Posted on 28-02-2011
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

As Muammar Gaddafi digs in for his final stand, mockery of the brutal dictator is spreading across the web.  A couple of samples are below:

  • The clip below “Zenga Zenga” by Israeli musician Noy Alooshe mocks the dictator’s speech last week.  The video has garnered over 1.6 million views and is a hit in the Arab world.  Using Autotune to turn an excerpt of his speech to song the dictator promises that he will clean Libya “inch by inch, house by house, room by room, alley by alley.”  At the edges bikini clad women gyrate to the music.  The Israeli origins of the video have not prevented it from becoming a hit in the Arab world.

Enjoy…

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Posted on 28-02-2011
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Pervez Hoodbhoy has this pessimistic take on the perils of a nuclear-armed failing Pakistani state.  For all the opprobrium it received for the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan has still not brought the attack planners to justice or commenced dismantling its terror infrastructure.  Incredibly the bankrupt Pakistani state appears to be betting all its chips on the nuclear shield.  So a state which survives on financial aid is risking an arms race with its larger and stronger neighbor that will make its fragile condition even worse.

Hoodbhoy is probably right in that another attack on India is only a matter of time.  How will India then react to the rogue state on its western border?  Indians have noted that the Bush doctrine allowed the United States to invade Afghanistan, but the United States limits the Indian response to its terrorism sponsoring neighbor.  This perpetuates the Pakistani faith in its nuclear deterrent as a shield for any foreign misadventures.

It must be noted that the second and less appreciated part of Pakistan’s shield will eventually disappear.  The US will get out of Afghanistan and will no longer need Pakistan as a supply route for its troops.  Similar to 1989, it will be far easier for Washington to cut Pakistan loose after it withdraws from Afghanistan.  With China already sponsoring North Korea and Burma, will it want the Pakistani basket case in its lap?  Given its size, location and the size of its nuclear arsenal, the collapse of Pakistan will be a far greater geopolitical nightmare than the fall of the rickety regime in Pyongyang.

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Posted on 25-02-2011
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

I posted earlier in the week that Gaddafi’s Latin American friends other than Daniel Ortega were not sticking their necks out for him.  The silence of the garrulous Chavez was particularly unusual.  The Caudillo finally broke his silence a few hours ago on twitter by embracing Fidel Castro’s theory that this was an American plot to invade Libya.  Tweet below:


Vamos Canciller Nicolás: dales otra lección a esa ultraderecha pitiyanqui! Viva Libia y su Independencia! Kadafi enfrenta una guerra civil!!less than a minute ago via Twitter for BlackBerry®

The tweet translates as follows: “Minister Nicolás [Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro]: Teach the far right yankee lovers” a lesson! Long live Libya and its Independence! Gaddafi is facing a civil war!”

Some context:  “pitiyanqui” literally translates to little Yankee.  It is an insult Chavez created to mock opponents he deemed to be Yankee lovers.  The tweet followed a statement by Maduro echoing Castro’s theory that the United States was creating a movement to topple Gaddafi.

Even a blowhard like Chavez cannot bring himself to openly support Gaddafi like Nicaragua’s Ortega did.  So he wraps himself in his reflexive anti-Americanism to try to mask his support for Gaddafi. Kinda pathetic.

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Posted on 24-02-2011
Filed Under (Politics) by Rashtrakut

I have little respect for the intelligence of many legislators, but some of the legislation that has been introduced in the last couple of months is truly breathtaking.

It started with anti-abortion Republicans in Congress trying to limit the Federal funding of abortions by attempting to redefine rape.  Then, a legislator in South Dakota introduced a fetus protection bill so loosely drafted that it could have allowed a pregnant woman’s immediate family to kill anyone (including doctors) who tried to provide that woman an abortion with her permission.  Thankfully the legislator saw the dangers of legalizing homicide of doctors performing still legal acts and withdrew the bill.  Undaunted a Nebraska legislator has introduced a similar bill that will grant such justifiable homicide rights to any third party vigilante.

Then you have Republican legislators in states like Montana discovering their inner John C. Calhoun and trying to pass nullification statues.

But this one takes the cake and is truly beyond belief.  Georgia State Rep. Bobby Franklin has introduced a bill that would make women who miscarry felons unless they can prove that there was “no human involvement whatsoever in the causation” of their miscarriage.  Such a felony could be punishable by death.  So much for innocent until proven guilty.  Even the infamously misogynistic Taliban never dreamed up such an obscenity.

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Posted on 24-02-2011
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Robert Fisk of the Independent files this report.  Given the regime’s threats against journalists, hope he stays safe.  Excerpt below:

There is little food in Tripoli, and over the city there fell a blanket of drab, sullen rain. It guttered onto an empty Green Square and down the Italianate streets of the old capital of Tripolitania. But there were no tanks, no armoured personnel carriers, no soldiers, not a fighter plane in the air; just a few police and elderly men and women walking the pavements – a numbed populace. Sadly for the West and for the people of the free city of Benghazi, Libya’s capital appeared as quiet as any dictator would wish.

But this is an illusion. Petrol and food prices have trebled; entire towns outside Tripoli have been torn apart by fighting between pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces. In the suburbs of the city, especially in the Noufreen district, militias fought for 24 hours on Sunday with machine guns and pistols, a battle the Gadaffi forces won. In the end, the exodus of expatriates will do far more than street warfare to bring down the regime.

I was told that at least 30,000 Turks, who make up the bulk of the Libyan construction and engineering industry, have now fled the capital, along with tens of thousands of other foreign workers. On my own aircraft out of Tripoli, an evacuation flight to Europe, there were Polish, German, Japanese and Italian businessmen, all of whom told me they had closed down major companies in the past week. Worse still for Gaddafi, the oil, chemical and uranium fields of Libya lie to the south of “liberated” Benghazi. Gaddafi’s hungry capital controls only water resources, so a temporary division of Libya, which may have entered Gaddafi’s mind, would not be sustainable. Libyans and expatriates I spoke to yesterday said they thought he was clinically insane, but they expressed more anger at his son, Saif al-Islam. “We thought Saif was the new light, the ‘liberal'”, a Libyan businessman sad to me. “Now we realise he is crazier and more cruel than his father.”

If he cannot feed his mercenaries, time is running out for Gaddafi.  Time for the world to start freezing his assets.

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Posted on 24-02-2011
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

The beleaguered Muammar Gaddafi was expected to appear on state TV to deliver his latest rant.  But instead of appearing live he called in the latest paranoid delusions.  Even though he appears to have locked down Tripoli, the dictator’s failure to make a live appearance makes it seem he is afraid to appear in public.  Video below:

Also worth seeing is this survey by Vanity Fair of Gaddafi through the years in full sartorial splendor.  He will not be missed, but Gaddafi’s fall will make state summits really drab.

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Posted on 23-02-2011
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men.
–    Roman Emperor Septimius Severus to his sons just before his death.

Keeping your soldiers happy and loyal has been the surest way to a ruler’s survival since antiquity.  The Roman Republic ultimately collapsed because the the oligarchs in the Senate could not control the loyalty of the troops in the field.  When rulers like the Byzantine Emperor Michael VI forgot this maxim (on the advice of his bureaucratic cabal the emperor publicly humiliated his generals) the military coup and fall promptly followed.

In most of today’s dictatorships the armed forces occupy a favored position.  Business contracts are steered towards the generals.  The troops are showered with generous fringe benefits not available to the general populace.  Above all, since an army “marches on its stomach” it never ever starves.

It appears that the crumbling North Korean regime is losing the ability to feed its soldiers.  People have noted that decades of starvation has stunted the growth of North Koreans – who are now markedly smaller than their South Korean kin.  Now it appears that North Korea has had to lower the height requirements for military recruits who still remain malnourished.  Were he alive today, Prussia’s King Frederick William I would have shuddered at the sight of North Korea’s diminutive and underfed soldiers.

Which begs the question posted above.  At what point do hunger pangs (and the worse experience of their families) trump the decades of brainwashing North Korea’s soldiers have undergone?  Starvation helped speed along the German collapse in World War I which toppled the Kaiser.  Will the same occur in the Hermit Kingdom?  And what will be the spark that triggers the uprising to sweep aside North Korea’s obese rulers?

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Posted on 23-02-2011
Filed Under (Politics) by Rashtrakut

Alaska’s half-term quitter is having a rough year.  First the panicky Republican establishment worried that she might actually win the nomination started waking up to her lack of curiosity, temperament and qualifications for the job.  Then after taking heat in the aftermath of the Arizona shootings she botched an opportunity to engender sympathy (and look presidential) with a thin skinned aggressive response.  Her poll numbers are sinking in the early Republican primary states and her media strategy to prevent her 15 minutes of fame from running out caused the snarky Wonkette blog to run the headline: “Desperate Sarah Palin Hinting Hard She’s Running For President.”  Now comes a tell all book from a former aide who claims he has access to reams of emails.  Then comes the even more damaging hit (again from Wonkette) that Sarah Palin may have a second Facebook account to praise Palin on her official Facebook account.  I have no doubt of Palin’s narcissism, but can she really be this pathetic?  For the record Palin has denied having a second Facebook account (and some doubt the denial).

This was grist to the mill for MSNBC’s Chris Matthews (no Sarah Palin fan) and the quote for the title of this post comes from Cynthia Tucker in the video below:

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Posted on 22-02-2011
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Drowned out by the tumult in the Middle East, is the news of the crumbling North Korean autocracy.  The rogue regime has spent the last few months begging for food.  However, with its track record of diverting aid to the military, donor states are unwilling to prop up a crumbling regime.

North Korea’s starving population increasingly appears willing to protest conditions in the Stalinist state.  Even more unsettling for the regime is the willingness of the most brainwashed citizenry in the world to mock its leaders.  A few months ago the ailing Dear Leader commenced preparations for the eventual succession of his 28 year old son Kim Jong-un.  Even though state media started the usual absurd propaganda to buttress the thin resume of one of the few pudgy young men left in the country, the public appears to have greeted the new heir with derision.

A popular children’s song “Three Bears” about a cute bear family with a chubby papa bear, a slim mommy bear and a cute baby bear in a house was modified to mock the Kims:

Three bears in a house, pocketing everything; grandpa bear, papa bear and baby bear.  Grandpa Bear is fat, Papa Bear is fat, too, and Baby Bear is a doofus.

Meanwhile the cash starved regime is struggling to provide its people and elite with the usual bribes and gifts distributed to mark Kim Jong-il’s birthday.  Starved of cash, food and oil the military capacity of its million strong army is an open question.  Even with its diminished capacity, North Korea is still as unpredictable and dangerous as ever.

However, its ability to manage a second dynastic succession is in doubt.  Kim Jon-un faces a dynastic rival – his older, fatter and discredited brother Kim Jong-nam.  From his Chinese exile Jong-nam has criticized the planned succession.  There are rumors about his connection with North Korea’s benefactor China, who has reason to be irritated with the ruling Kims.  However, it is not clear that Jong-nam plans to give up his comfortable subsidized hedonistic lifestyle to rule a crumbling impoverished failed state.

The world is frighteningly unprepared for a North Korean collapse.  China which does not want a flood of refugees across the Yalu continues to prop up the regime.  It may also not want to share a border with a united and democratic Korea.  South Korea (particularly its left) parrots the cause of eventual unification but may not want to inherit or pay for such a basket case.  The cost of Korean reunification will dwarf the cost of unifying Germany.  With no media access into the country, it is hard to estimate when North Korea will reach its tipping point.

So for now we wait and watch as the Hermit kingdom crumbles and starves.

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Posted on 22-02-2011
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

With his back to the wall, his army crumbling and parts of his navy defecting to Malta, Muammar Gaddafi has lashed out at his people with little restraint.  This presents his pals abroad with a dilemma.  After providing an open embrace to Libya’s leader for the last decade, what do they do when he resorts to large scale bloodletting.

Other than the usual pro-forma comment accusing the US of hypocrisy in Egypt and plotting to take over that country, Venezuela’s caudillo has been uncharacteristically quiet.  He cannot be happy at the repeated rumors (angrily shot down by both sides) that Gaddafi fled to his country (or the ease with which people like me made the assumption).

But two of his ideological comrades have finally spoken out.  Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega called Gaddafi to express support.  The former Sandinista dictator had no words of sympathy for a populace assaulted by its own head of state.

Fidel Castro appears to have been a bit more circumspect, largely focusing on the alleged upcoming NATO invasion of the country. He avoided taking a position on the atrocities based on the difficulty of deciphering the news coming out of Libya thanks to Gaddafi’s military blackout.  Much easier to fall back on anti-American paranoia than condemning a dictator who just went on state TV promising to kill his countrymen.

Bolivia’s Evo Morales has come closest to a critique of his former buddy by issuing a pro forma statement of concern for the loss of life.

The dilemma facing Gaddafi’s Latin American friends highlights the risk of embracing rogues merely because they are enemies of your real or perceived enemies.  For countries that spend so much time criticizing the United States, it is a pity they did not learn from the harm to America’s reputation abroad for supporting apartheid South Africa, Zaire’s Mobotu Sese Seko and other third world dictators under the banner of anti-communism.  It is a lesson that Hugo Chavez, who actively seeks out the embrace of despots, and his acolytes need to learn.

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Posted on 22-02-2011
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

After a quixotic appearance on state TV yesterday night with his umbrella (clip in post below), the beleaguered Muammar Gaddafi made an appearance on state TV for a long rambling paranoid harangue that went on for over an hour.  The speech contained many ominous overtones as he promised to kill the “drugged” youth who rose in revolt against him.

Some of the quotes compiled by Al-Jazeera are listed below:

Muammar Gaddafi is not the president, he is the leader of the revolution. He has nothing to lose. Revolution means sacrifice until the very end of your life
Muammar Gaddafi is not a normal person that you can poison.. or lead a revolution against
I will fight until the last drop of blood with the people behind me
I haven’t even started giving the orders to use bullets – any use of force against authority of state will be sentenced to death

Also below is a video of a portion of the harangue.

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The die is now cast.  Gaddafi will fight to the bitter end.  May that be soon.

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Posted on 22-02-2011
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

The slide is complete.  Libya is now in civil war as Muammar Gaddafi pulls out all the stops in desperate attempts to hold on to power.  The Libyan air force has been ordered to strafe the country’s two largest cities and a few pilots defected by flying off to Malta.  Earlier today there were reports of Libyan navy ships opening fire on Tripoli.  Its been a long time since a ruler indiscriminately strafed his own capital from the air (Gaddafi’s son claimed they were targeting ammunition depots) or the sea, let alone had such a gambit keep him in power.  Later in the day came a declaration from some Libyan officers asking their troops to switch sides.  Whether this will have any effect is still unclear.

Libya’s diplomatic outposts appear to think that the die is cast.  From New York to New Delhi the regime’s ambassadors are turning in their papers refusing to obey the diktats of a ruler willing to massacre his own people on a scale not seen since Tiananmen or perhaps even since Syria’s Hafez Assad blasted his own city of Hama (mention must be given to the Soviet pulverizing of Grozny, though the Chechens at the time were in open revolt and would have angrily denied suggestions that they were part of Russia).

On Monday, Khaled Al Ga’aeem, under-secretary of Libya’s foreign ministry, phoned Al Jazeera to create a Baghdad Bob moment in stating all was well in Tripoli.  Video below:

Also on Monday night, Gaddafi himself made a very brief and odd appearance on state TV with his umbrella to deny that he had fled Tripoli for the welcoming embrace of his buddy Hugo Chavez.  Video below:

The usually impotent UN Security Council is expected to huddle behind closed doors on Tuesday to figure out an international response to the situation.  Ironically, Libya is currently on the Security Council but no longer has any lackeys in New York willing to obey the beleaguered Gaddafi.  Other than the usual platitudes, travel bans and sanctions there are two things that the UN could do.  One is direct military involvement.  The obvious candidate for such an action would be Egypt’s bloated but well equipped army.  I think that outcome is unlikely.  The other would be to declare a no fly zone over Benghazi and Tripoli that would restrict Gaddafi’s ability to draw blood.  Whether China (which is actively censoring news of Middle East unrest) or Putin’s Russia will allow such action remains to be seen.

It is hard to imagine Gaddafi surviving this revolt.  If by some miracle he does wade through rivers of blood to hold on to power, his regime would revert to North Korea type pariah status.  Having tasted the lures of international acceptability the last few years, would Gaddafi’s henchmen be willing to put up with this?

If the insurrection does succeed, Libya is likely still headed for turmoil.  United by the Italian conquest of the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica in 1912, Libya like Iraq (the fusion of the Ottoman provinces of Basra, Mosul and Baghdad) is very much an artificial creation of the colonial era.

Ottoman provinces that make up modern Libya

Tribal loyalties are still paramount and Gaddafi’s long rule has largely been a tribal balancing act instead of an exercise in nation building.  One of the few things that were probably accurate in Gaddafi’s son’s incoherent rant yesterday is that a post-Gaddafi civil war cannot be ruled out.

Libya's ethnic quilt

Post Gaddafi Libya will have to devise means to balance the interests of its tribes and ethnicities without Gaddafi’s brutality and cronyism.  The oil hungry countries of the world looking to harvest Libya’s oil wealth will be watching this exercise intently.  But before we can flesh out the post Gaddafi scenarios, the tyrant still has to fall.

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Posted on 20-02-2011
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

The regime of the longest ruling non-royal in the world is crumbling and the amount of blood likely to be spilled in its death throes should easily surpass that shed so far in the other Arab states.  Used to pariah status in the west, Muammar Gaddafi was always unlikely to bow to international pressure of the type that cowed Baharain’s al-Khalifas.  True to form, his regime reacted to protests this week with bullets.  With limited media and internet access, distinguishing fact from fiction in Libya is hard.  But it does appear that the regime’s forces shot to kill and the death toll was high.

And then things appear to have spiraled out of Gaddafi’s control.  Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Libya is still a tribal society.  Gaddafi’s tribal balancing act appears to have collapsed when he ordered his troops to open fire.  Reports indicate that parts of his army switched sides enabling insurgents to seize control of Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, and the fighting has now spread to Gaddafi’s home turf of Tripoli.  The Warfala tribe, one of Libya’s largest, may have turned on Gaddafi as well.

The cornered dictator sent the respectable face of his regime, his son Saif, on state television to broadcast paranoid stories of foreign attempts to split Libya and the impending civil war.  That civil war appears to have already begun.  There may be no Saudi (or as rumored Venezuelan) exile for Libya’s long time autocrat.  He has indicated that he will fight to the “last man standing.”

Western countries who allowed the lure of Libya’s oil reserves to seduce them into rehabilitating Gaddafi can only sit and watch as this bloody denouement plays itself out.  The fall of Gaddafi would be truly momentous and will cause more and more Arab autocrats to doubt the fealty of their armies.  A sign of the times is a letter sent by senior commanders of Iran’s revolutionary guard to their commanding officer promising not to open fire on demonstrators.  If true, and if it holds up, Iran’s rulers may soon be faced with a popular revolution instead of the reformation sought by the Green Revolution two years ago.  In the latest bout of Iranian protests, the vitriol is increasingly directed at the true leader of Iran’s autocracy, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, instead of the President Ahmadinejad.

Protests also appear to have spread to Morocco.  The still popular King Mohammed VI once allegedly indicated that he wished to emulate Spain’s democracy bringing King Juan Carlos rather than his own father King Hassan II.  While Morocco may have eased up on the worst excesses of Hassan’s reign, it is time for the still absolute monarch to emulate his political idol more completely.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s worried rulers have promised to support the al-Khalifas of Bahrain.  The nature of that support is still unclear and for now Bahrain appears to have walked back from the brink.

With the Middle East convulsing, it will be interesting to see if the virus of unrest casts a wider web.  China’s rulers are on edge and Venezuela’s caudillo appears to be uncharacteristically quiet.  The next wobbly domino should emerge soon.

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Posted on 19-02-2011
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

Looking at the protests in Wisconsin (funny how it is fine to kick public employees in the butt for a deficit shortfall, but an allegedly frugal governor can still make the situation worse via tax cuts to the his pet interest groups…oh yeah…evidently tax cuts don’t contribute to deficits), got me thinking about what I felt about unions.

Generally my feelings are largely negative.  Coming from an upper middle class background where almost everybody I know is on the side of management I was not reared in pro-union lore.  Then there is the downside of politically militant trade unions, the frankly crappy record of unions on race and gender issues, the ease by which they were suborned by organized crime and how some unions became sinecures for corrupt fat cats.  Add to that the inefficiency unions can cause, notably in the auto industry.  Friends who have had the misfortune of working with UAW have regaled me with rants about the difficulty of working with the union.

But unions did not arise in a vacuum.  If employers had treated workers fairly and provided safe working conditions, unions may have been cut off at birth (for that matter we would not have needed regulations like OSHA).  Also as public company CEOs have shown in the last decade that there is no limit for their greed, it has become harder for me to begrudge a man for making a middle class wage  based on the objections of a multi-millionaire.

Yet my feelings on the subject are still mixed.  It is in essence the age old problem of worker safety and fair benefits versus efficiency and competitiveness.  How to find the balance will depend on your own personal experiences and prejudices.  Ezra Klein of the Washington Post asked his readers who belonged to a union to post on their experiences.  Since the management perspective dominates the media narrative in recent years, it can be useful to read the other side.  This is obviously not a representative sampling (and there are a few anti-union posts), but still makes an interesting read.  One that stuck out to me is quoted below:

When I was a little younger I had the privilege of working for UPS and Fed Ex at the same time. Fed Ex will fire you if they find out that you work for UPS, but they never did. UPS is of course a union job (Teamsters) and Fed Ex is not. The difference was night and day.

At UPS I got a decent hourly wage, thousands of dollars yearly as a tuition benefit, good health insurance, and a pension. At Fed Ex I got the same hourly wage (a little bit more to be honest) and jack squat for benefits (literally nothing).

At UPS I got treated with a lot of respect, even though I was just a dockworker. If I felt sick or had something else I needed to attend to, I’d give the office a call and they wouldn’t even ask me why I was missing work. They just told me to do what I needed to do. At Fed Ex calling in sick was treated like treachery. They let you know that you were an at-will employee and treated you like it.

And safety? Holy toledo. When I got hired at UPS they put me through a week of classes where they taught me proper lifting practices, how to safely and efficiently perform virtually every task I could possibly be asked to do, how to deal with hazardous materials, etc. When I showed up at Fed Ex they pointed to a trailer and said “empty it”. They didn’t even bother to give me the customary “don’t lift with your back”. UPS performed routine safe practices evaluations where a supervisor would watch you working for a little bit and give advice on how you could be safer and less likely to injure yourself. Fed Ex didn’t bother. I ended up teaching proper lifting mechanics to a lot of guys I worked with there simply because I was worried about their health. Fed Ex didn’t give a rat’s ass if they blew out their backs, but I kind of liked the guys I worked with so I did what I could.

Twice while I was working at Fed Ex I nearly got crushed by heavy equipment due to the incompetence of the supervisors there. Both times I saved myself with a little running dive but it was close. The accidents were easily preventable but nobody cared and so they kept happening. After the second near-miss I didn’t show up for work the next day and didn’t bother to come back.

I don’t work at UPS or Fed Ex anymore. I’ve got a good union job in a different line of work these days (thank the Lord for college!), but I know what difference a good union makes

With rising economic uncertainty, stagnant middle class incomes, exploding salaries for upper management and corporations cutting benefits at a time of rising profits we could face some labor unrest in coming years.  Whether that leads to a revival of labor unions is still an open question.

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Posted on 19-02-2011
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

There may yet be hope for Bahrain.  The Persian Gulf kingdom ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty has been rocked by protests in recent days from its Shiite majority underclass.  King Hamad then responded to peaceful protests by sending in the goons and using helicopters to strafe mourners at funerals.

And now the police have been abruptly withdrawn.  Pearl Square in downtown Manama, the heart of the protests like Tahrir Square in Cairo, now belongs to the protesters.

Like many if the Middle East dictatorships the al-Khalifas appear to have been split among the hardliners (led by the King’s uncle and long time Prime Minister) and the moderates (led by the crown prince and perhaps the King).  The tensions between the two camps were documented by the WikiLeaks cables.  Now the balance seems to have veered sharply towards the moderates, possibly helped along by admonishments from President Obama.

If the good news holds it appears that the virus of democracy is proving harder to suppress than previously thought.  The inbred royals ruling Bahrain’s neighbors must be looking at this in alarm.  People tend to discount the value of social networks in the recent bout of Arab unrest.  Personally, I think YouTube deserves far more credit.  Without the horrifying videos of police brutality, it is unlikely that Bahrain’s hardliners (who still value their ability to be integrated into world society) would have backed down so quickly.  The absence of such videos in Libya, Syria and Saudi Arabia (no to mention the greater willingness of those despots to shed blood) poses a bigger challenge to regime change in those countries.

Next up Algeria?  Yemen?  Who knows….we live in interesting times.

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Posted on 14-02-2011
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

The fall of the Pharaoh raises the question whether the Middle East tumult will subside, or if this is the beginning of an avalanche not seen since Eastern Europe in 1989. While it is easy to get carried away, regime change in Tunis and Cairo occurred because the men with the guns did not act against the protesters. As Iran showed a couple of years back, unfortunately that is not always true. When the generals obey their masters and when the grunts obey the generals, democratic hopes come to a bloody end.

It is also still not clear whether Tunis and Cairo were soft coups, where the public face of the regime changed but little else did. However, some local despots do need to be more scared than others.  On cue the days of rage have commenced in three of the most vulnerable autocracies in the middle east.

  • Iran – When Egypt erupted, the mullahs hypocritically cheered the right of Egyptians to protest.   They should have known that their restive masses were looking at Cairo and drawing encouragement.  Now the embers of the Green Revolution are reigniting.  The opposition leaders are already in preventive house arrest and the riot police are cracking skulls.
  • Algeria – Algeria was the rare Arab country that held free elections in the early 1990s.  When it appeared the Islamists won, the military quashed the results (taking their cues from the Burmese junta who made the similar error of not rigging their elections a couple of years before).  The next few years saw a brutal and bloody civil war.  Though violence died down the last few years, unrest has always simmered underneath.  Now it has erupted.
  • Bahrain – The Gulf monarchy’s presence in this list may seem unusual to people who do not follow the Middle East, but the Sunni monarchy ruling a 70% Shiite population has had periodic bouts of unrest.  After promising to respect peaceful rallies, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has opted for bullets.  Warning:  Violent video below.

The protests in all three countries already highlight one huge difference with Tunisia and Egypt.  These autocracies are willing to spill blood.  The men with guns and batons will have to refuse to take orders for these tyrants to fall or give way.  The list above is also not exhaustive.  Yemen, Jordan, Sudan and to a lesser extent Syria (where you have to frankly be foolhardy to publicly protest) have faced protests.  Then there is the longest ruling autocrat in the region who has seen his fellow dictators on either side of his country fall.  The recent cables leaked by Wikileaks revel how the 41 year regime of Muammar Gadaffi has been tarnished by his licentious progeny.  Even Libya may be facing the unthinkable, public protests.

It is very likely that no more dominoes will fall this go around, but the yearnings for freedom and respect on the Arab street will be harder to bottle up again.  And if one can dream, if Egypt actually manages to create a constitutional democracy the clock will start running out for the remaining autocracies in the region.  The 1990s saw the demise of assorted military juntas in Latin America.  Even though the Chavezs and Ortegas are threatening democracy in the region, by and large military rule is passe in the region.  Lets hope this decade sees similar change from the Maghreb to the Fertile Crescent, and beyond.

As a final note, do notice how quiet the murderous thugs of Al-Qaeda have been at the sight of the Pharaoh being toppled without suicide bombers.

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Posted on 11-02-2011
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

Now for something lighter and inspirational. Some of you may have already heard of this story. Six sledgehammer wielding robbers hammering away at the window of a Northampton jewelers store got the shock of their lives when an enraged 71 year old pensioner came trotting up and started hitting them with her handbag. This inspired bystanders (like the bloke taking the video) to step in and assist her foiling the robbery. Needless to say Ann Timson is now a national heroine. And the twerps she foiled will have a tough time living this down in the joint. Video below:

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Posted on 11-02-2011
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Talk about timing…barely 30 minutes after blogging about Mubarak refusing to go, the tired old dictator leaves. An inspiring moment for Egypt and the World. Hopefully this does not signify an attempt to perpetuate the Nasserite military dictatorship. Suleiman can help by keeping his promise to repeal the 30 year emergency law and not running for reelection. May the Ayatollahs be next.

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Posted on 11-02-2011
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

That was anti-climactic.  With Egypt convulsing from the after-shocks from the Maghreb triggered by the self-immolation of a frustrated Tunisian fruit seller, rumors of Hosni Mubarak’s impending departure spread rapidly.  And then Mubarak doused cold water on those hopes with a vague rambling speech (blaming foreign influences) announcing that he was delegating unspecified powers to his man Friday, new Vice President Omar Suleiman.  The crowd’s displeasure is evident in the video below, particularly at the 12:30 mark where Mubarak tries to identify himself with the young people out in the streets.

Suleiman on whom the Obama administration has placed its wishful hopes for a transition to democracy the proceeded to rile the crowd by asking the protesters to go home.  The Egyptian army which has played a two faced role in this crisis has endorsed Mubarak’s plan, and Mubarak does seem to have handed some powers over to Suleiman.

So what now?  Nobody knows.  The White House was evidently blindsided by Mubarak’s defiance and has limited leverage on the situation.  Ultimately this is a crisis that must be resolved by the Egyptians.  Washington’s efforts should be focussed on preventing the army from initiating the type of bloody crackdown that crushed Iran’s Green Revolution two years ago.

With no obvious opposition candidate in the wings, Egypt faces a period of prolonged uncertainty and probably instability. A big concern in Egypt is a silent military coup, of the type that may have overcome Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution.   Suleiman is deeply tied to Mubarak’s repressive regime and in his 70s is unlikely to be a long term solution in any case.

Concerns have been raised that elections could result in the Muslim Brotherhood to power.  If the United States truly believes its pretensions of being the “defender of the free world”, it needs to come to grips with the reality that democracy can result in unfriendly governments.  For too long Washington has supported autocrats like Mubarak who provided “stability” in the form of stagnation and decay of their countries institutions, economies and societies.  After some hesitancy the Obama administration seems to be veering towards support for a democratic transition.  Here’s hoping that the Egyptians can pull it off (and by their example reignite Iran’s Green Revolution).

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Posted on 07-02-2011
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

It is time to update the world map.  As expected South Sudan voted overwhelmingly to secede from the largely Muslim and Arab northern part of the country.  With Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir promising to respect the results, fears of a North-South civil war have receded.

The extremely impoverished new nation (whose name has not been formalized) faces a daunting task ahead.  It is riven with feuds, has almost no infrastructure and the desire to be free from Khartoum appears to have been the only glue that held its warring factions together.  It is blessed and cursed with an abundance of natural resources (and oil).  Mineral wealth has generally been the bane of developing countries.  Getting it out of the ground creates few jobs but generates a lot of revenue for venal kleptocrats to siphon into Swiss bank accounts.   Revenue sharing arrangements with the North have to still be negotiated and Khartoum will be eager to exploit any rifts that appear.

The creation of South Sudan could provide added impetus to secessionist movements across Africa.  The African Union has avoided opening up the Pandora’s box of redrawing colonial borders.  The sole exception to the rule, Eritrea could claim that it had been a separate Italian colony before being annexed by Ethiopia after World War II.  Now the genie is out of the bottle and secessionist claims in places like (oil rich) Southern Nigeria could re-emerge.

Maybe my pessimism is unjustified.  Having midwifed the creation of the new country (with the active encouragement of right-wing evangelical groups) it is likely that the United States will remain involved in the region and discourage mischief.  Equally or more likely the combination of a weak resource rich state surrounded by unscrupulous resource poor neighbors could result in another Congo.

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