Monthly Archives: December 2008

What’s After GWOT?


This map demonstrates that the Library of Congress Federal Research Division needs a budget increase.

The other day, I lucked upon a discussion with David Kaplan on National Public Radio, who has written extensively on the topic of international and transnational organized crime.  In the wake of the recent Mumbai attack, the discussion addressed the link between terrorism and criminal syndicates.  But, toward the end of the 40 minute program, a somewhat different theme took hold.  Rather than talking about the relationship between terrorism and organized crime, Kaplan began to talk of terrorism as criminal groups, engaged in illegal activity/racketeering, but with ideological motivations.  After having the world’s troubles framed in terms of the “Global War on Terror” (GWOT) for so long, it was interesting to hear a somewhat more nuanced take on complexity of the threats we face.  I have always been more of a “struggle against fast changing, transnational networks of nefarious actors”, but it doesn’t make much of an acronym.  It has always seemed that it is hard to meaningfully separate terrorism, proliferation, illicit finance, organized crime, human trafficking, and even genocide.  One often fuels another, though perhaps from another spot on the globe.

This report (from which the map above was clipped) on the Tri-border Area (TBA) between Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina captures the co-dependence between nefarious actors of all types.  Contrast it with this DoD GWOT type analysis on the same region.  While the former may open up the aperture too much for some, I believe it at least gives one a better sense of the actual mechanisms/levers that must be worked in order to dampen bad actors.

Perhaps we could evolve beyond GWOT as an organizing concept.  It would require more intelligence and properly targeted development resources, but characterizing the problem too narrowly will ensure failure.

Our World Bursting at the Seams


This (geo)graphic was found on The Encyclopedia of Earth, but sourced to the University of Michigan.

As energy prices went higher and higher over the past several years, and “peak oil” talk abounded, I found myself fond of saying “we don’t have an energy crisis, an environmental crisis, a water crisis, a food crisis, or whatever…we have a people crisis!”  I still remember last Summer driving through New Delhi at night seeing thousands of people sitting together in small groups on the street curbs in the dark, just hanging out with friends.  If every Indian burned as much electricity every evening as the average American (I have my big flatscreen, 2 computers, 2000 Christmas lights, houselights, and more running right now just for myself…oh dear!), I am pretty sure the Earth would instantaneously implode.  You get my drift.  I like this (geo)graphic because it inadvertently makes the earth look like it is going to burst from overpopulation.

Taken from the EoE site, “In this map the sizes of countries are proportional not to their actual landmass but instead to the number of people living there; a country with 20 million people, for instance, appears twice as large as a country with 10 million. (Source: University of Michigan)”

These days, I am continually driven to recollect a conference I helped with nearly 15 years ago as we were establishing the Earth Institute at Columbia University.  One of the speakers was Joel Cohen discussing his book “How Many People Can the Earth Support?“.  He outlined the choices and constraints that provide various answers to this question.  I forget the high numbers in his spectrum, but I believe that 12 billion was not out of the question.  But, I always saw his discussion of this topic as a bit too detached, and thought that it lacked an appreciation for the limited ability of renewable resources to renew themselves in the time horizons necessary to support the projected growth.  In short, the book seemed to miss much of the fragility in the system.  Personally, I adhere to a worldview that tracks more closely to Jared Diamond’s “Collapse“.  We simply need an Earth with fewer people, as fast as we can manage it, through decreased fertility.

Jeffrey Sachs, the current Director of the Earth Institute, in his book the “End of Poverty” offered a more appetizing discussion on these matters than did Cohen (to be fair, Cohen may have evolved his line of argument over the past decade).  In that book, he did a great job focusing on how to save human lives from malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS and the like, and to extricate a great mass of humanity in Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPCs) from its “poverty trap”.  After focusing on eliminating the mesmerizing suffering (which does nothing for curbing population growth), Sachs did finally get to what I found to be a bit of a punchline.  Women across the globe must be educated, employed, and in control of their lives.  Only then will the birth rate will drop.

While I am squarely in support of alleviating suffering and eliminating extreme poverty, I think that serious action must be undertaken soon to break the gordian knot of norms, institutions, and taboos that prevent the education, free association (including the selection of mates), and workplace contribution of women.  I am all for cultural diversity, and respecting the richness of human cultures across the globe.  But, particularly if the solution to our spiralling “people crisis” (and all of its global impacts) is a change in how various cultures treat their women, then I believe that we need to get serious about encouraging cultures worldwide to tranform how they think of womankind.

Let’s see if Secretary of State nominee, Senator Clinton can get us started on this challenge.

Water Skiing in Dubai

Cypress Gardens Theme Park Map
This evening, I was browsing my hometown paper, the Winter Haven News Chief and found an great little article about the waterskiers at Cypress Gardens being hired to perform all over the world.  When Cypress Gardens changed ownership (long story) and became less of a classic Florida naturalist park (like Weeki WacheeSunken GardensGatorLandBok Tower Gardens, etc.) and more of a theme park, cost cutting led to the outsourcing of waterski show team.  It used to be that all the best skiers at my high school worked at Cypress Gardens (my friend Ryan was Corky the (Waterskiing) Clown for a while).  Lets just say that we had plenty of lakes to ski on in my home town.  I grew up on Lake Howard, but skied on every single lake in the “Chain O’ Lakes”, and some that weren’t on the Chain.  If you zoom out on GoogleMaps, you will see the ridiculous density of lakes in the region.

Winter Haven FL

Some 20 lakes were/are chained together since the 1920s (this would not be approved by the EPA these days!), and we would hop in a ski boat and pick a lake to go skiing in.  If you wanted some entertainment while you were eating lunch in your boat, you could just pull right up to the rope and bouys at Cypress Gardens on Lake Eloise, and watch the ski show.  And, this is the sort of thing that you would see (minus the mosque in the background!)
Cypress Gardens Skiers in Dubai

Photo courtesy of Stars of Florida

I wish I had pictures for you of Corky the Clown doing a back flip.  I don’t know, but I think this sort of thing is some of the best diplomacy America could be doing around the world.  Who’s replacing James Glassman at the Department of State?  If you know his replacement, do me a favor and send him the link to this blogpost!

Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone

Dead Zone_SMM

(Geo)graphic provided as part of a great site that you all should visit.

I recently read Michael Pollan‘s Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was an huge eye opener in many ways (I highly recommend it).  One of the minor asides he made in the book, about the adverse effects of the man-made fertilizers that underpin modern American industrial agriculture, related to an ever growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  I wanted to learn a bit more, so I went to Google (I thought about going to a library…just kidding).  Beyond “Gulf of Mexico”, “Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone” is the most frequent search item proposed by Google Suggest with 229,000 results.

Does this strike anyone else as somewhat disturbing?  Granted, Google’s search algorithms reflect the most popular searches (e.g., Gulf of Mexico Weather, the next most popular search has 2.1 million items) rather than the most relevant, but come on?!

This summer, the Washington Post reported that the kill zone was 8,000 square miles with too little oxygen to support “fish, shrimp, crabs, and other forms of marine life”…which would have been bigger (probably the biggest ever) if not for Hurricane Dolly.  This is basically the size of all the waterbodies in the State of Minnesota.  Could you imagine if all the lakes in Minnesota were dead?  That would make the news.  The 2005 Dead Zone was said to be the size of New Jersey!   “Hypoxia” is the term, and it is effecting the entire Mississippi watershed.

It seems that the past half century or so of industrialized agriculture has externalities that just don’t get covered on the nightly news.  I wonder if Archer Daniels Midland would pull their sponsorship if George Stephanopolous covered this issue on ABC’s This Week?  That would be a fun social experiment.  It was good to hear from Pollan that there are realistic, affordable, alternative modes of agriculture (I think the kidz would call it Old Skool agriculture) that would help mitigate some aspects of the health crisis in the US, while also mitigating the Dead Zone.  I saw in a footnote somewhere that Pollan was advising the Obama campaign on agriculture issues (read this article, if you want the gist).  I wonder if he will be giving us some change we can believe in?!

As a Floridian, I have a bit of a love affair with the Gulf and see this as (let me vastly understate my feelings) unfortunate.  I find it interesting that the (geo)graphic provided above is not generated by some Gulf States propagandists, but by the Science Museum of Minnesota.  They should be complimented on their self-awareness.

Pirates! Arghh! Transnational Implications of State Failure

2008 UNOSAT_Somalia Pirate Attack Map

This (geo)graphic accounting of Somali piracy, provided by UNOSAT.

Today’s Washington Post article (entitled “The Guns of Anarchy”) by Mark Bowden, the author of “Black Hawk Down,” had a great quote that I felt captured the essence of the sources piracy spanning the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, along the coasts of Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Yemen.  His article focused on the persistent state failure that has characterized Somalia for the past 20 years.  Rather than actually addressing this state failure in a coordinated fashion with the panoply of soft power necessary to succeed, he noted that the “European Union and the United States have begun to chase pirates more aggressively, but that’s like swatting at bees while ignoring the hive”.

Indeed!  Mainstream broadcast and print journalists have almost completely ignored the “hive”, but have been very taken with “PIRATES!”.  (Personally, I suspect it has something to do with Keira Knightley).  It is clearly no fun covering the mess that is Mogadishu (or the rest of the country for that matter), but I fear that there is actually no institutional capacity anywhere committed to thinking through the steps that must be taken in order to overhaul failed states such as Somalia.  As Bowden points out, this piracy is “nothing more than the general criminal chaos spilled from land to sea — ply the waters off Somalia’s thousand-mile coastline, so threatening international shipping that they have driven up the price of food and other products throughout the region”.

It would be interesting to see a calculation of the costs that this failed state to the world.  Typically, failed states only result in things like human suffering, death and dismemberment, contagious disease, and environmental degradation – things we are generally uncomfortable placing a dollar cost on.  I know that we don’t like asking ourselves whether saving 100,000 lives is worth $1B in engagement – what should saving lives cost?  But, in this case, we can actually run a financial tally of what ignoring people’s well being will cost – the ship manifests lost to the Somali pirates – and we generate a concrete cost for our unwillingness to overhaul and right this failed state.

Update:  I was emailing yesterday with one of my buddies finishing up a tour in Djibouti, in the newly established AFRICOM.  In his email, he made a comment that I sought clarification on.  His response:

“I meant to pay an off-handed compliment to the pirates for having the kahuna’s to take down large tankers three to four hundred or so miles off their coast.  Believe they raked in about $50 million in ransom money last year, life is good in Eyl…

…Dr. Ken Menkhaus from Davidson college came through here and has a pretty good perspective on where things in Somalia stand,  which is the worst he’s ever seen it since he started coming to Somalia back in the 80’s,  We get calls from ships and yachts that are transiting through the Gulf of Aden asking us for help, unfortunately there’s not much we can do since we (AFRICOM) don’t have any assets. It sounds like between the EU, UN, and even the CHICOMS, that the piracy business is getting a lot more attention.  The French mirages taking off from the runway we live next to has been a lot noisier lately.”


More Update from Friend in Djibouti:

“Both Kenya and Yemen have a vital interest in Somalia, they’re scared to death of a mass migration, which would overwhelm their fragile governments. We run what’s known as a COL camp on a Kenyan naval base in Lamu, Manda Bay.  An article by Tom Barnett that came out in Esquire magazine a year or so ago is pretty much spot on

Somalian refugees are routinely thrown overboard a mile or so off the Yemen coastline once the smugglers have been discovered.  The USG strikes that occur against al shabaab in Somalia seem to stir the hornet’s nest.  Recent suicide attacks in Somaliland and Puntland were troubling since those are considered fairly stable and autonomous regions by Somalia standards.  Mogadishu use to have the best italian restaurants in africa, and surprisingly, you would find better cell phone coverage there then you would in some US cities.  Bottom line, nothing starts improving in Somalia until the proxy war between Ethiopia and Eritrea is settled and they agree to some sort of compromise on their border dispute.  Ethiopian troops pull out of Mogadishu, happening now, and a real UN force (highly unlikely) supplants the token African Union (AU) force that’s there now, basically 2,000 Ugandans and Burandi’s hunkered down at the Mogadishu airport. The estimated number of troops the AU pledged to send was around 9,000, isn’t going to happen, they couldn’t pull it off.

M. Rice, the incoming ambassador to the UN, used to the undersecretary of State for African affairs.  Hopefully, her efforts will lead to a more stable horn, i.e, an air blockade of Darfur (which the chinese will block at the UN), and a stepped up diplomatic effort with the Eritrean and the Ethiopian border dispute which won’t be easy since Issais kicked out and got rid of everything western including UNMEE, Luftansa, and the Movenpick hotel in Asmarra.  I have a friend that’s in Djibouti because she can’t live in Eritrea after she worked for UNMEE and was detained because she was at a bar-b-q with her UNMEE co-workers.

As recent as this summer, Djibouti hosted peace talks between the Somalia TFG and a few of the more moderate factions of islamic warlords that control Mogadishu.  They have good intentions, but without any real power, no one’s confident they mean much other then token good will.”