after so many bloody ethnic civil wars that frequently spilled over borders. And yes, there’s even oil involved as Nigeria prepares for its first election with no automatic winner.  And yet, news from the region fails to make it near the top of the hour or the front page.

My first theory was that the Arab world has upstaged this region, being larger and more immediate to western commercial interests.  This cannot be the sole reason, the Ivorian election was in November.  Perhaps crowded out by our mid-terms, few news organizations feel they can now bring in their audience mid-crisis?  Perhaps the constant conflict of the 90s has acclimatized us to the region, whereas the ossified Arab leaders’ downfall is grander.  Or perhaps after painting Muslims as our enemy (but shhhh, not officially) for the past decade, their news catches our eye more easily.

Personally, I believe this last point.  Look how little we care about Russia and its perversion of democracy and capitalism after they ceased being the frightening USSR, or how much the media seem to comment on China’s machinations now as opposed to when they reclaimed Hong Kong or attacked one of our spy planes at the turn of the century.  If this truly is the reason why one revolt is covered while another ignored -one region thrust to the spotlight while the other resigned to the shadows- then we can look forward to a drop off in the denigration of Muslims as we simply ignore them in favor of some new bogeyman.

Media type: Online news
From: Reuters
Title: Ivorian rebels take western town as violence mounts
Read it at: http://tinyurl.com/4oc97vt

People Power vs Actual Power

Unless you live in China, you can’t escape the near constant reporting on the upheaval in the Middle East and north Africa over the past two months.  The jasmine revolution continues to inspire demonstrations, riots and outright rebellion from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic.  We may be witnessing a world-changing event on par with the various color revolutions in eastern Europe of barely a generation ago.  It is easy for the media and the casual observer to get swept up in the belief that when the people truly want change, change is inevitable.  Numerous articles in such high-thinking publications as the Economist, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times tell us that regardless of short-term stability we should always be pro-democracy, or else we end up on the wrong side of such history!

No one can deny the power of an outraged populous, and current events serve only to remind us of that.  The theory that greater access to communication and information help break authoritarian rule suggest that as xerox and personal computers were to the Soviets, so twitter and facebook are to the Arab autocrats.  But that is hardly the end of the story.

People have continually risen up against oppressive regimes.  Prague Spring, Tienamen Square, and the Green Revolution in Tehran are all examples of people power trying to burst the dam but ultimately falling short.  All three of these examples were quashed by a no-nonsense military crackdown.  As with all things political, one only has to look back to the Roman Republic crisis to see that a disrupted population can be brought to heel with the use of a disciplined military and its unflinching commander.  For all his craziness, Qaddafi seems to have understood this fact and despite near-universal disgust may yet cling to power.  Even civilized Bahrain toys with more forceful tactics as it inches closer to instability.

So while the west’s role in propping up dictators may be outdated, instead of backing various pro-democracy groups we should instead put our focus on creating tighter bonds with nations’ armies .  In the chaos of a new order, revolutionaries can get shut out of the very government they helped make possible in favor of stronger figures; but those with the biggest guns always seem to find a seat at the table.  Such influence may be enough to convince leaders not to let loose the dogs of war.  Slow, steady influence may even help convince them that their fate is tied with the citizens-at-large.  While some demonstrations have overcome armed response (Kyrgyzstan, the Bolsheviks, even the American Revolution), few regimes have stayed in power when the army takes itself out of the equation.

Media type: Online news
From: Al-Jazeera
Title: Thousands protest in Bahrain
Read it at: Thousands protest in Bahrain – Middle East – Al Jazeera English