Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Canada! Canada! Canada!

You can hear the chanting in your ears as you fall asleep. The accolades of the world shower down; is it Olympic glory, no. Couldn't be the World Cup. Maybe a sweep of the Nobel Prizes, no! In fact, listening a little closer, one realizes that there's a tone of derision to the chanting. Yep, no doubt about it, there's something wrong here. Canada set a record by winning four out of a possible three Fossil of the Day Awards last Thursday at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change here in Poznan, Poland (bringing there total at the time to six). You heard me right, 4 outta 3, click here to find out how. Canada has become a world leader in avoiding (positive) action on climate change. By the by, if you're too lazy to click on the above link, three awards are given daily to the countries who give the worst input to the negotiations. While the US holds the all-time lead, Japan, Canada and Russia are leading the Poznan session.

It's easy to point fingers at Stephen Harper and his Conservative party, unfortunately you can't place the blame entirely on them for the current situation. No, the rot goes much deeper; perhaps Harper's latest maneuvering to hold onto power by shutting down the democratically elected Parliament could have some positive consequence if the people finally demand that their elected officials become responsible. While inaction on climate change has been perfected by the Tories, the Liberals were a very good role-model to follow. Someone should really be teaching a course in the seven-steps to avoidance,(very good .pdf here, I'm talking to you environment ministers) as other countries look for ever more effective methods of avoiding action.

But wait, what's that you say? There may be repercussions for these deniers, avoiders and do-nothingers? That's right my friends, there's good news as those in power may some day have to pay for their crimes against the planet. Of course it won't be only Canadian leaders; I'm sure all the industrialized countries will get their due as well along with the newer players on the scene, those wacky emerging markets. The home of the current Climate Change conference, Poland, along with her other Central/Eastern European neighbours should also expect to shoulder some of the legal problems for blocking an EU climate package. I'm talking about the class action lawsuit to be lodged by one Dan Bloom in the International Court of Justice against all world leaders for failing to prevent global warming this week. According to Reuter's he will sue the leaders for "intent to commit manslaughter against future generations of human beings by allowing murderous amounts of fossil fuels to be harvested, burned and sent into the atmosphere as CO2".

Alright, admittedly it looks more like a publicity stunt, but those responsible for pumping poison into our eco-system might want to take notice of a story I caught in the Guardian today. In a nutshell, the Oxford scientist quoted claims that science has advanced to the point where they can now judge the role of man in extreme climate events. According the Miles Allen, "We are starting to get to the point that when an adverse weather event occurs we can quantify how much more likely it was made by human activity. And people adversely affected by climate change today are in a position to document and quantify their losses". Up til now, tort cases involving civil wrongs have failed in several suits in the US however, as establishing causation has been difficult. Power companies and big oil are the most likely targets. Another course of legal action may also follow the example set by cases in the US against tobacco companies who deliberately misinformed the public about the effects of their business.

Disinformation, climate change deniers most effective weapon? Perhaps. As I pointed out in a previous post, even stories such as those in this post usually simply cause skeptics to roll their eyes and turn away. This won't stop those that are more passionate than I though from trying to shake the zombies out of their slumber. Stay tuned, there's more to come from Poznan.

Monday, December 8, 2008

D'Oh! Canada!

Can't resist urge... too tempting a target... must say it... Stephen Harper seems to be doing his best Robert Mugabe imitation. How could it happen you may ask, that a western democracy could sink to the level of an African dictatorship which also feigns democratic practices now and then. Well, watching the news from back home just seems to get more and more surreal. In October, it was the federal election in Canada, as the lemming hoard was lulled into repeating the same mistake they made on the previous trip to the ballot box and brought back a minority Conservative government. In times of economic turbulence such as these, most rational people would vote for change, but in the frozen tundra, the rules of logic don't seem to apply. Suddenly, a man who received a mandate from barely 20% of the eligible voting population has the means to effectively shut down parliament in order to maintain his grip on power.
Democracy in Canada is even stranger than the two-party farce known to their southern neighbours. It is best described as a Constitutional Monarchy where the highest ranking official in the land is an unelected hereditary monarch from a foreign power. Living so far away from her subjects, she (or he) is represented in the country by someone called the governor-general. While this monarch holds full executive powers in theory, the Prime Minister of this over-sized frozen land actually wields the real power. The PM is not directly voted for either; he or she is traditionally an elected representative of the party that has the most seats in the House of Commons, governing is a simple enough matter when this party holds a majority, but things get messy with a minority government...
OK, thanks for the Canadian electoral process lesson Shane, but didn't you say something about Mugabe and Harper being alike? Damn straight, here's what happened in Canada last week. The three opposition parties decided that enough was enough, had a meeting and decided to band together to form a coalition government by forcing a vote of non-confidence in the House of Commons. Since together they hold more than half the seats, Harper quickly got out his calculator and determined that they would succeed in removing him from power. After consultation with the nearest dictionary, he came up with a powerful new word, prorogue. What happens is he calls up the governor general and tells her that he's having some trouble with the view of the majority and needs a little time for his propaganda machine to convince the country that he is in the right. She is cowed, agrees, and in effect government is shut down for several weeks in order for him to avoid losing his office. Here's where the Mugabe/Harper comparisons start, alongside the seven forms of propaganda.
Robert Mugabe received 43.2% of the vote in the presidential election (the first this year, not the joke of a run-off where he received over 85%) whereas Stephen Harper's party garnered the support of 37.65% of the voters. While more people voted against them than for, both men claim to have the backing of the populace and therefore act as dictators. Both men don't play well with others. Witness Mugabe's inability to reach a real power sharing agreement with Tsvangirai's MDC and Harper's inability to compromise with the other parties. Here both men fall back on the glittering generality propaganda technique to lend credence to their cause; using slogans and catchphrases that no one can argue against, 'virtue words' that have different positive meaning for individual subjects, but are linked to highly valued concepts. "Canada's government will use every legal means to protect our democracy, to protect our economy" says Stephen, "We will never allow an event like an election to reverse our independence, our sovereignty, our sweat and all that we fought for ...... all that our comrades died fighting for" says Robert.
Another common and effective form of propaganda is name calling. As the name implies, this one is nasty, but effective in forming a connection between negative thoughts and your enemy, creating fear and arousing prejudice. The Nazi's were pretty good at this technique (and maybe some will point the finger at me for using it here...). Harper is and will continue to play on the western Canadian fear of separatists as he links the mere idea of a coalition government to the separatists. The support of the Bloc Quebecois is needed to carry a majority in parliament, which explains why Harper used the word 'separatists' four times in a five-minute speech to Canadians last week, as in, "This is no time for backroom deals with the separatists". Funny how in his attempt to whip up fear in the west Stephen forgets that the tacit support of the Bloc has been necessary for the government to function for the last couple years; or worse his memory loss as to a similar plot hatched between the right and the bloc back in 2000. At a time when the Prime Minister and the governor general may have created a mechanism that future prime ministers will be able to use to bypass the legislature when it seems convenient, the Conservatives claim that the actions of the majority elected to parliament are "as close to treason and sedition as I can imagine". Mugabe's version, well, instead of villainizing the French and the elected majority, he prefers to blame all his country's problems on the west, "Countries such as the U.S. and Britain have taken it upon themselves to decide for us in the developing world, even to interfere in our domestic affairs and to bring about what they call regime change".
Next comes card stacking. Here the propagandist tries to make the best possible case for his argument and worst for the alternative by only using the facts that support his side. While most of the facts presented are true, the danger lies in the omissions. While Harper's Conservative party has used this technique to do a lot of damage, perhaps none is greater than that done to the environment, Mugabe has lead his nation to the brink of starvation and epidemic; it's almost cholera versus oil sands. Back in 1998, Canada became one of the first countries to sign the Kyoto Protocol, it was ratified a little more than four years later. However, the fprevious election of a minority Conservative government in 2006 brought Canada's participation into question as part of the right's platform was to abandon Kyoto and come up with a 'made in Canada' solution'. This was necessary to satisfy their western voting base in Alberta, the province sitting on the biggest environmental disaster in the world, the tar (oil) sands. The costs of Kyoto to the nation's economic output were played up, the costs the environment of the tar sands, played down. When they tabled their first budget, the Washington Post wrote "The government's environmental plan -- one paragraph in a budget document replacing 25 pages in the previous government's budget". Zimbabwe was once Africa's breadbasket, but through careful manipulation, Mugabe has reduced her to a food importer, and one who can't afford the costs. His campaign to get rid of the white farmers through land redistribution was presented as one which would bring benefits to the people, without mentioning the fact that efficient farmers were to be replaced by army and party loyalists with no idea how to work the land. The situation in Zimbabwe has been worsening daily, as inflation has reached unfathomable levels (1.6 sextillion percent) with no slow down in sight. To make matters worse, cholera has made a dramatic return. In Canada, Harper stacks the cards against any opposition (do look at this excellent page), in Zimbabwe they're stacked against his own people.
Bandwagon and plain folks propaganda techniques can be seen working together. As the names imply the bandwagon technique seeks to convince people to do as the rest are and ensure those on board stay, while plain folks tries to make the user look like an ordinary Joe, one of us. In an effort to ensure everyone stays on board during these troubled times, part of Harper's government's economic update a couple weeks ago included a pledge to eliminate federal civil employees right to strike over the next couple of years!!?! As to being an everyman, well, the New York Times recently described Stephen like this, "Mr. Harper is not charismatic and often appears irritated, particularly when he is challenged", sounds like the perfect conservative. Harper's tricks are a little more subtle than Mugabe's methods of forced loyalty (including killing, raping and general marauding of opponents), but he does let you know how to join his team, "Those who seek unity must not be our enemies. No, we say no to them, they must first repent…. They must first be together with us, speak the same language with us, act like us, walk alike and dream alike". Speaking of teams, Bob leaves little doubt as to which one he plays for and often attempts to sound like a man's man, for example when speaking of Tony Blair's government, "I have people who are married in my cabinet. He has homosexuals, and they make John marry Joseph and let Mary get married to Rosemary. We are saying they do not know biology because even dogs and pigs know biology."
Last but not least, the testimonial and transfer propaganda techniques are quite similar and often confused. While testimonials involve the classic celebrity or authority figure lending his or her endorsement to a product or cause, transfer is more about tying symbols to one's cause. Harper seemed to understand the power of symbols in the unity debate in Canada and deftly defused much of the tension by turning the nationalist symbols of Quebec Canadian. He neutralized Quebec's argument that Canada was trying to negate Quebec's distinct identity by endorsing a resolution that recognized it. He then used the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the Quebec City to celebrate the birth of Canada. As to testimonials, what better way to show who would support Stephen than the short list of leaders who have prorogued in the past:

Yes, Mr. Harper, you've become part of an elite group, congratulations. Robert Mugabe has some neat tricks too, particularly transferring negative feelings and images to his political opponents, in this case the rival MDC, "We cannot discuss with allies of the West. The devil is the devil and we have no idea of supping with the devil", or speaking about Desmond Tutu, "He is an angry, evil and embittered little bishop", or even the PM of Australia John Howard, "They tell me he is one of those genetically modified because of the criminal ancestry he derives from". While it may be hard to find Mugabe supporters, everyone's favourite invisible friend is on his side, "Only God who appointed me will remove me - not the MDC, not the British". In case that's not a strong enough testimony, there's always Adolf, "This Hitler has only one objective: justice for his people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people and their rights over their resources… If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler tenfold".
Reading some of the sites from Canada this morning, one would expect to see that public opinion had galvanized against a leader who has gone to such an extreme measure to hold onto power. Sadly, propaganda is a powerful tool, money talks and shit walks as they say, the opposition doesn't even have the resources to properly produce a video message (bumbling fools, truly funny stuff). Yet, one of the measures Harper tried to push through was the elimination of a subsidy to political parties, which would have disproportionately affected the opposition as the rich tend to support Harper's conservatives with their contributions. The idea of completely destroying the opposition was one step too far after eliminating much of the government's support for the arts, eroding women’s rights for equal pay for work of equal value, and on and on. While Harper may not yet seem on a par with Mugabe, keep in mind that there is a slippery slope that we're on here. Both men have chosen to ignore the voice of the majority of voters in order to hold onto power; as Mugabe said, "We are not going to give up our country because of a mere X" (on a ballot). Once upon a time Mugabe was viewed by the world as a hero, it's taken nearly 30 years for the world to realize the extent of his evil; let's hope Canadians don't give Harper that much time.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Crisis! Oh, you mean that crisis

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently

-Henry Ford

It must have felt pretty cool being one of the selected few to be among the delegates representing 44 different countries at the Bretton Woods conference in the summer of 1944. Everything about it was planned to ensure that the talks would result in a world economic order that would foster cooperation and prosperity for future generations. The rural location, New Hampshire’s plush Mount Washington Hotel, was chosen so that the delegates would have no distractions, and no pressure from lobbyists or other politicians. While the focus was to establish a stable system of exchange rates, and how to pay for rebuilding the war-damaged economies of Europe, the meetings also led to the creation of the IMF, World Bank and to a lesser extent, the United Nations, the Marshall plan and the International Trade Organization (later GATT and the WTO). A lot has changed since those days when John Maynard Keynes, representing the UK, along with the other delegates hammered out the foundations for the American financial order.

Fast forward to the dying days of 2008 and the world is again in crisis. This time instead of worrying how to rebuild a world in the aftermath of a World War, we’re faced with the aftermath that 65 years of greed has wrought on the world’s economy and the planet. The stock market crash of 1929 and the decade of protectionism that followed was one of the main causes of WWII and the financial aftermath; this time it’s the devastation that has been brought about by the oil based economic model. If only Keynes had got his way back in ‘44 and a world central bank (to be known as bancor) would have been created to reflate the world’s money supply. Instead, it was left to America, who by the mid-70’s gave up the gold standard and switched 100% to the oil standard.

Last week and next, representatives from 190 nations are meeting in my adopted hometown of Poznan, Poland to try to map out a plan to Copenhagen next year, where it is hoped that a new emission protocol to replace Kyoto will be reached. Unfortunately, instead of being a headline event, it’s playing 2nd fiddle to the financial crisis. In the perfect world, the two would be sharing top billing, hand in hand giving policy makers the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. This won’t be the case though as special interests ensure that no compromise will be reached. As one government after another announces trillions of dollars in shock therapies for national economies, the only market that matters, the planet, will be left out in the cold.

Imagine, if you will, a world where greedy bankers actually pay for their lending mistakes. Or car makers are forced to be competitive. Yeah, I know that’s how it’s supposed to work, but it no longer does. I can hear the cries of “the banks need to survive to provide financing for investment”, but who can make rational investment decisions when governments are handing money out for failure? Imagine what could be done with the money if it was spent with the view of improving the world. Instead of delivering a better world, our desperate battle for growth at all costs has put us on a crash course with ecological disaster. The average person works more hours and has less to show for it than 30 years ago. Add to that the crumbling safety nets, such as pension plans and health care coverage and it makes one wonder why we’d want to fix the system at all. Let it crash, we have to start fresh.

What I can’t wrap my head around is the typical response that people have to the proposal of carbon taxes or the likes to try to reduce CO2 emissions. “Don’t spend MY tax dollars on something that might not even exist!” Yet they don’t seem to have any problems with having their tax dollars go to banks, or worse yet, car companies. Whether or not the theory that human activity is causing climate change is eventually proven or disproven should be irrelevant. Dependence on fossil fuels is ridiculous and all our efforts should be focused on lessening this reliance. It’s not a coincidence that oil prices have fallen drastically over the past few months. The world is hostage to the oil supplying nations, yet even those nations know that there is a line that when crossed, will force us to actually change the way the world works and end the reign of oil. Yes, I do realize that forecasts for demand have fallen due to the failing world economy, thus pushing down the price, but it’s more than that as anyone without fossil fuel blinders can see.

There’s a few reasons why the Poznan conference or the meeting to be held next year in Copenhagen won’t come up with an agreement to save the planet. The price of oil dropping to $20 a barrel is the easiest scapegoat, but it’s the public’s perception of the climate change debate that is the most troubling. One of my student’s referral to “that conference, or whatever you call it” causing traffic difficulties is the perfect illustration of how many people have been misinformed and feel there are more important issues to deal with. The developed world won’t tell Asia and Africa to choose poverty, disease, hunger and illiteracy over electricity. Kyoto was a failure, I don’t know of a single region or country that will reach their targets. Dubya made sure the people knew what he thought of it, and while he is Dubya, there are people whose opinions are formed by their president. These CC deniers will fight tooth and nail to defend their right to pay foreign nations huge amounts of money to import fuel in support of big oil companies.

The biggest problem though lies in the complexity of the issue and the way the media has presented it to the people. While the evidence pointing to human activity as the cause for climate change has been slowly solidifying, the media has been bombarding us with other discordant findings. In effect, the media is to blame for obfuscating the issue, creating a breeding ground for apathy. The arctic ice sheets melting, the Brazilian tree frogs disappearance and the hurricane season all might have something to do with climate change, but by hitting the people with these stories in rapid succession and linking them to CC, it’s easy to see why there are still so many skeptics out there. Another brilliant example comes from a Republican presidential debate in Iowa in which the candidates were asked, “How many of you believe global climate change is a serious threat and caused by human activity?”. Here, the mistake of conflating two distinct questions into one only serves to confuse the issue: whether climate change is a ’serious threat’ and whether humans contribute to it. Furthermore, by wording the question in this way, the candidates were given the chance give general responses, without dealing with the issue, such as “I believe that global climate change is serious” (Rudy Giuliani), and “I think that climate change is real” (John McCain).

Poznan ain’t gonna be Bretton Woods. I wonder if the UN was trying to say something by choosing ths city to host the event. Poland burns so much coal that the air is often thick and yellowish while at the same time the government is doing all it can to stymie the implementation of an EU emission standard. The word homogeneous was invented for Poland, where 95% of the population is white and catholic. Real debate is impossible in an environment such as this, where just having a car is considered to be a status symbol. It seems natural to want to live in a cleaner world, so instead of scaring people, we need to focus on showing the benefits that a new way of thinking can achieve. Until the people can be convinced that we’re faced with an opportunity rather than a threat, events such as the Poznan conference will be nothing more than a blip on the media radar.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Get Those Terrorists!

Quick. Which nation is a terror threat: Iceland or North Korea? If you answered North Korea, you’re sane, but, unfortunately, wrong. At least if you ask the US or UK governments. Yep, while the US government has removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, the UK government has used anti-terrorism laws to seize some of its UK-based banking assets and legally punish the Icelandic government for “completely unacceptable behaviour“. The world has truly gone mad as both world powers seek to maintain their respective positions of global dominance through threats and coercion.

Poor Iceland. It seems like only yesterday that the UN named it the most developed nation on Earth, sliding past Norway to claim the number one spot on the UN Human Development Index (HDI) for 2007/08. Suddenly a financial crisis in which somehow tiny Iceland is caught on the fault line, exposing giant cracks in its over-extended banking system. The Icelandic government has been forced to take control of three of the nations banks in the past week: Kaupthing, Landsbanki and Glitnir. In doing so, the government has guaranteed the deposits of its citizens, but in a move that the UK finds unacceptable, they have failed to guarantee the several billion pounds of British deposits and investments. So, because the Icelandic government won’t promise to refund investment losses of British citizens and companies, the UK government has responded by invoking the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 to freeze the British assets of Landsbanki, estimated to be about £7 billion. Why stop there? The government is contemplating freezing all Icelandic investments. Faced with a loss in confidence in their currency, the Icelandic government is seeking a reported €4 billion loan from Russia to help avoid national bankruptcy and the Brits expect them to guarantee £8 billion of deposits for foreigners! Referring to the move by the Brits, the Prime Minister of Iceland, Geir Haarde said, “I told the chancellor that we consider this to be a completely unfriendly act.” Understatement.

Meanwhile, North Korea, a country which exploded a nuclear bomb a couple years ago, is no longer being called a terrorist, by the US government, this week anyway. The removal fulfills a promise the American administration made to Pyongyang over a year ago but is obviously highly contentious. Critics include John Bolton, members of the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, and even some members of the State Department’s verification and compliance office. But, at least Dubya and Condi can say they did something, right? So, what is today’s lesson? You got it, blow up bombs and threaten the very existence of the world, but never, ever mess with someone’s money!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Fear and Loathing (far from Las Vegas)

Another Monday, another meltdown. Today it's Europe's turn to pour a little gas on the financial fear factor fire. While it might have been the European Day of Languages a couple of Fridays ago, the latest round of panic is threatening to turn the cracks in the EU into irreparable chasms as the different central banks scramble to find their own response to the credit squeeze. While the US markets were able the breathe a sigh of relief as the bailout package was rammed through Congress, the different heads of the European financial hydra don't seem to be able to be speaking the same language. Even Super Sarkhozy seems to have failed to bring the team together as the weekend summit of the leaders of Germany, Britain, Italy, Luxembourg, the European Central Bank and the European Commission at the Elysee Palace in Paris didn't produce any tangible results.

The EU has been on a roll for most of the past decade. Now 27 member states strong, they've enjoyed a decade of growth, prosperity and cooperation for the most part. The 15 nation Eurozone had introduced greater stability into the heart of the European economy, ending the frenzy of competitive devaluations that marked previous financial panics. Sure the Euro was too strong and interest rates a bit high, but while Europe’s patchwork system of regulators and financial authorities may not have worked elegantly in theory, it had been shown to work effectively in practice. Then Dutch-Belgian bank and insurance giant Fortis NV faltered, followed in rapid succession by Bradford & Bingley, and Dexia being forced into accepting government bail-outs. Faced with their first test, the European Central Bank can't seem to find a coherent response. Ireland kicked off the me-first procession last Tuesday by announcing the government would guarantee €400bn ($563bn) of deposits and bank debt of its six national banks. Greece quickly followed suit while France seemed to be pushing for an American style bailout response (300 billion euros), but other states, particularly Germany, opposed it and shot it down. Then, the latest blow to the unity of the system came from Germany itself as they astonished its fellow European nations,and angered the UK Treasury, Sunday night by unexpectedly announcing that it will guarantee all retail savings deposits. Sweden, Austria and Denmark all offered to guarantee deposits today (Monday).

All of this has created a capital flight fear in the other European nations as depositors look for the safest haven for their investments. Today's victim may be more than just a bank, as it seems Iceland's financial structure is melting (sorry for that ice/melt thing). The currency, the krona, has dropped 20 per cent against the euro in the past month (plus a further 23% today), the government has bought a 75% stake in the country's 3rd largest bank, Glitnir, but no plan to deal with the crisis has yet to emerge, besides stopping trading on the country's banks today. With a population of only 320,000 it may not seem like a big deal, but Iceland's problems could foreshadow similar problems across Europe. A significant proportion of Icelanders, plus many of the other smaller European economies, such as my current home of Poland, have in the past decade turned to loans for cars and homes denominated in baskets of lower interest rate currencies such as the Japanese yen and Swiss franc. With the krona’s decline, consumers are left stretched, leading to more defaults, leading to more banking problems. Ironically, what gave the European economy its strength over the last decade, the integration of the economies, could be what leads to further banking collapses across the continent. With this fear in mind, the Spanish prime minister announced plans on Monday to hold an emergency meeting with the heads of the country’s banks. Everyone is pointing fingers at the nations who have moved to guarantee deposits, privately criticising the moves as it will force each country to follow suit. “It will be like dominos,” said one Spanish official. “Now everyone will have to do it.

Could the financial crisis tear the EU apart? We'll have to wait and see, but they definitely seem to be pissing each other off. Fear causes people and therefore nations to do things they normally wouldn't do. "We learned from the worldwide economic crisis of the 1920s that an economic crisis can result in an incredible threat for all of society," Germany's interior minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told the magazine Der Spiegel. "The consequences of that depression was Adolf Hitler and, indirectly, World War II and Auschwitz." The smell of fear is definitely in the air.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Political Compass

Well, my last few posts got a little long-winded and ranty, no time, moving to a new place. So, in the spirit of brevity, I'll simply leave you with a website to measure your political compass:
It doesn't take long, take the test and compare your score with mine:

Your political compass

Economic Left/Right: -4.38
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -4.72

Hat tip. Let me know how you did, if I remember right, I scored closest to Ghandi, could be worse.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Space Race 2: Electric Boogaloo

Well, still feeling ranty, so let's stay on the China vs. USA theme for another post, shall we? Let's go back to space, where Chinese astronauts are currently orbiting Earth aboard the Shenzhou VII after blasting off from a remote desert site on Thursday. The most important part of the mission was accomplished today when Zhai Zhigang made the first Chinese "footprint in space" slipping out of the orbital module for a spacewalk or extravehicular activity (EVA). Following my last post about growing Chinese power, this is an important step in the development of the Chinese space program as they hope it will help them master the technology for docking two orbiters to create China’s first space station in the next few years, as well as to put a man on the moon in 10-12 years. As if to magnify the glaring difference in the trajectories of the two powers, the same day of the Chinese blast off saw law makers in the US take an important step to ensure any kind of American presence in space beyond 2010.

US lawmakers in the House of Representative passed a funding bill in which was buried an extension of NASA's exemption from the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act, or INKSNA. The extension of the waiver is necessary for the US to continue to purchase flights from Russia aboard their Soyuz capsules, important as they will be the only vehicles capable of visiting the space station once the life of the shuttle fleet is reached in two years time. The three year lead time before 2011 is necessary as that is how much time it takes the Russians to build the crafts. The Senate still needs to pass the bill before it goes before the president to be signed. Of course the bill has become much more contentious in light of the recent Russian-Georgian conflict and reassertment of Russian power in other areas. Worry over the 'flight gap', the time between shuttle retirement and the Orion capsule replacement begins operational flight in 2015, has also caused NASA to consider pushing back shuttle retirement plans. However, this option brings with it 1-in-8 odds of losing a shuttle and crew if it adds 10 flights after 2010 (2/year until 2015) according to NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.

The only other option is to hope for a private-sector company to come up with a third alternative. Heck, innovation and a thriving capitalist system used to go hand in hand. Even if capitalism is in it's death throws, maybe some of that innovation remains. NASA allocated almost $500 million between now and 2010 to support California-based SpaceX and Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Kistler, winners of the first round of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, as they develop new spacecraft that could bring supplies and crews to the space station. Unfortunately, SpaceX has taken three swings at launching into space and seem to have struck out, with their last test failure coming August 2nd with a payload that included a couple NASA satellites and one for the Department of Defense. Did I mention it was also carrying the ashes of James Doohan, Scotty from Star Trek? Rocketplane Kistler, besides having a silly name, didn't even get to the launch phase, as they missed deadlines and had the funding pulled in October 2007. Two other companies, Virginia-based Transformational Space and the Canadian-American Planetspace venture, are getting free advice from NASA on their own spaceship development efforts. Don't forget about founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin or Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic either.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are moving steadily forward. After their first manned space flight in 2003, they sent up another crew in 2005, both missions were successful. Perhaps the success has become a little too expected as the only glitch of this third mission came via the Xinhua News Agency who posted an article on its Web site describing a successful launch hours before the rocket even left the ground. The Chinese space progress has been described as a sustained, methodical effort, which seems to be the trademark of much of the rest of China's progress over the past decade. Like clockwork, they've begun, made inroads, then eventually passed the US in most every field from the Olympics to pollution. Their target date for reaching the moon roughly coincides with the plans for NASA's objective of returning in 2020 as part of the Constellation program. The stars seem to be aligning for a new space race a la the 1960's USA vs. USSR that many of us have only read about. Perhaps it'll be enough to light a fire under the American spirit of competition, otherwise China will soon have the lead in space too.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

How to lose friends and influence

"Reputation, reputation, reputation! O I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial."

- Shakespeare, Othello, Act 2 Sc. III

The Harvard University professor Joseph S. Nye Jr. first coined the term "soft power" back in 1990 to describe the ability of a political body, such as a state, to indirectly influence the behavior or interests of other political bodies through cultural or ideological means. It's now identified as the third form of power that nations can wield, with the other two being "hard power", military might, along with economic strength. Power is the ability to influence the behavior of others to get the outcomes one wants; you can coerce others by threatening them with a stick, you can induce them with payments, or you can simply attract or co-opt them. The year 1990 could be seen as a high water mark for the USA for all three forms of power: the symbolic defeat of communism with the fall of the Berlin Wall the previous year, the US and its allies were about to unleash the 'Desert Storm' invasion of Iraq and the poor deprived citizens of Moscow were finally able to order their first Big Mac. American hegemony was sealed, the new world order of American led globalization would usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. However, Russian bombers may soon be stationed in Cuba as naval battle groups are sent to Venezuela to perform joint exercises, while Chinese investors are exchanging ideas with Brazilian ethanol producers and Iran can sit tight in the knowledge that the security council will block any meaningful resolution against it at the UN. So, what's happened here?

While the US military hasn't been overwhelming in its performance in Iraq or Afghanistan, you can't deny that it is still the unquestionable hard power force in the world. The trouble is that the group of people who have come into power over the last 20 years or so have seen American military preeminence as a passport to do what they want. This view, that Charles Krauthammer has called “the new unilateralism" holds that the United States is so powerful that we can do as we wish and others have no choice but to follow. They have used that view as a way of applying American military power to all sorts of problems. As for soft power, well the current administration has finally come around in the past couple of years to admit that it is relevant. As recently as 2004, then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld professed to not even understand the term soft power, claiming popularity was too ephemeral to be measured. When the actions of the current administration are combined with the popularly held view that they didn't even enter power democratically, the effects are easy to see in a growing tide of anti-Americanism. Oh oh, I'm feeling quite ranty, this could be a long post, bear with me.

That we have come to a point where outright purchases of private sector companies is not only proposed but accepted by many who claim to be defenders of free markets bodes ill for the future of American society - Ron Paul
The most important source of US power for the past century has been its financial weight. Now that the market roller coaster of the past week has resulted in what is essentially the nationalization of the financial industry, that era has officially ended. Time magazine went so far as the refer the the US as the United States of France. Although history may look back at these events as the turning point, the loss in economic power has been a long time coming. On October 26, 2000 you could buy a Euro with 82.52 US cents. While it has bounced off its low, the markets told the US about its confidence in the economy Monday as the Euro rose to US$1.4824 in afternoon trading, up from the $1.4470 on Friday. Meanwhile oil was up over $25 at one point, but settled for a $16.37 gain to end at US$120.92 and gold shot up $44.30 to settle at US$909 an ounce. In that fateful year of 1990, the US also moved from a negative to a positive current account balance as it managed to record its last positive figure in 1991, just shy of $3 billion. This essentially means that the US has been buying more goods (and services) from abroad than it is selling, with the flow of foreign funds into the US financing the difference. In other words, foreigners are purchasing such things as US Treasuries, shares in companies, and even firms or property. The deficit is precisely the amount foreigners must acquire in US denominated assets to keep the dollar from falling. Up to now, foreigners have been willing to finance the shortfall because of their belief in the American way. The past week not only has investment banking died, the American way could die with the proposed banking bailout package, result, goodbye dollar as the world's currency.

The typical knee-jerk reaction to the above problem has been to point the finger at China. Their currency is undervalued, or they aren't importing enough American products. However it's China that is winning the power war where it really matter as coincidentally they have the world's largest current account surplus, $370 billion. Hard power, they've definitely got that. Soft power we can start with the Olympics, where, although the shine was tainted a bit by the Tibet protests, still was an overwhelming success in the world's opinion. Beijing aggressively courts the governments of countries with diplomacy, trade deals, debt forgiveness, and aid packages. China's no questions asked policy is diametrically opposed to that of the US and the EU and has resulted in a spreading Chinese influence globally. Right now, your kids wear Chinese clothes and play with Chinese toys. It is not at all inconceivable that their kids will listen to Chinese pop and prefer Chinese movies. The inhabitants of southeast Asia are already doing so. At least there's always the lingua franca of English to fall back on, right? Wrong, the Chinese are working hard to change that in their favour too. In 2005, China's education ministry announced a new initiative to boost Chinese-language teaching in American universities and language institutes around the world. Beijing University, China's most prestigious, announced a visiting-scholars fund to encourage foreign PhDs to study in China. More than 110,000 overseas students from 178 countries studied in China in 2004. This figure marked a ten-year high, and an increase of over 40 percent from 2003. "There's a belief that to get ahead, it would behoove you to go to China, in the same way that ten years ago people said the same about the United States.

While the US has focused on using its military to secure influence, particularly in respect to oil, China has signed oil and gas exploration contracts around the world; with Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela and Cuba in the Americas; in the Central Asian states such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and China's oil exploration interests extend to Burma, Vietnam, and Malaysia in southeast Asia; imports of crude oil also constitutes the bulk of China's imports from African states. The Chinese approach to foreign relations is officially termed "noninterference in domestic affairs." Unlike the hypocritical policies of the US, China doesn't mix business with politics and argue that such attempts by foreign nations to discuss democracy and human rights violate the rights of a sovereign country. While the US disregards international law in places like Iraq or Guantanamo while trying to twist other nations into following their vision of the world, China has its Tibet but doesn't force its ideals on others. As a result, examples of the growth in Chinese influence are not hard to find, even outside their traditional sphere of influence:

South America:
In Argentina, following their disastrous effects “neo-liberal” economic policies backed by Washington and the International Monetary Fund, “You cannot understand the miraculous Argentine recovery after the financial crisis of December 2001 without considering the boom in soy exports to China”. In Bolivia, China will invest $1.5 billion in the onshore oil and gas sector as well as showing interest in developing its largest tin mine, Huanuni. In Chile, China will set up a joint venture with the state copper company, Codelco. Meanwhile, a Chinese-led consortium bought oil and pipeline assets for $1.4 billion in Ecuador. The story is even bigger in Brazil and Venezuela. Farmers have been rushing to plant soy on the fringes of the Amazon rainforest in an attempt to satisfy China's voracious appetite. As for the ethanol politics in Brazil, maybe you can learn more here. It has also imported millions of tons of oil and iron ore from Brazil and has signed a deal to help construct a major natural gas pipeline. Finally in Chile, 2006 saw the Bachelet government sign a free trade deal with China in an effort to boost sales of copper, fruit, and fish oil. The Chilean president boasted of figures showing a $1.4 billion increase in trade between the two nations last year. “When Chile considers how to continue its development, Chile thinks big,” Bachelet remarked. “And to think big means to think China.”

In Africa, where the game was once ideological, it has become purely financial. Che Guevara no longer stalks the Angolan countryside. Where once the government of China would build a 1,100-mile-long railway across Tanzania to support a communist brother, today it's all about profit. The continent sits on 90% of the world’s cobalt, 90% of its platinum, 50% of its gold, 98% of its chromium, 64% of its manganese and one-third of its uranium. It is rich in diamonds, has more oil reserves than North America, and has been estimated to hold 40% of the world’s potential hydroelectric power. Africa is now supplying a third of the oil fuelling China’s economic boom. Angola has overtaken Saudi Arabia as China’s largest supplier of oil. Trade hit $55 billion last year, up 40% from the year before. It is expected to top $100 billion in 2010. China has overtaken Britain as Africa’s third-largest business partner and is fast catching up with France. In Angola, which exported roughly 465,000 barrels of oil per day to China in the first six months of 2007, Beijing secured a major stake in future oil production in 2004 with a $2 billion package of loans and aid that includes funds for Chinese companies to build railroads, schools, roads, hospitals, bridges, and offices; lay a fiber-optic network; and train Angolan telecommunications workers. Sudan, with its vast oil reserves, is the number one recipient of Chinese investment, and sells some two-thirds of its oil to Beijing, while receiving arms in return. Whether rebuilding the infrastructure in Addis Ababa, or building a railway line linking Khartoum to the Red Sea, the common theme across the continent seems to be that China offers "no-strings" aid, a marked contrast to Western donors who impose conditions on aid and tie trade sweeteners to human rights issues. Robert Mugabe said, “We have turned east, where the sun rises, and given our backs to the West, where the sun sets." OK, it's Mugabe, but even a respected leader like President Festus Mogae of Botswana, who may run the best-managed country in Africa said, "China treats us as equals, while the West treats us as former subjects,” he has said. “That is the reality. I prefer the attitude of China to that of the West.”

Of course China also continues to sell arms to Sudan, among other African countries. In the period from 2003 to 2006, China's arms sales to Africa made up 15.4 percent ($500 million) of all conventional arms transfers to the continent. Notable weapons sales include those to Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Burundi, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. Beijing has also sent Chinese military trainers to help their African counterparts. Arms sales and military relationships help China gain important African allies in the United Nations, including Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria, for its political goals, including preventing Taiwanese independence and diverting attention from its own human rights record. The Congressional Research Service reports that China views these sales as a means of "enhancing its status as an international political power, and increasing its ability to obtain access to significant natural resources, especially oil" (PDF). Africa registered 5.8 percent economic growth in 2007, its highest level ever, in part because of Chinese investment. Experts say the roads, bridges, and dams built by Chinese firms are low cost, good quality, and completed in a fraction of the time such projects usually take in Africa. China also contributes peacekeepers to UN missions across Africa, including Liberia and Darfur. It has cancelled $10 billion in bilateral debt from African countries, sends doctors to treat Africans across the continent, and hosts thousands of African workers and students in Chinese universities and training centers.

Again, here the Chinese are winning the game based on what were once American rules. While the US threatens with the stick and carrot, China has won the game of influence. Where the US supported the Shah and paid the price, China doesn't meddle, it does business. Back in 2004 Sinopec group signed a $70 billion deal for Iranian oil and gas over the next 20 years. Annual bilateral trade has reached $20 billion. In September Chinese President Hu Jintao met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a man the US refuses to talk to. Result, the blocking of American resolutions to punish the Iranian government for going forward with their nuclear program. "We mutually complement each other. They have industry and we have energy resources" said Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's former representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency. China has no wish to see democracy flourish in the Middle East and has no problems dealing with the world's only theocracy.

A category onto itself thanks to Hugo Chavez, his trip to China this week is what got me thinking about this post. While the US loathe him, they need him, well, his oil at least, as Venezuela is the 4th largest exporter of oil and 3rd largest exporter of gas products to their market, gobbling up about half of Venezuela's total exports...for now. After first stopping in America's other favourite nation, Cuba, Chavez arrived in Beijing while most world leaders were converging on New York, about which Chavez commented, "It's much more important to be in Beijing than in New York." It's too bad really, as you may recall his 2006 tirade against the US at the UN meeting in which he referred to Dubya as the devil. He hit the ground running in Beijing, announcing plans to build refineries and a fleet of oil tankers as part of a plan to double oil exports to China by 2010. On November 1st China will launch Venezuela's first satellite and according to Chavez will also be selling them a couple dozen fighter planes. Of course this follows Chavez' last trip to China a couple years ago when trade agreements were signed which Chavez referred to as the "Great Wall" against American hegemonism. In return China promised to back Venezuela's bid to join the UN security council (which eventually went to Panama), build houses for 20,000 people as a contribution towards Mr Chávez's policy of reducing homelessness, help build a fibre optic network, modernise a gold mine and develop railways and farm irrigation systems. After Beijing, Chavez plans on visiting Moscow, Belarus, Portugal and France.

So, what's my point? Take my adopted home country of Poland as an example. To a Pole, the US has always been the promised land, where an entrepreneur (a French word by the by) could start with nothing and wind up rich through hard work and business savvy. This vision has given the US a huge supply of soft power, influence. The bailout package now before Congress represents a serious threat to this ideal. The Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac bailouts already brought a nationalized housing market, AIG insurance, the last thing the beacon of free markets needs now is a socialized banking system. Capitalism will always have winners and losers. Just as war results in casualties (another problem the west can't seem to face), business involves bankruptcies. Instead of subsidizing corporations, the US needs to refocus its efforts on regaining its former position in the eyes of the world; China and to a lesser extent Russia are making huge inroads around the world. Even the head of the Pentagon, the hard power centre of the US, Secretary of Defence Robert Gates has argued for more funding for soft power activities. A trillion dollars can buy a lot of friends, why use it to reward failure and increase the power of the central banking system? Thomas Jefferson wrote: "The Central Bank is an institution of the most deadly hostility existing against the principles and form of our Constitution...if the American people allow private banks to control the issuance of their currency, first by inflation and then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them will deprive the people of all their property until their children will wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Peak Oil?

I have to admit to being confused, ignorant and surprised about, of and by this theory I just read about for the first time, the abiotic (or abiogenic) origins of oil. In a nutshell, this is a theory propounded by Soviet/Ukrainian scientists that holds that oil is produced within the Earth's mantle. My first thought was "hold on, there's an alternate theory to where oil comes from? Wait, what is our theory? Something to do with dinosaurs if I remember right." Sure enough, I was sorta right, our current theory in the west is that oil reserves are the product of the compression and heating of ancient organic materials over geological time, thus the term fossil fuels. Well, in case you missed it, this is just a theory, like gravity and evolution (yes, both just theories too). Unfortunately, instead of looking at this theory objectively, it seems as thought the west has reacted in knee-jerk fashion, dismissing it out of hand, describing it as crazy. But really, is it?

Here's the thing. Even if you don't understand the science, which I don't, the scientific evidence of it at least being possible has been piling piling up. The science, quickly, states that oil is continuously generated by natural processes in the Earth's magma. The scientific proof seems to lie in the fact that its proponents claim that it is consistent with the law of thermodynamics, whereas the organic theory is not. So, why have we in the west never heard of this theory? Various abiogenic hypotheses were first proposed after advances in science in the nineteenth century, most notably by Alexander von Humboldt, the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev and the French chemist Marcellin Berthelot. While the theory did then lose ground to the idea of oil as a fossil fuel, it was once again championed by Russian and Soviet scientists in the 2nd half of the 20th century.

Following WWII, Stalin had of course realized the strategic importance of oil and, lacking in domestic supplies, threw his country into what has been described as a "Manhatten Project" of oil research. Between 1951 and 2001 thousands of articles were published in mainstream Russian scientific journals on the modern Russian-Ukrainian theory of deep, abiotic petroleum origins, almost completely unheard of in the West. Nikolai Alexandrovich Kudryavtsev is generally credited with first enunciated the theory, but to much of the west, it was first introduced by Thomas Gold. There is much debate about whether he plagiarized the Russian findings or changed them or found his own ideas, but he convinced the Swedish Government in the1990's that oil could be found everywhere in the planet, but more specifically by drilling in an ancient meteorite crater, into fractured granite under the Siljan Ring, in Sweden. For this, two deep wells were drilled and millions of dollars were thrown in the deep earth granite. No hydrocarbon was found and again the abiogenic hypothesis was discredited for the moment.

However today's high oil prices have reignited the debate it seems. Now, it's no secret that I'm no fan of oil, big oil and the God Car society that has been created around it, but the theory of peak oil particularly aggravates me. The belief in oil as a fossil based product with a finite supply has created a market that is holding the world hostage to big oil companies. Of late, much anecdotal evidence has emerged to support the abiotic theory, not the least of which is the fact that Russia, which was thought to have few reserves only 50 years ago, today is the world's leading oil producer. NASA studies have proven that the methane reserves on Saturn's moon Titan are of a non-biologic origin. A study in Science Magazine published earlier this year claimed that hydrogen-rich fluids venting at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in the Lost City Hydrothermal Field were produced by the abiotic synthesis of hydrocarbons in the mantle of the earth.

The implications are mind-boggling, both good and bad. The good would be the end of big oil and their lackeys Dick Cheney et al. The bad, well, we've got a near inexhaustible supply of the black stuff to ensure the continuation of the God Car era to seal the planets doom. Prices would crash, BP, ExxonMobile and the rest would go bankrupt, the dollar worthless. Of course if it does prove true, Russia has a huge head start and it's possible they've already shared their secret with the Vietnamese, while the Chinese and North Koreans are lining up. In 2003 Putin made any information revealing the exact amount of supply, reserves, production, and the actual use of strategic types of minerals of the Russian Federation a State secret. Could there be a giant secret behind all the Russian oil companies' intrigue with the government or foreign companies such as BP these past few years? There's no secret as to why such a theory would be hidden from the world, how I do love a conspiracy theory.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Still Somewhere in Africa: Zimbabwe

Whew! Thank god that's over, problem solved. Robert Mugabe signed a power-sharing agreement with his rival Morgan Tsvangirai on Tuesday, making the latter Prime Minister. Finally, we can get on with our lives and stop worrying about what's happening in Zimbabwe. Hold on, wait a second, did I say problem solved, stop worrying, Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe in the same paragraph? I think I did, guess that means nothing's actually decided yet, now I suppose I'll have to tell y'all about it...

I've written three posts since the first round of elections in Zimbabwe, but haven't bothered since the sham of a run-off election for the presidency. In case you missed it Morgan Tsvangirai won the first round, but didn't obtain the necessary 50% (cough, er, yeah right), which necessitated the run-off, which Tsvangirai pulled out of in protest to the violence he and his MDC party were being subjected to by the ruling Xanu-PF. We all know how that story ended, Mugabe in a landslide taking over 85% of the vote, being sworn in as President on June 29th. Well, predictably the west criticized the vote as being illegitimate, and more predictably, Mugabe's spokesman told the west to "go hang a thousand times". While Tsvangirai was hiding out in the Dutch embassy, his party's party's secretary-general and chief negotiator Tendai Biti said in a statement that "the sham election on June 27, 2008, totally and completely exterminated any prospect of a negotiated settlement."

So, what happened between now and then to change their mind? The UN with it's failure to pass resolutions; the Italian's recalling their ambassador; the French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner saying the EU would "accept no government other than a government led by Mr Tsvangirai"; the G8 at a meeting in Japan declaring that "We do not accept the legitimacy of any government that does not reflect the will of the Zimbabwean people"; the US and EU tightening of economic sanctions to include those doing business with the regime; or maybe the Canadian governments banning of arms exports, freezing the assets of top Zimbabwean officials and banning Zimbabwean aircraft from flying over or landing in Canada. I think not, international isolation, so long as it doesn't affect his wife's shopping trips, has proven useless in influencing Mugabe.

While Mugabe, however illegitimately managed to hold onto the presidency, the original election results did bring a change to who controls the lower house of parliament. Tsvangirai's MDC now has 100 seats and ZANU-PF has 99 seats. An MDC offshoot, led by Arthur Mutambara, won 10 seats and an independent candidate won one seat. Prior to the parliamentary session finally being opened at the end of August, an MDC member, Lovemore Moyo, was voted in as the speaker of the house, the 4th most powerful position in the government. When Mugabe addressed the opening session, his speech broadcast live across the country was drowned out by the boos of the opposition. Perhaps this was a wake up call for Mugabe to realize he was incapable of running the day-to-day affairs of the country without Tsvangrai onside.

In tandem with this, Africa, however belatedly, came together to help force compromise. While not all nations seemed to be on the same side, in the end, Mugabe's anti-white rhetoric couldn't be used against his African neighbours. While South African president Thabo Mbeki will get much of the credit for mediating the deal, his pro-Mugabe stance probably caused more damage than he healed. More credit should be given to leaders such as Botswana's president, Seretse Khama Ian Khama who refused to recongize the legitimacy of the run-off election. Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga said "They (the African Union) should suspend him and send peace forces to Zimbabwe to ensure free and fair elections." Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was also outspoken in her criticism of Mugabe. Even at the announcement of the made in Africa deal Mugabe said, “African problems must be solved by Africans...The problem we have had is a problem that has been created by former colonial power. Why, why, why the hand of the British? Why, why, why the hand of the Americans here? Let us ask that.

I smell another problem, call it fuzziness. Consultations with input from various groups are to start within a month on a new constitution with a referendum to be held within two years. Things get fuzzy from there, I've read reports saying Mugabe will control the army while Tsvangrai gets the police, others that say such institutions are to be impartial to parties. In the end, who cares? How are these people going to sit across from the table from eachother? Talk about skeletons in the closet! Ever since Mugabe began to lose his grip on power in the run up to parliamentary elections in June 2000, his Xanu-PF party has used killing, kidnapping and other violence as its modus operandi, with MDC supporters more often than not the target. The Zimbabwe Peace Project has recorded 16,400 cases of human rights violations this year alone. While denying that Mugabe himself would be the target of justice, Tsvangrai did say that senior members of Mugabe's party could be held accountable for the violence. Cracks were appearing in the Xanu-PF party as early as Tuesday, with hardliners resisting the deal, many will be left out of the cabinet or could lose their governor posts that are to be shared with the MDC. Mugabe and his henchmen have everything to lose in this deal.

The sheer size of the task at hand would be enough to tear apart a normal government, let alone one with three opposing factions. Tsvangirai said the first task of the new government would be to "unlock the food already in the country and distribute it to our people". He failed to mention that it has been kept locked up by Mugabe, who wished to ensure it got distributed only to his supporters, while opposition supporters were deliberately starved. Another big issue will be the sacking of Gideon Gono as Governor of the Reserve Bank. Mugabe has used Gono, a key henchman and his own private banker, to control the economy; and Gono has in turn been rewarded with stolen farms and other looted assets. Foreign donors have made it clear that not a cent will be handed over while Gono remains in office; but if he goes, so does Mugabe’s control of the economy. Yes, quite a work of art he has created with inflation officially running over 11,000,000% but some believe may be as high as 40 million! The third major task will be the the professionalization of security forces that until now have acted as partisan thugs for Mugabe and his henchmen. Particulary bringing the murderous "war vets" and Green Bomber youth league under control, both of which were instrumental to Mugabe’s efforts to terrorize white farmers and opposition blacks. In other words, the agenda favoured both by Tsvangirai and the major Western donors will serve to dismantle Mugabe’s violent and corrupt system, and prepare the way for free elections in which both Mugabe and his party will face annihilation. Doesn't seem very likely that Mugabe will let this happen. Predictably, since the signing, nothing has happened as Mugabe simply bides his time, dragging his feet before anything of substance happens.

So with the world momentarily appeased with the signing of the power sharing "unity government" deal, in which somehow Mugabe is meant to draw policy, while Tsvangirai's parellel council of ministers are meant to implement it, Mr. Mugabe is off to the United Nations. The deal won't accomplish anything until the impasse over the nuts and bolts, specifically who gets which ministries, are resolved. This won't happen quickly as at the same time Mugabe must try to keep his supporters happy, many of whom will lose important posts with implementation. He told his party that the deal was a "humiliation", but necessary because of the party's dismal performance in the only real elections, those of March 29th. At least three-quarters of the 49-member politburo will lose their posts in the proposed government of national unity, so they're in no rush. It's becoming increasingly clear that the 'end-game' hasn't played itself out, what that will be still isn't clear, but Mugabe's signature on a piece of paper hasn't solved anything yet.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The rain in Spain falls mainly on the ...?

Let's not generalize and call it an American thing. Maybe it's a Republican thing. Let's be even more specific, it must be a presidential candidate for the Republican party thing, as the lack of understanding of the world outside US borders does seem to be a recurrent theme. In a scene reminiscent of good ol' Dubya while running for president, John 'McBush' McCain didn't seem to know who the president of Spain was yesterday while being interviewed by a Florida affiliate of Spanish radio network Union Radio. When asked whether he would invite Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to the White House if he won in November, McBush replied: "All I can tell you is that I have a clear record of working with leaders in the hemisphere that are friends with us and standing up to those who are not. And that's judged on the basis of the importance of our relationship with Latin America and the entire region." You know, he's not sure if Spain is a friend or not, let alone where Spain is located.

Of course McBush's handlers jumped to his defence, with his foreign policy advisor Randy Scheunemann claiming McBush's refusal to confirm that he'd meet with Zapatero was deliberate, lumping Zapatero together with 'radical' South American leftist leaders such as Chavez and Morales. Listen to the whole interview though, the interviewer tries to clarify McBush's statement many times. When she finally realizes the poor man is lost after the above quote she goes as far as saying: "I'm talking about the president of Spain". Really, it's lose-lose for the McBush spin camp. Either he confused where Spain was or who Zapatero was, or he feels that the friendship between Spain and the US is on a par with such countries as Venezuela and Bolivia, who have of course just recently expelled their respective American ambassadors. Maybe we should scratch the surface a little more to reveal another possible truth: The Bush doctrine will be continued if we see 4 more years of McBush. Four more years of "with us or against us". You see one of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's campaign promises in the Spanish presidential election was to pull Spanish forces out of Iraq, something he did upon entering office in 2004. Since that time, the relationship between the two countries has cooled considerably as Bush punishes a country and its leader for doing what the majority of the people wanted. But wait a minute, the man formerly known as McCain said back in an April interview that as president he would seek to repair relations with Spain. Now, I'm really confused, who is McBush and what does he believe?

Let's wind this up then with some sad geography facts. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, one-third of young Americans recently polled couldn’t locate Louisiana on a map and nearly half were unable to identify Mississippi. Step outside the US, and it gets worse as early in the illegal Iraq invasion, in 2002, one in seven, about 13%, of Americans between the age of 18 and 24, the prime age for military service, could find Iraq, while 17% could find Afghanistan. Four years of war later, with the accompanying TV coverage to 'educate' the masses, and 63% could not find Iraq or Saudi Arabia on a map of the Middle East, and 75% could not point out Iran or Israel. 44% couldn't find any one of those four countries. It's the attitude toward knowledge of the outside world that's most astounding as fewer than 30% thought it important to know the locations of countries in the news and just 14% believe speaking another language is a necessary skill. I guess it must be nice to live in a glass cage, you get what you deserve, go on, vote McBush for four more years of ignorance.