Sunday, June 28, 2009

Snacks for Thought: June 28, 2009

Snacks for thought is a weekly round-up of thought-provoking news, commentaries and opinions.
  1. Want to be a professional 'threat-mongerer'? Find out how here.
  2. U.S. consumers: from the 'paradox of gluttony' to the 'paradox of thrift?'
  3. The 'relativity' of freedom.
  4. Forget paint-ball, this is the real deal!
  5. For great powers, Central Asia is a femme fatal; so seductive it kills.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

It's time for a sensible policy towards Hamas

The following article is a guest contribution and does not necessarily reflect the point of view of the editor or anyone else associated with this blog.

The apparent victory of Iranian President Ahmadinejad has created uncomfortable questions about what it means to support democracy in the Middle East. Similarly, while the defeat of Hezbollah in the recent Lebanese elections was widely perceived as evidence that democracy may actually be a worthwhile venture, what would have happened if Hezbollah had emerged triumphant, as it nearly did? Renewed public interest in this subject provides a unique opportunity to finally establish a Canadian foreign policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on realistic politics, not rhetorical posturing. Especially as Canada’s international partners rush to embrace diplomacy and dialogue as the new rules of the game, the question begs to be asked: does current Canadian policy towards Hamas make sense?

After Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, many Western countries found themselves in the awkward position of having endorsed a democratic process that produced a winner widely considered to be a terrorist organization. Unfortunately, Canada followed the unimaginative example of other countries, refusing to recognize Hamas as the legitimate leadership of the Palestinians and simply ignoring their democratic credentials. First, this revealed that Canadian support for democracy had been functionalized; in other words, the extension of democratic rule in the Middle East is to be encouraged only as long as ‘we’ like the results. Second, Canada was left without a legitimate Palestinian partner, inhibiting the development of coherent policies on both complex and mundane issues, such as how to induce Hamas to recognize Israel or how to effectively distribute humanitarian assistance in Gaza. Third, this approach undermined international efforts to facilitate the establishment of an equitable peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.

At the time of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, Hamas was supported by only 15% of Palestinians. Hamas has since gained popularity – and power – because of the corrupt incompetence of its political predecessors. Hamas also operates various social and humanitarian services which have become increasingly vital to Palestinian society due to international economic strangulation. Finally, many decades of Palestinian suffering under domination and occupation have created a volatile mood of anger and frustration that Hamas represents. Hamas has thus become a fixture in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that can no longer be ignored. Accepting the role of Hamas is necessary to politicize the Palestinian struggle, a process which will serve as an impetus for Palestinian aspirations to be channeled through the ballot, not the bullet.

Encouragingly, Hamas leaders have already declared their willingness to accept a settlement based on a Palestinian state in the pre-1967 borders of the West Bank and Gaza. By incorporating Hamas into the international system, Canada can nurture such pragmatic qualities by using incentives to encourage moderation and punitive measures to discourage militarization.

A framework of direct and unconditional engagement with Hamas does not diminish Canadian opposition to terrorism. The violence employed by Hamas is rightly condemned as morally repugnant and politically counterproductive. But it is problematic when the international community reduces the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an issue of terrorism, not of human rights. Beyond the shroud of terrorism is the ultimate tragedy of the Palestinian people. A foreign policy exclusively fixated on terrorism will collapse due to its own hysteria and Manichaean rigidity. In any case, if we accept the conventional definition of terrorism as indiscriminate violence against civilians in pursuit of political objectives, it becomes difficult to ignore the recent Israeli invasion of Gaza in pursuit of its own political objectives which left over 1,000 civilians dead.

The only way to diffuse this situation is through facilitating the realization of legitimate Palestinian aspirations while condemning the use of illegitimate tactics – that is, terrorism – to achieve these goals. This requires the destruction of the sanctimonious notion that Palestinians are ‘other than us’ – that they have some innate proclivity towards violence, or that they lack the sophistication to understand the democratic process. Hamas has been created by the wretched circumstances of the Palestinians, by the failure to achieve the basic (or ‘inalienable’) Palestinian right to statehood. So long as their national aspirations continue to be stifled, certain Palestinians will invariably conclude that violence is necessary to resist Israeli militaristic expansionism.

Canadians across the political spectrum should agitate for a foreign policy towards Hamas that is aligned with Canadian interests, and Canadian values. The development of diplomatic relations with the political wing of Hamas is a good place to start. Such boldness and vision may help Canada become a catalyst for change that can finally pierce the devastating cycle of terrorism and violence in the region.

(Paul Davis is a graduate student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa. He can be reached at

Friday, June 26, 2009

The unholy trinity: Iran, Afghanistan and the United States

With all the coverage around events in Iran, I have yet to run across a serious analysis on the potential repercussions on Afghanistan and America's interests in the country. Caught between hyperbole idealism and starry-eyed liberalism, some have failed to understand the potential damage to U.S. and Afghan interests resulting from continued instability in Iran. Some voices have decried Obama's "week-kneed" response to the Iranian crisis. Allow me to explain why the President of the United States has carefully weighed his words on Iran.

Obama's 'timid' response to the crisis is highly influenced by his high-priority focus on Afghanistan and all the stakes that follow. It is not a secret that Obama trotted his way into the Oval Office with a desire to refocus American strategy from the unpopular Iraq war to the, less unpopular but just as tricky, Afghanistan conflict.

Reflecting his president's wishes for a change in direction, the military's new commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has ordered a 60-day review of America's fighting and nation-building strategy and operations. His priorities list includes: improving the American military's image amongst Afghan civilians; shifting from an emphasis on drug 'eradication' to drug 'interdiction'; and coordinating with regional security and military forces to work on a more comprehensive and inclusive regional approach. General McChristal took the role in an atmosphere of thawing relations between Washington and Tehran.

Less than a month ago, at an international conference on Afghanistan that took place in the Hague, many saw glimmers of a possible rapprochement in Iranian-American cooperation. The Americans agreed to have Iranian diplomats attend, and the Iranians reciprocated by declaring their country was "fully prepared to participate in the projects aimed at combating drug trafficking and the plans in line with developing and reconstructing Afghanistan." A NATO spokesperson hailed the conference as "unprecedented" and lauded Iran's presence and "positive noises" with respect to Iran's statements.

Understanding the conference's outcome requires us to be aware of the overlapping interests between the two nations. Both administrations have much to gain if they can overcome their mutual distrust of one another, and bypass the entrenched domestic obstacles in their respective political systems.

Both will have to seriously consider rapprochement if they hope to achieve serious and sustainable progress in Afghanistan. The Afghan government has a hard enough time with its neighbour to the east, never mind pondering what kind of position it would find itself in if Tehran suddenly decides to 'stir the pot' as well.

We are rarely reminded that Iran has nearly 2,000,000 Afghan refugees - legal and illegal - currently residing in its territory. It is also rarely mentioned how important a role Iran plays in the economic development of Afghanistan by utilizing its road networks to provide the Afghan economy with consumer goods and export outlets. We are also hard-pressed to here about the effective role that Iran plays in countering - as best as possible under the current situation - the narcotics trade that crosses its borders on a daily basis. A role that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has publicly praised on numerous occasions, and going as far as calling Iran's efforts a "massive sacrifice."

While popular media outlets such as Time magazine quotte misinformed American officials accusing Iran of supporting the insurgency in Afghanistan, other more judicious voices overlook the propaganda and bring forward constructive thinking. For example, while testifying before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Karim Sadjadpour identified three overlapping security and strategic interests that could easily set the stage for engagement between Tehran and Washington. These include:
  1. Engaging Iran as a “responsible stakeholder” in Afghanistan. A strategy which has little cost and potentially enormous benefits.

  2. Considering the Afghan refugees presence, Iran does not stand to gain from continued instability in Afghanistan. And given its violent history with the inherently anti-Shia Taliban, Tehran has no interest in seeing their resurgence.

  3. With one of the highest rates of drug addiction in the world, Iran has a strong interest in seeing narcotics production in Afghanistan eradicated. Iran’s agricultural expertise could be enlisted to help Afghan farmers plant alternatives to opium poppies.

Writing only three weeks ago, George Gavrillis calls for an Af-Ir strategy (I know, it sounds likes half-ear but overlook that please.) He makes the argument that while USD $8 billion are earmarked for Pakistan to help it essentially behave more like Iran towards Afghanistan, the money would be a much better investment if Iranian cooperation could be harnessed in the West. This would reinforce Kabul's position with regards to the militant threats from the south and east of the country by giving it a powerful rear-guard political backer to its west. Now this option may not bode well for American interests in terms of zero-sum calculations, but it is worth remembering that unless the United States plans to stay in the country for decades, it will eventually have to accept strong Iranian-Afghan relations as a prerequisite for developing a sustainable Afghan regime that can survive in the volatile region.

Of course, any hope of this happening is pinned on Washington and Tehran coming together at the meeting table and engaging in hard bargaining in order to strike a mutually acceptable bargain in the region. If the new military leadership in Afghanistan has any chance of making on-the-ground progress during the small window of opportunity available, it will need the diplomatic channels to lead the way.

Stuck in the molasse is the fragile Afghan government, nervously following events in Iran, and probably secretly praying for America to muzzle its approach towards the Iranian regime in order to not derail the possibility for such a regional framework. Pakistan is more than enough for Afghanistan to deal with at the moment and an 'uncooperative' Iran would surely further weaken Karzai's regime.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A prelude to Iran-U.S. post

A post on events in Iran and their relationship to U.S. foreign policy and the regional geopolitical order is on the way. In the mean time, here's an interesting piece to get you thinking - courtesy of Paul J. Saunders posted in the Washington Post.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The lunch was missed, so was breakfast

A conversation about economic theory was instigated by the most random discussion topic today: the Just-15-more-minutes-of-sleep Syndrome that most of us suffer from.

Basically, my brother and I were lamenting the fact that if we could only wake up 15 minutes earlier every day, we would not have to rush through eating our breakfast (if we even have time for that), and we would be able to make ourselves a nice lunch to bring with us to work - thus cutting back on our daily expenses and being able to save for that long-anticipated vacation at the end of the summer.

Which got us talking about the most basic assumption of mainstream economic theory: that human beings are 'rational actors' who are also 'utility maximizers' (looking to increase their happiness, however they measure happiness.)

But waking up an extra 15 minutes early could be for the rational utility maximizing human being the farthest thing from 'happiness' at that particular moment (think back to the comfort of your bed on a cold winter morning and how 'happy' you are to be there.) Hence, the decision to 'maximize utility' by sleeping 15 minutes.

Which brings us to another concept and econojunky term, "opportunity cost". This is essentially a fancy way of saying 'what you give up to get something else.' Now the opportunity cost of 15 minutes extra sleep would likely be: a good breakfast; the cost of paying for your lunch at work as opposed to bringing one with you from home; and the regret that builds up every passing day knowing that all you have to do to remedy the situation is have some will power and wake up earlier.

So later in the day, you'll likely think back and realize that your decision not to wake up 15 minutes earlier was pretty irrational. In hindsight, the value of the 15 minutes of extra sleep decreases exponentially. Because you think in actual 'utility maximizing' fashion, and not in the 'pseudo-rationality' (my brother's term) that characterizes your lazy and hazy morning thought processes.

So when your thought process changes so drastically from morning to noon, you realize how dodgy the entire assumption of homoeconomicus as a rational utility-maximizing actor really is.

So where am I going with this?

Well, considering the magnitude of the banking collapse that we witnessed in the U.S., and in light of the incredibly shocking admission by ex-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan that “those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief”, it is clear that the assumption is beyond flawed, it is actually dangerous.

Human beings may think in utility maximizing terms sometimes. But usually this is done in hindsight. That is fine, and I have no problem with that. But to have built the edifice of modern financial systems on this most flawed assumption that people will 'always' act in a utility-maximizing way and to continue to promote it and teach it as such is not only intellectually lazy, but self-destructive as we saw all too clearly.

The modern financial capitalist system was suffering like the millions of us from the Just-15-more-minutes-of-sleep Syndrome - except for them it was more like decades of pushing the snooze button so as not to wake up and face the reality of having slept-in.

Now the system was forcefully woken up, the breakfast was missed which weakened the system from day to day, the lunch wasn't made which has cost billions to the taxpayers, and the days of regret and self-flagellation will be numerous.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Snacks for Thought: June 20, 2009

'Snacks for thought' is a weekly round-up of thought-provoking articles, commentaries and opinions:
  1. Social media vs. the state: repercussions from the Iranian situation -
  2. Chinese government bailouts helping high-rollers bet their way out of recession? -
  3. Shanghai Cooperation Organization congratulates Iran's president on victory. For those who ever doubted this was a big geopolitical tug-of-war, read this article and ponder -
  4. Israel's Foreign Minister says "settlements are not an obstacle for peace." No, he's right, making such statements is the real obstacle to peace -
  5. Culinary integration and its 'nation-building' powers -,1518,631213,00.html
  6. Turkey's multidimensional foreign policy may be a strategic opportunity to expand the EU's influence in the Middle East -
  7. Theories of the Chinese Revolution -
  8. This photo captures Latvia's fiscal and economic problems quite well I think -

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The energy powerhouse of the future? Bolivia?

Of all the countries of the world, should someone ask me who I thought would be an energy power in the future, I would try and sound smart by answering something outside-the-box like "some impoverished central African country with lots of untapped oil reserves?"

But the real answer lies in South America, Bolivia to be precise. It reportedly has half the world's known supply of Lithium, which is used in electric car batteries. Yea you heard that right, half the world's supply!

Bolivia may start to become a rather important country in world affairs sooner than one would expect.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Amidst the wreckage, a giant stands tall: China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

Forget the fact the the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is named after a Chinese city. China's real stamp-of-power in this multilateral grouping, which includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, is economic.

Up until the beginning of the crisis, which came on the heels of the precipitous drop of global oil prices, Moscow and Beijing were managing the organization as equals - more or less. But the global financial crisis, which has hurt rich and developing countries alike, will have important ramification on the SCO's internal power configuration. This will not come from any explicit Chinese efforts to assert dominance, but instead from differences in economic power and structure. Simply put, China can channel its massive accumulated wealth inwards to stimulate its domestic consumer because its economy is based on manufactured goods. Russia does not have that option, as 40% of its GDP comes from commodities such as oil, gas and minerals. Chinese consumers can buy more Hello Kitty and electronic devices, Russian households cannot simply consume more gas, iron and aluminum.

Here's how Russia's former Prime Minister and well-known scholar Yevgeniy Primakov puts it:

"Russia will not come out of the crisis anytime soon. Russia will most likely come out of the recession in the second echelon - after the developed countries. The trap of the present crisis is that it is not localized but is worldwide. Russia is dependent on other countries. That lessens the opportunity to get out of the recession in a short period of time." "In China too, as in Russia, exports make up a significant part of the GDP. The crisis smacked them and us. The difference is that China exports ready-made products, while on our country [Russia] a strong raw material flow was traditional. What are the Chinese doing? They are moving a large part of the ready-made goods to the domestic market. At the same time, they are trying to raise the population's solvent demand. On this basis, the plants and factories will continue to operate and the economy will work. We [Russia] cannot do that. If raw materials are moved to the domestic market, consumers of such vast volumes will not be found. Raise the population's solvent demand? That merely steps up imports."

China is stepping up its role as the primary 'donor country' in the organization. It has recently extended a $10 billion loan to the SCO, following its $25 billion loan to Russia and $15 billion loan to Kazakhstan the past two months. On the surface, these Chinese gestures are undertaken in a spirit of 'cooperation and mutually shared interests'; Germany's intelligence services calls it a 'geopolitical metamorphosis'.

Regardless of China's ultimate goals, the old adage still holds true, "the hand that lendeth can also easily taketh away."

Monday, June 15, 2009

Genuises I tell you! Genuises!

The CIA is a world renowned and widely respected organization. But when you read this...

people at the CIA said the problem was always the disposal plan. They wanted to get the intelligence but they never considered what to do with these people afterwards. You’ve violated all their rights so it’s really hard to put them on trial. At one point, they even talked about putting them all on boats that would perpetually circumnavigate the globe. think, "boats that would roam around the oceans forever?" Like really?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Krauthammer's acceptance speech

Those of you who have heard of Charles Krauthammer - the man who wrote 'The Unipolar Moment' and coined the term unipolarity in international relations parlance - will be interested in reading his acceptance speech upon receiving the 2009 Eric Breindel Award for Excellence in Opinion Journalism.

Now there is no doubt that he is an intelligence man with an astute political agenda. But his attack on the "ideological and intellectual monopoly" of the left in the mainstream media obscures the real point: he is a neoconservative ideologue who failed miserably along with the rest of his ideological buddies to grow any sustainable roots in the American and international political scenes during the eight disastrous years of W's administration.

That neoconservative ideology and policies - be it foreign or domestic - failed, is no fault of the 'Communist media', but a direct result of the men and women who led the United States government into quagmires abroad, and profligacy at home.

Of course, he has since conveniently distanced himself from the core neocon elites on issues such as the Iraq War. But this will not change the fact that the men and women who thought-about, formulated and implemented the policies under Bush were mostly implementing the ideological vision of the 'right', of which Mr. Krauthammer is a staunch supporter. Look where that brought the world...

Friday, June 12, 2009

Internet censorship and the good life

Having just completed a 5 months academic stint in Turkey followed by a 3 week stay in Syria, I am itching to give my two cents regarding internet censorship by authorities. Both countries practice it widely.

I am completely and unequivocally against it. No matter what the side benefits may be (such as protecting children from pornographic content), the principle of censoring open-source information, and the slippery-slope risks that usually arise when authorities - especially unelected and undemocratic ones - begin to determine what is and what is not appropriate for civil society to see, have no place in our 21st century 'global village.'

Turks had YouTube blocked, while Syrians did not allow Blogger, Facebook and a host of other online content to be viewed by their populations.

Besides the fact that in both countries tech-savvy young generations laughably bypassed the filtering efforts by simply using different IP addresses or software such as UltraSurf, the thought of having some narrow-minded technocrat, judge or security official decide what is appropriate for me to read and think is anathema to my idea of progressiveness, freedom and the good life.

Which brings me to China. Many people will almost reflexively bring up the Rising Dragon as living proof of the absurdity of my claim that censorship needs not impede development. This assumption misses the point that tall buildings, nice shopping malls and a richer population do not equal an emancipated people who are free to think, inovate and hold their governments accountable as they see fit. Besides, when was the last time China invented a revolutionary invention? Gun powder and the printing press. But how many thousands of years ago?

(photo from Newsline)

Snacks for Thought: June 12, 2009

  1. When political actors play market: Ian Bremmer looks at the policy coordination failures during the global crisis (this guy wrote an interesting book called 'J-Curve' in which he examined the relationship between a country's openess to global ideas and economics on one hand, and authoritarian politics on the other.)
  2. What do Zucchinis and sub-prime collateralized debt instruments have in common? found out here.
  3. Both Washington and Damascus praise the results of the Lebanese elections: a rare occurrence that may be a signal of concrete rapprochement between the two sides.
  4. More consumer spending, increasingly available credit and strong industrial production are testaments to Brazil's sound fiscal and monetary policies during the past seven years. Read about it here.
  5. Wine without the headache? Is alcohol without the hangover on the horizon? Either way, this is reason enough for me to now be an official supporter of genetically modified food.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Middle East press reactions to Obama's Cairo speech

The following is a round-up of the Middle East's press reactions to Obama's long-awaited speech in Cairo addressing the Islamic world. The President clearly hit the right buttons.

Daily Star (Lebanon):

To measure the impact of such an innovative address, one even needs innovative tools, as well as time to digest it before completing the full evaluation. But we should remember the Cairo speech wasn't a show - it was an exercise in power politics of the first order. The credit here probably belongs to Rahm Emmanuel, Obama's chief of staff. Without Emmanuel, whose pro-Israeli sympathies can't be questioned, Obama wouldn't be taking on the pro-Israel lobby, whether on Palestine or Iran. Emmanuel has laid down a bruising challenge: come up with a better plan on these issues, or shut up.

Jordan Times (Jordan):

Those were indeed soothing words coming eloquently from the mouth of US President Barack Obama in Cairo on Thursday. And of course they were comforting because they come after eight years of George W. Bush who launched his crusade on “terror” - which many interpreted as a war on Islam - in the process invading two Muslim nations.

Saudi Gazette (Saudi Arabia):

Obama is not going to fix everything and probably not even most things in the Middle East. But he set the tone that rhetoric and slavish loyalty to one country at the expense of the rest of the region is not the answer to peace. His speech put Israel and Arab leaders on notice that it is no longer business as usual.

The National (UAE):

The US president may fail to achieve his designs for regional peace and security; it is a long way from a podium in Cairo to Palestinian statehood. And if rhetoric and a well-delivered speech could solve the complex problems plaguing the region, he would have done it already. Unfortunately it will be policy shifts, many of them painful, which will bring about an end to regional conflict. But he has made the first step; it remains to be seen how the Muslim world will answer.

Hurriyet (Turkey):

So long as Obama is the speaker and the text is good and he is a good orator, the speech had no chance but to be a good one. Was it historic? We will see in the future. But without a doubt, so long as Obama was delivering a speech concentrated on "U.S.-Islam", it was a significant address.

Haaretz (Israel):

For Israel, Obama's "Cairo speech" marks nothing less than a strategic revolution. During the Bush era, Israel was America's friendliest partner in the war on terror, and enjoyed military freedom of operation against the Palestinians, Hezbollah and Syria, for which it in return withdrew from the Gaza settlements. With Obama, Israel has to undergo a re-education, and will have to once again pass a test of its dedication to U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Asharq Alawsat (International):

The speech by Obama should have been given to us long ago by an Arab or Islamic leader, not an American one, as we are the victims of poverty, extremism, division and violence, in all its forms and under various pretexts. The Arab and Islamic public should have heard what they heard from Obama in all its clarity and openness a long time ago, with regards to the peace [process], the fight against extremism, the right to education and dignity, women's rights, the issue of minorities, democracy, and other issues.

Arab Times (Kuwait):

We should welcome the man who delivered a historic speech at our homes. Our greetings to you Aba Hussein! As expected, he approached us with a well-phrased speech. He clearly expressed his ideas and stands on various regional and international issues. We thought his visit was aimed at fulfilling the promises he made before his election to the White House. We are now aware that there’s more to the man than meets the eye. With full transparency, he discussed his policy on establishing new and strong relations between his country and others. We thought he would never utter some Arabic words to negate allegations on his lineage, particularly his African origins and Muslim father. Surprisingly, he was proud of his origins and he uttered some Arabic words clearly!

Monday, June 1, 2009

The political undertones of Israel's military exercises

Israel is currently undergoing the largest and most comprehensive military exercises in its history. Five days of ground, air and navy simulation drills are tactically meant to prepare the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) for a total war scenario with Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinians and Iran. But there is a more calculated political aim to these drills.

The timing is meant to send a clear message to the Lebanese electorate about the dangers of electing the Hezballah-led coalition into a majority governing role for the first time in the militant movement's history.

On the heels of an article from germany's Spiegel magazine claiming to have inside sources implicating Hezballah officials in the death of ex-Prime Minister Rafiq el-Hariri, Israel is looking to further influence the political calculus of Lebanon's electorate and politicians alike ahead of the June 7 elections.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak has already warned, echoing statements by other top-ranking Israeli officials, that a Hezballah-led government would automatically make the Lebanese state an enemy entity. This means Israel would consider itself free to target any government and economic infrastructure it deems necessary in a future war with its tiny southern neighbour. The war games are meant to reinforce this heavy-handed policy.
(photo from PressTV)