Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

Kristof on Costa Rica

January 8, 2010

Yesterday, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof in which he discusses the relative “happiness” of countries around the world, focusing primarily on Costa Rica, which ranks number one according to various indeces.  The World Happiness Index ranks the US 20th, with Togo and Tanzania coming in last; another study ranks America 19th and puts Zimbabwe at the bottom of the list.

Mr. Kristof argues that the main reason that Costa Ricans are so happy is that they have low levels of military spending (the country has no armed forces) and they invest a relatively large amount in education per capita, which in turn has led to political stability.  He also credits the nation’s environmental conservation efforts as a contributor to public contentment.  Based on this assumption, he argues that the US should spend less on defense (including foreign military assistance) and more on social programs like education.  He also suggests that America should do more to protect the environment.

I respect Mr. Kristof for his efforts to highlight humanitarian disasters and violations of human rights, particularly in Darfur, but his latest article is highly flawed.  Comparing the US with Costa Rica when it comes to military expenditures is nonsensical.  Costa Rica faces no serious internal or external threats, whereas America is responsible for underwriting international security and protecting the world’s oil supply, on which the global economy is dependent.  Partly as a consequence of America’s foreign policy commitments and interventions, terrorists and insurgents are determined to attack the US and its interests overseas, and policymakers have found it necessary to provide materiel and financial assistance to governments battling anti-American militants in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.  Withholding such aid could have disastrous consequences, and reducing the size and capability of the American military would undermine the liberal international order that Mr. Kristof claims to support.

Another weak point in his argument is his assertion that “happiness” is based on social spending.  He mentions that Mexico and Colombia rank higher than the US on happiness indeces, but both nations spend less on education and medical care than America, and they are also plagued by higher levels of drug-related violence.  He himself acknowledges that a “cultural emphasis on family and friends” might be responsible for the disparity in contentment; although such things are difficult to measure and his claim that Latin Americans value family and friends more than Americans is certainly disputable.  One thing that Mr. Kristof fails to note is that Latin Americans generally work fewer hours per week than Americans do (as do Europeans, who are reportedly “happier” than people in the US), which could be an important factor when it comes to reported personal satisfaction.

I am not suggesting that education and other forms of social spending are not important, or that federal and state governments in the US should not spend more in these areas (I believe they should).  I am merely saying that Mr. Kristof’s prescriptions for increasing “happiness” in America may not have the intended results  in light of geopolitical and social conditions. 

On a separate note, Mr. Kristof’s insistense that the US reduce military spending reinforces public perceptions that liberals are weak on national defense, which inhibits the electoral success of liberal candidates and inhibits their ability to promote the political causes that Mr. Kristof supports.

Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill

January 4, 2010

The Ugandan parliament is considering adopting a bill that would make homosexuality a crime punishable by death or life in prison, and it would impose the same penalty for those infected with HIV/AIDS.  The legislation, the official title of which is The Anti-Homosexuality Bill,  was proposed by David Bahita in October 2009.  Discrimination and intimidation directed toward gays are widespread in Uganda and other parts of Africa, and some fear that the bill would precipitate more acts of violence against them and encourage other African nations to adopt similar laws.

Many governments, including the US, have protested the measure and some have threatened to cut financial aid to Uganda in an attempt to pressure Kampala to kill the bill.  Religious groups and human rights organizations have also condemned the legislation, but some evangelical leaders in America, including Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge and Don Schmierer, have been criticized for promoting the hostility toward homosexuals that led to the legislation in anti-gay speeches that they delivered to prominent Ugandans.

Thus far, the Obama administration has not publicly threatened to take any actions against Uganda if the Anti-Homsexuality Bill passes.  The US provides development and humanitarian assistance to the poor central African country, and it is helping its security forces battle the Lord’s Resistance Army, one of the most brutal militant groups in the world which has committed the worst atrocities imagineable over the past two decades.  Ending or scaling back aid in response to passage of the appalling legislation would probably prove counterproductive and hurt average Ugandans more than their government, so the international community might have to find other ways of pressuring Kampala to change course.

Hopefully Western nations will persuade President Yoweri Museveni and other Ugandan leaders to prevent the bill from becoming law.  If they are unsuccessful, the parliamentary measure could be a precursor to an increase in hate crimes.

Chinese Influence in Afghanistan

December 30, 2009

Earlier today, the New York Times published a very interesting article by Michael Wines in which he discusses China’s large investment in Afghanistan’s Aynak copper mine, which is located in Logar Province.  He also analyzes China’s commercial strategy, which is part of its overall foreign policy, and its efforts to secure mineral resources abroad.

One aspect of China’s investments in Afghanistan that Mr. Wines largely ignores is the Chinese  government’s attempt to gain political influence in Afghanistan to counter India’s recent development efforts there.  In fact, five countries are jockeying for power in the war-torn nation: China, India, Pakistan, Iran and the US.  China and India have economic motives for their financial investments, but the geopolitical rivals are also trying to limit the reach of their traditional enemies.  India and Pakistan are even greater rivals, and those two states have political motives for their involvement in Afghanistan; in the case of Pakistan, it seeks to maintain ties to the Taliban in case the group regains power in Kabul, and it also wants to check India’s encroachment into a country that Pakistan considers to be of vital interest to its national security.  Iran meddles in Afghanistan, and it is trying to thwart  US efforts to encircle and contain the Islamic Republic.  America’s presence in Afghanistan is primarily for counterterrorism purposes; it wants to prevent the Taliban from retaking control of the country and giving Al Qaeda a safe haven there, and it needs airbases in Afghanistan from which to launch drone strikes into the tribal regions of Pakistan where anti-American militants are based.

The ongoing geopolitical competition in Afghanistan is complex.  How it plays out will largely depend on the government in Kabul and its ability to establish and maintain security with the help of the US.

Yemen: Al Qaeda’s New Haven

December 29, 2009

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi recently told the BBC that his government needs more international assistance to combat Al Qaeda elements in his country.  He said that Yemen has the will to take on the militants but needs additional financial and military support from Western nations.  His comments came in the wake of an attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian man who was living in Yemen until earlier this month, to blow up a civilian airliner that was traveling from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Yemen is very unstable and its weak government is engaged in two civil wars.  This chaotic environment is ideal for terrorists who seek a safe haven from which to plan and launch attacks.  Somalia, which lies directly across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, has similar problems, and both countries have reportedly become destinations for Al Qaeda members who leave Pakistan for security reasons.  US policymakers and military leaders, including Gen. David Patrareus, the head of Central Command, are concerned about the threat posed by militants in that part of the world, and American special operations forces have reportedly carried out raids against suspected terrorists from nearby bases and offshore platforms.

The US has sought to improve the counterinsurgency capabilities of countries that are fighting Islamic extremists, including Afghanistan , Pakistan and Iraq, but those attempts have been on a large scale relative to most American efforts to help foreign governments with internal defense.  Given manpower and budget contstraints, the US will have to rely on Special Forces and other small units to train soldiers in partner nations.  For the same reasons, it is unlikely that the US will engage in more nation-building in lawless states where militants thrive, but providing a small number of trainers and a few billion dollars to bolster the security forces in countries of concern would be a fairly minor expense when viewed in the context of America’s overall defense budget, and it is a strategy that the Obama administration will likely pursue.