Chronicle of a death foretold


Sanctioning society: From Iraq to Iran

The dangerous triumph of Israel’s right wing

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Newt Gingrich’s Hypocritical Bow


As noted in The Atlantic today by Max Fisher, Newt Gingrich was in Paris recently to meet with leaders of the State Department listed terrorist organization Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), and their leader Maryam Rajavi. Aside from the brazen illegality of Gingrich’s visit and public display of support to a terrorist organization (something which has been well documented by those who still care about the concept of equality under the law), it was interesting that Mr. Gingrich chose to make a bizarre show of bowing down to Rajavi upon meeting her. To be fair the MEK is widely known to be a cult of personality which uses intense psychological manipulation and coercion to keep its grip on supporters so perhaps Gingrich couldn’t help himself, however his decision to prostrate himself in front of Dear Leader was especially hypocritical given his own recent history.

Here’s a Gingrich campaign advertisement from his disastrous Presidential campaign where he makes a point of criticizing and mocking Barack Obama’s bow before the Saudi king. Surely Gingrich would never criticize someone for doing something he himself would do, as that would make him quite a stunning hypocrite.

Wrong is Wrong: Murdering Journalists is Always a War Crime

Syria’s brutal civil war has claimed more lives in a high profile attack on the Syrian news agency of al-Ikhbariya south of Damascus. The attack is reported to have killed seven agency staff all of whom had been working at the time of the daylight assault. Al-Ikhbariya is privately held and is not officially a state news agency; however its coverage has been strongly supportive of the Assad regime throughout the uprising. The attack and its aftermath were described in detail by Al-Arabiya and others:

“…bullet holes pockmarked a two-story concrete building and pools of blood on the floor. One building made of corrugated iron had been almost completely destroyed and flames licked at the metal frame.”

“I heard a small explosion then a huge explosion and gunmen ran in. They ransacked the offices and entirely destroyed the newsroom.”

“They carried out the worst massacre against the media, executing journalists and security staff.”

I am not an Assad supporter. I oppose the Ba’ath regime, I support the revolution against Bashar al-Assad’s rule, and I strongly believe that the only way that Syria now can return to peace and stability is after his vicious government is removed from power. I also have no pretensions about the fact that pro-regime forces have committed hideous atrocities against the Syrian people, nor do I take on face value the predictable and disingenuous statements Syrian government officials make. However in this case the last of the above quotes belongs to a Syrian government functionary, and in an honest reading of events reported by numerous reputable media outlets it is objectively true.

There are no bloodless civil wars, but targeting news organizations and murdering journalists is a clear war crime and deserves unqualified condemnation from those who claim to be fighting for a just cause. What has been shocking and dismaying is that many otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people seem to be doing just the opposite and equivocating, even lauding, the targeted murder of journalists:

This kind of rhetoric is reminiscent of the attacks by U.S. forces against Al Jazeera during the Iraq War. Donald Rumsfeld openly accused AJE of “promoting terrorism” and leaked memos from the White House showed that George W. Bush explicitly discussed bombing Al Jazeera offices and killing its journalists in order to silence their critical coverage on the war. Fox News, effectively the U.S. government’s unofficial mouthpiece during the invasion, published editorials openly calling for the U.S. military to “take out” Al Jazeera, calling it “enemy media”. Indeed, such violent rhetoric became reality as the U.S. launched cruise missile strikes against clearly marked Al Jazeera offices; resulting in the deaths of famous reporters such as Tareq Ayoub and others. As the war continued to grind on and as media coverage became even more critical, further attacks were launched against the Palestine Hotel and other media targets killing several journalists. A helicopter strike which killed two Iraqi Reuters journalists became famous when video of the incident was later revealed by Wikileaks, as did another attack which killed Al-Arabiya correspondent Mazen al-Tumeizi as he gave an interview; splattering his blood onto the still lens of the still running camera.

Killing journalists, even ones you disagree with, consider unobjective, or consider to be undermining your case, is a war crime and deserves the strongest possible condemnation. Whether journalists play a constructive role in your opinion or not, they are still unarmed civilians and must be treated as such by any side making a claim to moral superiority.  If one argues that Syrian state journalists perform a supporting function within the regime and thus deserve wholesale slaughter, what is stopping the same argument from also being used to justify mass executions of doctors in hospitals which treat regime functionaries? What about civilians employed as mechanics by the army? All these people play a role in the regime but they are still unequivocally non-combatants. If in your rationale state journalists deserve to be wantonly killed then there is a very slippery slope as to who on “the other side” doesn’t deserve the same fate.

A revolution is in theory supposed to be aspirational and indicative of the type of country which the revolutionaries would like to create under their rule. The FSA has certainly suffered and been witness to terrible grievances from the regime which naturally create the desire for vengeance. The least which those who support them can do is criticize the FSA when it itself crosses the line into clear crimes against humanity. Taking the position that actions can defined as right or wrong based on who perpetrates them is both dangerous and morally vacuous. Justifying and lauding the killing of Syrian state journalists and other obvious non-combatants does not do anything to further the goals of the revolution but rather serves to tarnish it and play into the narrative of the Assad regime.

The Shale Oil Revolution


After years of dire warnings about the rapid depletion of proven oil reserves and a decade of turmoil and resource wars in the Middle East, a quiet revolution is occurring which may radically change the dynamics of the global market for crude oil. New technologies such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing are making oil extraction possible in regions where it was long considered too expensive to occur and opening up huge new reserves in countries which have long relied heavily on imported oil from abroad.

That there are massive oil deposits embedded in shale and chalk formations at sites around the world has long been known, but only with relatively recent developments in extraction technology have they become economically viable sources of crude for the world market. Additionally, these reserves are not spread in traditional patterns and are dispersed widely around the world. Russia, which is a non-OPEC oil exporters has a large supply of reserves, but so do traditionally import reliant countries such as China and the United States. The latter has already identified at least eight massive potential reserves and has begun drilling in earnest and ramping up its domestic oil production. It is estimated that by the end of 2012 the U.S. will be producing 720,000 barrels of crude per day from such sources, accounting for roughly 12% of domestic oil needs. As Conoco Phillips CEO Ryan Lance told an audience of OPEC ministers recently in Vienna:

“In 1990, North American reserves and production were falling but thanks to unconventionals (shale, chalk, and tar sands extraction), proven reserves have risen 68 percent since then..…there is the increasing potential North America could become self-sufficient in oil as well as gas by 2025”

Indeed, the rapid increases in oil production in the United States and elsewhere have already succeeded in driving down oil prices and are believed to be a potential force for softening the effects of the continued global economic slowdown. Whether the United States attains the goal of becoming fully energy self-sufficient by 2025 is beside the point; it is a near certainty that it is going to increase its oil production by a significant amount in the coming years and thereby greatly reduce its present level of dependence on foreign oil. A recent Harvard study suggested that the Bakken/Three Forks shale oil deposit shared between North Dakota and Montana contains enough potential barrels of crude to be economically equivalent to “a large Persian Gulf oil producing country”; right within the United States. This is no minor development, and the Bakken/Three Forks site is but one of many discovered reserves. Exploration continues at sites in the U.S. and around the world, and it is expected that countless more such massive deposits of shale oil are still to be found.

These developments are important not just economically but from political and environmental standpoints as well. On the one hand, the present degree of leverage possessed by OPEC nations over the global economy will inevitably be reduced. In response to these projections Kuwaiti Oil Minister Hani Hussein asserted that “oil from the Middle East will always find a home” – surely true, but less significant when Middle Eastern oil is no longer the only major player in the game. The ability of the present crop of major oil producers to manipulate prices will be greatly reduced as will their commensurate political clout. There is the potential today for major OPEC producers to increase capacity to drive down prices and thus slow the economic motivation for further investments in shale in the short term, but indications have been that there is little political will to do this in any meaningful capacity. In addition, the idea that OPEC heavyweights would exert pressure to reduce prices past the $60/barrel threshold (where shale often ceases to be profitable) over a sustained period of time seems belongs in the realm of fantasy given present political realities.

There is another more insidious aspect to the development of these newly economically viable sources of crude oil; the undercutting of the hoped for “green revolution” in energy production. The economic imperative for developing cheap and renewable sources of energy largely evaporates once you are suddenly awash in a wealth of oil, but the environmental hazards remain and in many cases worsen. Shale belongs to the same family of “tight oil” products as the notoriously environmentally destructive Alberta tar sands, which are famously believed to contain within them more carbon dioxide than has until now been emitted in all of human history. Extraction on a large scale can be expected to exacerbate existing problems with CO2emissions and climate change with potentially disastrous effects. With a new abundance of shale-based crude oil, the fiscal urgency to develop “green” sources of power will be gone and investment capital will flow back into more business-as-usual forms of energy production. While this may be good in the short-term for the economic and political fortunes of countries with major shale reserves, it may be devastating for the planet itself in the long-term. The shale oil boom promises to fundamentally realign the global oil market and shift political power away from its present equilibrium; but while this promises to create new winners and losers geopolitically it may end up being looked back upon as lose-lose for the world at large if it ultimately aborts the movement towards clean and renewable power and makes crude oil the prime energy source of the foreseeable future.

As production of shale oil and other crude “alternatives” ramps up around the world and as greater deposits continue to be discovered in the territory of current net-importers, the global oil market stands at a something of a precipice. While OPEC has heretofore been dismissive towards the potential of shale oil to undercut its market power, statistics which show meteoric projected increases in both reserves and output in countries such as the U.S. suggest that current oil producers may be acting with dangerous complacence. As technology continues to develop and improve the economic viability of extracting shale and other “tight oil” products, OPEC countries need to make tough decisions about exercising their production muscle to reduce prices and thus postpone the immediate imperative to develop shale oil sources; or conversely risk rolling the dice and allowing their market dominance to be challenged. This will end up being a potentially momentous decision not just politically and economically but for the potential long-term health of the planet as well.

Why Pakistan is Not a Failed State

Why Pakistan is Not a Failed State

The characterization of Pakistan as a failed state is one which has become so ingrained in popular discourse that its mention is often taken as a given and barely raises an eyebrow. That the 5th most populous country in world and one of the small handful of nations which possesses nuclear weapons is deemed to have “failed” and put into the same category of anarchic lawlessness as countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan is no trivial matter; yet as much as this is repeated to be the case in the media even a cursory survey of the country would show this assumption to be false. While Pakistan is wracked with problems of militancy, social inequality, environmental degradation and bureaucratic incompetence, it is still in most parts a functioning society where millions of people manage to live, work and raise families with a reliable degree of stability and security.

Despite suffering through a civil war and callous fiscal mismanagement, the number of Pakistanis living in poverty fell by almost half between 1999 and 2008, to about 17% of the population. This economic growth was largely driven by exports and remittances from Pakistanis working abroad and contributed to several years in the intervening period where the economy grew at a rate near 8%, on par at the time with the fastest growing economies in the world. Little of this information typically reaches the Western media where Pakistan has been portrayed as a quintessentially hopeless country oscillating between extremism and simple destitution, yet it is still reality. While this economic growth has been inefficiently managed and unequally distributed across society, it is still indicative of the continued functioning of Pakistani society and would be utterly impossible in a state which has “failed”. Pakistan is home to major textile and manufacturing industries which contribute to nearly a third of GDP, but also has a fast growing technology sector as well. Pakistan’s IT industry is estimated at $2.8 billion by AT Kearney, and between the years 2007 to 2009 improved from 30th place to 20th most favourable place in the world for IT offshoring. The telecommunications industry has grown fourteen-fold since 2000; Pakistan has 91 million people plugged into its mobile networks and has one of the highest mobile teledensities in the world. The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index ranked Pakistan 85th in the world in 2009, ahead of even China (88th) and India (133 th) in having liberal policies and an investment climate favourable to FDI. The Pakistani banking system also weathered the 2008-2009 financial crisis exceptionally well, and has turned profits of an average of $1.1bn per year in the intervening years. The country is ranked 33rd in the world in terms of access and availability to capital; a not-insignificant standing. Citing these figures is not an apologia for the failure of the Pakistani government to harness the economic potential of the country and alleviate the crushing poverty experienced by a huge number of Pakistanis, but to merely point out the existence economic phenomena which would be impossible in an anarchic “failed state”. Indicative of at least some governmental will to address this, the PPP government to its great credit in 2009 implemented economic policies to redistribute a greater share of income to the Pakistan’s poorer provinces; again a sign of a state which still manages when pressed to function in its own interest, despite its shortcomings.

Pakistan also possesses an independent, frankly activist, judiciary which for better or for worse (depending on your political allegiances) is something that would not be possible in a state which has ceased to operate. The Pakistani Lawyers Movement in 2008 helped removed the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf from power after holding him and his regime to account for the disappearances of hundreds of Pakistani citizens held in military custody over the war on terror – significant of a judicial branch which is capable, however imperfectly at times, of protecting the legal rights of its citizens even in the face of power. Again, no such civil society exists in any other states popularly characterized as “failed”; and while Pakistan in sum is certainly not a model of predictable and impartial law and order it is also certainly not a land of utter lawlessness and chaos. The Supreme Court acts in what it perceives to be the citizens interest and uses the rule of law to accomplish this, this is not in dispute and again something which would not be possible in a failed society.

Foreign policy is the realm where Pakistan is most often depicted as a free-for-all where it is incapable of acting in its own self-interest. The most prominent example given for this is the supposedly irrational duplicity of Pakistan in relation to its U.S. ally in the war on Afghanistan. To the contrary, however antagonistic Pakistan’s actions have been to the U.S. in this war, the Pakistani state itself has acted in perfect alignment with its interests and in fact is grudgingly conceded by many within the American security establishment to have played its cards well in a difficult situation. The United States will be leaving Afghanistan soon in a situation which is almost universally believed will shortly result in civil war. Pakistan’s prime strategic concern is India, and specifically the fear that India may use its strategic depth in Afghanistan to “encircle” Pakistan, giving them the advantage of being able to wage a two front war if the countries ever came again to open hostilities. To this end, Pakistan has not sacrificed its shock troops for the coming civil war (the Haqqani Network, the Afghan Taleban) and has kept them in pocket while continuing to extract payments from the United States to kill and pursue Al Qaeda members, which it undeniably has done in earnest, however incompletely and imperfectly. Not only is this rational, even if it is understandably irritating to its American “allies”, but it is in line with Pakistani public sentiment which is overwhelmingly sympathetic with the Afghan Taleban (though not the Pakistani iteration), and views their war as a legitimate resistance against foreign occupation in the vein of the resistance to the Soviets in the 1980’s. Again, this is rational and self-interested behaviour more characteristic of a functional state than a failed one, despite the hostility such policies will necessarily generate among those whose interests it opposes. The killing of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil on the other hand is indicative of one of two things; either a faction within its security establishment which offered him a measure of protection or an ill-fated the decision by the Pakistani government to hold onto him until an advantageous moment arose to turn him over and “play their card”. Regardless it was certainly a deservedly black mark on the country and a failure of administration and leadership, but by no means necessarily a failure of the state itself.

While Pakistan’s dysfunctions are well documented, it also possesses certain innate strengths which have allowed it to survive an incredibly tumultuous and painful decade. Pakistan has been overwhelmed with refugees from the war in Afghanistan and has seen its own social fabric torn apart by extremists radicalized (by their own description) in response to that conflict. It was inundated by a devastating flood in 2010 which submerged over 20% of its total landmass and which many predicted would be the knockout blow to the Pakistani state, yet it remained stoic and recovered to the surprise of many doomsayers. It has weathered blow after blow and continued to function though it has undoubtedly failed its citizens in many places as well. While it may be a weakened and conflicted state, no one who has been to its cities and towns can say it has “failed”. Pakistan has persisted to stay on its feet despite a decade of incredible misfortune, and by this time one should take eager predictions of its imminent collapse with a necessary grain of salt. Whatever ones perception of it, Pakistan is undeniably a hugely consequential country in the world. In the geopolitical sense it is indeed “too big to fail” and if it were to fail it would not be a matter of debate or ambiguity, the world would be impacted in a major way. Noting this, it is time cast aside the facile and inaccurate description of Pakistan as a failed state while maintaining vigilant that if its internal dilemmas are not competently addressed it could indeed fail, with disastrous consequences. Despite the turmoil which undoubtedly exists in the country, there are still signs of world-class progress and development in the country, from skyscraper complexes in Karachi to solar power fields in Islamabad, Pakistan continues to amble along in its development, however unevenly.

In the long-term, real salvation for Pakistan lies in addressing its problems with environmental degradation, securing reliable energy supplies, and mending its adversarial relationship with its immediate neighbours; specifically India. The last point is key, for while the Afghan war will inevitably wind down, and with it will the primary driver of militant unrest be gone, Pakistan’s future hope of being a prosperous and well-regarded country lies in good relations and mutually beneficial commerce with its economically ascendant Indian neighbour. Most of India’s most industrialized areas in fact border Pakistan, and free trade between the two economies offers an incredible opportunity to revitalize Pakistan as a country. Indeed, many within the Pakistani establishment have come around to this realization, however belatedly, and are working to repair and rehabilitate this often fraught relationship. To this end Pakistan has recently granted Most Favoured Nation status to India as a trading partner and bilateral trade between the two countries is forecasted to nearly quadruple within two years. A significant and hopeful sign; and one more reflective of a functioning if deeply flawed state, as opposed to a failed one mired in anarchy and incapable of acting in its own interest.