Wednesday, 30 June 2010

I spy with my little eye something...

There they were, Dimitri and Barack, on a long awaited date, rekindling an unrequited love at the DC-area burger joint (in Arlington), Ray's Hell Burger. Just last week, Dimitri's boo B was praising the cooperation between the U.S. and Russia.  Then, yesterday, things broke wide open -- a Russian spy ring was cracked in the U.S.  Of course big daddy back in Moscow reacted with particular scorn, "Your police have gotten carried away." Putin said this to the other big daddy, Clinton, who was in Moscow explaining how life actually only begins after the presidency.

I have to admit that the whole affair is quite an odd story. The 11 people accused are being charged with failing to register as foreign agents as well as money laundering; none of them are indicted on espionage. They did not penetrate any federal agencies or necessarily have access to classified information. Their task, allegedly, was as follows:

Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc. — all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e, to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and send intels [intelligence reports] to C [Center].

Sounds quite mundane. Unsexy. Not James Bondish enough. Of course, that was before the media discovered Facebook feline Anna Chapman.  She has a number of photos online, and a whole double-life sequenced out on LinkedIn. She did lie about her experience at Barclays though; she worked 6 months not the year she indicated on her  profile, a key mistake (apparently) quickly caught by The Guardian. She is also being called femme fatale and "red hot" by the New York Post, which occasionally reports news as well. She made no secret about being Russian, and neither did several others arrested.

It turns out one of them was a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard! Donald Heathfield posed as a mid-career student. I can attest that the mid-career class always varies, with a few strange fruits mixed up with the rest of the basket. The description of his vague activities and lack of general direction seems to describe most Kennedy School graduates at some given point. What is more disconcerting is that he (and a few others) posed as Canadians. Is that really necessary? For being nice, Canadians are often put in this awkward position.

In fact in 1997, the Israeli government was regularly using Canadian passports in spy operations by the Mossad. It was that year when Israeli agents posing as Canadians tried to assassinate Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal (see this article). It was a bungled operation. While posing as tourists, the agents stumbled into a Hamas office and dropped some poison into the ear of Meshal. Yet, they were quickly apprehended by Jordanian security officials, and an irate King Hussein who was at that time in good faith negotiations with Israel, demanded an antidote as Meshal lay on his deathbed in a hospital. PM Bibi Netanyahu (the same one as today) relented, and furthermore in exchange for the detained agents, released Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yasin; of course Israel assassinated him 7 years later. Meshal meanwhile still is at large, now in Damascus. After that incident the Israelis stopped using Canadian passports, but I guess the Russians did not.

It seems though that both the Russians and Israelis are in line for continued unintelligent embarrassment. Remember that assassination several months back of a senior Hamas commander in Dubai by Mossad agents? The fallout continues. A couple weeks ago, a senior agent who played a part in the operation was arrested under a German warrant in Poland. Then the head of Mossad resigned this week. To top it off, Lebanon has uncovered more layers of a deeply entrenched Israeli spy ring in their country. The arrests first began in April 2009, but have continued until now, with senior military officials being arrested. Now a senior employee from Alfa, one of the country's leading mobile operators, was arrested.

It ain't good times for the spy folks these days. The spooks are spooked.

Statistically irrelevant perspective on the World Cup Quarter-Finals

The FIFA World Cup is a meeting ground of countries and now out of 32 qualifiers only 8 remain. Of course the fix is in as Canada did not even qualify, but I will leave that for another article. The quarterfinalists are remarkably similar to the entire field across several metrics (see below). They are slightly bigger, but not as wealthy. They are a nudge less literate but tend to live exactly the same.

The remaining match-ups are intriguing. Argentina v. Germany presents a case of a current economic giant versus a former economic giant. Uruguay v. Ghana gives us a middling Latin American micro-country vs. a poor African one. With the Netherlands v. Brazil is the case of a David v. Goliath (Brazil leading on numbers, but Netherlands with a far richer population). Finally Paraguay is the ultimate David v. Spain, with an economy 100 times smaller!

Remember though, on the pitch, the numbers don't matter!

Population     GDP   
      Life exp.        
               (m)         ($Bn)           (US  000s)        (%)                    
























All Qualifiers Average42.0830.921.1693.174.2

All data is compiled from the World Bank Development Indicators for 2008, except for literacy rates which are from the UNDP 2009. For the overall averages of all qualifiers, the highest and lowest numbers were excluded from the calculation.

Now after you read, please enjoy the two music videos of the World Cup anthems. The first is by Shakira ('Waka Waka') based on an popular Cameroonian song (based itself on military chanting).

The second is by K'naan (Waving Flag), a Somali-Canadian artist; this one is the Arabic version with Nancy Ajram.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Say meow if you're Persian but not much else

There are not many nuanced, rational and forthright voices on Iran these days. Everywhere you look, there is the same march to sanctions like a boys choir in unison (with a Merkel thrown in for good measure). It was refreshing then to hear Steven Miller, Director of the Kennedy School's International Security Program, on his recent visit through Dubai describe American policy under Obama as the same under Bush, although using perhaps smarter language. He lamented that there were not too many voices within the administration speaking truth to power, like George Ball under Presidents Johnson and Kennedy. Ball who had presciently predicted the ignominious failure of Vietnam, was ultimately cast aside. After he spoke out against U.S. Israel policy in his landmark book Passionate Attachment, he was tossed aside into permanent retirement. Speaking truth to power is not so attractive a quality - not then, not now.

When the U.S. led, so-called P-5 + 1 (i.e. France, U.S., Russia, China, U.K., and German) U.N. Resolution 1929 was passed on June 9 earlier this month, Brazil and Turkey voted against it. In fact just three weeks earlier President Erdogan of Turkey and President Lula de Silva were hand-in-hand with arch-enemy of good President Ahmadinejad. This was after the signing of a joint-declaration between Iran, Turkey, and Brazil on a nuclear swap of enriched fuel. Points 5, 6, & 7 of the draft (on the link) denote that Iran will swap its enriched fuel for higher-grade enriched fuel to be used in the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). This was essentially the follow-through to previously U.S.-led negotiations that Iran handover 1,200 kg of enriched fuel to then be sent through Russia and reprocessed in France and returned to Iran for use in the reactor. Of course, that was in 2009. For whatever reason, what a difference a year makes.

Turkey and Brazil's initiative took the steam out of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's campaign for so-called crippling sanctions. Yet it was a diplomatic overture that should have been viewed positively. Instead the passionate attachment for a path of hostile confrontation meant that the Turkish/Brazilian agreement was tantamount to a step towards the axis of evil. In reference to Turkey's vote against the U.N. sanctions resolution, U.S. Diplomat Philip Gordon questioned Turkey's commitment to the West:

There are people asking questions about it in a way that is new, and that in itself is a bad thing that makes it harder for the United States to support some of the things that Turkey would like to see us support.

There is no question that there are a number of odious aspects of the Iranian regime, something that I have previously written about.  Nevertheless, the instant negative reaction to rapprochement leads the U.S. on an increasingly perilous path of confrontation, military or otherwise with Iran. Already the Iranians are indicating a much more suspicious view to any talks or negotiations. It is clear that President Obama's team are not simply President Bush dressed in sheep's clothing; there is a sincere desire for engagement. However, due to certain political calculations - domestic and international - engagement is looking like a forgotten or forgone strategy.

Now enjoy Maz Jobrani!

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Sharing is caring - ain't that the truth, but is anyone listening?

Do you have an extra billion dollars that you thought you needed but now realize you don't? Do you really need that diamond encrusted mercedes you have always dreamt about? Have you ever felt that $5 billion may actually be too much to leave to your son or daughter? Likely these are problems you may not be facing. Hopefully they are the types of issues you will be fortunate to have to deal with later on in your lives. Yet for whatever reason when Bill Gates & Warren Buffett, the $100 billion men, announced their new initiative The Giving Pledge, I got all warm and fuzzy, and not in the strange 13 year-old boy way at his first R-rated movie.

The Giving Pledge is an effort to invite the wealthiest individuals and families in America to commit to giving the majority of their wealth to the philanthropic causes and charitable organizations of their choice either during their lifetime or after their death.

Take a look at the big-fella Warren 'all-you-can-give' Buffet's pledge on the site: "More than 99% of my wealth will go to philanthropy during my lifetime or at death." Now we first learned of the extent of this gift several years back (queue the YouTube clip). 
Now, however our two fearless leaders have issued a public ultimatum to their billionaire classmates to donate half -- yes I repeat half - of their wealth to you and me (well probably not you and me, but you get the general idea). This challenge issued in the U.S. would generate a total give of perhaps $600 billion.  That is the math done by Fortune Magazine, and it uses the same back of the envelope math I used as a management consultant, so you can probably range that by 20 percent or so (i.e. only $240 billion in the margin of error). Obviously, Carlos Slim realizing that he is the richest man in the world decided to make a big splash of his own by announcing a $150 million gift for health projects in Mexico; he still has a ways to go.

While a significant part of the world wallows away in abject poverty, some of our leaders drown in profligacy. Does the Sultan of Brunei really need a $1.4 billion house? Maybe. Maybe not. It is easy to judge, and you should judge, because it is easy and life is hard. That aside, with billions of dollars going into the coffers of philanthropic efforts, the charity sector is becoming its own industry. Where Gates is leading the way is not only in giving, but also in building a professional approach to philanthropy through the Gates Foundation. Hopefully others will follow his lead in this respect.

Do you think the new billions set to flow for good works will be spent wisely?

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

I'll take Afghanistan please - for $1 trillion

Somewhere out there SNL's Sean Connery is having a good laugh. Of all the absurd trivia, the fact that Afghanistan may have $1 trillion in vast mineral deposits and some of the world's largest lithium deposits may have been beyond the scope of even Alex Trebek. The New York Times story on these discovered "mineral riches" is its most e-mailed/blogged/viewed article two days after its publication. Afghan President Hamid Karzai's spokesperson gleefully crowed, "This will improve drastically the lives of the Afghan people, the economic status of the Afghan people and to see that positively, that will unite the Afghan people."

There is hope ladies and gentlemen! Rue the day of the Burqa for soon we will usher in the time of iron ore, copper, and lithium! Of course the media has self-divided into a veritable who's who of Pollyanas and Cassandras. The truth is that whatever the news story, these days pundits, journalists, analysts and politicians have a reflexive response ready for the 24/7 news-cycle. The naysayers have already proclaimed a new Afghan disease (see: Dutch Disease) and predicted an impending resource curse. The former is the theory that bountiful natural resources act as a disease rather than a cure. Its name is based the discovery of natural gas on the Netherlands and the deleterious effect on other economic sectors. The curse of course pertains to the volatility, corruption and instability that natural resources bring. One does not need to wander too far westward to the Middle East to see the wonderful political effects of oil (dictatorship, corruption, conflict, global intrigue and so forth). And, beyond that, while Gen. Petraeus may be giddy about lithium deposits in Afghanistan, the current global leader Bolivia is not exactly a shining example in prosperity. Surely, the Democratic Republic of Congo is an another perilous case to learn from. Other countries in Africa are similarly instructive.

Before the question is even asked about whether Afghanistan can capitalize on its allegedly new-found resource wealth,  the Pentagon announcement is short on the details to two very important questions: 1) How exactly does the amorphous $1 trillion breakdown and to which deposits; and 2) What is the cost of extraction (from end-to-end)? It is far too sinister to throw water on a seemingly positive fire, but releasing such momentous news two days after Dexter Filkins of the New York Times reported that Karzai doubts the West can defeat the Taliban is quite circumspect. That is where this story becomes extremely shaky, because aside from some new analysis of lithium deposits by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), it is not been a hidden secret that Afghanistan has had substantial mineral deposits. Here are a few sample examples from several years ago, including from the USGS:

- “Afghanistan Sitting on a Goldmine.” AFP. 21 February 2008.
- U.S. Geological Survey. “Preliminary Non-Fuel Mineral Resource Assessment of Afghanistan, 2007.” Fact Sheet. October 2007.
Afghanistan.” Mining Journal Special Publication. August 2006.

Assuredly, the hyperbole and excitement are far greater this time around. Yet, let me assure you that the awareness is not. Not only was the USGS aware of the significant potential in mineral deposits, but so were the Chinese who are extremely active in the country on this front, and the Soviets in the 1980s. In fact, I traveled to Afghanistan in 2008 to analyze the potential of large-scale economic projects as part of a Policy Analysis Exercise at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and sponsored by the Embassy of Canada in Kabul, culminating in a report: "Realizing Afghanistan's Potential - Assessing the Potential of Large-scale Economic Investments."

Interviewing two dozen government, NGO, international and other officials, it became clear that there was a strong expectation that natural resources would prove to be the foundation of a future self-reliant Afghanistan. Conversely, it was also apparent that the capacity to harness these very resources was missing and furthermore, the Ministry of Mines was viewed with derision, suspicion, and skepticism even by members of the Afghan government. Despite this, the Chinese showed early commitment which I had summarized:
In November 2007, the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) won the right to bid on the Aynak Mines project, committing to invest around $3 billion in one of the world’s largest unexploited copper deposits. The area also includes other significant deposits as well.
Afghanistan also has significant iron ore deposits:
The most significant of these is the Haji Gak iron ore mine, one of the largest unexploited deposits of its kind in the world (and of a high quality). There are over 2 billion metric tons of ore at this location. This deposit could yield returns to the government and lead to job creation beyond even the levels of Aynak Mines.
Beyond lithium, copper, and iron ore, there has always been potential in the natural gas and oil fields, as well as smaller deposits of precious metals. Nevertheless all the prospective rewards not only are undermined by current security risks, but also by a lack of coordination. One of my key recommendations was the creation of a new coordination body (still lacking) that would bring together the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency, the Ministry of Mines, the Ministry of Commerce, and even the Anti-Corruption Commission to ensure competent, clean and comprehensive exploitation of natural resources. Additionally, the current structure for revenue sharing encourages centralized corruption and disempowerment of local bodies, and consequently such mega-projects could result in emboldening grievances for the Taliban to play on.

It is important not to cast aside the potential of a new industry that could provide a boon for future Afghan generations. Unbridled optimism, however, is not a substitution for the real challenges in the short-term in the battle for stability in Afghanistan. Furthermore, without a concerted effort, the wealth of future generations may well be squandered. $1 trillion is a great headline but let's make sure we capture the rest of the story honestly.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Helen Thomas bites the dust

In any context Helen Thomas, the veteran 89-year old White House journalist blundered dramatically in her recent statement to, as Sarah Palin would describe it, a gotcha reporter.

The ensuing outcry after Thomas insisted that the Israelis should "get the hell out of Palestine" and go back to "Germany and Poland" resulted in her being removed from her venerable front-row perch at the White House. In addition, there are growing demands to rename some of the lifetime awards dedicated to her. So what are we to think? How many people firstly knew that Helen Thomas was an Arab-American? She is but that is irrelevant to her contribution to American democracy. In a career that spans 60 years, she does not deserve to be judged by a statement that she makes at 89 years of age, even though she is no less responsible for it. She is without doubt one of the pillars of American democracy. That is not a statement to make lightly. She was the check to balance the secrecy of the executive branch in the United States. Simply watch her in action with President Bush the junior:

She is widely known as the First Lady of the White House press corps and has challenged sitting Presidents, Democratic and Republican, since John F. Kennedy. Fidel Castro remarked several years back to a question from USA Today about the difference between U.S. and Cuban demcoracy: "I don't have to answer questions from Helen Thomas." It is easy to cast her aside and toss her out with yesterday's has-beens, but whether we like it or not, her impact on journalistic integrity and independence will outlive her and continue to influence American and global media.

There is no denying that her remarks were both ill-advised and offensive. However, in her mind, I believe, she was still thinking anachronistically in the 1940s when Jews from Poland and Germany were emigrating to Palestine and were soon to displace its indigenous residents. For whatever reason, she has not changed her thinking on Israeli citizens since that time, promoting what would be tantamount today to ethnic expulsion.

The flip side of this is of course that the Palestinians are not permitted to return to the villages from which they were expelled in 1948 and 1967, while a person who subscribes to the Jewish faith can emigrate from Brooklyn to live in that person's old house. Also troubling, but not really newsworthy.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Step aside Obama -- say hello to my Grandma!

President Obama in some circles is known as the Man of Steel. He may or may not have the muscles to pull off that image, but more likely it is a reference to his cool demeanor under crisis - his matter-of-fact but deliberate response to difficult often troubling events. After two seemingly endless wars and a politically charged eight years under the now Facebooked George W. Bush Americans seemed ready for a calm President. Yet, barring Glenn Beck's rant, both Americans and citizens around the world appreciate a bit of emotive empathy. When President-elect Obama refused to intercede with any visible display of sympathy during the winter assault on Gaza just prior to his inauguration, it was labeled damaging to his "global reputation" but it albeit passed with an expectation that he would react more explicitly once he was the actual commander-in-chief.

If there is one thing that the last month has shown is that President Obama is increasingly appearing out-of-touch. His reaction to one of the largest oil-spills (still growing) in world history has been telling. A usual ally Frank Rich is an unusual suspect in the growing criticism of the Administration. In the New York Times recently he labeled the reaction to the spill as perhaps worse than Katrina. Maureen Dowd was equally vicious. While it was Fox News led by Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Mr. Bill who hammered since day one that this was perhaps Obama's Katrina, that language now cuts across all political circles. Although the President has visited Louisiana twice in the course of a week it took him 45 days to do that. Only when Larry King prodded him in an interview yesterday did the President assert that he is "furious." Perhaps his handlers appreciate his ability to be calm in a crisis but that should not overwhelm the importance of decisive (although deliberate) leadership, empathy for those afflicted, and a vocal desire to find a solution. The Oval Office is not a professor's desk.

It is tough to be harsh on a President who is inclusive, highly intelligent, and situationally aware in an increasingly complex world. He has taken a concerted effort to push through an important piece of healthcare legislation. He has turned Russia into an ally in nuclear politics. Yet even globally, Obama has been slow in crisis. When Israel's military might clashed with a folly flotilla this past week, Obama was invisible, hiding from view. His spokesperson said that it was not important whether the U.S. condemned the action because "nothing could bring them [the dead] back." That may be true, but it is not really the reaction of a Nobel Peace Laureate (deserved or undeserved). President Obama is sometimes conspicuous in his silence -- a silence that can be tragically deadly. His muted reaction emboldened Eli Yishai to approve housing units in Jerusalem. His diffidence and dithering has allowed the blockade of Gaza to fester with all the volatility to turn into an international nightmare. President Obama came into office just after the bombardment of Gaza that obliterated the territory. To this day no cement has been permitted into Gaza. The reaction from the White House? Silence (except for small soundbites). One can make all the measured speeches in Cairo but there needs to also be specific and forthright reactions/expressions/actions to crises, situations, and events. 

Obama himself is wary of the quick trigger reaction and the information overload facilitated by the 24/7 media environment which he expressed in a speech last month:
And meanwhile, you're coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content...And with iPods and iPads; and Xboxes and PlayStations -- none of which I know how to work -- (laughter) -- information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it's putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy.

Yes there is a surfeit of information flooding our society. Nevertheless, you have to live in the world that you - well live in. Even my Grandma is on Facebook. In fact, just this past weekend she started video-skyping; probably not far off from getting an I-Pad.

Events like the one in the high seas near Gaza or in the seas off Louisiana are not going to go away. People will continue exchanging vigorous views. The discussions will not stop. Charged perceptions will be formed. President Obama cannot be silent nor disengaged nor hide from the world -- if he wants some tips, he may want to reach out to my Grandma down in Florida.