Quick Thought to Amuse and Edify

Recently, I’ve been doing research on Syria in the 1970s and ‘80s.  I’ve come across a number of jokes and thought I would share a few of my favorites:

In central Damascus, a bright red BMW crashes into a taxi.  The taxi driver stumbles out of his wrecked car, runs towards the BMW, and starts cursing the driver.  The BMW’s windows are tinted, though, so he can’t see inside.  The BMW’s window opens slightly and a woman’s hand sticks out a business card with a phone number on it.  Later, the taxi driver calls the number on the card.  A man answers.  The taxi driver shouts, “You bastard, I have to work for my money.”  The man on the end of the phone waits for the driver to finish, then asks, “Do you know who you’re talking to?”  The driver says no.  The man says, “This is Hafez al-Assad [the leader of Syria at the time].”  The taxi driver says, “Do you know who you’re talking to?”  Assad says no.  The taxi driver says, “Thank God!” and hangs up.”

Hafez Assad is driving through central Damascus and sees a large group of Syrians outside the US consulate.  He tells his driver to stop, then pushes through the crowd and demands to see the US consul.  He asks what all the people are doing there.  The consul tells him that they all want visas to come to America.  Assad think for a minute, then says, “Give me a visa too; I want to go to America.”  So the consul gives him a visa.  Assad then leaves the consulate and sees that all the people disappeared.  He asks one of the few remaining bystanders what happened.  The other guy says, “When they found out you were leaving, they all decided to stay.”

A Syrian soldier and an Israeli soldier meet on the border.  The Israeli soldier says, “In my country, we have electricity and running water.”  The Syrian replies, “Yes, but in my country, we have Assad.” [In addition to being the surname of the ruling family, “assad” is also the Arabic word for lion].  The Israeli soldier doesn’t know what to say.  A few weeks later, the two meet again.  The Israeli soldier says, “Now we have an assad [lion] too.”  The Syrian soldier replies, “Well, soon you won’t have electricity and running water.”

George H.W. Bush, Francois Mitterrand, and Hafez Assad all die.  Bush asks God, “When will my people be developed?”  God replies, “After 50 years.”  Bush begins to cry.  Mitterrand asks God, “When will my people be developed?”  God answers, “After 100 years.”  Mitterrand begins to cry.  Assad asks God, “When will the Arabs be developed?”  God starts to cry.”

[These jokes are all borrowed from Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria by Lisa Wedeen.]

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News You Really Need To See: “China Warns North Korean Threat Rising”

“China Warns North Korean Threat Rising”

The Wall Street Journal, April 23, 2015, p.A1


“China’s top nuclear experts have increased their estimates of North Korea’s nuclear weapons production well beyond most previous U.S. figures, suggesting Pyongyang can make enough warheads to threaten regional security for the U.S. and its allies.  The latest Chinese estimates, relayed in a closed-door meeting with U.S. nuclear specialists, showed that North Korea may already have 20 warheads, as well as the capability of producing enough weapons-grade uranium to double its arsenal by next year, according to people briefed on the matter. … An increase in North Korea’s nuclear arsenal feeds international concern about proliferation from a country that, U.S. officials said, previously exported nuclear technology to Syria and missile components to Iran, Yemen and Egypt. … Relations between North Korea and China have deteriorated since Xi Jinping became China’s leader in 2012 and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, took power following the death of his father in late 2011.  China, which is North Korea’s largest investor, aid donor and trade partner, has for most of the past decade underestimated Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities, nuclear experts said, including its capacity to produce fissile material. … Until recently, the Chinese ‘had a pretty low opinion of what the North Koreans could do,’ said David Albright, an expert on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and head of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.  ‘I think they’re worried now.'”

Quickie analysis:  Sometimes a crazy neighbor is considered harmless.  But a crazy neighbor amassing weapons usually is not.

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Thinking Aloud: “The Looting Machine”

Apr. 23, 2015 by Darius 

Earlier this week, I saw British journalist Tom Burgis discuss his new book The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth.

Burgis began by telling the story of the Nigerian textile industry.  A few decades ago, Nigeria’s textile industry, famous for incorporating beautiful traditional designs, supplied not only Nigeria but much of the region as well.  It employed 300,000 textile workers, mostly in northern Nigeria, as well as providing a livelihood for thousands of other Nigerians, from cotton farmers to dye workers and beyond.  Today, Nigeria’s textile industry is dead.  The economy of northern Nigeria is moribund.  Although imported textiles are actually illegal in Nigeria, smuggled textiles now command a 90% market share.  One man is largely responsible for killing Nigeria’s textile industry and turning what had been a zone of relative prosperity into “an enormous zone of poverty”: a politically connected smuggling lord named Dahiru Mangal.  But Mangal couldn’t have done it without complicit Nigerian politicians, Chinese counterfeiters, and an international apparatus that Burgis came to call “the looting machine.”

Burgis talked about a form of the well-known “resource curse,” a phenomenon that affects many resource-rich countries, known as “Dutch disease” (so named because the Netherlands was the first country in which it was noticed).  Dutch disease occurs when a government begins exploiting natural resources on a large scale, causing a rapid inflow of foreign currency and a decline in manufacturing exports and agriculture.  For example, in Nigeria, during the 1980s and 1990s, oil exports went through the roof, and as a result of the oil exports, Nigeria’s currency became overvalued, severely harming exported goods other than oil.  Furthermore, the Nigerian government began deriving an ever larger portion of its funding from oil sales rather than taxes.  As a result, government accountability and responsiveness to the people – the voters and taxpayers – dried up, and spending on public goods, like infrastructure and health care, fell drastically.  As Burgis said, the resource curse does not simply apply to one region where the resource is.  It applies to the whole country.  The shuttered textile industry in northern Nigeria “has felt the curse of oil as much as the delta,” where the water and land are tainted by decades of pollution related to oil extraction.

According to Burgis, governments across Africa pursue the prize of a natural resources windfall, which would bring an enormous amount of rent money, despite the fact that historically, said rush of money has been massively destabilizing and has almost always ended up doing more harm than good.  Burgis used the analogy of a lottery ticket: if you offer a lottery ticket worth a million dollars to someone with hungry kids, no job, and a hole in the roof and explain that it’s almost certain that with the lottery money “you’ll end up in rehab, buy a fast car and crash it, you’ll get divorced, everything will go wrong” and at the end you’ll be broke, that person is still going to want that lottery ticket.

Despite the “Africa Rising” narrative, Burgis cautioned that in many areas, not much has changed.  While coastal Africa is starting to move beyond resources in its economy, most of the interior is not.  Although rent money now accounts for a smaller share of GDP in many African countries, troublingly, the share of income governments derive from resource rents has not appreciably changed.  To Burgis, the continued reliance on resource rents to fund government “breaks that contract between ruler and ruled.”

Going forward, Burgis said the most important thing to do is simply to enforce existing laws.  The US and Europe have strong anti-corruption laws, as do most African countries.  These laws are ignored today.  Additionally, anti-corruption campaigns can be strengthened by shifting the burden of proof.  Currently, prosecutors must show the money trail leading into the pocket of a corrupt official.  Burgis suggested changing laws to force officials to justify their lifestyles.  He also pointed to the need for more countries to grow value-added jobs tied to the extraction industries (as Botswana has done) and, critically, for greater transparency in ownership of offshore companies.  He made the point that although the looting machine necessarily makes uses of the “shadow states” and “parallel governments” of unofficial but well-connected individuals within African countries, the structure of the looting machine is overwhelmingly outside of Africa, dependent on networks of shady middlemen, offshore banks, and shell corporations to connect people like Dahiru Mangal, the Nigerian smuggler, to the global economy and transfer and hide the ill-gotten assets.

Finally, Burgis felt it was important to change the terms of the debate outside of Africa to focus not on official amounts of development aid going into Africa but on the fortunes being “filched” from Africa every year.  As Burgis said, because the structure of the looting machine is largely outside of Africa, it is up to those outside Africa to dismantle it.

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News You Really Need To See: “Ebola Drug Cures Monkeys Infected with West African Virus Strain”

“Ebola Drug Cures Monkeys Infected with West African Virus Strain”

BBC, April 22, 2015


“An experimental drug has cured monkeys infected with the Ebola virus, US-based scientists have said.  The treatment, known as TKM-Ebola-Guinea, targets the Makona strain of the virus, which caused the current deadly outbreak in West Africa.  All three monkeys receiving the treatment were healthy when the trial ended after 28 days; three untreated monkeys died within nine days.  Scientists cautioned that the drug’s efficacy has not been proven in humans. … Mr Geisbert said the drug, produced by Tekmira Pharmaceuticals, could be adapted to target any strain of Ebola and could be manufactured in as little as eight weeks.  It works by blocking particular genes, which stops the virus replicating.”

Quickie analysis:  It sounds too good to be true.  Let’s hope it’s for real.

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Thinking Aloud: Gallipoli Centennial

Apr. 22, 2015 by Darius 

This Saturday will mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of one of the most infamous military disasters in Western military history: the Gallipoli Campaign.  Let’s revisit the stupidity that led to the deaths of thousands.

During World War I, the British wanted a campaign that would knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war.  Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill (yes, that Winston Churchill) came up with a plan to attack the Dardanelles Straits, heart of the Ottoman Empire.  Originally, the plan called for battleships too obsolete to fight Germany forcing the Straits and destroying Ottoman defenses.  However, mines and Ottoman artillery proved too much for the naval force.  Instead, plans were set in motion for a British and French force to land on Turkey’s Gallipoli Peninsula (see map below).

In one of the worst military blunders of the modern era, the British decided to land at the southern tip of the peninsula and fight their way up it, despite the fact that, having complete control of the seas, they could have chosen to land anywhere and bypass Ottoman defenses.  Instead, by trying to roll up the peninsula, British troops fought and died in droves the entire way, as Ottoman defenders, forced from one trench, simply retreated to a parallel trench a few hundred feet behind it and resumed mowing down the British.  German general Liman von Sanders, commanding Ottoman troops, originally thought the site of the British landings was a ruse because nobody could possibly be that dumb.  True story.

Eventually, about nine bloody months later, the British called the whole thing off, having suffered approximately 250,000 casualties and inflicted a similar number on the Ottomans.  Today, though, Gallipoli is remembered very differently on the two sides.  Most of the British soldiers were actually colonial troops from Australia and New Zealand, called Anzacs.  In these countries, Anzac Day, celebrated in remembrance of Gallipoli, has grown to overshadow Armistice Day for WWI remembrance.

In Turkey, Gallipoli is considered a major victory and defense of homeland, the crucible in which the modern state of Turkey was forged.  Colonel Mustafa Kemal was a leading Turkish commander who rose to prominence at Gallipoli.  You might know him as Ataturk.

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News You Really Need To See: “Petrobras Lost $2.1 Billion to Graft”

“Petrobras Lost $2.1 Billion to Graft”

Bloomberg Businessweek, April 22, 2015


“Brazil’s national oil company said a graft scandal cost it 6.2 billion reais ($2.1 billion) following a five-month debate that cost the chief executive her job, destabilized politics and shut off its access to bond markets.  Reporting the corruption-related charge in its first audited financial results since August, Rio de Janeiro-based Petrobras posted a net loss of 21.6 billion reais for 2014, dragged down by an impairment of 44.6 billion reais.  Total debt rose to 351 billion reais at the end of last year, it said.  Ensnared by the ever-widening graft investigation dubbed Carwash, Petrobras has been all but shut out of bond markets and had its credit rating cut to junk by Moody’s Investors Service on Feb. 24.  The scandal — a decade of alleged kickbacks, bribes and inflated construction contracts — is playing out as crude trades near six-year lows.  President Dilma Rousseff, whose popularity is at an all-time low, is struggling to contain the damage at the driller she oversaw and championed. … A combination of missed production targets, mounting debt and gasoline subsidies eroded confidence in the biggest producer in deep waters with the market value tumbling by about $250 billion since peaking at $310 billion in 2008.”

Quickie analysis:  A good account of the fall of the house of Petrobras.

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Thinking Aloud: “Cuisines of the Axis of Evil”

Apr. 21, 2015 by Darius 

I just finished reading Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Other Irritating States: A Dinner Party Guide to International Relations by Georgetown professor Christine Fair.  Cuisines of the Axis of Evil does double duty as a cookbook and as a hilarious and withering look at some of the world’s most annoying states.

Fair examines ten “irritating” countries.  For each, she compiles first a “Dossier of Perfidy” (which is invariably hilariously written) and then provides detailed recipes and instructions for a dinner party of that cuisine, including appetizers, main courses, desserts, and beverages.

Fair starts off with the original Axis of Evil, as outlined by President Bush (or, as she alternately terms him, the Shrub or Arbusto: clearly, Fair is not a fan) in his now-infamous speech: North Korea, Iran, and Iraq.  From there, she moves on to the NPT+3, the states who possess nuclear weapons and have never been party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty: Israel, India, and Pakistan.  (Fair herself is a Pakistan expert.)  Next up are the Dashers of Democracy: Cuba, Burma (or, as Fair puts it, Myanmar if you hate freedom), and China.  Finally, Fair acknowledges that the US is seen as supremely irritating by most of the world and rounds off the book with the Great Satan Barbecue.

I haven’t actually tried any of Fair’s recipes (yet), but cooking aside, Cuisines of the Axis of Evil is a highly entertaining and informative read.  I would recommend it to anyone looking for the lighter side of international relations.

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