Friday, August 29, 2008

Retired Generals lay the smack down on Bush's torture

I think it's important to remember as the November presidential election nears, that when George W. Bush vetoed a bill banning the CIA from waterboarding back in March, Candidate McCain the "Maverick" - an outspoken critic of the US military's use of torture - actually supported this action.

Unlike most of the mainstream media, I think that this is actually a much more important concern over the fitness of McCain to serve as America's next Commander in Chief than the fact that his running mate's unmarried teenage daughter is pregnant. I suppose getting serious media attention on a topic as unsexy and boring as torture is too much to ask for the 24-hour news-cycle obsessed cable news stations and newspapers.

Central bankers meet in Jackson Hole, WY

Two must-read dispatches from the central bankers' meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming last weekend. First, Dean Baker notes:
The world is now facing the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression. At least, that is the assessment of Alan Greenspan. With house prices plunging, unemployment and inflation rates rising and banks failures mounting, Greenspan has a pretty good argument.

How did we get here? The centerpiece in this story is the United States allowed an $8 trillion housing bubble to grow unchecked. Between 1996 and 2006, house prices rose by more than 70 percent, after adjusting for inflation. In the previous century, from 1896 to 1996, house prices had just kept even with the overall rate of inflation.

When there is suddenly a sharp divergence from a long-term trend like this, it is reasonable to look for an explanation. Was there some fundamental factor on either the supply or demand side that was suddenly causing house prices to skyrocket?

A quick investigation revealed no obvious suspects. On the supply side, there were no major new constraints that were impeding construction. In fact, housing starts were at near record levels over the years 2002 to 2006, so there was no reason to believe any developments on the supply side could explain skyrocketing house prices.

The demand side also didn't feature any obvious culprits. The rate of population growth and household formation had slowed sharply. If demographics could explain a sharp rise in house prices, then we should have seen the surge in the 70s and 80s. That was when the huge baby boom cohort was first forming their own households. In the current decade, the baby boomers are preparing for retirement.

There also was no plausible income story. Income grew at a healthy but not extraordinary rate in the years from 1996 to 2000, but income growth has been very weak throughout the current decade.

Finally, if the run-up in house prices could be explained by the fundamentals of the housing market, then we should expect to see a comparable increase in rents. But there was no unusual run-up in rents. They did slightly outpace inflation in the late 90s, but they actually were falling behind inflation by the early years of this decade.

If the run-up in house prices could not be explained by the fundamentals, then it was a bubble, which would burst. This was easy to see for anyone who cared to look, but Greenspan and his sycophants could not be bothered. Greenspan insisted everything was fine - there was no housing bubble - and virtually the whole economics profession, including his fellow central bankers, acted an enablers touting Mr. Greenspan's wisdom.

While the exact timing and path of the housing market's collapse and the resulting turmoil in financial markets could not be predicted, the basic course of this tsunami was entirely foreseeable. The collapse of the bubble will destroy in the neighborhood of $8 trillion of housing wealth. Most of these losses will be absorbed by homeowners ($8 trillion comes to $110,000 per homeowner), but if just ten percent of the loss ends up on bank financial sheets, the losses will be $800 billion.

Next, Yves Smith, writing at her indispensable finance and macroeconomics blog Naked Capitalism, discusses how the lack of willingness among central bankers - nd the Federal Reserve in particular - to increase market regulations is a disturbing indication of what the future holds.

A bad credit loan is worse than payday loans in the moneysupermarket. Before you apply for more loans, it is better to check advance loans.

Putin’s war and the Middle East: Ramifications for Israel?

Political science professor Robert O. Freedman, in the context of the recent Russian invasion of Georgia, writes:
Russian-Israeli relations have had their ups and downs under Putin, but in recent years it is clear that relations have deteriorated. Russian support for Hamas, its turning a blind eye when Syria transferred anti-tank missiles to Hezbollah, and its military and diplomatic support for Iran at a time when the Iranian leadership has been calling for the destruction of Israel, have all soured relations. Yet, as a high-ranking Israeli diplomat who specializes in Russian-Israeli relations told me in 2007, “relations are not as bad as they could be.”

Indeed, Moscow has a bifurcated if not schizophrenic relationship with Israel. While on the one hand Russian regional policies vis-à-vis Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria, have clearly hurt Israel, on the level of bilateral Russian-Israeli relations, the ties between the two countries are developing surprisingly well.

Thus, on the eve of the Asad visit to Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had a telephone conversation about Israeli-Syrian relations and about the situation in Georgia. Trade between Russia and Israel has exceeded $2.5 billion a year, much of it in the high tech sector which Putin needs to develop the Russian economy so that it is not dependent on dwindling energy exports. Cultural ties are thriving, and Moscow just established a cultural center in Tel Aviv. The two countries have signed a visa-waiver agreement to facilitate tourism.

Negotiations are underway for the return to Russia of Czarist property in Jerusalem. Russia and Israel cooperate in the sale of weaponry to third countries, such as an AWACS aircraft to India (Russia supplies the airframe and Israel the avionics). And Israel’s ruling Kadima Party has just signed an agreement with Putin’s United Russia Party to establish party-to-party relations. While some in the Russian military such as Russia’s Deputy Chief of Staff Anatoly Nogovitsyn publicly complained about Israeli aid to the Georgian military, Foreign Minister Lavrov went out of his way to praise Israel for stopping arms sales to Georgia.

What then explains Russia’s bifurcated policy toward Israel, and how will the Russian invasion of Georgia affect it? It appears clear that Russia has three goals vis-à-vis Israel. First, it is the homeland of more than a million Russian-speaking citizens of the former Soviet Union, and Russia sees Russian-speakers abroad as a source of its world influence. Hence the emphasis on cultural ties between Russia and Israel, in which Israelis of Russian origin play the dominant role. Second, Putin badly wants to develop the Russian economy, and high-tech trade with Israel is a part of his plan. Third, the Arab-israeli conflict is a major issue in world politics, and Putin would very much like to play a role in its diplomacy, if not in finding a solution to the conflict.

For this reason he has called for an international peace conference in Moscow in November and he would like Israel to attend, so as to build up the role of Russia as a world mediator. In this context, one should not discount the possibility that Putin has told the Israelis (and the message may be reinforced if Olmert makes a rumored trip to Moscow in September) that Russia will overlook Israeli arms sales to Georgia, and will not sell the feared Iskander-E or SAM-300 missiles to Syria, if Israel agrees to attend the November peace conference in Moscow.

He concludes that: "[T]he Russian invasion of Georgia was the culmination of an increasingly aggressive foreign policy on the part of Putin in the Middle East and elsewhere. While Syria quickly supported Moscow, most of the rest of the Middle East, including Russia’s ally Iran, withheld support, calling only for a quick cease-fire.

While there has been a good bit of speculation that the invasion will lead to an improvement of American-European relations in the face of the new Russian threat, the American position in the Middle East could also improve as a result of the heavy-handed Russian policy in Georgia, although that improvement may have to wait until a new American administration takes office in January 2009."

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Naomi Klein is right

Be sure to check out this great video interview of Naomi Klein:

Obama's speech tomorrow must demonstrate his strong commitment toward advancing a progressive ideology

Your daily reading assignment, if you choose to accept, is to check out this inspirational editorial written by Paul Waldman in the liberal political monthly The American Prospect. I happen to agree with Waldman on his main points: That is, Obama absolutely needs to run a general election campaign against his Republican rival Senator John McCain as an economic populist and a strong supporter of the burgeoning progressive movement.

Waldman puts forward his theory that:
There's something . . . worth hoping for in Obama's speech, something that has been glimpsed only occasionally in his presidential campaign: a full-throated defense not just of his candidacy or of the vague ideas of change and progress but of progressivism as an ideology. And while he's at it, he could offer an attack not just on the actual failures of George W. Bush or the potential failures of John McCain but on the failure that is conservatism.

If Obama wins in November, he will have the opportunity to do for progressives what Ronald Reagan did for conservatives: not just advance their goals in government but provide an ideological touchstone that nourishes their movement for decades. The power Reagan gave to conservatives came in no small part because he was a proud advocate for his ideology. Obama could do the same thing, with as much lasting impact - if he seizes the opportunity.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

August was a bad month for Pax Americana

Jim Lobe has a great article surveying the unmitigated disaster that is US foreign policy after nearly eight years of Bush and Cheney:
Whatever hopes the George W Bush administration may have had for using its post-September 11, 2001, "war on terror" to impose a new Pax Americana on Eurasia, and particularly in the unruly areas between the Caucasus and the Khyber Pass, they appear to have gone up in flames - in some cases, literally - over the past two weeks.

Not only has Russia reasserted its influence in the most emphatic way possible by invading and occupying substantial parts of Georgia after Washington's favorite Caucasian, President Mikheil Saakashvili, launched an ill-fated offensive against secessionist South Ossetians.

Bloody attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan also underlined the seriousness of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban insurgencies in both countries and the threats they pose to their increasingly beleaguered and befuddled US-backed governments.

And while US negotiators appear to have made progress in hammering out details of a bilateral military agreement that will permit US combat forces to remain in Iraq at least for another year and a half, signs that the Shi'ite-dominated government of President Nuri al-Maliki may be preparing to move forcefully against the US-backed, predominantly Sunni "Awakening" movement has raised the specter of renewed sectarian civil war.

Meanwhile, any hope of concluding a framework for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority by the time Bush leaves office less than five months from now appears to have vanished, while efforts at mobilizing greater international diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran to freeze its uranium enrichment program - the administration's top priority before the Georgia crisis - have stalled indefinitely, overwhelmed by the tidal wave of bad news from its neighborhood.

More on the Russia-Georgia conflict

First, Gareth Porter makes a provocative case that it was the Bush administration's strong push to make Georgia and the Ukraine members of NATO - seen by Russia as a strategy for containing Russia right up to its "ethnically sensitive" border with Georgia. border.

He notes that:
There were plenty of signals that Russia would not acquiesce in the alignment of a militarily aggressive Georgia with a U.S.-dominated military alliance. Then-Russian President Vladimir Putin made no secret of his view that this represented a move by the United States to infringe on Russia's security in the South Caucasus region. In February 2007, he asked rhetorically, "Against whom is this expansion intended?"

Contrary to the portrayal of Russian policy as aimed at absorbing South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Russia and regime change in Georgia, Moscow had signaled right up to the eve of the NATO summit its readiness to reach a compromise along the lines of Taiwan's status in U.S.-China relations: formal recognition of the sovereignty over the secessionist territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in return for freedom to develop extensive economic and political relations. But it was conditioned on Georgia staying out of NATO.

And second, check out this post from Wired's "danger blog". David Axe links to a new article in the Columbia Journalism Review that criticizes the blogging world's handling of the initial Russia-Georgia conflict. I would largely have to agree: in the last few days I have been scouring the web doing background research on the topic and haven't seen a lot of informed or outside-the-box analysis from my favorite blogs.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Biden choice

Writing in The Nation, Robert Dreyfuss argues that DNC Presidential Nominee Barack Obama has managed to do "the one thing that might have seemed impossible: he's picking a running mate whose ideas about Iraq are even worse than, and stupider than, John McCain's." The article critiques six-term Delaware Senator Joe Biden's proposed partition plans for Iraq, which he first floated in an editorial for the New York Times in 2006.

And for some brief commentary on Biden's mixed record on labor, see this post by Jonathan Tasini over at his blog Working Life.

Update: More on Biden as a "liberal hawk", (or as a "savage mule"?) from Jonathan Schwarz at the blog A Tiny Revolution.

Forecasting medals at the Beijing Olympics

Daniel Gross analyzes the results of two forecasts of which countries would win the most medals at the Beijing Olympic games. The first study was conducted by John Hawksworth of the Big Four accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Andrew Bernard of Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business; the second model was constructed by economists Andrew B. Bernard and Meghan Busse of Dartmouth and the University of California at Berkeley. In his article for Slate, he notes that:
Both studies projected that while traditional powers like the United States, Russia, China, and Germany would impress in Athens, top nations would take home fewer medals than they did in 2000. "Olympic riches will be more widely distributed than before as the number of medals going to the top countries declines," Bernard and Busse wrote. PwC projected that the United States' medal haul might fall some 30 percent. Both foresaw that host nation Greece would more than double its 2000 medal count. PwC, in its boldest forecast, said India was in line to boost its medal count from one to 10.

He rates both of the models as having "a respectable performance [of predicting], but out of medal contention."

Read the article to find out what the forecasts got right and wrong.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Russia-Georgia conflict in the balance

The Christian Science Monitor helpfully charts out the positions of the various actors involved in the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict, but rather than picking a side, the paper argues that in reality the situation is far too complex to accommodate an argument that one side is right or wrong. Instead, each side has some valid points to make in its defense.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Why I'm not watching the Olympics this year

I haven't been following the Olympics this summer due to the Chinese autocratic government's atrocious human rights record: Something I think is important to do because the Chinese people aren't allowed to criticize their own government without risking their lives.

For more background on China's terrible record on civil and human rights , see this website - with the latest updates - compiled by UK advocacy group Amnesty International, as well as this report from US-based Human Rights Watch.

It's truly a sad development that a country with such poor regard for the rights and freedoms of its citizens was chosen by the IOC to be honored as host of this year's summer Olympic games.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Will South Ossetia War end up preventing Nato membership for the Republic of Georgia?

Writing in The American Prospect yesterday, political science professor Robert Farley attempts to handicap the likely impact the South Ossetia War (a battle waged earlier this month between the Russian and Georgian armies) will have on the Bush administration's plan to secure Nato admission for Georgia and the other independent satellite states of the former Soviet Union.
According to Farley's analysis:
The war between Russia and Georgia, on the heels of a NATO refusal to “fast track” Georgia’s application for membership, has reignited the debate over the wisdom of extending NATO to Russia’s borders. Realists on both the right and the left suggest that the war is a predictable reaction to NATO’s intrusion into Russia’s sphere of influence. Neoconservatives and their allies respond that the war could have been avoided if NATO had agreed to include Georgia this year, as the Bush administration desired. (This debate has reopened a discussion strategic theorists have been having about the continued relevance of NATO for more than a decade.) The war has clarified this hypothetical debate by bringing the costs and benefits of the alliance and its expansion into relief.

The case that NATO expansion was to blame goes something like this: If NATO had not extended to Russia's borders (the inclusion of the Baltic countries -- Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia -- is the push most often cited, although some people also feel that Poland should not have been included), then Russia would be more agreeable and less likely to abusively coerce its neighbors. I doubt that for several reasons
Farley also makes a critical observation: that Russian abuse is the single largest motivating factor behind most states' efforts to seek and acquire NATO membership. For illustration, The Poles, Baltic countries, Ukrainians, and Georgians all strongly desire membership due to "threatening" Russian behavior.

Friday, August 15, 2008

How commercialization is ruining the Olympics

At least ruining it even more than it already is. Read this blog post by Robert Weissman in Multinational Monitor.

Excerpt: "Sports, of course, remain at the center of the Olympics, but commercialism has overwhelmed whatever other values the Olympics hope to embody. The overwhelming cultural influence at the Olympics is now commercial culture; and the overwhelming informational message is: buy, buy, buy.

Commercial relations interfere with proper functioning of the Olympics. In at least one notable case, commercial entanglements have called into question the integrity of a national sports governing body. A lawsuit and accusations around the activities of USA Swimming and the national team coach -- both sponsored by swimwear maker Speedo -- charge Speedo, the national team and the coach with antitrust violations. The lawsuit, filed by Tyr, a Speedo competitor, alleges the coach has trumpeted the benefits of LZR Racer, a new, high-profile Speedo suit, because of his financial ties to the company. Tyr says its Tracer Rise swimsuit, introduced weeks before the LZR Racer, is comparable to the Speedo product.

The Olympic race for corporate sponsors has also put the Olympics in unhealthy -- and sometimes quite unpleasant -- company."

Thursday, August 14, 2008

New China report

From the liberal think tank Center for American Progress:
China’s human rights record remains poor. China’s economic liberalization has lifted millions out of poverty, but progress toward political openness and pluralistic reform is incomplete, and in some ways regressing. Electoral reform at the local level seems stalled, and organized political dissent not tolerated. In other pockets, though, there is progress—the Chinese government is imposing more accountability on officials and providing more societal input into policy decisions.

Political and social change in China will largely need to come from within, but the United States can infl uence those developments. China’s desire to be treated as a respected member of the international community is a principal point of leverage for political change, as are China’s own governance needs and the aspirations of the Chinese people. What is required is a persistent but respectful witnessing to the universality of human rights, and encouraging other nations and groups of nations to reinforce concerns about China’s human rights, including labor rights practices.

The new administration should work with mechanisms that bring together international opinion to pressure China on human rights. The United States should enhance bilateral U.S.-China and EU-China human rights dialogue, and encourage China to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The new president should pledge that the United States will join, and thus strengthen, the UN Human Rights Council at which China’s record can be reviewed consistently, and support Chinese civil society and rule of law programs and China’s engagement with the International Labor Organization.

America must work to increase its leverage in the human rights arena by reclaiming our moral authority and leadership in the world. Chastising U.S. businesses or the Chinese government will achieve nothing if the United States doesn’t live up to its own principles. The next administration must work to re-establish U.S. moral authority and leadership, which has always been one of the strongest and most efficacious tools in the American foreign policy toolbox. Leading by example is a powerful avenue America can take. Without American leadership and authority, convincing China to change will be all the more difficult.

I don't have time to read the entire report right now, but plan to finish it at some point.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Analysis of Russia's energy policy and its impact on geopolitics

I highly recommend that you read - or at least quickly skim through - two very well written (but apparently not given much of a proofreading) and relevant articles (the complete text of which is available here, and in .pdf format here) that were put out last month by the National Bureau of Asian Research. The first paper concerns Russia's "strategic vision" and what type of role her energy consumption, production, exploration and overall policy will play in determining the former superpower's future. The second paper, which I think is more interesting and engaging but less relevant for students and observers of Europe's future energy policies is rather appropriately titled "Energy Policymaking in Russia: From Putin to Medvedev."

Here is a fairly short excerpt pulled from the introductory text preceding the articles:
Russia’s reemergence as a major power in the international system has prompted renewed attention to developments in the country as well as to Moscow’s foreign policy actions and goals. Because oil and natural gas resources drive much of Russia’s growing power, the Kremlin’s domestic and foreign energy policies have been of particular interest to U.S. policymakers and observers of the country.

Growing global energy demand and rising energy prices provide essential context for Russia’s reemergence, simultaneously raising anxiety levels among the major consumer countries and raising confidence levels among the major producer countries. These tendencies have been especially apparent in Asia, a region that has seen sharp increases in energy consumption and is highly dependent on imported fuels. Yet, as has been the case in many other periods of rapid change, neither the anxieties nor the confidence will likely prove fully justified.

And this longer, and I would argue far more important excerpt is from Legvold's review of Russia’s strategic vision and the role of energy policies:
Herein lies the problem: Russia does not have a strategic vision—not if, by strategic vision, one means a sense of where Russian leaders want the world to go and with what role for Russia, coupled with a reasonably clear notion of how to bring it about . Russia is not special in this respect. Countries—maybe most countries—rarely have something as grand as a strategic vision . They do have foreign policy objectives, which are integrated to a greater or lesser degree and in some order of priority . Most countries also have a strategy or strategies by which to apply means to these ends. In Russia’s case, the integration is weak, and the order of priority is blurred.

Hence, to look for a conscious and coherent design in Russia’s use of energy in its Asia policy is to chase a chimera. At a deep, elemental level, the reason for the void in russia’s case stems from three paradoxes . First, and most fundamentally, russia’s restored self-confidence and accompanying assertiveness mask very real insecurities . second, Russia’s basic posture suffers from a curious antonymous pairing: no one is Russia’s enemy, and no one is an ally, while everyone is a potential partner, and everyone is a potential competitor.

Third, for all the wind and dust stirred by the seemingly bold and far-reaching foreign policy pronouncements of Putin, Lavrov, and others, for much of the last year little serious thought has been given to foreign policy, as leaders and pundits have buried themselves in the politics of Putin’s succession .

Without question, over Putin’s last four years as president, russia recovered what earlier had been most lacking: a genuine sense of self-confidence. This stemmed partially from the liberation from vulnerability to debt provided by soaring commodity
prices, partially from the swagger engendered by russia’s position as a major energy provider, and partially from the sense that the regime’s firm political hand had checked and then reversed the chaos of the yeltsin years . Putin and his supporters—a large number, indeed, including the bulk of the political elite—take considerable satisfaction from knowing that russia is again seen as a player that counts, is in a position to assert its influence throughout the post-soviet region and no longer needs give deference to US policy preferences.

Granted some of the puffery and threat-mongering is instrumental, designed to secure domestic political support by emphasizing that the world is a dangerous place, populated by others, particularly the United States, who would diminish, maybe even, destroy Russia were it not for the strong, knowing leadership of Putin, his team, and the man he has blessed as his successor.

But the renewed self-confidence rests on a deeper insecurity that apparently derives from two sources . On the one hand, Russian leaders are on edge over just how much control they have over events within the country . They know that formal political institutions, much of the media, and the electoral process are safely subordinate to their desires . However, they, beginning with Putin, seem to fear pressures just below the surface that could explode as a consequence of escalating violence in the north Caucasus, ethnic tensions elsewhere in the country, economic regionalism, and social upheaval, such as the street demonstrations that followed the decision to monetize social benefits in 2004.

On the other hand Russian leaders also worry, not without justification, about how unstable territories on their borders could become, beginning with the Islamic south but including unreconstructed, nomenklatura-dominated regimes nearby and neighbors whose so-called “frozen conflicts” remain in danger of reigniting . as a result Russian foreign policy has an edginess that belies the new purposefulness that the russians want to convey. Even both the attitude the leaders strike of no longer caring about Western criticism and their putative “American fatigue” has a distinct hollowness.

The second paradox underscores a core ambiguity in contemporary Russian foreign policy and constitutes a source of its longer-term fragility . russian leaders continue to insist that no nation or alliance of nations is an enemy—but neither is any a trusted ally, not at least among the major powers . On the other hand, russia seems to regard almost any state—from italy to iran, Germany to north Korea, and the United states to China—as a potential partner on particular issues, while at the same time clearly viewing each country, depending on the context, as a potential competitor.

As a result on many of the most difficult questions Moscow ends up much of the time wanting to eat its cake and have it too . russia does not want iran to have nuclear weapons but strives mightily to preserve a working relationship with Tehran; it sought to head off Kosovo independence over serbian objection by warning of the precedent this would set for the separatist de facto states in the post-soviet region, a precedent it almost certainly does not wish to exercise if it then be saddled with the consequences. It is happy to exploit the leverage the country’s energy resources are assumed to provide, sometimes in distinctly heavy-handed fashion, but it also wants to be seen by its major customers as a reliable supplier.

Thus, the checkered condition of Russian foreign policy prevents its leaders from developing a long-term strategic vision or making basic strategic choices. Russia’s relations with China are better than at any time in the last century and half, and recently Medvedev, Putin, lavrov, and others have not merely touted but actively pursued a still broader three-way cooperation among russia, China, and india . Yet, even as they lash out at the excesses in U .S. foreign policy and rebuff EU efforts either to put the energy relationship on a different footing or to raise questions about Russia’s internal choices, Russian leaders at the same time speak of a constructive trilateralism with Europe and the United States .

Hence, in many ways Russia hangs suspended, like a spider tangled its own web—a web of basic choices that russia refuses or is unable to make and this bears directly on how coherent, refined, and purposeful any strategy that uses energy as a crucial policy tool in Asia can be.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Neoconservatives have new war to sell to the American people

Think Progress reports on how Neoconservatives such as Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan are now writing editorials (that are being published by major media outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post) explicitly calling for the US to launch a war with Russia in response to that country's invasion of neighboring Georgia.

Georgia's on my mind

Apologies for the terrible pun, but it looks like Russia and Georgia are about to go to war, with Russia retaliating against its Caucasus neighbor in response to the latter's invasion of South Ossetia. Crucially, South Ossetia has been "de facto independent [from Georgia] and protected by Russian peacekeeping forces since 1992."
Many have seen in Georgia's rash decision the first consequence of Kosovo's unilateral independence from Serbia last February.

The move has encouraged the separatist claims of the South Ossetian and Abkhaz leaderships, and Georgia's renewed determination to fully regain its territorial sovereignty.

The leaders of the separatist regions trust that after Kosovo's independence, the consent of the sovereign state is no longer necessary if a greater power can guarantee its security.

Moreover they have deployed similar arguments to those applied in Kosovo: a past of ethnic-driven war which left thousands of civilians dead and countless displaced on both sides.

Unhappy with the U.S.-promoted Kosovo independence, Moscow had promised an adequate response to the latest violation in international law, and its first step came with the institutionalisation of ties with Georgia's two breakaway regions in March.

Unlike the West in Kosovo, Russia can claim the conflict in its southern regions directly affects its own security, and above all, that of a population of which 80 percent hold Russian passports.

Russian claims of arbitrary killings of up to 1,600 civilians by Georgian forces have not been independently verified, although a few Western journalists have started to take interest in testimonies by Ossetian refugees allegedly witness to human rights abuses by Georgian troops.

If the claims were to be at least partially verified and Russia was to show self-restraint and restore order, its ambition of a role as a legitimate world power and a regional pacifier could gain credibility.

A little more context can be found here.

Update: And more background on how the geopolitics of oil is implicated in the conflict here.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

"The Great Disruption"

Is food replacing oil as the biggest factor effecting the global balance of geopolitical power? The Atlantic considers how biofuel mandates in "the world's biggest farming nations" are significantly disrupting supplies in the global food market, and could end up pushing 100 million people into poverty.
The growth of the global food market has meant more food for billions of people, yet it has also led to a greater concentration of supply. In 2006, the top five oil producers supplied 43 percent of the world’s oil. By comparison, the top five corn producers grew 77 percent of the world’s supply; rice producers, 73 percent; beef and wheat producers, 66 percent each. Because of this concentration, a supply disruption in even one place can ripple through the food market worldwide.

Some disruptions are unavoidable. Last year, for instance, drought in Australia, a major wheat exporter, helped drive up wheat prices by nearly 100 percent. But some disruptions are the result of political decisions. For example, in response to the high wheat prices, India, then the world’s second-largest rice exporter, decided to rely on rice, not wheat, for its public food program—and instituted a ban on most rice exports. Vietnam and Egypt, fearing local rice shortages, quickly followed suit. The result was a seize-up in the global market for rice: prices rose from $333 a ton in 2006 to $963 a ton in May of 2008.

The creation of politically popular biofuel mandates by many of the world’s biggest farming nations has been particularly disruptive. U.S. law, for instance, requires that ethanol make up at least 5 percent of vehicle fuel (rising to 22 percent by 2022), and 30 percent of U.S. corn went toward ethanol production last year. The U.S. government has claimed that biofuel demand is responsible for only 3 percent of the increase in global food prices over the past year. But a recent World Bank report estimated that figure to be 75 percent once the resulting economic changes, such as shifts in land use, are considered.

High prices hurt poor, import-dependent nations the most. The price hikes of the past three years threaten to push 100 million people back into poverty, according to the World Bank, erasing seven years of progress.

And read this editorial from The Guardian (UK) on the topic of biofuel and rising food prices.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Public letter is an important reminder to Obama

Over at his blog The Washington Note, Steve Clemons helps publicize and promote a public letter being given to Obama at the DNC Convention in Denver later this month. I agree with him that the thrust of its message is reasonable and sound - and that it ought to represent at a minimum what liberals expect from an Obama administration next year.