Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The End of the Bush Era: Free Trade

This is the fourth in a series of essays, "The End of the Bush Era." It is a list of what I believe are the most prominent successes and failures of this prolific politician who, for better or ill, is going to become an indelible part of history.

Thinking of something that George W. Bush did right is something of a brainteaser, but there are things he did right.

Bush signed more free trade agreements in his 8 years in power than any other president before him.

Free trade allows for the transfer of wealth between the rich and the poor through the means of commerce, and I find that fundamentally something very agreeable.

It has lifted millions out of poverty and has created a new international middle class all over the world, and holds more promise yet. In principle, it is noble without wanting to be noble. Fundamentally, it is mercantilism which is amoral but not necessarily immoral.

George W. Bush was a great proponent of it. Speaking at Lima, Peru at the APEC summit in November 2008, he summarized his thoughts on the matter: "free trade, free markets, and free people."

Of course, free trade isn't the panacea that's going to solve poverty around the world.

Bush's dogmatic adherence to free-market ideology partly sparked the global credit crisis in 2008, but it wasn't all his fault.

He was merely running with the baton Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher started in the 80s: the trend of government deregulation and privatization. Smaller government, controlled spending, more power to the market to make its own decisions.

Every president in the US has been carrying on that mantra since, and not just in the US. Deregulation and trade liberalization is what brought China out of the doldrums to face a brave new world. India's "Hindu rate of growth" of 2% is now a distant memory. These economies now "slow down" at 6 to 9 percent GDP growth.

As far as the promise of alleviating poverty goes, it fairs decidedly mediocre. Despite almost three decades of this ideology slowly spreading, the only country in the world that can boast an absolute reduction in the number of people living in poverty is China.

India has a decreased proportion of people living in poverty, but it has a swelling population and so roughly the same number of people are suffering this scourge.

In addition, a lot of the countries with whom a country may trade freely with may not truly be "free" themselves. It is no small thing that China keeps its currency the Yuan, artificially weak compared to other currencies, or that it has lax rules on compensation for employees, or that it generates most of its energy from cheap and dirty coal power or dammed rivers at the expense of local ecology.

But it is part of the solution. Free trade encourages people-to-people contact. It encourages engaging with people, even if you may differ with them. It opens new horizons and business opportunities, and offers new perspectives. And last but not least, it offers people a good chance to make some moola.

In this George W. Bush was where it's at. It is truly unfortunate he wasn't right more often.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Awami League's First Broken Election Pledge

We all knew it was coming.

The Awami League broke a key election pledge in the inaugural session of the 9th Bangladeshi Parliament.

They said if they were elected to power, they would appoint a deputy speaker from the opposition, and require the speaker and deputy speaker of the house to resign from their party positions. The reason for this was to make parliament effective. Opposition support is important when legislating, to make sure everyone's interests are met.

The Awami League-led parliament appointed loyalists for both positions, though, and made no such requirement on resignation from party posts.

After doing this, they then announced that they would amend the constitution, to allow for two deputy speakers. The second one will be from the opposition. With reassurances, that the two deputy speakers would have equal rights and privileges.

Bangladeshi taxpayers, who can barely afford to pay for half of the annual development plan to build infrastructure in the country (foreign aid pays for the other half), will now be paying for salaries, and extensive government benefits for two deputy speakers where only one was sufficient.

The first rule of government spending: why pay for one, when you can have two for twice the price?

If there's anything a corrupt third-world democracy loves to do, it's breaking election pledges, and amending the constitution. Mmm-mmm, nothing like the smell of amended constitution in the morning.

IT in Bangladesh Will Suffer Without English

BASIS (Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services) is the national trade body representing the software and IT sectors in Bangladesh, and is holdings its annual event, the BASIS Soft Expo 2009 over the next few days.

They hope to capture 1% of the USD 300 billion software outsourcing market in 5 years.

Bangladesh is very firmly behind most of the outsourcing powerhouses of Asia: India, the Philippines, and Pakistan.

The main reason is the most important language in IT. Not Java, C++ or Perl, but English.

Barring Bangladesh and Nepal, most of the SAARC countries (India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) have outstanding level of English education.

Apart from the select private schools in the major cities, which in all fairness produce students with excellent levels of English, most education in Bangladesh is in Bangla, and English language training is grossly insufficient for international standards. Many Higher-Secondary students with high grades in English have trouble putting together a complete sentence in the language. Testing in the country-wide standardized tests is based on rote memorization.

The domestic market is very well-versed in IT, though. I needed to fax some documents when I went to Bangladesh in the summer of 2007, and went to a store in Mohammedpur, in a grimy, grungy back-alley, with piles of garbage by the roadside, open drains, and walls that had long seen any paint.

I saw a young man very adeptly using Adobe Photoshop to forge what looked like tax documents. I dare say he did a very good job of fudging those numbers.

The market in Bangladesh is poised to produce and consume very high level IT services.

This remarkably deep and broad pool of talent, though, will remain stinted if quality education in the English language is not made more broadly available.

Strides are being made, and most of the men and women of my generation are catching on, and making the effort to learn and master the language. Some of them are arguably competitive with the Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos, seeing as how the Bengali English accent (in my biased opinion) is not as strongly inflected as the Indian accent.

But government intervention and good policies would go a long way in giving our enterprising youth a leg-up in competing internationally.

More specifically, the government could:
  1. Begin general reforms within the Ministry of Education (increase teachers' salaries to retain quality staff, more progressive and accountable human resource management, retraining teachers and principles in education)
  2. Directly train teachers in the English language. Many of them are simply not comfortable with the language. I know firsthand graduates of government universities with Masters Degrees in English Language & Literature who could not for the life of them write a coherent paragraph in English. Their entire degrees have revolved around rote memorization.
  3. Reform of English language testing in the government board exams (strides have already been made on this front under the BNP government with the reform of the SSC and HSC examination system) to de-emphasize rote memorization
  4. Improve two vital infrastructural needs of the country: energy and connectivity, so that more people have ready access to computers, can go online and interact with other people worldwide informally in English
  5. Repeal archaic laws demanding all government paperwork be in Bangla and move to a bilingual system. This will encourage foreign businesses to operate since the language barrier to engaging in commerce is much lowered, and will require all government employees to be adept in English to process said paperwork, while not compromising on the use of Bangla
  6. Slowly enact laws and bring into practice the system of making public signboards and vehicle license plates have both English and Bengali rather than the current setup of consistent inconsistency: some highways have signs in English and Bengali while some streets in Dhaka and smaller highways don't, and some license plates are in English and some aren't
Maybe then we could think of a lot more than just 1% of the global market.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Give KDE4 a Chance

KDE4 has received a lot of flak from the OSS community because they took the policy of "release early, release often" really to heart. They released it extremely early: KDE 4.0 was barely an alpha in January 2008, when it was released. Old features didn't work properly or were simply gone, things looked marginally prettier without adding any functionality at all, and it was extremely unstable.

KDE 4.0 is unanimously a train-wreck as a product. If you needed a solid desktop environment, you ought to have stayed away from it. But the developers never pretended otherwise. They said from the get-go that anyone looking for a stable desktop environment were better off with their current ones, and that KDE 4.0 was still very much in active development. Releasing it out in the wild gave it exposure it wasn't having while the developers were working on it in on their own. The influx of bug reports, and the flurry of discussion have only strengthened KDE's featureset and codebase.

The KDE developers committed to a bugfix-release once every month, and a major point release once every 6 months. This is development at a fairly fast and steady clip, and with KDE 4.2 at the cusp of release in January 27th, I'm sure further refinements are on their way.

From my experience with KDE4, it is extremely pretty as desktop environments go, but not nearly as functional as either KDE 3.5.x or Gnome. Basic tasks like unzipping and zipping is not possible from contextual menus on the desktop, and the "K Menu" (analogous to the Windows Start Menu) was horrendously unusable (in fact, the new Windows Start Menu in Vista is quite excellent).

These are pretty fundamental problems with KDE4, but the groundwork is being laid for the future. KDE 4 will, some day, become a good product.

KDE4 is based on the Qt4 GUI framework from Trolltech. Developing on Qt4 basically means a single application can be ported for Windows and OS X with much ease. With the mobile version of Qt4 coming out, and Nokia adopting it for future smartphones (Nokia purchased Trolltech), it will also be portable to handheld devices.

This means it is on the verge of mass-market exposure (mass-market acceptance is another matter entirely). This is the first time that open-source software being developed for the Linux operating system will be usable by people in other operating systems at such a scale.

This would be comparable to Apple's "trojan horse" technique with the iPod + iTunes tie-in. People bought the iPod because it was a good product, and had to use iTunes to run it, and got an idea of how Apple's native OS X software operates. This drew attention to them, increased brand awareness, and created future clientele, as is evident from Apple's almost recession-proof sales data.

Some of the tools available from the K-world would be really handy in the Windows and OS X world. I would love to have the Konsole (KDE's command-line shell), for example, in OS X. in OS X 10.4 Tiger doesn't allow tabbing of console windows, which Konsole does. And the Windows (XP or Vista) cmd.exe is barely useable; I honestly dread to use it.

Konqueror is a very decent, light-weight web browser, and it handles the SFTP and SMB protocols very handily. Very useful for OS X users who don't want to use and look up the man page for "scp" ("secure copy", the command-line tool used for SFTP), or use the horrendous to navigate a directory, or for Windows users looking for a decent, no-frills, browser-like SFTP client (Firefox doesn't talk SFTP).

KDE has a lot to contribute to the software ecosystem. Profits-driven, proprietary solution-providers (like Microsoft and Apple) do not have it all covered, and this is where open source software's vital function comes in. Filling niche requirements in older systems where it doesn't make sense to pay for an upgrade, for what may not have been fundamental features at the time of release (like SFTP clients or tabbed console windows), but have become since. What's life without tabs?

In the meantime, Gnome or KDE 3.5.x are perfectly usable, mature, stable products for those of us who need a working desktop environment. From a consumer standpoint, it's always about using the best tool for the job. Until KDE 4 matures, it makes sense to just wait it out with whatever we're currently using (in my case, KDE 3.5).

KDE 3.5, by the way, is still being actively maintained. Bugs are being found and squashed, and it is a tremendously mature and stable desktop environment.

The story of KDE4 is like that of OS X. OS X 10.0 was unanimously a bad operating system. Slow, buggy, and unstable, most of the Mac community initially spurned it. Apple offered OS X 10.1 as a free upgrade to customers, but they didn't abandon it. They continued to refine it and upgrade it.

OS X 10.2 Jaguar was the first version of OS X that Apple charged for, and in my opinion was still terrible. The first version of OS X that worth its salt was OS X 10.3 Panther, after Exposé was introduced.

Since then, the price of OS X has remained the same, with three subsequent updates over the years. Each update delivered additional features, and under-the-hood enhancements, setting the groundwork for future enhancements.

Arguably, Microsoft is undergoing something similar with Windows Vista.

A transition from one system to another is a long and painful task. But it is most certainly worth it when it has become obvious the old system is merely creaking along.

One hopes the outcry from the open source community does not deter others from taking similarly bold courses of action.

Some Dead Are Worth More Than Others

Israel used white phosphorus munitions, in violation of United Nations protocol which prohibits their use in civilian areas.

United Nations compounds in Gaza were hit with such munitions, according to the BBC, but the IDF says all attacks were in accordance with international law, and an internal investigation is being started.

In the meantime, (yet unsubstantiated) claims are coming from a mother describing how her children "melted" in front of their eyes when hit with such munitions. Unexploded white phosphorus bombs leak the corrosive substance into the streets and buildings of the Gaza Strip.

It seems not enough that their children are being decapitated in front of their eyes by conventional weapons.

It is evident that some dead are worth more than others.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The End of the Bush Era: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

This is the third in a series of essays, "The End of the Bush Era." It is a list of what I believe are the most prominent successes and failures of this prolific politician who, for better or ill, is going to become an indelible part of history.

The Israeli-Palestinian problem is the world's longest-running high profile conflict.

It was in 2000, under the stewardship of Bill Clinton that Yasser Arafat and the then Prime Minister Ehud Barak were on the verge of a political agreement. Clinton, ever the diplomat, hashed out some good solutions on Jerusalem, control of religious sites, and Israeli settlements, that were workable on the ground. As is typical in politics, "painful concessions" were on the table, but the reality is that 2000 was a turning point for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where they simply failed to turn.

Yasser Arafat eventually backed down saying the solution was untenable with the Palestinians, the talks broke down, the Second Intifada began, and George W. Bush stepped into the Whitehouse in 2001.

The Second Intifada started just a few months before he stepped into office in September 2000, so he was, in all fairness, inheriting a very difficult problem.

His 8 subsequent years in office saw the bloodiest attacks by Israel on the Palestinian territories during 9/11, then subsequently upon Lebanon, and then more recently the Gaza Strip.

Granted, Israel was consistently provoked during this time, but these completely disproportional "outbreaks of violence" are representative of the blank cheque handed to Israel by the US government to basically do as it pleased.

As they bombed Lebanon with extreme prejudice, the cries around the world for moderation were nearly unanimous, barring the US. When they bombed the Gaza Strip, the cries again were nearly unanimous, barring the US who eventually relented by abstaining from the UN Security Council vote.

Let's be fair, though: Israel had legitimate enemies and targets in both the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. Iran has been fuelling both these fires and has a big hand in destabilizing the region and continuously provoking Israel.

That being said, 1,300 civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip, of which a third are children, and the 1,200 civilian casualties in Lebanon, is simply unacceptable.

Consider for a moment Israel's casualties: 44 civilians in the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese War, and 3 in the 2008-2009 Gaza Strip Attacks.

When asked about the disproportionality of the numbers, we're told not to play the "numbers game." But really, we would see who would play the numbers game if, let's say 1,300 Israelis were killed, a third of which were Jewish children.

And all this happened while Israel's special partner, the United States, stood idly by. And that really was the hallmark of the Bush presidency when it came to Israel and Palestine. A policy of muted disengagement, but stalwart support, while actually doing nothing on the ground to help either the Israelis or the Palestinians.

When you think of the Middle East conflict during the Clinton years, you remember the historic meeting of Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Bill Clinton during the Oslo Accords in 1993. You remember the 2000 Camp David Summit with Ehud Barak. It's a history of engagement.

Bush, however, undertook no such personal diplomatic drives during his term. Instead, he insisted the Palestinians have elections out of no better reason than blind ideology ("spreading freedom"), and voters overwhelmingly voted for Hamas and sidelined the secular, moderate, yet corrupt, America-backed Fatah, sowing the seeds of the recent Gaza Attacks.

Is Israel better off today than it was in 2000 when Clinton handed over the reins to Bush? Arguably, no.

Palestinians are more numerous today than they were in 2000, and the conflict has made no steps forward, and has rather made negative progress. Israel underwent two wars, one of which it lost to the Lebanon, and has lost a lot of face to the international community for its heavy-handed tactics. There were protests in London and New York against the recent Gaza Strip bombings, and people are tired of hearing about the Middle East. Public sentiments are slowly turning against Israel as reports of their bombing schools and hospitals spread. Just a few years ago, criticisms of Israel were silenced with accusations of anti-Semitism.

It's nice to finally see the world acquire a more nuanced worldview.

Arguably, the best thing that happened to Israel in the era of Bush was Ariel Sharon's unilateralism.

The Palestinian response is and always has been impotent, as is evident from Israeli casualty numbers. Oh no, I do play the numbers game, as do most rational people. A lower overall casualty rate means lower risks, which means a lower threat level. The numbers don't lie: if you're a Palestinian, you're far more likely to die than if you were an Israeli.

These wars weren't cheap for Israel, and in the face of massive balance of trade deficits, the Israeli economy is kept alive on the life support of American aid. This is as sustainable as the Gulf-Arab countries' economies are dependent on oil. Today it's there, tomorrow it isn't. Granted, the US will support Israel with its dying breath, but that's not exactly a ringing endorsement of such an arrangement or the confidence the world now has in America's capacity to handle such expensive "special arrangements" with two wars and a recession on its plate.

In all fairness, the failure of the Bush administration isn't a direct failure. Nobody disputes how much of a colossal mess the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, how sticky a problem it is, and how difficult and painful the resolution will be for both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Their tack on the Middle East was almost a perverse extension of their laissez-faire, market-driven economics: letting the "market forces" of massive American military and economic subsidy for Israel fight it out with the Irani-backed Palestinian and Lebanese militants, with innocent Israelis, and a lot more innocent Palestinians stuck, and dead, in the middle.

An indirect failure, and a failure he shares with his predecessor, and will in all likelihood share with his successor, but a failure nonetheless.

But hope, as they say, springs eternal.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

An Appeal for Empathy for Israel and Palestine

Very few problems are as complex as that of Israel and Palestine. Even assuming that the politicians on either side are actually sincere in achieving peace (something that is strongly suspect), it combines elements of politics, history, religion, economics, demographics, and the most prized possession of mortal man, land. So it isn't straightforward at all.

But we must learn to separate the problem from the people.

The only thing that stops the Palestinians from "disappearing" and "solving" this problem (for the Israelis) is that history has taught us that you cannot wipe a people off the face of the map due to the sheer physical challenge of such a task. They're hanging on by a thread not dissimilar to the one the Native Americans, Jews, and Australian aboriginees held on to, in history.

There was a comic strip regarding this in the newspaper last week: a lone Israeli and a lone Palestinian burying their dead in their respective graveyards, "The Last Israeli/Palestinian" written on their shirts. When they're done, they look at each other for a moment, and then charge at each other with their shovels.

Not exactly very comic. But this is indicative of the fatigue the world feels when it comes to the Middle East. "Oh no, not the Middle East again!"

We should be empathetic to the plights of common people in the region. Consider for a moment what it's like to be a Palestinian living in the Gaza Strip, or an Israeli under rocket fire.

And I say this regardless of what opinions these people may hold and whoever may have the upper hand, Israel or Palestine. Most Israelis supported the offensive against Gaza, and most Palestinians voted for Hamas.

But pain is pain, and an Israeli getting killed on her way back from the gym from Hamas rockets is as tragic as the Palestinian child dying from an Israeli bomb while taking out the garbage, no matter what they think, or who they voted for. To me, both of these are incalculable losses. They are both, to me, inextricably family.

We should seggregate our emotions. Let us reserve our consternation for the politicians and experts, upon whom we depend to solve the most critical of our problems, and who have so thoroughly and consistently let us all down.

And let us reserve our empathy, good will and prayers for the common people on the ground.

All they really want to do is get on with their lives, just like us.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The End of the Bush Era: Iraq

This is the second in a series of essays, "The End of the Bush Era." It is a list of what I believe are the most prominent successes and failures of this prolific politician who, for better or ill, is going to become an indelible part of history.

The reasons for why the Bush-Blair coalition went into Iraq for Gulf War 2 is going to remain one of the great mysteries of our generation.

A lot of answers are on offer, but they are at best only a piece of the puzzle, and at worst, dismissive of exactly how convinced these gentlemen were (and remain to this day) that we needed to bomb Iraq.

Oil is not a good enough a reason. Iraq was a net importer of oil for years after the invasion in 2003, and it couldn't have been expected to be any different. Oil is a capital-intensive venture, and most of the infrastructure was crumbling in Iraq, after more than 12 years of sanctions. Today, after 5 years, Iraq's contribution to global oil production is still nothing to write home about.

It may be a combination of oil and one-upping his father, who very prudently went in with certain objectives, achieved them, then moved out, but then subsequently lost his re-election in 1991.

It could have been the Cookie Monster, I don't know. The truth is, nobody does. Despite the numerous books that have come out on the Bush presidency, the real inner core of interactions are covered in a fog of war, and subject to conjecture. Everyone's got a guess, and an opinion, but nobody really knows.

If you ask Bush and Blair about it, they go into moral platitudes about how they "believed" it was right, as if you're asking them if they believed in Jesus or Buddha, and then fall back to the ridiculous argument that the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein.

Well, it would be a better place without Robert Mugabe, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il, and my annoying university roommate in 2006. Invade them too, why don't you, and make the world a "better place"? It's a cop-out.

It is a decision perplexing in its stupidity and awe-inspiring in the scale of disaster it has rained down upon Iraq and the world.

I still remember watching "Operation Shock and Awe" on CNN from Abu Dhabi in March 2003. It indeed was both shocking and awful.

The skyline of Baghdad was glowing orange in the night time as it rained fire. The domes and palm trees, such a familiar site for me, (having lived and grown up in the Middle East myself) silhouetted against the flames. To see it burn like that, it touched me really deeply. People shouldn't be allowed to do things like that without due cause.

Everyone outside of the Western intelligentsia informally knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Iraq was under weapons inspections, stricter sanctions or bombings for the past 12 years at that point, and this combination of UN-administered soft and hard diplomacy was doing a pretty decent job of containing the Iraqi threat. Al Qaeda loathed Iraq and wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole, and Saddam Hussein had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11.

Hans Blix, the UN Weapons Inspector, a diplomat and academic, made the most logical observation: we don't have enough information to draw a conclusion safely, and more inspections are required. The US and the UK ran an unsuccessful smear campaign to completely destroy the man's reputation in a bid to overturn his opinions so they could start bombing Iraq back to the Stone Age.

I interviewed a certain Dr. Joseph Nye (a Distinguished Service Professor at the Kennedy School of Public Policy in Harvard) while I was in NUS in 2004 for my university publication, after it had become obvious that there were no weapons. In true academic humility, the man admitted in all honesty he was very surprised Saddam Hussein didn't have any weapons, because, and I remember his exact words, "we knew he had them."

This has to be one of the world's biggest "Oops!" Billions of dollars wasted, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians dead, thousands of coalition casualties, a resurgence of localized Al Qaeda (where previously there was none), and an eruption of brutal, horrific sectarian violence resulted.

They underestimated so completely how difficult it would be to tackle a country so diverse and violently communal, that it genuinely baffles the mind as to what exactly they were expecting. "To be greeted as liberators" is part of the refrain they had stuck to, another indicator of how blinded by ideology and an over-simplistic worldview the Bush administration had to be.

Mr. Blair, in the meantime, had nought say in the failing strategies being implemented by the Bush administration. Iraq is a blemish on Tony Blair's record; he has arguably been one of Britain's most successful Prime Ministers since Winston Churchill, but how can one not give him the unfortunate moniker of "a poodle" after so submissively allowing George Bush to first spear-head a campaign against Iraq on such flimsy evidence, and then completely botch up the ground operations?

The post-invasion failures are summed up by the one very stupid thing they did: they went on and completely disbanded Iraq's security forces.

So they released men trained in handling arms and the arts of war to fend for themselves in their ethnic enclaves in a deeply schismatic region of the world that had suffered many years of painful dictatorship, and liberated only after war and bombings. Were they expecting grace and sensibility?

But the world collectively drank the kool-aid. The press was so sparing in their criticism and scepticism of their campaign against Iraq, one wondered if they were complicit. Honestly, where were the "analysts" and "experts" when the drums of war were being beaten for no apparent reason?

Most of the American senate voted for the war in Iraq, Democrats and Republicans alike. Most of the Americans supported the war, even after it was found to be under false pretence, much to the world's dismay when they re-elected George Bush for a second term in 2004, vindicating him that he was on the right path.

It was only in the last 2 years of Bush's presidency that people started losing complete faith in the man.

So it only took 6 years for them to catch on that this man had no clue what he was doing. It is remarkable how enduringly short-sighted and over-simplistic the American people are when it comes to matters of foreign policy. Instead of looking inward after the attacks of 9/11, they looked outward for something to bomb. And one country wasn't enough, they had to find a second one to empty their ordinances in.

The troop surge in 2007 eventually worked, something Bushites claim is a great victory, because he did it when everyone was against the idea, and it actually worked (much to everyone's surprise).

But even then, this success cannot be credit to him. It's like saying, I'm sorry I axed your fingers clean off your hand, but look, I managed to sew a couple of them back on again. I'm great, aren't I?

The thought that went into the troop surge and its associated policies under David Petraeus should have been the name of the game from the get-go. In fact, what game? There shouldn't have even been a war!

I don't see why he should claim the credit for ameliorating a planetesimal problem that he created. Iraq today has only "tolerable" levels of violence, where "only" 20 or so people die in bombings everyday, where previously it was 10 times as much. He set the bar of expectation so low that a success like this looks like a defining moment in his presidency.

Iraq is an epic, unprecedented failure that George W. Bush and his complicit allies are entirely responsible for. It outsizes all of his other failures, of which there are many, by at least an order of magnitude.

Despite what minor successes he may have had in his time, the scale of human and capital loss the world has incurred under this man's leadership, it would be small justice for Iraq to define his presidency, and for him to be remembered as one of the worst American presidents in recent history.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The End of the Bush Era: Afghanistan

This is the first in a series of essays, "The End of the Bush Era." It is a list of what I believe are the most prominent successes and failures of this prolific politician who, for better or ill, is going to become an indelible part of history.


It surprises me how much the war in Afghanistan is still supported by Americans.

I understand it was UN-approved, but the US lobbied very hard for it, and nobody wanted to question them at the time. They had many allies in its totally preposterous war in Iraq, so I can see why many naysayers may have bended the American way in 2001, after being shocked by 9/11 and then shivering in fear at what the sleeping giant would do now that it awoke. Other countries, perhaps legitimately, also saw the scale of the attacks and didn't want to fall prey to anything similar.

For my part, though, I still think the invasion of Afghanistan was wrong, both morally and strategically.

What has come of it? Tens of thousands of civilian lives have been lost. What little infrastructure Afghanistan had was pommeled. A country in need of rehabilitation after generations of warfare is seeing yet another war. Drug production has increased many-fold and the black market for opium is flooded with Afghan produce. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri are still blogging from their mountain hills, and the Hamid Karzai government has no implementation capacity to distribute and spend the billions of dollars it is receiving in foreign aid.

The Taleban are now back, and the government is now considering negotiating with them.

Why could they not have negotiated with the Taleban back then? Before the lives were lost, before you emptied billions of dollars of missiles and ammunition onto a poor patch of mountainous dirt that's seen enough violence already? Before the Taleban was radicalized any further, like they weren't already radical enough?

The Taleban offered to try Osama bin Laden in their own courts in 2001. The religious council actually politely asked Osama bin Laden to leave Afghanistan before the invasion, because as much as Osama bin Laden was their guest, they didn't want to get bombed for him.

Don't tell me there was no room for negotiation with those people. They may not have been the paragon of progressive thinking, but violence was not a foregone conclusion.

There were senior, aged members of the Taleban who would see some inkling of reason back then. Most of them are now dead or sidelined by the new hardline extremists who don't have a moral problem in selling drugs to make money like the pre-invasion Taleban did. They will be much harder to negotiate with, if they want to negotiate at all.

Yes, these are the same people that blew up Buddhas out of spite, and wouldn't let girls go to school, but they are also the same people who offered their own forces in support of the operations to free Air India hostages that landed in a hijacked plane in Kandahar in 1999.

They are the same people that destroyed 95% of Afghanistan's poppy culture, on nothing more than the principle of the thing (a fatwa was issued that said taking drugs was forbidden in Islam.)

Consider, for a moment, that the illegal drug trade in Afghanistan was one of their only sources of income. It brought in billions of dollars in informal revenue to an otherwise impoverished country under chronic and crippling sanctions for many years. The worldwide supply of Afghan-made drugs was destroyed almost literally overnight.

The hatred for the Taleban in progressive circles is very strong, the term "Talebanization" is a cuss, representing prudishness on an astronomical scale and the curtailment of individual freedoms. Rightly so. And I must say this: I'm not defending the Taleban. I'm defending empathy, the sanctity of human life, the willingness to negotiate even with someone you have deep differences with, and the use of force only as a last resort.

When the Taleban removed the Northern Alliance from control over Afghanistan, many Afghans breathed a sigh of relief. They didn't like the Taleban any, but they sure were a whole lot better than the warlords of the Northern Alliance. The men were forced to wear beards, and women were barred from many public engagements, but they were still better than the random injustice of the warlords. There was a semblance of order in the country.

Afghanistan has no precedent for an organized government in its recent history (something Iraq has, and so is cause for very cautious optimism there). It is still living in the Dark Ages socially, with feudal lords roaming the countryside, and unaccompanied women in public at genuine risk of grievous harm. Building any kind of civil institution in a region like Afghanistan is going to be difficult.

I wish it the very best. I still remember CNN's Nic Robertson reporting from Afghanistan in 2001 before the invasion, taking great pains to point out that the Afghans have a rich tradition of chivalry, to a fault, in seeing Osama bin Laden as their guest in remembering the aid he rendered them during the Soviet invasion.

Looking forward, though, from my vantage point, all the data points toward one very likely eventuality: the continuation of hostilities. I do very much want to be proven wrong, though.

America was looking for something to bomb after 9/11, and that's a stupid reason to go to war. But this is emblematic of the Bush presidency: twisted, belligerent, and arrogant ideology, mixed with a complete divorce from reality.

The End of the Bush Era

This is a series of essays, "The End of the Bush Era." It is a list of what I believe are the most prominent successes and failures of this prolific politician who, for better or ill, is going to become an indelible part of history.

I still remember when George W. Bush got elected president in 2000. There was a big hullabaloo around the Florida recount that I didn't pay much attention to (I was only 16!), but we were just waiting for when he would win. This is no big secret: Bush got the Muslim backing in 2000.

Al Gore was drab, uncharismatic, indistinguishable from Bush, and represented the status quo, and his pick of Joe Lieberman for Vice President didn't sit well with Muslims, who, for better or ill, saw in Mr. Lieberman someone who may not bode well for Middle East peace, being a Jew.

"Our candidate" won in 2000, so we got our way. Christian conservatism has a lot in common with Muslim conservatism, so socially, we swing generally the same way. The backing for John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 by the Muslims is largely because we've decided gay marriage is a far less significant issue than say, prisoner abuse, or illegal invasion.

Bush very quickly lost Muslim and (for slightly different reasons) other Americans' backing, and I remember in 2004, there was a campaign out called "ABB." Anybody But Bush. Not really a clear endorsement of John Kerry who was on the Democratic ticket, but representative of how quickly and deeply his support evaporated.

I was in university at the time, in Singapore, and I watched the elections very closely. I was working for the school paper at the time, so me and a friend of mine arranged for a non-scientific poll: we approached people at the bus stops in NUS and asked them questions about the election. Most people didn't really care about the elections, thinking they're untouched by them.

How wrong they were. Bush got the popular vote that year, and set the world on a course to further disaster.

The American elections affects everyone. They are the world's largest economy by far, and they are truly a superpower. This is both hard power (military) and soft power (economic and diplomatic). They are also a source of innovation and (despite what may have happened these past 8 years), I still believe, generally a source of good in the world.

Most of the game-changing innovations come from the United States, and they still take the majority of Nobel Prizes in the sciences. As recently as last year, they dominated the Nobel Prizes, bagging the awards for Economics, Chemistry and Physics.

It's American companies like Microsoft, Apple and IBM that fuelled the IT revolution which has created millions of jobs and incomes worldwide, and it's an American company that has made the first fully viable electric car. We use American ingenuity and know-how in every facet of our lives today.

Let's be fair: the world rides on America's innovative coat tails.

If the Nazis won in World War 2, or Soviet Russia during the Cold War, we'd be in a very different world, and, I think, not a better one.

The fact that I even have to consider what the world would be like had the Nazis or the Soviets won is indicative of how badly the past 8 years under George W. Bush has been. The world is left reeling from failure after failure after failure of the Bush administration, and we're soul-searching. What just happened? How did it come to this?

How can one man be so brazenly incompetent, yet so enduringly popular among his people, and manage to remain in power so long, and do so much damage?

Far better politicians have failed for far fewer and graver faults.

What follows is a series of posts on all the things I believe Bush did right, and all the things I believe he did wrong. One of these lists, I get the feeling, is going to be longer than the other.

Other articles in this series:

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Israeli Attacks on the Gaza Strip 2008

When I first read reports of bombing breaking out in the Gaza Strip, I audibly groaned. I honestly didn't follow the news for the first few days of the air raids, because it would just be more of the same.

A "free" democracy is generally good at expunging the extreme elements from its society, for good or for ill. Two Muslim-majority countries very recently rejected Islamic extremism wholesale: Pakistan and Bangladesh. Islamist parties saw their support base decrease significantly in what, give or take, can be seen as accurate gauges of public opinion. These, in countries that have deeply entrenched conservative Muslim streaks.

Religious or not, Muslim or Jewish, you can depend on people to look out for their own interests.

None of this serves Israel's long-term interests.

A few very nice articles and essays on the matter:

Johann Hari: The true story behind this war is not the one Israel is telling 29th Dec. 2008
The Gaza Strip is smaller than the Isle of Wight but it is crammed with 1.5 million people who can never leave. They live out their lives on top of each other, jobless and hungry, in vast, sagging tower blocks. From the top floor, you can often see the borders of their world: the Mediterranean, and Israeli barbed wire. When bombs begin to fall – as they are doing now with more deadly force than at any time since 1967 – there is nowhere to hide.
Robert Fisk: Why bombing Ashkelon is the most tragic irony 30th Dec. 2008
[...] [T]he Palestinians who lived in Ashkelon and the fields around it – Askalaan in Arabic – were dispossessed from their lands in 1948 when Israel was created and ended up on the beaches of Gaza. They – or their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren – are among the one and a half million Palestinian refugees crammed into the cesspool of Gaza, 80 per cent of whose families once lived in what is now Israel. This, historically, is the real story: most of the people of Gaza don't come from Gaza.

But watching the news shows, you'd think that history began yesterday, that a bunch of bearded anti-Semitic Islamist lunatics suddenly popped up in the slums of Gaza – a rubbish dump of destitute people of no origin – and began firing missiles into peace-loving, democratic Israel, only to meet with the righteous vengeance of the Israeli air force. The fact that the five sisters killed in Jabalya camp had grandparents who came from the very land whose more recent owners have now bombed them to death simply does not appear in the story.
Yossi Sarid: If you (or I) were Palestinian 2nd Jan. 2009
There are no good and bad peoples; there are only leaderships that behave responsibly or insanely. And now we are fighting those whom a goodly number of us would be like, had we been in their place for 41 and a half years.
Thanks, JJ, for the links.


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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)