"We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. In the end, that's what this election is about." -- Barack Obama, DNC keynote address, July 2004

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Nation-Building has moved to

posted by Aziz P. at Wednesday, January 12, 2011 permalink 0 comments View blog reactions
Please update your bookmarks and RSS feeds - we have moved to Thanks!

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Sunday, June 13, 2010


Afghanistan's trillion dollar curse: lithium

posted by Aziz P. at Sunday, June 13, 2010 permalink 0 comments View blog reactions

The New York Times reports that a small team of American geologists and military personnel have discovered vast reserves of precious metals and minerals in Afghanistan, which profoundly transforms the destiny of this battered nation overnight:

The previously unknown deposits - including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium - are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the "Saudi Arabia of lithium," a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and Blackberries.

(...) The value of the newly discovered mineral deposits dwarfs the size of Afghanistan's existing war-bedraggled economy, which is based largely on opium production and narcotics trafficking as well as aid from the United States and other industrialized countries. Afghanistan's gross domestic product is only about $12 billion.

The value of the reserves just discovered is already estimated at about a trillion dollars - and there's probably more where that came from.

What does this portend for Afghanistan, and the war? That's the, ahem, trillion dollar question.

The geopolitics of this are predictable: Afghanistan will be courted aggressively by the United States and China, in competition to secure the mining rights and obtain strategic control over these essential materials. Note that China already has supply dominance over most rare-earth metals, with 95% of the world's supply, and has been far more successful in Africa by virtue of being more aggressive and unconcerned with human rights niceties.

That competition probably means an end to any hope of reform of Hamid Karzai's government or meaningful pressure from the United States on the human rights front. The relationship between Washington and Kabul was strained to begin with, but the prospect of China is enough to utterly negate any leverage the US has by our troop presence. The conventional wisdom is already settling in that this means Obama will not wind down our troop presence in Afghanistan as a result, but to be honest I can see Karzai being emboldened to demand that the US withdraw all the more sooner now.

The Taliban's reaction to this will be particularly interesting. They have always been pragmatic, willing to ignore Islamic injunctions against addictive narcotics when it suited them financially to support the opium trade. But opium is something that mere farmers can grow, with a classic protection racket to bring in the cash. Minerals on the other hand require heavy industry, multinational companies, and political "stability" (usually in the form of a police state - case in point, the coltan industry in the Congo). The Taliban will probably seek to position themselves as the better alternative to Karzai's cronyism - recall that prior to 9-11, they presented a civilized face to the West while being courted by western oil companies for rights to oil pipelines - even sending a delegation to Texas to talk logistics.

The dynamics within Afghanistan are probably going to be too complex to predict. For example, the central government and the provincial and tribal leaders will be at odds, and the Taliban will try to exacerbate those conflicts. The NYT article delves into more detail:

The corruption that is already rampant in the Karzai government could also be amplified by the new wealth, particularly if a handful of well-connected oligarchs, some with personal ties to the president, gain control of the resources. Just last year, Afghanistan's minister of mines was accused by American officials of accepting a $30 million bribe to award China the rights to develop its copper mine. The minister has since been replaced.

Endless fights could erupt between the central government in Kabul and provincial and tribal leaders in mineral-rich districts. Afghanistan has a national mining law, written with the help of advisers from the World Bank, but it has never faced a serious challenge.

"No one has tested that law; no one knows how it will stand up in a fight between the central government and the provinces," observed Paul A. Brinkley, undersecretary of defense and leader of the Pentagon team that discovered the deposits.

In stable, mature governments, laws are a roadmap for resolving conflict; witness the orderly progression of power in the US 2000 election for a case study. In corrupt, third-world, post-colonial, war-ravaed nation states, however, laws are blunt instruments wielded at will when convenient and cast aside when no longer so. It stands to reason that the tribes, the probincial governments, the central government in Kabul, and the Taliban are not going to abide by the rulings of hypothetical (but surely illusionary) impartial judiciaries. This will be fought in a literal sense.

The words, "resource curse" have never been more stark or inescapable. In fact, this discovery portends total disaster for any hope of a liberal, stable Afghanistan, human rights, or economic relief. What wealth will be derived from the soil of Afghanistan will flow to butchers and tyrants and powerful global corporations - not the desperate poor and uneducated people of Afghanistan, the true sovereigns of their nation. That is the lesson of history.

Or is it?

In fact, there is one power that can act as a dampener on the forces of corruption, tribalism, profiteering, and exploitation. A superpower, in fact: the United States. The very presence of our troops in Afghanistan is an immediate and unmovable barrier to the various forces that will seek to position themselves around the mineral wealth. The United States has leverage by virtue of its presence - and we can use that leverage to try and ameliorate the worst of what is to come.

One immediate step that we can take is to promise an extension of our troops protecting Kabul from the Taliban - but make that contingent on a citizen dividend to any mineral wealth, analogous to the Alaskan oil dividend. This should be an unbreakable condition of our continued support to any government in Kabul - and use the threat of the Taliban to our advantage.

And, distasteful as it may seem, it is time for President Obama to follow in the footsteps of another Democratic president and define the Obama Doctrine as the successor to the Carter Doctrine in 1980. Put simply, President Carter made it clear in his 1980 State of the Union Address that the United States would use military force as it saw fit to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf.

The key sentence of the Carter Doctrine read,

Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.

and deliberately evokes the Truman Doctrine and a similar declaration in 1903 by the British. Arguably, if not for the Carter Doctrine, the Soviet Union might still be in existence today (something that Reagan partisans would do well to acknowledge).

This might well be the start of a Cold War between ourselves and China. We have no choice. The free trade and movement of these critical - and increasingly scarce - materials has grave implications for the technology and scientific industries, the backbone of world civilization itself. No country, or government, can be permitted to attain a monopoly on them.

I do not advocate an American Empire, but I do think that the Saudi Arabian example, however distasteful, is the best possible outcome. Will Afghanistan ever be a healthy and democratic soceity, free of corruption and strife? I remain an optimist, so I believe the answer is inevitably yes. But maybe thats a story for the 22nd century.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010


A fair solution to Jerusalem

posted by Aziz P. at Tuesday, May 11, 2010 permalink 0 comments View blog reactions

I remember reading one of the books by Tom Clancy in which Jack Ryan was credited with coming up with a solution for Middle East peace which was pointedly never actually detailed in the novel. It was just a way to give his character some foreign policy cred, but ended up like that mysterious suitcase in Pulp Fiction.

I couldn't help but be reminded of that, though, when I read former New York mayor Ed Koch's innovative solution to resolving the status of Jerusalem.

Instead of putting the hot-button issue of Jerusalem last on the agenda, the issue should be addressed first. If the Jerusalem question is solved, everything else should fall into place more easily.

I believe there is a way to keep Jerusalem unified. I am talking not only of the old walled city, which is a very small part of the city of Jerusalem, but the whole city, east, west, north and south.


My suggestion is to situate the new Palestinian capital in that part of East Jerusalem that is occupied overwhelmingly by Palestinians, allow the inhabitants of East Jerusalem -- Jews, Christians, Muslims and those living elsewhere in the city -- to pick the state to which to pledge their allegiance and to cast two votes - one in municipal elections for one mayor to govern the entire city of Jerusalem, and a separate vote in national elections related to the Jewish and Palestinian states living peacefully side by side.

Jerusalem is now roughly two-thirds Jewish and one-third Muslim. The Christian population is about 2 percent. All under the proposal would be voting for a single city council and one mayor. Based on the current population, the mayor would be Jewish. If the demographics changed over the years in favor of the Muslims, a Muslim mayor could be elected.

New York City with its model of five borough presidents is a good model to emulate with Muslim and Jewish areas electing borough presidents to respond to the local needs of the inhabitants. If I could live and govern when I was mayor with Andy Stein as borough president of Manhattan, the mayor of Jerusalem can live and govern with a borough president elected in the Palestinian part of East Jerusalem.

My only quibble is the purely gratuitous recounting of selective historical injustices, with which Koch actually undermines his own argument by providing a preview of the reasons the Israelis will use to reject the proposal out of hand. But the proposal itself is fair and realistic.

This came to my attention via MJ Rosenberg's excellent email newsletter. He comments further,

Koch's idea eliminates the possibility that Jerusalem would be divided. It would not be, except in the sense that New York City is divided into Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.

At the same time it enables East Jerusalem to be established as capital of the Palestinian state, while protecting the right of East Jerusalem's Jews to essentially ignore its status as Palestinian and remain full-fledged Israeli citizens. Naturally, Arabs and Jews would be able to live in any part of the city while retaining their status as both citizens of Jerusalem and of their respective Israeli or Palestinian state.

This is something that would be ideally incorporated into a peace plan by Obama presented to both sides, as honest broker. The key though is to make the issue a starting point, not part of "final status" negotiations. And frankly this idea of "proximity talks" is pretty pointless.

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Friday, April 30, 2010


I am beginning to notice a disturbing pattern

posted by Aziz P. at Friday, April 30, 2010 permalink 0 comments View blog reactions

There's something strange going on...

Recall that at the height of the health reform fight, after Senator Brown was elected in MA and the Democrats looked like they were on the verge of total failure. It looked like Obama's signature domestic policy achievement would indeed be his Waterloo... and then, Anthem Blue Cross raised rates by 40%.

On the verge of the financial reform fight, Goldman Sachs was sued by the FEC and grilled mercilessly by a bipartisan Senate committee for it's shenanigans of knowingly selling "sh$%ty" securities to customers and profiting from their failure.

The next big fight is immigration reform, and Arizona passes a draconian law essentially legalizing racial profiling of its Hispanic population - soon to be a majority. (It also revealed the Tea Party to be hypocrites when it comes to big government and Constitutional fidelity).

And of course, with the climate bill coming down the line, we have a gargantuan oil spill in the Gulf of mexico that is shaping up to be the worst environmental disaster since the Exxon Valdez.

Let's even throw in the observation that President Obama is about to select a new justice for the Supreme Court - mere months after the universally reviled Citizens United case opened the floodgates to infinite corporate money over our elections.

Notice any pattern?

If I were Glenn Beck, these dots would now duly be connected by a conspiracy theory line of outlandish proportion. But I think that it's really more likely that the convergence of reality with policy and reform is a "happy" coincidence - though of course these disasters all have real tragic consequences for ordinary people caught in the middle of them. It would be better if these tragic events could have been prevented, but by occurring, they demonstrate the lack of any preventative mechanism. And thus make the case for the reforms in President Obama's domestic agenda far more forcefully than any speech or campaign ad.

Let's just hope that the pattern doesn't hold when it's time to ratify the new START treaty.

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Monday, April 26, 2010


Conservatism's shari'a, liberalism's ijtihad

posted by Aziz P. at Monday, April 26, 2010 permalink 0 comments View blog reactions

An interesting meta-debate by intellectual conservatives over conservatism's future is playing out. It started with David Frum's Waterloo essay, which led to his political excommunication. Julian Sanchez observed that this represented an epistemic closing of the conservative mind, a thesis that was validated by the retribution visited upon Jim Manzi for daring to suggest that conservatives will achieve more persuasion by using honest, strong arguments instead of weak, emotional ones.

All of this has led John Quiggin at Crooked Timber to argue most wisely that as conservatism implodes, liberalism needs to find its own rationale that is more than just "not conservatism". Quiggin has a list of priorities for the liberal movement to address, and closes with the general plea,

...the left has to stand for something more than keeping the existing order afloat with incremental improvements. We need to offer the hope of a better world as an alternative to the angry tribalism that threatens to engulf us.

I'm sympathetic to this argument, because it was actually one of my own critiques of then-candidate Obama in the 2008 election. I consistently argued for "transformative" change because I genuinely thought such change was achievable. However, since Obama's election, and the realities of the limitations imposed by the legislative system and a staunchly obstructionist Republican minority, I've come around to the incrementalist approach. I think that Obama represents a step back from the rightmost brink, to the center, and that the time for broader strides leftwards will have to wait until after Obama has finished restoring balance. m

DougJ at Balloon Juice also takes issue with Quiggin's last point, pointing out that incrementalism is a good thing, relative to the alternative:

It's true that pragmatic liberalism has its shortcomings as a political strategy. Much of the appeal of conservatism comes from how thorough-going its dictates are. Contemporary liberal discussion (at least as I see it on blogs and in opinion columns) mostly confines itself to governmental policies. The conservosphere gets involved with what movies you should watch, what kinds of scarves you should wear in Dunkin' Donuts ads, what kinds of countertops you should have in your house, and so on. (I'm not saying liberals can't be preachy, mind you, but it's one thing for your friend to lecture you about recycling, it's another for prominent political columnists to devote multiple columns to Avatar.) That's seductive in the same way that religion is.

That's a good insighgt and it's worth exploring that religion analogy further (even though I likely disagree with DougJ on the value of religion as a whole). The analogy I would make is that movement conservatism is a lot like the stereotypical Shari'ah (as envisioned in the fevered dreams of the islamophobes). It demands total subjugation and defines all aspects of life to fall within its purview. Everything must be judged on the binary scale and assessed by the orthodoxy as Good or Evil; the good must be enjoined and the evil must be repudiated. There is no moderation or middle ground.

Liberalism, in contrast, is how Islam is practiced by ordinary muslim folk - in essence, ijtihad. We go about our lives and try to live our lives as best we can in accordance with our principles and cultural tradition. It is inherently incrementalist; there's no master Plan, but as we become aware of ways in which we can conform our actions to our beliefs, we make adjustments. It's inherently an individual movement, because of our personal interpretations and decisions - for example, I might abstain from fish oil supplements on the basis of halal rules, but eat at McDonalds, and another may do the exact opposite. There's no central authority dictating the details, though there are authorities dictating teh rules which we have to interpret and apply to the unique context of our individual lives.

Conservatism looks at Islam and sees only Shari'ah, because it projects itself there. The reality, however, is much more mundane, as it should be.


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About Nation-Building

Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.