Monday, January 31, 2011

On Revolution.

These are incredible times in Egypt.

President Hosni Mubarek has found himself the center of attention over the past few days. For almost 30 years, the country has been under the slowly-tightening grip of Mubarek's power-drunk regime, unable to hold elections without major fraud and manipulation yet seeing the gap between poor and rich grow insurmountable. But now, thousands of Egyptians have taken to the street in Cairo and several other large cities, with the chief demand of Mubarek's resignation.

Mubarek has yet to step down, though he has committed to dismantling his government and replacing them with more of his top allies.

Inspired by the Tunisian populace's success in getting their strongman president to flee the country, the Egyptian people have not let down in more than 6 days of demonstrations. And, with an inept, hothead police system, and an army that is at best neutral in the conflict, Mubarek has little to defend himself, save his international allies.


If Mubarek is driven out, a power vacuum will quickly take his place, with several factions struggling to get a foothold at the top. Several of these are secular, as the protests have been, and thus could indeed be a great step forward for Egypt if they can get enough attention leading up to the elections. There is at least one faction, though, with the religious fervor and fundamentalist rhetoric that could actually win an election: the Muslim Brotherhood.

When power vacuums spring up, they are usually filled by the most rabid candidate, the one who can get his base the most riled up. We saw this in the U.S. with the leaderless Republican Party from 2009-2010, where the Tea Party used its easily-quoted hard-right viewpoints to win dozens of elections.

In Egypt, most parties have little rhetoric, and fractured bases. The Muslim Brotherhood, however, has a readily-stated party line (Anti-Israel, Anti-Western meddling), a structure based on the religion of 90% of the people, and the advantage of being able to promote a drastic shift from the secular policies of the past.

Luckily for its opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood currently has the support of only a tiny fraction of the Egyptian electorate. But, as we saw in the U.S., a tiny sliver of support can quickly grow to a winning advantage if given the opportunity.

President Obama has toed the line on this issue thus far, never going so far as to call for the ousting of Mubarek, but also never going so far as to say that the people should cease their protests. Caught between a rock and a hard place, the administration's best hope is for a quick and peaceful transition to a new government that somehow maintains the foreign policies of the past while incorporating revolutionary domestic policies that satisfy the majority of the Egyptian people.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

On the Taliban.

For the last 30 or so years, the Taliban have been a force in the Middle East.  Formed as a backlash against the warlord-ruled clans and tribes of 1970s Afghanistan, the Taliban have morphed into possibly the most powerful non-governmental Islamist group (they did control the government of Afghanistan from 1996-2001, but have not had any state power since they were overthrown by the U.S.-led Northern Alliance).

The Taliban have gone from being the saviors of the region to being the destroyers of peace in the Middle East.  So who are they really?


Today marks the beginning of a mini-summit between the U.S., Afghanistan, and Pakistan.  The presidents and staffs of all three countries will meet for the next few days in order to discuss and solve the problem of the Taliban’s recent resurgence, especially in Pakistan, where the militant group has approached as closely as 60 miles to the capital of the nuclear-equipped country.

Based on the Taliban’s anti-American stance of late, which included stubbornly defending and hiding our friend Osama bin Laden in the years since September 11, the prospect of a Taliban Pakistani government is fairly frightening.  So how did this get so bad?


Because America caused it.  All of it.  The Taliban gained power and renown only after the U.S. funded their fight with the Soviet Union in the early ‘80s, providing weapons and money for military training of Talibani soldiers, including Osama bin Laden.  Later, the U.S. injected their money into the Pakistani military, in hopes of having a strong ally in the region, but this too backfired as it led to military coup after military coup in the country, and the democracy in place now is unstable at best.

What we’re seeing now is a U.S.-backed group fighting another U.S.-backed group over fragile territory in a fragile region.


Hopefully the American government now can learn from the mistakes of the past, and not simply throw money at problems until they go away.  I hope it’s clear now that it’s not safe to simply back one side of a conflict – the other side never goes away.  We see this again and again – in Israel/Palestine, North Korea/South Korea, and even Latin America.  Instead, we should focus on funding peace and stability, bringing both sides to a table in order to get to the heart of the conflict.

If they haven’t learned these lessons, and insist on forging peace only in the fires of war, we’re doomed to repeat the cycle yet again.  Only this time, a nuclear power is at stake.

Monday, May 4, 2009

On Swine.

I was going to try to get through this swine flu thing without having to mention it, but it just won’t go away.  So here goes nothing…


What seemed like just another illness hitting the poverty-stricken has turned into a full-blown panic worldwide, with people wearing masks in public from New York to Madrid.  The World Health Organization still says a pandemic of the new “H1N1 flu” is “imminent.”


At first, the swine flu seemed isolated in Mexico.  But now it’s spread all over the U.S., all over Europe and even into Hong Kong and Korea, along with a handful of other countries.  It’s still worst in Mexico, however, with death counts of up to 150, depending on who you listen to.  Mexico City has been shut down for days, a 9-million-person ghost town.

Cases outside of Mexico, thankfully, have been mild in comparison, and only one death has been attributed to the new flu outside that country’s borders.  But with nearly 300 confirmed cases in the U.S. alone, we shouldn’t completely ignore it.

I’m impressed with the school systems in Texas that have closed down, because I know many parents who would send their children to school with pneumonia, let alone a flu.  Even in Texas, sometimes governments have to step in to save people from themselves.


Not much, except get vaccinated and wait it out.  The U.S. Center for Disease control is working on a specific vaccine for this flu, but common flu therapies have been found to be effective.

And don’t worry about eating pig products.  That has nothing at all to do with the swine flu, even though Egypt would beg to differ: authorities there are slaughtering the nation’s entire stock of the animals.

Mainly, I think we just need to stay calm, wash our hands, and stay home if we feel under the weather.  I have a feeling that this, too, shall pass.

Friday, May 1, 2009

On the 2-party system.

In my opinion, the American political process is broken.  For many years, the “right” and “left” wings have been drifting, leaving more and more people disenfranchised, with no one in office who truly represents their views.  This became obvious to me in the 2004 election between George W. Bush and John Kerry, which many people (including myself) saw as a vote for the “lesser of two evils,” and was highlighted in the 2008 election between Obama and McCain, whom many vocal Republicans saw as too liberal.


OnTuesday, a Pennsylvania senator switched sides.  Arlen Specter, a Republican for the last 29 years, transferred his allegiance to the Democratic party, saying that his old party had drifted too far to the right, and that his personal views no longer aligned with those of his fellow Republicans.

Specter, one of only three Republicans to approve President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package, has always differed from the party lines on several issues, including abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research, but now those “party lines” differ from him on quite a bit more.  He saw no more room for moderates in the Republican Party.

Specter said that he would not be an automatic Democratic vote, however, and certainly has not been in the past, backing conservative Supreme Court nominees, the war in Iraq, and many other traditionally Republican policies.

Specter’s detractors say his switch was simply an act of “political self-preservation,” as he was trailing in the polls leading up to the Pennsylvania Republican Primary to Patrick J. Toomey, a fiscal conservative who has sponsored challenges against Republicans who have strayed from conservative principles.


I see this as the dawn of a new era.  The Republican party is narrowing their base toward the extreme right of the political spectrum, for all intents and purposes forcing Moderates out of the party.  (In Specter’s case, they took advantage of the Primary system – Toomey leads in the Republican primary, where only the most outspoken Republicans vote, causing Specter, whose views  don’t align with the extreme right, to be eliminated before the actual election, where moderate Democrats might vote for him.)  With more and more Democrats in the Capitol – they’re on the verge of a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate – there is a wider and wider expanse of Democratic viewpoints.

Specter says he will not necessarily vote along party lines.  Will others follow suit?  Will the Democratic Party become the new Independent Party?  Will Obama be forced into following through on his campaign promises, and have to suggest policy that makes sense not only for Democrats?  Will Republicans get more and more polarized, or will they start to reach out, realizing that their huge losses in 2008 may have been due to their ever-contracting base of support?


Arlen Specter is, I suspect, one of many moderate Democrats.  Often, these senators only vote along party lines as a symbol of solidarity, to show off their strong Democratic status in their next Democratic Primary.  It seems like a prime time for a new, Centrist party to break out, led by Specter, Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman, and many others.

The United States was founded as a system of several parties, after all.  George Washington had no party at all, John Adams was a Federalist.  Our third through sixth presidents were actually from the “Democratic Republican” party.

Why can’t we abolish parties altogether, and pick a candidate from a wide range of policies, not from one of two mandatory viewpoints?  Why can’t we elect politicians based on their positions, not their label?

Or, at the very least, why can’t we simply abolish Party primaries and just have one big primary for all the candidates for a certain race? We’d narrow it down to two for the final election – the two who have the most support from the entire population, not just one party’s extremes or the other’s.  Why vote for just red or blue, when we can vote for all the shades of purple in between?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On Obama.

I know you probably think it’s ridiculous that I’m going to try to capture President Barack Obama in one little column here, and I’m gonna have to go ahead and agree with you on that.  So I won’t.  Instead, I’ll try to capture a snapshot of his first 100 days in office.


It’s Obama’s 100th day in office today, and that means…not much, actually.  A lot of media outlets are making a big deal out of a totally artificial benchmark.  I just want to use the moment to help us get a grasp on what he’s tried to do so far.  I’ll try not to assume it means anything…


So far, Obama’s administration has made it a point to reach out to most of America’s “enemies.”  He’s advocated direct diplomatic talks with Iran, something the U.S. hasn’t done since Iranian revolutionaries held 52 U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days in 1979-1981.  He’s shaken hands with Hugo Chavez (see “On Hugo Chavez", below).  He’s relaxed the trade embargo with Cuba (albeit only to make it easier for Cubans to get American money and to see American news).  The elephant in the room, of course, is North Korea – any efforts Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made to start talking about talks have been met with more and more North Korean rebellion.


Obama’s domestic policy thus far has been highlighted on his willingness – nay, his need – to spend 787 billion dollars stimulating a broken U.S. economy, after spending $350 billion saving banks from their own mistakes.  Later, the administration gave tens of billions to GM and Chrysler as an effort to help them avoid bankruptcy; these loans to the car companies have turned into possible socialization of the industry, with GM submitting a plan in the last week to turn over majority ownership of the company to the government and to the unions.   Such drastic government spending has been the biggest strike against Obama domestically, with groups rallying in tea parties against such government spending, and governors (of southern states, mainly) speaking out against the package and even rejecting the stimulus money.  This anti-bailout mentality is captured fairly well (and fairly humorously) at the site


Obama’s campaign platform was one of reform, of pledges to totally revamp the way Washington does business, and to do away with the politicization of certain policies.  On this, his success is markedly mixed – his stimulus package barely passed, and only did so after countless trade-offs and political concessions took the sting off for a couple Republicans.  On the other hand, however, he lifted several scientific restrictions (the most famous of which is probably the ban on stem-cell research) with the idea that politicians should stick to politics and scientists should stick to science.


It’s obviously too early to tell whether any of his plans will come to fruition, but it’s not too early to see the basic path he’s trying to follow – one of reaching out across country lines, while not reaching very well across party lines.  But with an approval rating of 65%, the highest 100-day approval rating in 40 years, Obama is clearly liked by the American public…for now.  

Monday, April 27, 2009

On Mr. bin Laden

If there’s one man people in the West associate with Islam, it’s Osama bin Laden.  A 52-year-old son of the 10th wife of a wealthy Saudi businessman, bin Laden could have turned into one of the world’s richest men, or perhaps one of the foremost clerics of his religion.  But 22-year-old Osama, unfortunately, took the road less traveled, and joined Afghan militants in their fight against the Soviet Union, eventually staying there and becoming the face of Al Qaeda.


There’s news out today that Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari has announced that the U.S. and Pakistan have been unable to locate Osama bin Laden, that “[The CIA] obviously feel that he does not exist anymore but that’s not confirmed, we can’t confirm that.”  Doesn’t exist anymore?  Does that mean that Osama bin Laden might be dead???


If it’s true, if bin Laden truly “does not exist anymore,” then what?  I mean, bin Laden attacked us, and we attacked back, all over the world.  But didn’t WWII end (basically) when Hitler killed himself?  Doesn’t that mean this “war on terrorism” should be over now?

Sadly, not at all, no matter how we’re measuring success in this fight.  If we entered this war as a way to show our strength and get back at our September 11 attackers, then we haven’t yet done that – leaving bin Laden to die of (presumed) natural causes doesn’t exactly show our enemies that we have the power and the ability to get to anyone, anytime.  WE didn’t get him, Father time did.

On the other hand, if we entered the war on terrorism to eradicate terrorism from the face of the planet, we’ve basically gotten absolutely nowhere.  Our fight in Iraq has made terrorist networks bigger and harder to trace.  Our fight in Afghanistan has somehow enabled a resurgent Taliban (the bad guys in the very beginning, the “enablers” of bin Laden) to regain their footing and start making plays for big parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.


I expect Zardari’s announcement was not one of actual futility – Pakistan’s President admitting ignorance to international media doesn’t ring true to me.  Instead, I suspect it was a simple play of showing Al Qaeda exactly what they want to hear, because there’s nothing they’d like more now than to prove us wrong.  I definitely foresee them filming a new video either of bin Laden himself, or of bin Laden’s successor and his call to arms.  Either way, Al Qaeda gets to feel like they have the upper hand, when they’re actually simply giving us more data, more chatter over the terrorist networks we listen in on.  Besides, cocky adversaries are the most likely to make mistakes.

Let’s see what happens here... 

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

On Hugo Chavez.

Hugo Chavez is many things.  His supporters know him as President, Humanitarian, and the “Savior of Venezuela”.  Opponents call him other things, however, like Dictator, or a “Threat to Democracy”.  Whichever side is right doesn’t mean he’s not an important player in the drama of the world today: TIME Magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in 2006, with good reason.  His Socialist agenda has changed the face of Venezuela, and his outspoken rhetoric has polarized the globe.


At the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago this last week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez shook hands with U.S. President Barack Obama.  Big deal, you might say, and you’d be right.  This IS a big deal.  Chavez has put so much energy into bashing the U.S. over the past few years that some have said the sole reason for his successful reelection campaigns has been his Anti-Americanism.  But now he’s shaking hands with Obama?  Something’s got to give.


This single, simple handshake is an immediate illustration of the sea change in America’s status in its detractors’ eyes since the 2008 Presidential election—not to mention a drastic shift in America’s own foreign policy.  In August 2005, tensions were so tight between Chavez and the US’s right wing that televangelist Pat Robertson went so far as to advocate that the U.S. assassinate Chavez as a cheaper way of unseating the “strong-arm dictator” than a “$200-billion war.”

A year later, at the UN General Assembly, Chavez spoke one day after then-President George W. Bush, and referred to that fact in his speech.  “The devil came here yesterday," he said, “and it smells of sulfur still today.”

Obama’s critics, such as former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney (in an interview on Fox News), say that the handshake— among other Obama encounters with U.S. opponents—“sets the wrong standard.”  Cheney goes on to say that the meeting might show other countries that they’re now “dealing with a weak president or one who is not going to stand up and aggressively defend America's interests.”

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that maybe Cheney doesn’t have the best perspective when it comes to seeing how other countries view the United States.


Obama and Chavez are already in talks to reinstate the embassies to each other’s countries—a move in which I see almost no downside.  Embassies mean communication, and communication with Venezuela, one of the U.S.’s largest oil suppliers, can pay big dividends for both countries.

But there’s a bigger picture as well—that of the whole world.  For Iran and North Korea to see that one of George W. Bush’s greatest foes is now willing to talk, smile, and shake hands with the new American President is a huge step in the right direction.  This new guy must be worth talking to.