Archives for October 2012

What next for Mali?

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Robin Lustig | 22:40 UK time, Thursday, 18 October 2012

Is Nigeria about to invade Mali? Sorry, let me rephrase that: is a UN-backed regional intervention force about to restore order in Mali?

In fact, the two questions amount to the same thing, following a resolution passed by the UN security council last week that could well pave the way for military intervention in a country that's rapidly becoming one of the world's most troubling security hot-spots.

Here's the background: last March, there was a military coup in Mali. In the words of Bruce Whitehouse, writing in the London Review of Books: "Rank-and-file soldiers involved in a campaign against the resurgent Tuareg rebels didn't trust their commanders and accused officials in [the capital] Bamako of withholding equipment and support. Mutineers captured the state television station and stormed the presidential palace. [President Amadou Toumani] Touré vanished into the night with a few bodyguards ..."

And here's the background to those Tuareg rebels: they've been fighting for independence for the north of the country for many years. Some of them fought for Muammar Gaddafi in Libya; and after his overthrow last year, they returned home with plenty of arms. After the coup, they did try to secede, but were soon overpowered by Islamist/jihadist groups, reportedly linked to al-Qaeda, with whom they had been in a loose alliance.

So now, half the country or more, including the famed city of Timbuktu, is in the hands of the Islamists. And Western governments are desperately worried that al-Qaeda is well on the way to establishing a new toe-hold in a newly-failed state.

With some rare exceptions (take a bow, Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4 News and Mike Thomson of our sister programme Today), much of this has gone unreported in the mainstream Western media. But the UN security council has begun to take notice, and the resolution passed a week ago, drafted by France, calls on Mali's neighbours to come up with "detailed and actionable recommendations" within 45 days for military intervention.

It also calls on foreign governments and international organisations to provide "co-ordinated assistance, expertise, training and capacity-building support" to such a force. All of which means, in all likelihood, Nigerian troops, backed by French special forces and perhaps some US intelligence-gathering as well.

Does any of this sound familiar? Think Somalia, where after endless delays, African Union forces are now beginning to make real gains against the al-Shabaab militia groups, which like their Malian equivalents, are said to be allied to al-Qaeda.

So will it work in Mali, if it ever happens? (It needs another security council resolution before a force can actually move in.) The Malian army itself is reportedly nothing like an effective fighting force, so there will have to be a lot of careful thinking about what should be done post-intervention. (Iraq, anyone?)

The respected conflict resolution think-tank the International Crisis Group has already sounded a warning:

"The use of force may well be necessary ... to neutralise some of the armed groups involved in transnational crime activities combining terrorism, jihadism and drug trafficking. However, any military intervention should be preceded by political and diplomatic efforts aimed at isolating questions regarding intercommunal tensions within Malian society from those concerning collective security of the Sahel-Sahara region."

There are already some grim tales emerging from the areas under the control of the Islamists: the UN's assistant secretary-general for human rights Ivan Simonovic told reporters after a recent visit to Mali that he had heard testimony that forced marriage, forced prostitution, and rape were widespread, and that women were being sold as "wives" for less than $1,000.

Islamist militia groups have stoned to death an unmarried couple, he said, and amputated the hand of an alleged thief, as well as destroying ancient shrines in Timbuktu, claiming they violated Sharia law and promoted idolatry among Muslims. (Three more shrines, all listed as World Heritage Sites, were reported to have been destroyed yesterday.)

After all the mistakes that have been made during previous attempts at international military intervention, I wouldn't expect anything to happen quickly in Mali. But it may well be that sooner or later, a force will move in.

The New York-based artist Janet Goldner, who knows Mali well, wrote on her blog last week: "I have been a peace activist all my life but I see no alternative to a war in this case. The humanitarian crisis will only get worse until the criminals are gone."

Is America's future prosperity crumbling?

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Robin Lustig | 13:53 UK time, Friday, 12 October 2012

OHIO/TENNESSEE/GEORGIA -- Every working day, once in the morning, and again in the evening, Sarah Blazak drives at snail's pace in heavy traffic across one of the most dangerous bridges in America.

It's the Brent Spence bridge, and it spans the Ohio river, linking the state of Ohio to the north with Kentucky to the south. And according to US safety officials, less than 50 years after it was built, it is now "functionally obsolete".

It carries more than twice as much traffic as it was designed for, it has no emergency lanes for vehicles that have broken down, and its traffic lanes are too narrow.

Accidents are frequent - I saw a car that had smashed into the side of the bridge when I drove across just a few days ago, causing chaos as police struggled to remove it - and there have been at least two fatalities in the past two years.

"Every day when I get across, I breathe a sigh of relief," Sarah told me. "I'm closer to where I need to be, and I'm safer."

The Brent Spence bridge is just one example of a problem that is of increasing concern to the US - its crumbling infrastructure. Roads, bridges, ports and airports -- many are in desperate need of repair or replacement - and the resulting delays are costing the nation billions of dollars a year.

(The Brent Spence bridge is estimated to cost an annual 80-90 million dollars in traffic delays - because the I-75 interstate highway that it carries is one of the country's main north-south arteries. More than $400 billion worth of freight crosses the bridge every year.)

So why don't they build a new bridge? Simple answer: because they can't agree on who should pay for it. The present one was built mainly with funds from the Federal government in Washington - but there's no cash available from that source any more, and neither Kentucky nor Ohio much like the idea of picking up the tab themselves.

None of this would matter very much to people outside the immediate region, perhaps, if it wasn't a typical example of a much wider problem. The US has long been the world's dominant economy, a global leader in manufacturing and technological innovation - but the question is for how much longer?

Consider this: each year, the US turns out something like 100,000 newly qualified engineers. They're the ones who build the roads and the bridges. India and China, on the other hand, each produce a million new engineers, which means they have a lot more people available to build that all-important infrastructure without which no developed economy can prosper.

If you want to take a gloomy view of America's economic future, you could point to its continuing sluggish economy, an education system that isn't producing anything like enough mathematicians and scientists, and a corporate environment in which cash for research and development may soon start drying up as CEOs worry whether steady growth will ever return.

On the other hand, if you come to Atlanta, Georgia, where I spent the day yesterday, you'll find plenty of people at the Georgia Institute of Technology who are full of hope for the future. Lots of new ideas are bubbling away, they say - new materials to replace steel, new ways of producing cleaner energy, even new ways to produce robots with a sense of music - and yes, there's still money to fund the research.

Next Tuesday, we'll be broadcasting a special programme to explore some of these themes, with the help of a panel of experts at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC. It'll include my report from the Brent Spence bridge, and later in the week, we hope to broadcast my report from Georgia Tech.

Meanwhile, if you're on Facebook, do take a look at The World Tonight Facebook page, where you can see some wonderful photos from our travels in Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee and Georgia, taken by producer and ace photographer Dan Isaacs.

US and China: locked in rivalry?

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Robin Lustig | 16:59 UK time, Friday, 5 October 2012

WASHINGTON DC -- Why do you think President Obama has blocked a Chinese-owned company from buying some fields full of wind turbines in the Western state of Oregon?

Why, on the other hand, is another Chinese-owned company building a network of 50,000 solar panels on a flood-prone field in Illinois? Come to that, why does the same company employ thousands of American workers in the car components industry, making things that, in some cases, are then exported back to China?

It's all part of an increasingly complex relationship between the world's two biggest economies - a relationship that is at the heart of the US presidential election campaign and will be at the heart of the American foreign policy debate over the next four years.

First, those wind turbines in Oregon. It so happens that the land on which they stand is close to a US military base at which unmanned drones are tested. The White House says having a Chinese company as a neighbour could threaten US security interests, so - for the first time in more than 20 years - the President has used his powers to block the sale. (The company says he has overstepped his powers, and is suing him.)

There are no security problems with the solar panels in Illinois, which are being erected in a field that isn't close to anything of any conceivable military significance. So the message from the US seems to be: Chinese investment, yes please, unless we think you could be spying on us.

For several years now, American politicians have accused China of "stealing" American jobs. Low pay rates and unsafe working conditions, they say, make it irresistible for American manufacturers to shut down factories at home and open up instead in China. More jobs for Chinese workers, fewer jobs for Americans.

Now, though, the picture is getting more complicated. Chinese pay scales have been on the up, the currency exchange rate has shifted so that it's no longer quite as favourable to Chinese exporters - and, as with those wind turbines in Oregon and solar panels in Illinois, Chinese companies are investing in the US, buying American companies and hiring American workers.

So what does all this mean for the future relationship between the two global giants? In a special programme which we hoped to broadcast last night, but which will run tonight instead, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here in Washington, a panel of distinguished guests, including two former US ambassadors and one of China's leading strategic thinkers, discuss the challenges and opportunities that will face whoever wins next month?s presidential election.

They don't agree on everything, but they do agree that the relationship is undergoing a profound transformation. Quite apart from China's meteoric economic growth, which means that within the next few years it's likely to have overtaken the US as the world's number one economy, it is also about to appoint a new generation of leaders, and they, according to Professor Yan Xuetong, will want to develop "a new type of relationship". What that means exactly isn't entirely clear - although he does say it won't be anything like the old Cold War relationship between the US and the Soviet Union.

Will China go on investing in American industry? Yes, he says, because it makes good commercial sense. Should the next US president be cautious about encouraging such investment? No, say the former ambassadors, unless there are clear security concerns.

China has been increasing its military expenditure steadily over recent years; the US has been cutting back. And with rising tensions in the East and South China Seas, where Beijing is determined to protect what it regards as its essential strategic interests, there are inevitable concerns about the potential for naval clashes between China and one of America's regional allies, like Japan or the Philippines.

So yes, there is clearly the risk of trouble ahead. But what our panellists do agree on is that leaders in both countries are anxious to avoid them wherever possible. Increasingly, the relationship between Washington and Beijing is becoming a relationship between equals - and that's something America isn't yet used to.

You wouldn't know it from the way the presidential campaigns are talking about China, but maybe we shouldn't pay too much attention to anything they say in the run-up to a closely-fought election. The key will be what they do after Inauguration Day next January.

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