Thinking Aloud: Back From France

July 28, 2014 by Darius

I am back.  I just returned from spending a month studying in France.  During my time getting to know the French people and culture, one thing struck me as especially noteworthy.  Especially among the older generation of French people, there still exists a deep reservoir of gratitude towards the United States and Americans for liberating France from the Nazis during World War II.

In random conversations with my host family, their friends, and even total strangers, when I said I was American, a not uncommon response was to bring up World War II and a bit of a thank-you.  This sentiment was especially apparent at a big Bastille Day lunch my family hosted.  Most of the guests were elderly, and one even had memories herself of the war years.

Nowhere was ongoing French gratitude to the US more apparent than in Normandy.  I took an excursion there one weekend.  Two places I saw really underline the point.  At the American Cemetery in Normandy, 9,000-odd US soldiers who died liberating France are buried.  The cemetery was beautiful, solemn, and moving, with its neat rows of spotless white marble crosses (or occasionally Stars of David), beautiful grounds, and commemorations of the Battle for France (see photo below).  At Pointe du Hoc, the site of a ferocious battle between US Army Rangers and bunkered Nazis on D-Day itself, preserved shell craters still litter the landscape.  Both sites were ceded by France to the US in perpetuity for preservation.

Cemetery for blog

Today, when the news seems full of anti-American sentiment around the world, it was refreshing to find that somewhere at least, the United States is still liked and respected for its actions – even its actions from decades ago.

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News You Really Need To See: “Fear of Ebola Breeds a Terror of Physicians”

“Fear of Ebola Breeds a Terror of Physicians”

The New York Times, July 28, 2014, p. A1

Eight youths, some armed with slingshots and machetes, stood warily alongside a rutted dirt road at an opening in the high reeds, the path to the village of Kolo Bengou.  The deadly Ebola virus is believed to have infected several people in the village, and the youths were blocking the path to prevent health workers from entering. … Health workers here say they are now battling two enemies: the unprecedented Ebola epidemic, which has killed more than 660 people in four countries since it was first detected in March, and fear, which has produced growing hostility toward outside help.  On Friday alone, health authorities in Guinea confirmed 14 new cases of the disease.  Workers and officials, blamed by panicked populations for spreading the virus, have been threatened with knives, stones and machetes, their vehicles sometimes surrounded by hostile mobs.  Log barriers across narrow dirt roads block medical teams from reaching villages where the virus is suspected. Sick and dead villagers, cut off from help, are infecting others.  ‘This is very unusual, that we are not trusted,’ said Marc Poncin, the emergency coordinator in Guinea for Doctors Without Borders, the main group fighting the disease here.  ‘We’re not stopping the epidemic.’  Efforts to monitor it are grinding to a halt because of ‘intimidation,’ he said. People appear to have more confidence in witch doctors.  Health officials say the epidemic is out of control, moving back and forth across the porous borders of Guinea and neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia — often on the backs of the cheap motorcycles that ply the roads of this region of green hills and dense forest — infiltrating the lively open-air markets, overwhelming weak health facilities and decimating villages.”

Quickie Analysis:  Confusing cause and effect is a common logical fallacy.  In this case, it’s tragic.  Those impeding health workers in West Africa have blood on their hands.

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News You Really Need To See: “Taliban Making Military Gains in Afghanistan”

“Taliban Making Military Gains in Afghanistan”

The New York Times, July 27, 2014, p. A1

Taliban fighters are scoring early gains in several strategic areas near the capital this summer, inflicting heavy casualties and casting new doubt on the ability of Afghan forces to contain the insurgency as the United States moves to complete its withdrawal of combat troops, according to Afghan officials and local elders.  The Taliban have found success beyond their traditional strongholds in the rural south and are now dominating territory near crucial highways and cities that surround Kabul, the capital, in strategic provinces like Kapisa and Nangarhar.  Their advance has gone unreported because most American forces have left the field and officials in Kabul have largely refused to talk about it.  The Afghan ministries have not released casualty statistics since an alarming rise in army and police deaths last year.”

Quickie Analysis:  When Afghan army and police deaths reached a level even a NATO official admitted were “unsustainable” last fall, the solution was to stop reporting casualties.  However, the UN now reports Afghan civilian casualties are up 24% this year with, for the first time, most civilian deaths coming not from roadside bombs but from ground fighting between insurgents and the Afghan government.  And the US hasn’t even left yet.

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News You Really Need To See: “Turning Ethiopia Into China’s China”

“Turning Ethiopia Into China’s China”

Bloomberg Businessweek, July 24, 2014

Zhang’s [Huajian Shoes] factory is part of the next wave of China’s investment in Africa. It started with infrastructure, especially the kind that helped the Chinese extract African oil, copper, and other raw materials to fuel China’s industrial complex.  Now China is getting too expensive to do the low-tech work it’s known for.  African nations such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Rwanda, Senegal, and Tanzania want their share of the 80 million manufacturing jobs that China is expected to export, according to Justin Lin Yifu, a former World Bank chief economist who teaches economics at Peking University. Weaker consumer spending in the U.S. and Europe has prompted global retailers to speed up their search for lower-cost producers.  … [Huajian’s] wages of about $40 a month are less than 10 percent of what comparable Chinese workers may make.  Just as companies discovered with China when they began manufacturing there in the 1980s, Ethiopia’s workforce is untrained, its power supply is intermittent, and its roads are so bad that trips can take six times as long as they should.  ‘Ethiopia is exactly like China 30 years ago,’ says Zhang, 55, who quit [China's People's Liberation Army] in 1982 to make shoes from his home in Jiangxi province with three sewing machines.  He now supplies such well-known brands as Nine West and Guess … In [Ethiopia] a country where 80 percent of the labor force is in agriculture, manufacturers don’t have to worry about finding new workers.  The population of about 96 million is Africa’s second-largest after Nigeria’s. … Foreign direct investment in Ethiopia jumped 3.4 times to $953 million last year from the year before, according to estimates by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.”

Quickie Analysis:  Manufacturers’ quest for cheap labor is finally bringing them to Africa, for better and for worse.  

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News You Really Need To See: “François Hollande’s African Adventures”

“François Hollande’s African Adventures”

The Economist, July 19-25, 2014, p.45

“France’s president, François Hollande, took office in 2012 knowing little of Africa. … Yet Africa has a way of intruding on French politics. … Twice last year, with uncharacteristic decisiveness, Mr Hollande sent French troops into African conflicts: to beat back a jihadist incursion in Mali, and to curb ethno-religious warfare in the Central African Republic (CAR).  Now France wants to reorganise its troops in the region, under the banner ‘Operation Barkhane’, as a 3,000-strong counter-terrorism force.  The new force will be permanent, with its headquarters in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena.  It has been designed with five countries that span the Sahel: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, all former colonies.  A thousand French soldiers will remain indefinitely in Mali (down from a peak of over 4,000 last year), focused on counter-terrorism operations in the north, where there has been a resurgence of violence.  Another 1,200 will be stationed in Chad, the rest split between a surveillance base in Niger, a bigger permanent base in Ivory Coast, and some special forces in Burkina Faso. … The threat has grown since the fall of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, and the focus has also shifted geographically: towards a desert ‘motorway’ that reaches from the porous borders of southern Libya through the Sahel to the Atlantic.  Along it flow arms, drugs, illegal immigrants and jihadists.”

Quickie Analysis:  Interesting article on France’s changing security engagement with francophone Africa.  (A “barkhane” is a crescent-shaped sand dune.)

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News You Really Need To See: “Murder on the Pipelines: Drug Cartels Turn Texas Oil Routes Into Killing Zones”

“Murder on the Pipelines: Drug Cartels Turn Texas Oil Routes Into Killing Zones”

Bloomberg Businessweek, July 23, 2014

The Vickers ranch [in south Texas] is crossed by a steel pipe as thick as a man’s calf.  It delivers crude oil from a cluster of south Texas oilfields known as the Vicksburg Fault Zone to refineries in the subtropical waterfront city of Corpus Christi.  Like thousands of miles of similar pipelines sprawling across the U.S. Southwest, it has been seized upon by traffickers and smugglers as a good way to evade police and the Border Patrol agents who watch the state highways.  These corridors are unmonitored because they stretch across thousands of acres of private property, and law enforcement authorities don’t have the resources to patrol them.  This makes them ideal execution sites for errant couriers, business rivals, informers, and unwitting migrants who stray into the wrong place at the wrong time.  The Border Patrol finds an average of one corpse a day in the badlands near the U.S.-Mexico border; in the past 15 years, the toll has reached 5,570, exceeding all U.S. combat deaths for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. … Authorities say beatings, kidnappings, and rapes are rising as pipeline networks expand and new conduits are installed to handle surging oil and gas output from the Eagle Ford, the largest shale oil formation in the U.S.  The mayhem is about to get worse, according to the Border Patrol, now that Mexico has opened its energy industry for the first time in 75 years. … Many of those [new] pipes will carry Mexican oil to U.S. refining centers and ports such as Corpus Christi and Houston, at the same time creating an ever-widening matrix of black market trade routes.”

Quickie Analysis:  “Unmonitored” is not a word one likes to see in this context.    

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News You Really Need To See: “Boko Haram Rebels Seize a Town in Nigeria”

“Boko Haram Rebels Seize a Town in Nigeria”

The New York Times, July 22, 2014, p. A11

A major town in Nigeria’s troubled northeast has been taken over by Boko Haram in what local officials said was perhaps the Islamist militant sect’s most significant victory yet in a five-year campaign of violence and terror.  As many as 15,000 people, or nearly all of the residents, have fled the town of Damboa after it was attacked over the weekend, officials said, leaving behind dozens of bodies in the streets and the Islamists’ black flag flying overhead. Officials said at least 100 people were killed in the attack. … The takeover of Damboa was the latest defeat for a Nigerian military that has proved unable to stem repeated attacks on civilians by Boko Haram this year.  ‘Honestly, they were completely routed,’ one official in the area said of the latest attack, asking not to be identified because of the danger of retribution by the military.  Human Rights Watch said last week that an estimated 2,053 people have been killed by the insurgents in the first six months of this year alone.”

Quickie Analysis:  Incremental body counts in places less accessible to camera crews do not seem to generate the same world concern as a passenger plane in Ukraine or explosions in the Middle East.  Yet it is worth remembering that this situation presents not only a grave security and human rights problem, it is occurring in a country poised to overtake the US as the world’s 3rd most populous.  

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