Thursday, December 29, 2011

The New Railroad in Afghanistan

The new railroad from Hairatan to Mazar-i Sharif doesn't run very far but it augurs for a momentous technological change in Greater Central Asia because it can eventually link into the rail networks of north and south.  Assuming that some day Afghanistan will be at peace, we can believe that the rail line will run beyond Mazar into Pakistan as well as Iran, thus linking the rail networks of the Middle East, South Asia, and North Asia. This was a matter of great interest in the nineteenth century when railroads were critical devices of colonial imperialism.  So, finally, it's happening.  The effect of such linkages will effectively reduce distances across the vast span of Eurasia, both in cost and in time of travel.  So this small, modest innovation seems to portend the emergence of a new and different social, economic, and political world in Eurasia. I reproduce here the report of the Associated Press.  RLC [Click on the title below for a link to the source.]
Afghanistan opening first major train service
By KAY JOHNSON, Associated Press – Dec 21, 2011  KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Operators ran the first train down Afghanistan's first major railroad Wednesday, clearing the way for a long-awaited service from the northern border that should speed up the U.S. military's crucial supply flow and become a hub for future trade.
A cargoless train chugged into a newly built station in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Wednesday after a 47-mile (75-kilometer) trial run from the border with Uzbekistan, said Deputy Public Works Minister Noor Gul Mangal, who was on hand for the arrival.
The new rail line is the first stage of an ambitious plan to link landlocked Afghanistan to its neighbors' extensive railways for the first time, eventually opening up new trade routes for goods traveling between Europe and Asia.
Afghanistan has never had a functional rail network, though many projects have been begun and later abandoned, victims of maneuvers of the 19th century Great Game rivalry between Russia and Britain, and then political bickering in the early 20th century. Soviet occupiers abandoned a few rail projects in the 1980s, and later years of bitter civil war made such construction impossible.
So the line from the border town of Hairatan to Mazar-i-Sharif marks a milestone in a violence-wracked country eager for good news on the horizon. It also could be a key route for the U.S. troop withdrawal beginning next year and, eventually, a gateway for Afghan exports that would travel its neighbors, said Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Washington
"It's actually a big deal. It's very significant both practically and symbolically," Starr said.
In the short term, service will help release a bottleneck at Hairatan dry port that is now holding up goods — including fuel and other supplies for American troops — while they are loaded off of trains and onto trucks for a hazardous journey over Afghanistan's northern mountain roads.
"This port of Hairatan is where the bulk of commercial cargo is coming from into the country, so it is very important," said Juan Miranda, head of Central and West Asia Department of the Asian Development Bank, which funded the $165 million project.
Allowing trains to come straight in will help Hairatan handle up to 10 times as much cargo, from 4,000 tons per month now to 25,000-40,000 tons per month once the service is fully operating, the ADB says. Once in Mazar-i-Sharif, the goods can be transferred to most of the rest of Afghanistan on surface roads.
Uzbekistan's state-owned SE Sogdiana Trans will run the commercial train service, ADB's Afghanistan representative Noriko Sato said.
A U.S. military spokesman says the new railway will be key to supplying American troops — and possibly also withdrawing non-lethal cargo during the American troop pullout set to begin next year.
"We do not have numbers yet, (but) we anticipate that the rail line will be able to speed the transit of cargo into Afghanistan and out of it," said Cmdr. Bill Speaks of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
The U.S. has recently shifted much of its supply line to the north from routes going through Pakistan, and the northern routes' importance was brought into sharp focus last month when Pakistan — angered by a disputed NATO strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers — closed its two border crossings for U.S. supplies.
Just three years ago, about 90 percent of nonmilitary supplies to Afghanistan went through Karachi, Pakistan. Today, close to 75 percent of cargo is shipped through the northern network.
Just as the Pakistani supply line has been attacked by insurgents, the newer northern routes through Mazar-i-Sharif and other cities are likely to also become targets. In 2009, Taliban forces in the northern province of Kunduz hijacked two fuel trucks, resulting in a fiery NATO airstrike that killed dozens.
While many fear instability or even civil war in Afghanistan after 2014 when most foreign forces leave, others are busy planning for a future in which the country could be a hub in a New Silk Road reconnecting spice and silk routes from centuries past.
The 10-country Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation project — supported by the ADB along with the U.N., World Bank and International Monetary Fund — envisions a network of some 2,250 miles (3,600 kilometers) of roads and 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) of railway linking China and India to the Middle East and Europe, although the project is far from complete.
For years, Afghanistan's poor roads and rails have been the project's missing link to much of that network.
With the northern Hairatan rail line ready to open for business, Afghan officials are already planning to expand its infant railroad with another proposed line to Turkmenistan to the northwest, Mangal said Wednesday.
He said a delegation would meet with Turkmenistan officials to discuss the expansion at the official inauguration for the Hairatan-Mazar-i-Sharif line, which he said would come soon though he wouldn't give a date.
"This is the first railway in Afghanistan and of course when we inaugurate it there will be a big ceremony, Mangal said.
Johnson reported from Bangkok.Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

An intriguing letter of congratulations from Iran

Below is a statement I received today broadly distributed from Dr. ... , a former official of the the Iranian government under the "progressive" Prime Minister Muhammad Khatami.  Dr. ...  is notable for his efforts to create relations between Muslim and Christian theologians through an institute which he founded and directs in Tehran.  He is also notable for his involvement in the demonstrations against the government of Iran during the 2009 demonstrations, and for the abuse he clearly suffered when he was imprisoned for it.  He went into prison a portly short man and came out many months later evidently 100 pounds lighter.  The time spent in custody and the lost weight clearly discounted the statements of loyalty he made when he was finally released.  Before his ordeal he paid a visit to Washington University in St Louis as well as to Covenant Seminary, whose faculty had visited him in Tehran some months before, so he has friends here who have followed his career and taken note of the abuse he has evidently suffered at the hands of his own government, dominated as it is by a kabal of less progressive Shiite theologians.

Now he is resurfacing as the head of his Institute and making a statement of great interest because it seems to depart from the usual rhetoric of the Islamic Republic.  Here, in his statement of congratulations to Christians in their time of celebration, is a condemnation of dictatorship and even a call for the Islamic regimes of the world to allow non-Muslims to practice their faiths.
The Institute ... is honored to compliment New Year to you and your colleagues. Coincidence of New Year and birthday of Christ shows that religion is the most powerful factor in human life, which has been abused either it is able to solve huge problems of humanity. so that we invite all religions to note common subjects and make dialogue about them, to solve man's problems also to achieve the spirituality. The biggest event of world in the last year, was fall of dictators in Muslim's countries.  Spirit of the struggle against dictatorship was Islam-willing and once again it confirmed the importance of religion in human life. we, in our turn, request of new leaders and authorities in Islamic countries to accept actual share of other religions and their faithfuls, grant them their full rights of citizenship so that all religions will be able to expand intellectuality and theism in the world, to replace peace instead of current violence.  Accept good wishes of my colleagues and me, in the Institute … for New Year. [signed] ... [from] Iran- Tehran
Dr ... is proposing that the "new leaders and authorities in Islamic countries accept ... other religions and their faithfuls [followings], [and] grant them their full rights of citizenship ...."  This plea for tolerance of other religious groups can hardly be other than a challenge to his own government, which famously cannot bear dissent or unauthorized religious practice.  Buried in his congratulations to those of us in the Western world -- I'm sure it went out to his whole address list -- is a  veiled critique of his own political context, one that, as he says, has "abused" religion.  I hope he can be safe in such a place; Der ...  knows by experience how painful it can be to those who embarrass a dictatorial regime.    

Monday, December 26, 2011

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Another gas field discovered in Iran

The Iranians have discovered another large gas field -- they claim 1.4 trillion cubic meters of reserves -- in their Caspian Sea waters.  They already have the largest combination of oil and gas reserves in the world.  The significance of their discovery will lie in what they can make of it.
In any case, the discovery underlies the special difficulties the western world, especially the United States, of course, has in dealing with the Iranian government.  Even though roguish in policy it claims sovereignty over one of the most richly endowed territories on the earth.
Here is the TehranTimes report:
Iran envisages $50b investment to explore oil, gas fields in Caspian Sea 
Iranian oil ministry has envisaged investing up to $50 billion to explore oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea, the Mehr news agency quoted a member of parliament as saying on Friday. “In a recent meeting with the oil minister, he elaborately explained on plans to explore oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea,” Ali-Asghar Yousefnejad stated. Iran announced on December 11 it has discovered a large gas field in the Caspian Sea with at least 50 trillion cubic feet (some 1.4 trillion cubic meters) of reserves.
 The field, in waters 700 meters deep, lies wholly within Iran’s territorial waters, Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi explained.  He added excluding this new discovery Iran has 11 trillion cubic meters of proven gas reserves in the Caspian Sea
[For more, click on the title above.]

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The “Symbol-breathing” Animal

Papers are now read, grades recorded.  It’s time to consider how well I taught my students the fundamental concepts of my discipline.  [In my courses on "Civil Conflicts" and "Terrorism" and "The Clash of Civilizations" I have gotten used to being asked "What is this course about?" from students who realize that besides the stated topic there is another more abstract one in the course, but they are unsure what it is.  How social life is enabled, it turns out, is not easily taught.]  Judging from the papers students turned in I have done only fairly.  That so few of them really got it reflects on me.  My grade should be, maybe a B-.  One of my colleagues said the other day he would be satisfied if his students would demonstrate knowledge of merely the basic concepts of biological evolution, nothing more.  Me too, for the concept of culture. 

As the last exercise, I told them to write a paper comparing five cases [from those we examined in class], but without using the word “culture.”  When tempted to use the world “culture” they were to deconstruct what they had in mind, to specify its elements.  The point was to force them to identify more exactly the ways that folks in these different settings were engaging with each other and their predicaments by means of symbols.  

It was Ruth Benedict who suggested that culture is to us as water is to the fish of the deep.  Because water is their medium of existence it is fundamental to all they know.  Similarly we human beings dwell in oceans of symbols – layers and layers of forms to which we ascribe meanings.  We perceive through symbols, interpret what we perceive through symbols, react to what we perceive by acting meaningfully, that is, symbolically.  We create our visions, our expectations, our “worlds” through symbols.  

This is no “airy-fairy” world, as some disparagingly characterize such a view, because such a world cannot exist other than materially: Symbols are always material.  They are objects – always objects -- to which we ascribe meaning:  flows of sound are taken to be meaningful utterances, marks on a page, a monument, or on the human body stand for other things.  Material things invested with meaning are the fundamental building blocks of the human imagination. 

I wanted my students to recognize how such intersubjective forms enable social life:  as human beings we draw from funds of symbols representing the understandings we have acquired through experience in order to make sense of the flow of stimuli that bombard us every waking moment.  With these symbolic forms we ascribe significance to those stimuli; we decide how to respond fittingly to the circumstance; and we act so as to convey our intentions, that is, meaningfully.  

However, although trained by experience to perceive and interpret and act in familiar ways we are not automatons; we are agents, able to choose how to perceive, how to interpret, and how to respond.  What we choose to see, and give significance to, and respond to are never the only possible ways to perceive, interpret, and act.    
So the key terms of this frame of reference are,
·        *the repertoire of symbolically constituted understandings available to us,
·        *our own selves as agents,
·        *the context that must be perceived, defined [by using symbols], and responded to meaningfully,
·        *the specific selections from our symbolic repertoire that we deploy in order to cope with the exigencies of the moment, and the reasons for those choices.

The ocean of symbols around us, framing our experience, pervading our thoughts, in fact enabling our thoughts, making it possible for us to conceive of a past and future, even to plan for a future – this is our medium.  Without it we cannot live.  In the absence of it – when we have no sense of significance – we are in danger, for we cannot bear to live otherwise.  

These are the fundamental concepts of my discipline that my students need to grasp.  I hope to do better next time.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The talking animal that needs to be heard

A rumination:  The other day I met someone who, according to what I had understood, was coming to see me to find out about my research.  I was of course flattered that anyone would think I was doing something interesting.  But it turned out that in an hour and a half my visitor asked no questions; not one.  In fact, what he did do was talk.  It became clear early on that he was brilliant and had a lot of creative ideas.  He was just talking through his experience and his project, what he was teaching, and what it seemed to mean for his students.  I started taking notes.  Eventually I decided to butt into what he was saying to tell him what I was doing, and then he began to take notes.  As it turned out, we had plenty to share.  It was a great time. 
But what I wondered afterward was why he came.  It required a special effort on his part -- he was from another city and had come to town for other reasons.  So why did he want to see me?  I think it was because he needed to talk, to tell someone what he was doing, what he thought about some issues he considered vital. I was useful to him as a listener.  He needed an audience, someone to pay attention as he worked through his own perception of the issues he cared about.  He came to find someone who would appreciate what he was doing.  Indeed I did, and I fulfilled his need for a sympathetic audience. 
The next weekend I was with a friend who has had a hard life, several tragic events in his life, and again I was obliged to listen.  He is one of those types who talks endlessly, if we let him; but it’s hard to listen for very long because he tends to tell the same stories.  Above all, he seems also to need an audience.
I wonder now about our human need to be heard.  We all seem to need an audience.  In the 1990s hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were established to allow the South Africans to allow the two opposing sides, black and white, to reconcile.  Many of them, especially the blacks, had suffered grievously at the hand of the others. The TRC was supposed to enable the victims to tell their stories, perhaps even to confront their abusers, in hopes of bringing closure to the bitter conflicts of the past and to avoid a hopelessly irresolvable civil war.  The TRC could not achieve all that had been hoped, but at least for some folks the process was cathartic.  Some testified to a sense of relief after just telling their stories to an attentive audience; indeed, what some of them had to say revealed such heinous behavior that the whole country was deeply shaken.  For those folks, having someone listen to their stories, to share the anguish they had felt of having no idea what had happened to their loved-ones, gave them a sense of finality.    
We human beings seem to need to talk, to write, to “say” something, as if we lust for an audience that appreciates us.   I hear that often from my students: they want to write.  I wonder if the quest for a sympathetic listener is universal.  To me it seems as if that quest is intrinsic to what we are as human beings.  Isn't it remarkable that billions of dollars are being spent in search of other creatures like ourselves somewhere out there in the universe?  
That seems to be why some of us write blogs.  I have never questioned why anyone writes a blog:  it is to cry out to be heard.  I began this one in desperation, frantic that our government was making egregious blunders in its Middle Eastern wars. I worried, what would be the outcome of such folly?  So many errors of judgment, so much unjustified arrogance.  I wrote to cry out for sanity.  I felt like Jeremiah: “Oh land, land land! Hear the world the of the Lord!”
So why anyone writes is no mystery to me.  The mystery is why anyone bothers to read blogs. Who listens?  Why does anyone want to know what we say?  Such magnanimous souls they are, just to listen!  I have no idea who they are – and in my case they are few and rare – but to the degree that they leave traces, as if they had really heard me, they have performed a service.
One of the continuing questions of anthropologists is what makes human beings different from all the other creatures we know about.  The more we know, the more difficult it is to specify just what makes us different.  Can the lust to be heard, to have an audience, be one of those qualities special to our humanity?  We all hope that someone out there is listening.  

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A deeper historical view of how America came to this

In this period of the voting cycle it is easy to forget the conditions that brought our country to its tragic and embarrassing condition, in which half our country is near or below the poverty line.  As a public most of us Americans are forgetful of things that took place in even the recent past.  Most Americans forget that Bill Clinton left the country with a budget surplus.  A surplus?  We are a long way from that now.  How did we get to this place?  Here are two assessments by Republicans.

Christopher Buckley [son of Wm F. Buckley] on NOW 3/3/06:
President Bush has now borrowed more money than all other Presidents combined. The spending that he has enacted is amazing. It amazes me that he calls himself "conservative."”

Francis Fukuyama in 2008: 
It is hard to imagine a more disastrous presidency than that of George W. Bush. It was bad enough that he launched an unnecessary war and undermined the standing of the United States throughout the world in his first term. But in the waning days of his administration, he is presiding over a collapse of the American financial system and broader economy that will have consequences for years to come. As a general rule, democracies don’t work well if voters do not hold political parties accountable for failure. While John McCain is trying desperately to pretend that he never had anything to do with the Republican Party, I think it would be a travesty to reward the Republicans for failure on such a grand scale."  

Celebrating Mohammed Bouazizi's gift to the Arab imagination: His own burning body

Salman Shaikh of CNN reviews the significance of what has taken place in the Arab world in the last twelve months.  So much has changed, so much is still unresolved, so much is potential.  This is a time to encourage the authentic appeals for the right of the peoples of the Middle East to choose their own leaders and to hold them accountable for what they do with their country.  They are worthy of our support and encouragement.  RLC
Mohamed Bouazizi: A fruit seller's legacy to the Arab people By Salman Shaikh, Special to CNN updated 9:23 AM EST, Sat December 17, 2011                          
(CNN) -- Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation one year ago was an act which symbolized the frustration and desperation of millions in the Arab world, setting into motion a series of revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa.His was a cry for dignity, justice, and opportunity, which continues to be heard around a region undergoing tumultuous change. In today's Middle East, people matter. Many are now engaged in what could be a life-long struggle to fight long-standing grievances and take greater control of their lives. This process must involve the creation of new democratic political systems, which ensure greater accountability of leaders, and level the playing field of opportunity for all, not just a select few. 
It has been a remarkable year. Three dictators have been toppled and one has transferred power to a deputy. Nonetheless, analysts and policy-makers continue to speak about the slow pace of change in the region and warn of the onset of an "Arab Winter." Such distinctions -- spring and winter -- are misleading. Many seasons will come and go in the transformative years that lie ahead for the Arab world. Revolutions take time to settle. The transformation of societies takes even longer. The colored revolutions of Eastern Europe, two decades on, are still developing. It took centuries for democratic systems to be refined in Europe. We cannot expect democracy in the Middle East to be solidified in only one year. 
Still, across the region, there is cause for concern. Egypt's transition to civilian rule carries major worries, even as Egyptians continue to go to the polls. The concern remains that the ruling military council will relinquish power only under heavy pressure; and Egypt's economy and confidence are in nosedive as the populace awaits civil rule. Syrians meanwhile face a regime intent on killing and torturing its citizens to end their uprising. All this as a largely impotent international community argues over how to stop the increasing violence.In Yemen, many are not convinced by a regionally brokered transition deal, which allows Saleh and his family immunity from prosecution as well as continued political influence. Bahrain continues to reel from the absence of a genuine national dialogue between its rulers and the underrepresented and relatively impoverished majority Shia community. Libya's revolutionaries now face the immediate challenge of building a state from scratch, based on the rule of law and democratic principles. To do so, they are learning, they will first have to put down their guns.  . . . 
[For more, click on the title.]

Sunday, December 11, 2011

More signs of rapid climate change

We would like to believe that the leaders of affairs on the earth will recognize impending disaster early enough to avoid it. That is of course the intention of those meeting to deal with climate change.  But as long as major lobbying organizations, for reasons of self interest, seek to obfuscate the issue the prospects are poor -- or so I surmise.  Is there not abundant reason to wonder if they will get it together?  Here is one of the latest warning reports.  RLC

VOA December 10, 2011NASA: Earth's Prehistoric Record Warns of Nearing Rapid Climate Change

A new U.S. space agency study warns the Earth this century could see rapid and catastrophic climate changes if man-made global warming levels are allowed to reach an internationally-recognized so-called “safe limit” of two degrees Celsius.
The NASA researchers examined prehistoric climate conditions during past interglacial periods - the time between ice ages - and compared them with the interglacial period the Earth is currently experiencing. The last interglacial period ended around 115,000 years ago when temperatures were less than one degree Celsius warmer than today, and sea levels were six meters higher.

The scientists say looking at how the prehistoric climate responded to natural changes gives them more insight into determining a dangerous level of man-made global warming for today’s world.  
NASA study leader James Hansen says the findings show that Earth’s climate is more sensitive than even recent estimates suggest. He described the notion of limiting man-made global warming to an increase of two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as “a prescription for disaster.”

Recent studies, including those by NASA, indicate the average global surface temperature since 1880 has gone up 0.8 degrees Celsius and is on course to continue rising by 0.1 degrees every decade. 
NASA researchers say global warming of two degrees Celsius would more closely match conditions of an interglacial period that occurred some five million years ago when seas were about 25 meters higher than today. . . .  [For more, click on the title above.]
The problem as I see it isn't the technical possibilities of avoiding a catastrophe but the known experience with how social policy works:  It can work as long as a free and open discussion allows opinion to form around a vital issue, but at a rate determined by the process of information distribution.  Right now we have certain  industries that foresee a loss to their business if serious measures are taken to reverse the trends in CO2 usage, and they [some of them] are working to make sure no consensus that there is a problem develops.  Some in the oil industry [famously, the Koch brothers] seem to be devoted to questioning all research indicating that the world is racing toward a point of no return.  It's hard to know how long it will take for the world, even the oil executives themselves, to decide they had better face the practical consequences of denial.  The day will surely come.  The only issue is whether it comes too late to avoid global catastrophe. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tracking developments on the World Clock

Click on the title above and follow the transformations taking place on our globe by the day, month, year.  Sobering numbers.  

Monday, December 05, 2011

"Carbon Emissions Show Biggest Jump Ever Recorded"

The news should be no surprise, but it is worrisome -- the biggest reason that the likelihood that the world will actually reverse the trend before the systems is beyond recovery is rising, not diminishing.

Source: Global Carbon Project
"Carbon Emissions Show Biggest Jump Ever Recorded"
Global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning jumped by the largest amount on record last year, upending the notion that the brief decline during the recession might persist through the recovery.
Emissions rose 5.9 percent in 2010, according to an analysis released Sunday by the Global Carbon Project, an international collaboration of scientists tracking the numbers. Scientists with the group said the increase, a half-billion extra tons of carbon pumped into the air, was almost certainly the largest absolute jump in any year since the Industrial Revolution, and the largest percentage increase since 2003.
The increase solidified a trend of ever-rising emissions that scientists fear will make it difficult, if not impossible, to forestall severe climate change in coming decades.
Climate Progress reported on a similar analysis last month (see “Biggest Jump Ever in Global Warming Pollution in 2010, Chinese CO2 Emissions Now Exceed U.S.’s By 50%“).  [For more on the new study click on the title above.]

The profile of CO2 emissions is hardly improving

A chart that appeared in the New York Times yesterday says a lot about what's happening with C02 emissions.

Just to make sure the point come through, I want to put it into words:
  • The US output is still rising but fortunately at a much lower rate;
  • China's output has skyrocketed, from about 2.3 metric tons a year to about 7 metric tons
  • India's output and that of its neighbors has also risen greatly;
  • The Europeans in the mean time have done much better, even in many cases reducing their total output
All this is to say that the treats to global warming are still rising dramatically.  The consequences will be global.

The Times also indicates that generally little is being done to alleviate the problem.  If you click on the title of this note it will link to Robert B. Semple's article on the situation:  "Remember Kyoto? Most Nations Don’t"

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How to fix Congress: The Warren Buffett proposal

CORRECTION:  The only part of the statement below that Warren Buffett made was the first.  The rest of it was invented by an unknown person.  I like all of those ideas too, but some of them are in fact misleading.  The Constitution is not amended by popular petition. [1/21/12]

Below is a statement that has been circulating, about how to fix the logjam in Congress.  The proposal was made by Warren Buffett.  It was first expressed in a recent interview with CNBC, and now is being circulated in the form of a potential amendment to the Constitution.  I don’t know if this is the solution, but I am fed up with the way things are done in Washington, and I believe that most Americans are too, and from all over of the political spectrum.  So a move to add an amendment to the Constitution to solve some the problem seems ever more appealing.  
What do you think?  
"I could end the deficit in 5 minutes," Buffett told CNBC. "You just pass a law that says that any time there is a deficit of more than 3% of GDP, all sitting members of Congress are ineligible for re-election. The 26th amendment (granting the right to vote for 18 year-olds) took only 3 months & 8 days to be ratified! Why? Simple! The people demanded it. That was in 1971 ... before computers, e-mail, cell phones, etc. Of the 27 amendments to the Constitution, seven (7) took 1 year or less to become the law of the land ... all because of public pressure.   
Warren Buffet is asking each addressee to forward this email to a minimum of twenty people on their address list; in turn ask each of those to do likewise. In three days, most people in The United States of America will have the message. This is one idea that really should be passed around. *Congressional Reform Act of 2011*   
1. No Tenure / No Pension. A Congressman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they are out of office.  
2. Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security. All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people. It may not be used for any other purpose.  
3. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.  
4. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.  
5. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.  
6. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.  
7. All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective 1/1/12. The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen.  Congressmen made all these contracts for themselves. Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators, so ours should serve their term(s), then go home and back to work.   
If each person contacts a minimum of twenty people then it will only take three days for most people (in the U.S. ) to receive the message. Maybe it is time.  THIS IS HOW YOU FIX CONGRESS!!!!! If you agree with the above, pass it on.  If not, just delete. You are one of my 20. Please keep it going.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Google identifies a space center in China

The following article:  Does it indicate China's interest in having Central Asia within range?  It may simply be the site where the Chinese have decided to have test facilities for their warheads.  Anyway, the most curious feature of this is that it was Google that identified it.  Presumably, the military satellites have been tracking affairs all over China for a long time.  RLC 

Google Earth Identifies Huge Secret Structures in China’s Gobi Desert
By Ankita Mehta.  International Business Times.  Tuesday, November 15, 2011 4:37 AM EST
 Google Earth has apparently spotted large and unidentified structures in China's Gobi Desert. The satellite images have raised questions over what China could be building in the region, which shares borders with Mongolia and is used for military, space and nuclear programs.
 According to The Telegraph, the area in question is close to the headquarters of the country's space program - Jiuquan, Gansu. The location is also close to a nuclear test site China has since abandoned. The sites are believed to be on the border of  Gansu and Xinjiang provinces in northwestern China, less than 100 miles from Jiuquan.
 The buildings are believed to be shaped in rectangular and circular forms and there are also formations that appear to be runways for airplanes. The two images on Google Earth show deep rectangular shapes that seem to be a mile long and a tangle of bright white-colored intersecting lines noticeable from space. The other image shows huge concentric circles, with three jets parked at their centre.
 An earlier image, taken in 2007, shows a mass of orange blocks, each the size of shipping container, placed in a circle. A recent image, however, shows them to have moved as far as three miles from the original site.
 Although the purpose of the huge structure is unknown, some experts believe it might be an optical test range for missiles.
 Tim Ripley, a defense expert, told The Telegraph that the structures all had similar grids to the ones used at the U.S.'s secret military base in Nevada, Area 51.
 "The picture of the circle looks very like a missile test range, with target and instrumentation set out to record weapon effects. The Americans have lots of these in Nevada - Area 51!" he said.

Contrary views of what is going on in Syria: From unbiased sources?

The following, sent to me by a friend, reveal how different the "news" in other places looks from what we read in the United States.  RLC

‘CIA, MI6 and Mossad: Together against Syria’
21 November, 2011
The West is doing its best to destabilize the situation in Syria, author and journalist Webster Tarpley told RT. According to him, civilians have to deal with death squads and blind terrorism, which is typical of the CIA.“What average Syrians of all ethnic groups say about this is that they are being shot at by snipers. People complained that there are terrorist snipers who are shooting at civilians, blind terrorism simply for the purpose of destabilizing the country. I would not call this civil war – it is a very misleading term. What you are dealing with here are death squads, you are dealing with terror commandos; this is a typical CIA method. In this case it’s a joint production of CIA, MI6, Mossad, it’s got money coming from Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates and Qatar,” he explained.  He added that Syrian society is the most tolerant society in the Middle East, the one place where all kinds of people live together in remarkable harmony, Muslims and Christians of all kinds. “This is a model of a peaceful coexistence of various ethnic groups. The US policy right now is to smash the Middle East according to ethnic lines,” he added. Assad’s rule is increasingly being called illegitimate.
But the US and Europe do not seem concerned that getting rid of the Syrian president could cause even more violence, as was seen in Egypt, believes Tarpley. “After Libya becoming a bloodbath with 150.000 dead and now with Egypt showing what it was all along – there was no revolution there, it was a complete failure and now people are beginning to understand that.  Still, Mrs Clinton and Ms Rice (sic) continue to push this bankrupt model of the colour revolution, backed up by terrorist troops – people from Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.  There is a growing movement inside the Islamic community, which says ‘We want reconciliation, we want law and order, and we want legality’,” he said.
Russian FM blames West for ‘provocation’ over Syria
21 November, 2011
 Russia has accused the west of exacerbating the already tense situation in Syria. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says calls for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad's regime are nothing but a provocation. “In Syria we are now seeing a situation where the Arab League is calling for a halt to violence and the beginning of dialogue, and western countries and the capitals of some countries in the region are making calls to the contrary, expressly recommending the opposition hold no talks with the Assad regime,” Lavrov announced.  “It looks like a political provocation on an international scale. Yes, violence  has  to be  stopped,  but  this demand  has  to  be addressed to  the  authorities  and  armed  groups  in  the  Syrian opposition,” he argued.  The Russian government has established trustworthy relations with both Assad’s regime and armed opposition groups. Moscow is potentially the only third force capable of forcing the sides to strike a deal.
But as the Russian FM warns, the position of certain foreign states is likely to prevent peaceful negotiations. “A kind of liberation army of Syria has appeared and created a Temporary Military Council, proclaiming as its aim toppling the regime in Syria,” Sergey Lavrov says. “Some European capitals are preparing to discuss the issue at the UN Security Council, equating the military actions of Syrian renegades to the manifestation of democratic aspirations by the people.” The Russian FM reaffirmed Moscow’s stance on Syria: Russia wants to see both sides coming together to discuss peacefully how to lead the country out of crisis. Last week, Syria was expelled from the Arab League, a step “counterproductive to the peace process’, as Sergey Lavrov put it. This is not the first time the Russian FM has leveled accusations at the west regarding Syria. When the Arab League made its decision to expel the country, Mr Lavrov suggested the “shadowy hand of western powers” was behind the move. Many analysts are comparing the situation in Syria with Libya before the NATO invasion. Former allies and friends of President Assad are calling on the west to intervene in Syria. Into its eighth month, the violence in the country has claimed an estimated 3,500 lives. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Monday the international community would do its best to turn up the heat on Syria. The statement followed President Bashar al-Assad declaring he would not bow to pressure to crack down on protesters. "We will increase the pressure on the Assad regime. I discussed this with the Secretary of the Arab League yesterday and I believe they will wish to do so at their further meeting tomorrow," he told BBC Radio. "The behavior of that regime is appalling and unacceptable and of course we will do what we can to support democracy in Syria in the future," Hague said. Hague also stated the international community had "done a lot" to increase the pressure on Assad. This included imposing sanctions and stopping all of Syria's crude oil exports from entering EU waters. "We are working this week on a further round of sanctions which I hope we can agree next week," Hague added.  Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Bashar al-Assad that his days as Syrian leader were numbered and he cannot remain in power indefinitely with the help of the military force."You can remain in power with tanks and cannons only up to a certain point. The day will come when you'll also leave, "Erdogan said during a meeting in Istanbul.  Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki warned that the civil war in Syria could have a destabilizing effect on the whole region. The PM called for implementing reforms in Syria, though he flatly denied the military intervention of other countries would be of any help to resolving the conflict between Damascus and the opposition.
CIA spy ring busted in Iran and Lebanon
21 November, 2011,
United States officials are saying that shortcuts, unaccountability, laziness and general mismanagement are to blame for the compromising of several CIA informants in Iran and Lebanon who are now feared dead. A CIA-led program in the Middle East is up in the air after officials confirmed to news organizations today that paid informants in Iran and Lebanon working for the US government have disappeared while attempting to infiltrate Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed military organization considered a terrorist group by the US. Iranian intelligence minister Heidar Mosleh announced in May that more than 30 US and Israeli spies had been discovered and he quickly took to Iranian television to broadcast information explaining the methods of online communication that the agents would use to trade intel. Only a month later, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah announced that two high-ranking officers within his own organization had been identified as CIA spies. Just now, however, does the US government confirm that not only is this information true, but they believe that the rest of their Hezbollah-targeted operations in the Middle East have been compromised. According to some within the agency, all of this could have been prevented. Speaking to ABC News, one former US senior intelligence official speaking without accreditation says that CIA agents were warned to avoid using the same Lebanon hub for secret meet-ups — a Beirut Pizza Hut restaurant — though spies continue to use the location for countless meet-ups with a wide range of informants. "We were lazy and the CIA is now flying blind against Hezbollah," the former official tells ABC. According to several US officials speaking to the press, the CIA used the codeword “PIZZA” to arrange for would-be clandestine meetings at the restaurant. To ABC, however, a current CIA officer denied the allegations that the entire operations evaporated at the eatery  Others within the agency, but currently and formerly, say that outside of the Pizza Hut sting, the revealing of the online communication conducted between the CIA and informants in Iran led to “dozens” of assets being compromised. Officials have confirmed that the websites that Intel Ministero Mosleh showed an Iranian television audience were indeed used by the CIA in their secret web chats. "We've lost the tradition of espionage," one former intelligence official tells ABC. "Officers take short cuts and no one is held accountable.” Another anonymous official tells the Associated Press that the CIA was warned by Hezbollah’s Nasrallah that they were cracking down on American spies, but the US pressed on despite the consequences. Prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Hezbollah organization was believed to be responsible for the most terrorism-related deaths of Americans ever. Last year the State Department described the militants as "the most technically capable terrorist group in the world” and a government probe linked the group to hundreds of millions of dollars in funding out of Iran. A 2009 crackdown by Hezbollah aimed at Israeli spies led to the arrest of roughly 100, and a CIA investigation that followed revealed that the United States’ own agents would be just as susceptible to similar strikes.  While the fate of the CIA agents remains uncertain — and the final toll kept under wraps — what is known is that for the American intelligence community, not much good can come from this."Hezbollah has disappeared people before. Others they have kept around,” counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt tells the AP."If they were genuine spies, spying against Hezbollah, I don't think we'll ever see them again," former CIA officer Robert Baer tells ABC. "These guys are very, very vicious and unforgiving."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Women in the revolutions of the Arab world

Asghar Ali has an interesting comment on DNA [Daily News Analysis] about the place women played in the recent Arab spring movements, and how they could be again relegated to the margins in some places.  [Click on the title above for a link to the source.]
Behind every successful revolution is a womanAsghar Ali Engineer | Friday, November 11, 2011
 The Arab world saw great political turmoil in the beginning of 2011. The Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown before January 2011 ended. Then a similar turmoil began in Egypt and hundreds of thousands of people poured in Tahrir square to protest against Hosni Mubarak, another long serving dictator who was forced to go and then Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Now all this has been much written about and need not be repeated, but what concerns us here is the role of women in these revolutionary changes.
 In all these countries, women played a very significant role, right from Tunisia to Yemen. Both in Egypt and Yemen, women’s initiatives proved to be crucial. In fact, the Tahrir mobilisation was due mainly to a young girl’s appeal on Facebook. The role of women was so significant that it was being expected that the Nobel Prize for Peace this year would be given to three women from Arab countries i.e. Tunis, Egypt and Yemen, but instead it went to women from Africa and Yemen, the latter a Muslim woman who also played a crucial role in the protection of human rights and in the political mobilisation for the overthrow of President Saleh, though there still remains a stalemate in Yemen.
 The myth that Muslim women merely sit at home and are worth nothing more than domestic workers and house makers has been shattered decisively. Muslim women have proved once again that they can mobilise people efficiently and purposefully. It is also interesting to note that many women in Tunisia and Egypt were quite active in trade unions and have used their experience to proper use and brought about change in the political sphere.
 But post-revolution a shadow of doubt hangs over them. What will this democratic revolution give them? Will it take over the rights they had gained under dictators? It is possible that Islamic laws are re-imposed in these countries. In Tunisia, the Ennahda Party has won elections. Though it describes itself as a moderate Islamic party, Ennahda leader Ghanushi has fortunately declared that there will be no change in gender laws, which clearly means polygamy will not be re-imposed.
 However, Libyan women are not so fortunate. The Libyan leader who is projected as the new Prime Minister after ousting Gaddafi has already announced that Islamic laws will be the only laws imposed and polygamy will be reintroduced. Gaddafi, undoubtedly a dictator who had to go, had also done lot of good in introducing and consolidating gender justice in Libya. He had given equal rights to women as provided for in the Qur’an. He abolished polyga-my and gave women an important role in public life. He even maintained that to confine women at home is an imperialist conspiracy to paralyse half the population of the Islamic world.   . . . .  [for more, click on the title for the whole article.]

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Will the new systems established after the Arab Spring avoid the oppressive systems they have overturned?

The dilemmas of what should happen next in the Arab world have been stated one way by an Iranian opponent of the Iranian government, Ibrahim Yazdi, and another way in an article by the Arab social critic Mahan Abedin [“Arab Spring confounds Iran's opposition,” Asian Times, Nov 10, 2011].  According to Yazdi a danger exists that the successful movements against repressive regimes in the Arab world could now be replaced by equally repressive systems.  He seems to blame the unfamiliarity of Muslims with all that is entailed in democracy.   Yazdi says: 
"Despite struggling for fundamental rights, freedom and self-determination, we Muslims from any nationality lack sufficient experience with democracy. We struggle and overthrow dictators but we don't remove tyranny as a mode of governance and a way of life."  
Yazdi of course has seen it happen, for he had been part of the Iranian uprising against the Shah in 1978-1979, and he experienced the takeover by Ruhullah Khomeini and those with him who, once in power, set about to remove [essentially to exterminate] those who could not share their Islamist vision for the country.  Yazdi survived but has been alienated for years, the position from which he now warns the Tunisians:  Their movement could end up being different from what they had originally been calling for.  He has good reason, then, to fear that these successful movements in Tunisia [and also Egypt] could be replaced by a  system as repressive as the old; a similar warning was once made by Foucault about revolutionary movements generally.  

Abedin is unimpressed by Yazdi's warning, seeing in it a Iranian condescending attitude.  But Abedin seems even to push Yazdi's point further, for he thinks that Islam and the democracy that the Arab Spring movements have demanded may be intrinsically incompatible.  Of the newly elected Tunisian Islamist party, al-Nahda (Renaissance), he says that  
"... these movements have yet to successfully grapple with their ideological dilemma. The essence of their ideology commits them to the creation of a pan-Islamic state, if not a fully-fledged caliphate. It also commits them to introducing the Islamic sharia as the basis of legislation and the general ordering of state and society.  While these goals are not necessarily inimical to democracy, they are not harmonious with it either. The Muslim Brotherhood and its many offshoots can legitimately claim to be democratic in spirit once they have resolved this ideological contradiction.
This is an old question.  Most Muslims I know see no reason why Islam cannot be built into a constituted democracy; that was the project Pakistan set out to accomplish in 1947.  We continue to watch and hope that the new regimes being established in Tunisia and Egypt will indeed establish the kind of democracy that they will cherish and be eager to protect from all forms of social oppression, a necessary feature of democracy if it is to be successfully practiced.

[Click on the title for a link to the original article by Abedin.]

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Stratfor: Kurram agency road is open. More access. Better control

Stratfor has released a map of Kurram agency in Pakistan showing that a key road has been opened to Parachinar.  This is a volatile area, in any period.  The article says that the road has been closed since 2007 because of fighting between Sunni and Shia Pashtun tribesmen, a  familiar problem in this area.  The Stratfor article says that 
. . . Kurram agency in the past has been used to project influence from the east into Afghanistan and particularly Kabul — which is only 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Pakistani border — making its value to the Haqqani network obvious. Both Parachinar and Thal are areas where the Haqqani network and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are known to operate safe-houses and use for logistics and training purposes, and opening up the road would facilitate travel for the militants between the two cities.
The road opening seems to be owing to a truce agreement by the two sides, and Stratfor thinks that Haqqani might prefer to close the road.  That there will be more military traffic on this road has to be taken for granted.  Improvements in transport facilities have a large influence on the course of affairs; that this road is now open says a lot about the politics of the region as well as the quality of transport facilities.  

Monday, November 07, 2011

Now we know how Congress can be bought off: Another way to subvert democracy

Information Clearing House has posted the transcript of Abramoff's interview with Leslie Stahl on "60 Minutes" last night.  [Click on the title above for a link to the source.]

Information Clearing House
Jack Abramoff: The lobbyist's playbook Or How To Buy Your Own Congressperson.  [An interview with CBS 60 Minutes]

This is a must-read article.  If you combine what has been revealed about the activities of the Koch brothers with what Abramoff tells the world, you can easily envision how it is that our congress is locked up, unable to act in the public interest.  

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Two powerful Kansans whose influence is shaping the course of history, in their own interest

An article in Al Jazeera on the Koch brothers, Charles and David, is chilling because it reveals how easy it is for money -- that is, people with lots of money -- to subvert the democratic system in the name of democracy.  To them "democracy" seems to mean the right for those who have the wealth to keep it and control the flow of information in their own interest, to control Congress so as to ensure that they and their enterprises will prosper, whatever it means to others, the rest of the country or the rest of the world.  I reproduce this article here in its entirety to emphasize how such a project works, how the super-rich, if so inclined, can subvert the conventions that are supposed to ensure opportunity for everyone in a society.  Could the Kochs themselves, with all their wealth, be the main forces behind the powerful pull to the right in American politics in the last 30 years?  That they are from a modest middle class neighborhood in Wichita, Kansas, however, prompts me to have another question:  How did they get from there to became what they are now, with their elitist and self-serving agendas?   RLC  [click on the title above for a link to the source.]

Al Jazeera 01 Nov 2011:  “The Koch Brothers:  People and Power asks if the tycoon duo's fortune could put the radical right into the White House.”  By Bob Abeshouse. 
Charles and David Koch are each worth about $25bn, which makes them the fourth richest Americans. When you combine their fortunes, they are the third wealthiest people in the world. Radical libertarians who use their money to oppose government and virtually all regulation as interference with the free market, the Kochs are in a class of their own as players on the American political stage. Their web of influence in the US stretches from state capitals to the halls of congress in Washington DC.
The Koch brothers fueled the conservative Tea Party movement that vigorously opposes Barack Obama, the US president. They fund efforts to derail action on global warming, and support politicians who object to raising taxes on corporations or the wealthy to help fix America’s fiscal problems. According to New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, who wrote a groundbreaking exposé of the Kochs in 2010, they have built a top to bottom operation to shape public policy that has been "incredibly effective. They are so rich that their pockets are almost bottomless, and they can keep pouring money into this whole process".
Koch industries, the second largest privately-held company in the US, is an oil refining, chemical, paper products and financial services company with revenues of a $100bn a year. Virtually every American household has some Koch product - from paper towels and lumber, to Stainmaster carpet and Lycra in sports clothes, to gasoline for cars. The Koch’s political philosophy of rolling back environmental and financial regulations is also beneficial to their business interests.
The Kochs rarely talk to the press, and conduct their affairs behind closed doors. But at a secret meeting of conservative activists and funders the Kochs held in Vail, Colorado this past summer, someone made undercover recordings. One caught Charles Koch urging participants to dig deep into their pockets to defeat Obama. "This is the mother of all wars we've got in the next 18 months," he says, "for the life or death of this country." He called out the names of 31 people at the Vail meeting who each contributed more than $1m over the past 12 months.
In the 2010 congressional elections, the Kochs and their partners spent at least $40m, helping to swing the balance of power in the US House of Representatives towards right-wing Tea Party Republicans. It has been reported that the Kochs are planning to raise and spend more than $200m to defeat Obama in 2012. But the brothers could easily kick in more without anyone knowing due to loopholes in US law.
The Kochs founded and provide millions to Americans for Prosperity, a political organisation that builds grassroots support for conservative causes and candidates. Americans for Prosperity, which has 33 state chapters and claims to have about two million members, has close ties to Tea Party groups and played a key role in opposing Obama's health care initiative.
This year, Americans for Prosperity spent at least half a million dollars supporting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's efforts to cut social spending and roll back collective bargaining rights for public employee unions. The legislation passed by Walker makes it more difficult for unions, which are major backers of Democratic candidates, to secure funds for political purposes. Americans for Prosperity is also very active in a battle against unions in Ohio, another important 2012 presidential state. Its president, Tim Phillips, says that the organisation is winning in Wisconsin and around the country "because on the policies of economic freedom, we're right". He refused to tell People and Power reporter Bob Abeshouse how much the organisation is spending to combat the unions.
The Kochs have also poured millions into think tanks and academia to influence the battle over ideas. According to Kert Davies, the director of research for Greenpeace in the US, the Kochs have spent more than $50m since 1998 on "various front groups and think tanks who ... oppose the consensus view that climate change is real, urgent and we have to do something about it". As operators of oil pipelines and refineries, the Kochs have opposed all efforts to encourage alternative sources of energy by imposing a tax on fossil fuels.
Patrick Michaels, a senior fellow at the CATO Institute, often appears in the media to contest global warming science. CATO was founded by Charles Koch, and the Kochs and their foundations have contributed about $14m to CATO. Since 2009, there has been a sharp drop in the percentage of Americans who see global warming as a serious threat according to Gallup polls. Davies argues that the change can be attributed in large measure to the efforts of scientists like Michaels and others who are funded by the fossil fuel industry.
The Kochs have also promoted their free market ideology and business interests through aggressive lobbying in Washington DC, and financial support of political candidates. Greenpeace has tracked more than $50m that Koch Industries has spent on lobbyists since 2006, when Cap and Trade and other legislation to combat global warming was being considered. The Kochs have been the largest political spender since 2000 in the energy sector, exceeding Exxon, Chevron, and other major players.
The Kochs contributed to 62 of the 87 new members of the US House of Representatives in 2010. Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that the Kochs supported have taken the lead in opposing US Environmental Protection Agency efforts to reduce global warming emissions. Other members backed by the Kochs belong to the right-wing Tea Party bloc that took the US to the brink of default in July by refusing to consider a budget deal that would include tax increases.
In 2012, many believe that President Obama can raise a billion dollars for the presidential race, and break all fundraising records. But as Lee Fang of the Center for American Progress tells reporter Bob Abeshouse, in the end it may not matter "because the Koch brothers alone increased their wealth by $11bn in the last two years".

Thursday, November 03, 2011

"Downplaying justice in favor of stability is a losing strategy"

The mistakes made in Afghanistan have been numerous and have compounded, to the point where one wonders what hope there is of bringing about a stable social order there.  A recent conference made it clear how seriously the American policy has failed.  As one participant put it, “US strategy is incentivizing insecurity.”  The conference report is discouraging because it points to errors that will be hard to overcome now, after so many years of policies that fail.  [Click on the  title above for a link to the source]
See: Afghanistan: Experts Give Washington Failing Grade on Warlordism Lesson by Rachel Van Horn.

Eurasianet: Central Asia: Can Expanded Trade Pacify an Unsettled Region?

Hillary Clinton’s new emphasis on the “New Silk Road” reflects how much is changing in Eurasia.  The need for Central Asia’s minerals and the infrastructural improvements in the region that make them more accessible have brought the Americans to the point of inventing – rather appropriating -- an old name for the world’s growing focus on Central Asia.  It’s not exactly a new idea; it’s been around for a long time.  But it reflects the necessity that if the world’s growing economies are to be fed they cannot ignore the abundance of resources in Central Asian grounds.  

Published on (

Central Asia: Can Expanded Trade Pacify an Unsettled Region? by Joshua Kucera October 31, 2011
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worked quietly and diligently during her recent trip through Central and South Asia to lay the groundwork for a regional stabilization plan, dubbed the “New Silk Road.” The vision sees expanded trade as the balm that can heal the region’s wounds.
The New Silk Road aims to stimulate regional trade between Afghanistan and its neighbors. At its most ambitious, it envisions Central Asia as a trade hub between Europe and Asia, as it was in the days of the old Silk Road. Clinton promoted it on her recent trip through the region [5], including stops in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In the coming weeks, she will continue to make a diplomatic push to enlist allies' support for the vision.
As Clinton sees it, commodity and energy exports have the ability to lift regional economies. Trade, in turn, could naturally suppress Islamic militant tendencies. “Turkmen gas fields [6]could help meet both Pakistan’s and India’s growing energy needs and provide significant transit revenues for both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Tajik cotton could be turned into Indian linens. Furniture and fruit from Afghanistan could find its way to the markets of Astana or Mumbai and beyond,” Clinton said about the Silk Road strategy during a September speech at the United Nations.
As yet, there are few details on how the United States can make its regional trade vision turn into reality. Washington has identified up to 40 infrastructure projects that could be part of the plan, according to a US government official, and will also work to reduce legal and procedural barriers to trade, like onerous and corrupt border-crossing procedures. Clinton will attempt to gain allied support at two upcoming conferences, one November 2 in Istanbul and another in December in Bonn, Germany.
The United States needs to quickly develop an implementation plan if the strategy is to succeed, said S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, DC. Starr cautioned that the State Department's version of the plan, as he saw it so far, needed to focus more closely on the “software” or border regulations, rather than on infrastructure. He also saw a need to develop a plan for short-, medium- and long-term projects. He proposed starting with relatively easy-to-implement but high-profile projects like truck convoys along a few key corridors. “Skeptics abound,” he told “We must prove to them that the United States can deliver tangible results that positively affect peoples’ lives, and do so in the short term.”
Starr has promoted a Silk Road vision [7] for several years. The State Department has long been wary of the plan, with officials initially dismissing it as unworkable. But it began to gain favor last year at US Central Command, and its commander at the time, Gen. David Petraeus. Since Marc Grossman became President Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan[8], replacing the late Richard Holbrooke earlier this year, the State Department has come around to support the strategy.
Speaking in Islamabad on October 21, Clinton said: “We want to advance together the vision of a New Silk Road, which would increase regional economic integration and boost cross-border trade and investments between Pakistan and all of her neighbors.” The next day in Tajikistan, Clinton said she discussed the strategy with President Imomali Rahmon and “appreciated the president’s enthusiastic support for this vision.” In Tashkent she discussed the strategy “in some detail” to President Islam Karimov, according to a senior State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Doubts remain about the strategy's feasibility. The State Department, in its public statements on the plan, has highlighted a handful of existing or proposed projects on which the New Silk Road could be modeled, including a free-trade agreement signed last year between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline [9]. Skeptics note that the Pakistan-Afghanistan agreement, which was laboriously, personally brokered by Holbrooke, hasn’t yet been implemented. And implementation appears unlikely in the foreseeable future, due to strained bilateral relations. In a similar vein, versions of the TAPI pipeline have been on the drawing board since the 1990s, but insecurity in Afghanistan has scared away companies that might have the capital to complete the project.
With US and NATO troops scheduled to depart [10] by 2014, the security situation is likely to decline even further, a problem that the Silk Road plan's boosters acknowledge. “We have continued insecurity and instability in Afghanistan,” Sham Bathija, senior economic adviser to President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, said at a recent conference in Washington on the strategy. “Yet we have no choice but to forge ahead.”
The Silk Road project may be making too many geopolitical assumptions, especially in the area of diplomatic relations among regional states, suggested George Gavrilis, an expert on Central Asia and borders at the Washington, D.C., think tank The Hollings Center. He noted that many of the countries in the region seem locked in persistent diplomatic spats with their neighbors; Pakistan with Afghanistan and India, Uzbekistan with Tajikistan [11] and Kyrgyzstan. Trade agreements are fragile and vulnerable to political difficulties, as evidenced by the fact that the border between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan has been closed for 18 months, following last summer's violence in southern Kyrgyzstan. The border only reopened this week. “I love the idea [of the New Silk Road] but I just don't see how it can be implemented,” Gavrilis said.
Another potential pitfall is the cost of infrastructure projects. “Unless the job is funded, it ain't going to happen,” said Juan Miranda, Director General of the Central and West Asia Department of the Asian Development Bank, which is a supporter of the project and has been carrying out a related infrastructure project, the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation, for several years. “So we have to think about that and it will be a challenge.”
Obama administration officials are mindful of a domestic political environment that is opposed to new government spending, has emphasized that it doesn't plan to allocate a lot of money on the Silk Road project. “With governments all around the world facing economic challenges, we have to focus on ways to make this work with limited government support,” said Robert Hormats, undersecretary of state for economic, energy and agricultural affairs, in a recent speech. “So, for the 'New Silk Road' vision to realize its potential, it is critical that the Afghan government and its neighbors take ownership of the effort.”
Editor's note:  Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East. He is the editor of EurasiaNet's Bug Pit blog.
2010 © Eurasianet

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Russia's structural need to be an empire?

Stratfor has just published a significant article:  "Russia: Rebuilding an Empire While It Can"  [October 31, 2011] by Lauren Goodrich.  [Click on the title for a link to the original article.]  [See also, "Putin calls for a Eurasian Union"]

Goodrich says that
Russia’s ultimate plan is to re-establish control over much of its former territories. 
And indeed:  
Russia’s defining geographic characteristic is its indefensibility, which means its main strategy is to secure itself. Unlike most powerful countries, Russia’s core region, Muscovy, has no barriers to protect it and thus has been invaded several times. Because of this, throughout history Russia has expanded its geographic barriers in order to establish a redoubt and create strategic depth between the Russian core and the myriad enemies surrounding it. This means expanding to the natural barriers of the Carpathian Mountains (across Ukraine and Moldova), the Caucasus Mountains (particularly to the Lesser Caucasus, past Georgia and into Armenia) and the Tian Shan on the far side of Central Asia. The one geographic hole is the North European Plain, where Russia historically has claimed as much territory as possible (such as the Baltics, Belarus, Poland and even parts of Germany). In short, for Russia to be secure it must create some kind of empire.
I don't know how many people pay attention anymore to the structural conditions that affect the course of history, but here Goodrich is pointing out a historical pattern in Russia's past.  The Russian empire that reached its peak in the nineteenth century grew out of years of struggling to establish viable limits.  Over and over again the problems of maintaining their boundary, especially on the east, induced them to push a little further.  They sought to secure their eastern territories by importing Russians who would ensconce themselves in the newly available lands, only to demand protection and help from the frontier peoples who harassed them.  Eventually they were drawn eastward all the way to the Pacific coast.  Now, contemporary Russia seems to feel it must have better control of some of the frontier countries in Inner Asia.  In the mean time China looms, and the Chinese unlike the Russians have lots of personnel.  If I were betting I would bet on the Chinese in the long run.