Thinking Aloud: “The Water Knife”

July 31, 2015 by Darius 

California is currently in the midst of a three-year drought.  What if that drought stretched for decades and impacted the entire American Southwest?  That idea is the premise of Paolo Bacigalupi’s excellent new science fiction novel The Water Knife.

The Water Knife is set in the not-too-distant future.  Climate change has continued unabated from the present, and among its consequences are massive, frequent disruptions to weather and natural disasters.  Rising sea levels and hurricanes have devastated Florida other states in the east.  In the Southwest, rain no longer falls and the aquifers have been tapped dry.  An unknown tragedy of epic proportions has befallen Texas, turning that state’s population into refugees.  To the south, Mexico is no more, replaced by the narcotic gangs of the Cartel States.  North of the Mexican border, the federal government has proven unable to adequately respond to the myriad disasters and, effectively, makes each state independent.  State National Guards patrol the borders to keep out Texan refugees, and society is coming apart at the seams.  The wealthy have escaped into advanced high-rises known as arcologies, where water recycling and purification enable a lush, self-contained existence.  The arcologies are often built with Chinese money, and the yuan has supplanted the dollar as the currency of choice.

In the Southwest, the only remaining source of water, needed to sustain cities and farms, industry and agriculture, is the Colorado River and its tributaries.  Nevada, Arizona, and California fight over rights to the water.  The fight in the courts spills out into the real world: each state deploys “water knives,” operatives tasked with locating and exploiting sources of water and bribing, intimidating, or killing anyone who stands in their way.  Towns and cities simply disappear off the map when state authorities divert their water elsewhere.

Against this backdrop Bacigalupi spins the tales of several characters.  Angel Velasquez is a water knife working for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, rescued from prison and sent into the field by Catherine Case, his tough-as-nails boss.  Lucy is an eastern journalist who came west to chronicle the death throes of Phoenix; she has basically gone native.  Maria is a Texan refugee simply struggling to stay alive.  When a rumor of a huge new water source circulates, the three storylines come together.

As in Bacigalupi’s similar book The Windup Girl, The Water Knife is full of gritty realism that lends the book strength and makes it more than a little bit scary.  His post-apocalyptic world is, unfortunately, eminently realistic, and his characters behave in ways that are, similarly unfortunately, entirely consistent with the best but more often the worst in human behavior.  The Water Knife would also make for a great movie or TV show. :-)


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News You Really Need To See: “Who’s in Charge of the Taliban?

“Who’s in Charge of the Taliban?”

Foreign Policy, July 29, 2015

“Two days before the second official meeting between the Afghan government and the Taliban is scheduled to take place, fresh rumors are swirling that Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has been dead for two years, killed either in an internal power struggle or from tuberculosis.  Even before word of the reclusive leader’s unconfirmed death, speculation of his demise and questions about who actually controls the movement have persisted since shortly after his escape from Kandahar in late 2001 — no double fueled by the fact that he has appeared in public only a handful of times, even during his rule over Afghanistan in the 1990s.  With talks (hopefully) less than 48 hours away, the question now more than ever is: Who leads the Taliban?  Though the Taliban’s leadership structure is purposely oblique, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour has long been seen as the insurgency’s second-in-command.  Setting aside whatever Omar’s current physical condition may be, Mansour has been making more day-to-day decisions and had more non-symbolic power than anyone else in the movement.  He arguably has greater influence on the Taliban shadow government operating inside Afghanistan than any other Taliban leader.  More importantly, he has maintained working relations with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), something that separates him from the ‘Taliban Five,’ the former Guantánamo Bay detainees released in a prisoner exchange and currently residing in Doha, Qatar. … As late as 2012, Mansour was seen as a hardliner among Taliban leaders, opposing any talks with Hamid Karzai’s government.  From about 2013 onward, his position appears to have changed, putting him directly at odds with Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a Taliban military leader from northern Helmand who has for years commanded arguably the largest organized insurgent front inside Afghanistan. … For all the things that Mansour may be, he is definitely not Mullah Omar.  Far more than al Qaeda, and perhaps even more than the Islamic State, the various competing interests inside the Taliban have remained nominally united due to the belief that Omar is the amir ul momineen (leader of the faithful). Omar’s spiritual status has long been the only thing holding the Taliban together.  Mansour may have important friends in Pakistan but he is no leader of the faithful, and on the eve of negotiations, the Taliban seem closer than ever to splitting wide open.”

Quickie analysis:  An interesting portrait of a man who just became a lot more important to the rest of the world.

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Thinking Aloud: Yemen’s Turning Point That Wasn’t

July 28, 2015 by Darius 

Last week, Saudi-backed forces ostensibly loyal to Yemen’s last president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, seized most of the southern city of Aden from Houthi fighters and soldiers loyal to Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh.  It was the first major victory on the ground for Hadi’s side of the war, and the fall of Aden was widely hailed as a turning point in the war.  Except it really wasn’t.

It was always a long shot, at best, that the Houthis would be able to (or even want to) hold on to Aden The Houthis’ powerbase is in Saada (around the city of Sadah on the map below) very far geographically and culturally from Aden, the southern port that served as the former capital of the People’s Republic of South Yemen.

yemen map

Although Yemen was reunited as a single country in 1990, the differences between south and north Yemen are longstanding and deep; the idea that a group from the farthest north of the country could contain the effective capital of the south was one that few intelligent observers gave credence to.

Now, the Houthis have been pushed out of Aden.  But by whom?  Unfortunately for the backers of ex-president Hadi, it wasn’t an outpouring of popular support for Hadi that expelled the Houthis.  Instead, the Houthis’ opponents on the ground are an eclectic mix of secular southern separatists, armed tribesmen who don’t want the Houthis treading on their turf, and militant Islamists linked to al-Qaeda.  Wrapped up in all this are some military units loyal to Hadi.  However, while the fall of Aden is a defeat for the Houthis, it is not necessarily a victory for Hadi.  Many of the Houthis’ opponents will not want to see Hadi returned to his position as the head of a central government, either.  Furthermore, the coalition that pushed the Houthis out of Aden is highly local in nature.  It will encounter as many problems if it tries to push north as the Houthis did pushing south.  There has been fighting around Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city (and the place where a friend of mine was teaching until this current mess broke out), but the Houthis remain in control there, as well as in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.  That won’t change any time soon.

Meanwhile, Oxfam estimates that 6 million Yemenis are in danger of starvation.  It’s time for the United States and Saudi-led coalition to stop talking about Yemen’s government in exile and recognize the situation in Yemen for what it is: a complete and utter clusterf*ck, to use the military term, and one that will only be improved if the participants stop shooting at one another.

If the Saudis and their allies demand the removal of the Houthis from all cities and the restoration of Hadi as a precondition for a negotiated settlement, the fighting will continue indefinitely.  The fall of Aden is not and cannot be a military turning point.  But maybe, just maybe, it can make the various sides see that none of them can control all of Yemen.  And then perhaps they might give peace negotiations a chance.


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News You Really Need To See: “Exodus From Puerto Rico Could Sway Election”

“Exodus From Puerto Rico Could Sway Election”

The Washington Post, July 27, 2015, p.A1

Puerto Rico’s economic crisis meant Jeffrey Rondon, 25, struggled to find even part-time work, so he recently joined the growing exodus from his Caribbean island to Florida.  Now he holds a full-time restaurant job and something that could upend the 2016 presidential election — the right to vote in Florida, the biggest of all swing states.  ‘It’s important to vote and be heard — it’s a privilege,’ said Rondon, who is one of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have moved to Florida in the past year.  As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are relatively easy to register to vote, and they are attracting unprecedented attention because they could change the political calculus in a state that President Obama won by the thinnest of margins in 2012: 50 percent to 49.1 percent. … Puerto Rican voters tend to lean Democratic, but a great number of the newcomers do not identify with any party, making them appealing targets for politicians and recruiters on both sides.  Like those living in other U.S. territories, people in Puerto Rico cannot vote for president in the U.S. general election.  Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who is leading the large number of Republican presidential candidates in Florida polls, recently made a high-profile visit to Puerto Rico.  On Monday, he will address three separate gatherings in Orlando, and among those with whom he is meeting are many Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics.  Hillary Rodham Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, has visited the island in the past and polled very well with Puerto Ricans when she ran for president in 2008. … Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, has been struggling with $72 billion in debt and soaring unemployment.  The Pew Research Center calculates that the island’s population dropped by 11,000 people a year in the 1990s, but between 2010 and 2013, the loss accelerated to 48,000 a year.  This year, with economic problems growing, the number leaving for the mainland is even higher.”

Quickie analysis:  One reason US elections are always interesting: you never know exactly who’s in the electorate from year to year.

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Thinking Aloud: Obama’s Misguided Ethiopia Trip

July 22, 2015 by Darius 

This Friday, President Obama is set to begin a tour of several African countries.  Among the countries Obama is scheduled to visit is Ethiopia; Obama’s trip will be the first time a US president has visited Ethiopia.  I’m as much for diplomatic outreach as the next person, but President Obama should not be setting foot anywhere near Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s regime ranks 110th in the world in corruption, behind China and Egypt.*  In press freedom, Ethiopia does even worse, ranking 142nd in the world, behind Venezuela and Zimbabwe (places it’s hard to imagine President Obama visiting).**  Obama cannot even claim Ethiopia is pursuing democratic reforms.  In the latest elections, held this year, which were of course thoroughly rigged by the government, the ruling party did not see fit to allow the opposition to win a single seat in parliament.  In short, the Ethiopian regime in no way reflects the values the US tries so hard to project around the world.

Obama’s visit may seem innocuous enough, but it will have serious consequences for the people of Ethiopia, the region, and the world.  The United States is still seen around the world as the most important country and, often, as a beacon of freedom.  The inevitable photo ops from Obama’s Ethiopian visit will be used by the Ethiopian regime as proof that the United States approves of it and its practices.  The regime wouldn’t be wrong: Obama is choosing now to make his first ever visit to Ethiopia.  As a result of the visit, some of the resentment felt by Ethiopians towards their government will be shifted onto the United States for condoning the government’s atrocious behavior.  It isn’t just Ethiopia: this pattern is repeated all over the world, from Africa to Afghanistan and in between.

The US should certainly be engaging with Ethiopia diplomatically.  A presidential visit, though, should be reserved for countries that either share US values or are at least heading down the right path.  Ethiopia is neither.  Obama’s trip sends the wrong message to the world on every level.

* Transparency International 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index

**  Reporters Without Borders 2015 Press Freedom Index

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News You Really Need To See: “Iran Nuclear Deal: Satirical Website The Onion Accidentally Breaks Story About the US Offering Missiles to Israel”

“Iran Nuclear Deal: Satirical Website The Onion Accidentally Breaks Story About the US Offering Missiles to Israel”

The Independent, July 22, 2015

A satirical website has accidentally broken a real news story – by revealing that America offered Israel ‘a nice, big shipment’ of weapons to try and salve its anger at the Iran nuclear deal.  A spoof news story on The Onion, headlined ‘US Soothes Upset Netanyahu With Shipment Of Ballistic Missiles’, appeared 24 hours before reports emerged that this had actually happened in real life.  Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted the similarity to its own story, published the following day, which carried the headline, ‘After Iran deal, Obama offers military upgrade to help Israel swallow bitter Iranian deal’. … Later, Haaretz graciously admitted in a blog post that: ‘There’s no other way around it: the fake newspaper broke the story.’  Barack Obama had offered Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu ‘immediate talks to upgrade the Israel Defense Forces’ offensive and defensive capabilities’, the paper reported last week.  The only difference between spoof and reality was that Mr Netanyahu (in reality) initially didn’t respond to the offer and later rejected it. – the second time he had turned down such a proposal – ‘believing that any kind of reciprocal deal would be construed as Israel having come to terms with the Iran nuclear deal’.”

Quickie analysis:  In general, if one’s foreign policy is anticipated in the form of satire of said foreign policy, one should probably make some adjustments.

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Thinking Aloud: “The Cause of All Nations”

July 20, 2015 by Darius 

In his book The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War, historian Dan Doyle seeks to destroy the notion that the American Civil War was a purely domestic affair.  Instead, he argues, the nations of the world were at minimum keenly interested in the outcome of the Civil War and, at most, key players in its outcome.

During the years leading up to the Civil War, the world was a distinctly undemocratic place.  The Revolutions of 1848 had led to some changes, but by the 1860s, various ancien regimes throughout Europe had managed to stage comebacks.  In France, after King Louis-Philippe was deposed in 1848, the Second Republic was declared.  However, in 1851, the first elected French president, Louis Napoleon, staged a coup and crowned himself Emperor Napoleon III.  A virtual police state followed, with strict controls on freedom of speech, press, and assembly.  In Britain, things fared somewhat better, but the government was led by Lord Palmerston, a dyed-in-the-wool classical conservative who greatly feared unchecked democracy.  In Latin America, many small republics had thrown off Spanish rule decades before but were by 1860 beset by instability, coups, and dictators.

In a way, then, the United States was the last great republic, the last country where citizens were free to choose their own government.  When the southern states seceded in 1861, many conservatives throughout Europe heralded the event as proof that a republican form of government was unworkable.

Arrayed on the other side were the liberal forces of Europe.  Southern slavery was widely detested throughout Europe.  Perhaps the most popular man in the world, Giuseppe Garibaldi, known as the Hero of Two Worlds for his exploits in Brazil and Italy, spoke out in favor of the Union against the “slave power” of the Confederacy.  Many of the ideological cousins of the revolutionaries of 1848 remained convinced that the cause of liberty was worth fighting for.

Both the Union and the Confederacy launched aggressive efforts to rally support abroad.  Almost immediately after secession, the Confederacy dispatched negotiators to attempt to secure recognition for the Confederacy from France and Britain.  Such recognition would allow the South to form alliances with any other country, which would promise military aid and, most likely, an end to the Union naval blockade crippling the Southern cotton-based economy.  The US Secretary of State, William Seward, responded first with legal arguments against secession and then by threatening war with any European nation that recognized the South as an independent nation.  Both sides launched what Doyle termed the first major public diplomacy campaigns.  The South attempted to justify its secession in terms of protecting itself from mob rule and anarchy and explain away its dependence on slavery, while the North sought to portray itself as fighting for liberty and democracy.  Both sides attracted some European supporters who wrote at length in major newspapers in favor of their cause.  Early in the war, the Union even offered a military command to the Hero of Two Worlds, Garibaldi.  Garibaldi declined because of unfinished business with Italian unification and because he was concerned the Union was not yet serious about ending slavery.

The impact of the Civil War was not just felt in the United States and Europe.  The outbreak of fighting rendered the Monroe Doctrine, under which the US pledged to push back strongly against European incursions into the Western Hemisphere, dead in the water.  Spain reconquered its colony in the Dominican Republic in 1861.  It was in Mexico, though, where the most momentous events occurred.  In 1861, facing financial difficulties, Mexican president Benito Juarez suspended interest payments on foreign debts.  Juarez had long been a thorn in the side of European conservatives, and his suspension of payments gave Europe an excuse to intervene.  While Britain and Spain were content to send a military force to extract money from the Mexicans, France wanted to go further.  Napoleon III dreamed of establishing a conservative Catholic empire in Mexico, which could ultimately unite Latin America and serve as a bulwark against the expansion of the Anglo-Protestant United States.  In 1862, a French army invaded Mexico.  Although initially repulsed at the Battle of Puebla (which the Cinco de Mayo holiday commemorates today), the French sent the Mexican government into exile.  An Austrian prince, Maximilian, was crowned Emperor of Mexico.  US Secretary of State Seward could only gnash his teeth.

A string of early Confederate military victories looked to tip the balance of diplomacy onto their side.  Napoleon III was eager to recognize the Confederacy but was unwilling to act without British cooperation.  Britain, however, was more reluctant: Britain had no wish to get into another war with the US and feared, in particular, for the fate of Canada and its Caribbean possessions.  Adroit Union diplomacy and threats, combined with the outbreak of a crisis in Italy (thanks to Garibaldi) and Poland, kept both Britain and France out of the war.

In 1862, following the bloody Battle of Antietam, US President Abraham Lincoln took his biggest diplomatic gamble yet: he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  Making the war overtly about ending slavery in the US was likely to attract public support in Europe, where most ordinary citizens thought slavery abhorrent.  However, the Emancipation Proclamation could also stir fears about racial insurrection and race war, especially among the governments of France and Britain, whose colonies had sizeable populations of former slaves.  The gamble paid off: massive pro-Union rallies soon broke out in Europe, and public opinion sharply constrained European governments’ support of the Confederacy throughout the rest of the war.

Ultimately, the South’s attachment to slavery was the deciding issue.  Slavery was simply too abhorrent for the British and most other European countries to touch, and Southern efforts to explain away slavery were nothing more than trying to put lipstick on a pig.  At the very end of the war, the South tried to offer emancipation in exchange for recognition from Europe, but it was too little, too late.  The Union had won the international diplomatic battle as well as the military one.

Dan Doyle goes much deeper into the complexities of the international aspects of the US Civil War, including the role of immigrants in fighting for the Union, specific advocacy efforts abroad, and European liberal movements.  One theme, though, pervades: the Civil War was hardly the War Between the States.  Instead, it was seen by both sides and millions of onlookers as part of a colossal struggle between the forces of liberalism and democracy against the forces of conservatism, religion, and monarchy.  In the Civil War, the Union won the battle for liberalism.  Had the Union fallen, republican government on a large scale might have fallen with it.

Abraham Lincoln, in crafting the Gettysburg Address, was acutely aware of his international audience and the importance of the struggle being waged when he summarized, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived [in Liberty] and so dedicated [to the proposition that all men are created equal], can long endure.”

The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War is one of the best history books I’ve read in a long time.  It is thoughtful, well researched, and told in a voice more typical of a storyteller than a historian.  I would strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in US history or in 19th century world history.


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