Monday, 26 September 2011

The Putin-ator - Did you ever doubt 'he'd be back'?

It's been a while. In fact, it's fair to say that if this blog were a residence, the garden would be overgrown, there'd be countless bottles of milk by the front door and the social services would have dropped by to make sure someone hadn't passed away.
But I've returned to put some word down, nevertheless.
And in comparible Terminator sytle, incumbent Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin has confirmed that he has accepted a proposal to run for a return to the Kremlin, for a third time, in March 2012.
Did you ever doubt that 'he'd be back'?
Recent constitutional amendments mean that Putin would be eligible to serve back-to-back six-year Presidential terms and he is thus positioned to remain in power until 2024, by which point he would be 71.
Given the strongman’s hold on the political process in Russia, where he is polled as the country’s most popular politician, the result is uncertain only in lacking the required formalities.
Indeed, if you can find a bookmaker that will give you favourable odds on the Russian Federation waiting at lest six years before it sees a fourth President, take them up on it.
Despite efforts to keep interested parties guessing, the move should come as no surprise.
Putin and Medvedev alike have claimed that decisions were made some years ago regarding who should hold which position in government come 2012 and considering that Medvedev was hand-picked by Putin as his successor in 2008, it has long since been conventional wisdom that the former was simply keeping the door ajar until the latter was legally entitled to return.
Some observers have claimed that the move will be little more than symbolic since Medvedev has been guilty of playing ‘Robin to Putin’s Batman’ throughout his tenure anyway, as infamously described by US officials in wikileaked cables.
But critics are less optimistic citing economic stagnation, increased corruption and a more prevalent police state as likely consequences of the return of Putin’s ‘managed democracy’.
Moreover, it is likely that Russian-foreign relations will hit something of a trough.
In particular, arms-control and trade agreements will likely suffer set-backs as Russia’s membership of the WTO and its compliance with US-led missile defence systems, designed to guard against the Iranian threat, are now at risk.
Putin has been vocal on the latter point in particular, indicating that the dispute over what kind of missile-defence system should be installed – whether that be a NATO-Russian joint command and control structure or Washington’s preferred coordinated system option – would be critical in proving Obama’s sincerity in his stated desire to reset relations with Moscow.
With the ostensible ‘Arab Spring’ calling Israel’s security into question, any further delay on the Iranian missile defence system could prove a diplomatic headache for Washington. But Putin is unlikely to cede ground while he suspects Russia’s own nuclear deterrent to be at risk.
Talk of Putin's rather prolonged reign becoming a parody of Brezhnev’s Soviet rule is not too far wide of the mark; he is certain to be on the front row of Russian politics for some time to come.
Indeed, as Andrew Osborn has highlighted over at The Telegraph, come 2024 Putin may still be as fresh in appearance as he is in presence. Though he won't be the first head of state that begins to look like Jackie Stallone.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

When did "bad" become good? Britain and it's degenerate youth.

Britain today is infested with a youth culture that, by the majority’s standards, is politically detached and socially alien.

I refer, of course, to the London riots. But don’t allow yourself to think that this is a new phenomenon. The chaos we have witnessed over the past nights as the sun has dipped in London -- and now further afield -- goes far beyond this particular episode and pervades the lives of Britons every day.

It may be too soon to conduct a full post-mortem of the riots and of the fate of the youths who are responsible, but making observations on the general demise of their social health is all too possible. 

It has been said that the riots are political in nature; that today's underprivileged youth are disillusioned with the options provided.

Red Ken has pointed to government cuts which allegedly came “too deep and too soon” as a cause for the social divide. On a similar tack, the insufferable Diane Abbott took the opportunity to score politically, lingering on Haringey’s slashed budget as a cause for distaste. Some have even gone as far as to suggest that the riots are simply about a ghostly demographic -- ignored by society for so long -- claiming power, if only for several nights.

I’ll pull no punches; such analyses are not only dangerous but flattering to the brutish thugs who are responsible and morally abhorrent.

In comparison to the youth generation of the Sixties, for example, rich in political activism when faced with the Vietnam War, sections of today's youth are not-far-off politically dead. It is rare to hear political chit-chat in parks or on street corners; rarer still to learn of progressive, widespread movements. 

Instead, wide sections of today's youth are concerned more with strict localities; with post-code warfare, quasi-tribal gangs and street credibility.

These attitudes arose long before the coalition's cuts and, looking retrospectively, were in play deep into Labour’s reign. There is therefore no justification for attaching an overtly political label to these acts and we must accept that it is no more than opportunistic crime, bred through a degenerate culture which determines "bad" to be "good".

Take a look at this pictorial evidence and fill in the gaps; a stage for political statement, or simply an opportunity for image-crazed youths to get their feet into the newest pair of trainers? I suspect videos of these exploits will soon begin to surface on the YouTube accounts of bragging yobs, in a similar vein to the sickening "happy slap" craze some years ago.

To suggest the violence is a means of claiming power -- a perverse and overgrown cry for help -- is a further misdemeanour of ignorance.

Ask decent citizens in some of London’s most deprived boroughs who holds power locally and I would stack my chips on the likelihood that they’d point to the gun-toting, dangerous-dog-wielding gang members. More likely still, an answer would be less than forthcoming for fear of retribution.

These creatures know power all too well and thrive upon it.

Apologists will point to the pervasive cycle supposedly at play; no education, no jobs, no opportunities, all of which is said to lead to a despondent lifestyle of guns, drugs and physical violence thus making proceedings political.

I should make clear at this point that I don't doubt that being raised in a borough such as Haringey can be a hard-knock-life and I am careful to avoid assumptions that breaking this cycle is easy (though this article should provide inspiration). But have the apologists, and indeed the criminals themselves, not taken the time to observe that vast masses of our nation are, like them, hard up, yet manage to avoid acts of barbarity? Are they not familiar with responsibility?

Surely one’s prospects are better served looking for employment as opposed to wreaking havoc? (Am I to assume, perhaps naively, that this approach has already been well trodden by those out in force last night?)

With this frame of mind, I ran a simple search on, using Tottenham as a reference point. The search yielded 250 jobs in a 15 miles radius, of which there was a healthy balance; from requirements for general handypersons (paying in the region of £10 p/h) through to financial service advisors and retail store managers (paying in the region of £20,000 to £30,000 p/a).

Clearly, 250 vacancies are insufficient for an area the size of North London, even when considered in tandem with various other opportunities advertised elsewhere. But if that figure was somehow multiplied, say through the regeneration of London’s manufacturing industry, would the problem necessarily be solved?

I have my doubts.

Perhaps I am being cynical, but I envisage a larger problem at hand, of shifting mentalities to meet these demands. For many underprivileged youths, swapping a casual, often illicit lifestyle for forty hours of hard graft, week in, week out, is disagreeable with their outlook.

Sadly, for many, it is easier to depend on state hand-outs, supplemented by petty or hard organised crime. What is more, I’m not optimistic that society can change that mentality, at least in the short term.

But looking beyond tomorrow, we have serious structural changes to make as a society.  On the one hand we have a welfare system that has for too long rewarded sheer idleness. On the other, we have bred a culture lacking in discipline and in respect for authority -- from school teachers to the police. Both of these areas require serious rebalancing.

This has to start at a formative age, at home and in schools. Parents need to be tasked with forming and maintaining stronger family units and they must be supported in doing so. We cannot facilitate "welfare queens". Moreover, power must be handed back to the teaching profession and the police force, both of which have long-since had their effectiveness eroded, in large part thanks to political correctness.

Of course, the regeneration of some of our poorest regions – ideally through the attraction of private investment – is a further priority.

But I’m afraid the latter point is frivolous when one considers that on-going events are simply crimes carried out by thugs who seek little more than intimidating reputations and some flashy possessions. For those responsible, the only immediate remedy worthy of mention is the proverbial book thrown swiftly in their direction.

Alas, with a nigh on bankrupt government at the helm, I won't hold my breath.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Media: CSIS Colombia 2020

The Centre for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) recently put together a fascinating conference -- 'Colombia - 2020'.

Check out the morning keynote from the Hon Gabriel Silva (Amb of Colombia to the US). 

CSIS have also uploaded a couple of audio files from the event which make for great listening; hear for yourselves --

Friday, 10 June 2011

Opinion: Obama the floater, destined to sink.

I make no secret of it; I've always had a slight disliking for Barack Obama. 

At first, I think it's fair to say that my dislike for him was unfair.  By that, I mean I was perhaps a little hasty in allowing myself to be irritated by the hype surrounding the President-elect.  To recap on what has been observed countless times before, he was celebrated not for his political talent, but for a whole host of shallow reasons: because of his relatively young age; his good-looks; because he wasn't a stuffy white guy; and even simply because of the fact that he just wasn't George W Bush.  He broke the mould and it drove the crowds wild; worldwide.

Perhaps it's fairer to say then, that my dislike wasn't so much for him, but for those who blindly touted his as-yet-unproven political ability.  I couldn't get on board; I wanted solid policy outlines, but all Obama could offer was broad sweeping rhetoric that was almost entirely focused on the virtue (if you want to see it that way) of being distanced from the "neo-cons".  He was wishy-washy.

I sit here now, as I’m sure many others do, and feel justified in my gut feeling.  Floating from one relationship to the next, Obama seems keen on being friends with everyone, but allies with no one.  A concession here, a flowery speech there; throw in a couple of "special relationship" mentions and perhaps the odd assurance to the Middle and Far East and everyone can be friends, right?  Hmmm.

I think perhaps it’s that characteristic flakiness -- his sheer irresolution -- that has really ground my gears over yesterday’s Falklands debacle.  If you’ve not heard, and can’t be bothered to sift through the OAS document, President Obama has used his “considerable” political judgement to side with the likes of Chávez and Ortega in backing Argentina’s right to hold negotiations with the British over the sovereignty of the Falklands.

What’s to negotiate?!  Nile Gardener makes the argument well in his Telegraph piece, leaving little need for me to regurgitate.  But what I will reaffirm is his pertinent description of the decision as “hugely disappointing”.  How true.  Disregarding the relationship between Britain and the US for the umpteenth time, Obama is left floating between the disappointment of a staunch ally and what is likely no more than the vague pleasure of those who remain committed foes. 

This paltry and frankly rather bizarre concession therefore really does no good for anyone.  Not least, it has left Obama looking the clueless fool once again. 

On this occasion, I'll give the last word to Ed Morrissey who sums the whole charade up perfectly in calling it “an insult to the British, as well as to the actual people on the islands themselves.”

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Announcement: What's Next Venezuela?

My last post -- Time to call Chávez's oil bluff? -- has since been cross-posted by -- a website I intend to work closely with moving forward.

Cyber space is often flooded with a lot of poor information, but for anybody interested in the effects of the Chávez regime in Venezuela, particularly pertaining to private property and the economy, WNVz is a great source that I'd highly recommend.

With a convinient news aggregator service (pulling together the highlights from the likes of the Washington Post, the Miami Herald, Foreign Policy etc) and some original, high quality analysis of its own, I'd suggest making space for WNVz in your daily digest!

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Opinion: Time to call Chávez's oil bluff?

Washington has for some time been constricted in taking a tough stance against Venezuela’s Chávez by the threat it perceives to its security of oil supply. But what if that threat was little more than a bluff?

For many interested parties, upon hearing of the fresh consignment of US sanctions imposed on seven foreign firms (including Petróleos de Venezuela – PdVSA) for their supply of refined petroleum products to Iran, immediate thoughts would have gravitated toward two questions that have been well trodden since: will this halt Iran’s nuclear programme? And, will the sanctions hit PdVSA hard?

The short answer to both questions is a round-about no.

The slightly longer version reads that since Tehran has proved itself adept at circumventing weakly imposed sanctions up until now, it seems unlikely that slapping the wrists of these seven firms will buck that trend. And as for PdVSA, oil exports to the US will continue unaffected as will the activities of its subsidiaries, i.e. Citgo, meaning that business will likely continue as usual, save the newly enforced bans on US government contracts, import-export financing and US export licences -- none of which have particularly interested the Venezuelan oil giant in the recent past anyway.

But this exhibition of relative (though still fairly puny) diplomatic muscle from Washington also kicks up a third and less widely touted question: is now the time to start calling Hugo Chávez’s oil bluff?

In recent years, the firebrand has threatened to diversify Venezuela’s oil away from the US market, principally toward China, in a bid to secure new security of supply; making Washington think twice before dishing out demands and creating a bit of wiggle room in the process. But upon closer inspection, Chávez’s aggressive oil diplomacy is perhaps not as well grounded as he might have us believe.

If truth be told, it is actually the US that is better placed to play hardball. Indeed, one of the most curious aspects of the Washington-Caracas standoff is that while both states undoubtedly depend on the other’s custom, it is in fact Caracas whose dependency is more acute. In 2010, 8.3% of US oil imports arrived from Venezuela -- no small fry -- but in marked contrast, this 8.3% translated to fully 43% of Venezuelan oil exports. It should be clear who stands to take the larger hit.

As for the Chinese alternative, for Beijing to take the Venezuelan market seriously, it would require an astronomical investment in order to bridge the logistical gap, not only in terms of transportation, but also in acquiring the capability to process Venezuela’s characteristically thick crude. And the latter point is a particularly important one since the fungible nature of oil as a commodity is called into question when consumers with the ability to process one’s commodity are in short supply. Couple that economic expense with the inevitable political one attached to any move into the US’ ‘backyard’, long since considered its strategic preserve, and a long term strategic partnership between Caracas and Beijing appears unlikely while the latter has better options in Central Asia.

Short of revenue-sapping, politically-charged, regional energy schemes such as Petrocaribe then, Venezuela really has little room for meaningful diversification away from the US.

Taking stock of this reality is important for US policy makers as it essentially means that a significant departure from the trade status quo between Caracas and Washington would be in the interests of neither party and is therefore unlikely as such. Quite frankly, it pours a bucket of cold water on Chávez’s fiery oil-threat since, with paltry means of pulling the plug on US supply the threat becomes little more than a bluff.

With that room for manoeuvre established, what of Washington’s scope for pressing Chávez harder on the ideological line?

Let’s be clear, slapping a reducer on Chávez will be best achieved democratically. The failed coup of 2002, hastily endorsed by the Bush administration, showed in no uncertain terms that attempts at regime change only serve to fan the flames that have kept Chávez’s popular appeal burning. Hence, the focus in Washington has correctly shifted to sanctions -- the uncertain, yet politically safer middle-ground between austere words and boots on the ground.

There is, of course, a legitimate debate to be had on the utility of sanctions as a foreign policy tool in the first place. Indeed, if the proof of the pudding really is in the eating, then the new round of sanctions go some way to exposing the failures of the original Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA). That said, the newly revised stipulations in relation to PdVSA may be more useful -- as long as they are backed by a suitably aggressive approach moving forward -- in a secondary capacity, by drawing the relationship between Venezuela and Iran back into the international spotlight and providing a new set of red lines against which Caracas can be judged.

Washington needs to maintain this momentum by pushing a harder line (something that has in the past been constrained by the weighty oil millstone) and calling Chávez’s bluff since taking a tougher stance could help to fragment Chávez’s power. To cut a long story short, by forcing the authoritarian to choose between the two driving thrusts of his foreign policy agenda -- the economic pragmatism of oil, and his proclivity for anti-neoliberalism -- Washington can place its foe in a position he’d really rather not be.

Should Caracas take the first option, the US will score an important victory in making a further pariah of Iran, not to mention denting Chávez’s international standing as an anti-Western revolutionary.

And if Chávez opts for the second and probably more likely course, the US would then be positioned to hamper his ability to plough-back into his political project through further and harsher sanctions. In such an environment, the inevitable failure of Chávez’s unsustainable socialist program would likely be accelerated, perhaps too late to affect his run for another term in 2012, but certainly enough dent his aspirations for perpetual power.

Formulating a strategy around this central goal -- isolating Chávez’s foreign policy thrusts from one another -- should thus be a priority for the current administration in an environment where it needn’t worry excessively about the backlash. Smashing Chávez’s finely tuned balance between the fight against the ostensible ills of neo-liberalism (his raison d’être in the eyes of a significant percentage of Venezuela’s electorate) and reaping the rewards of an oil trade that funds it, could be the diplomatic reducer that Washington seeks.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Opinion: Ecuador's slide to non-institutional government

Amidst the discomfiture of accusations levelled at him by the IISS regarding his links with Colombia’s FARC, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa today has something to smile about.  Going with the BBC’s coverage, details have emerged of Correa’s victory in the May 7th referendum on political reforms, most significantly, giving him greater control over the media and the judiciary.
Writing in the Latin American Herald Tribune some two weeks ago, Lindsay Green Barber took a positive spin on the impending referendum, stating that regardless of the outcome, “the quantity, quality, and creativity of the discourse of the intense campaigns for ¨si¨ and ¨no¨ are evidence of an actively involved and concerned citizenry” and as such, should be viewed favourably.  What is more, she pointed to the encouraging direction of opposition to Correa’s power-maximising bid, from both left and right of the political spectrum.
But despite her best efforts, Correa’s victory has to come as a kick to the teeth.  She may, of course, be right that Correa’s popularity is on the wane ahead of the presidential election scheduled for 2013.  Indigenous groups, for example, have begun to turn their back on the president following a series of clashes over issues such as mining, water and the administration of justice.
But who’s to say the slide to a non-institutional model of governance will stop here?  If we take a hop, skip, and a rather large jump across Colombia and into Venezuela, for example, we find ourselves with a neat working example of how the incremental suffocation of democratic practice through media restrictions, constitutional reform and harassment of the opposition (amongst other initiatives) is actually a rather effective -- though non-commendable -- way of consolidating ones power.
It seems a full collapse of the indigenism that provided the backbone for Correa’s ascent in the first place will be the best means of preventing a slide to neo-statism and non-institutional governance of the brand witnessed in Venezuela today.

Opinion: Fighting Narco-terrorism in Latin America: time to put the hot potato down

Originally published by The Commentator, May 20th, 2011

Achieving equilibrium between security, governance and development will be the difference between decisively dealing with narco-terrorism across a restless continent, and continuing to pass the hot potato on next-door...

Details of a gruesome massacre at a ranch in Guatemala’s Peten province emerged earlier this week that revealed a narrative of 27 victims, bound, hacked by machetes and the majority eventually decapitated.  Sadly, such a tale is all too familiar in Latin America.

This restless continent has, throughout its modern history, embodied the protagonist in Aristotle’s precept of tragedy like no other; steeped in traditions of romanticism and grandeur, yet tainted by stagnation through a penchant for populism, dictatorship and brutal violence, and now left reeling decades, if not centuries behind, in its course of development.

Perhaps unremarkably, the prime suspects in Saturday’s heinous crime are the notorious Zetas - one of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels.  Together with seven other major mafia organisations, los Zetas have managed to plunge a state once considered an outpost of civilisation at the head of more fiery climes to the south, into an abyss of violence.  Incredibly, over 35,000 people have been killed since Mexico’s War on Drugs began in 2006.

Yet, somewhere beneath the obvious element of humanitarian tragedy, there is a clear strategic lesson to be taken from this macabre tale.  Succinctly, it reveals how a purely militarised response to the phenomenon of narco-terrorism is a double edged sword in that it may help to clear up your own dwelling, but more often than not, it does so at the expense of the neighbourhood.

Should Calderon continue to apply military muscle with little else to compliment the heavy stuff, Latin America’s criminal entrepreneurs will continue to scramble operations out of Mexico’s borders and deeper into the likes of Guatemala.  Ironically, an almost identical sequence of events helped to spark Mexico’s own narcotics exportation culture.  As I have observed
elsewhere, Colombia’s heavy-handed clamp down on the Cali and Medellin cartels throughout the 1980s and 1990s didn’t so much eradicate the problem as much as it simply pushed it away; forcing production units to scatter south, principally to Peru, and into the Central American isthmus to the north.

Not to labour the point, but tackling narco-terrorism with firepower alone is therefore a rather more complex and expensive means of passing a hot potato across sovereign borders.  It’s the problem no one wants to handle.

But if Mexico, and indeed the US are serious about putting this problem down once and for all -- and the US should be seeing as it is responsible for the lion’s share of refined imports, shares a 1,969 mile border with its Southern neighbour, and could quite frankly do without a failed state next door -- then the answer lies not with military muscle (at least not entirely) but with a heightened dedication to a liberal agenda for Latin America.

Only through democracy, respect for individual rights, rule of law with independent judiciaries, effective law enforcement agencies, the promotion of a culture of lawfulness within civil society, and not least prosperity through positive liberal market reforms, will this culture of grotesquely violent entrepreneurialism truly begin to disappear in favour of more virtuous means of making ends meet.  After all, to boil it down to the crudest of concoctions, this is what the drug game is really all about: making ends meet.

To be sure, consider the following nugget of wisdom from security expert,
Phil Williams (himself borrowing wittingly from Carl von Clausewitz).  Transnational organised crime is simply a continuation of business by other means.  An irritatingly simple maxim it may be, yet true nevertheless.  And as any scholar of Clausewitz will tell you, in war (or be it a frightening merger of war and business in this instance), military means must be both subordinate to, and guided by the hand of the state so as to maximise ones chance of translating available means into desired goals.  That, as they say, is strategy.

This is not to discredit the military’s utility within this international predicament.  Indeed, Mexico’s military must play a major role in providing security amidst a pack of fierce gangs that, by and large, enjoy de facto control over masses of territory.  But it is imperative that this approach is part of a multi-pronged attack that keeps in touch with strategy by creating durable and effective linkages with development and governance.  Put simply, security through military predominance is not an end itself, but a means of creating the necessary breathing space required for governance and development to cultivate peace -- the ultimate end in any war.

In realising good governance and development, a range of other institutions, principally Mexico’s executive and legislative branches, must make the necessary socio-political and legal adjustments.  Suitable initiatives might include the regeneration of poorer areas, such as Mexico’s Pacific Coast states, and the decriminalisation of certain physician-prescribed drugs, through to fighting corruption at the highest levels, and acquiring diplomatic, law enforcement and military support from Mexico’s Latin neighbours.  Invariably, of course, this process will also require said support from Mexico’s giant northern neighbour throughout.

Beating Los Zetas and company in Mexico, and indeed, putting rest to the phenomenon in the entirety of Latin America, will be no small feat.  Crucially though, achieving the equilibrium between security, governance and development described here, will be the difference between decisively dealing with narco-terrorism across a restless continent, and continuing to pass the hot potato on next-door. 

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Opinion: Kicking Cocaine out of Colombia

Inform someone of your Colombian heritage and the customary response will consist either of acknowledgment of Carlos ‘El Pibe’ Valderrama – the eccentric and effortlessly talented Colombian football icon; worldwide music sensation, Shakira; or cocaine.  Whisper it, but the latter association may be on its way into the dustbin of history.
While acknowledging that Colombia remains the world’s largest cocaine producer, the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has dropped Colombia from its list of countries requiring special observation since production has decreased by 58% between 2000 and 2009.  This is high praise indeed for a state that spent the lion’s share of the 80s and 90s as hostage to rival drug cartels that held levels of geostrategic power previously unseen in non-state actors.
Where did it all go so right?  Well, without getting too carried away (Colombia still has a number of socio-political problems that it needs to address as well as the ongoing drug problem itself), much of the acclaim belongs with the preceding Uribe administration.  Much maligned by left-of-centre commentators (even more so further-left-still, principally in Chávez’s Palacio de Miraflores), human rights activists, and indigenous demographics for his military-orientated approach to the war-on-drugs, the ex-president has often been dismissed as a “gringo puppet”.  But it seems his kinetic-military approach combined with mass eradication projects appear to be paying off - for the new Santos administration and Colombia at least.
The drug problem in Colombia is complex.  Its roots hover between left-wing guerrilla groups, principally the FARC, right-wing paramilitary organisations, notably the AUC, and abhorrently violent criminal entrepreneurs.  Solving the problem is therefore equally complex.  If the desired end is simple enough to settle on (eradication of drug exportation), the means are less so.  Uribe’s approach viewed the crisis through a military paradigm; all out war.  But at the other end of the scale there is the development approach which includes providing alternatives to coca cultivation for Colombia’s indigenous populations, tackling poverty and acute inequality, and addressing the grievances of the FARC.  In short, there is a lack of consensus on what needs to be done.
Amid this lack of consensus, a glaring problem arises despite Colombia’s improvements: the drugs may be disappearing from Colombia, but they’re not disappearing.  The Central American isthmus, especially Mexico, and sub-equatorial South America, significantly Peru, have experienced an explosion of drug production in the time that Colombia’s has decreased.  It seems, therefore, that Uribe’s approach has, to an extent, simply pushed the problem away from Colombia’s borders and into its local neighbourhood.   
Thus, while the military approach has served Colombia well, now is the time to foster development in an integrated multi-pronged assault.  While left-wing guerrilla’s and violent entrepreneurs are on the defensive, Bogotá is in a strong position to negotiate their demise.  In turn, decreasing the power of the FARC will delegitimise the raison d’être of the AUC.  Act now, achieve lasting success, and Colombia may well provide the template for future success stories to come.

Originally posted in March 2011, by the Henry Jackson Society

Monday, 16 May 2011

Opinion: All that oil and no power

A story that has done the rounds in the last couple of days (see the BBC's coverage here) is that Venezuelans are facing up to electricity rationing following country-wide blackouts earlier this week.  Power is set to be cut for 3 hours a day in 19 of the country's 23 states.  Lights out.

I certainly won't be the first to point out that this isn't the first time that Chávez has pulled the plug on Venezuela's grid.  2010 was also an infamously patchy year for household appliances as droughts were blamed for energy shortages before rationing was finally lifted in June. 

How ironic - all that oil and no power.  Perhaps not that surprising though; since when have socialism and wide scale government intervention really produced?  Combine that historical lesson with Chávez’s penchant for spending big bucks on regional politico-economic initiatives (at the expense of Venezuela’s own infrastructure) and failing services suddenly seem less remarkable.

Really, then, this energy affair is just a crude (mind the pun) microcosm of 21st century socialism; fight against market forces and expect to land in an unsightly heap of inefficiency and paucity.  Oh, and on a final note, it's worth pointing out that this heap will require more than an hourlong prayer meeting to solve.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Opinion: Where's Walid?

If Obama wishes to avoid playing the Wally, he needs to face up to the implications of Walid Makled Garcia's extradition to Venezuela, while, fortituously, new links between Chávez and the FARC may give Obama the second chance needed to check Bogota’s drift toward Caracas...   

Last month, in the Washington Post, Jackson Diehl asked a very valid question: why isn't Obama fighting Colombia's dirty deal with Venezuela?  The dirty deal was of course the extradition of drug lord, Walid Makled Garcia, to his native Venezuela, completed this Monday.  As Garcia flew back to be imprisoned in Venezuela, his alleged evidence of Caracas' compliance with the international drug trade shared a similar fate.  To come to the point, Washington missed a trick while Chávez wiped his brow and silenced the troublesome Garcia once and for all.

Colombia's Santos claimed that the decision was made on a first-come-first-serve basis; that Caracas had simply beaten Washington to the post with its paperwork.  Whether Bogotá genuinely assigns such importance to punctuality is doubtful, but what is clear is that the move is the latest in a line of developments that, on Obama’s watch, have seen Bogotá drift toward Caracas.

That said, a recent publication by the IISS shows that there is still at least one big thorn in the side of this relationship: the FARC.  Unsurprisingly, given that the FARC issue is a real deal breaker for diplomatic peace between Colombia and Venezuela, Venezuela’s UK embassy was quick to voice its objection to this report which has brought Chávez’s links with the left-wing rebels back into focus.  From Washington's point of view, however, these fresh revelations may mark the false-start in the Santos-Chávez lovefest that one would hope it has been looking for.

In being generally slow out of the blocks in tackling this particular geostrategic concern, Obama should be thankful for the false-start and use it as an opportunity to re-focus his own performance in the race to reinforce Washington’s alliance with Bogotá.  The struggle with Islamic extremism may currently dominate the White House's agenda, but crossing the finish line in this race may be significant if Obama wishes to maintain the US' influence in her own backyard and prevail in the less widely reported war of ideas she faces with 21st century socialism.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Opinion: Big oil - small poverty, right?

There was an interesting opinion piece in the Latin American Herald Tribune a few days back, by VenEconomy, that discussed some of the intricacies of Venezuela’s “missing” oil dollars.
Of course, Venezuela's wasted oil funds are not exactly stop-the-press news; it’s been well documented that Hugo Chávez's political project has failed to translate masses of revenue amidst an oil boom into tangible social improvements.  For all the grand rhetoric, all the broad condemnations of "neo-liberalism", and all the eulogising for 21st century socialism, it just hasn’t come to fruition (hardly surprising for those of us who subscribe to free market economics, individual rights and liberal democracy; perhaps a little disappointing for those who don’t).
But this piece caught my eye because of some of the details it brought to light, most notably the transfer of some $4.9 billion into the unauditable National Development Fund (Fonden).  Who’d of thought that inscrutable funds in the hands of a power-hungry authoritarian would be a bad thing?  I should hope most of us.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Opinion: Confronting Hugo Chávez

Just over two months ago, I wrote a piece that I called, ‘The Dictator Club’.  In it, I slammed Hugo Chávez for his utterly deplorable support for Muammar Gaddafi during, what was then, the embryonic stages of what has since become one of the most widely discussed human rights violations of this century.

Bequeathing Gaddafi the title of “Símon Bolivar of the Libyan people”, Chávez drew a parallel that even the most warped Chávista must have struggled to make sense of.  As the people of Benghazi were mowed down by the hundreds, here was Hugo Chávez praising their tyrannical ruler for supposedly playing the modern-day liberator; freeing his people from the ostensible clutches of the evil “neo-liberal” empire.  It sounds preposterous, quite simply because it is.

Hugo Chávez is an infamous demagogue.  His 21st century socialism project relies heavily upon a specific brand of populism that has a significant portion of its own foundation laid into a bed of anti-Western rhetoric.  The formula is quite simple: Chávez has created the image of an “enemy”, projected most commonly upon the United States, in order to legitimise the centralisation of power that has occurred in Venezuela over the past 12 years.  

Absurd alliances with the likes of Gaddafi are a twisted feature of this phenomenon and help to create and retain a paradigm of “us” vs. “them”.  With it, he is able to masquerade as a defender of the people.  Without it, he is just another power-hungry autocrat.

And now he’s at it again.  Hosting a contingent of Libyans in Venezuela earlier this week, Chávez took the time out to criticize NATO intervention, dubbing it “madness”, before accusing the United States of being in it for the dirty black stuff.  It might seem logical that if the United States really were in it for oil, she would simply continue to opt for grubby contracts with oil-endowed despots, regardless of internal human rights records, as opposed to politically and economically costly intervention.  

This, of course, is the pattern currently conformed to by the Chinese, ironically, in Venezuela amongst other places.  For Chávez though, this argument doesn’t hold up; it can’t if he is to maintain the aforementioned paradigm.  The United States must therefore remain the flag-bearer for the evil empire, concerned with fattening her own belly at the expense of millions of underprivileged worldwide.  That it is she who endeavours to protect the thousands under siege from the war-machine of the Libyan state, is a postscript destined to be glazed over inChávista accounts of history.

But by today’s fast paced standards, Libya is no longer the flavour of the month.  Now is Syria’s turn.  And once again, this self styled man-of-the-people has come down hard on the side of his brethren; not Syria’s citizenry, but the dictator that subjugates them.  Since mid March, in excess of 400 Syrians have been killed at the hands of its barbaric security forces for the alleged crime of political protest.  Hundreds if not thousands more in Damascus, Deraa and elsewhere have been left wounded.  Yet, abominably, it is Assad who receivesChávez’s support while he has branded the people of Deraa as “terrorists”.

At times, Western commentary gets its kicks out of poking fun at the spectacle that is Hugo Chávez.  This eccentric screwball has often become a parody of himself and the perfect candidate to cast in satirical light.  But it is on occasions such as this that we must recognise that Venezuela’s authoritarian leader is so wildly out of sync with the virtues of liberal democracy that it makes even a wry smile hard to muster.  

It may be the case that we are able to detect demagoguery when we see it, but it makes Chávez’s tempestuous opposition to the West no less threatening in a climate where nascent aspirations for democracy are being cut brutally short.  Preposterous he may be, but downright dangerous too.

Originally published by The Commentator

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Reading: What's going on in Syria?

It's been a very busy few days either side of the long bank holiday and in keeping up to date with proceedings in Syria, I've had precious little time to get any thoughts down on paper.  Here's what's been keeping me occupied...

The revolutions that are unfolding in front of us across the Middle East will become the subjects of many books, academic journals, and university modules in the years to come.  In the 'real' world, policy makers will pick proceedings to the bones.  More importantly though, these revolutions are the manifestation of the desire of a people: a desire for representative democracy; for prosperity; for liberty.

The case of Syria is no exception.  For those of you who aren't up to date with this corner of the Middle East, take a look at the Henry Jackson Society's Media Briefing, released today.  It's low on analysis; high on matter of fact.  Think of it as more of an aggregation of events into an orderly and digestible read.  Enjoy.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Opinion: Viva La Revolucion?

Following the Arab springs, recent reforms proposed following the much anticipated Communist Party Congress in Cuba may appear inconsiderable; certainly less worthy of front page headlines.  Yet these proposed reforms, specifically that top political positions should be subject to term limits and that private property will finally be permitted after 52 years in the wilderness, must be embraced for the incremental improvements that they are.
These politico-economic adjustments mark a rational step in the right direction. 
The concept of private property, fundamental in promoting the rights of the individual and prosperity, is a necessary component of liberal democracy.  While Cuba appears less than ripe for an over-night democratic revolution (indeed, the party is still committed to the endurance of communism) this belated acknowledgment of individual rights can provide a foundation for a future middle-class to build upon.  It will surely provide the impetus for further reform.
Moreover, the introduction of term limits, while a vaguely defined concept within this current context, ought to underline the growing consciousness apparent in Havana regarding the serious limitations of communism.  Totalitarian demagogues, of whom Fidel Castro has been no exception, have failed consistently throughout history to deliver political projects that bring prosperity, freedom and human rights to its citizens.  Such top-down models are outdated and even the most formative steps away from them must be fostered by the West in order to encourage the adoption of liberal traditions everywhere. 
Considering the kinship between Cuba’s Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, these proposed reforms must also be supported for the role they might play in demonstrating the ills of 21st century socialism to peoples beyond Cuba’s own sovereign borders.
Latin America is a region with historical, linguistic, cultural, political and religious ties to the West.  It is therefore imperative that the West endeavours to maintain this affinity, supporting democracy throughout the region. 
Cuba remains a disquieting case in point for its human rights record and these proposed reforms are far from the democratic revolution we might desire, yet should Cuba’s formative steps gather momentum and turn into purposeful strides, the West must be well positioned to lend its support. 

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Opinion: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Following my rambling thoughts yesterday, I put together a more coherent blog for The Henry Jackson Society which I'll share here...

What do the notorious drug trafficker, Walid Makled Garcia, Barak Obama, and Hugo Chávez all have in common?  They are all, either directly or indirectly, contributing toward the loss of the key US ally in Latin America.
Barak Obama has kept Colombia at arms length throughout his time in the White House.  While the free trade agreement between Bogotá and Washington seems to have enough left in the tank to crawl over the finish line, Obama’s recent tour of Latin America made no time for a trip to El país del Sagrado Corazón.  The days of Uribe and his close relationship with the Bush administration are gone.  In their place, a cooler climate has emerged in which Juan Manuel Santos has understandably allowed realism to creep in. 
Santos’ stand-out foreign policy agenda has been the warming of the relationship between Bogotá and Caracas; from foes to friends in roundabout a year.  The showpiece of this renaissance is the decision to extradite Walid Makled Garcia, the drug trafficker who has shot to fame by claiming collaboration with some of Chávez’s most senior staff, to Venezuela, and not the US as originally scheduled.   In return for this cover-up opportunity, Chávez has offered payment of circa $1 billion Venezuela owes to Colombian exporters and to end the foreign policy crisis between the two countries once and for all.
The rationale behind Santos’ shift is clear: he is seeking to reintegrate Colombia back into the Latin American neighbourhood since playing the right-hand-man to the US under the Obama administration is proving a gamble. 
Obama has been weak on the Chávez issue, disappointing once again on his recent Latin American tour, this time in failing to even mention the crackpot authoritarian.  And his weak leadership is costing the US.  As the security situation in Colombia clears drastically (an achievement in which the US can claim a great deal of credit), could it be Chávez who takes advantage of the opportunity to invest?  After years of heavy hand-outs, don’t blow it now Obama.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Opinion: "No FARC in Venezuela" - Santos

I just read over a news piece on the BBC website; it seems Juan Manuel Santos has reinforced the formative bridge between Colombia and Venezuela by congratulating Chávez and the state for upholding their promise in the fight against the left-wing guerrillas.

A few thoughts:

Are the FARC really waning?  It seems as though the offensive initiated by Uribe may actually be improving Colombia's internal security situation.  As someone who is a staunch believer in population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN), this is in some ways surprising, but also very interesting.  Colombia's struggle with the FARC is, of course, different from COIN as we conceive of it in, say, Afghanistan, or even Iraq.  But I am still intrigued by the relative success of a conventional military approach in Colombia.  Can this set a precedent for future COIN efforts?  Will hawks in Washington be able to sit back and throw piles of cash (without sending in ground troops) at irregular conflicts across the globe, provided the target country's necessary institutions are in a relatively healthy state (government, security forces, development agencies, judicial system etc)?  It's interesting to say the least, particularly in a post-heroic era where the general public seems reluctant to support far-away wars and tolerance for casualties is thin.

Is Chávez really cooperating?  Can the perceived absence of FARC camps in Venezuela's borders be taken as hard evidence that Chávez is on board, fighting left-wing guerrillas?  Seems surprising.  I wouldn't suggest that Chávez is so clouded by his ideological underpinnings that he would be willing to break relations with Colombia once more by overtly support the FARC.  But a full partner in the fight against it?  Perhaps the answer to the question above - that is, whether the FARC is actually on the decline - helps to draw some light here.  Perhaps the FARC really is on its last legs; perhaps this explains its current absence.

With Colombia and Venezuela getting cosy, what does this mean for the US?  We've moved on from the days of Bush, Uribe and Chávez.  Unfortunately (if you are inclined toward the 'right' at least), Chávez is the only survivor from this contingent.  Bush has been replaced by Obama who, despite his recent tour of Latin America, seems less interested in engaging with Colombia (or at least views it differently from Bush who had his security lenses firmly in place post 9/11).  Uribe has been replaced by Santos who continues to melt away the layers of ice that had built up across the border with Chávez by reintegrating Colombia in the neighbourhood, somewhat at the expense of its close alliance with the US.  And so, with kidnappings and violence sharply down in Colombia after many years of US support, is the opportunity for investment now set to swing out of Washington's favour?  Will the cosying of the relationship between Colombia and Venezuela draw Bogotá into Venezuela's sphere of influence, say, toward the anti-market energy cartels proposed by Chávez?  It seems inevitable that bilateral trade between Colombia and Venezuela will once again become a focal point of their respective foreign policies (and that is a good thing since both countries rely heavily upon it), but would wider initiatives in the mould of Petrocaribe or Petrosur mean that the US is losing Colombia?

Of course, this is, as they say, conjecture.  But it certainly makes for some interesting thoughts...

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Announcement: Welcome

Hello and welcome to my new blog. 

This is a space I intend to use to post the articles, op-eds and blogs that I write in my day job and to engage in debate with those of you who agree with my opinions (and of course, those of you who inevitably won't!)

The sharp-eyed viewer will see that I've already posted up a couple of old articles to get things started...I hope to have new content up very soon.

Topics will vary, but will likely revolve heavily around my main areas of interest: foreign policy vis-á-vis Latin America; Counterinsurgeny; and energy geopolitics.

I hope those of you who read this page will feel free to comment liberally.  It really doesn't matter how long or short, how well constructed or how off-the-cuff comments are; the whole point is to share points of view and clash ideas together, so let's.

Thank you for reading and I hope to see you back from time to time,


Opinion: Afghanistan: The Winnable War, Worth Winning

The discourse surrounding the concept of a no-fly-zone in Libya has dominated our airwaves, our print and has been put firmly, and quite literally, on the map by David Cameron and William Hague.  Yet, while its significance must not be down-played, the discourse runs the risk of clouding our focus on another military intervention in existence: Afghanistan.  Time to refocus.
Slating the war in Afghanistan has become as popular as the phenomenon of micro-blogging.  Indeed, to hijack and renovate a metaphor once used by historian, Basil Liddell Hart, if the “anti-imperialist”* mindset is the mother of all disparagement vis-à-vis liberal intervention and, by extension, the war in Afghanistan, then social media such as twitter has been its most recent midwife. 
The pattern generally goes as follows: successes are reported from the field and assume the role of the lure on the track as scores of micro-bloggers come tearing out of the traps like a band of excitable greyhounds.  “Crusaders”, “imperialists”, “cultural suppressors” - some of the more popular phrases bandied about.  There are, of course, disapproving voices in government, academia and the professional media regarding Afghanistan; social media is not alone.  But social media gives us an insight into the mind set of the ordinary man on the street; it’s his outlet of choice; it tells us where he stands.  Right now it’s helping to show us that the man on the street is, more often than not, standing with his back turned against the war.  In a telling statistic, just across the pond, nearly two-thirds of Americans no longer see any value in this corner of Central Asia. 
Accordingly, Petraeus’ recent musings regarding an upturn in fortunes in Afghanistan will no doubt be subject to ridicule, disbelief and, in some instances, plain ignorance by scores of disgruntled micro-bloggers amongst others.  But he’s not often wrong. 
The Taliban are indeed on the back-foot.  NATO forces have fought bravely to reclaim critical areas such as districts west of Kandahar city and areas of Helmand Province; areas which, in 2008, were responsible for some 80 percent of global poppy supply, a colossal 7,700 metric tons, fuelling a mutually beneficial (and at times direct) relationship between drug traffickers and the Taliban.  These forces have performed commendably in this role as security enforcers, but it is, of course, patently apparent that NATO neither can nor wishes to fill this security vacuum forever.  Successful counterinsurgency dictates that indigenous forces must take on this mantle in the long term and, today, there is light at the end of this particular tunnel.  The US, for example, remains on course to be able to begin draw-downs in July, shifting the emphasis from foreign intervention to Afghan self-security.  The UK looks to be on a similar track.  Meanwhile, Afghan forces are becoming progressively more able to take on this role, growing both in size and capability.  There are currently over 300,000 Afghan forces, a figure which is hoped to increase to some 378,000 so as to further fortify the country against violent extremists long after NATO forces have returned to their respective shores.  What these gains roughly equate to is a security campaign that is being won; slowly, often painfully, but it is being won.  
Yet, winning in Afghanistan is more than a question of security.  To win this war, we must recognise the nexus between security, development and governance and bring it to fruition.  This is not only possible, but within sight.  In light of this, Petraeus is correct, once again, in highlighting the importance of funding to the State Department and USAID.  These government agencies, as with their British counterparts, the FCO and DFID, must now take on an increasingly important role, using the improved security environment as breathing space to better integrate development and governance into the classic three-pronged counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.  This will take time; this will take effort; and this will take money, but it will be worth the expenditure in all three regards given that it is our only route to peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Understanding this is paramount and we should be at pains in our efforts to promote this reality.  This is a winnable war worth winning.  The value is there, not only for the Afghan people, not only for the sake of regional or international security, but for the credibility of the West too.  If we throw in the towel, we seal the West’s fate as the civilization that can be deterred through violent means.  Doing so will create one winner - not the man on the street who calls for an end to the war, but the extremist who fights on the other side.  Not much of an option, is it?

*Disclaimer: the "anti-imperialist" mindset does not necessarily dictate that interventionists are indeed imperialists!

This article was originally published by The Henry Jackson Society, March 2011