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Scraping the barrel of man’s humanity 30, September 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
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The levels to which those who send out suicide bombers will go never ceases to amaze. The Times of London was one newspaper that covered the British Security Service MI5 and their worry that mentally ill people might be being ‘groomed’ as a new wave of terror attacks in the UK. Indeed, such a worry is more than founded in reality considering the utterly despicable example of a suicide bombing in February where two women believed to have Down’s syndrome were cajoled into delivering a bomb which killed almost 100 people.

Today, Deborah Haynes, The Times’ excellent correspondent in Iraq interviewed a young Iraqi girl who appears to have been drugged into acting as a suicide bomber. This video captures the pitiful sight of the girl after she refused to detonate the bomb and emphasizes the utterly, truly and profoundly bestial nature of the abhorrent people who drug, persuade and force people to commit such acts. To be honest, words simply fail to come remotely close to describing such pungently vile people who exemplify man’s unfailing ability to plumb the very depths of depravity.

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China’s Corruption 25, September 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in China.
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Here is an excellent article in the International Herald Tribune, expounding on the vicious and widespread problem of corruption in China, the effects of which – unfortunately – are being felt now with the baby food crisis.

China’s Robber-Baron Ways

Only a short time after China’s magnificent Olympic coming-out party, the land of Mao’s successors found itself making less celebratory news.

“Tainted Milk Formula Sickens Thousands of Chinese Infants” read one of many recent headlines. Twenty-two companies that produce or distribute milk powder had been secretly adding melamine, normally used for making plastics and glue, into milk powder, making thousands of infants sick and causing several deaths.

It is one of the puzzling questions about China: How can a country that organized such a splendid Olympic splash be the same country that produces deadly food scares on a regular basis?

The answer says a lot about today’s China. In its March to modernity, Beijing’s ruling Communist Party took off the economic shackles of the Mao years and relaunched the country as a capitalist-communist state – a real oddball coupling, if ever there was one. Part of this process involved the radical devolution of economic power to over 30 provinces, fostering a kind of anarchic federalism.

As with American federalism, the national government in China is responsible for certain duties and the country’s provincial governments are responsible for others. But in China, none of this arrangement is written down or spelled out anywhere, as it is in the U.S. Constitution.

Instead, it is still a work in progress, with provincial officials taking as much rope as they dare. Power at the provincial level is still vested in the local Communist Party, but also intertwined with personal and family networks, motivated by the former leader Deng Xiaoping’s maxim, “to get rich is glorious.”

That’s an odd motivation for the heirs of Karl Marx, and in practice it’s led to lots of cronyism and corruption.

The scale of corruption in China is startling. The Chinese researcher Sun Yan has written that the average “take” in the 1980s was $5,000, but now it is over $250,000. The number of arrests of senior Communist Party members quadrupled between 1992 and 2001. Four provincial governors and one provincial party secretary recently were charged with corruption.

Even at the level of the central government, corruption has been debilitating and helps set the national tone. High-level officials, including the mayor of Beijing, a vice chairman of the National People’s Congress, the former president of the Bank of China, the vice governor of the People’s Bank of China and the director of China’s foreign exchange administration, were arrested and imprisoned for embezzlement and fraud. One of them eventually was executed, and another leaped to his death.

To put that in perspective, says the author Will Hutton, it would be as if the mayor of New York, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and the chief executives of Goldman Sachs and Citibank, along with a governor of the Federal Reserve, were all either imprisoned for fraud, executed or committed suicide.

The Chinese economist Hu Angang has estimated an annual economic loss due to corruption of approximately 15 percent of GDP. In this climate, cutting foreign substances into milk formula, pet food or medicine becomes standard operating procedure, like a drug dealer looking to maximize the street value of his stash by mixing in filler material.

To be fair, not all the provinces and not all the business people or bureaucrats engage in such illicit behavior. And China’s leadership has taken steps to crack down. Punishments have been increased, tougher laws have been passed. Officials now are forbidden to enter business relationships with family members. Audits and anti-corruption screenings have been introduced.

But when I questioned a Chinese official about corruption, his defense – “we’re not as bad as Burma” – was hardly convincing.

Yes, the central government in Beijing can use its authoritarian power to pull off a brilliant Olympics party. And over the past 30 years, the Chinese leadership has accomplished the remarkable feat of lifting 400 million people out of poverty. But China is still very much a developing country, plagued by a mess of contradictions.

It is difficult to imagine how the country’s anarchic, robber-baron ways will serve China well for the next 30 years. Either political reform and accountability will slowly take root, or China’s modernization will falter.

Steven Hill is director of the Political Reform Program of the New America Foundation.

Al Qaeda as ideology or organisation? 25, September 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East, Terrorism.
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In the aftermath of the US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the US government pursued those responsible with vigour. However, they soon came across difficulties when deciding how to proceed with indictments and other legal proceedings because of the nature of the terrorists involved. Because the US authorities did not have a deep and thorough understanding of Islamic militancy at the time (one assumes that they do now) they resorted to the next best thing and essentially used analogy to guide their policy. These terrorists, the mused, are not that dissimilar to the mafia in the US, which the authorities had been fighting for decades. Therefore, they used associated legal proceedings and particularly the RICO (Racketeering and Organised Crime) law as a vehicle to bring the Embassy bombers to justice. To proceed with this, they argued that the terrorists involved were part of a larger, loosely affiliated group. The name of this group was Al Qaeda.

It is a fascinating intellectual question as to who first deemed this group (such as it was) to be called Al Qaeda. There is ample evidence to suggest that it was because of the American legal proceedings that Al Qaeda as a name came into existence. For sure, the phrase had been used for at least a decade: but in what context? In Arabic Al Qaeda translates as the base of some description. So when militants were seeking to go from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or anywhere else to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets back in the 1980s, they were told to go to the base. In short, one wonders how things would have been different had those people directing want-to-be fighters directed them to Omar’s house, for example, instead.

Either which way, this group Al Qaeda were soon blamed (and took responsibility for) for various bombings including the 9/11 attacks. This group was described as being some kind of monolithic, super terrorist group, with a fanatical leader, enormous resources, innumerable bases, and a typical command and control structure was inferred. This is because people, when confronted by an unfamiliar concept, seek to use analogy to find similarities and thus aid understanding. For example, it could be suggested that this happened with British people familiar with the IRA’s long terrorist campaign and them as a rigid, structured para-miliraty group. Thus many British peoples idea of a terrorist group was already clear in their mind. Therefore, Al Qaeda – rightly or wrongly – took on these familiar qualities.

Indeed, this impression was reinforced by the American administration as a whole and Donald Rumsfeld in particular with the absurd cave diagram, or rather, to give its official title, “Bin Laden’s Mountain Fortress”.

It was a work of absolute fiction plucked from the ether and grounded in as much reality as George Lucas’ Death Star, yet it built on and reinforced notions of what people expected: a structured group with a structured base.

Jason Burke is a journalist for the Observer newspaper and wrote the definitive book on Al Qaeda which simply, unequivocally, and convincingly decimates the whole notion of Al Qaeda as some structured organisation, with clear lines of communication, head quarters and so on. His central argument is that such notions simply do not and have just about never fit the actual situation on the ground. He suggests that Al Qaeda can be best described as an ideology, adhered to be followers around the world. Whilst there are examples of carefully planned and executed plots by Al Qaeda, notably the African embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, proving the actual levels of communication and ‘direct direction’ from on-high are notoriously difficult. Indeed, overall, it is best to see Al Qaeda as an ideology that anyone can borrow. The clearest example of this can be seen in the Madrid bombings in 2004, where the culprits were clearly shown to have no links whatsoever with so called Al Qaeda in Afghanistan or Pakistan: It was an entirely indigenous operation borrowing ideas from Al Qaeda alone.

However, the recent court case involving the so-called ‘airline plotters’ suggests that perhaps some kind of rethink is in order. Burke suggests that as the protagonists in the case visited the tribal areas of Pakistan and allegedly met with several high up members of the remnants of the Taliban, that the link – however tenuous – between the older generation of terrorists (Al Qaeda) and the new recruits has been directly re-established. Indeed, the accused were charged that they received funding and tactical education from those they visited in Pakistan.

Ascertaining the exact kind of relationship in not far off impossibly difficult. Educated guesses are all that there are, no matter what some may claim. Nevertheless, the general weight of evidence suggests that today Al Qaeda may be best seen as a group of people with a common goal and ideology, who maintain some kind of transitory training camps in the Afghan-Pakistan border areas, who pass on their knowledge of bombs, equipment and the like and may suggest targets. Though if one were to ask Donald Rumsfeld no doubt they would morph, once again, into some kind of terrorist super-group, replete with throngs of minions and a mountain fortress.

An inadvertently frank assessment of the Syrian economy by the Finance Minster 25, September 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Syria.
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It can almost be a little embarrassing when someone, trying to impress or cover for something, produces a story so utterly inept, so poorly thought through and which ultimately clearly, concisely and almost devastatingly makes exactly the opposite point. There can surely be no greater example of this than the Syrian Minister of Finance, Dr. Mohammed al Hussein, and his recent article in Al Thawra describing why Syria is the country least affected by the recent financial troubles.

Rather than paraphrase it myself, I will leave that to Tariq Al Homayed, a writer for Al Sharq Al Aswsat, who quite beautifully skewers Dr Al Hussein’s comically awful article.

In the article, the minister said, “We can confirm that the Syrian economy, out of all the regional economies, has been least affected by this crisis.” He added, “The reason for this goes back to restricting the channels through which this crisis could pass to enter Syria…some of the best ways of which are through financial institutions, financial markets, investments, foreign currencies and foreign trade.”

Please pay attention to the minister’s explanation: “The Syrian financial market is yet to be born, and the financial institutions and banks are still in their infancy, the capital of which is mostly domestic and even if there is non-Syrian capital, in most cases the source is Arab.”

What the finance minister is trying to say, in simple terms, is that Syria has been saved from this international financial crisis because his country has no financial market and because of the regression of banks and financial institutions in Syria, as well as the lack of foreign investments. Any Arab investments are merely grants or accompanied by political motives.

Therefore, the finance minister is attributing his country’s escape from the international financial crisis not to the strength of the Syrian economy but to its deterioration and underdevelopment.

The question that should be put to His Excellency, the Syrian minister of finance, is: If you do not have a financial market or strong and dynamic banks and financial institutions, or foreign investments, then what need is there for a ministry of finance?

Thanks to Across the Bay for the pointing out this article.