Tag Archive | middle-east

Terror in the Mid-East: It’s never been worse

TerrorWe are entering into one of the most chaotic chapters of modern history, though the geographic space of this chaos is smaller than it has ever been. While most countries are experiencing less terror, Mid-Eastern terrorist have never been busier or more successful.

I downloaded data from the Global Terrorism Database, which comprises more then 125,000 individual acts of terror and found that, since 2010, the number of weekly terror events when from somewhere around 10 to more than 40, and the trend doesn’t look like it’s ending anytime soon.

Moreover, while terror events are becoming more frequent, they are becoming more and more unpredictable.

While the world was shocked over Charlie Hebdoe, the troubling scale up in the number of terror events seems to have mostly gone unnoticed. Terrorists strike Islamic countries far more than they do France, and kill more than just cartoonists and policemen.

It is unproductive to view all terror groups and even acts of terror as being the same. Terror has turned into a morass of competing groups, with differing political aims and the loose nature of Al Qaeda has led to an outsourcing of terror by any local thug with a gun.

It is also unproductive to view Mid-East terror as simply restricted to the angry victims of drone attacks. Islamic terrorism has a deep history with roots going back decades, a history which seems to be widely ignored. It is also important to note that ISIS’ membership consists of a frighteningly large number of Westerners and a careful watch of their videos reveals that English, rather than Arabic, is a common language among its followers.

Where will this go? No one knows, but Charlie Hebdoe will be just a blip on the pattern on terror.

TerrorPlot

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Remembering Rwanda and Thinking of Syria

rwandan-genocideIn 1994, over the course of 100 days, members of the Hutu tribe waged a coordinated campaign to slaughter all of the Tutsi tribe within the borders of Rwanda. Nobody really knows how many people actually died, but it is thought that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people were killed or approximately 20% of the Rwandan population.

America, weary from rocky military interventions in Haiti and Somalia stood by and did absolutely nothing material to stop it. The US military’s only role in the conflict was to evacuate its citizens.

The Clinton Administration issued a plea to the Rwandan Army and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (two warring factions) to “agree to a ceasefire and return to negotiations called for by Tanzania” and then suggested the the Rwandan military work to quell the violence.

Worse yet, to my memory, the American public failed to comprehend the serious nature of the conflict, viewing it as a foreign problem, a problem of Africa, and a problem of Africans. The internet existed then, but unfortunately, we can’t go back to read the comments on popular new sites. I am positive they would be incredibly revealing.

While Syria is not Rwanda, there are obvious parallels. Though Assad has willingly used chemical weapons on his own people multiple times, Americans, weary from Iraq and Afghanistan, have willingly turned a blind eye.

Americans, in the name of either peace or indifference, have essentially normalized the use of chemical weapons to retain political power for the worst governments on the planet. This is the scariest implication of the whole affair.

Figures like Assad do not respond to dialogue. Syria has been under sanctions for years to no effect. In fact, his rule has become vastly more violent under sanctions, rendering them useless.

People often fail to understand that dictators protect themselves and the people around them at the expense of their citizenry. Sanctions, which target the economy, only serve to punish the weak. Dictators, dealers in violence, will only respond to credible threats to their hold on power. For better or for worse, in the past decade, America has proven itself rather adept at removing governments it doesn’t like. Assad should take us seriously, but of course, our weak kneed electorate has turned us into an elaborate joke.

In principle, I am vehemently anti-war. However, sometimes a commitment to inaction is more unjust than a credible commitment to action. In this particular case, American indifference to the use of violence and weapons of mass destruction to keep a toxic seat of power will have deep long term implications for generations to come.

I was incredibly encouraged to see Nick Kristoff’s brave series of posts on Syria, despite the vitriol that came from his readership.

I was also happy to see that both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have unapologetically kept up reports on the severity of the situation. Amnesty “neither condemned nor condoned military action” which, considering the source, sounded like an endorsement to keep it on the table.

While some are relieved to see that Russia and Syria have brought the issue to the negotiating table (presumably absolving the US of any responsibility), I am not.

Assad, with Russia’s support, has successfully turned the conversation his way, and has only entrenched himself further. He can happily continue the killing (now at a rate of 5,000 people per month) as he likes now that he’s successfully defused the American threat. It will set an excellent example for others like him though I think he learned the tactic from North Korea.

Kristoff referred to a great piece from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which pretty much sums up my views on the new “peace movement.”:

What is emerging now in the United States and the United Kingdom is a movement that is anti-war in form but pro-war in essence. It is opposed to U.S. military involvement in Syria, but says and does nothing about Russia sending millions of dollars in arms to the regime or about Iranian and Lebanese boots on the ground. It complains rightly and justly about America’s past and present crimes in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, but falls into Holocaust-denialism by claiming that Assad’s well-documented massive, murderous chemical weapons attack that killed 1,400 of his own people is a lie. This nascent movement is taking a side in Syria’s civil war by openly and unapologetically aligning with stateside supporters of the Assad regime while outwardly masquerading as neutral in a foreign conflict. It is a movement based on the same brand of hypocritical and highly selective, partisan outrage that powers the modern Tea Party.

Syria

Syrian blogger Edi

Syrian blogger Edi

I’ve been long hesitant to make my views on Syria known. I am still hesitant and my reluctance to say anything on the subject has been extremely troubling.

It seems that there is room for only one view on Syria, just as there was only room for one view on Iraq in 2003. Social media, I believe, has exacerbated the herd like nature of political views. The NSA need not work to create to create a uniform citizenry, the citizenry are quite adept at doing it to themselves. In contrast to 2008, though, the political tables have in some ways been turned.

I won’t say much about any of it, mostly since I have little time to respond to the one or two comments that will inevitably come. I am, however, drawn to a young Syrian blogger (tweeter?) named Edi, whose pictures (two of them) I post here. The situation clearly isn’t as simple as America believes.

I fear that America (and particularly the American left, who have it horribly wrong this time) is vastly underestimating the long term, worldwide consequences of American inaction in Syria.

That is all I will say on the matter (not that my opinion counts for anything).

From Edi's Twitter feed.

From Edi’s Twitter feed.

Conflict in Africa Getting Worse: A Good Sign?

Conflict events in Africa, 2012

Conflict events in Africa, 2012

Now that the intellectual chaos of PhD defending is over, perhaps now I’ll be able to put together some meaningful sentences.

I started my newfound state of semi-freedom by reading, something I haven’t done in while (outside of papers on malaria). Mo Ibrahim, cel phone magnate and philanthropist was interviewed by the World Policy Journal in the most recent issue.

Mo is responsible for bringing cell phone technology to Sub-Saharan Africa, expanding telecommunications on the continent from a few thousand land lines (outside of North Africa and the country of South Africa) to more than 500 million mobile subscribers today.

The total number of phones in Africa was maybe two or three million fixed-line phones. And this was mainly in South Africa in the south or in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco in the north, and nothing in between. Right now, Africa has more than 550 million mobile subscribers. This is more than the number of mobile phones in Europe, by the way. This brought farmers to the market place. It brought new services. Banking now in Africa is done more with mobiles than in actual physical branches of banks. All kinds of services are available cheap like mobile banking services, which are more used there than in Europe or the United States. It improved elections and democracies. The democratic process improved a lot because of the transparency. It encouraged entrepreneurship and economic growth. So a lot of things happened, especially in a place like Africa, which badly needed that kind of service which bridged so many years of underdevelopment, and that is wonderful. With information at their fingertips, people are able to communicate, able to talk to each other. This should bring a better sense of understanding and less conflict.

It was the last sentence that intrigued me. Could the expansion of cell phone coverage in SSA be associated with a decline in conflict? Armed with my statistical tools, I was ready to check test this hypothesis.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find much data on cel phone coverage. It appears that providers are either reluctant to publicize it, or are too fractured to merit a single source of data.

Data on conflict events, however, are reliably stored at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Database (ACLED). I have written on the database before, but hadn’t looked at it since late 2010.

What I found was disturbing. Conflict events have not decreased in SSA. In fact, there are more than ever. in 2012, there were more than 10,000 events recorded, almost double the number of events in 2011. Many of these events were protests (3,292) but there was a disturbing number of events involving state violence against civilians (2,706).

These events are spread throughout the continent, but far too many are occurring in developed hot spots like South Africa and Kenya (as the map shows).

Now, this could be a result of increased recording of events in the database. it could also be a result of the expansion of cell phone technology and the free exchange of information on the continent.

It is clear, though, that wider access to mobile technologies is not leading to peace on the continent, but rather more violence. However, protest is a hallmark of democracy and development. Let’s hope that these protests, as bloody as they may be, lead to wider access to public liberties and stable governance.

Perhaps this is a sign of good things to come? It’s certainly up to debate.

ACLED

The Invasion of Iraq Began 10 Years Ago

The ending to Vietnam was easy to recognize. We have the iconic pictures of the last helicopter on it’s way out to freedom to prove it. The end of WWII came with capitulations from Japan and Germany and a cessation of fighting.

If the media is to act as a guide, the end of the Iraq war (which was really an invasion) is not so clear. I would even speculate that most Americans think that the war is still on in full force. (To be charitable, they might not realize there’s a difference between Iraq and Afghanistan.) Despite this perception, iCasualties, a web site which tracks deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan only reported one military death in 2012 and, so far, none in 2013.

The Iraq Body Count site, however, listed 355 civilian deaths last month. The question is, though, where does the war stop? I find it hard to believe that there weren’t violent deaths previous to the entry of the Americans. A look at the listing of deaths lists attacks in markets and police stations, random roadside bombs.

Most troubling to me are the targeted killings of educators, University employees and academics. Though it may be unpopular to say so, there comes a point where we can’t blame ourselves any longer. Reading this list, I’m thoroughly disgusted. Hate the Americans if you will, but the killing of teachers and kids is inexcusable.

There is no doubt that the war was a colossal waste of resources, begun under intentionally fabricated pretenses for reasons which still remain mysterious to me. I sincerely doubt Bush had the intellectual faculties to come up with it on his own. The blame for the war goes to people like Robert Zoellick, Francis Fukuyama and Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld all members of the “Project for the New American Century,” a group which pressured Clinton to invade.

The saddest part is that the war was massively expensive, we haven’t really even begun to pay for most of it. The money came from low interest bonds. Of course, with inflation outpacing the interest rate on those bonds, we might not ever have to.

The Washington Post put it rather well:

In relative terms, the Iraq war has been fairly cheap by historical standards, costing about $120 billion a year or around one per cent of GDP, compared to 45 percent of GDP for World War II. In absolute terms, however, the Iraq war is the “second most expensive war” in American history after World War II. According to Hormats, it has been financed largely through the issuing of treasury bonds, 40 to 45 percent of which have been bought by foreigners

These treasury bonds were bought at rock bottom interest rates, I might add (again). To be honest, I get annoyed when liberals start screaming about how expensive the war was. Perhaps they don’t know what a bond is but the absolute expense isn’t the problem. The scary part is (as it states above) that the war, in relative terms to GDP, won’t cost us hardly anything. This lack of financial pain just makes it easier for us to do it again in the future.

I wrote a couple of posts on Iraq back in 2009. A spatial analysis of the Iraq casualty data here, a time series analysis here and a movie here.

HRW did a great piece on torture and human rights abuses in Iraq.

I’ll include the movie here for posterity:

Today’s Readings 1/15/2013

This feature may be making me lazy, but I’m short on time. What are you guys reading?

1. A new stimulus package could help jump-start Japan’s moribund economy, but structural reforms are needed for long-term revival.NYT
2. According to the Tunisian President, all dictators in the Mid East/North Africa are doomed to fall.Bloomberg
3. Japan Steps Out: A unorthodox dose of stimulus isn’t new, but signals an important change in a world of crushing austerityNYT
4. Taiwan might be the first Asian country to legalize same sex marriage.IHT
5. Best and worst Japanese films from a number of foreign critics.Midnight Eye
6. Health care costs may be eating into wages.Bloomberg
7. Bernanke speaks at the UM, and the NYT writes better than I do.NYT
8. Filmmaker Oshima Nagisa is dead at 80.Japan Times
9. China’s impact on US inflationFederal Reserve Bank of New York
10. The hidden gains of trade liberalizationVox

And

11. Tide detergent is now a target for shoplifters, drug dealers and thieves. The NYT has a debate to figure out why. One has to wonder why, in all of the meandering argument, they didn’t just ask the thieves why Tide is attractive. I’m betting it’s being used in the manufacture of drugs.NYT

Defense Spending and the Economy: Is there a link?

DefenseGDPEventsToday I encountered a discussion, where the participants emphatically maintained that the current US economic woes are to be blamed in part on increased US defense spending during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I countered and claimed that they have no relation at all. Of course, these people hate me now (thinking I was merely being difficult for the same of being difficult), but that’s ok. I’m used to it.

To test this hypothesis, I took data on US GDP (adjusted to constant 2005 dollars) and combined them with data on US defense spending (adjusted to constant 2010 dollars). The results can be seen to the left. The red line is defense spending. The blue line is GDP.

As I maintained, there is no obvious relationship between defense spending and economic growth. There are a couple of major blips in GDP growth, namely the collapsing of tech equities in the early 2000’s and the economic meltdown on 2007/8. There are no events in US GDP for drops during Clinton nor sudden increases in defense spending following 9/11.

In fact, as defense spending dropped pre-9/11, you can see the US economy was plugging along just fine. As defense spending went up post 9/11, the US economy maintained the same trajectory, minus the economic bumps.

DefenseUnemploymentEventsCertainly, GDP is not the only economic marker we could use. I did the same thing with the unemployment rate.

Now, at first glance, this is a little more convincing. But when you take the events into consideration, it is less so. The two major economic events of the 2000’s, namely the equity bust, and the financial meltdown both resulted in sudden jumps in the unemployment rate. 9/11 and the troop surge did not. In fact, as spending was doing up, unemployment was going down. If we look back into the nineties, we can notice that even though defense spending was declining, unemployment was up, then down again. In short, given the context, there is no real reason to assume that two related.

I am NOT an advocate for war. I am though, an advocate for evidence backed claims. There is little evidence to suggest that increased defense expenditures during the Bush years affected our economy.

We can claim, if we like, that federal revenues might have been greater had the wars not happened. These revenues, it is argued, could have been allocated to education or infrastructure improvements, for example. However, it has to be noted that the wars weren’t funded out of federal revenues. They were funded out of low interest bonds. Thus, as those bonds had not been serviced at the time that this data was collected, there is, again, even less reason to assume that the wars negatively impacted the economy.

Now, we can certainly make arguments over how much defense spending is too much and what the potential long term effects of servicing the war debt will be. I argue, though, that our elected representatives are much more interested in financing the military than, say, welfare programs for the needy. It would take a great leap of faith to assume that, if the military were closed tomorrow, monies targeted for defense would automatically be transferred to providing health care to poor people. I also argue that, long term, the expenditures that came out of the financial crisis will be, in comparison, more difficult to service.

The war cost us politically, but was a bargain economically. To me, that’s a much more frightening state of affairs.

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