Quick Thought to Amuse and Edify

I’ve come across a few jokes recently that I thought I’d share here because it takes a certain knowledge of international affairs to understand why they’re funny.  Enjoy!

From Foreign Policy (2010):

Three teams of astronauts, an American team, a German team, and a Serbian team, are sent on an exploratory mission to one of Jupiter’s moons. After a safe landing, the three teams suit up and step out onto the surface. They soon begin to quarrel over which nation gets to lay claim to this moon.

One of the Americans declares, “I hereby claim this moon as property of the U.S.A. If it were not for our heavy investment in space travel this trip would not have happened!”

One of the Germans then declares, “Nein! This moon shall belong to Deutschland! It was our scientists and physicists who made this possible!”

One of the Serbians then draws a gun from his spacesuit and shoots his fellow Serbian, who collapses dead onto the rocky surface.

He yells, “Serbian blood has been drawn here! This moon belongs to SERBIA!!!

Circulating in the West Bank and printed in Haaretz (2014):

A bride tells her new husband on her wedding night that she’s a virgin. The man looks at her and says, “What did you say? But you’ve been married before.” She replies, “Yes, but he was a Fatah member.  For a year he would talk all evening about how we were going to have sex, and by the time he got to bed he fell asleep.”

From a cartoon printed in a Pakistani publication (2011):

Son: Dad, I’m considering a career in organized crime. 

Father: Government or private sector?

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News You Really Need To See: “Christmas in Japan: Here Comes Santa Paws”

“Christmas in Japan: Here Comes Santa Paws”

The Washington Post, December 21, 2014, p.A1


“Forget the kids.  What are you doing for your dog this Christmas? … [F]or many in Japan, pets are replacing children.  More Japanese are choosing to marry later or not at all.  A Health Ministry report released this year showed that the number of weddings last year was the lowest since the end of World War II.  That’s contributed to a fertility rate that is now about 1.4 — well below the 2.07 needed to sustain Japan’s population.  If things continue this way, the population will plummet by almost a third by 2060.  That means that four-legged furries are increasingly the ‘offspring’ of choice.  There are 16 million people younger than 15 living in Japan but more than 20 million cats and dogs, according to the most recent figures from the Japan Pet Food Association.”

Quickie Analysis:  A quirky look at how Japan’s demographics are affecting the pet industry.  Now, if the little dogs could be trained to work and contribute to pension funds….

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Thinking Aloud: Pakistan’s Newtown

Dec. 20, 2014 by Darius

Earlier this week, Pakistani Taliban terrorists stormed into a school in Peshawar and killed nearly 150 teachers and students.  In a way, this might be Pakistan’s equivalent of the Newtown shooting, the deadliest school shooting in US history, which occurred nearly two years ago.  Both involved gunmen entering schools and mowing down dozens of defenseless people.  And both should have provoked a fundamental reevaluation of government policies that contributed to the attack.

As strange as it may sound, the Pakistani government’s relationship with the Taliban is very much like Americans’ relationship with guns: the Taliban was originally if not created at least nurtured by the Pakistani government, and especially its intelligence agency, for reasons of purported self-defense, but the usefulness of the tool has long since been eclipsed by the harm it has caused.

Pakistan originally supported the Taliban for two reasons: first, to install and maintain a pliable government in neighboring Afghanistan and second, to be used as a weapon against India.  In other words, the Pakistani government thought the Taliban would keep it safer.  But like guns purchased for self-defense but then used to kill someone in a domestic dispute, the Taliban has gotten out of Pakistan’s control.  As this week’s school shooting showed, again, the Taliban now poses more of a threat to Pakistani civilians than the government’s geopolitical concerns warrant.

Two years ago, the Newtown shooting in the US sparked a huge debate over gun control (or lack thereof) and whether guns actually keep Americans safer.  Although a few states passed more stringent gun control measures, such measures were defeated on a national level and some states actually weakened their existing gun control laws.  The gun lobby was too influential to make any broad-brush changes, even in the face of a national tragedy.

So will this latest massacre in Pakistan finally convince the Pakistani government, or more accurately its security services, to cut off support for the Taliban?  Probably not.

But the Peshawar attack is an opportunity to change the debate in Pakistan over supporting terrorist groups—even groups the Pakistani government thinks it can control.  However, if the conversation focuses not on eliminating the Taliban, but on eliminating the “bad parts” of the Taliban, the opportunity for change will be lost, just as it was after Newtown, and Pakistani citizens will continue to die.  And their government will still be responsible.

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News You Really Need To See: “U.S. Declares Bank and Auto Bailouts Over, and Profitable”

“U.S. Declares Bank and Auto Bailouts Over, and Profitable”

The New York Times, December 20, 2014, p.B1


“Six years after President George W. Bush began the auto bailout, the Obama administration on Friday declared a profitable end to the sweeping federal interventions in Wall Street and Detroit, saying a final sale of stock from General Motors’ former finance arm had closed a turbulent chapter of the financial crisis. … The government actions, initially seen as necessary in Washington and on Wall Street to prevent a collapse of the economy on the order of the Great Depression, agitated the political world, helping give rise to the Tea Party movement on the right and the Occupy Wall Street movement on the left.  And even as the nation climbed out of recession and slowly recovered, many Americans were left with little trust in the nation’s government and financial institutions.  Tea Party, to many of its foot soldiers, stood for Taxed Enough Already, and the bailouts were assumed to be enormous drains on the federal Treasury.  Yet in the end, the Troubled Asset Relief Program and the Detroit bailout yielded $15.35 billion in profit, Treasury officials said Friday. … The financial crisis and its bailouts were the defining political moment of the last decade.  First they put President Obama in office.  But they swept into power a new, populist right in 2010, not only in Congress but in state legislatures that redrew political boundaries to lock those gains in place for years … The capital markets have recovered.  Gas prices have plummeted and job growth is on a steady rise.  But the political scars remain indelible, reflected in a politically polarized nation and the dysfunctional Congress it has elected.”

Quickie Analysis:  Somehow I bet Fox News managed to bury this story.

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Thinking Aloud: Negotiate With Terrorists

Dec. 19, 2014 by Darius

Earlier this week, a European court in Luxembourg ordered that Hamas be removed from the EU’s terrorist list.  The court order comes as most of the world is coming around to the fact that Hamas belongs at the negotiating table in some form in Palestine.  But the truth is, Hamas still *is* a terrorist organization.  So why did the EU take it off the terrorist list?  Because doing so seems to be the simplest way around the EU’s policy on not negotiating with terrorists.  But taking Hamas off the list sends the wrong message about the nature of the organization.  There is only one way to eliminate this charade: end the policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists.

Hamas has been and remains a terrorist organization.  It has carried out many attacks against civilians in the past, continues to try to do so in the present, and its charter is reprehensible.  However, Hamas is also the government of the Gaza Strip and is supported by a majority of Palestinians (or close to it).  Thus, Hamas cannot really be left out of negotiations over Palestine’s future.  It is possible to be a terrorist organization and yet be a necessary part of the solution.

From elementary school to international politics, the silent treatment has never been a good strategy for getting what you want.  Instead, it just serves to force the other side into an even more hard-line stance, prompting ever more drastic action on both sides.  The policy of not talking to terrorists simply does not work to force organizations to renounce terrorism, and it also greatly complicates matters if an organization is ready to transition into a more civil body.  Take the PLO, for example.  Back in the 1970s, the PLO was the vanguard of armed Palestinian resistance against Israel.  It was a terrorist organization, and it was considered a terrorist organization by the US.  All US official contact with the PLO was completely verboten.  A few CIA officers, though, reached out to the PLO and got a relationship started.  This relationship ultimately led to the Oslo Peace Accords, where the PLO became the Palestinian Authority and its leader shook hands with a US president on the White House lawn.  Or consider Northern Ireland.  The Irish Republican Army was also unquestionably a terrorist organization.  Yet it was also ultimately a party to the Easter Accords that almost entirely ended a generation of violence in Northern Ireland.  If the US and Britain hadn’t “broken” their policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists, that accord would have been impossible, and the violence would have continued.

Being willing to negotiate with terrorists is not the same thing as surrendering to terrorists’ demands or rewarding terrorism.  And negotiating isn’t the same thing as reaching a compromise with terrorists.  But keeping the door of communication open, even at a very low level, creates possibilities to end a conflict in a way that stony red lines cannot.

If one needed to negotiate only with one’s friends, the world would be a nice place indeed.  But that’s not the way the world works.  One needs to negotiate with one’s adversaries too, probably even more than one’s friends.

There is no reason why the EU and US cannot simultaneously go after Hamas’s terrorism and realize that Hamas must be included in diplomacy.  Instead, taking Hamas off the terrorism list in order to make it possible to communicate with Hamas gives the appearance that Hamas has changed its ways and that its behavior is somehow now acceptable to the EU.

It would be more honest, more practical, and more effective – if less politically expedient – for the EU, and the US,  to recognize that the policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists is counterproductive, not to mention ignored when it becomes inconvenient, and abandon it.

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News You Really Need To See: “Malnutrition Hits Millions of Children in Yemen”

“Malnutrition Hits Millions of Children in Yemen”

The New York Times, December 19, 2014, p.A6


“Yemen is the most impoverished country in the Middle East, and among its grim distinctions is having one of the highest rates of child malnutrition in the world.  Political turmoil since the 2011 uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh has left an already feeble government even less able to care for its indigent citizens.  Chronic challenges have become emergencies as the state’s presence in much of Yemen has started to dissolve.  One million children younger than 5, roughly a third of the age group in Yemen, are suffering from life-threatening malnourishment, according to Daniela D’urso, the head of the European Commission’s humanitarian aid office in Yemen.  About two million children are chronically malnourished.  Nearly 60 percent of Yemeni children suffer from stunted growth, according to public health workers, who in the past few months have noticed other worrying trends, including cases of malnutrition giving rise to other maladies like tuberculosis. … Yemen has become ‘a weak state that is unable to provide both security to its citizens and social services,’ said Jamal Benomar, the United Nations envoy to the country, who has spent more than two years trying to shepherd a transitional plan backed by Persian Gulf countries that appears more and more imperiled by the day.  Yemen’s humanitarian crises were ‘largely the result of failure of governance and mismanagement,’ Mr. Benomar said.  ‘Getting out of the crisis,’ he added, ‘is what would help.’ … Things may soon grow even worse.  The country is facing financial ruin, with diplomats and officials saying the government may not have enough money to pay its civil servants next month.  A currency devaluation may also be imminent.  That would raise the prices of basic goods, including food, that Yemen imports.  The country has been hobbled by shocks beyond its control, including a decision last year by neighboring Saudi Arabia to deport hundreds of thousands of Yemeni expatriate workers, curbing a critical source of remittances and adding to the country’s unemployment rate of roughly 50 percent.  The Saudis have also reportedly begun cutting off billions of dollars of aid to Yemen, in a sign of their consternation with the Houthis, whom they view as clients of Iran, the Saudi monarchy’s regional rival.”

Quickie Analysis:  If the Yemeni government doesn’t cease its squabbling, there will no longer be a country to squabble over.

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Thinking Aloud: Diplomacy Done Right

Dec. 18, 2014 by Darius

Yesterday’s announcement of the restoration of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba made headlines around the world—and with good reason.  Less attention, though, has been paid to the actual process that resulted in the deal.  It’s a prime example of diplomacy done right.

The deal between the US and Cuba involved some complicated prisoner swaps and other measures.  The US released three Cuban spies in prison since the late 1990s, while Cuba released Alan Gross, a US government contractor imprisoned for alleged espionage in 2009.  Additionally, Cuba promised to release more than 50 political prisoners, and the US promised to ease some restrictions on finance and travel.

It’s important to note that neither side got all of what they wanted here.  Cuba is still a dictatorial regime.  The release of political prisoners is good but falls far short of what the US sees as ideal.  Cuba, for its part, is still on the receiving end of a major economic embargo by the US that is unlikely to be lifted soon.  But that’s how diplomacy sometimes needs to work.  This agreement provides something to build on for the future.

It’s also important to note that this agreement took time and was conducted out of the public eye.  US and Cuban representatives met many times over an 18-month period.  The secrecy of these meetings was maintained throughout the time period.  It is difficult to see the agreement happening if the negotiations had to withstand domestic US pressures that are now emerging.  The secrecy is one marked difference between this successful diplomacy and the heretofore unsuccessful diplomacy with Iran.

Finally, this agreement is not just a product of the US and Cuba.  Instead, negotiations were facilitated by Canada and the Vatican.  Pope Francis, in particular, is said to have played a key role.  Choosing the right mediator for any diplomatic effort is of the utmost importance.  In the Israel-Palestine conflict, for example, there have been relatively few diplomatic triumphs that did not have a mediator (be it Norway, Spain, or another country).

It is important to note, though, that the US and Cuba did not agree to be friends.  Far from it.  They only agreed to resume diplomatic relations, which is a fancy way of saying that they are now on speaking terms.  It’s about time: “the silent treatment” has never been an effective means of changing one’s adversary.

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