As President Bush prepares to leave office, the pundits will start to produce their balance sheets. It is hard to know what they will list under “achievements”, but easy to predict their “disasters”: Iraq, Afghanistan, economic meltdown, soaring debt and America’s loss of global stature.
One other debacle should feature prominently in that second column, but probably won’t because it has occurred in a faraway country that most Westerners know only through the film Black Hawk Down – or from recent reports of rampant piracy including the seizure early on Sunday of a Saudi tanker, carrying more than two million barrels of oil, which had an immediate effect on crude prices.
I am referring to the Bush Administration’s intervention in Somalia in the name of the War on Terror. It has helped to destroy that wretched country’s best chance of peace in a generation, left more than a million Somalis dead, homeless or starving, and achieved the precise opposite of its original goal. Far from stamping out an Islamic militancy that scarcely existed, the intervention has turned Somalia into a breeding ground for Islamic extremists and given al-Qaeda a valuable foothold in the Horn of Africa.
Rewind to the early summer of 2006. For 15 years, since the fall of the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, feuding warlords had made Somalia a byword for anarchy and terrorism – the archetypal failed state. A tenth of its population had been killed. A million had fled abroad. At that point the warlords were finally routed, despite covert CIA backing, by a remarkable public uprising in support of the so-called Islamic Courts movement that promised to end the lawlessness.
Somalia had always practised a mild form of Islam, but the Courts received a bad press in the West, being widely portrayed as a new Taleban determined to impose the most draconian forms of Sharia on a terrified populace. That was certainly what I expected when I visited Mogadishu in early December 2006. But what I actually found was a people still celebrating the return of peace and security. [continued…]
A Chatham House report last month on the pirates of Somalia said: “At present it seems that scaling the high sides of large oil tankers is beyond their capabilities.” With the capture of the Saudi-owned supertanker Sirius Star this week it became clear that the pirates are rapidly extending their capabilities.
“Both the size of the vessel and the distance from the coast where the hijackers struck is unprecedented,” Commander Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the US Fifth Fleet, told The Guardian. “It shows how quickly the pirates are adapting.”
In the space of just five days this month the International Maritime Bureau recorded 11 incidents in the waters off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden which involved ships coming under armed attacks including fire from rocket-propelled grenades. [continued…]
An Indian navy warship has destroyed a suspected Somali pirate vessel after it came under attack in the Gulf of Aden….
The Indian navy said the Tabar spotted the pirate vessel while patrolling 285 nautical miles (528km) south-west of Salalah in Oman on Tuesday evening. The navy said the pirates on board were armed with guns and rocket propelled grenade launchers. When it demanded the vessel stop for investigation, the pirate ship responded by threatening to “blow up the naval warship if it closed on her”, the statement said. Pirates then fired on the Tabar, and the Indians say they retaliated and that there was an explosion on the pirate vessel, which sank. [continued…]
Americans seem mesmerized by the emerging list of potential cabinet members being interviewed for jobs. Brilliant! Assertive! “The Genius Cabinet” gushes Slate writer Jacob Weisberg. Larry Summers? Wow! Joel Klein? Whew!
Calm down, folks. What’s wanted in anyone’s cabinet is not brilliance but judgment. Not genius but wisdom. And the former is a lousy predictor of the latter. Like Summers and Klein, a number of the wannabes are arrogant and unlistening. Known for what they know and where they went to school (like Harvard and Yale).
Summers folded as Harvard’s President not because he said something politically incorrect about women (too baby-obsessed to be good scientists) or tried to tell one of America’s leading public intellectuals (Cornel West) how to be a “good” scholar, but because he was seen as dismissive of faculty, indifferent to contrarian ideas and unwilling to listen to others – traits he had shown during his tenure with the Clinton administration.
Joel Klein’s career as chief education honcho for New York City has been marked by a similar disrespect for teachers and parents, and a techno-corporate approach to education that, while putatively wedded to equal opportunity, has been completely tone-deaf to the communities he supposedly serves. He knows a lot and knows it. But he lacks elementary judgment.
President Obama will be in need of counselors with wisdom as well as smarts, and will quickly learn that arrogance isn’t merely a “defect of a superior mind” (as Weisberg puts it), but a form of deafness that incapacitates the hubristic for leadership. Oedipus was smart as they come, but, as I recall, made a terrible king. [continued…]
To this day, the willingness of a Wall Street investment bank to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispense investment advice to grownups remains a mystery to me. I was 24 years old, with no experience of, or particular interest in, guessing which stocks and bonds would rise and which would fall. The essential function of Wall Street is to allocate capital—to decide who should get it and who should not. Believe me when I tell you that I hadn’t the first clue.
I’d never taken an accounting course, never run a business, never even had savings of my own to manage. I stumbled into a job at Salomon Brothers in 1985 and stumbled out much richer three years later, and even though I wrote a book about the experience, the whole thing still strikes me as preposterous—which is one of the reasons the money was so easy to walk away from. I figured the situation was unsustainable. Sooner rather than later, someone was going to identify me, along with a lot of people more or less like me, as a fraud. Sooner rather than later, there would come a Great Reckoning when Wall Street would wake up and hundreds if not thousands of young people like me, who had no business making huge bets with other people’s money, would be expelled from finance.
When I sat down to write my account of the experience in 1989—Liar’s Poker, it was called—it was in the spirit of a young man who thought he was getting out while the getting was good. I was merely scribbling down a message on my way out and stuffing it into a bottle for those who would pass through these parts in the far distant future.
Unless some insider got all of this down on paper, I figured, no future human would believe that it happened.
I thought I was writing a period piece about the 1980s in America. Not for a moment did I suspect that the financial 1980s would last two full decades longer or that the difference in degree between Wall Street and ordinary life would swell into a difference in kind. I expected readers of the future to be outraged that back in 1986, the C.E.O. of Salomon Brothers, John Gutfreund, was paid $3.1 million; I expected them to gape in horror when I reported that one of our traders, Howie Rubin, had moved to Merrill Lynch, where he lost $250 million; I assumed they’d be shocked to learn that a Wall Street C.E.O. had only the vaguest idea of the risks his traders were running. What I didn’t expect was that any future reader would look on my experience and say, “How quaint.” [continued…]
This spring, disaster loomed in the global food market. Precipitous increases in the prices of staples like rice (up more than a hundred and fifty per cent in a few months) and maize provoked food riots, toppled governments, and threatened the lives of tens of millions. But the bursting of the commodity bubble eased those pressures, and food prices, while still high, have come well off the astronomical levels they hit in April. For Americans, the drop in commodity prices has put a few more bucks in people’s pockets; in much of the developing world, it may have saved many from actually starving. So did the global financial crisis solve the global food crisis?
Temporarily, perhaps. But the recent price drop doesn’t provide any long-term respite from the threat of food shortages or future price spikes. Nor has it reassured anyone about the health of the global agricultural system, which the crisis revealed as dangerously unstable. Four decades after the Green Revolution, and after waves of market reforms intended to transform agricultural production, we’re still having a hard time insuring that people simply get enough to eat, and we seem to be more vulnerable to supply shocks than ever.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Over the past two decades, countries around the world have moved away from their focus on “food security” and handed market forces a greater role in shaping agricultural policy. Before the nineteen-eighties, developing countries had so-called “agricultural marketing boards,” which would buy commodities from farmers at fixed prices (prices high enough to keep farmers farming), and then store them in strategic reserves that could be used in the event of bad harvests or soaring import prices. But in the eighties and nineties, often as part of structural-adjustment programs imposed by the I.M.F. or the World Bank, many marketing boards were eliminated or cut back, and grain reserves, deemed inefficient and unnecessary, were sold off. In the same way, structural-adjustment programs often did away with government investment in and subsidies to agriculture—most notably, subsidies for things like fertilizers and high-yield seeds.
The logic behind these reforms was simple: the market would allocate resources more efficiently than government, leading to greater productivity. Farmers, instead of growing subsidized maize and wheat at high cost, could concentrate on cash crops, like cashews and chocolate, and use the money they made to buy staple foods. If a country couldn’t compete in the global economy, production would migrate to countries that could. It was also assumed that, once governments stepped out of the way, private investment would flood into agriculture, boosting performance. And international aid seemed a more efficient way of relieving food crises than relying on countries to maintain surpluses and food-security programs, which are wasteful and costly. [continued…]
The government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is systematically dismissing Iraqi oversight officials, who were installed to fight corruption in Iraqi ministries by order of the American occupation administration, which had hoped to bring Western standards of accountability to the notoriously opaque and graft-ridden bureaucracy here.
The dismissals, which were confirmed by senior Iraqi and American government officials on Sunday and Monday, have come as estimates of official Iraqi corruption have soared. One Iraqi former chief investigator recently testified before Congress that $13 billion in reconstruction funds from the United States had been lost to fraud, embezzlement, theft and waste by Iraqi government officials.
The moves have not been publicly announced by Mr. Maliki’s government, but word of them has begun to circulate through the layers of Iraqi bureaucracy as Parliament prepares to vote on a long-awaited security agreement. [continued…]
Barack Obama’s election as U.S. president and the world financial crisis present an opportunity to halt the Iranian nuclear drive through diplomacy, Military Intelligence head Amos Yadlin said Monday.
Iran, for example, has been stung by lower global oil prices in recent months.
Obama’s election also sets the stage to apply international pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear aspirations, Yadlin said. He stressed that he is not opposed to direct talks between the United States and Iran, saying that “dialogue is not appeasement.”
“Iran will do anything not to be cornered into the position of Iraq or North Korea,” he said at an annual lecture in honor of late Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Moshe Dayan. “Iran is also very susceptible to international pressure because of the crisis.” [continued…]
The UN’s top human rights official has called on Israel to end its blockade of the Gaza Strip, saying it breaches humanitarian law.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in Geneva Tuesday that 1.5 million Palestinians “have been forcibly deprived of their most basic human rights for months” by the blockade.
She said that Israel should allow aid goods such as food, medicines and fuel into the Hamas-controlled territory and restore electricity and water supplies. [continued…]
Israeli tanks pushed into the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday, drawing mortar fire from Palestinian militants and intensifying violence that has chipped away at a tenuous cease-fire.
Israel and Gaza’s ruling Islamic militant Hamas movement have been trading fire for two weeks after nearly five months of relative quiet. The violence comes as the Egyptian-negotiated truce that began June 19 is due to expire next month, and both sides might be trying to dictate more favorable terms in anticipation of the agreement’s renewal.
Backed by a bulldozer and military jeep, the tanks rumbled about a quarter-mile into the tiny seaside strip, residents and Gaza security officials said. Residents said they leveled lands along the border east of the city of Rafah near the Egyptian border. [continued…]