Monthly Archives: July 2011

A Week of Killings and Talks

Looking back over the week, a series of high-profile killings dominate the news, but at the same time a surprising number of peace talks began.

To start with the killings, yesterday the rebel military commander in Libya was shot to death. We don’t know why or by whom, but signs point to a split in the ranks of the stalled Libyan rebellion — bad news for those who want to see the war end quickly.

In Kosovo, a police officer was killed in an unwelcome resurgence of violence along the border of Kosovo and Serbia. The incident seems to be de-escalating but is a reminder that after 12 years Kosovo is still unsettled. Part of the world recognizes an independent Kosovo and the other part considers it still a province of Serbia. Kosovo’s recent moves to ban imports from Serbia and assert its sovereignty in the Serbian-populated area near the border (if it is a border) were probably not such a great idea.

In Somalia, where the famine is heartbreaking, aid began arriving in the capital Mogadishu but triggered an outbreak of intense fighting there. At least ten people were killed yesterday.

In Syria, five more people were killed by the government security forces. A reported 1600 people have been killed in the attempted repression of protests in recent months, and the number grows daily. Today after Friday prayers there will undoubtedly be more nonviolent protests and more killings.

In Iran last weekend an academic possibly connected to the nuclear program was shot dead in the streets. This is not the first such assassination in Iran.

And in Afghanistan yesterday a BBC reporter was among more than 20 people killed in a Taliban attack on police and government buildings. I am repeatedly awed by the BBC and its reporting from dangerous places, so it is especially sad to see one of those brave reporters die. Afghanistan has also seen several high-profile assassinations in the last couple of weeks, including President Karzai’s half-brother and the mayor of Kandahar.

But before you crawl back into bed, consider the talks.

Israeli president Shimon Peres has been holding secret peace talks with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. These are among the most seasoned and reasonable people on each side of the equation so it’s good to see them going over maps and details in case the conflict turns out to be less hopeless than is usually assumed.

India and Pakistan held talks Wednesday at the foreign minister level for the first time in a couple of years. They went well and generated some forward momentum, although only trivial concrete agreements resulted.

In New York, the United States and North Korea are unexpectedly holding talks about the possible resumption of six-party negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear program. This follows direct talks between North and South Korea recently, held under pressure from the United States and China to cool temperatures on the Korean Peninsula.

Even in Boroland, India, where a low-intensity armed conflict that you never heard of has dragged on for 25 years, the rebels have just suspended fighting to engage in peace talks with the government.

So is the upsurge of negotiations this week cause for hope, or is the upsurge of killings cause for despair. Frankly, I’m feeling a bit of each. My hope for future is, of course, Talk More; Kill Less.


In Praise of UNICEF

UNICEF photo of childThe famine in Somalia continues to call for our attention and response. As stepped-up international aid begins to arrive, I have been noticing the key role of an agency we too easily take for granted — the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF.

It’s not just how much UNICEF does, but how many different kinds of things. UNICEF has operated in Somalia continuously since 1972. In the past week, it vaccinated 40,000 children under five, and a like number of women, in Mogadishu alone, while gearing up to vaccinate 55,000 more kids in Somalia and another 200,000 in areas of Kenya overrun with refugees. Recently, when the Islamic militant group al Shabab eased its restriction on international aid to areas it controls, the first in with an airlift to the town of Baidoa was UNICEF. This involved a delicate negotiation to ensure aid was not diverted by the militants and that aid workers were not harmed. The latter, sadly, cannot be taken for granted, as aid workers in Somalia have been harassed, kidnapped, and killed in the past. In Burundi in 1999 the UNICEF representative was murdered by rebels.

The agency’s role in emergencies such as the present one is laudable. But more impressive is its worldwide presence. UNICEF is the largest purchaser of vaccines worldwide, responsible for 40 percent of vaccines used in developing countries. It provides nutritional supplements such as Vitamin A, and helps with mosquito nets for malaria. UNICEF also promotes breast-feeding and other low-cost methods to enhance child health.

These efforts are dramatically improving prospects for poor children. In just thirty years, immunization rates went from below 20 percent to 75 percent worldwide. And most impressively, in just 20 years since 1990, the overall mortality for children under five has fallen by a third, from about 12 million to 8 million a year. That translates to 12,000 fewer child deaths per day. And the progress is accelerating in the new century compared with the 1990s. Many people are sad that the world is falling short of a Millennium Development Goal of reducing child mortality by two-thirds by 2015, but one-third in twenty years is still historically unprecedented.

UNICEF operates in 150 countries and sticks around through thick and thin. In Sierra Leone in the 1990s, UNICEF arrived years before any peacekeepers, and stayed on when fighting flared and the peacekeepers left for a while.

All this from an agency that receives no money from the UN budget, and relies entirely on voluntary contributions from governments, businesses and individuals. When I was a kid, we collected donations at Halloween in little orange boxes. Today kids continue this tradition, started in 1950, but this year people short of spare change can scan a Microsoft Tag on the box with a smart phone to donate to UNICEF. Don’t wait for Halloween, though — the UNICEF website is here. Or think about supporting the other organizations doing vital work in the Somalia famine, mentioned in earlier blog posts:  Oxfam, the World Food Program, the International Rescue Committee, and Doctors Without Borders.

The international response to a famine says a lot about who we are, as human beings. In this case things were slow to get going, but are gearing up impressively as the international community mobilizes. NGOs and agencies like UNICEF have learned a lot over the years, and are doing a good job with limited resources. It’s worth a “thank you” and some money in that orange box.

Whither Gaddafi?

Gaddafi photoSeveral Libyan rebels and foreign leaders have said recently that if Colonel Gaddafi leaves power in Libya, he would not need to leave the country — an offer that is supposed to make him feel OK about stepping down. However, it’s not that simple.

The British foreign secretary said yesterday that Gaddafi needn’t necessarily leave Libya (although that would be the “best way”), an approach also suggested recently by the French foreign minister and endorsed by the United States and others last week. The French even said a couple of weeks ago that Gaddafi was “prepared to leave.” And there are no shortage of diplomatic channels to make a deal — intermediaries include the African Union, Russia, and a UN Special Representative, among others.

But here’s the catch. If you are a dictator and control the state’s instruments of repression and violence, and you’ve made a lot of enemies,  what happens when you step down from power and stay in the country? Well, there’s a very good chance your enemies will turn those instruments against you after they take power and you are disarmed and defenseless. Just ask Hosni Mubarak, who left office pretty quickly and graciously (compared to Gaddafi), retired to his villa, and got then hauled right back into court. His trial starts next week, he is under house arrest, and his son is in prison awaiting trial.

But leaving the country after giving up power is not simple either. Gaddafi faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court. He could find sanctuary in a country that does not recognize the court, or a special deal could allow him to live somewhere peacefully in the interest of a Libya solution (although advocates of the ICC would not like to undermine the court that way).

But again, the problem is that once you lose power, you lose protection. What’s to stop a sanctuary country from changing its mind and handing you over to the ICC? The guy who can answer that question — and the answer is “nothing” — is the unsavory former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor. He left power in 2003 for exile in Nigeria while under indictment by the international Special Court for Sierra Leone. Three years later Nigeria extradited him to Liberia which handed him to the Special Court. His current address is a cell in The Hague.

A dictator can stay and fight until captured, like Saddam Hussein (executed) and Manuel Noriega (still in prison) did. That also does not look appealing if you face the dictator’s dilemma.

When a whole rebel group needs to disband under a peace agreement, a similar problem arises. They are vulnerable once they disarm. The solution there is to send in peacekeepers to offer security guarantees during the tricky process. Unfortunately, with one guy, a dictator, it’s harder to do, especially when (like Gaddafi) you have few friends around the world.

There is a great debate about peace versus justice in ending civil wars. Do you insist that someone like Gaddafi stand trial for his crimes, or do you let him off as part of a peace deal to end a war? I’m on the side of peace. I’d be glad to let Gaddafi go in order to save thousands of lives in Libya. But go where? That’s the problem.


India, Pakistan Talk Peace

Hina Rabbani Khar photo

Pakistani FM Hina Rabbani Khar

Tomorrow Pakistan’s foreign minister will meet in New Delhi for peace talks with her Indian counterpart. Although routine and not expected to lead to any breakthrough, the talks are important. Pakistan’s fears about India shape its policies toward both Afghanistan and the United States.

The talks themselves follow a lower-level session in Pakistan last month. Talks had resumed in February after being suspended in 2008 when Pakistani-based militants attacked Mumbai, India, killing more than 150 people. Before that, the two countries spent years in and out of talks, but the trajectory over the years has been slowly toward progress. The last all-out war was in 1971, when East Pakistan became Bangladesh with India’s support. Military incidents and clashes since then have focused on the disputed Kashmir region claimed by both sides. In 1998 both countries tested nuclear weapons, and they have each since built arsenals of dozens of nukes. In late 2001 an attack on India’s parliament led to a year-long military standoff. Since then, the border has been surprisingly quiet.

The talks this week will focus on more “confidence-building measures” including expanded trade, more bus service across the border, and the like. Wall Street Journal blogger Amol Sharma complains that they’ve “set the lowest possible bar for success.” As the countries’ foreign secretaries meet today to prepare the way for their bosses tomorrow, the talk is about replacing a “trust deficit” with a “deepening understanding” as the Pakistani foreign secretary put it:

This deepening understanding is exactly what’s needed. Pakistan’s obsession with the threat from India makes it meddle in Afghanistan (to avoid encirclement if an Indian-friendly government emerges there), draw closer to China (counterweight to India), and put its military resources along its eastern border when they are desperately needed to fight militants along its western border. Oh, did I mention building dozens of nuclear weapons? Stability with India — a country that Pakistan shares a great deal with, particularly given their joint history as a British colony — is a key to setttling down the Pakistani government and normalizing Pakistan’s international relations.

Pakistan’s new foreign minister, appointed last week, is both the first woman to hold the job and, at age 34, the youngest. She arrived in Delhi today, and as she takes center stage tomorrow, I’m rooting for her to succeed.

The UN – Bang for the Buck

Quick, who has the second largest deployed army in the world (after the U.S. military)? An army with global reach capabilities, operating in 14 places at once in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America? An army of 100,000 armed troops? The United Nations, that’s who.

UN peacekeeperMy new book Winning the War on War describes the amazing amount of good these peacekeepers are doing, especially in keeping wars from restarting after cease-fires.

The average American household pays something like $750 a month for the U.S. military (broken down in this earlier post). But for UN peacekeeping that same household pays about 2 dollars a month. So you would think that conservative members of Congress who want to cut government spending would be the biggest fans of peacekeeping. But no. They want to cut the budget deficit (by a truly tiny sliver) by unilaterally cutting U.S. payments to the UN — payments that are by-the-way treaty commitments we’ve made to the other countries of the world.

Mark Leon Goldberg reports on the Congressional budget mark-up just wrapping up in the House of Representatives:

The base text (before any amendments) would put the United States into arrears in its contributions to UN peacekeeping. So, Representative Donald Payne (a Democrat) offered an amendment to increase the base funding for UN peacekeeping.  The GOP promptly shot that down so the Democrats offered amendments to save specific missions from being under-funded (specifically, the new mission in Southern Sudan and Abyei). Alas, those too were shot down.

The GOP assault on the UN also extended to its regular budget; Representative Ted Poe proposed an across the board 25% cut to the non-peacekeeping budget. It passed. …

We’ve been down this path before. In the 1980s, the USA fell half a billion dollars behind in its dues and assessments to the UN. After 1994, the last time  Republicans took control of the House, attacks on the UN were frequent and more dues were withheld. In fact, the U.S. only got up-to-date in its payments to the UN in 2009.

Think there’s nothing you can do? After you finish telling your Congressperson how you feel, you can spread the word by buying and flying a UN Flag

An oddity of American politics is that 79 percent of the public supports strengthening the UN in a recent poll, yet everyone seems to think that nobody else does. That’s where the flags help.

Arab Spring struggles through summer

What’s the most important thing to pay attention to in international relations right now? My answer is, still, the Arab Spring,the latest of the great waves of democracy worldwide to crest in recent decades. It will reshape the international relations of the greater Middle East. For the better, I hope.

And of all the countries in the Arab Spring, the most important is Egypt. The revolution there happened quickly and has been overshadowed by ongoing conflicts in Libya and Syria, but Egypt is the biggest and historically most central in the Arab World. At 80 million people, it’s more than twice as large as any other Arab country.

Trouble is, it’s not clear how things will turn out there. The people’s uprising in Egypt made an extraordinary move by putting their faith in the military to protect society and bring about changes. In the short term, it worked. The military turned against President Mubarak, refused to shoot the protesters, and then took control of the country when Mubarak stepped down. A coup d’etat in the name of democracy.

Since then, the military government has made progress in organizing elections and setting up a process to write a new constitution. Parliamentary elections are expected in October or November, though foreign observers will not be allowed. The Cabinet was just reshuffled in response to street protests. But the government continues to arrest and torture people. Women have been largely pushed aside after taking a big role in the anti-Mubarak protests. And it’s not clear how much power the military will reserve for itself in the new Egypt. The military runs a major segment of the economy and makes a lot of money doing so (money it probably will not want to stop making). And speaking of the economy, it is still in shambles, with tourism way down. Egyptians who put trust in the military were either brilliant or stupid, but it’s not really clear which one yet.

So there we have it on this Friday — the most important phenomenon in the world, the most important country in that phenomenon, but no clear picture of how it’s going to turn out. Protesters are still camping out in Tahrir Square to demand follow-through on real democracy. Their newest enemy is the heat, which regularly tops 100 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s even hotter than Massachusetts today.

Democracy is empowering citizens, harmonizing norms across the world, and making war less likely than ever. It’s been an amazing 25 years since People Power swept Ferdinand Marcos from power in the Philippines. Eastern Europe threw off communism; Latin America gave up military government; big players like Indonesia and Nigeria joined in. Now, the Arab Spring. It’s big, and it’s far from finished. Let’s hope it ends well.

Sharing the South China Sea

Map of S. China Sea

(Note: Hainan island is part of China). BBC map.

China has unexpectedly agreed with its ASEAN neighbors on a new set of guidelines to implement their general agreement (2002) about peaceful exploration in the South China Sea. Apparently Chinese leaders decided their previous stance of “Mine! All mine!” was not the most productive approach after all.

When approved by all the governments, the guidelines should cool tensions and improve coordination of efforts to explore for oil and other resources in the sea, which is very rich in resources indeed (possibly second to Saudi Arabia in oil). The countries might even scale back their little displays of power, such as when China recently clipped cables being towed by Vietnamese and Philippine survey boats (two different incidents). Maybe the Vietnamese navy will stop harassing Chinese fishing boats. Or maybe not, but the point is that an agreement is better than none, and talking is better than skirmishing at sea.

The Law of the Sea treaty has brought a lot of good benefits to the world, but it does create one recurring problem — conflicts over little islands. It all started with the treaty’s solution to the problem of overfishing, which was to give each country a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The zones more or less coincide with the continental shelf and hence the fish concentrations. So now Spanish or Taiwanese factory fishing ships can’t come in next to Canada’s shore and suck out everything that swims.

The problem is that the EEZ system means that ownership of a tiny island in the middle of nowhere give a country economic control of the fish, the oil and gas, and the undersea minerals for 200 miles in every direction. That’s about 125,000 square miles of goodies for an island that might be one square mile. But what if the  island is not in the middle of nowhere, but in a sea crowded with a lot of other little islands and surrounded by six countries that each claim all or some of the islands? That’s the situation with the South China Sea, encompassing the Spratly and Paracel island groups.

The solution is to talk it out and probably come to an agreement to split up revenues or coordinate who gets to exploit what resources. That kind of agreement takes a long time and gets very complicated, but it can work. What’s the alternative? War is not likely to give a country stable control, and China has to take into account that the United States has held military exercises recently with both Vietnam and the Philippines. (See my recent post about power balancing.) Nobody will get the goodies in the South China Sea if war drives away investors and hampers trade.

The Chinese leadership also may have in the back of their minds China’s last war, fought in 1979 against Vietnam to “teach them a lesson” after Vietnam took over Cambodia following the Khmer Rouge disaster. In the end, as Vietnam got the better of the fighting, it was China that learned a lesson from this “Pedagogical War,” and the lesson was that war does not pay. China hasn’t fought one since.

Somalia Famine Declared

Yesterday the UN declared that a famine exists in southern Somalia, a designation triggered by specific levels of malnutrition and mortality in the population. Ten million people are affected. The declaration is designed to trigger a much stronger response from the international community. The USA pledged $28 million more, which is more than nothing but less than enough.

Somali child / BBC NewsOne important part of the response is private contributions from individuals around the world. The best way to help is to send money to groups working on the ground in East Africa, and I really like the three organizations suggested by ABC News’s Dr. Rich Besser. They are doing great work and can use your contributions effectively:

World Food Programme (for actually getting food to the hungry). You can donate online to or you can make a $10 donation to the World Food Programme by texting AID to 27722.

Doctors Without Borders (for medical care for the refugees)

International Rescue Committee (IRC) (for making the refugee camps work).

The famine results from a combination of drought, high food prices, and the breakdown of society in Somalia, including the decision (just recently reversed) by the Islamic militants who control much of southern Somalia to ban international aid groups over the last year.

In 1992-93, the United States sent a military force to protect humanitarian supplies during a famine in Somalia. The mission accomplished that goal and stopped the deaths of several thousand people a day who had been starving there before the intervention. When 18 Americans were killed by a local militia, the United States quickly pulled out, followed by the UN, and left Somalia to its fate. For twenty years since then, Somalia has been just about the worst, most intractable conflict in the world, and now we’re back where we started (although not as bad as 1992, mercifully). Is an intervention that costs 18 American lives and saves many thousands of Somali lives a “failure?”  Food for thought.


Hillary Balancing in Asia

Clinton and RaoHillary Clinton’s Asia trip is going along smoothly. Right below the surface are the big power-balancing dynamics that shape the world’s most populous, fastest-growing region, Asia, with its rival power centers and shifting alliances.

On a small scale, Hillary Clinton is pleased with talks  in India. and praised recent peace talks between India and Pakistan. She affirmed the U.S. and Indian parallel positions as democracies fighting terrorism. She is following up a 2008 U.S.-India deal on nuclear energy cooperation, and promoting U.S. business in fast-growing India. And it doesn’t hurt that India’s foreign minister, Clinton’s counterpart, is a woman.

Next she is off to an ASEAN forum in Bali, Indonesia, where the six ASEAN members have been discussing their conflicts, notably disputes over the resource-rich South China Sea. A nasty little border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia, which has led to several small but lethal clashes in recent years, seems to be cooling off, after the World Court ordered both sides to withdraw from a demilitarized zone in a tiny disputed area around a Cambodian temple. Yet to be seen is whether Thailand’s first woman prime minister, whose election was finally certified, will bring a more peaceful approach to this dispute.

The key to the political maneuvering in Asia is the balance of power that does not allow any one power to dominate the region. During the Cold War, India was aligned with the Soviet Union, and China more-or-less with the United States. China and India even fought a border war in 1962. Pakistan is India’s enemy, therefore China’s friend. On India’s side you could add Bangladesh (which India helped get independence from Pakistan in 1971), and Vietnam (Soviet ally, U.S. enemy). When the USA teamed up with Pakistan to drive the Soviets from Afghanistan, it clearly aligned with the China side, balancing against the Soviet Union.

Nowadays, things are a little more complicated. India has warmed up a lot to the United States, and so have other countries in the region that might be a bit worried about China’s rapid rise in power — such as Vietnam and the other ASEAN members trying to thwart a Chinese grab of the South China Sea.

What it amounts to, some two decades after the Cold War ended, is that the United States — with its staunch allies Japan, South Korea, and Australia — has gone from one side of the China-India divide to playing both sides. When the Soviet Union was the big perceived threat, the United States weighed in on the China side of the equation. Now that China is seen as more of a threat and Russia far less so, the USA has shifted away from China and toward India in recent years. That is the classic role of “power balancer” that Britain played for centuries on the European continent. And hence today’s happy meeting of the U.S. and Indian foreign ministers, two women from two democracies, both nervous about China and both trying to deal with an unstable and unpredictable Pakistan.

Libya – Slow Progress

The United States on Friday recognized the rebel Transitional National Council as the legitimate government of Libya.  The move, taken during an Istanbul meeting of more than 30 countries, potentially opens the way for more than $30 billion frozen Libyan assets in the USA to be available to the rebels. Russia has criticized the move as taking sides in a civil war, which is pretty much what NATO has been doing for a while now.

Meanwhile on the battlefield the rebels have been stuck in the east (Brega) and making only slow progress in the mountains south of Tripoli. Heavy fighting broke out Saturday. This morning rebels claim to have captured Brega, the oil town on the coast road that has changed hands several times earlier in the war. Also, with many Gaddafi officers having defected to the rebels, Gaddafi is reportedly running short of people to command his forces.

The Washington Post reports that progress has been slow because the rebels don’t want to hurt people, their fellow Libyans. They, civilians turned armed revolutionaries, hope that by minimizing violence they will have a better chance to put the country back together post-Gaddafi. I hope it’s true. Anyway, it’s good to see Washington get over its attitude of “we don’t know who the rebels are, they could be Islamist radicals” (which they’re not).

Back in June, I wrote that the Libya war could be over before the end of the month. I was wrong about that; it’s been slower. But I still think the situation is not a stalemate or quagmire, but one that moves continuously in one direction, albeit slowly — toward Gaddafi’s collapse.