• So How’d That Africa Thingee Work Out?

    January 2, 2013 // 10 Comments »

    W-a-y back in October 2011 the U.S. invaded, albeit in a small way, the Central African Republic, because, well, big countries can still do stuff like that in Africa. Now, in December 2012, we’ve evacuated our diplomats and civilians because the invasion failed and chaos reigns in yet another place the U.S. muddled. Happy New Year!

    Obama sent some 100 U.S. troops to central Africa to help battle a rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. American troops deployed to South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The troops were combat-equipped to “fight only in self-defense,” a dubious statement given that as armed troops they are stomping around someone else’s country. That sort of calls for an armed response by the homeboys, and thus the need to self-defend, yes?

    FYI, The Lord’s Resistance Army are a bunch of terrible thugs who have conducted a two-decade spree of murder, rape and kidnapping. They have not, however, attacked the U.S. They live really far away from America.

    Anyway, like Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and pretty everywhere else the U.S. has bumbled into, things are not working out in the Central African Republic. Another 50 U.S. troops have deployed to the African country of Chad to help evacuate U.S. citizens and embassy personnel from the neighboring Central African Republic’s capital of Bangui in the face of rebel advances toward the city. Obama informed congressional leaders of Thursday’s deployment in a letter Saturday citing a “deteriorating security situation” in the Central African Republic.

    For those keeping score at home, this all tracks the growing US military presence throughout Africa (Admitted: Uganda, South Sudan, Mali, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Botswana, Kenya, Burundi, Ethiopia and Djibouti, currently some 5,000 personnel), complete with complex special ops, US troops on the ground engaged in “training” and occasional combat, along with the sad, usual accidents involving prostitutes and naughty boys that follow our military worldwide, most recently in Mali.

    Bonus: As part of our ongoing public service, Where’s Hillary?, we note that the elusive still-recovering SecState had no comment on the evacuation of her diplomats from the Central African Republic.

    Extra New Year’s Bonus: While the primary US engagement in Africa continues to morph into a military one, China’s dominant relationships on the continent are economic.




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    Posted in Democracy, Military

    BREAKING: BoA Mortgage Broker Seeks Asylum at my House

    May 3, 2012 // 5 Comments »


    BREAKING NEWS – My Bank of America mortgage broker, who is blind and thus in charge of assessing properties for the Bank, sought asylum in my home. He told me he fears persecution, imprisonment and even physical beating if I return him to the Bank.

    The Bank of America, meanwhile, who holds my mortgage, told me to turn him over, so I had to. I’ll spend the rest of the news cycle trying to make this seem better than it actually is. Being in debt sure cuts back on your options.


    P.S. The man on the far left of the photo is State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh. Dude, the 1970’s called and wants its hair style back. The other guy holding Chen’s hand is US Ambassador Gary Locke. No one knows why Koh and Locke decided to wear matching ties for this event, but it appears to be the only aspect of the fiasco that the State Department properly coordinated.

    Also, activists in Bahrain, Saudi and other countries the US has to suck up to, you’re also on your own.



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    Posted in Democracy, Military

    She remained silent. We do not.

    April 10, 2012 // 30 Comments »

    “Countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century,” said SecState Hillary Clinton.

    Clinton has made internet freedom and the rights of bloggers and journalists a cornerstone of her foreign policy, going as far as citing the free use of social media as a prime mover in the Arab Spring. At the Conference on Internet Freedom at the Hague, Clinton said:

    When ideas are blocked, information deleted, conversations stifled, and people constrained in their choices, the internet is diminished for all of us.

    In China, several dozen companies signed a pledge in October, committing to strengthen their – quote – “self-management, self-restraint, and strict self-discipline.” Now, if they were talking about fiscal responsibility, we might all agree. But they were talking about offering web-based services to the Chinese people, which is code for getting in line with the government’s tight control over the internet.

    The United States wants the internet to remain a space where economic, political, and social exchanges flourish. To do that, we need to protect people who exercise their rights online.

    Yet inside her own Department of State, Clinton presides over the censoring of the internet, blocking objectionable web sites that refer to Wikileaks, such as TomDispatch (above), while allowing sites that play to State’s own point of view, such as Fox.com, which also refer to Wikileaks. The use of specialized software and VPNs that State recommends to Iranians to circumvent the firewall block placed by the Tehran government are prohibited by the State Department to its own employees to get around State’s own firewall blocks.

    While Clinton mocks Chinese companies, claiming terms like “self-management, self-restraint, and strict self-discipline” equate to censorship, her own Department’s social media guidance reminds employees to “be mindful of the weight of your expressed views as a U.S. government official,” and to “Remember that you are a Foreign Service USG employee.” Official guidance reminds employees that “All Department organizations with a social media site must monitor user-generated content,” and cites 27 laws and regulations that must be followed to be acceptable to the government. Self-censorship is the byword at State, as it is in China. Government bureaucrats know that this sort of slow-drip intimidation keeps people in line. They are meant to see what’s happening and remain silent.

    One web site reported that when Matt Armstrong was hired as Executive Director for the now defunct Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, a condition to his hiring was to stop blogging. The condition was set by the office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

    Whistleblower Ray McGovern was arrested merely for physically standing and turning his back on Clinton at a public rally where she was speaking about the importance of freedom of speech. Did Secretary of State Clinton say anything about the arrest?

    She remained silent.

    We do not.



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    Posted in Democracy, Military

    Here a billion, there a billion…

    October 13, 2011 // Comments Off on Here a billion, there a billion…

    … And pretty soon you’re talking real money. No one is really sure exactly how much the war in Iraq actually cost the United States (in dollars; in prestige and our good name, well, priceless). Estimates vary by a trillion dollars over/under and there is a whole web site with a spinning dollar amount to check. The Army has lost a bunch of the receipts, and some stuff was paid for with Paypal, and then the credit card got stolen and…

    Anyway, since most of the American troops will be leaving Iraq over the next few months, and because shipping charges are so damn high, it is cheaper for us to leave behind most stuff we brought to Iraq. We’re saying it is all being transferred to the Government of Iraq, but in fact we’re really just leaving most of it the same way you left the old couch behind when you blasted out of that off-campus apartment without paying the last month’s rent.

    The always-prescient Dan Froomkin on HuffPo has the story. Dan tells us:

    With just over two months until the last U.S. troops are currently due to leave Iraq, the Department of Defense is engaged in a mad dash to give away things that cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars to buy and build. The giveaways include enormous, elaborate military bases and vast amounts of military equipment that will be turned over to the Iraqis, mostly just to save the expense of bringing it home. “It’s all sunk costs,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton. “It’s money that we spent and we’re not going to recoup.”

    Check. War is a bad investment. Hear that Cheney– we aren’t going to recoup that investment. Iraqi oil did not, now officially, pay for the war.

    When the Iraqis take over a Forward Operating Base they also get the things that go with it, such as containerized housing units, water and fuel tanks, air conditioning units, generators, refrigerators, porta-johns, beds and mattresses, office equipment, fences, dining facilities and so on. According to Lt. Col Melinda F. Morgan, a Pentagon spokeswoman, excess defense items worth $70.5 million have been turned over to the Iraqis, with more, worth about $40 million, to go. U.S. forces have also given the Iraqis non-excess military items worth $47.7 million.

    Let’s see, that adds up to a jazillion dollars including shipping and handling. Luckily, the Chinese have loaned us their Dad’s VISA card, so it’s cool, right? Maybe not says HuffPo:

    I’m thinking about the size of what was wasted there, and thinking about how what we spent in Iraq was all borrowed. In a crazy way, what we left in Iraq was our good credit rating.

    Oops. Everyone, please write your Congressperson and demand that the defense budget not be cut. Not one penny. They’re gonna have to replace all that stuff left in Iraq before the next war, and that is going to be expensive. Demand Congress not fund, well, everything else. Whatever, our country is so screwed.

    Read the whole article if you can stand to on Huffington Post.



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    GDP Growth Rates: Iraq versus China

    June 6, 2011 // Comments Off on GDP Growth Rates: Iraq versus China

    SecState Clinton addressed the Iraq business forum Friday, and was predictably encouraging but unpredictably lightly balanced in her advice to American companies to invest in Iraq.

    One line from her remarks stands out:

    According to the IMF, Iraq is projected to grow faster than China in the next two years. Now, let me repeat that, because when I read it I said, okay, are you sure because we always think of China as being the juggernaut? But no, indeed, Iraq is projected to grow faster than China.

     

    Sadly, none of the media covering the remarks bothered to do anything other than to repeat the Secretary’s claim.

    It was hard to track down, and it is always possible to prove green is yellow with the right statistics, but the statement is sort of true.

    The International Monetary Fund projected Iraq’s real GDP growth at 12.2% in 2011 compared to an estimate of 1% in 2010, and forecast non-oil growth at 5% this year relative to 4.5% last year.

    China’s GDP growth rate projection by the IMF is 9.70%

    So, breaking it down:

    SecState Clinton fudged it a bit. Percentages are fine, but in real dollars China’s growth is huge, Iraq’s much more modest. China’s is based on a much clearer record of growth, and more established economics.

    More importantly, most of the IMF’s positive prediction for growth in Iraq is based on oil revenues, that 12.5% growth versus 5% for non-oil growth. It is unclear (reader help invited) how much of the oil growth is based on the rising price of oil versus the rising production rate of oil in Iraq. Crude oil futures prices are up over 26% for the year, while Iraq’s oil output is relatively flat. In other words, a lot of the oil growth may be based on prices rising, something wholly outside of Iraq’s control and obviously a very volatile factor. China’s growth projections are based on a much broader range of industries (albeit also subject to their own, less swinging, volatilities).

    Bottom line:
    Points to Clinton for a reasonably balanced set of remarks (“I do not want to sugarcoat the difficulties. I think, among friends, we need to have an honest conversation about what is it we all need to do to realize these very positive projections.”) given the mandate of the day, with a minor deduction for some hazy use of statistics.

    We’ll also note she was a little casual about the dreary levels of violence in Iraq (five US soldiers were killed today in Iraq), but did mention the dirty corruption. She did not discuss, but I am sure her audience knew, that following Thursday’s raid on the offices of the Trade Bank of Iraq (TBI), CNBC reported that Iraqi authorities issued an arrest warrant for the head of the bank, which itself is under investigation for alleged irregularities. The move comes as al Maliki faces growing discontent over rampant corruption and poor public services.

    Little good to be said for the accompanying fact sheet, which is largely happy talk about what is supposed to happen in the future with little injection of the current realities.

    Low marks to the media coverage for not bothering to do much more than simply repeat without context or explanation what Clinton said, absent quote marks, as “news.” Maybe none of this really matters anymore and the media, like State, is just going through the motions.



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    Red Dawn 2011; Why Reconstruction Cannot Work

    May 18, 2011 // 1 Comment »

    red dawn

    I’m reading Armed Humanitarians: The Rise of the Nation Builders by Nathan Hodge. The book is a well-intentioned attempt to offer a popular history of the US’ recent efforts at nation building, the hearts and minds territory that my own upcoming book plumbs. The author amuses himself with euphemisms for the efforts– armed social work, soft power, relief workers with guns, social work on steroids, the armed humanitarians of the title and so forth. The idea in its most basic form can be expressed as a belief: that following military action to kill bad guys (Taliban, al Qaeda, Baathists), expanded access to jobs and the construction of local governments that provide basic services will cause the people to renounce insurgency and instead cooperate with the United States. The new country will be a bulwark against terrorism instead of an incubator for it.

    I say “belief” because generally such efforts—let’s just call it reconstruction—do not and have not worked. The neocon boneheads who sent us to war in Afghanistan-Iraq-Pakistan (AIP) looked into history and decided the model to follow was the British, hardy colonial bureaucrats; Republican stenographer Max Boot wrote of the need for “enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.” Author Hodge buys into this thinking as well, and the talk was and still is for some sort of US Colonial Service to step into Phase IV operations (what the military calls the time after the fighting is over.)

    The belief in reconstruction is encapsulated best by the embrace of the fairy tale Three Cups of Tea. I say fairy tale in that it appears much of what the books says just is not true. As the Washington Post wrote, “Spend some time with U.S. Army officers, and this much is clear: They are obsessed with drinking tea. At times, tea can seem a bit like the military’s secret weapon. A young U.S. officer bonds with an Afghan elder over cups of the brew, and soon they are working side by side to win the locals’ trust and drive out the insurgents.”

    Even when it did not work, the Army clung to this belief in reconstruction. The Army hated Phase IV and was desperate to stumble on to some strategy that would provide a path out. The Army grumbled continuously about being forced into Phase IV simply because there was no one else in the government to try it. Hodge buys into the whole picture, sucking in the basic military technocratic view: take a problem (insurgents), find a solution (spend money on schools) and keep doing it until you enter Berlin and the Nazis surrender.

    The problem is that there exists the possibility that reconstruction just will not work, cannot work, that the failure of the process is inherent in the conditions that require it. After all, look back at the British: their gentlemen colonial service members were eventually run out of just about everywhere (including Afghanistan), leaving behind legacies like the India-Pakistan partition as their legacy (I’ll argue Malaysia with anyone willing to buy the first round of beers.) Maybe not the right model.

    Despite the clear weight of history suggesting reconstruction does not—cannot—work, I failed to ever convince my colleagues of this, even the sober, smart ones. So, I will try again, to make the point via some fiction writing I’ll uncreatively call Red Dawn 2011.



    yellow peril The Chinese Army roared through my small town in Northern Virginia. The initial troops were tough veterans of the fighting outside DC, and a lot of people were killed by early shelling and mortar attacks. A tank battle near the hospital destroyed much of the building and intelligence that weapons were being stored inside the elementary school lead to the horrific air attack that killed 50 children with a “smart bomb.” Met by stone-throwing teens, the Chinese troops tore through local businesses. A gang rape of a young woman was never reported on the Chinese news even though it was common knowledge among us residents.

    The second wave of Chinese troops were better behaved. They sought out the few locals who spoke some Mandarin and hired them as translators. Of course language skills were quite rudimentary, and a lot of bad, dumb things happened due to miscommunication. Though the Chinese troops maintained that they were now occupying the town to make things better, for residents the current men with guns looked and sounded a lot like the previous men with guns. The Chinese tried: following local custom, they met Americans at the Starbucks for multiple cups of coffee, forgoing the green tea the Chinese would have preferred to sip on their own back at their bases. The officers had read that Americans loved coffee and were simplistic enough that their allegiance could be swayed just by choking down a few cups of the black gunk together. A popular book back home was called “Three Double Vente Lattes with a Shot.”

    The American translators helped steer some quick “feel good” projects the Chinese wanted to do toward their friends, quickly figuring out that the Chinese spoke no English and, to be truthful, really did not care to spend enough time researching the place to figure out who they should have been seeking to influence. The Chinese seemed happy enough just to report the “success” of each project back to Beijing. Beijing, interested in domestic harmony because of the unpopular war, welcomed only good news. Officers seeking promotion quickly learned which way the wind blew.

    Back in Virginia, the big Chinese banquet held for the town on the local July 4 holiday did not go well, as only a few complacent locals were invited, leading to accusations that they had sold out early. Those same complacent locals ended up receiving a fair amount of money from the Chinese to open a factory making plastic goods; the idea was to create jobs to distract the Americans from a forming insurgency while still keeping Walmart stocked. The first problems started when Chinese contractors took most of the development money for themselves, and no factory was ever built that round. Later the Chinese tried again, this time creating a few manual labor jobs that paid little and offered no sense of pride. The factory produced junk, and could only sell its goods back to the Chinese Army, who purposefully overpaid for them so that the factory could be labeled a success.

    The Chinese decided to turn their attention to the schools, hoping to move opinion by influencing the local kids. The teachers were all fired of course, because they had taught the old “US” way, and were replaced by know-nothings who did know which way the political wind blew. Chinese textbooks, translated into bad English, were brought in. Parents who could no longer afford to feed their kids watched as the only full meal of the day was handed out as charity at school, and Chinese food to boot. The worst was when moms and dads had to watch their kids beg for candy from the passing Chinese soldiers who somehow still occupied the city. The more the Chinese propaganda screeched that their purpose in invading America was to free the country from its lazy, fiscally insolvent previous government, the more the presence of the troops irked. Most residents felt the same way—keep your development money and just send your troops home.

    Some Chinese soldiers “got it,” and made some small differences, but they rotated home as quickly as the bad soldiers. No one was around long enough to really figure the Americans, with their odd customs, out. Good intentions were a good start, but without action they ultimately meant nothing. Simply meaning well was not enough.

    Accidents happened; that’s inevitable when you place military gear in close contact with regular people. A child was run over one night by an armored vehicle. A man was shot poking through the Chinese Army camp’s garbage. Local women were offered large sums of money to act as Chinese “girlfriends” for the troops. About the only way Americans could make any money was by selling knock-off X-Box games to the soldiers, though the Chinese were also grand consumers of porn that featured blonde American girls like the ones they made remarks to on the streets.

    The Chinese, isolated in their encampment for their own protection, failed to notice the impact that failing municipal services were having on the locals. The Chinese had their own generators and water purifiers, and missed the impact that corruption had on siphoning off the money they provided for water and sewer repairs.

    A group named after the former high school sports team formed, intent on killing as many Chinese as possible…

    Get it yet? When a relationship begins with a war and an invasion, and all the acts of violence that go along with that, you start deep in a hole. As corruption, mistakes, accidents and half-hearted efforts plague reconstruction, that hole only gets deeper. It may just be that reconstruction does not work no matter how many cups of Starbucks one drinks. Myself, I prefer a cold soda anyway.

    Wolverines!



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    Posted in Democracy, Military

    State Department Censors Web Sites China Allows

    May 15, 2011 // 30 Comments »

    chimps see no wikileaksIf you’ve come over from TomDispatch after reading my article there, I am fairly certain of at least one thing (besides your good taste in blogs): You don’t work for the State Department.

    The State Department continues to block web sites within our offices such as Tom’s because they may contain content from Wikileaks, which although available all over the web, is still considered classified by the State Department. If you try to access a forbidden site, you get a message like this (click on the graphic below and it will enlarge so that your computer at home will look like a real US Government computer. Pretend you’re a real diplomat!):

    State Dept Wallpaper

    The doesn’t-make-sense part is that the State firewall does not block mainstream web sites that have a lot more Wikileaks content than Tom’s. Examples include the Washington Post, The New York Times and the Guardian UK. All of these sites have and continue to include Wikileaks material that is otherwise still classified within Foggy Bottom.

    Just to make sure our quotient of irony stays at Defcon 99, the State Department plans to spend $19 million on breaking Internet censorship overseas. State says it will give $19 million dollars to efforts to evade Internet controls in China, Iran and other authoritarian states which block online access to “politically sensitive material.” Michael Posner, the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of human rights, said that the funding would support technology to identify what countries are trying to censor and “redirecting information back in that governments have initially blocked; this is a cat-and-mouse game. We’re trying to stay one step ahead of the cat through email or posting it on blogs or RSS feeds or websites that the government hasn’t figured out how to block.”

    I emailed a colleague in Beijing, and yes, Tom Dispatch is available there to him, at home. In his US Embassy office however, the site is still blocked.



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