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A Nobel Peace prize?

I scanned my RSS reader quickly this morning.  Short on sleep, with at least an hour of work to do to prepare for my morning class, it was meant to be nothing more than a cursory glance.  The story – covered on some blog or other – stood there at the top of the list.  Nobel Peace Prize?  Obama? It didn’t look like a joke posting, but it just looked too unbelievable to be true.  So I scrolled down, saw the story on one, then another.  Then I saw it on Talking Points Memo.  Only then did I accept it as true.  Josh Marshall doesn’t joke around, nor does he print stories based on rumours.  Wow.

My first reaction, once I accepted it as true, was simply ‘wow’.  On one hand, it’s nice to see  a positive take from someone with perspective that isn’t tied up in the internecine struggles of American politics.  Even as you reject the “birthers” and the “deathers”, their brand of outrageous nonsense still colours the discourse.  And, like many liberals, I’m less than thrilled with the way the White House is handling the health care debate, the why the DOJ has handled some civil liberties cases.  So positive news is a breath of fresh air.  On the other hand, it seemed premature.  He’s seriously considering escalating in Afghanistan, while the Palestine seems on smoulder, on the edge of a new flare-up.  But the language of the Nobel Committee’s language spoke of change in the “international climate”.  And as the climate of international relations changes, it creates space for peacemaking.

Later on, I started to think about what people had said, had to say.  And it occurred to me that maybe Obama wasn’t such a bad choice.  Several people said that Obama received the prize “for not being Bush”.  Phrased that way, it seems trite, but that’s actually a pretty good argument for awarding him the Prize.

It’s easy to forget how much things have changed in the last year or so.  It wasn’t that long ago that people were discussing, with straight faces, the question of whether the US should use nuclear weapons against Iran.  Cheney and the neocons were ready to go to war with Iran.  There was also talk about war with North Korea.  Right or wrong, it seemed like the only thing holding them back from getting involved in another war was the fact that the military was strained to the breaking point.  In addition to that, the US wasn’t only using torture, people in the government were defending tactics like waterboarding.  So it’s more than “not being Bush” – it’s a conscious decision to abandon much of the former regime’s rhetoric and a good bit of their actions.  The Obama administration has still fallen short on civil liberties, it still hasn’t ended the wars, it still hasn’t closed Guantanamo…but that doesn’t change the fact that what they have done is huge.

But all of this is still simply a matter of “not being Bush”, right?  Not really.  Obama didn’t defeat Bush in the election last year.  He defeated John McCain.  And John McCain rhetoric was far more belligerent than Bush’s.  Not only was he singing “bomb-bomb-bomb Iran”, he also seemed ready to go to war with Russia over Georgia last summer.  And, of course, a McCain victory would have put Sarah Palin “a heartbeat away from the Presidency”.

Still, it’s easy to say “well OK, but any Democrat would have done this”.  But would they have?  During the Democratic primary Obama was ridiculed by his fellow Dems for his willingness to engage in diplomacy, even with Iran.  More importantly, he showed himself to have a spine when dealing with the right-wing claims that he (or any Dem) was “soft on terrorism” (or international affairs, or…)  Look what happened in the authorisation of the Iraq war.  Dems were cowed into voting for the war.  That’s important, because (as we have seen) the criticism from the far right is unrelenting.  And Congressional Dems have shown that they will cave if the far right gets loud enough.  This was important in the decision to stop the plan for (unproven) anti-missile systems in eastern Europe.  While touted as being defenses against Iran, they were most likely to provoke escalation with Russia.  Again, it takes enough spine to stand up to the far right and do what makes most sense.  Obama also has a proven track record on nuclear disarmament, of course.

Equally important is Obama’s attempts to improve relationships with the Muslim world.  Again, given all the claims that he was a “secret Muslim”, I can see strategists telling Obama “stay away from the Muslim world”, since it will inflame the far right.  It took courage to reach out.  And reaching out matters.  Not only does it create the opportunity to improve relations (and thus improve the global climate), it also may help average Americans begin to get over their Islamophobia.  You talk to Americans, even liberals, and they see Islam as monolithic, and scary.  Muslims were never popular in the US, but over the last few years they were dehumanised to the extent that deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are seen as insignificant or even (horror of horrors) a good thing, in some cases.

Obama’s personal popularity and likability also contribute to the way he – and by extension, the US – is perceived in the world.  Again, this is more than being “not Bush”.  This is being Obama.  National leaders need to work together, regardless of what they think of one-another and regardless of what their people think of the other leaders.  It’s far more popular to negotiate with, to cooperate with a Barack Obama than with a George Bush.  Similarly, if you’re a demagogue trying to work people up against America, it’s easier when the American leader is hated, and much more difficult when the American leader is loved.

It’s more than just “showing up”.  Obama has changed the international political climate, and he’s done so in a way that makes peace more possible.  That doesn’t excuse the fact that he’s also in charge of two wars and is considering escalating in Afghanistan.  That doesn’t change the fact that he must do more for world peace.  It’s one thing to ask whether Obama is the most deserving candidate.  (I don’t know, I can’t answer that question.)  It’s quite another to suggest that he isn’t qualified for the award.  It’s only been a few months, but he has made a real and significant impact on peace.

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Finding Osama bin Laden with Biogeography

I saw the coolest thing ever on the Rachel Maddow Show tonight.  EverThomas Gillespie of the Geography Department at UCLA was on the show discussing his attempt to predict bin Laden’s location using satellite imagery and biogeographic theory!  It was so amazingly cool to hear him discussing distance-decay models and island biogeography theory to predict bin Laden’s location.  It’s all the cooler because Gillespie is, at least in part, a tropical forest ecologist, did his Ph.D. on tropical dry forests in Nicaragua, and has published on dry forest fragments in south Florida.

It also make me wonder.  This is fairly basic work as far as biogeography goes.  It seems like a much simpler, much more tractable problem than you tend to get in actual conservation biology.  Gillespie may not be right, and presumably if he was, bin Laden has moved by now.  You tend to think of the intelligence community having highly sophisticated tools for data analysis.  But then you hear things like the fact that they are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data, and that they just don’t have enough analysts to deal with all the information they ‘capture’.  It makes me wonder whether the intelligence community should be hiring more community ecologists.  Community ecologists (and, apparently, environmental geographers) are faced with a “middle numbers” problem – they are faced with far too many data points to actually enumerate, but far too few to truly generalise. While this has posed a huge problem to the development of ecological theory, it hasn’t paralysed the field. Part of learning to function as an ecologist is learning to to deal with the issue.

Last month, after Karl’s funeral, Ryan reminisced about a recent interaction between him, Floyd and Karl.  He and Floyd had been counting and measuring the fish the had captured in their sampling.  After watching them measure and record several hundred fish, Karl pointed out to them that they should simply have put the fish into size classes and tallied the number in each size class.  It’s always hard to discard information that you’ve already gone to the trouble of collecting, but it’s often something you need to do in order to make sense of the data you have collected.  It’s something you learn to do as an ecologist…you learn to focus on that portion of the data that you can actually use.  It get the impression that it’s the kind of experience that might translate well into the world of intelligence analysis.

Gillespie, Thomas W., John A. Agnew, Erika Mariano, Scott Mossler, Nolan Jones, Matt Braughton, and Jorge Gonzalez. 2009. Finding Osama bin Laden: An Application of Biogeographic Theories and Satellite Imagery. MIT International Review. Online edition.

Tunnel vision?

I’ve been watching CNN for the past few days.  Although I usually watch MSNBC, when it comes to something like this CNN is a much better source.  CNN International, that is.  Today they’re back to CNN domestic.  It’s the same correspondents, and some of the anchors are great.  But then Wolf Blitzer comes on in The Situation Room…and it’s probably time to turn away from CNN.

While a lot of people were saying al Qaeda early on, by today it’s pretty clear that the experts believe that talking about an al Qaeda link isn’t terribly useful.  On comes Wolf Blitzer and his first question is “link to al Qaeda?”  Each correspondent he speaks to says “probably not, this appears to be linked more to Pakistan and Kashmir”.  And Blitzer then asks the next one “al Qaeda?”  And they answer “probably not”.  (Actually they give an intelligent, nuanced answer.)

It’s really remarkable.  For two days we had solid coverage from CNN International.  Then we had decent, if not stellar coverage from CNN domestic.  New we get to one of their big-name shows…and the bottom falls out.  Has he been watching CNN?  Does he pay attention to what the correspondents say on his own show?  Or is it that he simply thinks that his audience is too stupid to understand that “terrorism” is a complicated, multi-dimensional question?

Disturbingly self-absorbed

I understand that the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade is a big deal.  But listening to the commentary on the parade yesterday, you would never have known that over 100 people were dead in an ongoing terrorist attack.  I understand that the parade would have gone on no matter what – and it should have gone on…after all, terrorist deal in fear, so the simple act of carrying on as normal is an act of defiance.

It’s one thing to carry on.  It’s another to totally ignore tragedy simply because it’s going on in another country.  A major fire in another US city would have attracted the attention of the commentators, it would have coloured their commentary.  But of the tragedy in Mumbai they seemed blissfully unaware.  What does it take to be that self-absorbed?  It’s very disturbing.

Day three in Mumbai

Indian security forces stormed the Chabad House in Mumbai; the rabbi and his wife, Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, their two small children and their housekeeper are dead.  Not sure if they were killed in the attack or before.  The Oberoi Hotel has been cleared, apparently.  There’s still one gunman at the Taj.

Three days seems like forever.  But then, that’s half as long as the coup.  I don’t mean to downplay the trauma of what’s going on in Mumbai.  I’m trying to understand the magnitude of what we lived through 18 years ago.  And, you know…I can’t wrap my mind around it.

Stumbling in the dark

In his Op-Ed column at the NY Times Paul Krugman writes:

A few months ago I found myself at a meeting of economists and finance officials, discussing — what else? — the crisis. There was a lot of soul-searching going on. One senior policy maker asked, “Why didn’t we see this coming?”

There was, of course, only one thing to say in reply, so I said it: “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”

Krugman goes on to explain that, while people like to call the current financial crisis “unprecedented”, there were lots of warning signs.  Some were obvious – it seems like everyone was aware that the housing bubble was a bubble.  But, shockingly, the banks and rating agencies didn’t seem to realise that house prices might decline.  And we all know what the collapse of the real estate markets in Japan did to the Japanese economy.  No, most people don’t recall what happened in the early 90s.  But economists and policy makers should.  That’s kinda their job.

While the Japanese example is solidly cemented in my mind (thanks, in a large part, to Krugman’s Op-Eds almost a decade ago), I wasn’t familiar with the implications of the collapse of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management in 1998.  I remember it being a big deal at the time, and every time I hear the word “hedge fund” something stirs in my memory.  But I had no idea that it “temporarily paralyzed credit markets around the world”.

Krugman goes on to talk about the triumphalism that characterised the recovery from the 1997-1998 crisis and the collapse of the dot-com bubble, and how the fact that the world managed to step back from the brink made people more complacent.

In fact, both the crisis of 1997-98 and the bursting of the dot-com bubble probably had the perverse effect of making both investors and public officials more, not less, complacent. Because neither crisis quite lived up to our worst fears, because neither brought about another Great Depression, investors came to believe that Mr. Greenspan had the magical power to solve all problems — and so, one suspects, did Mr. Greenspan himself, who opposed all proposals for prudential regulation of the financial system.

People on the brink of disaster are often blissfully unaware.  Point it out to them and their reaction tends to be one worthy of a teenager; as Krugman said, “nobody likes a party pooper”.  Talk about the housing bubble, or the dot-com bubble, or the looking climate crisis, and people accuse you of fearmongering.  Or they simply do nothing because the implications are too disturbing to deal with.

Thoughts on Mumbai

We are victims of our own experience.  I am unable to see the events that are happening in Mumbai through any filter other than my own experience.  It may serve me badly or it may serve me well.  But I’m not trying to write as a journalist, or as a serious commentator.

I have no sense of what Mumbai looks like on a good day, so it’s hard for me to judge exactly how bad the damage is on the streets of Mumbai.  Vinukumar Ranganathan’s photo collection is remarkable.  I was struck by the faces of the crowd, by what appears to be a locally-organised cordon keeping the crowd back.  But what struck me most was the images of the police.

As I said, everything I see, I see through the filter of my own experience.  In their light-coloured uniforms,they bring to mind Trinidadian police inspectors.  All the more I am reminded of Hansley in his police inspector uniform from Flight of the Ibis – it wasn’t a real uniform, it was a copy cut from a cheaper cloth – one that wrinkled.  Which made me realise that police uniforms never wrinkled.  Anyway, the thing that strucke me about the Mumbai police were there in riot helmets, armed with antique rifles.  Probably more than adequate for crowd control in the city (although, again, I was struck by the fact that the face plates were mesh, not plastic), but no match for AKs and grenades.  And once again I was reminded of the coup.  It wasn’t that the Jamaat had modern weaponry either, but I remember the policemen in Gasparillo during the coup who were similarly armed with antique shotguns.  Everything changed after the coup – there was a major upgrade in the weaponry carried by the police.  But eighteen years later, the police in Mumbai appear to be equipped for a kinder, gentler time.

I’m not about the criticise them for the way they reacted to the attack.  I rather doubt that they have been trained to deal with something like this.

Another thing that struck me was Barbara Starr’s comments on CNN about the level of sophistication of the attacks, that this was something that terrorism experts found noteworthy.  Granted, it takes some doing to coordinate ten separate attacks, especially when you are arriving by boat in a foreign city.  But again, I think of the coup.  The Jamaat was able to attack the Police Headquarters and the Red House at the same time as they were attacking TTT and Radio Trinidad.  On the other hand, had they coordinated things a little better they would have gotten control of the Guardian building, the other radio station and, far more significantly, Piarco Airport.  Still – I had never thought of the coup as an especially sophisticated attack, or the Jamaat as an especially sophisticated group.  Reactions to the Mumbai attacks makes me wonder.  On the other hand, of course, this is just speculation by (unnamed) terrorism analysts who are simply watching TV like the rest of us.  Perhaps they deserve no more credence than political pundits during elections…