Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Wall Street Journal

Which World Leader Has the Toughest Job? 
The news is so awful everywhere these days that I’ve been pondering which world leader has the worst job–or has done the worst job. Some deserve pity for woes not of their making. Others are sadly pathetic for tragedies they helped trigger. Below are my top 10. In the comments section, tell us who’s on your list.
President of Ukraine: In office less than two months, Petro Poroshenko inherited a country that had already lost Crimea and was on the brink of civil war, with the army fighting separatists aided and abetted by Russia. With the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, President Poroshenko faces an escalation of Ukraine’s conflict in tactics, targets and human costs. Two fighter jets were shot down Wednesday. I wonder if he has had any second thoughts about seeking office.
President of Russia: Not for the first time, Vladimir Putin has displayed utter disregard for basic human dignity, as well as international norms, in dealing with Ukraine and MH17. U.S. and European sanctions haven’t phased him either. The former KGB agent is a political bully at home yet his approval rating in Russia is 83%–a 29-point jump over last year, according to Gallup. That’s hard to reconcile, even after the bump from theSochi OlympicsOlympicsOlympics.
United Nations high commissioner for refugees: The numbers grow worse daily forAntonio Guterres, the former Portuguese prime minister who is charged with aiding the world’s displaced. For the first time since World War II, the total exceeds 50 million. Over the past two months 1.1 million Iraqis have been added to the list as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) swept across a third of Iraq. If displaced people had their own country, it would be the world’s 24th-largest state. Is there a more heart-breaking, or little-noticed, job?
Prime minister of Iraq: The increasingly autocratic Nouri al-Maliki is clinging to power in a country that has lost one-third of its territory, in less than two months, to the world’s most virulent Islamic movement. His military has crumbled, with four divisions abandoning their posts rather than fight ISIS. Meanwhile, Kurds in another big chunk of territory are making noises about a referendum on breaking off from Iraq. But Mr. Maliki seems more obsessed with his own status than his nation’s fate.
Head of Afghanistan’s Elections Commission: Forget hanging chads. Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani is managing the recount of all 8 million votes for a new Afghan president. Last month’s runoff between front-runner Ashraf Ghani and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah had so many accusations and counter-accusations of fraud that Mr. Abdullahthreatened to form his own parallel government. The recount may yet be contested. As if Afghanistan doesn’t have enough problems containing the Taliban as NATO troops withdraw later this year.
Prime minister of Israel: Benjamin Netanyahu hasn’t been able to make peace but also can’t decisively win a war. He has rallied support at home during Operation Protective Edge, even though more Israelis have died in this conflict than in the 2012 and 2008-09 conflicts with Hamas militants in Gaza. How to get beyond the deadly status quo?
Hamas leaders: Pew recently found Hamas’s standing deteriorating among Palestinians and in the broader Arab world. A poll last month found that support for former prime minister Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Maashal totaled less than 15%. Among Gazans, 70% favored a cease-fire even as Hamas started firing rockets. Since fighting erupted, the numbers have shifted somewhat in another poll, but a majority still favors an end to this showdown and the broader conflict. The rapidly rising death toll–already more than 700 Palestinians–and destruction may also erode long-term support for Hamas.
President of Syria: With world attention focused elsewhere, Bashar al-Assad was sworn in recently for his third seven-year term, perpetuating a dynasty that has ruled Damascus since 1970–at great cost in Syrian lives. Deaths in Syria’s three-year civil war are estimated to exceed 170,000, most of them civilians. Mr. Assad’s refusal to negotiate a reconciliation government has allowed extremists to consume what started out as a peaceful protest movement and to take over territory. The region is being shaken by his self-absorption.
Prime minister of Libya: Don’t know his name, do you? The sad reality is that no one really runs Libya today. Abdullah al-Thani is the notional prime minister, but few Libyans pay attention to him or his government. Libya is so riven by militias competing for power, turf and spoilsthat Tripoli doesn’t even control its airport, which was turned into a battlefield last week. Three years after Moammar Gadhafi’s ouster, the oil-rich nation still doesn’t have a constitution—and is edging into failed-state status.

President of the United States: One way or another, Barack Obama has to deal with all these foreign policy crises–and such domestic issues as Republicans in Congress threatening to sue him. Last week Pew reported that Mr. Obama’s job approval rating had sunk to 44% (which might give him the lone reason to envy Vladimir Putin). His party faces a tough election in November: Democrats may lost control of the Senate, his last vestige of support in Congress. And next year he becomes a lame duck. All in all, not so ducky.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Wall Street Journal

Little Girls Mutilated: 

A Global Travesty
ByRobin Wright
The numbers are really sickening. Last year, 3.6 million little girls were “cut” – or had their genitals mutilated. The crude cultural ritual involves the removal, usually with a knife or razor, of a girl’s clitoris and labia—and not always with anesthesia. The extent of the procedure varies, but the trauma and pain can last a lifetime.
The practice is still “almost universal” in Egypt, Somalia, Guinea and Djibouti, and common in more than 25 other countries, according to a report out today from UNICEF. It is even practiced in “pockets” of North America and Europe, UNICEF says.
When you read the numbers, think not of the many zeroes at the end, which can make any of us glaze over, but of the individual tales of each life one, by one, by one, and what each girl had to endure. Cutting is always done before puberty—sometimes when the girls are still tots, often between the ages of five and 14, but always when a girl is most vulnerable and unable to protect herself.
Worldwide, an estimated 125 million women alive today have been mutilated, primarily in Africa and the Middle East, even though the practice has been outlawed in many of the countries where families still force their girls to go through it. Cutting is the ultimate global barometer of gender inequality.
If the trend is not stemmed, another 30 million girls may be mutilated in the next decade, the UNICEF report predicts. The practice is all the more common in countries with high population rates, which means more girls, proportionately, will be liable to genital mutilation.
The practice survives for various reasons. It is usually related to age-old custom rather than religion. In many countries, the practice is common among Christians, Muslims and animists. It’s viewed as a means of preserving virginity or preventing promiscuity after marriage.
The dangers can last a life-time. Girls who are cut “are at risk of prolonged bleeding, infection including HIV, infertility and death,” reports UNICEF.
Some countries have made progress, UNICEF reports. Thirty years ago, half of all adolescent girls in Kenya were cut. At the current rate, it could decline to 10% by 2020, although even one girl mutilated is too much.
In another telling trend, more than 700 million women alive today were married as children—and over 250 million of them before they turned 15, UNICEF says. The highest rates are in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In the West Africa country of Niger, 77% of women between the ages of 20 and 49 were married as children.
One of three child brides lives in India. In many countries, child marriage mirrors class, poverty and societal problems.
“A girl who is married as a child is more likely to be out of school, experience domestic abuse and contract sexually transmitted infections,” UNICEF reports. “She will have children when she herself is still a child, and is far more likely to die from complications during pregnancy.”
And this is the 21st century!

Friday, July 18, 2014

The New Yorker



I snuck into Kurdistan, in 2002, on an old smugglers’ route. There was no legal way to get there, so I’d flown to Iran, taken a second flight to its western border, driven a couple hours, signed a log book in a hut acknowledging that I’d left Iran, then walked across a dirt road into the raw wilderness of northern Iraq. There were no buildings in sight, let alone border security, immigration, or even road signs—just vistas of craggy mountains.
The Kurds, who make up nearly twenty per cent of Iraq’s population, had been isolated from the world for more than a decade, since the United Nations imposed sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1991. They had also been isolated from the rest of Iraq, as punishment for challenging Saddam’s rule. He squeezed them even harder than the world squeezed him. The Kurds’ regional governments suddenly had to fend for themselves.
The Kurds are a resourceful people. One of my early stops on that trip was at a little oil refinery built from cannibalized parts of a sugar refinery, a soft-drink plant, and a cement factory; it pumped three thousand barrels a day. Its slogan was “Where there’s a well, there’s a way.” Stranded without passports, Kurds had begged and borrowed from countries where they had been educated or had relatives. The prime minister had become a Brit, the minister of education a Swede, and the minister of human rights a German. I met others who had Belgian, French, Italian, Spanish, Austrian, and Swiss papers.
With no access to Iraq’s postal system, Kurdish entrepreneurs launched Internet cafés with unrestricted access to the Web, then forbidden in Saddam’s Iraq. Newspapers proliferated; satellite-television stations (also banned in the rest of Iraq) brought in the outside world. I watched the U.S. election returns at the prime minister’s home, as he switched between CNN and Fox.
During the ten days of that trip, Kurdish leaders repeatedly claimed that they didn’t favor forging their own country, despite their hatred for Saddam, distrust of Baghdad, and deepening Kurdish nationalism. They had learned in the previous decade how hard it was, as a landlocked territory twice the size of New Jersey, to go it alone. They had become utterly beholden—at a high price—to the political preferences and economic priorities of their neighbors Iran and Turkey.
“There is a desire and will to preserve the unity and territorial integrity of this country within the state of Iraq,” Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdish Democratic Party, explained when I visited his mountaintop headquarters in Salahuddin, near Irbil. “We never asked for an independent Kurdish state.” Barzani, who still wore the baggy trousers and elaborate, layered turban of tribal Kurds, is the son of the dagger-wielding warrior who led the Kurdish resistance movement in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, was just as adamant. “What we have is not stable or permanent,” he told me in Sulaymaniyah. “We need to reunite with Iraq for a permanent democratic life.” Talabani later became Iraq’s President, after Saddam was ousted and Baghdad launched its rocky democratic experiment.
But even in 2002 the Kurds were drifting into an autonomous statelet. The Kurdish language was making a comeback in government offices and workplaces, displacing Arabic. The school curriculum was Kurdicized; the younger generation barely identified with Iraq. Levies from smuggling and illicit trade produced revenues of a million dollars a day; even trucks exporting goods from Saddam-land to Turkey had to pay bribes to win passage. The Kurds had their own flag, too—a big sun emblazoned over red, white, and green stripes.
So, a dozen years later, it isn’t surprising that the Kurds now increasingly appear to be decoupling from Iraq, whether formally or de facto. When I returned, four months ago, this time on a direct flight from Istanbul to Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan had evolved from the least developed part of Iraq to its most stable and prosperous region. I stayed at a new five-star hotel and attended a conference at the new American University of Sulaymaniyah, which brought together panellists from around the world. The Kurds also have a new pipeline for transporting oil to Turkey, which could result in exports of up to four hundred thousand barrels a year, with an estimated forty-five billion barrels of crude in reserve.
The Kurds have many reasons to split off. They’re furious with Baghdad, which since January has refused to fork over the Kurds’ share of the national kitty. They’re terrified of the sweeping territorial conquests by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an Al Qaeda offshoot, which is now poised along a six-hundred-mile border with Kurdistan that the Iraqi Army abruptly abandoned last month. And they’re engaged in a war of words with Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, about stepping aside to let a new government salvage the nation. Last week, Maliki accused the Kurds of aiding ISIS militants. He fired all the Kurds in his cabinet, including the stalwart Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
“He has become hysterical and has lost his balance,” Barzani, who is now Kurdistan’s President, said in an unusually peppery statement on July 10th. “He is doing everything he can to justify his failures and put the blame on others.” Barzani noted that Maliki himself had once taken refuge from Saddam’s dictatorship in Kurdistan—and that others were now taking refuge from Maliki. Barzani also told the BBC, “Iraq is effectively partitioned now. Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation?”
Barzani has demanded a referendum, so that Kurds can vote on breaking with Baghdad. It may be a risky ploy, perhaps as leverage to retain control of oil-rich Kirkuk, a disputed city that Kurdish Peshmerga fighters seized in mid-June after the Iraqi Army fled. Kurds have long claimed Kirkuk, as have the Arabs. Under Saddam, Baghdad went to bizarre lengths to Arabize the city, threatening Kurds until they quit their jobs, turned over housing, and fled to nearby Kurdistan. Arabs were even offered rewards for reburying ancestors in Kirkuk, to create historic claims to the land.
A unified Iraq is still salvageable, but barely—and only if Baghdad accommodates the Kurds’ long-ignored demands, including control and sales of oil resources, greater political autonomy, a greater say in Iraqi politics, and freedom to arm and use their Peshmerga security forces. “Kurdistan could be part of Iraq if Iraq can become a decent, stable country,” a leading Kurd, who has held positions in both the regional and national governments, told me on Monday. “But, if Iraq is torn apart by sectarian strife, the Kurds will go on their own journey. To be fair, this is the dynamic of the Kurdish reality since 1991. It’s a dual-track policy of working on self-government while developing attributes of a stable region where Kurds rule but remain part of Iraq.”
Most of the outside world opposes Kurdish independence, because of the precedent it would set and the potential instability it would create. It’s one issue about which the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, and China—despite their profound differences over Syria—all agree.
If the Kurds do hold a poll, the outcome is predictable. In 2005, they voted in an informalreferendum that coincided with Iraq’s first democratic parliamentary elections. Ninety-eight per cent favored independence.
If Kurdistan secedes, it could become the hundred and ninety-fourth member of the United Nations, finally achieving the statehood promised (and reneged on) by the Allied Powers after the First World War. The Kurds, now split up in strategic corners of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran (with smatterings extending from Lebanon to Russia), would no longer be the world’s largest minority without a state.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The New Yorker

Killing the Kids 
In 1994, on the eve of Rwanda’s genocide, Radio Mille Collines, in Kigali, incited listeners with a venomous message: “To kill the big rats, you have to kill the little rats.” It was a veiled command to murder the youngest generation of Tutsis, the country’s minority tribe. In less than four months, an estimated three hundred thousand children were slashed, hacked, gunned, or burned to death, according to the United Nations. Among the dead were newborns.
The Rwandan slaughter was not unique. The specific targeting of children is one of the grimmest new developments in the way conflicts have been waged over the past fifty years. In the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, roughly half of all deaths in conflict zones were civilian, according to the U.N. During the Second World War, civilians accounted for two-thirds of the fatalities. By the twentieth century’s end, almost ninety per cent were civilian.
Children have accounted for increasingly large chunks of those deaths. In 1995, UNICEFreported that roughly two million kids had been killed in wars over the previous decade—more children than soldiers. “Children are not just getting caught in the crossfire, they are also likely to be specific targets,” Graça Machel, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, declared in the first U.N. “Children in War” report, in 1996. She went on:
When ethnic loyalties prevail, a perilous logic clicks in. The escalation from ethnic superiority to ethnic cleansing to genocide, as we have seen, can become an irresistible process. Killing adults is then not enough; future generations of the enemy—their children—must also be eliminated.
In the twenty-first century, the escalating dangers to children in conflict zones are often overlooked amid the terrible dramas of individual loss, such as the recent killing of three Israeli teen-agers and a young Palestinian. But the worldwide numbers are unprecedented. “We’re seeing everywhere that violence against children is an epidemic, amplified in conflict situations,” Susan Bissell, UNICEF’s chief of child protection, told me this week. “One billion children are today living in countries and territories affected by war or conflict—and it’s fair to conclude that large numbers suffer violent injuries and death.”
According to the Secretary-General’s latest “Children and Armed Conflict” report, issued on Tuesday, one of the most dangerous places to be a child is Syria. To take a single example: in the spring of 2011, Hamza al-Khateeb, a pudgy thirteen-year-old, got separated from his parents during a protest against the government of Bashar al-Assad. His mutilated corpse—with gunshot wounds, cigarette burns, a shattered jaw and kneecaps, and a severed penis—was returned to the family a month later. A government medical examiner reportedly claimed that the boy had been shot during the protest, and that the disfigurement was either normal decay or faked. Pictures of the body circulated on the Internet and in Syrian media, perhaps as a warning to dissidents and parents.
Since then, at least eleven thousand Syrian children—and probably thousands more—are estimated to have died in the vicious civil war. Almost eight hundred were summarily executed, with dozens killed by chemical weapons, according to the Oxford Research Group. One of the most memorable pictures from the Syrian regime’s use of sarin nerve gas last August was the long row of little corpses, wrapped in white shrouds that exposed innocent faces, as they awaited burial.
Other kids have become collateral for combatants. As Israel searched for the three abducted teenagers, UNICEFissued a statement of “grave concern” about the May 29th kidnapping of a hundred and forty Kurdish schoolboys in northern Syria. As they were returning to their hometown from junior-high-school exams in Aleppo, they were seized and taken hostage by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Four managed to escape; the rest are still missing.
Technology, ranging from nuclear weapons to small cluster bombs, has made non-combatants, especially the young, particularly vulnerable. I lived in Lebanon during its civil war. After the Israeli invasion in the nineteen-eighties, dozens of Lebanese kids were killed by cluster bombs, either in direct hits or by stepping on them or after mistaking them for toys.
When it comes to the use of insidious weaponry, nearly all sides have something to answer for. In Afghanistan, at least thirty-five thousand children have been victims of land mines since 1979, according to the U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. When I visited the orphanage in Kabul in 1999, during the Taliban’s rule, a turbaned official lamented losing orphans who wandered into neighborhoods where land mines or explosives had been deposited by assorted domestic and foreign militaries over the previous two decades. Fifteen years later, Afghan children are still dying from the weaponry of conflicts both old and new.
Death tolls for kids are sometimes fuzzy and often not final, even long after wars end. In Bosnia, more than a thousand children are reportedly missing from a war that ended a generation ago. Aid groups also point out that politicians, militias, and interest groups exploit child deaths—both their numbers and circumstances—for propaganda value, a recurrent controversy in counting the death toll in Iraq’s various conflicts.
Regardless of public revulsion, U.N. officials told me this week, the rising number of child casualties is unlikely to subside anytime soon. Today’s wars are increasingly within countries rather than between them; the fighting has moved to city streets, invading the playrooms of homes and kindergartens.