Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Five Reasons for Hope in Iraq

There was an interesting TIME article about Iraq this week: Five Reasons for Hope in Iraq

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Face to Face

I attended an Americans for Informed Democracy (AID) conference yesterday about countering terrorism. There was also a screening of the documentary film Beyond Belief, which I recommend everyone to see. It is now available on Netflix. The film was about two women whose husbands died in the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers. After 9/11 they started an organization to help widows in Afghanistan. The film was compelling because the filmmakers did not make a documentary about the women for the viewer to feel sorry for them, while watching it you get the overwhelming sense about how remarkable these two women are and yes they experienced a great tragedy but so did other people, they were able to recognize that they had an incredible family network they could fall back on, while so many women in the world are not as fortunate. The film also did a great job at making afghan women relatable, I think a lot of the media only shows afghan women walked around the desert in pale blue burqas and unfortunately we find it difficult to relate but Beyond Belief included interviews with a few particular afghani women and you feel like you get to know them and you discover that you are not so different from each other.

The other part of the conference I found very informative and interesting was the discussion panel led by Ed O’Connell, the co-Director of RANDS’s Alternative Strategy Initiative. He retired from the military in 2002 and has been working with RAND on the ground in the Middle East ever since. He brought a very interesting perspective to the table. What I really like about his ideas was using non-traditional means that could potentially be very affective. He really emphasized civil society to civil society contact. He didn’t advocate talking to crazy governments, but acknowledging that much of the population has moderate views and the US needs to channel more energy through them. He also spoke about the youth in the Middle East which makes up 2/3 of the population and that they should be the government’s biggest project, they are the future, and new platforms can be used to reach this population like soap operas, the internet, youth groups, and social/health services. He described a Syrian soap opera that is hugely popular that reminded him of the Sopranos but instead of organized crime tearing the population apart terrorism is what tears the main family apart. Although Syria has state sponsored terrorism and is by no means a democratic nation, much of the shows messages that millions of people watch are democratic in nature, and have anti-terrorist propaganda woven in. What Ed O’Connell points out just like Beyond Belief points out people to people our differences are not that big and by acknowledging that we can move beyond a war of provoking to a protective presence. He also highlighted the idea of a Middle East Peace Corps which I thought was very interesting and think it should be seriously looked at by the new administration.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Etiquette 101: What the World Thinks About Us

I was reading Conde Nast Traveler in the hope of someday getting to travel to just a tenth of the places the issue highlighted and came across a great article about American etiquette. The Article provided some interesting insights about American culture and where exactly foreigners get lost in our in your face, overly friendly, desparate need for persocal space culture. Unfortunately the most interesting part on the artcle is not available online, my favorite part were the exerpts from foreign guidebooks to the US. These exerpts were the most telling because each exerpt was from a different country explaining how the french, british, and chinese explain US culture and customs. These explanations said the most about what they think of the US, the best I thought was the French hate that we take picking up dog droppings so seriosuly, maybe not the most telling about our culture as our conversation habits but walking around Nice and Paris a certain sidewalk decoration was hard to avoid!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Islamist Insurgencies in Somalia

In Somalia Islamist fighters have been slowly advancing on the capital. The main Islamist group in the country is al Sharib. The radical Islamists have been capturing cities in southern Somalia over the past two years and imposing strict Sharia law under their control. Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf has admitted Islamist insurgents now control most of the country and raised the prospect his government could completely collapse. The Islamist activity in Mogadishu is undermining fragile U.N.-brokered peace talks to end 17 years of chaos in the Horn of Africa nation.

In 2006 the Islamists ruled Mogadishu and most of south Somalia, but allied Ethiopian and Somali government forces toppled them. The Islamists have waged an Iraq-style guerrilla campaign since then, gradually gaining back territory.

As when they controlled the capital in 2006, the Islamists are again providing much-needed security in many areas but are unpopular with many moderate Muslims in Somalia for also imposing fundamentalist practices.

The Islamist insurgency has triggered a wave of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden, a vital shipping lane for trade between Europe and Asia. Piracy on the Horn of Africa funds the Islamists’ activity in Somalia.

In response to the heightened violence in Somalia Britain has circulated a draft resolution that would impose new U.N. sanctions on anyone contributing to violence and instability in Somalia. Reuters is reporting:
The draft resolution, distributed to the 15 members of the Security Council, calls for asset freezes and travel bans for anyone engaging in or supporting violence in Somalia, including individuals or companies that violate a 1992 U.N. arms embargo against the lawless Horn of Africa country.
The resolution also targets anyone who obstructs the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Somalia. Britain hopes the resolution will be approved this week. Britain said the idea behind the resolution is to increase the pressure on those responsible for undermining stability in Somalia.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Japan's Sphere of Influence

Japan has been brewing a storm no one in the US seems aware of or concerned with. Current events in North Korea, like President Bush removing North Korea off the terrorist list, supposed nuclear inspections are to take place, but have yet to happen, and North Korean President Kim Jong-Ill’s recent removal from public life due to illness has Japan along with South Korea in a very alert status. While the US has been preoccupied with the election and subsequent results, the only English speaking newspaper to run stories on Japan’s uncharacteristically aggressive stance in relation to North Korea is The London Times.

The North Korean issue is a much more pressing matter for Japan, and recent actions by the US or rather inaction in the Japanese eyes, has evoked a lot of anger in the country, especially with the conservative ruling majority in the country. The Times reported:

Furious officials in Tokyo think that the United States has betrayed its closest ally in Asia by taking North Korea off its list of terrorist states in a cynical attempt to broker a nuclear disarmament deal.
To add to Japan’s animosity towards North Korea is the failed investigations behind the Japanese abductees from the 1980’s that North Korea has repeatedly promised to provide information on, along with repeated US pledges to investigate the tragedy more thoroughly. Japan feels there is a much larger threat at hand with the North Koreans than the other members of the six party talks, which includes the US and China, along with South Korea. Japan outside of the framework for the negotiations, has imposed greater sanctions on North Korea, and is the only six party member to refuse energy aid assistance to North Korea.

The illness of Kim Jong-Ill has prompted more fear over the North Korea situation because there is a strong fear produced by South Korean intelligence that when Kim Jong-Ill dies (within a matter of months), there will be extreme military factions over which of the president’s sons becomes the next leader. Foreign governments now generally accept that the “Dear Leader”, whose exploits are hailed as immortal, suffered a stroke in August. He has failed to appear at important events even though the state media have issued photographs showing him to be in apparent good health. However, these photographs were seemingly taken in the springtime. The North Koreans are trying very hard to make Kim Jong-Ill seem healthy, but a stream of intelligence from South Korea, where conservatives took over the government this year, painted a picture of a sick despot, a troubled elite and a dynasty paralyzed by a succession dilemma.

The Times reported:
Enraged by the publicity – and driven to distraction by South Korean activists raining leaflets on the North describing these events – the North Koreans threatened war last week. Japanese militarists, claimed Rodong Sinmun, the ruling party newspaper, were plotting a preemptive strike against the country and will be repulsed in fire and blood. The recent disclosures revealed that both Japan and South Korea keep the North Koreans under intense surveillance and also sent a hostile signal to Pyongyang’s cloistered elite.

The US needs to be extremely wary of the heightened state of the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese willingness to deal with North Korea without international support. The two governments believe privately that Christopher Hill, the US negotiator, mistakenly appeased the North Koreans for the sake of a nuclear weapons deal that the regime has no intention of abiding by.

Japan is a country the US does not want to alienate at this time because of their key role as a recently elected rotating UN Security Council member and their crucial role in the Iran issue. Japan is the one of the largest importers of Iranian crude oil and without Japanese support in US led sanctions, the sanctions would be unsuccessful.

Unfortunately the North Korean problem will not be getting any easier, so the US must take greater care to inform our “friends” like Japan and listen to their positions, creating a stronger more effective force in the negotiations. Japan and South Korea play a larger role in Asia regionally in regards to North Korea, so how these governments act greatly affects the US’ influence in the North Korean negotiations.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

More on Livni

The Ottawa Citizen highlighted Livni's stance on Iran and U.S. relations.

JERUSALEM - Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni attacked U.S. president-elect Barack Obama on Thursday for declaring a willingness to talk with Iran about its nuclear program.

"We live in a neighbourhood in which sometimes dialogue . . . is liable to be interpreted as weakness," Livni told Israeli Radio, expressing a view held by many of her countrymen.

Asked if she supported discussions between the U.S. and Iran, Livni said: "No."

Ahmadinejad Congratulate, Livni Sends Out Warning

Today Iranian President Ahmadinejad congratulated Obama on his election win, (the first time Iran has congratulated a US President since the 1979 Revolution) and went on to say that "nations of the world" expect changes from Obama -- mostly that he will change current U.S. foreign policy.

Ahmadinejad is clearly banking on Obama's willingness to hold direct diplomacy with Iranian leaders as a way to break the impasse between the two countries. How successful this approach will be remains to be seen.

In response to Ahmadinejad's message, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a contender for prime minister in her country's elections, warned against any dialogue with Iran, the first sign of Israeli disagreement with the incoming U.S. administration.

"Dialogue at this time is liable to broadcast weakness," cautioned Livni. "I think early dialogue at a time when it appears to Iran that the world has given up on sanctions could be problematic."

Israeli officials describe Iran as the biggest threat to the Jewish state's existence, citing Ahmadinejad's frequent calls for Israel's destruction and its development of long-range missiles capable of striking the Jewish state.

While diplomacy is desired it is not absolute in Israeli eyes. Livni doesn't rule out force if U.N. sanctions don't pressure Iran to scale back its nuclear aims. Livni has said Iran "needs to understand the military threat exists and is not being taken off the table."