Sunday, July 24, 2011

5000 yrs in 90 seconds

This is a visual whirlwind of geopolitical struggle in the Middle East during the last 5000 years. Helps put today's regional events in historical context.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

How to stimulate the economy? Decrease average penis size

Photo: iStockphoto
Shakespeare once said that "the fault ...was not in our stars, but in ourselves" - in our pants to be precise.

This paper by a Finnish doctoral student looks at the correlation between penis size and economic growth. I'll bite my tongue and let you decide.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Dangerous Tie

A brief examination of a potential new axis in the Middle East

True or False: Turkey's central foreign policy of pacifism within and beyond its borders is potentially the strongest reason WWIII won't happen sooner than later, or rather, that it hasn't happened yet.  This is not to say it would not consider forceful policies via proxy conflicts to secure vital geopolitical interests, seen from a purely realist bent.  And with the beating heart of Egypt seeming to wake people of the region up from a decades-long coma it comes as no surprise that major diplomatic revisions were drawn up by the mighty US of A, albeit two eons late.  A recent massive propaganda campaign accompanying the revisions has addressed the Arab world through a determining speech by Obama on May 23 that makes clear as day the importance of current Middle East events to global politics.  A truly historic earthquake that has reverberated far beyond its epicentre in Tunisia in January of 2011 has ignited public awakening in Arab populations and beyond, sending chills through the spines of Western-backed regimes in the ME (n.b. now openly stated as such on Western media channels).  Shockwaves are felt all along the shores of the Mediterrean, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.  Even as far west as Mauritania and Spain, through Italy and eastward as far as Pakistan, social aftershocks have rattled many previously tight-lipped societies around the world.  Still, in the midst of political turmoil across the wider region, one danger Israel and its main ally may consider apocalyptic remains the threat of a hypothetical Turkey-Iran-Egypt (TIE) alliance that could form or be under formation under their very noses.  Such a major shift in the balance of power in the region would present a political nightmare for Netanyahu’s volatile nation-state.  With each new war, and with NATO and Europe now considering the expansion of military intervention to Syria as well as Sudan, the risk continues to increase of major international warfare that might become inevitable if major global powers react based on their interests to spark chain-reactions of joint and unilateral declarations of war.

Currently a TIE partnership is not close to feasible even internally since Turkey has by far the most to lose in the relationship; a stable and decidedly moderate domestic situation and a growing international presence means it has little to no direct incentive to stir trouble.  Whether or not Turkey’s policies are self-serving or genuinely based on ushering in a true Golden Age for the Turkish people and its civilization they have successfully managed to develop a ‘clean’ image and a perception among a wider international community of a Turkey as a neutral regional power well on its way to integrate itself into the elite competition of global politics.  With control over one of the important marine trade routes of the world connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterrean, hence Russia to Europe to Africa, a modern Turkey is unlikely to taste any fruit enticing enough to engage in aggressive politics, barring of course any dangerous domestic setbacks or foreign developments (i.e. Egypt and Syria).  This would make Turkey the uncertain yet pivotal player in any bold attempts to undermine Western influence in the Middle East and North East Africa.

In the case of Iran, US sanctions, beyond having a crippling effect on the economy, have effectively undercut Iran’s application for permament status in the SCO, an increasingly relevant international cooperation comprising eastern Asian states including Russia and China that aims to counteract growing US influence as it creeps ever deeper into Asia and Africa.  Serving parallel benefits for the US these sanctions have helped in blocking or limiting Iran’s access to nuclear power through trade restrictions and the US can also be seen to have taken extra measures (tongue-in-cheek) to physically isolate Iran with two wars that have created a Persian burger with US buns on either side, west in Iraq and east in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and let’s not forget US-favourite Saudi Arabia to the south.  The largest political asset of Iran, though, is its alliance with the Syrian regime, Hezb Allah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, Palestine.  This could serve as its richest bargaining chip in any deeper conciliation with a new Egypt and hence in turn with Turkey, a 3-for-1 deal of sorts, and all things considered would likely be the most willing partner of a tri-alliance.

However, the largest current geopolitical question regarding Egypt is still to be answered as the political vaacum has exposed the country to instability while protests have not yet quelled and the country remains under the watchful eye of the West.  Even with Europe to its north, unfriendly SA to its east and NATO and the US directly to its west in Libya, a powerful Egyptian military could present more destructive regional consequences to US and NATO interests than any imagined Turkish rise.  A leap of faith may even lead one to believe the unofficial reason for intervention in Libya was to create yet another sandwich, of Egyptian variety this time.  Even Cairo’s closest African ally to the south has been chopped in half by recent developments in Sudan that have suddenly turned friendly Sudan into friendly North Sudan for Egypt, as South Sudan remains largely under Western backing.  With Nato and the UN hinting threats at the North after it took control of a key oil state along the newly created border when recent clashes erupted, Egypt is not so much a burger as it as a wrap.

As it goes, risk-aversity as well as elements of a Prisoner’s Dilemma force the imaginary TIE partnership into near impossibility, as each ‘partner’ would likely opt for guaranteed political stability with minor concessions over major uncertainty and high-risk political pathways.  Taking into account the sectarian divide especially on the Iran front, the whole setup seems rather laughable and abstract at the end of it all, and indeed it may be so.  Nonetheless, this has not stopped Israel from working tirelessly to ensure that a TIE partnership remains impossible.  Dividing and weakening potential or perceived threats has been Israel’s chosen strategy for ensuring relative superiority or at least balanced influence in the region since its inception, allowing it to continue UN-opposed expansionist policies under pretexts of self-defense and state survival.  The Egypt card has turned up stronger than expected, however, which has and will continue to cause serious problems as Egypt’s role in Palestine has shifted 180° since the dethroning of the Mubarak regime, and presents the most immediate problem for Israel at the moment.  Any repositioning of TIE members that would foster affinity rather than division is unwelcome for Israel, so the case of Egypt and Iran courting each other on a platform of mutual shows of support for the Palestinians has rung major alarm bells in Israel.  This has prompted Israel to send their PM to address the US Congress in an exuberant show of ass-kissing with several Congress-wide standing ovations; a symbolic gesture to show to the world where standeth the powerful men and women of the mighty US Empire.

By Milad Dakka

Friday, November 19, 2010

Multiculturalism in Canada: Mayor Nenshi debates Tarek Fatah on Al Jazeera English

Just yesterday, recently-elected Mayor of Calgary Naheed Nenshi (for those unfamiliar, the first ever Muslim mayor elected to lead a major North American city) and so-called "secular muslim" activist Tarek Fatah, who is a well known critic of Canada's multiculturalism policies, engaged in a debate on Al Jazeera English's Riz Khan Show. The premise of the debate was "With Islamophobia on the rise in the US and Europe, has Canada set a different example by electing that country's first ever Muslim mayor?"

I think that Nenshi has successfully exposed Tarek Fatah for the idiot that he is. It doesn't take long for one to clearly see that Fatah truly isn't a very smart man, and that when put up against an individual who is well versed in the realities regarding Multiculturalism in Canada and the circumstances of Muslim-Canadians in particular, he has no choice but to continue throwing out as much alarmist rhetoric as possible to pursue what I see as nothing less than an anti-Canada smear campaign in the name of self-promotion. Fatah has been able to build a considerable base of followers on the political right, precisely because he says exactly what they want to hear.

Not only has Fatah, as Mayor Nenshi correctly pointed out, made a career out of making things seem worse than they actually are, but he brings up alarming and unusual isolated incidents, and even goes so far as to distort facts (just to point out one example, Africville--the district of Halifax in which Tarek Fatah claims that Black-Canadians continue to live segregated from the rest of society, was evicted in the 1960s, and the Government of Nova Scotia has officially apologized for its existence and the untimely eviction, which involved moving the entire population out of their homes (in garbage trucks, no less) to make way for the construction of a suspension bridge. If you plan on visiting the province, there is an exhibit about it on display in the Black Heritage Centre in Preston, NS).

Fatah is right on one thing: Nenshi won the election because he was the best man for the job. He is one of the most competent politicians I have seen come out of this country in a long time. Not only that, but he speaks French, used to work for the United Nations, was a debating champion with Ezra Levant (lol), and holds a degree in Government from Harvard University. His campaign, which used the internet and social networking to mobilize an impressive voter turnout for municipal elections, and got unusually large segments of young people and visible minorities out to vote, is reminiscent of another, much more well-known, politician. Looking to the future, I have high hopes for him.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Knowing How to Say NO

“Why can we not say no to our men?  We African women need to learn from Western women how to say no.”  

          This was part of a dialogue I had with a Botswana woman during a government sponsored event – a candle-lit vigil to remember those who have perished from AIDS.  I was invited to speak about youth and HIV/AIDS, in particular the efforts to prevent HIV transmission.  The highest prevalence of HIV infected persons exists in sub-Saharan Africa, with Botswana being the 2nd highest country in the world, percentage-wise, after Swaziland.  There are numerous strategies in place in Botswana to mitigate the spread of HIV/AIDS.  Naturally, the primary focus is on educating people about the disease.  This strategy has been put in place by the major Western donors, including ACHAP (Bill and Melinda Gates foundation) and USAID (United States Agency for International Development).   

            But with prevalence rates increasing, many of us are left wondering why.  Why are they increasing with all the education initiatives in place?  Education is simply not enough.  There are deep rooted sociological, psychological and behavioural factors at play.  And while I fully support empowerment through education, there is more that we are missing in our efforts to end the spread of HIV/AIDS.  Botswana's goal is to end all new infections by 2016, an ambitious goal to say the least.  

Then I think back to the conversation I had with this Botswana woman.  Now I have had many such conversations with women in Botswana, but this particular conversation made me reflect upon was the power of ‘no’.  In a sense the word itself is often seen in a negative light, as a refusal.  However, in North America, we women are afforded the choice of saying no to a man.  Not that this always occurs, but we can use it in light of making choices.  It’s my right to say no:  I know it and I believe it.  This does not guarantee that it will be respected, but I still know how to say ‘no’.  In Botswana, things are not so simple.  A woman saying ‘no’ challenges the deep-rooted patriarchal system that exists at all levels of social and inter-personal interactions.  

It was Botswana women themselves that told me they did not know how to say no.  Now Botswana is not the only place in this world where patriarchy prevails, but it is one country I can speak about given my experience working there.  Saying no to sex denies a man his right to pleasure, and for many women, it goes against the ‘duty’ of satisfying a man.  This touches on cultural norms, values and behaviours that are so entrenched in society that they are hard to break.  Changing them will take time.  We cannot assume education can be the instant fix.  Education about the severity of the disease, how it is transmitted and the protective measures one can take to prevent infection is the start but by no means the quick or ultimate solution.       

If a man does not want to wear a condom, we can’t make him.”  

 This was another common thing I would hear in conversations with women.  The same problem would apply to women wearing the female condom…if a man refuses to have sex with her wearing it, then what? In Botswana, a woman's right to say ‘no’ to unsafe sex is not recognized or normalized. 

 A woman’s ability to say ‘no’ is only one component in HIV/AIDS prevention.  It is easy to argue that educated women can make more informed choices.  I agree to an extent. But, what would you say if I told you these conversations were with the educated elite in Botswana?  These women were government officials!    

Priya Saibel works as a consultant on International Development and is completing her M.A. in Conflict Studies at Saint Paul University.

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Conflict of Extremes?

In case it was lost on anyone following the flotilla crisis between Israel and the activists, one of the dead activists was a dual U.S.-Turkish citizen. As I compare Turkish reactions to its citizens being killed to that of the lack of U.S. reaction, I start to wonder: is this conflict one of extremes, in which any nuance in allegiance is impossible?

In other words, does the dead citizen in this case renege his citizenship to one country based on his political views and actions towards a foreign third-party country?

The dead activists in this case was 19 years old and was born in the U.S., lived there as a child, and moved to Turkey years ago. But for anyone ready to pounce on the intuitive logic that this young man could barely be considered a U.S. citizen - due to his a) lack of allegiance to one of the U.S.'s best friends, and b) the small amount of years he actual lived in the U.S. - I would counsel to think twice before embarking on such a slippery line of reasoning. Let us remember that a) this citizen's other country (Turkey) is also considered one of America's 'best friends' in the region, and b) the current American President, none other than Barack Obama, spent the majority of his youth living abroad.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

It's Russia Time

Watching the rumble that took place in the Ukrainian Parliament this week evokes an interesting image; Russian officials sitting around a table toasting each other with Vodka to go along fresh caviar fished straight out of the Black Sea.

Asides from being a stereotypical parody of Russians, I don't think the underlying logic of the image is that far off the mark.

If we were to look back at the past eight years of Russian-American relations, it would be difficult to label them as anything other than 'prickly'.

The post-9/11 rapprochement between Washington and Moscow was a short-lived affair. It was truly a 'marriage of convenience'. Both the Russians and the Americans had an interest in facing Islamic-inspired and nationalist militants - the U.S. in Afghanistan and the Russians in Chechnya. But that is about as far as their strategic interests converged.

Very quickly, geopolitical realities came back with a vengeance. Russian national power began reconsolidating itself around the emergence of Vladimir Putin on the national stage in 2000 - a nationalist ex-KGB director with a life-long network of friends and allies in Russia's security services. Around the same time, the rapid rise of oil prices beginning in 2002 and reaching a record US$147 a barrel in July 2008 resulted in a more confident and wealthy Russia. The windfall from oil and gas rapidly expanded Russia's state coffers and brought about a renewed sense of economic and political assertiveness.

The U.S. was heavily invested by this point in Afghanistan and Iraq, and had an increasingly thorny Iranian nuclear issue to deal with. This made the U.S. vulnerable - both Washington and Moscow recognized this. To keep the Russians occupied away from the Afghan and Iraqi theatres of operation, the Americans successfully supported anti-Russian politicians and pro-Western movements through the 'colour revolutions' which began in Georgia 2003, moved to Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005. Looking to consolidate these geopolitical gains in Eastern Europe, Washington pushed to install anti-missile capabilities in Poland and the Czech Republic - using the Iranian threat, which the Russians never bought for one second, as smokescreen. Washington also pushed for expansion of NATO into Ukraine and Georgia, in the face of heavy French and German opposition.

So, in light of the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 (which Russia handily won), the return of a pro-Kremlin party to power in Ukraine in February 2010, and the recent events in Kyrgyzstan, the push-and-pull of American-Russian competition is clearly laid out. Advantage Washington for the first half of the first decade of the 21st century; advantage Kremlin in the second.

I wouldn't call this the return of a new Cold War. Just geopolitics as usual.

Photo from Peter Schrank - The Economist