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

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

The vanishing city

We live in an increasingly urbanized age.  For the first time in the history of man, more people live in cities than not.  China’s meteoric economic growth has been fueled by the large rural migrants taking city factory jobs, while gentrification and revitalization has transformed downtowns into livable areas, New York being the most obvious case.  A housing bubble collapse has made suburbs and exurbs less fashionable while the environmental movement sees more and more young people flocking to “green” living in cities.

So when the numbers came out today that Detroit had lost 25% of its population, I was stunned.  To clarify, the difference between the 2000 and 2010 census for the city of Detroit (not its metro area) shows a 25% drop.

If any city epitomizes this recession it’s the Motor City.  A city that bet it all on its hometown auto industry, it’s seen foreign competitors and entrenched unions chip away at that prosperity.  Being one of the largest cities in land area, Detroit has had to stretch its infrastructure and utilities budget further than most.  But to think one-quarter of its population got up and simply abandoned their neighbors is shocking.

Part of this was purposeful.  The mayor, Dave Bing, made a conscious decision not to spend money assisting in the census.  Usually, cities spend a decent amount of money encouraging their citizens to fill out the forms and meet with census workers.  The motivation is clear: more people mean more federal dollars and greater representation (which means even more dollars).  For the 2010 census, Detroit had only its churches and community groups putting the extra effort, so its likely the loss is only slightly less dramatic.

I admire mayor Bing and that tough decision.  He believes federal funds aren’t going to be what saves Detroit, even though two of its major employers found solace in bailouts.  Instead, Bing has used the opportunity to be frank about the need to cut services and redevelop an inner core, to build a new Detroit rather than wait to be rescued.  Wild ideas like urban farms have become serious national talking points and encouraged innovators to at least look at the area.  Taking a cue from its mayor, we are beginning to see the city and its state find an inner strength and pride in these trying times.

In an urban world, we may start to see the rise of the city-state governing structure with mayors gaining increasing control.  Cities like Detroit will have to play fast and loose and give daring yet competent mayors new powers to break the institutionalized impediments that have slowly drained them.  He can take a cue from Bloomberg’s deft touch on New York, bringing innovative ideas to education; DC’s former mayor Fenty who took on the teacher’s unions and won; and Chicago’s Daly who’s heavy handed decades-reign transformed Chicago from another rust-belt city into a city in the ranks of New York and San Francisco.

Media type: Podcast
From: NPR 7AM News Summary
Title: NPR News: 03-23-2011 7AM ET
Listen at: NPR

Green shoots in the Caribbean

In my last post I talked about the near-monumental announcement that PLO president Mahmoud Abbas would not seek re-election.  In light of the near- and full-revolutions in that part of the world, his announcement (conditioned and far-off in actual action) seems meek and was duly ignored by most of the world’s press.  I’m happy to see that another similar positive outlook hasn’t been overlooked: the peaceful conduction of a runoff election in Haiti.

Haiti’s initial election was marred by obscene amounts of fraud and scattered violence with the established structure’s candidate “winning” enough to qualify for the runoff, despite being universally disliked (most importantly by actual Haitians).  For whatever reason, a peaceful acknowledgement of the error happened and the two candidates with the most votes eventually were recognized.

The runoff between the singer Michel Martelly and the professor Mirlande Maniget occurred with only a single incidence of violence and widely acknowledged legitimacy.  And with neither candidate being part of any real ‘establishment’ we should fail to see an escalating civil war after the results are announced next month (unlike the Ivory Coast).  Haiti should be able to look forward to a peaceful transition of legitimate power to the hands of one of these right-of-center politicians (similar to what happened in Liberia).

I say “should” because as always there’s a wild card.  Despite his responsibility for the torture and killings of large number of the population, former president Jean-Claude Duvalier has returned to his country.  Somehow he maintains some sort of popularity, with some voters stating that if he had ran they would’ve voted for him.  His far-left politics, which ended up putting a lot of wealth in his hands, stand in stark contrast to the current candidates.

Haiti has a history of deposing leaders via coup, even early in their terms and against high-percentage victories.  What a blow it would be if Baby Doc Duvalier rode into Port-au-Prince a la Napoleon.  The incomprehensible web of NGOs importing money and supplies would instantly dry up and favorable trade deals being arranged for the struggling nation would wither on the vine.  Most likely Haiti would become the pet project of Chavez and Castro, helping it limp by, avoiding total collapse while letting its populace slip deeper into poverty.

This is, in my opinon, a worst-case scenario.  But it is easy to imagine a frustrated nation if rebuilding does not truly show results in the next year, even more so if an all-too-common hurricane happens to worsen conditions.  Still, the spirit in the air is one of hope, that Haiti may become like many of its Latin American neighbors who threw off dictatorships and found economic improvement.

Type of Media: Web news
From: Reuters
Title: UN urges patience in Haiti’s wait for vote result
Read it at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/21/us-haiti-election-idUSTRE72J0O620110321?pageNumber=1

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

Back in my day, we knew how to party

With Washington’s Warnings wandering within my wits whilst working (so close!), I stumbled upon the latest Intelligence Squared podcast: “Is the Two-Party System Making U.S. Ungovernable?”  The Oxford-style debate featured the media-darling Arianna Huffington and NY Times columnist David Brooks arguing the motion against the charming PJ O’Rourke and the Zev Chafets who by far had the more quotable lines.

Having grown up in America the words “Oxford” and “debate” immediately give my mind free-license to roam; but these podcasts are almost always entertaining if not informative and this one in particular delivered the goods on both accounts.

Over the past four or so years, my opinions on US politics have matured and developed but my interest in longer-term trends have come to the forefront.  I’ve noticed that there is never a shortage of people claiming we live in an extraordinary time, or that in this age things are really different.  Yet no matter what revolutionary new tool or system is set up there is invariably something in our past to compare it to.  For instance, the tech and finance bubbles are hardly new as railroad speculation and savings & loans brought about similar market enthusiasm in “new business models” that saw a subsequent crash.  And for anyone who really thinks Obama’s victory was groundbreaking and unique I beg you to read Ted White’s The Making of the President 1960, which is built off his notes following around the candidates of that election.  The young, minority senator struggled to make connections to the middle class and blue-collar workers, while his more experienced opponent abandoned the center to appeal to his ‘core supporters.’

In my opinion, and well articulated by the ‘nays’, it is a similar story with our current “deadlock.”  We seem to forget that barely ten years ago, government effectively stopped to delve into the insignificance of marital fidelity in the White House.  A few years prior government literally shut down over partisan politics.  For those who think though, that our current situation is far worse we have only to look back to that inconvenient period of history called the Civil War, when political battles traded rhetoric for bullets.

This debate initially seemed in the hands of Huffington and Woods, who effectively argue that America has lost some of its luster: social mobility has diminished, real wages have dropped, and the wealth gap has continued to expand.  But somewhere around the midpoint of the debate O’Rourke manages to make the fatal point that it is asinine to blame these things solely on a two-party system and that the ‘yeas’ have no alternative to offer.  A brief mention of one-party rule by Arianna sent a noticeable chill on the forum.  And while Huffington argues that government only finds “sub-optimal solutions,” all pundits find any compromise “sub-optimal,” a compromise by definition is not getting all that you wanted!

The idea of instantaneous runoff was floated by the audience (whereby if your first choice candidate is not in the top two, your vote goes to your second preference), which in general I think is a good idea.  The city of Oakland recently elected its mayor in this fashion, and interestingly the winner was a good 10+% behind based off just first-choice ballots.

But really, do we need more parties?  As I reflected yesterday, Washington had a clairvoyant’s gift on predicting the discord sewn with parties.  By fracturing the vote into ever more tribes who hold the primacy of different ideas, we risk becoming a populous disconnected from other’s ideas.  As a fiscal conservative, I am forced to confront my political allies’ views on social and global governing.  Were we in a system where I could vote only on the issues I cared most about, I would wash my hands of all others. I may vote for my candidate on my issue and let him decide how all other issues should play out.  Instead in the two party system I’m forced to weigh all the issues.  Of course, in Washington’s utopia I would still have this luxury/responsibility, but the mashup of political agendas would change every election and be more varied.

Media type: Podcast
From: Intelligence Squared
Title: “The two-party system is making America ungovernable”
Hear it at: http://intelligencesquaredus.org/index.php/past-debates/america-divided-us-politics/

Rambunctious youth never listen

I’ve been shopping around a number of podcasts lately due to an uptick in labwork.  Some, like Skeptics Guide to the Universe, help keep my scientific processes in gear while others, like Great Speeches in History, tap into a deeper, visceral interest.  During today’s session I was privileged to hear both Malcolm X appeal for black nationalism and George Washington’s farewell address.

For the record, I’m not black, nor was I raised in an environment were race was an uncomfortable, confrontational issue.  So what was surprising about today wasn’t the outright revolution Malcolm X was striving for, nor the possible ethnic conflict that could’ve resulted, possibly mirroring some of the unrest we see in Sri Lanka, Iraq, or Xinjiang.  Instead, what I found more disrupting was the message that Washington gave as he declined running for a third term as our nation’s first executive.

I confess to long being an admirer of GW.  First hooked in high school, I’ve since read James Flexner’s superb one-volume biography, McCullough’s chronicle’s of that pivotal year 1776, and even the somewhat dull analysis of the constitutional convention: The Summer of 1787.  And while I was as familiar as any student of politics with the immortal warnings against political parties and “entangling alliances” I found myself pausing in my work to listen and contemplate on the advice from an astute actor in both realpolitik and high theory.

Barely over half an hour, the president touches on so many timeless issues: party politics, war, national spending, even the nature of taxes.  By far, his most powerful piece is on parties.  Washington saw the inevitable harm from political parties on accomplishing the real goals of any nation.  That bickering would so obsess the leaders, that national priorities would place second to one-upsmanship.  That region would be turned against region; false, exaggerated stereotypes would isolate us within our own country.  Finally, by luck one party would gain the upper hand and that domination “sharpened by the spirit of revenge” would lead to a new despotism resulting in  “miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual.”  Indeed, history is full of men who’ve played party politics for personal gain: Caesar and Pompey played their factions off each other so well it led to first one and then the other being declared Dictator, Napoleon rode the fighting factions of the revolution.  We complain of bureaucratic and rusted government in Washington and Madison, where petty political tricks and maneuvering have been used more to capture headlines and the next election; as such more power has been ceded to the executive branch in an unheralded number of cabinet-level departments.  In light of the current recession, many in the press have drawn attention to China’s ability to get things done quickly, the underlying tone suggesting our pesky, self-erected impediments could be swept away if we were willing.

Washington continues with prudent talk on government finances.  Regarding public credit he admonishes “use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace .”  But he admits timely spending to prevent danger would ultimately be far cheaper than repelling such danger.  But debt was too be immediately repaid so that we would be “not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.”

It is interesting that in terms of finance, he seems to think only in terms of spending on the military.  There’s nary a mention of a bureaucracy to pay, entitlements to hand out, infrastructure to ‘invest’ in.  And for such a dominated budget, despite being a soldier Washington seems to have fervently detested a standing army, thinking if it existed it would be misused.

Instead of armed conflict, we are told to maintain friendships with all nations, make no new alliances, but not to besmirch our name by removing ourselves from those that presently exist.  Commerce would be our strongest foreign policy move.  It is a message that modern-day globalization supporters would trip over themselves to agree with.

Being Washington, the speech is peppered with remarks praising his audience and peers for so well-designing a government, and that he is but an inept player called to serve his country.  His humility rings genuine and in the end we are left with words which at least touch us.  But it is fitting that much like so many adolescents, we have listened but not heard to what our greatest Founding Father considered his greatest advice.

 

Media type: Podcast
From: Greatest Speeches in History
Title: Washington’s Farewell Address
Hear it at: http://www.learnoutloud.com/Catalog/History/Speeches/Great-Speeches-in-History-Podcast/21306#
(scroll down to nearly the bottom)
Read it at: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp