Thinking Aloud: FIFA and the Blagojevich Principle

May 28, 2015 by Darius 

Yesterday, a US federal court unveiled indictments against 14 officials of FIFA, the international soccer organization, on charges of corruption.  The men were taken into custody in Switzerland and are pending extradition to the US.

FIFA has long been suspected of being a very corrupt organization, and with good reason.  After all, FIFA officials possess the first thing necessary for corruption: something valuable to sell.  In this case, FIFA officials possess the votes for which country should get to host the World Cup.  It’s the most recent manifestation of what I’ve dubbed The Blagojevich Principle.

Rod Blagojevich was the governor of Illinois in 2008 when Barack Obama, who was then a US senator from Illinois, was elected president.  That left Blagojevich with the chance to appoint someone to fill Obama’s seat for the remainder of Obama’s senate term.  Blagojevich, sensed an opportunity: why just appoint someone when he could sell the seat for personal gain?  As he said to an aide, “It’s a fucking valuable thing, you just don’t give it away for nothing.”  Unfortunately for Blagojevich, due to an ongoing investigation into suspected corruption, the FBI was listening in, and Blagojevich was packed off to prison.

Without intending to, Blagojevich coined a pithy way of expressing a very fundamental idea.

You don’t need to look far to find The Blagojevich Principle in action.  The Blagojevich Principle isn’t always harmful.  For example, foreign tourists visiting Jordan must pay about $70 to enter Petra, whereas Jordanians pay less than $5 for admission.  Why?  Because Petra is a f*cking valuable thing.  Foreign tourists can and will pay a significant premium for the opportunity to see Petra.

However, The Blagojevich Principle can be quite pernicious.  When an Angolan official lines his own pockets with kickbacks from contracts he approved for oil rights, he sold his country’s minerals, which were a f*cking valuable thing and cannot be replaced, for his own gain.  When a Dagestani official takes a bribe from someone looking to enlist in the military because that’s the only reliable route to future employment in the Caucasus, he sold what was supposed to be an opportunity open to all to someone specific for his own gain.  When FIFA officials sold their votes for World Cup venues, they deprived countries that couldn’t or wouldn’t pay bribes from consideration for hosting a tournament that is supposed to transcend national squabbles.  While that certainly isn’t tantamount to human trafficking, it erodes the international community’s faith in the rule of law and of fair play.

The Blagojevich Principle is perhaps as common an economic driver as Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the marketplace.  And that is often not a good thing.  We have become too inured to the idea that money not only makes the world go ‘round, it is also the most appropriate way of divvying up access to opportunities that should be made available to all, not just to those willing and able to pay for them.

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News You Really Need To See: “‘El Bronco’ Bucks Mexico’s Party System”

“‘El Bronco’ Bucks Mexico’s Party System”

The Washington Post, May 27, 2015, p.A6

The Bronco Bus pulled into the slum on the outskirts of town, and Mexico’s most curious candidate took the stage in front of a flashing neon-green horse head.  Jaime Rodríguez, a.k.a. ‘El Bronco,’ a 57-year-old former mayor and alfalfa farmer, wants to be governor of the border state of Nuevo Leon, a major economic hub and home to the third-largest metropolitan area in Mexico.  His profane, man-of-the-people persona has made him an unlikely front-runner in next month’s midterm elections.  But the main reason his candidacy has captured so much attention is that he has succeeded without the help of Mexico’s powerful political parties, choosing instead to run as an independent. … Just a few years ago, such an insurgent candidacy was not even possible.  A constitutional change in 2012 allowed candidates to run as independents in Mexico, a major shift for a country that has been governed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for most of the past century.  Many people say it is no coincidence that an independent is leading in some polls in a key state at a time when corruption scandals have rocked the national government and many people are searching for alternatives. … Rodríguez is just the most high-profile of many independent candidates running in municipal and state elections across Mexico. Political observers say most have only a slim chance of winning. … Rodríguez has remained vague on many of his proposed policies, telling reporters repeatedly that he would ‘hire the best’ to join his team.  During his recent speech in the poor neighborhood of Alianza, he made many bold promises: to give every child free school uniforms made by prisoners, to let women work an hour less each day and to visit the neighborhood every two weeks of his governorship until he had ‘conquered poverty.’  All the people had to do, he said, was ‘vote for that little horse.'”

Quickie analysis:  Someone was bound to tap into the Mexican people’s anger over the dysfunction of the mainstream political parties.  It remains to be seen if El Bronco is anything more than an opportunist with a hazy agenda.

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Thinking Aloud: Darius’s Rules of International Engagement, #2

May 27, 2015 by Darius 

[If you study international relations and political science, it’s impossible to avoid coming across Carl von Clausewitz.  While Clausewitz’s credentials may have been a bit thin in his primary specialty, military theory, he has given us a number of pithy quotes.  One of his most famous is “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”  Most of the time, though, we never get to war: politics alone suffice.  In my study of international relations, politics, and world history, I’ve discovered a few fundamental themes that seem to get lost in the shuffle.  I’ll call them “Darius’s Rules of International Engagement.”]

Here’s my second rule: chess is a great game, but it is an absolutely terrible analogy for international engagement.

The appeal of chess as an analogy is easy to see: politicians and others long to see themselves as the grandmaster behind the board, manipulating pieces to concoct a brilliant trap for the opponent to stumble into.  Unfortunately, on closer inspection, the analogy falls apart.  Here are five reasons why:

  1. In chess, there are rules. Players take turns moving; pieces move only in certain ways.  Departure from these rules means the game is forfeited.  In the real world, rules are not nearly so enforceable.  Despite many attempts to the contrary, rules are whatever the player can get away with.
  2. Speaking of rules, chess pieces move the same way for the entire game. In the real world, actors, whether they be pawns or queens, change.  It would be incredibly awkward if, in the middle of a chess game, a pawn decided to change color.  Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt, did exactly that in July 1972 when he expelled thousands of Soviet military advisors from Egypt.  Egypt has been a stable US ally ever since.  In the world of international engagement, no actor’s loyalty can be wholly taken for granted.
  3. In chess, there are two sides, never more, never less. In the real world, two-sided conflicts simply don’t exist.  More than 2,000 years ago, in the Peloponnesian Wars, we learn that Athens fought Sparta.  More correctly, though, Athens and its Greek allies fought Sparta, its slaves, and its Greek allies, while the neighboring Persian Empire supplied Sparta with massive amounts of money while remaining technically outside the conflict.  The current multilateral warfare in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, for example, with multiple players, some of whom come and go throughout “the game,” are more the norm than people generally acknowledge.  Maybe strictly two-sided conflicts are possible, but I have yet to see one.
  4. In chess, the sole goal of the game is to checkmate the opposing king. Everything can (and often is) sacrificed to achieve this single goal.  In real life, there are usually layers of goals, some of which are competing.  More importantly, sacrifices have a human cost.
  5. Chess is a zero-sum game. Any gain for one side is a loss for the other.  In international engagement, though, conflict often results in losses for everyone and, conversely, cooperation often yields gains for everyone.

With a bow to Terry Pratchett, perhaps a better analogy for international engagement is, “Not like a chess game.”

For Darius’s first rule of international engagement, see

For more on chess and international relations, see

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News You Really Need To See: “The Children From Nowhere”

“The Children From Nowhere”

Rolling Stone, May 22, 2015

“As the Syrian refugee crisis worsens, more and more children are being born without proper identification, laying the foundation for an ongoing humanitarian crisis that could last decades. … Beyond those issues lies an even worse fear: that of being susceptible to violent groups like ISIS.  The UNHCR warns that stateless people face a ‘heightened risk of trafficking or child recruitment.’  ‘You’re going to effectively start creating this population of people that are marginalized, that don’t have opportunities – all of the indicators you look at in terms of radicalization,’ Amnesty International’s Lama Fakih says of the growing, potentially stateless population in Lebanon. … A lack of information among those in the camps means many families assume registering their newborns is functionally impossible, according to several new parents I interviewed in one camp in eastern Lebanon.  A January 2015 study from the Norwegian Refugee Council found ’92 percent of the refugees interviewed were not able to complete the possible legal and administrative steps to register the births of their children born in Lebanon.’  The latest data show that at least 36,000 Syrian children are facing statelessness, though the real number could be far higher, as the U.N. doesn’t track births of refugees whose parents aren’t registered. … Though it’s technically the parents’ job to actively seek out the proper documentation, a combination of fear, misinformation and poverty inhibits most refugees from taking the necessary steps.  And since Lebanon doesn’t allow formal refugee camps – unlike other neighboring countries –   many of the refugees in the archipelago of de facto camps that have sprung up have little access to correct information about birth registration.”

Quickie analysis:  As the article notes, a lack of citizenship prevents travel as well as access to education, employment and social services.  Another (unanticipated) problem the Syrian civil war is bequeathing to the future.

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Thinking Aloud: “The Name of the Wind”

May 26, 2015 by Darius 

The Name of the Wind and its sequel The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss are among the more entertaining novels I’ve read recently.

The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear fit snugly into the fantasy/adventure genre:  there’s magic, swordplay, romance, and just about every other hallmark of the genre.  But the writing is crisp and witty, the characters are realistic in their way, and world Rothfuss created operates smoothly, albeit by its own set of rules.  Both books are very long (and I mean nearly 1,000 pages long, each) but read fairly quickly.

Rothfuss is currently working on the third and final installment of the series, but don’t expect it anytime soon.  In the meantime, if you’re looking for some summer reading and enjoy, for example, the film The Princess Bride, I would recommend finding a copy of The Name of the Wind and a comfortable couch.

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News You Really Need To See: “What Would Happen If Greece Doesn’t Pay the IMF: Q&A”

“What Would Happen If Greece Doesn’t Pay the IMF: Q&A”

Bloomberg Businessweek, May 25, 2015

“Cash-strapped Greece needs to repay almost 1.6 billion euros ($1.76 billion) to the International Monetary Fund next month, an obligation Interior Minister Nikos Voutsis said the country can’t and won’t meet, if there’s no deal to unlock bailout funds in the meantime. … Greece has lost access to bond markets and relies on bailout loans from the euro area and the IMF to refinance its debt.  The country’s anti-austerity coalition is locked in talks with its creditors over the terms attached to those emergency loans.  Even though no aid disbursements have been made since last summer, the government has managed to meet external payments through a combination of measures, including budget under-execution, building up arrears to suppliers and vendors, overdue taxes settlement incentives, and seizing of cash reserves of regional governments, hospitals, universities, and even the country’s bank recapitalization fund, for use in short-term state financing operations. … A person with direct knowledge of the country’s liquidity position said Greece has enough cash at least for the payment due June 5.  A prompt payment then would buy Greek officials and representatives of creditor institutions another week of time to negotiate an agreement which will unlock bailout funds and solve the problem, before the next payment is due. … Failure to pay the IMF would entitle some of Greece’s other creditors, including the European bailout fund, to declare a default.  They would then have the option to demand immediate repayment of all their loans, a process known as acceleration.  Other lenders could then follow suit.  While calling a default preserves creditors’ claims, acceleration — the bit that hurts — isn’t automatic.  Each creditor decides on its own.  To varying degrees the debt is linked in a web of cross-default and cross-acceleration clauses that make it safe to assume that one default and acceleration would trigger demands for repayment on most, if not all, of the rest.”

Quickie analysis:  If you’ve been wondering why Greece’s debt problems are coming to a crisis point (again), here’s a detailed FAQ of the problem, the possibilities, and the consequences.

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Thinking Aloud: “Afghan-Pakistani Reconciliation: A Brief Thaw or Something More?” Part II

May 25, 2015 by Darius 

[The US tends to look at Afghanistan through a security lens, but Afghanistan is part of a neighborhood, a neighborhood that includes Pakistan, China, India, and Central Asia.  Afghanistan’s neighborhood will influence the country’s future long after the US leaves the region.  Last week, I attended a panel discussion entitled “Afghan-Pakistani Reconciliation: A Brief Thaw or Something More?”  Yesterday’s and today’s posts are a brief summary of the discussion.]

Khalid Nadiri of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies spoke about Afghan-Pakistani relations.  He said that it is a positive development that Kabul and Islamabad are now talking to each other directly rather than relying on the US as a conduit.  However, he felt that real reconciliation between the two is impossible as long as Pakistan continues to provide senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban with “arms, cash, and sanctuary.” He added that Pakistan has no credibility with Afghanistan because Pakistan has promised to stop supporting militant groups in Afghanistan three times in the past 20 years.  Each promise has been blatantly broken.  Nadiri felt it was important that the US signal that it will remain politically involved in the region over the long term.  More concretely, Nadiri felt the US could be helpful by working to keep the current Afghan unity government together.

Reza Rumi from the National Endowment for Democracy discussed internal Pakistani politics.  He said there are four factors shaping Pakistan and its relationship with Afghanistan.  The first is the fallout from the December terrorist attack against a school in Peshawar.  The attack has led the Pakistani military to get more serious about going after all militant groups in Pakistan, rather than just the ones the Pakistani military doesn’t support.  The second factor is Pakistani public opinion.  According to Rumi, for 10 years, there has been a broad consensus in Pakistan of support for the Afghan Taliban.  That consensus is now dwindling, especially in the face of the December attack, which caused many Pakistanis to realize that there is no good/bad Taliban.  The third factor is China’s increasing role and its desire for regional stability.  The fourth factor shaping Pakistan is a greater awareness and concern over the growth of the Pakistani Taliban and an understanding that the Pakistani Taliban and its affiliates are an outgrowth of the Afghan Taliban and not some fiction created by agents of India.

Rumi also said that over the last 30 years, there has been an exponential growth and concurrent fragmentation of armed groups operating in Pakistan.  The Pakistan government and intelligence services simply cannot control them all anymore.

Walter Andersen, a former head of the South Asia division at the US Department of State, talked about India’s role in Afghan-Pakistani reconciliation.  He said that India is not necessarily threatened by Afghan-Pakistani reconciliation.  Instead, India’s foreign policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been all about economic development.  Specifically, according to Andersen, Modi believes strongly in South Asian connectivity.  Modi wants to boost trade ties with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.  Andersen said Modi’s doctrine represents a departure from India’s previous security-based posture towards Afghanistan and Pakistan.  According to Andersen, Modi’s reasoning is fairly straightforward:  India’s economy is projected to grow at a rate of 7-8.5% per year, and to feed its economic growth, India will require vast quantities of metals and energy.  Modi sees the Central Asian republics as a source of oil and gas and Afghanistan as a source of many metals.  To get these materials to India, it is imperative to have connectivity and trade routes throughout the region.  India is happy to see Chinese investment in Afghanistan and Afghan infrastructure for similar reasons.

Andersen warned, however, that militant groups have the potential to wreck Modi’s vision.  Another attack similar to the one in Mumbai in 2008 would scupper everything.  Ironically, though, peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban would mean much less space for both China and India in Afghanistan.  Because the Taliban is hostile towards China and India, including the Taliban in the Afghan government would be a disaster for relations with both neighbors.

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