Friday, December 22, 2006

Suddenly, Turkmenistan


Saparmurad Niyazov, paranoid dictator of Turkmenistan, died suddenly this week and it’s power struggles, ahoy! in Central Asia for natural gas, land and post-Soviet democracy, as successors scramble for power:

Early signs of internal discord were evident in an official announcement that the speaker of the parliament's lower house, who under constitutional rules should have become acting president, had been placed under criminal investigation.

With winter closing in, the global energy industry was monitoring the surprise news from Turkmenistan closely. Turkmen gas is already an important element in state-controlled Gazprom's ability to meet customer demand at home and abroad and could become vital as demand rises over the next decade.

The United States has lobbied Turkmenistan, so far unsuccessfully, to build a pipeline across the Caspian Sea that would bypass Russian territory to deliver gas to the outside world. European countries have quietly supported the idea, which would reduce their dependence on Russia for supplies of natural gas.

The strategic competition known as the Great Game that bedeviled Central Asia more than a century ago may get a rerun as Western-oriented and exiled opposition leaders return to Turkmenistan and jostle with Russian surrogates for power in the vacuum left by Niyazov's death.

Complicating the mix are tribal politics and the loyalties of the powerful security services.

The Niyazov government was dominated by the Akhal Teke tribe, but the desert country's major gas fields lie in areas dominated by other tribes. Tensions over distribution of power and benefits from the sales never surfaced because Niyazov maintained an internal security cocoon that smothered dissent.

Largely desert country. Centralized power on one tribe’s ground, valuable resources on another tribe’s. Repressed peoples yearning to breathe free. Dissenters returning from abroad for hastily called elections. Tension between Islam and secularism.

If I were as paranoid as Niyazov was, I’d wonder why the 21st century’s maximum craziness all seems to occur in countries that border Iran.

I’m not saying Ahmadinejad’s bloody fingerprints are all over this, but because Iran borders so many countries—besides those I linked to above, it shares frontiers with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Turkey, and half a dozen Gulf states—the U.S. must deal with Iran eventually, particularly as Tehran closes in on working nuclear weapons. Better, I think, to start befriending the Islamic Republic now than later; by being in a position to influence Tehran, Washington would be better able to influence the politics of Iran’s neighbors, with benefits for U.S. interests.

Remember that Iran was helping to sustain Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance before 9/11, and had absorbed millions of Afghan refugees on its own. No one knew how valuable these Iranian actions would be to the West until 9/11 threw Afghan politics into high relief; without Iran, there would likely have been no Northern Alliance left for the U.S. to ally itself with, and many more Americans would have died to force the Taliban out of the country.

Monday, December 18, 2006

On the Punjab Border


Not all public diplomacy is international—at least, not at one of the border crossings between India and Pakistan. NPR’s Philip Reeves reports in “Border Ceremony Draws Crowds in Pakistan, India” that the nightly lowering of the two countries’ flags at a border crossing in the Punjab has evolved into a highly choreographed ritual that combines nationalist rabble-rousing and military chest-thumping, complete with bleachers on each side of the border and vendors hawking beer and peanuts to the crowds that show up to watch.

This would be reminiscent of the “We’ve got spirit, yes we do” scene in Hoosiers, with the addition of guns and goose-stepping.

But then, after the border is closed for the night and the pro-Indian and pro-Pakistani chants have died down, an odd thing happens:

... Bright-eyed and smiling almost bashfully, people begin to wave at the Pakistanis. The Pakistanis wave back. If you think of the history of this landscape, this makes sense. When Pakistan was born after the partition of India, amid terrible communal bloodletting, Punjab was split in two. Families and friends were separated. Those bonds are not forgotten. For all the trumpeting and strutting, there are plenty of people who just want peace.

It’s a hopeful message: Once Official India and Official Pakistan have gotten their quien es más macho messages across, civilians on both sides—remembering they were part of a single country just a few generations back—seem ready to just sit down and have some dal.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Silly String in Mesopotamia

One thing Americans are noted for is "American ingenuity," and it seems to be on display at the platoon level in Iraq.

BoingBoing calls our attention to an AP story noting that Silly String is saving Americans from booby traps:

Before entering a building, troops squirt the plastic goo, which can shoot strands about 10 to 12 feet, across the room. If it falls to the ground, no trip wires. If it hangs in the air, they know they have a problem. The wires are otherwise nearly invisible.

Not only has counterinsurgency theory been rescued from its Vietnam-era suspended animation; so has rubbery aerosolized goo.

(Thanks as always to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item.)

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Global Hopscotch


First, the silly: The U.S. and UN are threatening to cut off North Korea’s 600-odd ruling families from importing certain luxury goods. Here's a Chicago Tribune editorial on the subject:

On the U.S. list, according to the Associated Press, are such Kim favorites as Johnny Walker scotch whiskey, Cadillac cars, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, yachts, plasma TVs, Rolex watches, Segway scooters, Jet Ski personal watercraft and iPods. Japan includes beef, caviar, fatty tuna, expensive cameras and cars on its list of banned items. Many European nations are still working on their lists.

This just proves Thomas Friedman’s old point about how warfare is evolving from state-vs.-state to state-vs.-man. We’re not even trying to kill a single guy, like Usama bin Ladin, in this case; the U.S. is reduced to attempts to keep Kim Jong Il from getting bombed on the wrong scotch—a brand that, incidentally, is available in every airport duty-free store in the world.

Second, Arianna Huffington continues her march from bluster toward substance with a modest proposal:

Well, it appears [Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s] government wants us out six months from now. And what about the Iraqi people, those purple-fingered symbols of democracy in action? What about what they want?

If Bush is all about the Tenacious D(emocracy), why not have the Iraqi people "express their desires and wishes" and hold a plebiscite on the most pressing question facing the country: Should the United States withdraw its troops from Iraq -- Yes or No? (Talk about your Pick of Destiny).

Simple, in a vicious sort of way, with all parties in Iraq having to do something they don’t want to: Sunni insurgents would be discouraged from trying to stop the election, since it would likely go their way (U.S. out!). The al-Maliki government would be embarrassed into a get-of-the-vote effort to counter a high Sunni turnout. And the U.S., when its troops are told to go, has to leave, except for whatever right it asserts to protect Iraq’s oil wealth for export.

Finally, Minnesota congressman-elect Keith Ellison wants to be sworn in this January with his hand on a Qur’an, prompting predictable outrage from Christian conservatives. One of the most prominent has been pundit Dennis Prager, who called Ellison’s proposed action "an act of hubris ... that undermines American civilization. ... Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress."

Prager’s remarks are resounding throughout the nation and around the world, which must be extremely interested to see how America’s most prominent Muslim elected official (Zalmay Khalilzad is an appointee) is treated.

Of course, it turns out that Prager is Jewish, meaning he has not only soured the fragile U.S. reputation for religious tolerance in the Muslim world, he has managed to single-handedly unite the ADL and CAIR for one glorious moment:

The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement calling his argument "intolerant, misinformed, and downright un-American." Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, says the text used should be that which "is most sacred to the individual taking the oath. To ask ... otherwise is not only disrespectful to the person and to an entire religious tradition, but is asking the public official to be hypocritical."

The Council for American-Islamic Relations has called for Prager to be dropped from his recent presidential appointment to the Holocaust Memorial Council. "He is trying to marginalize Muslims by making it seem as though any practice of American Muslims is different or 'other' than what America stands for," says Arsalan Iftikhar, CAIR's legal counsel.

(Thanks to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the Tribune and Huffington items.)

Monday, December 04, 2006

Chaos High and Low


People identify themselves according to subnational groupings—their tribe—for varying reasons, but safety against other tribes would seem to be the most prominent reason. Growing up at the tail end of the Cold War, I was used to seeing tribes suppressed or subsumed by nation-states and national identities.

Today, though, tribes continue to reemerge from beneath their nation-states. I interpret this trend as being due to either extremely low or extremely high individual security.

At the low end of the security spectrum is Iraq, where the idea of national identity has already fallen through the joke stage and is now discussed primarily among the Western journalists and diplomats posted there. Tribes have reemerged because of an immediate need for physical protection against others, which nowadays means other tribes. Economic security is also extremely tenuous thanks to high unemployment.

At the high end of the security spectrum is Spain, a peaceful, increasingly prosperous European Union member where you’d think national identity would be strong. But as “Fighting Words in Spain” points out, sub-national actors like Andalusians, Basques and Catalonians increasingly threaten to declare nationhood:

Like the Basque Country before it, and perhaps Andalusia after it, Catalonia — one of Spain's 17 state-like autonomous regions — is establishing a separate cultural identity. The move is praised in some quarters as a long-overdue liberation from decades of repression, and attacked elsewhere as local nationalism run amok.

Critics warn ominously of a disintegration of the nation. Spain, they moan, is fast becoming a Tower of Babel. Loyalty to Madrid is weakened; diversity has gone too far.

Unlike Iraq, Spain offers few immediate personal threats beyond the occasional mugging in Madrid, and relatively high economic security thanks to long-term economic growth and a sophisticated public-welfare system. But this wealth and security, pushed along by Spain’s membership in the EU, only hasten Spain’s national erosion; Spaniards are free to pursue intellectual hobbies like the idea of being Basque.

In the phenomenally diverse U.S., however, there is a relatively strong national identity because of a dynamic tension between safety and threat.

Physical and economic security are both markedly lower than in Spain, with higher risks of violent and nonviolent crime and a need to hustle in pursuit of bigger paychecks. The situation is many times better than in Iraq, though, keeping calls for tribalism—even among minorities like African Americans and Arab Americans, who have reason enough to band together tribally—relatively muted.
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