By Oliver Tang
Sun Tzu proclaimed in the Art of War that, “The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace…is the jewel of the kingdom”. The circumstances involving the US’ entrance into the affairs of the Middle East and its subsequent management (or rather mismanagement) of the region have arguably left us appearing as anything but a jewel in the eyes of the international community. However, all things must come to an end and the US has another opportunity to redeem itself through its pullout from a conflict that’s been protracted for far too long. Or does it? Is the United States handling its dwindling days of the war better than it handled the war itself or is it moving even farther away from the jewel of the international community it once was?
A story doesn’t have an end without a beginning and middle; thus, it is best we examine the past 13 years before delving into the pullout. Born out of the tragedy that was 9/11, the Afghanistan War fundamentally differed from its younger sibling, the Iraq War, through the circumstances of the invasion. Rather than a solitary trot led by a unilateral United States, the USA and Britain were both behind the initial invasion of Afghanistan, a mission dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom that has since grown to include 41 other countries (1). The governing Taliban, who had refused to hand over bin Laden, were easily routed but rather than being erased from the Middle East as intended, survived and scattered to desert/mountainous regions such as Pakistan. Two notable developments followed. First, in an event that happens once in a blue moon now, the 15 permanent and nonpermanent members of the UN Security Council unanimously voted to maintain security within the country and to train Afghan National Security Forces through a task force named the International Security Assistance Force (2). Second, Hamid Karzai, an early leader in the anti-Taliban movement, was elected to head the Afghan Interim Administration in 2002, a title that has evolved into a presidency and has held on to this day with popular election victories in both 2009 and 2014. Had history ended in 2002, Afghanistan would have become the poster child of interventionism and the glorious, progressive powers of the West. Unfortunately for everybody, history did not in 2002.
If American popular opinion is any indicator of efficacy, with disapproval of the war hovering at Iran war-levels of 52% (an undecided response from 10% of Americans leaves support for the war at a low 37%) and the opinion that getting involved in Afghanistan was “the wrong decision” doubling in popularity among Americans over the past 10 years, the US has (at least appeared) to fulfill the ambitious goals it came into the region and the ones that sprung up over time (3). But what went so wrong? The first explanation may be the constant shadow looming over the reality that is war: war crimes. Amid the unfortunate existence of collateral damage evidenced by the Nangar Khel incident or the near remorseless slaying of innocents that can only be attributed to prejudice or debilitating mental conditions in the Maywand District murders, just last year more skeletons in the closet were revealed through the form of 10 bodies found just outside a US army base. Even generous estimates find that at least 17000 soldiers have lost their lives (4). With recent estimates finding that Afghanistan may boast a trillion dollars worth of mineral reserves, not only does the potential of abuse for the sake of profit comes into play too, the West might not be leaving anytime soon. That leads into a second explanation: the West has more than overstayed its welcome. All the way back in 2010, the Afghanistan war had the honor of becoming America’s longest war, surpassing Vietnam. Obama ran on the relatively popular platform back in 2008 of pulling out, remarking, “I will give my military a new mission on my first day of office: ending the war” (5). Within a year, 30000 more troops had been deployed to Afghanistan, marking everything but an end to the war. A third explanation may justify why Obama had to go back on his word: the initial invasion didn’t work and the Taliban still pose a threat. In the years following 2002, this has unfortunately been the case. Not only has the conflict spilled over into Afghanistan, the Taliban has reasserted its authority in the more rural areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan (7). This ties back into Karzai’s administration, one that ranks as one of the three most corrupt countries in the world on the Corrupt Perception Index. This also ties back into the ever present and sometimes abusive presence of the West, which have stoked the flames of anti-Americanism and terrorism. What complicates this quagmire further is the Taliban’s nasty habit of resorting to asymmetric warfare, guerilla raids, ambushes, and suicide attacks, methods of combat the US is historically unable to handle (I’m looking at you Vietnam). With these three issues in mind, a situation that looked to be convincingly improving became protracted in a thirteen year affair, a burden we have been carrying with us up to now.
However, are we any closer to dislodging ourselves from this predicament? If international action and Obama have anything to say, the answer is yes. Just this month, the UK (our original partners in starting the war) has reduced their troop presence by 60% in an operation defense correspondent Jonathan Beale calls “complex and well-planned” (9). Unlike the surge of unpopularity gripping America, Britain came in with much less ambitious goals and has left with a sense of satisfaction, with Prime Minister reflecting that the ultimate goal was always only “a basic level of security”, a goal “that has been accomplished and our troops can be proud of” (9). Britain’s sister under the Commonwealth of Nations, Canada, has also undergone its own process of withdrawal, following under the footsteps of fellow ISAF members “Holland, Denmark, Australia, Poland, and Spain” (10). The departure of a task force numbering 100 just last week marks the end of the nation’s 12-year involvement in the war. Of the goodbyes sending off these soldiers, some have not been too pretty. The Taliban has already taken the liberty of releasing press statements to rural areas of Afghanistan “celebrat[ing] victory and freedom from the Canadians” (10). An imperial force that was apparently forced to retreat in failure, Canada is now portrayed as a country that “came with dreams of colonization, dreams that have been shattered by [the Taliban’s] powerful explosions and iron-fist attacks” (10). 7 countries have now begun or completed the process of withdrawing their presence from the “Graveyard of Empires”, but what of the USA? As established earlier, Hamid Karzai’s leadership over Afghanistan has been questionable at best and his governance, both domestically and internationally, has been exacerbated by a certain agreement known as the Bilateral Security Agreement. Drafted last year and agreed by the general countries involved (America and Afghanistan), the BSA creates a framework for international policy ensuring policy in Afghanistan once America is gone as well as plans for continued anti-insurgency fighting. However, even after endorsement from fellow leaders back in November, Karzai has staunchly refused to sign the treaty, citing a “lack of peace process under way with the Taliban” or “contingency plan” for cooperation with insurgents in place, afraid that any havoc wreaked by the Taliban should the West tone down their presence would be traced back to and blamed on him (11). America was not amused. The White House has already stated in a press release that Hamid’s reluctance would prove deadly in the long run, rendering any “post-USA mission in Afghanistan smaller in size and ambition” (11). In a recent phone call with Karzai, Obama has already directly expressed plans to the leader for an “orderly withdrawal” of troops by the end of 2014. Although candidates running against Karzai in the 2014 elections rolling along soon have promised cooperation with the BSA, it’s looking like the Obama administration is not willing to take that chance; the USA has warned since last October that “it would not protect Afghanistan from external attack because it could get mired in a war with Afghanistan” (11). While actions may speak louder than words, in this case, the words make it loud and clear that America’s presence in Afghanistan may not be lasting any longer.
So we have the question of whether a withdrawal is happening out of the way, but the more important question is: Are we going about this the right way? First and foremost, will we being see a collapse in security? Some say an adamant yes. Marine General Joseph Dunford warned just this month a withdrawal means “abandoning the people of Afghanistan, abandoning the endeavor that we’ve been here on for the last decade” and would subsequently create a “huge moral factor” that would allow al-Qaeda to regroup (16). A recent nonpartisan study corroborates that a lack of US means would leave “systematic gaps in capability”, literally opening the door to the country for the Taliban (17). Army Corporal David Thorpe argues the opposite, stating that Afghanistan is “much more secure” and certainly much better off than an Afghanistan without Western involvement (18). Af this point, policy evaluations are scattered: should we leave things up to the international community, safeguards left by the Afghani people, or still maintain a small presence in the region? Furthermore, one of the biggest forces we are relying on to maintain security are the police: can they be trusted? This issue becomes extremely important given the fact that an estimated 97% of all security operations are now being handled by the Afghanistan police force (13). Only 2 years ago, police specifically trained by America were found guilty of 7 counts of abuse, including but not limited to ransom, rape, and murder (12). The BSA and placeholders left behind by NATO specifically has measures to further train the police and address these egregious concerns. However for the time being, the consensus seems to be that the overall functionality of the police has “been growing steadily since 2007”, with one trainer arguing, “They are going to have challenges…but they also have confidence” (9). Additionally, as even a terrorist organization can’t succeed without public cooperation to some extent, have we successfully appealed to the “hearts and minds” of the people? When we take a look back at Canada, it seems like we don’t have too much to worry about. Despite Taliban propaganda, testimony from a district elder in Panjwali reveals that the general consensus in the rural region is that the West were a powerful force “who scared the Taliban and often forced them to hide”; he concludes that “people do recognize the Canadians came to help” (9). Moreover, with 57% of Afghanis believing that their country is heading in the right direction (ironically nearly the same percentage of Americans who believe the opposite), it seems that the West has left to some degree a positive effect, at least in their eyes. Finally, are there any logistical or pragmatic concerns? As the 7 countries before us have demonstrated, the process is not difficult as we are making it out to be. Besides, there’s only one thing more expensive than pullout, and that’s prolonged war. One extremely questionable decision that America has been making is its consideration of handing over used American military material to Pakistan. With Pentagon figures estimating a cost of $100000 to ship back an individual vehicle, $7 billion of our military equipment might just be dumped into the hands of Pakistan. This deliberation is questionable at best, given Pakistan’s role not only as a geopolitical region of instability (and most notably the preferred safe haven of Taliban over the course of the Afghanistan war), but also as a historical squanderer of American aid (look no further to intelligence estimates that Pakistan has wasted a good 70% of military aid it has received from America). On the bright side, this consideration remains as it is in the status quo, just a consideration. However, the existence of such problems indicates the depth of policy evaluation that must go into organizing a withdrawal from Afghanistan.
13 years. 33600 soldiers. 2313 deaths. America has and continues to make a heavy commitment to the hotbed of stability that was, and arguably still is, Afghanistan. The nature of Obama’s choice, motivated by a lack of understanding with Karzai, to leave the country in the first place holds heavy implications for our country. The void we inevitably leave behind, the potential repercussions, and the inevitable costs that come with removing a force that’s been present for 13 years also hold heavy implications for our country. Every story and must come to an end and it looks like the tale that is the Afghanistan War is finally drawing to a close. Only time will tell if America is going to get that storybook ending or one full of crushed dreams and dashed hopes.
By Oliver Tang
To Christopher Columbus, a 15th century European, the relatively uncolonized Venezuela was a paradise, fondly nicknamed the “Land of Grace”. Fast-forward a little more than 5 centuries later and this moniker seems all but appropriate. With a staunchly Socialist government once headed by the late Hugo Chavez and increasingly strained relations with the United States (just last month 3 American diplomats were expelled for “promoting violence”), this South American country has been amidst in its own “Venezuelan Spring” since January (1). A conflict overshadowed by the likes of Ukraine and Flight 370 in the media, the protests have nearly turned the country into a war zone. Is the government of the recently elected Nicolas Maduro to blame? Where did everything so wrong?
As usual, a brief walk through history is necessary to understand the context and roots of the revolts. Nearly every modern aspect of Venezuela can be traced to the pivotal 1998 election of Hugo Chavez, the start of the Bolivarian Revolution. Born into a working-class family, Hugo Chavez won the presidency of Nicaragua for his newly formed party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), on a landslide decision, running on an anti-poverty and anti-corruption platform (an ideology collectively referred to as “Chavismo”). The most important implication of Chavismo was its heavy roots in socialism (Chavez was one of the key figures in defining a wave of “21st Century Socialism”), a connection that unfortunately and inevitably alienated the American government, which became the target of blame when a failed coup against Chavez rolled around in 2002 (2). Chavez’ allegations of Bush being “the devil” didn’t do wonders for the two countries’ relations either (3). Chavez’ nearly 15 years of presidency were characterized not only by his ride on the “pink tide” of left-wing ideology sweeping South America (allying himself with the Castros and Daniel Ortega to name a few), but also heavy socialist reforms including but not limited to the nationalization of several industries and universities, financing health clinics and programs, land/housing reform, providing widespread free food, and improving worker unions and cooperation (4, 5). Hugo Chavez’ bottom up policies proved to be extremely popular among the poor and working class and he ended his career with a approval rating of 64%; Chavez proved to be nowhere near as popular in the USA with a rating of 18% (6, 7). Hugo Chavez legitimately won reelection in 2000, 2002, and 2008 on similar landslide decisions before ultimately postponing what would be his final inauguration after the return of his cancer. Chavez died shortly after, on March 3, 2013. That’s where Chavez’ Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nicolas Maduro, comes in. Coming from similar blue collar roots as Chavez (boasting careers as a bus driver and trade unionist”, Maduro made his way into and found his way up Chavez’ inner circle, eventually gaining the honor of being Chavez’ “most capable administrator and politician” (8). Becoming interim president after Chavez’ death, Nicolas Maduro won a narrow election, leading the Socialist Party to victory by a narrow margin of 1.8% (9). Besides Maduro’s alarmingly close election (as compared to his predecessor’s landslide victories), another red flag came in the form of a man that got past incompetent security, grabbing Maduro’s microphone and interrupting the inauguration. Unfortunately for Nicolas Maduro and more importantly Venezuela, Chavez’ right hand man would come nowhere near to matching his predecessor’s legacy.
Maduro’s victory brought back memories of 1998, running on a foundation of “tackl[ing] corruption and crime” and promising shortly after, “Good times are on the way” (9). So what went wrong? What would incite an entire country to revolt against a government that had yet to reach its first anniversary? The answer can be found in the form of three ailments rampant near the end of the Chavez administration, that have gotten worse during (and possibly as a direct result of) the Maduro administration that have brought the entire country to a boiling point. The first grievance of the Venezuelan people against Maduro is, counterintuitive to his campaign promise, his utter failure to address crime. Venezuela boasts a homicide rate of 78 murders per 100000 people, a figure that doubled over the past few years even despite socialist anti-poverty programs; as one gravedigger who was forced to bury his own nephew put it, “Violence is the modern fashion in Venezuela” (10). To put this astonishing rate into perspective, Venezuela’s homicide rate is nearly 15 times higher than the USA, 260 times higher than Japan, and has resulted in a murder occurring approximately every 21 minutes (11). Obviously, Venezuela is not too pleased. It’s not a coincidental that a high-profile crime was the catalyst that first brought people to the streets. Akin to the shot heard around the world, Franz Ferdinand’s assassination paving the way for a world war, the murder of former Miss Venezuela Monica Spears in a botched robbery became the “shot heard around Venezuela” as it began the earliest protests against Maduro’s regime (12). While Maduro’s government attempts blame this surge in crime on “capitalist crimes” such as violent media and drug trafficking, a better explanation lies in the government’s utter failure to reform both its police force and justice system. This complete incompetency ties into Venezuela’s second grievance: corruption. Hugo Chavez was no saint and his presidency saw Venezuela fall into the bottom 10, 165th in world, when it came to state sector corruption (13). Maduro, counterintuitive to his campaign promises again, has done nothing significant to improve the state of his government, with another report finding this year that Venezuela still remains one of the top 20 in the world when it comes to corruption and boasts the most corrupt judicial system (14). It’s not like the people are unaware either: shortly before the revolts 75% of Venezuelans stated that corruption was a widespread problem (15). Corruption, the root of all evils, prevents and even undermines any possible governmental reform, perpetuating a vicious cycle. Maduro’s failure/lack of willingness to address this ticking time bomb may have proven to be his demise, as the people call for a swift exit for a government that has failed to address its own internal problems. Maduro is endangered not only by perceived governmental incompetence through the form of corruption but also through tangible governmental incompetence in the form of Venezuela’s third grievance: the economy. Unlike Chavez and his ability to win over the working class, Maduro is seeing no such success. Venezuela is gripped with a 56% inflation rate, a number that has actually doubled since the course of Maduro’s presidency (16). As usual, Maduros has seemed completely reluctant to take the blame for the economy, contrary to his history as a trade unionist, and has blamed the state of the economy on “capitalism” and an “economic war” being waged against him; Maduro’s subsequent decisions to enact price/profit controls and raise gas prices for the first time in 15 years aren’t doing wonders for his popularity either (17). The people are feeling the brunt of the economy: Venezuela’s scarcity index has reached 28%, meaning that in short time common amenities like flour and toilet paper will be running out of stock and cost fortunes (17). So in retrospect, yes, there are clear problems in Venezuela that are the fuel feeding the fire of revolution and yes, Maduros is at least partially to blame for his attempts to shift the guilt onto nonexistent forces and his complete failure to address these grievances.
With the fundamental roots of the protests in mind, what is the actual state of Venezuela? The revolt has taken to the streets of Venezuela’s major cities: Caracas, San Cristobal, Merida, Valencia, and Maracaibo. Perhaps the biggest spasm of violence came a month ago, when 50000 took to the streets of Caracas, one that forced our House of Representatives to pass a near unanimous unbinding resolution condemning the violence in the country and imploring for sanctions (18). Maduros has already taken the liberty of blaming the violence on a conspiracy from the US to undermine his government, a largely unsubstantiated claim that was still the basis for the aforementioned withdrawal of 3 American diplomats from the country. If anything, Maduros’ government seems to be the primary offender in the status quo, with testimony elucidating, “The bigger problem is actually the government troops. The National Guard is the one that is doing the most violence, shooting on protesters and buildings. They tend to be very unprofessional. They don’t think in terms of civilian policing, so they will often fire on people who are fleeing. These are people who are 20 to 22 years old and oftentimes they end up being violent” (17). It seems that Venezuela seems to be following the unfortunate modern trend of brutal police crackdown on revolts, with further reports corroborating that the police are “respond[ing] with tear gas and water cannons” (19). Other details of the revolts are not so clear-cut. For example, there have also apparently been instances of government employed paramilitary troops; while very poor quality video might support this phenomenon, it has been generally dismissed as “appeals to the middle class’ worst nightmare” (17). Looking to the side of the opposition, protestors do not seem to be too fazed. The youth, a ubiquitous demographic when it comes to anti-governmental protests, seem to remain a cohesive and determined unit. Eusebio Acosta, one demonstrator, argues that, “The youth today have decided they’re ready to give up their lives for the country, for freedom” (19). But of course, what would be a group without its leaders? Leopoldo Lopez, a long time politician and social activist against Chavez and subsequently his successor, became a natural leader of the opposition movement and brought purpose to what would have otherwise been a disorganized group of people dissatisfied with the government. Unfortunately for the opposition, after being faced with counts including “murder, arson, and terrorism”, Lopez surrendered himself to the government just last month, thronged by supporters (20). Maduros has taken similar steps against other opposition leaders, having recently arrested both San Diego Mayor Enzo Scarano and San Cristobal Mayor Daniel Caballlos for fomenting violence (21). However, as history has proven time and time again, an idea can not be stopped by the arrest of a few outspoken people and there will always be leaders to fill the void of those silenced by the government. Nearly 3 months in, the revolts look poised to continue and cooperation between the opposition and Maduros’ government have seen no signs of improvement.
However, not everything is fire and brimstone. For starters, casualties have remained at a relative low, with deaths “only” numbering 31 and injuries numbering 461 (as compared to the 102 deaths and 1221 injuries of Ukraine) (22). Furthermore, most of the revolts are concentrated in the cities of Venezuela, with one correspondent from the Washington Office reporting, “From the outside it always looks like the whole country’s in flames, but of course life goes and most things are up and running” (17). Furthermore, the revolution is largely a middle class process; the poor, long benefactors of Chavez’ policies, have for the most part remained supporters of his Chavismo ideology. As Maduro’s presidential opponent in the 2013 elections and opposition leader Henrique Capriles grudgingly points out, “For the protests to be effective, they must include the poor” (17). Even Leopoldo Lopez is worried that the revolt might be near death’s knell, warning the possibility of the revolution “fizzl[ing] out” to his supporters from behind bars. However, don’t expect the revolution to fizzle out yet. Lopez’ warning was followed by a revolt in Caracas within a week and support from the poor may be reaching its limits, with more recent analyses finding that lower class support for Maduros is conditional and support for the opposition is reaching 47% across the socioeconomic spectrum (23). For the time being, the people will stay on the streets and the revolts shall live on.
Where are we now? In just a matter of months, the protests have cost Venezuela an estimated $10 billion (24). Given the state of the economy going into the revolution in the first place, whether or not we see a fizzling out or prolonged period of unrest, the country has some serious rebuilding to do. Violence fortunately remains limited, but still dangerous because of the violent and unrestrained nature of Venezuela’s governmental forces. The opposition and the government are not displaying any major signs of reconciliation and if anything, the trends point to increased support for the opposition. What will become of Venezuela in the next month? In the next year? Who will we ultimately be seeing in office? The extent and ultimate impact of the revolts are ambiguous for the time being but if history (and American political/economic pressure) has anything to say, the odds are highly against Maduros. Chavez and Maduros both left their own marks on Venezuela, but once the revolts of Venezuela are over and done with, the absolute priority should be correcting the crime, correcting the corruption, and correcting the economic conditions that brought the revolution to life in the first place. Only then will Venezuela see some semblance of long-term stability. Only then will Venezuela be deserving of its age-old title the “Land of Grace”.
By Oliver Tang
A conflict that has cost more than 130,000 lives, as estimated by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Syrian civil war is a tragedy whose devastation and magnitude we, in the relative safety of America, cannot even come close to grasping (1). Yet, Geneva II, a proposed and recently ratified, UN-backed convention may provide the world with the first real hope of the Syrian government seeing eye to eye with the opposition. What negotiations are emerging now, after nearly three years of instability? What should we expect from such talks? And moreover, what is Iran’s role in the picture?
The convention has been in the works since 2012, since former Secretary General Kofi Annan’s “Geneva I” back in 2012. The former Secretary General and then-UN peace envoy to Syria gathered an action committee which was (miraculously) approved and attended by all 5 permanent members of the Security Council in June (2). A month later, Annan’s successor, Algerian envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, proposed another action plan: an international conference with a focus on US-Russian and Syrian government-opposition cooperation. The end result of the plan is the Geneva II conference, scheduled to start on January 22nd, 2014. So far, the involvement of the Syrian opposition, along with the four international organizations and 40+ counties involved, has gone without any significant kinks. The United States and Syrian Ambassador Robert Ford have been preparing the Syrian opposition for the meeting, including developing a “shared political platform” so that the twenty-five members of varying rebel coalitions can avoid internal conflict when the time comes (3). The Syrian government’s involvement has also come surprisingly easily, with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem approving the country’s involvement in a letter that was leaked about a week before the convention’s start (4), With all the important parties ready, unless we see a huge change in the picture, we can expect talks to begin on January 22nd.
But most importantly, what can we expect from Geneva II? The council is proceeding under a set of guidelines called the “Geneva Communique” intended to ensure Syria’s “sovereignty, independence, and national unity” with a 6-step program. This program is targeting, among many things, a cessation to the instability in the country and the transition/establishment of an operating, transnational government (5). This framework is lovely, but there have been fundamentally different goals within the delegates already. While the majority of the world obviously aims to end the conflict between government and the opposition, the Syrian government has stated that its main goal and “the priority for the Syrian people” is to “continue to fight terrorism” (4). Even on the negotiating table, the Syrian government still turns to terrorism as its scapegoat for the violence that has plagued the country for 3 years; this belief will have to be addressed before we can expect tangible progress. Additionally, not all the Syrian opposition is on board with the idea. An Islamist alliance called the Syrian National Council, which comprises a large portion of the rebel groups, has refused to involve itself in negotiations, making a breakthrough even less likely (6). The rebels willing to cooperate have additionally insisted that they are only willing to see “security and military leaders…whose hands are not stained with the blood of the Syrian people”, a condition that may be extremely hard to fulfill (7). The most ominous sign of things to come can be seen in the centerpiece of the whole affair, Bashar al-Assad. The man perpetuating the beliefs that terrorism is the root of Syria’s problem has also stated that he has “no intention of quitting”. He has full plans to run for election in mid-2014 (8). The fallen-from-grace leader has additionally attempted to secure and consolidate his power, with refusals to make opposition figures leaders within his government (9). Additionally, soon we will have to address the nearly irreparable damage done to the country, something that talks at the table (and potentially even the appointment of a new government) will not solve. A stable government requires the foundations of a stable country, and that has yet to be secured. Yet, there still lies a glimmer of hope in the situation. We should first and foremost bear in mind that this is the closest we have ever come to both domestic and international cooperation to address the Syrian civil war. This can be clearly demonstrated when we look to Washington and Moscow. Starting with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s letter to America back in September, the cooperation between America and Russia has set the stage for talks to happen in the first place, something we never thought we’d be saying (10).
Another factor of the negotiation process is Iran, another player in the negotiation game. The recovering nuclear pariah has been hit with accusations of providing “fighters, intelligence, and communications to support al-Assad”; alleged involvement of the Iranian-backed Shiite organization Hezbollah in the conflict does not do wonders for Iran’s innocence (11). The United States and particularly Secretary of State John Kerry, who played a heavy role in P5+1 Iranian nuclear negotiations, aren’t exactly comfortable with the country getting involved in negotiations yet, with Kerry personally lobbying UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and threatening to pull Washington out if Iran takes a seat the conference table (12). The Syrian opposition coalition has been just as welcoming, with one member resolutely proclaiming, “We cannot attend if Iran is there. The coalition is united on this one point” (12). Despite Iran’s allegations that it had no interest in getting involved in the meeting should it get tied down in “unnecessary preconditions”, the UN saved the meeting the trouble and eventually revoked Iran’s invitation. However, Ban Ki-Moon still stands behind Iran’s involvement in negotiations, saying, “I believe strongly that Iran needs to be part of the solution” and that the country would bring “positive and constructive” talk to the table (13). On one side, maybe it is for the best that Iran, a country whose decision to cooperate still remains ambiguous, to stay out of the meeting, at least for now. However, with Iran also being a major party in perpetuating the violence, we shouldn’t have too high expectations while the country remains denied from the table. Washington isn’t blameless either: threats to completely rescind Washington aren’t a good sign of progress either.
Geneva II has its merits. It has its flaws. It bears hope. And it bears apprehension. At this point, the only thing we can agree upon (and arguably be proud of) is that this is a record level of international cooperation to address a conflict that has been allowed to fester for far too long. Will the world cooperate in face of negotiations? Will both sides of Syria turn against each other at the table? Will al-Assad submit to pressures from the West or invariably derail negotiations? What does Syria have in store from Geneva II? What does the world have in Store from Geneva II? What groundbreaking peace deal will we be covering next month? Only the future can tell.
This article was written before the Geneva Talks began. The Geneva talks were largely inconclusive, but perhaps some progress will result when the talk resume on February 10th.
By Oliver Tang
As of the time this article is written, it will have been slightly over a month since the United States federal government shutdown of 2013 ended. Lasting for a tenuous 16 days, this shutdown was rivaled in length only by one lasting 18 days during the Carter administration and another lasting 21 days during the Clinton administration (1). But, so what? As comedian Conan O’Brien remarked, “Our government may be shutting down in a few hours. So folks, get ready for absolutely no noticeable difference.” Was this shutdown just a tragically misunderstood period overplayed and overstated by the media? Or was it really the end-all be-all of American life and politics for two weeks? Let’s take a closer look.
Before delving into the details, it’s important to clarify what the government shutdown constituted as it can become all too easy for the effects of the shutdown to get overstated or understated if one is not truly aware of what happened in those fateful two weeks. Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel quipped, “I hope [this] means I don’t get any more parking tickets.” Unfortunately for Kimmel, there’s more to the shutdown than just that. It all starts at Congress. The House and Senate are required, every year, to agree on funding and spending priorities on several government agencies every year. Unfortunately, amid unprecedented levels of polarization between Democrats and Republicans creating Congressional gridlock, our Congressional representatives have become quite bad at this job. As a result, Congress has been traditionally resorting to temporary, stopgap bills in place of the required government funding plan. With the most recent stopgap expiring on September 30th, a new stopgap was needed. However, a new piece of legislation called Obamacare complicated the picture and exacerbated differences. Within a week, no agreement had been reached. The federal government shutdown of 2013 had begun.
But did this mean that all federal workers immediately lost their jobs? No. The federal government workforce is divided into two categories: essential and non-essential, with the non-essential numbering 43% of the workforce. The non-essential government workers were the ones that found themselves furloughed thanks to the shutdown. So although there were thousands left without jobs amid the shutdown (the nation puts the figure at around 800,000 workers), not everybody was out of work. 2.7 million civilian and active-service employees kept their jobs, albeit with delayed pays. The shutdown had varying consequences, depending on the government agency. Some were relatively unscathed: Only 50% of civilian employees in the Department of Defense were sent home, while nobody in active service was affected. Other agencies were completely devastated: CNN reports that 97% of NASA was laid off, leaving the agency unable to even update its Twitter feed. One humorous moment that emerged amid the confusion of the bright line between essential and non-essential was the all-too-justified outrage that the members-only Congressional gym had been deemed essential and was kept fully operational during the shutdown, funded by taxpayer dollars.
With so many federal workers getting laid off, a hit to the economy was inevitable. A preliminary analysis conducted by Standard & Poor found that the US government was left $24 billion poorer, meaning the shutdown cost the country $1500 million every day (7). Another report by Reuters calculated the economic loss at a less alarming $2 billion, but additionally found that domestic GDP had been depressed by at most 0.6% and job creation had decreased by 120,000 over the period. The brunt of this loss came from the loss of governmental services that could not be performed because hundreds of thousands of workers were laid off. For example, the National Park Service lost $76 million in revenue every day since popular tourist attractions like Yellowstone could not operate. While we as a country have had to bear these economic losses and have lost several billions of dollars we will never get back, are there permanent repercussions? Economic analysts disagree. Chief economist of High Frequency Economics, Jim O’Sullivan argued that, “It’s pretty clear that there’s going to be some major distortions because of the shutdown… There’s a real case for dismissing [long-term economic loss].” O’Sullivan projected the effects of the shutdown to vanish by November and job-creation normalizing by then. However, confidence has not been the same. Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index reveals that consumer confidence is at an all-time low, dropping 14 points within a month. Chief economist of Sterne Agee Lindsey Piegza argues, “This all comes down to a confidence issue. The consumer is just very, very sensitive to the shenanigans in Washington”. Consumer confidence is all too important because it is what directly impacts spending and investment, and a fall in confidence does not bode well for the economy. Domestic confidence isn’t the only factor changed; international confidence will not be the same. Although the government dodged the bullet of defaulting on its debts during the shutdown, the debt ceiling was lifted yet again in the resolution ending the shutdown. Now seen as a country that can’t maintain a stable government and has yet again pushed back the ticking time bomb that is the debt ceiling after disagreeing (yet again) on how to manage its fiscal policy, the US may no longer be seen as the economic safe haven it used to be and may see this lost confidence manifest itself through increased borrowing costs.
However, government confidence has equally important implications as economic confidence. CBS News finds disapproval ratings of both Democrats and Republicans skyrocketing to 61% and 78%, respectively. Although it seems that the Democrats have come out of the shutdown on the better end (Republicans Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and many others have come under fire from even their own party with leaders like Mitch McConnell and John McCain critical in their role of the shutdown), ultimately everybody in Congress emerges as a loser. The Pew Research Center finds 19% public agreement with the statement that Congress is doing “what is right for the country”, a figure that has recently been inching towards the single digits. Our commander-in-chief has been taking blame for the shutdown too and a recent Reuters poll finds that approval for Obama has dropped to an all-time-low of 38%, even amid successes like the Iranian nuclear deal. Government confidence, already low due to fluctuating unemployment and Congressional gridlock, holds many important implications. Will the public ever be as accepting of major government projects like Obamacare again? Will the public be as tolerant of the blunderings of Congress ever again? Will our politicians finally be incited to action and cooperation by public demand? Or will the elections of 2014 result in completely new faces populating Congress? Again, as with the economy, only time will tell.
The government shutdown was a long and bumpy 2 weeks. Although we fortunately emerged from it without any riots or complete collapse into anarchy, both the public and government have important lessons to take from this. Let’s just hope that we learn from them and find ourselves in a better position as a country in a few years’ time.
By Oliver Tang
The phrase “Iranian nuclear deal” is likely to elicit multifarious reactions from people. Some people would possibly roll their eyes and question the credibility of Iran’s claims that it would follow a nuclear deal, citing reasons as basic as, “It’s Iran.” Others would disapprove of the conditions of the deal, believing that the terms of the deal are too easy on a country once (and possibly still) seen as a nuclear pariah. As French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius stated, shortly before causing a temporary halt in negotiations, “One wants a deal…but not a sucker’s deal”. Others, like leader of the National Iranian American Council Trita Parsi, would be quick to praise this “historic deal”, citing it as a revolutionary landmark in breaking down tensions between the United States and Iran. As a high school debater who spent two months arguing the merits of the use of unilateral United States military force over multilateral options (such as the international diplomacy that led to this agreement), I am all too wary of the arguments of for and against why Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani can be trusted. I’ve debated opponents calling Rouhani a moderate leader, a breath of fresh air from the hard-liners that used to govern Iran (I’m looking at you, Ahmadinejad) who is willing to work with Washington and the UN. I’ve also run into opponents who brought up Rouhani’s alleged history of violating nuclear agreements by hiding nuclear facilities as the former head of Iran’s nuclear negotiation team. A deeper look at the events leading up to the deal may shed some light on what we should expect.
The United States and Iran have traditionally not been on the best speaking terms, with official diplomatic ties cut off in 1979 after the Iran hostage crisis. Following the obvious threat of a nuclear Iran, Ahmadinejad’s outspoken tendency to promise America and Israel’s destruction, and Iran’s tenuous support of regimes like Syria as well as terrorist organizations, the UN has since voted no less than 6 times in the past 3 years to establish and strengthen sanctions on Iran. The US was a major enforcer of these sanctions, taking the extra steps to ban important privileges like exporting oil and having access to international banking, enforcements that it has only loosened very recently to a select few countries (China, India, South Korea) in light of a nuclear deal. If there is one thing that is certainly true about sanctions, it’s that they have devastated Iran. The UN historically reported that 576,000 children alone were killed as a result of sanctions leaving the country unable to important necessities of life like food and medicine. Both the efficacy and ethicality of sanctions were under heavy fire; nobody was truly sure whether Iran truly stopped its nuclear program under pressure and whether such harsh actions were even justified in the first place. No long-term solution seemed to be in sight.
However, two elections made a nuclear deal possible. First: Obama. In a popular televised debate for the Democratic presidential nomination, the then-Senator promised to sit down with Iranian leaders without any preconditions, a promise that his opponent, former first-lady, Hillary Clinton called “irresponsible and frankly naïve”. Ironically, the two would both work together within two years, as President and Secretary of State, to attempt to reach an agreement with an Iran ruled by hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, this leads to the second election: that of Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani, former head nuclear negotiator of Iran who won the presidential election with a landslide, has already shown some promise to the West. His opening presidential statement was, “Moderation in foreign policy is neither surrender nor conflict, neither passivity nor confrontation. Moderation is effective and constructive interaction with the world”. While he did not aim to completely discontinue Iran’s nuclear program, he stated that he was willing to work out a negotiation of less harsh penalties while still being able to keep Iran’s ability to develop nuclear energy. Additionally, the country of Iran as a whole seemed to be more willing to negotiate with the West over nuclear policy as Saeed Jalili, the country’s current nuclear negotiator who advocated resistance, placed 3rd in the polls.
These two developments were what gradually led up to the agreement in front of us today. The Associated Press reports that the US has been secretly talking with Iran for a significant portion of 2013 up to five times, a revelation that even Israel and its prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu were unaware of until this month. However, the agreement has expanded to more than just the US and Iran. An organization called P5+1, represented by Mohammad Zarif (Iran), Catherine Ashton (EU), Guido Westerwelle (Germany), Wang Yi (China), Laurent Fabius (France), William Hague (UK), Sergey Lavrov (Russia), and John Kerry (US), met with Iran as early as mid-February to discuss Iran’s nuclear program and agreed on a later November meeting, when the deal was finally reached.
It is extremely important to clarify the actual provisions of the agreement. Iran agreed to stop enriching nuclear material at a rate of 20%, (which is the borderline when nuclear energy becomes nuclear weapons) and went to the point of agreeing to both keep uranium enrichment below 5% and stop their infamous Arak power plant. Of course, the country’s current reserves also have to be dealt with and P5+1 is currently negotiating a timeline for the country to un-enrich its nuclear material already past 20%. In exchange, $7 billion of relief from sanctions is en route to Iran to mitigate the devastating impact sanctions (which have been promised to be frozen for 6 months) have left on the country and give the Iranian people some breathing space .
As promising the initial agreements sound, like every deal which leaves us with winners and losers, it is not without its critics. Regional allies like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel are uneasy about any deal with Iran and do not think the country is to be trusted. Such countries are also afraid that the potential relief this agreement may provide Iran may lead to the Khomeinist regime regaining traction and leaders like Ali Khameini, who wants to “crush the United States” into powder. There are also disturbing implications over acknowledging Iran’s (and the world’s) right to pursue nuclear energy. At what point does that right stop? Will acknowledging a regime like Iran’s right to something like this escalate into “a right to enrich” and a general acceptance of all levels of enrichment? There are also still those wary about Iran’s supposed history of violating nuclear deals. However, Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Robert Kirk (R-Ill) have been heading a bipartisan bill gaining traction that might provide a temporary fix. Threatening a boost in sanctions should Iran ever go back on its word, hopefully such warnings are enough to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The deal is set to go in place in January, as Reuters reports.No matter how divided people may be over the efficacy of this deal and the promise of a solution to Iran’s nuclear aspirations, it’s undeniable that this deal is an unprecedented level of US-Iran relations. Hopefully, that alone can confirm that we have good things in store when it comes to Rouhani’s Iran.
By Oliver Tang
Amid all the tragic deaths from brutal cartel violence, the huge monetary costs that taxpayers shoulder, and all the arguments of our constant blunders, it can be all too easy to lose faith in our country’s so-called War on Drugs. The only thing we’ve been hearing on the media about this struggle has been failure after failure and public opinion reflects this. Ramussen Reports finds in a poll within the past 6 months that an abysmal 7% of Americans believe we are winning the drug war. A later poll found that for the first time in history, support for the legalization of marijuana surpassed opposition. In light of reports of both harms to Americans and Latin Americans, a deeper look can help show you new developments in our struggle and possibly show you how we’re slowly winning this “losing war.”
Let’s start off by looking at how American policies have affected the supply of drugs to Americans. It can be all too easy to get caught up in arguments over how American involvement has only inadvertently helped cartels or is only displacing the problem. When we look to statistics demonstrating the exploding supply of drugs, it is important to look at a University of Miami study which reports that before the US got involved in Latin America, drug production “more than doubled” every year; essentially, the US can not be fully blamed for the skyrocketing drug supply. With that in mind, let’s look at two ways the US is making the situation better in Latin America. First, the US is solving the problem at its roots by dealing with the cultivation of drugs. USAID found that in the past few years, areas sprayed by herbicides to kill psychoactive plants has increased from 43,000 to 137,000 hectares. Eradication of these plants by hand has multiplied ten fold. Long term yield of drugs like cocaine has been reduced by nearly 40 tons per hectare because of such policies. Second, whatever drugs survive eradication are prevented from being trafficked thanks to American aid. USAID elaborates that seizures in the past few years have increased from 64 tons to 188 tons. With both of these policies in mind, cocaine production is projected to decrease in the region by an astonishing 82% over the next four years. With these two policies, the US is preemptively stopping the problem.
However, we have to face the fact that the drug war is not 100% winnable. Drugs are always going to find their way into the United States and that’s where the US government’s third solution comes into play. According to the United Nations, cocaine availability in our country is two-thirds of what it was a decade ago because of US policies. With reduced supply, comes increased prices. The United Nations elaborates since then that price per gram for cocaine has increased by $80. What that means is that we’re less likely to see new users trying out cocaine. In fact, a study by Carnegie Mellon finds that a 1% percent increase in prices is correlated with a 2.5% decrease in consumption in drugs. With both of these figures, it is no surprise that the UN finds that cocaine-positive have decreased 68% over the past 4 years. At the point where the Global Commission on Drugs finds that 6,000 people die from cocaine related deaths a year – making it the most dangerous psychoactive drug – this 68% decrease saves approximately 4,200 American lives annually. But we can’t forget about the monetary cost to accomplish this: a Yale University analysis finds that America spends around $12,000 each time it successfully prevents 1 kilogram of cocaine from entering the country. However, when you factor in the potential hospital stays, crime, lost productivity, and other negative factors caused by that 1 kilogram of cocaine, it would cost society about $360,000 dollars. What that means for us is that the policy saves about 30 times more than it costs. When it comes to our domestic situation, we are saving more lives and money.
But finally, we can’t forget about the situation of Latin America. After all, this is the birthplace of both the psychoactive drugs and the cartels that give us so much trouble. Are we leaving these people in the dust with our policies and just allowing the problem reemerge stronger than before? Or are we taking steps to ensure long-term stability and self-sufficiency for the Latin Americans? The reality is the latter. Let’s start by looking at alternative development programs in Latin America. Three alternative development programs have already affected 250,000 Latin American families, allowing them to exchange illicit drugs…for legal crops. As a result we have seen sales of legal crops experience an outstanding 70% increase. We are moving families away from illegal and potentially self-destructive lifestyles and providing them with a stable one. But it doesn’t end there. A report from Time Magazine actually finds that farmers actually earn twice their normal income with this new lifestyle, bringing themselves up from the near state of poverty they found selling psychoactive plants. We’re enriching and improving the quality of life for these farmers. Additionally, for regions plagued by cartel violence, crime is an extremely important issue. Cartels hold a significant influence in Latin America and the US has worked to reduce that stranglehold. Thanks to $4.8 billion of US Aid, the Colombian Army’s membership has nearly quadrupled. This surge in power of the Colombian corresponds with a hit to the membership of cartel gangs, with the LA Times reporting that demobilization of FARC combatants has dropped membership from 17,000 to 5,000. This leaves crime rates at a new low. The Brookings Institution reports that homicides have dropped 40% in Colombia alone, saving 14,000 lives per year. The study also finds that kidnapping has declined even more impressively by 80%. By helping the Latin Americans by providing them with a solid lifestyle instead of growing drugs and suppressing violence, American aid has resulted in a win-win for both countries.
In retrospect, we should rethink how we view our War Against its Drugs and its ambiguous continuation. While our policies in Latin America are not perfect, there failed to produce many negative externalities. Contrary to what we hear everyday, we are indeed slowly and recently winning the War of Drugs.
By Oliver Tang
Although it may be hard for us Americans to come in term with this, China has been a rising leader in the world in both science and technology. With that said, China has become a global powerhouse in research and development. But how did China get to where it is today? It was certainly a wakeup call in 2010 when ABC News found that while the US ranked 25th out of all the OECD nations in education, China and particularly Shanghai rank number 1. Naturally, the fact that China is a rapidly developing and industrializing nation also helps explain this, with the IMS stating that China is projected to increase its research spending by 16% over the next 5 years. Or maybe, it’s just the fact that without the strict, watchful eyes of our FDA, China’s lax regulations, which have reduced the cost of clinical trials by around 90%, have made more risky (yet successful) innovations possible. But what does all this entail to the United States?
First, expect to see some important medical advancements in the future. Again with its low clinical costs and low regulatory environment, Chinese medical researchers have flourished and found surprising solutions to some of our most fatal diseases. The gene modification Gendicine is a very interesting example. As Bloomberg puts it, “the gene prompts tumor cells to commit suicide.” Once a $20 facility construction project off of Shenzhen is finalized, 18 million doses of this potential cancer miracle drug can be produced annually. Dody Mautista of the MP Research Group notes that this therapy is actually 2.5 times more effective than our current method of chemotherapy. She notes that 16,000 global patients have come to China to receive this therapy and as of 3 years, most have not experienced any harmful side effects. Wellness Without Drugs notes that most of these 16,000 people are “rich Western patients seeking innovative and unconventional methods for cancer treatment”. The benefits don’t stop there, with Novo Nordisk investing in the rapidly expanding Chinese market, stating that doing so will allow it to produce enough diabetic treatment for 300,000 more people. The future is bright.
Next, let’s take a look at agriculture. Obviously, China has taken a special interest with this development because a rapidly growing population means more mouths to feed. China has looked to the US as a potential partner for this research, with the Department of Agriculture reporting that the “US and China have signed a five-year accord to cooperate on agricultural production and security.” The China Information Center reports clear progress being made, with improvements in more than 40 crops and nearly 5000 strong, high-yield, resistant, new crop varieties being created. Obviously, both of these developments are helping agriculture and our farmers back in America and indeed, our agricultural production has increased 20% since we started working with China. This agricultural benefit has materialized into huge price reductions for average American families, as Crop Life America finds that this increased yield has actually cut the annual average grocery bill of a family by 40%. We can all look forward to less spending on our groceries as American and Chinese scientists continue to make more developments.
Finally, let’s touch upon energy and our ambitious Smart Grid project. The Smart Grid may seem no different than our current power grid; it possesses sensors and technology, which are placed in the grid to allow for monitoring and remote control of energy usage as well as remote repair of flaws in the grid. Overall, this allows for increased energy efficiency. In fact, the National Energy Technology Laboratory finds that this technology will save us 28 billion kilowatts of energy annually. The US Department of Energy finds that this amounts to 480 billion less CO2 emissions per year, virtually eliminating China’s carbon footprint. Although this system is considerably established in China, agreements like the US-China Energy Cooperation Program has China aiding companies like General Electric to establish this in America. With this agreement, China gains exclusive technology rights and agreements with the US and sets up its role as the future distributor of this Smart Grid technology. China has proven itself so eager to do this that it contributes on average 4 times more than America to this project. Because America is spending so little but is expected gain such a large benefit through energy efficiency, the Electric Power Research Institute finds that we will come out of the project $1.5 trillion richer from savings in energy efficiency. In terms of renewable energy, Keith Bradsher of the NY Times reports that China now makes up 80% of the global production and distribution of renewable energy and investment in the US market has “increased 130% annually”. The implication here is that while China may contribute greatly to rising global CO2 emissions, it is also working with new technologies to find a sustainable source of renewable energy.
In retrospect, with both parties benefitting, the US and China have established countless relationships that have advanced our medical, agricultural, and energy sectors. While rising China gives us the brainpower and innovation, we as the US are able to offer China our expansive market and modernized technology. It’s a mutualistic relationship and something we should look forward to in the future. But is the US wrong in any way with being complacent with and even aiding China essentially taking its role as the global leader in research and development? While the answer to this question is debatable, the future of the Sino-American relationship looks bright.