Friday, August 31, 2007

Truly Universal Military Service in Colombia

As I learned from my Colombian friends in the UK, Colombia has a universal military service requirement for all 18 year old men. After exiting high school, men are required to serve up to 18 months and their assignment is random. That means, that some will end up in Bogotá in a relatively low risk environment (parked on a street corner with a rifle) while others will be sent to the heart of the jungle to get after the FARC.

But, this requirement has a clear exemption. Wealthy or well-off families can pay a fee to avoid service. I always assumed that this was an under the table kind of deal but it’s actually a legally established exemption. The result is, of course, that men from wealthy families pay the money and never serve.

The government is now proposing new legislation to close that loophole.

This is good news. The economic and social stratification in this country will never narrow if the well off can simply pay money to avoid serving in the military. As long as the poor pay the price of the ongoing narco-war, it will continue. For too long the elite of Colombian society have been able to distance themselves from the conflict and act as if they were not active participants in it. By forcing everyone to serve, the government will create incentives for the conflict to end namely because the wealthy will be forced to take a direct interest in concluding the war.

Everyone here is responsible. The architect that gets rich selling giant penthouses to drug lords is part of it. The average Colombian who takes no interest or actively avoids confronting the truth of rural areas is not part of the solution, but part of the problem.
Of late, there have been a number of movies highlighting this point. Hopefully this means that the culture is changing. For too long Colombians have been permitted to turn a blind eye to the conflict, to take an attitude that if it doesn’t affect me, then it’s not my problem. Forcing all Colombians to serve equally is the first step to making all Colombians, rich and poor, that they have an equal stake in the conflict.

UPDATE: It's a bit more complicated than what I described. The English language media basically ignored a lot of the finer points (the money to pay is on a sliding scale, the government wants to change the law in response to the Supreme Court striking down the payment provision, etc) but the sublties aren't particularly important for my post. If the new law makes everyone serve together, that's a good thing. Of course, it's Colombia, so now wealthy families are just going to pay under the table, but that's another issue altogether.


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Punchy thoughts about how religious nuttery effects the gay rights movement

With yet another Republican gay sex scandal I thought this would be an appropriate time to address something that irks me. Specifically, the lack of same sex benefits and legal discrimination against gays and lesbians.

One way or another, we live in a time in which it is completely legal to fire someone from their job solely because of their sexual orientation. We have laws preventing similar actions based on age, gender, race, and religion, but when it comes to sexual orientation, we give a blank check to all the discriminating f*cks in the world to do whatever they want.

Let’s think about this.

It’s ok to discriminate against someone for an immutable characteristic that they are born with but we can’t discriminate against someone who chooses to be a Baptist? I’m playing the devil’s advocate here since I don’t believe in discrimination in any capacity, but doesn’t that twisted sense of logic just seem flat out wrong?

The anti-gay, religious zealot community of America staunchly believes that being gay is a choice. They have obviously never read a scientific study that they couldn’t indict with “word of God” (i.e. Old Testament) nor have they ever encountered or spoken with a gay man. If they had ever interacted with a gay man they would understand that it’s clearly not a choice because no one would choose to put up with the discrimination and disgust that the Falwell and Dobson led zealotry invokes (something for which both of those self-serving f*cks will be spending a good bit of time chatting in a very warm place with a very unfriendly fellow in the near future – oops, Falwell is already there).

At any rate, let’s just assume for a moment that being gay is a choice. How then can one explain how another choice, religion, is protected under the law but this “choice” is not? Simply, religious nutwings have never needed consistency because they simply do not care about earthly nuances or nuisances like the equal protection under the law or the rule of law in general (see: bombings, abortion clinics).

So, the question we have to ask ourselves as a nation is, are we going to be held hostage by the Old Testament? Are we going to allow religious zealotry, bigotry even to control our politics, to legalize and formalize discrimination against unfavorable groups? And, after the gays, what will be next? The adulterers? The alcoholics? The gamblers?

I really think anyone with a conscience would agree that making employment discrimination against gays and lesbians illegal reach a minimal standard of decency.

The issue of same-sex benefits is a bit more complex but ultimately just as much of a disgrace, especially when you consider that a non-married straight couple that live together for a period of time (2 years give or take) essentially receive partner benefits under the eyes of the law.

Imagine this scenario: The person you love, that you have lived with for 5 years, but have never married comes down with cancer. They have to have surgery. You accompany them through every step of the process – the initial consult, the chemo, etc. You are there with them prior to the surgery giving your support and love. Then, after the surgery, after you’ve been waiting for hours, the doctor informs you that legally he can’t tell you what happened because “you’re not family”. Say what? If that happened to a straight couple, the doctor would not even blink an eye. He would just share the news. But when it’s a gay couple…

This is only one example. But the truth is gay couples need legal same sex benefits just as much as straight couples. These benefits are privileges that society has bestowed on the legally, socially, and religiously accepted mores of our age. The denial of those privileges to gay couples is just another form of discrimination.

Look, I don’t think I’m being particularly eloquent or groundbreaking here. It’s not only not my fight; it’s not something I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about. But, I do think that “moral” (or ethical) decisions require that we treat people as equals, even if their lives are radically distinct for what we consider “normal”. I, for one, find the life of an Evangelical zealot or a Catholic priest to be particularly abnormal but that doesn’t mean I want to discriminate against them. Nor do I want to smite adulterers or gamblers or other sinners.

Ultimately, society has to overthrow the evangelicalism and nuttery that has corroded our country. The gay rights issue is just one battlefront on that war. But, I’m pleased to see more of these outrageous f*cksticks getting outed as hypocrites – either as adulterers, drug abusers, or closeted gays. They made this the issue of the day. They deserve to be publicly flogged for it.

American history is littered with the filth of discrimination, racism, sexism. Struggles to correct these wrongs were long and arduous. But eventually, right prevailed and equality was legally established if not fully embraced in society. Along the way there was violence (specifically against blacks), separate but equal, and a denial of basic dignity along with equal rights. The anti-gay movement is no different from previous despicable movements. It will be conquered eventually. Inch by inch, we can propel true equality with our words and deeds. Let’s “fix the glitch” and evict this particular breed of insanity from American politics. Religion belongs in the church – not in the law. But don’t take my word for it. Go ask that guy Jefferson.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Another day...

...Another Republican gay sex scandal.

These guys never learned the whole, "don't point because you'll have 3 fingers pointing back at you" rule from elementary school.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Keeping things in Perspective

Just when you think that Colombia is pretty developed you read that only 31.5% of the population has a bank account.

The FARC keep on keeping on. No prisoner/hostage exchange outside of Colombia. At least the Neo-Con-Theo-Crats don´t have to worry about Red Spread from Venezuela to Colombia.

Gonzo Go-Go

Gonzalez is out, at long last. The story was ablaze on CNN this morning and looks to take over the news for the next few days. Reports state that Gonzalez submitted his letter of resignation on Friday and Bush reluctantly accepted it. But let’s cut through the bullshit.

Why now?

Really, Gonzo has been under fire for months. There has been talk of impeachment. Without a doubt the Justice Department in tattered and malfunctioning. Public confidence and internal, career Justice Officials, confidence is non-existence.

A lot of people suggested this as the reason Bush got rid of him now. They’re wrong. If we’ve learned anything from this President it’s that he doesn’t care at all about the functioning of his government. Not only would the poor functioning of Justice not been a new realization, it’s always politics over policy with these guys.

The “why now” has more to do with the overriding political game between Repubs and Dems than anything. Really, the question should have been, “Why didn’t the Dems impeach?” because the answer to that is more informative. The reality is the Dems were getting great mileage out of Gonzalez. He was a laughing stock inside his department and out and in the public eye. As much as policy demanded that Gonzo be forcibly removed, politics demanded that he remain where he was, a constant thorn in the side of the Bush administration and policy agenda.

The Bush people knew this and it looks like they made a political decision to lance the sore festering on their ass. So, ironically, both sides made strictly political moves without any interest or concern for policy and administrative functioning of government, moves which will result in better policy and government functioning.

Yeah, that answers the “why”, but what about the “now”?

Right, why is this news on August 27, 2007? If you listen to CNN you’ll hear about the recent orders from White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolton that those who remain in the administration after Labor Day are obligated to stay until the end of the Bush term.


Two words: Congressional Recess.

Why does that matter?

Two more words: Recess Appointment.

This President has done it before and if their profile is any guide, they’ll probably do it again. In short, their motives are the following: Any replacement for Gonzalez is going to be extremely controversial. A great number of clearly unconstitutional programs are going to come under discussion and the nominee will be forced to take a policy stance on those issues. This is good for Dems, bad for Repubs. Americans generally don’t want the government to start tapping their phones without warrants or stake out the public libraries.

Not only that, the likely nominee is Michael Chertoff, Director of Homeland Security, career legal man (former judge), and the man ultimately responsible for FEMA’s handling of Katrina. A lot of news outlets are reporting he’ll be less controversial than the alternatives but I think they’re wrong. This is about the election for President. Nomination hearings will include significant discussion of Chertoff´s handling of Katrina. It will be public and it will likely be hostile. The Dems have ever incentive to make it great political theater as it is their way of showing that they care about the black vote (as compared to say, actually doing something for those affected by Katrina). This is a potential landmine for the Bush admin.

Given that back story and the history and experience of political football that this administration has become so adept at, why risk it? A recess appointment solves the problem quite easily in that there are no hearings about things that matter. Instead, there would just be Democratic bickering on the airwaves about how it isn’t fair and that hearings are necessary etc. The sort of stuff that the average voter either doesn’t comprehend or doesn’t care about.

Not only that, the Bush admin has great political cover. On the one hand, they can point to Chertoff as a man with long experience with Justice and government, a man that is not overtly political, and one who most people, if forced, would admit was a pretty qualified candidate. They will pound this message no matter what happens, so this isn’t any “extra” work.

They’ll also state that they wish to avoid overt partisanship and blame the Dems for that, pointing to the Gonzo process as Exhibit A. Their defense has always been that Gonzo was under assault not because what he did, but also because of “partisan hackery”.

The groundwork for this strategy has been well laid. From the NYT article linked above:

"The unfair treatment that he's been on the receiving end of has been a distraction for the department."

They’ll say that attacking the imminently qualified Chertoff is just another example of an overtly political and partisan Democratic Congress.

And last, they’ll claim national security concerns. They do this on pretty much every issue and Justice has been no different. They’ll say that public hearings risks exposing top secret anti-terror, law enforcement programs vital to the security of the nation. And, given the previous two factors, it wasn’t worth the risk.

Now, you may think that this strategy would require some serious juevos and you’re right. But one thing that the press seems to forget in their competitive game to get the story first is that politics is more gamesmanship than truth. And the scenario that I have described speaks to that reality. Plus, it just seems like the final stroke of Karl Rove’s legacy.

(Note: the Dems can stop a recess appointment by having one or two Senators call a pro forma session. The Prez team knows this so, let the games begin.)

(Additional Note: As reported here, Solicitor General Paul Clement will be the acting AG and could be the eventual replacement. A lot of rumors flying.)

UPDATE: As reported here, there is a pre-standing deal between the Prez and Democractic leadership that there will be no recess appointments. Moreover, Gonzo´s resignation is effective Sept 17, after the recess is over. So, even with all my mad rationalizations above, looks like that was just an exercise in mental pleasure, aka, not seeing the forest from the trees. Ooops.


Friday, August 24, 2007

The rationality of stupidity

It goes without saying that politics sometimes makes smart people do and say stupid things. That’s because the intelligence or wisdom of policy recommendations, for the most part, take a back seat to constituent demands and concerns of legacy. This is a sad reality of politics but a reality nonetheless and one which must be accepted if one is interested in creating political change.

Enter stage right: Senator John Warner (R-VA)

Yesterday, the long-time Republican stated that the US should withdraw 5,000 troops as a signal to the Iraqi government that they need to step up and start taking care of their own matters. This statement was undoubtedly motivated by a general concern to a) separate himself from Prez Dimbledoo and b) to look like he was doing something. Because I can’t imagine that Warner actually thinks that his “plan” would accomplish anything or be a good idea.

What is very clear, as a very articulate and impassioned broken-nosed Australian said from Baghdad on CNN last night, is that the threat of removing troops will have absolutely no positive or motivating effect on the Iraqi government. Extensively referencing the latest National Intelligence Estimate, he cited two main factors.

First, the idea that there is an Iraqi government is farcical. There are extensive coalitions in the Iraqi parliament that regularly attend legislative sessions, but power is there is not like power here. As the Aussie explained, power is derived by the number of militiamen you have in your pocket. And the Prime Minister doesn’t have any. There is no doubt that the Prime Minister is completely powerless given this reality. He has no muscle to back up his moves.

Instead of thinking of the Iraqi government as “government” we need to think of it as a Sopranos episode because it’s much more akin to mafia than it is to the US Congress. Given that power is determined by militia strength, there is a very low likelihood that the “government” will ever function – empty threats or not.

The second factor, and perhaps worse, is that these factions are lining up troops and preparing for the day that the US leaves Iraq. That moment will be a great power grab that will probably be bloody and result in a virtual dictatorship, something akin to the Hussein regime. This is why Iran is heavily invested in Iraq. They have a long history of violent conflict with the country and they are fearful of a US-allied Iraq for the long term. It makes perfect sense for Iran to invest heavily in the future of Iraq as a means to prevent US aggression toward the fundamentalist nation – in other words, they’re realists and this is part of the realist agenda.

Ten years from now, historians will begin to answer the question: Was the world better off with Hussein as the dictator of Iraq or X as the dictator of Iraq? I believe that the answer will turn on the issue of Iraq’s relationship with Iran. If the inevitable US pullout results in a pro-Iran, fundamentalist leaning Iraq, then we would have been better off with Hussein. Therefore, every effort should be made to prevent the creation of a pro-Iran Iraq.

This implies three things. First, the US government and Prez Simpledimple must accept that US pullout is inevitable. Any 12th grade historian can tell you this.

Second, the US must accept that the Middle East isn’t ready for democracy. This is a tougher pill to swallow but looking beyond the colossal failure of the democratic experience in Iraq, other instances of democratic selection have led to anti-US, anti-Western governments. Need I really say Palestine?

And third, the US must reorient the surge away from its “clear and hold” strategy toward border security between Iraq and Iran and the strong prosecution of Iranian fighters. A concerted effort to minimize Iran’s role in the conflict is the only chance we have to prevent a pro-Iran future for Iraq.

These words may surprise regular readers who are fully aware of my (neo)liberal leanings but it shouldn’t. No matter what your political philosophy, the strength of belief in one ideology doesn’t invalidate others. Realism is a fundamental enduring reality of nation-state interaction and even if I want to see a more peaceful, prosperous world for all, it would be neo-con level idiocy to discount the founding principle of realism: see the world as it really is and make policy accordingly.


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Thoughts and Whatnot (Optimism and Reflection)

In the last few weeks I’ve been in touch with some of my mates from grad school. Each has chosen a distinct path and none are really utilizing their degrees. Smooth Like Butta is selling real estate in Miami. The Marine is selling stocks on Wall Street. Eurotrash is publishing and selling books in St. Louis. Real World is living off her lawyer boyfriend in Australia (no judgment here) and will be moving back to London in the fall (high skilled visa !!!). The Princess is working as a receptionist in DC and pursuing a career in business. Another girl is working for a large multinational in logistics in New York while another is in DC splitting time between an internship on the hill and a support role in a lobbying firm.

I, however, live in a conflict rife developing country with daily challenges of culture, language, and comfort. I have chosen to make my life here for a time and for that I do not complain. It is tempting to be bothered about my circumstances in certain capacities, but for better or worse, the truth is I have selected a path that will continue to involve frustration and try my patience, and that has nothing to do with Colombia. The road to long term success in the policy world is littered with sinkholes of crappy jobs and crappy pay. The hardest part is getting in the door in a place you actually want to work, followed by the constant frustration of salaries that never compensate justly for your expertise and effort.

As I look forward into my future I am constantly reminded of a friend in DC that spent 5 long years toiling away at an arms control association for peanuts before landing a very good and reasonably paid job. In moments like these I wonder if I have the patience, the endurance to make that type of journey. While arms control is not of great interest to me, I am constantly torn between the thought of doing what I want (writing) and what will make me money (program development/management).

My experiences here at my current position have been a mix of ups and downs. While there are things about this organization that are fundamentally broken (communication in particular), I have tried to analyze the basic components of the job from the actual functioning of the company. In that effort, I have come to the conclusion that this particular line of work is not to my liking unless the program I am managing is something that I am interested in and agree with. Sadly, my current program fits neither of my prerequisites.

I am not particularly disheartened at the moment. I have several things going that may spell my exit from this purgatory. And, in the meantime, I improve my Spanish every day through conversation, listening, and translations. I am getting something tangible from this job and not just in the “well, at least you know what you don’t want sense”. I’ve had enough of that reasoning to last a lifetime. And, importantly, I am learning to turn negatives into positives and manage the emotional stress related to an unfavorable work environment.

At the same time I see before me three distinct career paths that hold promise but great uncertainty. On the one hand, I so very much want to write about what I want to write about. And I’m not referring to hastily (and sloppily) written blog posts during the morning coffee. I’m talking about books, fiction and non-fiction, on the topics I find to be of most interest and import – poverty, violence, crisis, politics, and, throughout the morass of misery that our species has created, hope. While never lacking in confidence, I have difficulty with seeing that path unfold before me. And, at times, I lack the inspiration, effort, and discipline necessary to realize that dream.

The second career path is the pursuit of a PhD. This is a path that I have long troubled with. It involves great sacrifice and I’m not sure if I really want to spend 5 more years studying. Then again, it’s more like a lifetime of study as getting a PhD implies a commitment to study and learning for the career. I am confident I could succeed in that world, but I have less certainty that it’s the dream that I want to pursue and give all my passion to.

The last career track is the development of policy, advocacy, and management of humanitarian and development projects which interest me. And by this, I’m not referring to grant provision and small business financing. I’m talking about a global monitoring system to monitor the outbreak of genocide and ethnic conflict. I’m talking about building a public campaign to intervene in crises and stop the killing and raping of innocents. I’m talking about becoming a warrior for what is right, what is just. In some ways, this dream mimics the first in that it taps into my passion to bring awareness and help to those in the worst situations as well as having a road just as foggy.

Throughout all of this runs the vein of my relationship with my wife. It is both a constant source of strength, encouragement, and support as well as a generator of uncertainty. The question of where to live is frequently a difficult topic for married couples but it’s even more complicated for an international couple. Case in point, I’d love to go back to London but given that it’s far from both of our homes and families, it seems logistically and financially infeasible (although, in a strange sense, the distance makes it fair).

In times like these, I come back to the Road Not Taken, probably the most famous American poem ever written. And although I love the sentiment and feel that it accurately describes my choices in some precise ways, the thing that Frost doesn’t really describe accurately about that other path is how hard it can be at times.

And maybe that’s the point. Maybe it shouldn’t be too easy. That’s definitely how things played out for my love life and now, being where I am, I would never go back and change the past, no matter how trying certain events proved to be. So, instead of lamenting that which I have not achieved and the lack of clarity of my mission, allow me to continue looking forward to the point at which my career path is more or less established in such a way that I can see a future within my organization or professional development. And, while I am here, I will continue to write both here and on the various book projects that I have going. For I believe that dreams exist to be achieved and by applying my passion, no goal is out of reach.

The Vietnam War

We used to have this joke back in college. We would refer to one of our friends as the "Vietnam War" because no matter how desperate the situation, he would just escalate and never give up, even when it was clear he had lost. (Yes, we were dorks.)

Apparently, this joke can now be applied to resident political-military historian and current US President George Bush. He is the Vietnam War. That was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt yesterday when he stated, more or less, that we lost Vietnam because we gave up. (!!) It takes a rare "mind" to actually think that the Vietnam war was winnable and you´d be hard pressed to find a credible scholarly article that makes that point. In fact, it´s much like saying, "I lost that chess match because I resigned" when the opponent had mate in 3. (I have a long history of dorkery.)

He also stated that our pullout caused the "killing fields" in Cambodia which is a very sad reflection of just how ignorant the leader of the free world really is. It was our bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War that directly contributed to the killing fields, among other factors, jackass.

At any rate, it looks very much like el Prez is going to continue pushing his military surge, conventional and scholarly logic be damned. That bodes ill for Iraq and the US, but well for the Dems in 08. If history is any guide, insurgencies aren´t won with military strength. The French learned that lesson in Algiers. I thought maybe we had learned it in Vietnam. Apparently not. Let´s just hope this is the final nail in the neo-con coffin that discredits them for all time.


I like what Obama said the other day. It was something like, we need a surge in humanitarian and political development in Iraq if we want to have any hope of creating a stable, peaceful country. Of course, at this point, I´m not even sure that would be enough. But it´s a start.

In other news, there´s a lot of criticism flying around about Al-Maliki the Iraqi Prime Min. The Dems are calling for a replacement and the Neo-Bushies are backing him. Neither side is telling the truth.

The truth is, Maliki is all we got. There ain´t no damn alternative. The Iraqi government is falling apart and we´ve basically got left holding the short stick. At this point, people much more educated about Iraqi politics need to be consulted because it´s obvious that none of the pols (bushies or dems) have the slightest clue of what to do. Frankly, I´m not convinced there is much of a solution.


There has been a lot of talk that leaving Iraq would create an even greater disaster. I wonder if that´s really true. I don´t have much more than idle speculation, but I would say that given the totally unmitigated disaster that is Iraq at the moment, how much worse could it get?

Seriously, when you have car bombs killing hundreds of people at one go, how much worse could it be? There´s already an on-going ethnic-religious conflict. And US forces aren´t doing much to stop it. Passify an area, move on to the next, and the previous area reignites. Repeat. Ad nasuem.

I also think that if the US pulled out it would completely remove the impetus for Al Queda and others to defend their actions as resistance to US imperialism. The main Egyptian paper, for example, just yesterday stated that the problems are all because of US occupation. This is a common theme in the Middle East.

Ultimately, I think we should pull out. It´s the only way to test the "occupation causes conflict" hypothesis so dominant in the Middle East, it´s critical to showing Middle Eastern governments and populations that the US is not intent on establishing a new colonial system, it´s the only way to elimate ever increasing US casualties, and it seems clear that staying has no hope of creating a lasting peace. We could announce a phased withdrawal combined with a massive foreign humanitarian assistance program which might garner some support from regional allies and minimize some of the potential for the conflict to spiral out of control.

But in the end, it´s done. The war is lost. We got our lunch handed to ourselves on a silver platter. We just haven´t realized it yet.


Thursday, August 16, 2007


So I´m in the market for a new laptop. The old HP is on its last legs and its past time to upgrade. Considering that I paid like $800 bucks for it and its lasted over 3 years, I´d say I got a pretty good value. And with the wife going to the US in October, now is the time to buy. (We looked here already and its cheaper to buy a return ticket to Miami AND a laptop than it is to just buy a laptop.)

So, in my quest for the best possible purchase, the following advice floated across my cyberspace:

"Buy a Mac."

Now, I´m not willing to discount Crapintosh out of hand. After all, the whole IPod thing is pretty cool and even if their marketing makes me want to repeatedly smack Steve Jobs´ bulbous head upside a concrete wall repeatedly until he cries for mommy, I´ll still check out their offerings. That´s just being a good consumer.

So, after looking at their site (which I found aesthetically displeasing and was probably designed by a 3-year old Chiguiro) I can see that they have some very high quality laptops. The only question is:

Why so fokkin expensive????

I mean, really, does the Pope make them by hand or something? The model they offer that I´m interested in costs $2800!!! Comparative models from Dell and HP cost $2200 and $1850 respectively. In fact, the only substantive difference in the specs between the three models is that the Dell is wildly overpriced (small but fast hard drive, 1 GB less of RAM) and the Mac has a backlight keyboard.

I´m sure you can see which way I´m leaning. So, if anyone out there has laptop buying advice, let´s get it here now. At this point, the Crapintosh is clearly out and the Dell is looking like it´s out too (plus I don´t like the crappy outside design). I´ve had pretty good experience with my HP. I´ve taken it around the world, generally treated it like a $2 crackho, and the only real problem it has is a sticky space bar (uh, maybe I shouldn´t have made that crackho joke). That and it´s so outdated it makes playing Civilization 4 almost impossible.

(Note: I have several requirements for the next computer.
First, 17 inch HD widescreen. Non-negotiable. I don´t want IMac eye like one of my co-workers who threw down $1300 and got a 13 inch screen. $100 per inch.
Second, a large and robust hard drive. I consider 140 MB+ to be large. I have no idea what constites a "robust" hard drive but it sounded cool in that sentence.
Third, NVIDIA GeForce 7900 or better. The Dell I mentioned is the 7900, the HP has the 8600. Anyone who can explain the difference gets a strong clap on the back and a "hiya".
Fourth, 2 Ghz with 4 MB cache. I want that gerbil powering my laptop to RUN.
Fifth, CD/DVD burner combo dealio so I can open up an illegal software and movie piracy organization in a small shack I plan to build where the Autopista meets the NQS. Speed not terribly important since I can count on one hand the number of CDs I´ve burned in the last year.
Sixth, at least 1 MB RAM although I prefer 2 MB because I hear chicks dig size and all.
Seventh, less than 2 grand. I don´t want to pay another mortgage thanks.
Eighth, I prefer Intel to all the other crap out there. I´m not just a victim of marketing, I´m a willing victim.
Last, cool free shite. If possible. And a non-crapilicious design like Dell´s XPS.)

UPDATE: Shopping directly on the HP site brings the quality up and the price down. A better system than found at Best Buy is offered for $1549.98 with free shipping.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Massaging the facts

We’re on the cusp of the Surge Report due in September and that means the outright deception from the White House and Pentagon are now bombarding the airways. I thought I’d take this opportunity to state some facts that should be fairly obvious.

1. Casualties are up. I’ve posted about this previously. If the surge was designed to reduce casualties, then it has clearly failed.

2. Watch the press closely. They are talking an awful lot about success in the Al Anbar province which I find strange since it wasn’t the focus of the surge.

I know this point is a bit controversial with the left-o-sphere claiming it wasn’t a part of the surge at all (I think it was) and the right-o-sphere overstating it’s relevance to the surge.* Frankly, it’s hard to find hard numbers on how many additional troops were deployed to Al Anbar. The best estimate I have is 4,000, which is about 13% of the total 30,000.

The point is, however, that the “surge” is mostly irrelevant in Al Anbar. It hasn’t brought more security or aided the political situation. What has worked, and the reason for why violence is decreasing, is the rise of tribal warlords who are expelling foreign fighters (terrorists) and taking control of the territory. I don’t think any author of the “surge” would conclude that this is empirical evidence that adding troops to an insurgency reduces violence. If anything it proves my point that insurgency ends when a population gets tired of killing its own and takes action.

(This is a very risky development by any standard. Just look at the paramilitary problem in Colombia. It started as a way to “improve security” and fight the FARC. It ended with mass graves and political corruption to the top.)

3. There have been few, if any, political successes. This is the root of the struggle and the Congressionally established benchmarks for evaluating the success of the surge are political, not military because political reconciliation is the key to solving conflict. None of the political benchmarks have been achieved.

4. Look who’s writing General Petraeus’s report:

Despite Bush's repeated statements that the report will reflect evaluations by Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, administration officials said it would actually be written by the White House, with inputs from officials throughout the government.

5. Fundamentally, the surge’s exclusive focus on security misses the most important variables (from the same LA Times article):

But the official said he did not believe such security improvements would translate into political progress or improvements in the daily lives of most Iraqis.

"Who cares how many neighborhoods of Baghdad are secured?" the official said. "Let's talk about the rest of the country: How come they have electricity twice a day, how come there is no running water?"

Ultimately, even a cursory reading of insurgency literature leads one to conclude that fighting an insurgency is 5% military and 95% political and economic. I’ve written about this before but I wanted to restate it in light of the onslaught of MEDIA-ocracy.

* I really don’t know what to make of the “Surge didn’t happen in Al Anbar” story. It comes from sources I generally trust but they seem to have just asserted it without independent verification. I have read media reports that give the 4,000 number while other reports say that the surge redeployed troops from Al Anbar to Baghdad. If it’s the case that there are now less troops in Al Anbar than prior to the surge, then this post has distinct relevance. I welcome any evidence available on this issue.

The best that I could find is this: As of November 26, 2006, there were 30,000 troops in Al Anbar. The pentagon talked at the time of rotating troops out of the province to reinforce the efforts in Baghdad. However, in April 2007, the San Diego Union Tribune reported there were 35,000 troops in Al Anbar. That supports the argument that there was a “surge” in the province.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Tragedy of Errors

I have felt since the day that I started at this job that there was a distinct lack of global vision as well as a total absence of communication. At some point, I decided to reserve the harshest judgment because I know that I miss some things in translation and, frankly, it isn’t easy to manage projects on this scale with established timeline.

Last week, however, we had a meeting that was about 95% in English. It was a briefing, really, for a USAID official who (for reasons I won’t discuss) is taking over the liaison role for our project. (Normally, USAID hires a non-USAID person to fill the role). His Spanish is rough to very basic, something I can identify with, and thus the presentation of our program, goals, and accomplishments, was in English.

As usual, things didn’t go so well for my team. This clever chap asked a number of pointed questions that I asked last March and which were never responded to. It was embarrassing. The team had no answers. It’s also fairly obvious that we have been reporting “achievements” that are contractually not achievements and that each month, we have been falling further behind in our contractual goals, meaning that the amount of work that has to be completed each month has escalated to the point that it is entirely impossible to reach the goals for the year (something I explicitly commented on last March in email – you can only plant so many trees in one year).

Perhaps the most embarrassing moment, however, was when the USAID functionary asked how we can guarantee that the profits generated by our projects are distributed evenly to the target families. Our company response (from the very highest level) was, “well, there’s a law that regulates that.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

There can be no doubt that there has been a clear deficit in leadership and that a positive, functional corporate culture has yet to be implemented. The new boss, who does seem like a very nice guy (and who must be a distant relative a certain lawyer friend in Chicago with the initials LH), has yet to make an impact in changing that culture. It won’t be easy, but he needs to crack down on a variety of shenanigans because if he doesn’t and things continue as is, I don’t think we’ll complete our contractual goals through 2008 not to mention 2009.

Moreover, on a functional level, the program is missing critical global vision and leadership. We employ wonderfully talented business developers and forest engineers, but those types of profiles aren’t particularly adept at the political aspect and our “social expert” is a loon with penchant for acting the fool. It makes you wonder what she learned at Westminster University in London (thankfully, they rejected me).

At any rate, they do have someone on staff with the knowledge, expertise, and ability to provide this vision but they see him as a peon charged with translation and other support services. So far, my overtures have passed by deaf ears. I did, after all, write a brief addressing the governance issue in April.

We shall see what happens, but their initial attempts to include “governance” issues into our proposals have been rather juvenile. The team appears more inclined to pay lip service than actually address this issue substantively. USAID still isn’t happy about that and yesterday’s presentations were decidedly tense and ultimately, not approved. This is putting our team in a precarious position as there has recently been a change of leadership on our side and the USAID side. I am in position to provide assistance on this issue and am spending time refreshing my memory about governance issues so that I can put myself into play in the near future. Whether they accept my assistance is another issue entirely.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Stupidity of Short Term Thinking

No matter how one feels about the ongoing calamity in Iraq, there is fairly compelling evidence that the situation is not improving. Yet, the media was falling all over itself in July as fatality numbers were “down” and the national news braintrust seemed to think that the lower body count was indicative that the surge was working. Sadly, all forms of basic logic and statistics seem totally lost on the media.

Here are the important numbers:


The first four numbers would be the July body count for the years 2003-2006. The last would be July 2007. Doesn’t look much like success, does it?

Here are some other interesting numbers:


That would be the cumulative body count for the first six months from 2003-2007. Where, exactly, is the “success” of the surge? Put it another way, if the surge was a publicly traded stock, it would be hitting zero right about now because by the simple calculus of body count, it’s failing miserably.

This actually makes sense. More troops mean more vulnerability and more deaths. So perhaps body count isn’t the best method to evaluate the surge. I’m certainly willing to accept that there are more meaningful variables. However, if the media is going to continue to be obsessed with the body count as the most telling evaluator of the surge, then they should at least get the facts straight and try to use one of the spare brain cells they still have left.

(*2003 numbers are for March-August since US troops arrived in March.)

Source: Iraq Coalition Casualty Count:


Monday, August 06, 2007

Villa de Leyva

We spent the weekend in Villa de Leyva, a colonial town about 160 kilometers North(ish) of Bogotá. It took about 4 hours to get there but that’s due to the twisty, two-lane mountain road that keeps everyone going at a relatively slow pace. They’re expanding the road to make it two lanes in each direction, so at some point in the near future, it should become a quicker trip.

At any rate, Villa de Leyva is a big tourist destination because it is a colonial town. The inn we stayed at, for example, was founded in 1568 and while I’m sure modifications have been made, it felt like something out of a time long passed. It even had a Hobbit bar, although we saw several similar bars.

(Hobbit bars are dark, woody bars in which one could imagine hobbits regaling great deals of farming and singing long songs about crops lost and loves gained.)

The town is organized around a central, cobblestone (more or less) square lined with colonial style buildings that look as if they have been there for more than a century or two. There is a very large church (cathedral) at one end as was traditional and the square is reserved for walking on only.

Around the central square are shops and restaurants and bars, all very nice and entrepreneurial. We spent a significant amount of time walking around, doing some shopping, and of course, eating. I found the food to be of excellent quality. Since it is an international tourist destination, and there were many foreigners, it has flavors from all around there world. For example, I ate Thai style lomo (beef loin) that was not particularly spicy, but was tasty, succulent, and delicious. That was in a restaurant that offered a variety of world flavors from Thailand to France. There was even an Austrian restaurant, which I found bizarre since I can’t imagine the demand for Austrian food is terribly high outside of Austria.

The inn we stayed at, in addition to being about 450 years old, although I imagine it was an estate first and converted to an inn later, was wedged up against the mountainous wall of the valley. In the back there was a completely natural “swimming” pool. I put “swimming” in quotes because it’s not really hot enough to swim in the icy water, no matter how strong a dose of Colombian optimism you apply to the situation.

Essentially, it was a lake with crystal clear water, lined with stones, and fashioned into a swimming pool. Water bubbled up from underground streams and at one end a small waterfall maintained the water level of the lake. The waterfall formed a stream that divided into different parts that ran around the various buildings ensuring a constant sound of running water, culminating in a small waterfall that entered into the restaurant and disappeared underground. All very soothing indeed.

Our room had old style shutter doors which we could bolt shut from the inside and keep locked when we left with a masterlock. There were also old style shutters on the windows that, if not properly secured, would make quite a racket when the wind picked up. And pick up it did. The valley is known for its wind, especially in August. There is a kite festival in about a week.

The road through the mountains was much like a lot of mountainous roads in that it twisted and wound around natural formations, up and over hills, and through deeply cut rock. At some point, quite close to Villa de Leyva, the mountains change from the trademark emerald green to a muddy brown. Colombians refer to the area as a desert and, although the term doesn’t really fit (it’s not terribly hot), it certainly looks desert like. The route is not, however, as majestic as the route to Villavicencio. This is likely because this road doesn’t cut between mountainous corridors. Instead, it’s a more or less north-south road that remains within the Bogotá corridor.

The wedding we attended was very non-traditional. It was also quite disorganized. Still, there was no real harm in that and we enjoyed ourselves by dancing and chatting with friends old and new. The night ended early, about 11ish, and we headed to bed. It had been a long day and staying up until the crack of dawn like some of the other revelers would have been asking too much. It was interesting to find, however, that the heavy shutters on our windows kept most of the sound out, allowing us to sleep peacefully.

Ultimately, Villa de Leyva may not be a “must see” location but it does have its charms. Anyone who comes to Colombia for an extended period of time should definitely visit, as should anyone with a soft spot for colonial towns with tasty eats and good shopping opportunities.


Friday, August 03, 2007

UN Security Council Article

As promised, this is the link to my new article.


There´s a lot going on right now but I´m not going to have time to comment on everything I want to as today´s post will focus on some developments in Colombia and we´re leaving tonight for Villa de Leyva (wedding to attend). Briefly, it looks like a version of my UN Peacekeeping article I posted the other day will be published today at Foreign Policy in Focus. I´ll be sure to post the link when (and if) it goes up.

Also, there´s a bit of nobbery going on between Obama and Clinton at the moment. Anytime a potential President says that nuclear weapons should be on the table for X, I get turned off. I´m all in favor of robust deterrence, but this latest flap is pure politics and a bunch of crap. I´m increasingly becoming turned off to a Clinton candidacy.

I saw Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison (the first Muslim Congressman) on CNN this morning. I´m fairly sure he said that as a nation we have established our priorities and the bridge collapse is a result of that. I didn´t hear everything he said as I was in and out of the room but I think he stated that we priviledged the invasion of a soveriegn nation over basic infrastructure maintenance and repair. Ultimately, not only is he right, but he was very forceful with his argument that it is a fundamental duty of government to provide basic, safe infrastructure for the nation.

Finally, there are some developments going on in Colombia that I wanted to comment about. Regular readers may remember that I wrote about a nationwide protest against the FARC in July. The capture and incarceration of innocents (or military personnel) is a hugely controversial issue here in Colombia that has essentially no solution. I say "no solution" because the FARC has proven time and again to either be completely inept as a political organization or totally uninterested in politics (I say the latter). The government wishes to negotiate a hostage exchange, but the FARC is basically stonewalling any overtures to the point that it belies belief that they actually are serious about the process.

President Uribe, who has had record levels of popularity (80%) during much of his presidency, has seen his approval ratings plumment to the 60s (a level Bush would be estatic about) of late, mostly due to this ongoing issue. It is one of the most controversial issues in Colombia today.

This has all culminated in a "peace walk" by social studies teacher Gustavo Moncayo. He walked a 1000 kilometers from the South to Bogota in a move that some are equating to Ghandi. Moncayo is now stationed in Plaza Bolivar (akin to camping out in front of the Capitol Building, let´s say) and plans on remaining there until a solution is found to the hostage situation.

I must admit that at the first nationwide protest I was a bit skeptical. However, I´m now starting to view this movement with different eyes. One thing I have discovered about Colombia is that as a nation, it is overly focused on economics to the exclusion of all other variables. There is an organization that I am likely to apply at that strongly argues that economic development is the key to solving the conflict and this theme is echoed everywhere I go. The problem with the dominance of economics is that there is a distinct lack of participatory democracy, union organization, and public monitoring (organizations that provide transparency to government actions).

I believe strongly that the area where Colombia truly needs to develop and modernize is in a democratic capacity and that´s why I think that Moncayo´s protest is a great sign. NGOs and governmental organizations have been working toward greater openness, transparency, and policymaking, but those efforts are weakened by a distinct lack of public faith. A public movement to make the government accountable, to force policy, and to create reconciliation, outside of normal channels, is the exact type of fuel that ongoing efforts need to consolidate and solidify their work.

Ultimately, I believe that peace will come to Colombia when the people decide to make peace. In this way, Colombia shares a commonality with Northern Ireland, the Palestinian Conflict, and Iraq. And, unlike previous versions, this movement has the potential to be sustainable because it is very popular, the likelihood of the movement´s leader being assassinated is very low, and the longer it goes on, the more pressure there will be on the government to create positive change.

(Note: I take no position on the state of negotiations between the government and the FARC at this time. I am merely arguing that I think this movement is a good thing because it will create greater public solidarity and eventually lead to better policy.)


Thursday, August 02, 2007

Analyzing the Darfur Peacekeeping Authorization

On the 31st of July, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed resolution 1769 authorizing the creation of a 20,000 strong peacekeeping force to be deployed to the Darfur region of Sudan. This resolution has been hailed as a historic landmark on the way to fulfilling the obligation to protect established in humanitarian law and there is a great groundswell of opinion that this force will end the ongoing genocide in which an estimated 7,000 civilians are killed a month.

Sadly, this is not the first time the UNSC has authorized action in Sudan and expectations should be tempered. One year ago, the UNSC passed a very similar resolution that authorized the deployment of 17,000 troops, none of whom actually made it to the “killing fields”.

It needs to be understood that UNSC resolutions authorizing the deployment of peacekeeping troops is not equivalent to an order to deploy given to a national military. Instead, it is just what it sounds like – an authorization. UN peacekeeping resolutions grant permission to relevant or interested nations to construct the force up to the size authorized – meaning that the actual size could be much smaller than what was announced.

This problem demonstrates a weakness in the system as there are various ways to manipulate the accumulation of peacekeepers. Sudan has effectively watered down previous efforts by insisting that only African troops be deployed. If this happens again, it is a virtual guarantee that any force deployed with be much smaller than the maximum amount authorized and ultimately, ineffective. It will be up to the British and French governments to ensure that Sudan is not permitted to play diplomatic politics. On this issue, diplomatic rigidity is the only option.

Political Will

Fortunately, and unlike previous iterations of UNSC action against genocide, it appears that this time, there might just be sufficient political will to stop the state-sponsored slaughter of innocents. That is, if British Prime Minister Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy follow through with their strong words. It is notable that by passing this resolution, both dignitaries have now registered significant foreign policy success, as well as distinguished themselves from their predecessors.

Whether they have the political will to maintain diplomatic pressure on Sudan and China in the long run remains to be seen. But, their collective rhetoric as well as their desire to forge a new foreign policy, particularly for Brown, gives credence to the belief that this time, at the least, the West will not back down in the face of unrepentant destruction of an ethnic minority. Still, it remains our job to ensure that these leaders back up their rhetoric with action.

Partnering with a Genocidal State to end Genocide

Further, this resolution reveals another complexity or contradiction in international humanitarian law and response. The UN was originally organized to preserve peace and international security, not protect innocents from genocide. Enshrined in the covenant was the principle of sovereignty and it remains one of the more highly respected principles of international law. It’s the justification for why the US is not part of the International Criminal Court and a frequent GOP talking point in reference to the UN. Unfortunately, sovereignty is often the shield that genocidal regimes hide behind to continue their practice of extermination or ethnic cleansing.

Increasingly sovereignty is in direct conflict with the growing body of international law referred to as the “responsibility to protect”. Over the last 15 years, however, the iron clad principle of sovereignty has been challenged by the events of Bosnia and Rwanda. The latter was particularly troubling as the norm of non-intervention suggested that nations should stand by and watch as hundreds of thousands were killed with the most primitive weapons when a few thousand troops tasked with ending the genocide could have saved uncountable lives with very little risk.

That situation is being replicated in Darfur, in particular with the failure to enforce the no fly zone. The Sudanese air force is not one to be feared, unless you are an unarmed innocent on the ground. A small contingent of British or French planes could easily enforce the no fly zone with zero casualties if there was will to do so. Frankly, the US maintained a no fly zone over approximately two-thirds of Iraq for over a decade, a much more risky situation, with minimal difficulty. Depriving the Sudanese of air power over Darfur would represent a significant step toward providing security to the regions inhabitants and is something that should be immediately acted upon.

Therefore, it is not without a bit of irony that UNSC resolution 1769 explicitly states its respect for Sudan’s sovereignty. This is a bit like telling the Nazis that while we respect their right to do whatever they want within their territory, they really need to stop gassing the Jews. David Clark, writing in the Guardian, says it best, “The fallacy at the heart of our failure in Darfur until now has been the idea that you can stop genocide and ethnic cleansing with the consent of those responsible. It's almost as if Bosnia never happened.”

For this genocide, it is hoped that the collective action of the African Union and the European led peacekeeping initiative can end the suffering of those living in Darfur. However, the bigger question remains: Can the world really partner with rogue, genocidal regimes to end a humanitarian disaster of their making? The quick answer to that seems to be a resounding no, but the political realities of the world in which we live must be accepted. Subverting the “never to be violated” concept of sovereignty in favor of the “responsibility to protect” will be a long term process with many obstacles along the way. One can not reasonably expect the world to radically turn against such a long held concept quickly, no matter how absurdly simple it is to stop a genocide in progress.

(Lest there be any doubt that Sudan is not a partner to this genocide, one only has to turn to previous UNSC statements and testimony on the matter, particularly from Colin Powell. This article from The Independent provides further evidence in the form of witness testimony.)

Chinese Approval

A frequent criticism of the UNSC is that the Permanent-5 (the US, China, Russia, France, and the UK) impede and obstruct humanitarian action when it doesn’t suit their own interests. Followers of the Darfur crisis will be aware that the fault for UNSC inaction in this situation has been placed at the feet of China. This is because China is a major trading partner with Sudan, purchasing approximately 75% of its oil exports annually. Due to its position on the Security Council, China has threatened to veto any resolution including sanctions or other harsh penalties as a means to protect its trade interests with Sudan.

Therefore, it is news that China allowed this resolution to go forward. There are three conventional explanations for why Chinese approval was secured for the latest UNSC resolution toward Sudan:

1. The coming 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing would have been a lightning rod for protest and criticism if China had continued to block UN SC action on Sudan. China, more than any communist nation, is obsessively concerned with its image. The Olympics are a source of pride for the nation and the blight of Darfur was apparently not something the government was willing to endure.

2. The UN resolution doesn’t contain the threat of sanctions meaning that Chinese oil interests are not jeopardized at this phase. Had the resolution been harsher, it’s likely that China would have threatened to veto. As it stands, however, the resolution respects Sudan’s sovereignty and is essentially toothless. There was literally no downside to Chinese support.

3. Chinese engineers will build the base that will house the 26,000 troops. This holds value as it means experience and potentially contracts.

While these are certainly valid factors, it is more likely that the agreed version was acceptable for the very reason that it is not a guarantee of strong peacekeeping and does not represent a direct threat to the Sudanese government. China, which clearly values economics over the annoyances of human rights concerns, effectively watered down the resolution removing both the threat of sanctions and the right to confiscate arms. Further, the rules of engagement still have to be clarified and there is no guarantee that the peacekeeping force will be authorized to protect civilians from genocidal forces any more than what was allowed in Rwanda. Ultimately, by agreeing to this resolution China garners the appearance of responsibility without undercutting their economic interests or really pressuring the Sudan regime in any strong capacity.

Still, China’s consent is noteworthy as it proves that the rest of the SC can work with the recalcitrant power. This is important because diplomacy is process. By involving China in this process, the rest of the SC can eventually ratchet up the pressure to the extent that the realist nation will have no choice but to grant assent to stronger measures in the future (no fly zone enforcement, arms confiscation, and/or sanctions). In the end, China’s global interests are greater than its interests in Sudan and the evidence indicates that with continued political pressure and forceful diplomacy, they can become partners to ending genocide, even if they are generally unwilling.


Challenging the international political structure to respond more forcefully, effectively, and quickly to crises of genocide and ethnic cleansing is a long term process with no easy solution. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands, if not millions more will die before we have an effective, rapid response to genocide.

The problem of response is compounded by a dearth of information about when and where genocides occur. Nations are generally a bit smarter than Nazi Germany in that they don’t keep records or publicize genocidal actions. Therefore, detecting initiation and culpability, as well as prosecuting genocide after the fact, has become a more difficult challenge. As long as political leaders can hide behind the twin shields of sovereignty and plausible deniability, response to genocide will be slow to non-existent.

Ultimately, the world needs a more rigorous monitoring system to reduce response time and build political will for action. The World Health Organization has a global disease monitoring program that is more or less uncontroversial as public health risks threaten everyone. A similar system should be developed to address problems of emergent genocide. The more information there is about ongoing genocide and its participants, the easier it will be to generate an adequate response. For the Darfur situation to have any long term historical significance, along with Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, etc, it must fuel the “responsibility to protect” ethic, monitoring initiatives, and peacekeeping actions.


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