Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Hollywood strikes back on the War on Terror!

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it took a while, but we finally have what appears to be a commercial successful post-9/11 war-on-terror-related movie. Thank you, Harold and Kumar, for finally bringing these important issues to the American cinema-going audience.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Africa - the simple version

How many countries are in Africa? The answer is somewhere in the mid-50s, depending on whether you count Mauritius and Madagascar and the like, but to the newsmedia, so far as I can tell, the correct answer is about three. Because that's about as many as can be covered at any given time. Since Sudan is always one of them -- largely at the insistence of Save Darfur and its ilk -- that leaves two open slots for newsworthiness. At the moment, those slots are filled by Zimbabwe -- courtesy of the longest election recount ever that did not take place in Florida -- and Somalia. Think about it: when is the last time you heard any significant coverage about an African crisis that wasn't directly related to those three countries? I'll tell you when: Kenya, back at the start of this year, when Somalia was under Ethiopia's thumb and temporarily out of the news before the UN humanitarian agencies started reminding us again that it is the worst place on earth.

Part of it is that the media assumes the readership can't handle more than 3 African crises at a time, but part of it is that WE can't. I am fully complicit in this of course. Whenever the French Ambassador starts talking about Cote d'Ivoire, I immediately know to skip the comment in my transcript. Not only do I assume my editors and my paper's readership know nothing about this issue... I don't know anything about it either! Does this mean Cote d'Ivoire is unimportant? Not to the Ivorians and their regional neighbors, certainly. But only so many African countries can get consistent press coverage, and long-simmering crises like that one don't make the cut. And the only time anyone ever hears about the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- you know, the one that has killed more people than any war since World War II -- is when a UN peacekeeper gets busted for sexual abuse or gun-running. Or when some Kinshasa sorcerers start engaging in penis theft.

So how many African countries are there? About 3. It's just not always the same 3.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Enter the Kung Fu and Dragon

Meanwhile, anyone else read this BBC story?

It says that Pakistani peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo who were supposed to be disarming Congo's vicious militias were actually selling them guns and ammo in exchange for gold and ivory. Or so say two of the most notorious militia leaders, Kung Fu and Dragon. Well, the UN says it's bunk, that it's old news, the allegations already happened, the UN investigated and 90% of the allegations were unsubstantiated, and the 10% that actually happened, the people involved got fired. But that's not what got my attention.

No, what got my attention is that the militia leaders chose to name themselves Kung Fu and Dragon. I mean, seriously? I just feel like these guys are asking to be cast as villians in a Jason Statham or Jet Li movie, right? Never mind that this is Democratic Republic of Congo, where... I have this hunch... not a ton of people know kung fu.

viva la NFC?

Watching the NFL draft makes me think of how important this Super Bowl was, NFL-history-wise. Not just because it was one of the great games and great upsets of all time, but because it may very well be looked back upon as the turning point that ended the AFC's rule of the league and tipped the balance to the NFC.

To explain: though no one really thinks of it this way, the NFL has a habit of being dominated by one conference at a time. Consider:

1960-68. In this period, there were two leagues, not two conferences. The NFL was vastly superior to the upstart AFL, though only in the last two years were there Super Bowls to demonstrate this. The NFL's Packers won both, by a combined 44 points.

1969-1981. By Super Bowl III, the AFL had caught up to the NFL in terms of talent level and team organization. It won the next two Bowls in stunning upsets, and when the leagues merged, the AFC dominance continued. All told, between III and XV the AFC had an 11-2 record, with Dallas being the only NFC team to win it all in this stretch.

1982-97. Starting with the 49ers victory over the Bengals, the NFC took 15 of 16, including 13 in a row, and most of them were blowouts.

1998-2007. When Denver upset Green Bay, it started a streak of 8 AFC titles in 10 years.

Why does this happen? Quite simply, in each period, the best two or three or four teams have coalesced in one conference. The other conference has had good teams, even dynastic ones, but they have been consistently inferior to the other side. I don't have a good explanation as to why. I'm not sure there is one. The best I can come up with is that constantly playing against great teams in your conference and/or division forces you to build and become a better team. (Consider, for example, how their annual beat-down at the hands of New England made Indy a championship-caliber team. Or how in the early '90s, three of the best four teams in football -- Giants, Redskins, Cowboys -- were banging heads twice a year each in the same DIVISION.) Whatever the reason, the results are undeniable.

The best example is the NFC streak from '82-97. During this period, the NFC had dominant 49ers, Redskins, Giants, Cowboys and Bears teams, and later in the streak, Packers as well. Those six franchises combined for all of the 15 wins, with San Francisco, Dallas, and Washington alone accounting for 11 of these. Yes, the AFC had powerhouses then too. Buffalo and Denver reached the Super Bowl seven times in eight years... and lost them all, six times by double-digits. And I mean BAD double digits. Try 39-20, 42-10, 55-10, 30-13 and 52-17 on for size. And that doesn't count the Bills' 37-24 loss to the 'Skins where they set the Super Bowl record for allowing the most consecutive points out of the gate. Mid-3rd quarter, they were down 24-zip.

What does this mean for the Giants? Well, each of these historic runs of conference domination started with a Super Bowl upset. Jets over Colts in III sparked an AFL/AFC run led by the Dolphins, Steelers, and Raiders. The 49ers stunning '81 season, when the West Coast Offense was born, sparked NFC rule in the 80s and early 90s. Denver's shocking defeat of Green Bay in XXXII turned the tables. But how much longer with the AFC teams that were dominant in this stretch keep it up? The powerful Broncos, Titans and Ravens teams are all largely disbanded. While the Patriots and Colts (and Chargers for that matter) are the teams to beat next season, the former two are getting up there in the years, and their rosters and coaching staffs are constantly being raided by their competition in this era of free agency. In 1981, right after AFC wild card Oakland had thumped Philly 27-10 in the Superdome, who could have predicted one Super Bowl title for the AFC in the next decade and a half? Could we be launching a new age of NFC rule? Time will tell.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

the best team team money can buy

Meanwhile, from ESPN's helpful team salary page comes news -- to me, at least: maybe everyone else already knew this -- that the New York Yankees, with a $207 million payroll, have not one but two individual players who are each making significantly more money than the entire Florida Marlins. And one of them is Jason Giambi.

Currently, the Yankees are 12-12, fourth place in their division. The Marlins? 14-9, first place.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Jose Gonzalez

Shameless music plug. The first of many, I assure you. I've been listening to this guy's music a lot lately:

Great cover of Massive Attack's Teardrop on his new record.

why the surge could be worse than nothing

Two interesting Foreign Affairs pieces help explain why the entire Iraq debated in this country is wrong-headed. There's a simple reason for this: the underlying problems in Iraq cannot be fixed, and it doesn't behoove any current or future president to admit it. For those who would stay, what they don't want to admit is that the surge could quite conceivably make Iraq WORSE in the long run, as Steve Simon argues in this month's issue.

And for those who wish to leave, they don't want to be the ones that make the decision that rips the country apart. This piece in the March-April issue by Jerry Muller details the enduring power of ethnonationalism, a force that with the end of colonialism and the Cold War has grown more, not less, intense.

Reading these two stories, it is difficult to imagine, even with today's announcement that the Sunni bloc is considering rejoining the government, that the long-term problems of Iraq can be fixed. Some people argue that "Arabs can't handle democracy," but I find this argument to be baseless and offensive. The underlying problem is a ethno-geographically/tribally divided country with arbitrary colonial borders and -- most disastrously -- oil as a single extractive resource that creates zero-sum-game politics and rampant corruption. No country with this set of characteristics has EVER been able to achieve democracy, anywhere. A "diplomatic surge" will not fix these underlying problems. Thinking of what Iraq might look like post-US, there are several existing countries that fit Iraq's basic country description, the most appropriate of which are Sudan and Nigeria. In both cases, you've had what Iraq has experienced for most of the century: one ethnic group seizing control of the government, exploiting the oil wealth, and ruthlessly suppressing the other groups. In Nigeria, you have rampant poverty, relative stability, a simmering insurgency, undemocratic elections based largely on ethnic lines, and a history of civil wars whenever someone tries to take a census. Under Sudan you have multiple interlocking episodes of genocidal civil warfare and a region-destabilizing catastrophe. (For more on Sudan, do read yet another Foreign Affairs piece, by Andrew Natsios.) Sudan and Nigeria, perhaps, can be gauged as the worst and best scenarios for Iraq. Whether either is worth the cost of the invasion, both to the US and to Iraq itself, is a question I'll leave you to answer.

Reading Muller, it strikes me that Iraq -- and Sudan like it -- should be viewed less as a country and more as a very tiny empire. Under Hussein, the Sunni region lorded over the Shiite and Kurdish regions. Now, the Shiites have the upper hand and the Kurds are in on the alliance in exchange for de facto sovereignty in the north. Our solution to the Sunni insurgency, as Muller points out, has been to pay off the Sunnis and give them weapons. To me, that doesn't sound like a solution. It sounds like a very clever way to pass the problem to the next president. And our next president, whoever it is, doesn't want to admit that Iraq will, whether next year or in five or ten, descend into chaotic, region-destabilizing civil warfare before being either partitioned or more likely ruled with an iron Iran-backed Shiite fist. Because that would be bad news, and we voters don't like to hear bad news.

brace yourself for more Spurs-Pistons

Now, I love basketball, and this has been a great season in the NBA. But no matter how great the playoff matchups line up (and in the Western Conference this year they are all doozies), the end result is usually a wee bit predictable. More than any other league -- even baseball in the 90s -- the NBA has a dynasty problem. Check out this list of the list of NBA champs from 1980 to the present:

Lakers, Celtics, Lakers, 76ers, Celtics, Lakers, Celtics, Lakers, Lakers, Pistons, Pistons, Bulls, Bulls, Bulls, Rockets, Rockets, Bulls, Bulls, Bulls, Spurs, Lakers, Lakers, Lakers, Spurs, Pistons, Spurs, Heat, Spurs.

Notice any trends? How about five franchises (Bulls, Piston, Spurs, Lakers, Celtics) have accounted for 24 of the past 28 championships. Throw in the Rockets, and that's six franchises winning 26 of 28. And if you go back in NBA history to the dominant eras of the Minneapolis Lakers and Russell-era Celtics, it just gets worse.

Why is this so? The best theory I think is that more than any other sport, the NBA has always been star-driven. It's been promoted that way and played that way. A single great player, or a handful of them, can take over a game in a way that is not possible in baseball or football. The only comparable thing in sports to having Michael Jordan on your team is in hockey, where a hot goalie can take a mediocre team all the way. The difference is that few goalies stay unbeatable for more than a one or two playoffs runs. Whereas Michael Jordan remained unbeatable for the last half of his career.

Granted, I'm an embittered Suns fan. When I was living in Chicago during the Jordan days, I wasn't complaining this way. But end result is that the NBA, even post-lockout, is more dynasty-heavy than other sports. Even with eleven 50-win teams this season, can we imagine anyone besides the Spurs, Lakers, Celtics, or Pistons taking the title? Um, I can't.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

the food crisis

the World Food Programme's briefing today for media on the food crisis was rather sobering. Just skimming through the press materials... World Bank says 100 million could be pushed deeper into poverty: the price of rice has gone up 87% in five weeks: over two dozen countries facing food riots; 40 countries have banned exports of food to placate their domestic constituencies: WFP launched a flash appeal for $500 million a few weeks back, not for anything new, but just to keep doing what they are doing, because prices have jumped so dramatically. Just in the past few weeks since that happened, they've revised that figure upward to $750 million, just due to price increases in March.

Nor is hating on the scam that is biofuels going to be the cure-all that many say it is. Yes it will help, and yes, corn ethanol does nothing except yield a huge windfall for Archer Daniels Midland, but it's only one of a number of interrelated factors relating to food costs. For starters, for several years consumption has outpaced production, so global food stocks are at their lowest levels in 30 years. Second, rising incomes in China and India means rising meat consumption which means rising calories per capita to feed people. Since it takes 7 to 10 pounds of grain to produce one pound of pork or beef, and since there are several hundred million people coming out of poverty in China and India as we speak, this is a big deal. Third, oil prices are up, which means it costs more to get fertilizer and more to transport food. In fact, poor African farmers are planting LESS this year, despite skyrocketing food prices, because they can't afford the fertilizer inputs they need. On top of this, you've got increased natural disasters, droughts, desertification, and the like.

To top it off, WFP now needs $4.3 billion just to make ends meet for its programs this year, and that's not including future emergencies. So far, they have about 1/4 of that.

Seems pretty serious...

a brief UN primer

So, for those who aren't familiar with the UN and how it works, here's a brief primer. (It'll be useful when I make less long-winded posts later on.) There are several main bodies in the UN worth knowing.

1. The General Assembly. The General Assembly is the most democratic of UN bodies. It contains every member state of the UN. Currently, there's 192, not counting Kosovo. Every country has one vote in the UN. The upside of this is that it represents global opinion. The downside is, when Pulau gets the same voting weight as India, and North Korea has the same weight as the US, it's not very geopolitically realistic. Except for matters of determining the United Nations budget, most American officials think that the GA ceased to become relevant in 1974, when the Assembly adopted a resolution equating Zionism with racisim, and our ambassador at the time Daniel Patrick Moynihan stood up and basically informed the GA that they no longer mattered in world affairs. That's pretty much been US policy ever since. As former Amb. John Bolton once told me of a GA resolution on development, "As far as I can tell it will have no impact on the real world whatsoever." Beat. "Which makes it a typical General Assembly resolution."

Sidenote: The GA also has many many committees that I may mention. For example, it has a budget committee. It has a social, humanitarian and cultural committee, which mostly passes resolutions that are directly or indirectly related to Palestine. It has a Human Rights Council (based in Geneva), which almost exclusively passes resolutions about Palestine. It also has many working groups, about two thirds of which relate in some way to Palestine. (The UN is very concerned about Palestine.) It has something called the Open-Ended Working Group on Security Council Reform. Note that by cleverly adding the words "open-ended" to the title, the delegates have ensured that even after 15 straight years of meetings and no result, they do not have to admit defeat. This is a recurring trend. GA committees are the only ones I have heard that voluntarily refer to themselves as "ad hoc." See, for most people that is an insult. Not in the GA. The "Ad Hoc Committee on Such and Such" can often be found meeting in some conference room in the basement, which always gives me a chuckle.

2. The Security Council. The Council has 15 members. Ten of the members are nonpermanent. They serve 2 years terms and rotate. Five are permanent, and can veto anything that comes through the Council. Unlike the GA, Council resolutions are binding. So the GA can declare that everyone has the right to food, but they don't really until the Security Council says so. The five countries with veto power are the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China. The first five to get nuclear weapons, coincidentally enough.

3. The Secretariat. The Secretariat is the UN's bureaucracy who work in the New York headquarters. The top official there is the Secretary-General. The current SG is Ban Ki-moon of South Korea. I mention this because many people think that Kofi Annan is still the SG. This is because Kofi had rockstar charisma and everyone knew who he was, which earned him broad popularity worldwide and widespread loathing here in the United States. Mr. Ban (or "Mr. Ki-moon," as some press accidentally call him, not realizing that for Koreans the family name comes first), keeps a relatively low profile, so he's not especially publicly admired or loathed. But the building keeps working.

4. The agencies. The UN has many aid and development agencies. The biggest and most powerful is the UN Development Program (UNDP) which is mostly known in the US for getting into scandals involving cash transfers to North Korea and similarly evil regimes. If you believe the Wall Street Journal editorial page, they directly financed the North's nuclear weapons program. Other agencies include UNICEF (UN children's agency) UNIFEM (women's agency), WHO (World Health Organization), FAO (Food & Agriculture Organization), and WFP (World Food Programme).

5. The peacekeeping missions. Peacekeeping has grown tremendously in the past few years. There are now almost 20 missions, with some hundred thousand blue-helmeted soldiers, doing peacekeeping, border duty, etc. Virtually all of them are in Africa or Israel's neighbors, though a handful are scattered to such unstable locales as Haiti, East Timor, and Nepal. The upside of peacekeepers is that being blue helmets, they have international credibility and aren't seen as a biased actor in most places. They're also much cheaper than, say, US forces. The downside is, sometimes they become part of the problem, or at least fail to solve the problem. For example, take UNIFIL. That stands for the UN Interim Force In Lebanon. Guess how long that "interim" force has been there? Well, it's been 30 years now and counting.

One more point. I would like to take this point to debunk two very commonly voiced false claims about the UN:

a. It's a world government that impinges US sovereignty. People who claim this apparently fail to realize that first of all, the UN charter specifically says the UN cannot intefere with a nation's sovereign affairs, and second of all, even in the rare instances that it can, bear in mind that the US, China, Russia, the UK, and France can each veto anything of consequence. So it's only a world government to the effect that all five of those nations, plus most of the developing world, are in on the fix. The day that happens... well, Ronald Reagan said it best.

b. The UN fails to solve problems. People who claim this apparently fail to realize that the UN by itself isn't SUPPOSED to be able to do anything. Someone smart, possibly Richard Holbrooke, once said that blaming the UN for fecklessness is like blaming Madison Square Garden for the Knicks doing badly. The UN is just a building, just a tool. If the UN isn't working, it's because the member states can't agree. Which is, um, often.

Got it? That's your UN primer. Have a nice day.

Hello citizen!

I am a reporter at the United Nations. If you've ever done journalism, you know that there's a whole lot of waiting for three hours to get three minutes of comments. So I figured, why just sit here for three hours when I could be blogging about the UN, which is probably the single most misunderstood organization on earth.

Thus, this blog is primarily about world events as I see and encounter them from here. I do not exclude commentary about sports (Matthew Yglesias pulls this off, so I don't see why I can't) or living in New York, which is always entertaining. But mostly, global affairs. Enjoy!