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Archive | July, 2014

Mr. Kim and the Envelope

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Photo released by KCNA news agency on March 29, 2013 shows top leader Kim Jong-Un attending an urgent meeting with top military officials. Source: KCNA/Xinhua

Like his father, Kim Jong-Un is best compared to a bellicose 13-year old child who stomps his feet and makes a fuss until he gets his way. Unlike an ordinary child, this one’s tantrums come with high stakes.

Photo released by KCNA news agency on March 29, 2013 shows top leader Kim Jong-Un attending an urgent meeting with top military officials. Source: KCNA/Xinhua

The young Mr. Kim has now taken his game of chicken as far as it can go without actually pulling the trigger. The series of exchanges and threats are indeed worrisome for Washington and its allies; China, Japan, South Korea and the United States are taking it all seriously. Is Kim Jong-Un dumb enough to actually follow through? According to a statement released by state-run KCNA, North Korea has stated that it is in a “state of war” with South Korea. “Situations on the Korean Peninsula, which are neither in peace or at war, have come to an end,” the statement read. “From this time on, the North-South relations will be entering the state of war and all issues raised between the North and the South will be handled accordingly.”

We think not. While North Korea has a standing army of more than a million soldiers – making it one of the world’s largest — approximately 12,000 artillery guns, over 800 fighter jets and thousands of tanks, many elements of its military are outdated and would not be able to sustain a ground war with South Korea and the United States. While Pyongyang has warned that it will strike the U.S. mainland with nuclear-armed ICBM’s, by all accounts it lacks the technical ability to do so. It has yet to successfully test a long-range missile, nor has North Korea been able to miniaturize a nuclear weapon small enough to fit on an ICBM. The greater threat is short and medium-range missiles, so while U.S. territory is not at risk, Japan and South Korea certainly are. Kim Jong-Un knows, however, that any use of nuclear or chemical weapons by him would result in the same by the U.S.

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Syria’s Multi-Sided Chess Game

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Free Syrian Army fighter Mohammad Jaffar patrols a street in Bustan Al Basha, one of Aleppo’s most volatile front lines, Oct. 22, 2012. Sebastiano Tomada/Sipa USA

In some ways the Syrian civil war resembles a proxy chess match between supporters of the Assad regime— Iran, Iraq, Russia and China—and its opponents— Turkey, the oil monarchies, the U.S., Britain and France.

Free Syrian Army fighter Mohammad Jaffar patrols a street in Bustan Al Basha, one of Aleppo’s most volatile front lines, Oct. 22, 2012. Sebastiano Tomada/Sipa USA

But the current conflict only resembles chess if the game is played with multiple sides, backstabbing allies, and conflicting agendas. Take the past few weeks of rollercoaster politics. The blockbuster was the U.S.-engineered rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, two Washington allies that have been at loggerheads since Israeli commandos attacked a humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza and killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American. When Tel Aviv refused to apologize for the 2010 assault, or pay compensation to families of the slain, Ankara froze relations and blocked efforts at any NATO-Israeli cooperation. Under the prodding of President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and buried the hatchet. The apology “was offered the way we wanted,” Erdogan said, and added “We are at the beginning of a process of elevating Turkey to a position so that it will again have a say, initiative and power, as it did in the past.”

The détente will align both countries with much of Washington’s agenda in the region, which includes overthrowing the Assad government, and isolating Iran. Coupled with a Turkish push to resolve the long simmering war between Ankara and its Kurdish minority, it was a “Fantastic week for Erdogan,” remarked former European Union policy chief Javier Solana. It was also a slam dunk moment for the Israelis, whose intransigence over the 2010 incident and continued occupation of Palestinian and Syrian lands has left the country more internationally isolated than it has been in its 65 year history. Israel’s apology might lay the groundwork for direct intervention in Syria by NATO and Israel. In recent testimony before Congress, Admiral James Stavridis, the head of U.S. European Command and NATO’s top commander, said that a more aggressive posture by the Obama administration vis-à-vis Syria “would be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing down the regime.”

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Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 17

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Celebration on Tukul Hill.  Celebrating the unification of Eritrea and Ethiopia

November 18, 1962 was a day of public celebration in Gondar. Our Peace Corps director, Harris Wofford, arrived from Asmara and accompanied us to the “Unity Day – Ethiopia and Eritrea” celebration on Tukul Hill.

Celebration on Tukul Hill. Celebrating the unification of Eritrea and Ethiopia

There gathered were many hundreds of local nobles and officials from throughout the province. The Governor and other high officials were sheltered in a large army tent where a crush of men tried to sit as close to the Governor as possible. The celebration was held in recognition of the Eritrean assembly vote which dissolved the Federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia and allowed Eritrea to be annexed to Ethiopia.

A week after the event I spoke with a Tigryean merchant from Asmara who told me that the Emperor got the approval of the Eritrean Assembly by sending army trucks throughout Eritrea rounding up all the Assembly members and hauling them to Asmara at gun point. He went on to relate that the Ethiopian government would not let any of the American or European Counsels near the Assembly members on the day of the voting. A year later while I was learning more about Ethiopian agriculture during a two weeks’ stay at Alamaya Agricultural College, a student whose father had been a member of the Eritrean Assembly corroborated what the merchant had reported.

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The Economics of Policy Schools and Fundraising

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Columbia University's campus

A few months ago a letter was sent to my permanent address in Dallas. I’ve been thinking – intermittently – about its contents for a couple of months. The letter came from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

Columbia University’s campus

Among other things, it reminded me that attending a top policy school is not necessarily compatible with pursuing a career in the public or non-profit sectors – something that many SIPA alums do. The letter, dated on December 6, was from a MPA (class of 2014) candidate. Having spent his “childhood in and out of over 30 foster homes in Washington State,” this is a man with a story to tell. After graduation he will return to DC (where he worked for several years) and “work on child advocacy and make significant, lasting improvements to the foster care system.” It also included the following (in bold) sentence in the last paragraph, “If you, too, are committed to improving our world through the education and public policy skills you gained at SIPA, I urge you to help others with the same passion by making a gift to the SIPA Fund today.”

This is mostly about money. SIPA gets a bad rap for two reasons: its seemingly limitless bureaucracy and the prohibitive cost of a master’s degree. Let’s focus on cost. SIPA’s not cheap but almost none of the prestigious policy schools are – Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School is the only exception. (Complaints about bureaucratic excesses likely have more merit. SIPA is a large school that is admitting too many people with class sizes that are too big with an administrative staff that (while quite capable) is probably too small).

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Iran’s Long Leash

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Syrian security officers gather at the scene in front of destroyed buildings where triple bombs exploded at the Saadallah al-Jabri square, in Aleppo, Syria, back in October of 2012.  SANA/AP

Although Syria’s neighbors have been negatively impacted by the country’s crisis, Iraq’s sectarian tensions and the religious, historical and cultural bonds between Syrians and Iraqis connect the two states’ political fates.

Syrian security officers gather at the scene in front of destroyed buildings where triple bombs exploded at the Saadallah al-Jabri square, in Aleppo, Syria, back in October of 2012. SANA/AP

While many of Iraq’s Sunnis support the Syrian opposition, Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki continues to lend considerable support to Damascus, not only as a proxy for Iran, but also fearing that Al Qaeda affiliates and anti-Shia groups may gain safe haven in a post-Assad Syria, and in turn wage war against Baghdad. Recent events suggest that the Syrian crisis may ultimately push Iraq back to renewed sectarian civil war.

Given Mr. Maliki’s orientation toward Iran and Syria, Washington realizes that Baghdad is not aligned with the interests of the U.S. and its regional allies. Despite the Obama Administration’s efforts to convince Iraq to deny Iran its airspace in an attempt to impede the flow of weapons to President Assad, Iraq continues to allow Iran’s shipments to occur. Baghdad has every reason to continue to support the transfer of Iranian weapons into Syria, because the rise of Sunni Islamists with an extremist ideology in Syria pose an existential threat to the post-Saddam Shia-led order in Iraq.

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John Kerry in the Middle East

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Source: State Department

Source: State Department

Shortly after being sworn in as America’s top diplomat, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry launched a new round of Middle East diplomacy as he flew to Israel, Jordan, the West Bank and Afghanistan. He joined his boss, President Barack Obama partly through his trip but went solo when traveling to Afghanistan to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

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A Trip Through the Heart of Mali

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A suicide car bomber hit a checkpoint about 5 miles from Timbuktu, injuring seven Malian soldiers. Five insurgents were killed and one captured. Photo: Yeah Samake

I have been writing about Mali, even before the military coup, since my friend Yeah Samake, the mayor of Ouelessebougou, was running for president.

A suicide car bomber hit a checkpoint about 5 miles from Timbuktu, injuring seven Malian soldiers. Five insurgents were killed and one captured. Photo: Yeah Samake

The coup destabilized the country, and the elections were called off. Islamist extremists took advantage of the ensuing lack of governance in the northern region and seized control of the towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. They instituted Sharia law and brutalized the Malian people in these towns and surrounding villages. There was also an influx of insurgents from countries as far away as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Northern Mali — about the size of France — had become the epicenter for the Islamists in the Sahel. Many of these insurgents were involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

On Jan. 10, Malian President Dioncounda Traore called French President Francois Hollande and asked for military help, since a large group of extremists from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) had moved south and taken over the town of Konna, just 300 miles from Bamako, the capital. The next day French troops and Mirage jets arrived from nearby Chad.

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President Obama in the Middle East

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Pete Souza/White House

Pete Souza/White House

Photos from President Barack Obama’s three-day trip to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. While in the Middle East Obama met with several of the regions leaders including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and give an address to Israeli youth in Jerusalem. The trip however is unlikely to jumpstart the stalled Arab-Israeli Peace Process.

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Gimme Shelter: Jordan’s Refugee Past Makes for an Unsure Future

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Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter meets with Jordan's King Abdullah II at the Royal Palace compound in Amman, Jordan, Feb. 5, 2013

President Barack Obama rounded out his recent visit to the Middle East with a quick stopover in Jordan.

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter meets with Jordan’s King Abdullah II at the Royal Palace compound in Amman, Jordan, Feb. 5, 2013

Over the course of the Arab Spring, Jordan has remained the peaceful outlier in Middle Eastern politics, but recent events have put that position in grave peril. As governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria underwent violent upheaval or regime transition over the past two and a half years, Jordan has thus far defended itself against all challengers. Surrounded by conflict on all sides – Iraq to its east, Syria to its north, and Israel and Palestine to its west – Jordan now may be rightly viewed as the eye of the storm rather than its safe harbor.

Decades of war have resulted in a deluge of Palestinian, Iraqi, and Syrian refugees taking up residence and valuable resources in the capital, Amman, and across the country. Already lacking sufficient supplies of water and having to import all of their gas and oil, Jordanians are not prepared to spare what little they have, according to the International Monetary Fund. The presence of foreigners has been a problem throughout Jordan’s history and sometimes a serious threat. As the number of Syrians seeking refuge climbs into the tens of thousands per week, that threat has become obvious to both Jordan’s King Abdullah II and his countrymen. The wave of refugees from Syria has reopened the important question of what makes a true Jordanian – a question that has been at the heart of much of Jordan’s past instability.

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Explaining Iran’s Nowruz

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Ruins of Persepolis outside of the southern city of Shiraz. Photo: Daniel N. Lang

Nowruz is considered the most important national holiday in Iran. It marks the beginning of a new solar year and the arrival of spring. According to the Persian calendar, it begins exactly at the moment when the center of the Sun is in the same plane as the Earth’s equator and the tilt of the Earth’s axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun.

Ruins of Persepolis outside of the southern city of Shiraz. Photo: Daniel N. Lang

Although the holiday signifies the commencement of the vernal equinox, which starts on March 20 or 21, it doesn’t always start at the same time; the moment the sun crosses the celestial equator and equalizes night and day is different every year. But that’s the beauty of Nowruz– it starts on a unique moment each time, and people excitedly and breathlessly wait for the announcement of what is known as transition point of the year. The timing is astronomically and mathematically calculated according to the Jalali solar calendar in a precise manner and officially inaugurates the New Year.

Nowruz is now considered a global festival as it was officially recognized and registered on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in February 2010. The same year, the UN General Assembly recognized March 21 as the International Day of Nowruz, describing it as a spring festival of Persian origin which has been celebrated for over thousands of years. Like Christmas, Nowruz is a pleasurable, elaborate and delicate festival which brings millions of people together, but it seems that there are certain elements in Nowruz which make it a distinctive tradition, and one of these important elements is its historical significance.

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Kafka and Cocaine: The fall of the Australian Labor Party

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Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister of Australia. Photo: Mauroof Khaleel

It would be odd to find parallels between the Australian Labor Party’s behaviour during the week, one which saw a meandering and vain attempt at self-destruction, and a central European writer with a sense of the apocalyptic.

Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister of Australia. Photo: Mauroof Khaleel

But the parallels are there – the absurd situation, the words that mean little and the sheer arbitrariness. Odder still is that this is a party in government presiding over a country that has seen 21 years of uninterrupted economic growth, with an unemployment rate of 5.4%. Australia is a nation bored by luxuries and governed by brats and prats. Its political classes are hollow. Its visionaries are permanent absentees.

The party that has made self-destructive cannibalism its own poem, purging and suicide its own stanza, made a monumental effort to irritate the Australian electorate into voting it into oblivion on Thursday. Now a very much ex-regional minister Simon Crean had expectorated all day, with the eventual push for a ballot at 4.30 that afternoon. This party of madness was going to decide if its leader, Julia Gillard, would remain in office. (Yes, this is the Westminster system, not a democracy with an elected executive.)

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China’s Xi Jinping Seeks to Strengthen Relations with Russia and Africa

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China’s president, Xi Jinping, pictured with He Guoqiang and Jia Qinglin in Beijing in November 2012. How Hwee Young/EPA

The first official state visits by the new president of China, Xi Jinping, have just been announced; Xi Jinping will embark on a four-country tour of Russia, Tanzania, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

China’s president, Xi Jinping, pictured with He Guoqiang and Jia Qinglin in Beijing in November 2012. How Hwee Young/EPA

In terms of grand strategy, the Chinese visit to Russia and South Africa, as well as BRICS countries is about balancing against the West and pushing for a multi-polar world order. The visits will prioritize China’s interests as a mixture of cementing geopolitical alliances and closing major strategic resource deals. While one can expect the usual announcements of eternal friendship in Tanzania and South Africa, the real test for Xi Jinping will be whether he can close an oil deal with Russia and resolve the resources-infrastructure trade-off agreement with the Democratic Republic of Congo. From an African perspective, it appears that the new Chinese leadership is redoubling efforts on its comprehensive charm offensive in Africa.

Tanzania will be the first African stop for Xi Jinping and it is largely symbolic. The Tanzam Railway remains a symbol of third-world comradery, as it was China’s most ambitious sponsorship in the 1970s, completed two years ahead of schedule in 1975 at great cost even though China was still poor at the time. The amicable treatment of China in Tanzania contrasts with Zambia, where Chinese copper mining operations have led to periodic expressions of anti-Chinese sentiments. Xi can expect a positive reception in Tanzania as he announces another injection of capital to the railway, which has fallen into disrepair.

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The Best of CPAC 2013

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Photo: Eric Draper

Photo: Eric Draper

Photos from this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) gathering in National Harbor, Maryland. Speakers included the former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Texas Governor Rick Perry and the always entertaining Donald Trump. The speeches were typical for any conservative gathering and didn’t disappoint.

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Egypt Faces a Potentially Chaotic Summer

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Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

When an important leader of the political opposition hints that a military coup might be preferable to the current chaos, and when a major financial organization proposes an economic program certain to spark a social explosion, something is afoot. Is Egypt being primed for a coup?

Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

It is hard to draw any other conclusion given the demands the International Monetary Fund is making on the government of President Mohamed Morsi including regressive taxes, massive cuts in fuel subsidies, and hard-edged austerity measures whose weight will overwhelmingly fall on Egypt’s poor. “Austerity measures at a time of political instability are simply unfeasible in Egypt,” says Tarek Radwan of the Washington-based Atlantic Council. “He [Morsi] is already facing civil disobedience in the streets, protests on a weekly, if not daily basis, clashes between protestors and security—he does not want to worsen the situation.”

The “situation” consists of wide spread police strikes, particularly in the industrial city of Port Said, but also including parts of Cairo and the heavily populated Nile Delta. The police in Sharqiya have even refused to protect Morsi’s house. At its height the strike spread to half of Egypt’s 27 administrative governorates.

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North Korea’s Provocative Pattern

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The United States will add more ground-based ballistic missile interceptors to its arsenal, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced at the Pentagon

North Korea, the recalcitrant hermit kingdom, has decided yet again that the international community is ignoring it. Pyongyang has voided the 1953 Korean armistice and warned that it will launch a nuclear attack on the United States as U.S.-South Korean military exercises involving 3,000 American and 10,000 South Korean soldiers began earlier this month.

The United States will add more ground-based ballistic missile interceptors to its arsenal, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced at the Pentagon

Exactly how Pyongyang plans to launch a nuclear salvo on the United States is still unclear and whether it has the capacity is questionable. Most North Korea watchers remain doubtful that the belligerent nation has the technical means to deliver a nuclear warhead to the continental United States. This does not, however, undermine the seriousness of the threat nor detract from North Korea’s intentions to up the ante. Already, Pyongyang has severed communications with South Korea and launched a propaganda campaign designed to seek out concessions from the United States while at the same time bolstering the credentials of Kim Jong-Un among North Koreans and the country’s military establishment.

The greatest danger for the United States and the international community is that North Korea is unpredictable. Compared to other recalcitrant states like Iran, which does not yet possess a nuclear arsenal, a bloody war was previously fought on the Korean Peninsula over a half century ago. Additionally, North Korea has not shied away from unsolicited attacks in the past and has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to bring the Korean Peninsula to the brink of war. An example can be found in North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in 2010 that killed 46 sailors and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island also in 2010 that killed four South Koreans.

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