Archive for the ‘Latin America’ 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.

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The US-Colombian Alliance

December 9, 2009

Colombian-Venezuelan relations are severely strained.  Venezuela is opposed to the Colombian alliance with the US, including the military cooperation agreement signed in October.  Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a vocal critic of American foreign policy, recently dispatched 15,000 troops to the Colombian border as a show of strength.

In an article for Foreign Policy magazine, the confict over the stationing of US forces in Colombia was discussed by Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, Venezuela’s ambassador to the US, and Carolina Barco, Colombia’s ambassador in Washington.  Not suprisingly, Mr. Herrera argues that the US presence in the region is destabilizing and Ms. Barco says that is beneficial.

The Venezuelans claim that US assistance to Colombia will cause Colombia’s internal conflicts, such as the government campaign against the FARC, an insurgent group involved in the drug trade, to spill over into neighboring countries.  Venezuelan officials point to the Colombian air force’s bombing of rebel bases inside Ecuador earlier this year as evidence of this.  But it is very hypocritical of Venezuela to make that argument considering the government of Hugo Chavez has provided assistance to the FARC, including weapons, and given the group safe haven.  As for the attack inside Ecuador, the Colombian military would likely have bombed insurgents there regardless of its relationship with the US.

Although Ms. Barco cites statistics that joint interdiction efforts have put a major dent in the international drug trade, it is uncertain if they have actually impacted drug usage in the US and other places.  However, American counterinsurgency/counterterrorism assistance, which includes money, training, equipment and intelligence support, has certainly helped the Colombian government reduce the level of violence in the country compared to the 1990s when drug lords wreaked tremendous havoc and seriously threatened the political establishment in Bogota (Mark Bowden’s book “Killing Pablo” provides an interesting account of the situation in Colombia when drug kingpins like Pablo Escabor were at the height of their power).

It is understandable why many in Latin America are wary of US involvement in the region given America’s history of imperialistic behavior in that part of the world.  It is also obvious why Latin American politicians use anti-American rhetoric to drum up popular support.  But US involvement in Colombia has been beneficial overall, even though elements of the counternarcotics strategy might have been counterproductive.  America should continue to support the efforts of Colombian officials to secure their nation because doing so serves US and Colombian interests and has a positive humanitarian effect.

Poppy Eradication in Afghanistan

July 24, 2009

The US is shifting its emphasis from poppy crop eradication to drug interdiction in Afghanistan.  Poppy seeds are the basic component of heroin and opium, and the drug trade accounts for 50 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP and is the largest source of funding for the Taliban insurgency.  Thus far, the eradication programs have failed because they alienated poor farmers who must sell their poppy crops to subsist, and thereby made those farmers hostile towards the Afghan government (and its American allies) and supportive of the Taliban; the programs have also failed to put a major dent in the Taliban’s income. 

In the long term, US officials hope to persuade Afghan farmers to stop growing poppy seeds.  One proposal is to encourage them to grow wheat and flowers.  Another is to pay them not to grow poppy seeds much like the US government pays some tobacco farmers not to grow tobacco.

It is doubtful that officials will be able to convince Afghan farmers to cease growing poppy seeds because the commodity is relatively lucrative vis-a-vis their other economic opportunities.  Moreover, the plan would make one of the poorest countries in the world even poorer and hinder economic development, which Afghan and Western officials believe is critical to defeating the insurgency and creating political stability.

It is also unlikely that drug interdiction programs will be successful if the miserable failure of American efforts to reduce the flow of cocaine from Colombia to the US is any indicator.

The best way for American forces to defeat the Taliban insurgency is to protect the population from the militants and increase the size and competency of the Afghan security forces.  Hopefully, the Afghan army and police will be able to bear the full burden of defending their country within the next decade.

Fight Breaks Out in South Korean Parliament

July 22, 2009

Earlier today, a fight broke out in South Korea’s parliament over a media reform bill that would loosen restrictions on ownership of television networks.  Opposition parties attempted to block legislators from the ruling National Party from entering the assembly room by stacking furniture near the entrance to the chamber.  National Party members managed to overcome the obstacles and enter the room, where they successfully passed the bills and precipitated a melee.  Injuries were reported and one woman was taken to the hospital.

This is not the first time that legislative contoversy has resulted in violence among South Korean parliamentarians.  Last year, opposition party members pounded their way into a committee room with sledgehammers in an effort to prevent the ruling party from drafting a bill to ratify a free trade agreement with the US.

Major confrontation is much more prevalent in legislative assemblies in many foreign countries than it is in the American Congress.  Multiple fights have occured in South Korea.  Earlier this year, there was a physical clash between lawmakers in Malaysia.  Scuffles also broke out in Japan and India last year.  In 2007, Turkish lawmakers got in a fistfight, and a Ukrainian politician was attacked by a member of a rival party after complaining about the vote for prime minister.  In 2006, a fight broke out in the Afghan legislature and violence occured in the Iraqi parliament over a politician’s ringtone on her cell phone.  In 2003,  Venezuelan assemblymen came to blows.  These are just a few examples of literal legislative fights.

There have been no serious physical altercations in the US Congress since the 19th century.  The most infamous one occured in the 1850s, when Rep. Preston Brooks beat Sen. Charles Sumner with a cane over the issue of slavery and almost killed him.