A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for March 2015

[LINK] Three links on the emergent pan-Arab military force

The Globe and Mail carried Hamza Hendawi’s Associated Press article reporting on the new grouping.

Arab leaders meeting this weekend in this Egyptian Red Sea resort are moving closer than ever to creating a joint Arab military force, a sign of a new determination among Saudi Arabia, Egypt and their allies to intervene aggressively in regional hotspots, whether against Islamic militants or spreading Iranian power.

Creation of such a force has been a longtime goal that has eluded Arab nations in the 65 years since they signed a rarely used joint defence pact. And there remains reluctance among some countries, particularly allies of Iran like Syria and Iraq — a reflection of the divisions in the region.

Foreign ministers gathered in Sharm el-Sheikh ahead of the summit, which begins Saturday, agreed on a broad plan for the force. It came as Saudi Arabia and its allies opened a campaign of airstrikes in Yemen against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels who have taken over much of the country and forced its U.S.- and Gulf-backed president to flee abroad.

The Yemen campaign marked a major test of the new policy of intervention by the Gulf and Egypt. The brewing Yemen crisis — and Gulf fears that the rebels are a proxy for Iranian influence — have been one motivator in their move for a joint Arab force. But it also signalled that they are not going to wait for the Arab League, notorious for its delays and divisions, and will press ahead with their military co-ordination on multiple fronts.

Egyptian officials said the Yemen airstrikes are to be followed by a ground intervention to further weaken the rebels, known as Houthis, and their allies and force them into negotiations. They have also moved ahead with action in Libya after its collapse into chaos since 2011 and the rise of militants there — including now an affiliate of the Islamic State group that has overrun much of Iraq and Syria. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have both carried out airstrikes against Libyan militants in the past year.

Al Jazeera America’s Omar Waraich notes that the inclusion of Pakistan, with its large Shiite minority, in a strongly Sunni coalition could bear risks.

This isn’t first time Pakistan has been dragged into the poisonous Saudi-Iranian rivalry. After the 1979 revolution that brought the Ayatollahs to power, Pakistan became a battlefield in a proxy war between the two countries. The Iranians established armed Shia groups in Pakistan; the Saudis countered by sponsoring anti-Shia groups — a tradition that continues to this day, with millions of dollars funneled from the desert kingdom into thousands of Pakistani madrassas teaching extreme ideas.

For the Saudis, the appeal of Pakistan is obvious. It shares a border with Iran and, crucially, already has nuclear weapons. The Saudis want Pakistan to act as a counterweight to Iran, and have long cultivated a close relationship with its military. Since the late 1960s, Pakistani soldiers have been permanently garrisoned in Saudi Arabia. In 1969, Pakistani pilots slipped into Saudi jets to carry out sorties in South Yemen against a rebel threat at the time.

For Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is not only a long-standing source of aid but a principal source of foreign exchange through much-needed remittances. Just last month, for example, $453 million flowed into Pakistan from the exertions of more than 1.5 million often poorly treated migrant workers. The intimacy of the two countries’ ruling elites notwithstanding, the migrant workers are weighed down by debts they owe to exploitative recruiters. Pakistanis are also disproportionately found in Saudi Arabia’s jails and on death row.

The relationship, however, is one-sided. “We in Saudi Arabia are not observers in Pakistan, we are participants,” Saudi Arabia’s current ambassador in Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, boasted in 2007, according to a leaked State Department cable. Its clout extends to the realm of politics, where the Saudis have keenly backed military rulers and right-wing politicians — Prime Minister Sharif lived in exile in Jeddah after the Kingdom persuaded then dictator Pervez Musharraf to release him from prison.

As Prince Waleed ibn Talal once told to the Wall Street Journal, “Nawaz Sharif, specifically, is very much Saudi Arabia’s man in Pakistan.” The Saudis last year injected $1.5 billion into Pakistan’s treasury, boosting its liquidity at moment when it is still strapped to an exacting IMF loan package.

Bloomberg View’s Noah Feldman argues this could be good for American interests.

The U.S. might have no stake in this latest turn in the Sunni-Shiite struggle if it weren’t for Islamic State. The bottom line is that Islamic State’s recruiting abilities and prestige derive from its ability to hold territory and act as a sovereign within that territory. For Islamic State to fail, both conceptually and practically, it needs to start losing territory. So far, U.S. bombing on its own hasn’t been able to achieve that strategic goal.

Ground troops appear to be necessary if Islamic State is to be beaten back. Kurdish peshmerga have made some progress in this fight, as have Iraqi Shiite militias that are backed by Iran.

In the long run, however, Sunni Arab ground troops will be needed to defeat Islamic State in Syria. The Saudis are clearly loath to provide such ground troops on their own. Jordan has launched airstrikes against Islamic State targets, but also seems unlikely to provide the bulk of a ground force.

If Egyptian-Saudi-Jordanian military cooperation succeeds in Yemen, then it becomes conceivable that Egyptian troops could provide the main body of an eventual ground force against Islamic State. Egypt would get money from the Saudis — but, more important, Sisi could help Egypt regain some of the international prestige it has lost in recent decades. This could help his domestic legitimacy considerably. It could also occupy the Egyptian Army in a military task, which would enable Sisi to consolidate his control of the military.

Even Israel would be unlikely to object. Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel, and Saudi Arabia has shown openness to such a treaty in the past. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly sees Iran as the major geopolitical threat. In the Sunni-Shiite struggle, Israel increasingly looks like it’s on the side of Sunnis.

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Written by Randy McDonald

March 31, 2015 at 10:25 pm

[LINK] “Stranded Yemeni-Americans consider alternate escape routes”

Al Jazeera America’s Amel Ahmed describes how Yemeni-Americans caught by the recent Saudi-led intervention are trying to get out before it is too late.

Desperate Yemeni-Americans who find themselves stranded in Yemen due to a no-fly zone and hijacked main roads say they have begun to consider alternate means of escape, including smuggling themselves to East Africa by sea or driving through dangerous back roads that lead to neighboring Oman.

Yemen is gripped by political violence. Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes this week in the capital, Sanaa, aimed at pushing back Houthi rebels, who overran Yemen’s government in February and led president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee the capital.

[. . .]

In addition to being virtually landlocked, Yemeni-Americans face a possible witch-hunt following a call issued by the Houthis to report individuals suspected of being U.S. or Saudi agents.

Having received no warning of Saudi Arabia’s military campaign, which was coordinated with assistance from the U.S. government, Yemeni-Americans who spoke to Al Jazeera say they are terrified that they will become targets by virtue of their citizenship.

To protect themselves, some have taken up arms, according to San Francisco native Mokhtar Alkhanshali, who is in Sanaa. “Many of us have to be strapped with weapons at all times,” the 26 year-old said.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 31, 2015 at 10:22 pm

[LINK] “The last of Danielle Smith”

Colby Cosh of MacLean’s writes about the apparent end of the political career of Alberta’s Danielle Smith, who took the bulk of her Wildrose Party into a previously-unthinkable merger with the governing Progressive Conservatives only to fail to capture her new party’s nomination.

In reporting on Danielle Smith’s defeat in the Highwood Progressive Conservative nomination contest on Saturday, the Edmonton Journal quotes her former Wildrose caucus colleague Pat Stier as saying, “She was the princess of Alberta in terms of politics.” In fact, he has sort of stumbled backward over the problem: She wasn’t a “princess.” Smith does not—speaking here in smug retrospect about something I basically got wrong at the time—really have the folk-hero quality that allows a politician to get away with the sort of thing she tried in dropping the Wildrose leadership and crossing the floor to join Jim Prentice’s PCs.

Smith is attractive and articulate, even intermittently funny. People who are thrilled to see the back of her are being forced to admit that she ran Alberta’s best opposition in generations. And many Albertans seem to have figured, at one time or another, judging by the polls, that she personally would make a quite plausible premier.

It is not as though the disruptive folk-hero type of politician—one in the mould of Churchill, who could be forgiven by the public not only for “ratting” but “re-ratting”—is ever common. But it’s clear that Smith had won the temporary allegiance of the disaffected more than she ever won anybody’s heart. Her background was in school-board politics and media, career interludes that might as well have been designed to inspire dislike and suspicion. She does not have the born politician’s gifts of dominating any room into which she walks, or of making you think you’re the most important person in the world when you’re in conversation with her.

Her style in fending off attacks was detached: She never wanted you to sense that her opposition to the PC government was either personal or intensely passionate. She conducted the job of opposition as a civilized disagreement with a group of people that had lost its ethical and ideological way. She worked for a long time to throw the bums out, but you can’t easily imagine her bringing an audience to its feet by shouting, “Throw the bums out!”

And yet the effect of her presence in Alberta politics was arguably to throw the bums out—to force the governing party to bring in new blood at the top, as it has every so often during its four-decade dominance, and to purge or sideline the leading figures of the Alison Redford regime. Everything suggests she lost her appetite for the work—and she may never have had much appetite for power as such—after that happened. Being a minister in a PC government would have suited her abilities perfectly, and the clock was arguably ticking on her leadership of the Wildrose Party, some of whose movers and shakers never came to terms with her libertarian coup. Her campaign for the Highwood nomination seems to have been a little phoned-in. Jim Prentice started out sending help, in the form of cabinet visitors and paper endorsements, but that effort dwindled, and she couldn’t afford to count on it to save her. Smith seems to have laid pretty low throughout, knowing that any half-respectable opponent would be able to get out a thousand or more revenge-minded supporters.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 31, 2015 at 10:20 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “New Battle Lines Drawn in War on Raccoon”

Torontoist’s David Hains reports on the latest stage of Toronto’s fight with the wily, behanded raccoon.

A new type of green bin from the City of Toronto aims to finally stymie our number one menace: raccoons.

According to a staff report at council, the $31.6-million contract awarded to Rehrig Pacific Company has more than twice the capacity, and, more importantly, features a “rodent-resistant locking lid.” (Important editor’s note: Raccoons are not rodents, but the staff report refers to the misunderstood critter pretty much as though they are one.)

The bins will be distributed to residents in late 2015 and early 2016.

This green bin wasn’t just slapped together—this is serious business. There was a poll and everything. In 2012, Ipsos Reid did reached out to 501 Toronto residents over the age of 18 and asked them for their thoughts on the preexisting bins.

Among respondents, 67 per cent said “rodent resistance” was the most important feature of their bin, presumably because they know losing is not an option in the War on Raccoons.

This emphasis on raccoon resistance may be counter-productive, though. Raccoons are very smart and adaptive, and by making the green bins extra difficult, we may just be creating an environment for a breed of super-raccoons. It’s pretty much like (spoiler alert) the plot of the Edge of Tomorrow.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 31, 2015 at 10:17 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “Target moves to shut all Canadian stores faster than planned”

The Globe and Mail‘s Marina Strauss reports that Target Canada is closing its stores a month early. I really will have to get out Saturday to see my local one for the first time.

After taking 26 months to launch its first stores in Canada, U.S. discounter Target Corp. is now looking at shutting all 133 of them in just three months – a month less than originally planned.

In a sign of how fast the retailer is moving to leave this country, insolvent Target Canada plans to speed its store closings by one month and turn off the lights by mid-April, a court filing this week says.

“It is anticipated that the pace of delivery of Vacate Notices by the [liquidation] agent will continue to increase over the next two weeks, such that all stores are expected to be closed to the public as early as mid-April, 2015, which represents a significant achievement,” says court-appointed monitor, Alvarez & Marsal Canada Inc.

Since Target Canada filed for creditors’ court protection on Jan. 15, it has been hit with a flood of bad publicity about everything from disappointing liquidation sales to the treatment of its suppliers, pharmacists and other creditors.

Now the U.S. retailer is taking steps to rush its exit, helping to take the spotlight from its failed foray outside its home market where it still has avid cross-border Canadian shoppers.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 31, 2015 at 10:15 pm

[URBAN NOTE] On Goa dreaming of being Singapore

Outlook India’s Vivek Menezes writes about how the Indian state of Goa, once a Portuguese enclave, has flirted with the idea of being a Singapore-like city-state.

At that very beginning of decolonisation in Asia, the Portuguese dictator Salazar found a lot to like in what was happening in the British-ruled port city — its new Legislative Council included only six (later nine) elected seats out of twenty-five, and only British subjects were eligible to vote. Meanwhile the colonial system remained dominant. Salazar figured this an excellent model for the four-centuries-old Estado da India Portuguesa.

Even after the Council yielded to a fully-elected Assembly, and the UK Parliament passed the 1958 State of Singapore Act accepting the establishment of an independent state, Salazar still looked for a Singapore-type solution to the increasingly thorny Goa crisis, as Nehru and Krishna Menon grew progressively restive about the last colonial “pimple disfiguring the face of India”. The Portuguese dangled promise of a NATO port at Mormugao to his allies, and it took a Russian veto to stymie the US/UK-led United Nations resolution demanding withdrawal of Indian troops after their mercifully bloodless takeover in 1961.

In the immediate aftermath of Indian annexation, the Goan freedom fighter (he famously got into a fistfight with the colonial Governor General) António Anastásio Bruto da Costa led a group demanding “Goan Goa” with “full sovereignty” to be achieved via “natural right to a plebiscite.” This “third force” also looked to Singapore as a model of what might be possible in Goa.

With those political questions resolved, visions of Singapore continue dancing in the minds of a very wide range of contemporary observers of India’s smallest state. As India Today — the national media outlet that gets Goa most consistently wrong — ludicrously put it in 2013, “the steady march of urbanisation, experts predict, will turn tiny Goa into a Singapore-like city state miraculously untouched by the woes of overpopulation and urbanisation.”

Why these supercharged fantasies for famously laid-back Goa? Perhaps the promise of manageable size, with per-capita GDP and human development statistics dramatically higher than the neighbours? Both Singapore and Goa are centuries-old pockets of globalisation, with relatively cosmopolitan leanings. If it could happen there, it could logically follow that it can also happen here.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 31, 2015 at 10:11 pm

[WRITING] “Fast Writing: Ethnography in the Digital Age”

Savage Minds features an essay by Yarimar Bonilla that takes a look at th interesting question of how to write texts of enduring relevance at speed.

In a recent contribution to this writers’ series, Michael Lambek offered some reflections on the virtues of “slow reading.” In an era of rapid-fire online communication, when images increasingly substitute for text, Lambek argues we would be well served to revel in the quiet interiority and reflective subjectivity made possible by long-form reading.

In this post I would like to think more carefully about this claim and to consider whether we might want to make a similar argument regarding the shifting pace of academic writing. If, as Lambek and others suggest, the temporality of reading has been altered by the digital age, can the same be said for research and writing? How have new digital tools, platforms, and shifts in technological access transformed the temporality of ethnographic writing, and is this something we necessarily wish to slow down?

I recently had occasion to experiment with sped-up academic pacing when offered the opportunity to contribute a piece to American Ethnologist about the protests surrounding the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In brainstorming our article, my co-author Jonathan Rosa and I asked ourselves hard questions about what we could contribute to the unfolding discussion about Ferguson. Both of us had produced academic “slow writing”— the product of years of careful research, analysis, drafting and editing. We had also engaged in some forms of “fast writing.” For example, I had published journalistic pieces on social movements in Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe. But these pieces focused on events not being covered in the mainstream media and for which informed journalism was necessary. The same could not be said of Ferguson. Despite an initial lag in journalistic coverage, by the time we were drafting our article, Ferguson had reached a point of media saturation, indeed it had become a challenge to keep apace with the numerous thought pieces and editorial columns emerging at a feverish pace during this time.

In plotting our article we thus asked ourselves: how can we contribute to this fast moving conversation while still producing a piece that might hold up over time? That is, how could we produce something fast but not ephemeral?

The result was an exercise in mid-tempo research and writing. It was not the product of long-sustained fieldwork, and was very much written “in the heat of the moment,” but it nonetheless tried to anticipate how anthropologists might look back on Ferguson over time—how they might use this event to teach and write about broader issues of racialization, longer histories of race-based violence, the racial politics of social media, and the shifting terrain of contemporary activism.

This process forced us to think about the challenges of being not just fast writers but fast ethnographers. How can we speak to fast moving stories while still retaining the contextualization, historical perspective, and attention to individual experiences characteristic of a fieldworker? Also, how can we engage with emerging digital platforms like Twitter with the comparative and ethnographic perspective characteristic of our discipline?

Written by Randy McDonald

March 31, 2015 at 7:34 pm