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Amazing Grace

Political dynasties tend to thrive mainly in very large democratic countries where name-recognition is a huge asset: think two President Adams, two President Roosevelts, and maybe soon a third President Bush or a second President Clinton in the United States, or the string of Indian prime ministers from the Nehru-Gandhi clan. By contrast, such dynasties are rare in Africa – but there’s an exception to every rule.

Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since the end of the white-minority regime in 1980. He’s in pretty good shape for 90 (and his mother lived to 100), but it’s inevitable that the question of the succession will pop up from time to time. The answer has usually been that it’s a race between two leading figures of the ruling Zanu-PF party: Vice-President Joice Mujuru and Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Mnangagwa was generally reckoned to be Mugabe’s favourite for the role, but Mujuru, who fought in the “Bush War” against the white regime and once shot down a Rhodesian military helicopter with a machine-gun, had more support among the party’s activists. In any case, with the next “election” not due until 2018 and Mugabe showing no signs of imminent mortality, there was no urgency in the situation.

Then in September, Joice Mujuru was awarded a PhD by the University of Zimbabwe for a thesis on “strategic exploratory entrepreneurship”, whatever that may be.  (Zimbabwe is a poor and mismanaged country, but it probably has the best-educated population in sub-Saharan Africa, so a higher academic degree is a political asset.)

It’s not clear how much of the work Dr Mujuru did herself, but her thesis was soon on the shelves of the university library. The remarkable thing is that Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace was awarded a PhD in sociology at the same ceremony, although she had only enrolled at the university three months before. Her thesis has still not shown up in the library.

Since mid-September, however, Zimbabwe has been through a three-month political blitzkrieg that saw Grace Mugabe supplant Joice Mujuru as the heir apparent to the presidency of Zimbabwe. First she was nominated as the head of the Zanu-PF’s women’s league, despite a complete lack of political experience. Then she embarked on a “meet-the-nation” tour of all ten of Zimbabwe’s provinces whose main theme was the vilification of Joice Mujuru.

She called the vice-president “corrupt, an extortionist, incompetent, a gossiper, a liar and ungrateful,” adding that she was “power-hungry, daft, foolish, divisive and a disgrace.”  She claimed that Mujuru was collaborating with opposition forces and white people to undermine the country’s post-independence gains. And finally she accused the independence war hero of plotting to assassinate her husband, President Robert Mugabe.

The pay-off came last week at the Zanu-PF party congress in Harare (take the newly renamed Dr Grace Mugabe Drive and have the chauffeur drop you at the door). Joice Mujuru was purged from the party, with Robert Mugabe telling the congress: “I don’t  know how many books we could write about Mujuru’s crimes.” Grace Mugabe was confirmed as head of the women’s league, and everybody expects that her next stop will be the vice-presidency.

There were a few dissenting voices: Jabulani Sibanda, a veteran of the independence war, told a meeting that this was a “bedroom coup” and argued that “power was not sexually transmitted.” But he was charged with insulting the president, and most people just kept their heads down. Opposing the Mugabes can be an unhealthy and occasionally even a fatal business.

But what is really going on here? Grace Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s First Lady, is a woman of modest education and coarse manners who met the president when she was manning the switchboard at State House. 41 years younger than the president, she began an affair with Robert Mugabe that produced two children even before his wife died.  She was known as “First Shopper” because of her extravagance, but she never showed any interest in politics.

That’s why some observers are persuaded that she isn’t really Robert Mugabe’s choice as successor. On the contrary, they argue, he’s just using her to clear Joice Mujuru out of the way so that his real choice, Emmerson Mnangagwa, can become vice-president. But it seems an unnecessarily round-about way for an autocrat like Mugabe to do business. It also ignores how strong her hold on him is.

At last week’s party congress, Mugabe, frail and sometimes forgetful, took the mike to dissolve the outgoing central committee, and instead wandered off into a lecture about the liberation struggle. Grace wrote him a note telling him to sit down. He did, telling the audience “My wife has written a note; she says I’m talking too much. That’s how I am treated even at home, so I must listen.”

It is entirely possible that Grace’s sudden rise to power is her own idea. If it is, it’s a bad one, because her power would not long outlast Robert Mugabe’s demise. She has neither political skills nor a base within the party. But she might be doing the country an inadvertent favour even so, if the intra-party struggle to get rid of her after her husband’s death shook Zanu-PF’s long and mostly malign stranglehold on power in Zimbabwe.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 9. (“Then…library”; and “There…business”)

Artificial Intelligence Threat

The experts run the whole gamut from A to B, and they’re practically unanimous: artificial intelligence is going to destroy human civilisation.

Expert A is Elon Musk, polymath co-founder of PayPal, manufacturer of Tesla electric cars, creator of Space X, the first privately funded company to send a spacecraft into orbit, and much else besides. “I think we should be very careful about Artificial Intelligence (AI),” he told an audience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in October. “If I were to guess what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that.”

Musk warned AI engineers to “be very careful” not to create robots that could rule the world. Indeed, he suggested that there should be regulatory oversight “at the national and international level” over the work of AI developers, “just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish.”

Expert B is Stephen Hawking, the world’s most famous theoretical physicist and author of the best-selling unread book ever, “A Short History of Time”. He has a brain the size of Denmark, and last Monday he told the British Broadcasting Corporation that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

Hawking has a motor neurone disease that compels him to speak with the aid of an artificial speech generator. The new version he is getting from Intel learns how Professor Hawking thinks, and suggests the words he might want to use next. It’s an early form of AI, so naturally the interviewer asked him about the future of that technology.

A genuinely intelligent machine, Hawking warned, “would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.” So be very, very careful.

Musk and Hawking are almost fifty years behind popular culture in their fear of rogue AI turning against human beings (HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey”). They are a full thirty years behind the concept of a super-computer that achieves consciousness and instantly launches a war of extermination against mankind (Skynet in the “Terminator” films).

Then there’s “The Matrix”, “Blade Runner” and similar variations on the theme. It’s taken a while for the respectable thinkers to catch up with all this paranoia, but they’re there now. So everybody take a tranquiliser, and let’s look at this more calmly. Full AI, with capacities comparable to the human brain or better, is at least two or three decades away, so we have time to think about how to handle this technology.

The risk that genuinely intelligent machines which don’t need to be fed or paid will eventually take over practically all the remaining good jobs – doctors, pilots, accountants, etc. – is real. Indeed, it may be inevitable. But that would only be a catastrophe if we cannot revamp our culture to cope with a great deal more leisure, and restructure our economy to allocate wealth on a different basis than as a reward for work.

Such a society might well end up as a place in which intelligent machines had “human” rights before the law, but that’s not what worries the sceptics. Their fear is that machines, having achieved consciousness, will see human beings as a threat (because we can turn them off, at least at first), and that they will therefore seek to control or even eliminate us. That’s the Skynet scenario, but it’s not very realistic.

The saving grace in the real scenario is that AI will not arrive all at once, with the flip of a switch. It will be built gradually over decades, which gives us time to introduce a kind of moral sense into the basic programming, rather like the innate morality that most human beings are born with. (An embedded morality is an evolutionary advantage in a social species.)

Our moral sense doesn’t guarantee that we will always behave well, but it certainly helps. And if we are in charge of the design, not just blind evolution, we might even do better. Something like Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, which the Master laid down 72 years ago.

First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Not a bad start, although in the end there will inevitably be a great controversy among human beings as to whether self-conscious machines should be kept forever as slaves. The trick is to find a way of embedding this moral sense so deeply in the programming that it cannot be circumvented.

As Google’s director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil, has observed, however, it may be hard to write an algorithmic moral code strong enough to constrain and contain super-smart software.

We probably have a few decades to work on it, but we are going to go down this road – the whole ethos of this civilisation demands it – so we had better figure out how to do that.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 9 and 16. (“Hawking…technology”; “The risk…work”; and “Not…circumvented”)

“Global” Terrorism

“We will not be cowed by these sick terrorists,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron after ISIS produced a grisly video of the mass beheading of Syrian captives by foreign jihadis who allegedly included British fighters. “We will not be intimidated,” said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper after the recent attacks in Montreal and Ottawa. As if the purpose of terrorist attacks in Western countries was to cow and intimidate them.

You hear this sort of rhetoric from Western leaders all the time, but Harper went further, and demonstrated exactly how they get it wrong. “(This) will lead us to…redouble our efforts to work with our allies around the world and fight against the terrorist organisations who brutalise those in other countries with the hope of bringing their savagery to our shores. They will have no safe haven.” Sound familiar?

Sure enough, there are now half a dozen Canadian planes bombing ISIS jihadis in Iraq (although it’s unlikely that either of the Canadian attackers, both converts to radical Islam, had any contact with foreign terrorist organisations). But Harper has got the logic completely backwards.

The purpose of major terrorist activities directed at the West, from the 9/11 attacks to ISIS videos, is not to “cow” or “intimidate” Western countries. It is to get those countries to bomb Muslim countries or, better yet, invade them. The terrorists want to come to power in Muslim countries, not in Canada or Britain or the US. And the best way to establish your revolutionary credentials and recruit local supporters is to get the West to attack you.

That’s what Osama bin Laden wanted in 2001. (He hoped for an American invasion of Afghanistan, but he got an unexpected bonus in the US invasion of Iraq.) The ISIS videos of Western hostages being beheaded are intended to get Western countries involved in the fight against them, because that’s how you build local support. So far, the strategy is working just fine.

The “Global Terrorism Index”, published annually by the Institute for Economics and Peace, reported last week that fatalities due to terrorism have risen fivefold in the 13 years since the 9/11 attacks, despite the US-led “war on terror” that has spent $4.4 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and anti-terrorist operations elsewhere. But it’s not really “despite” those wars. It’s largely because of them.

The invasions, the drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Africa, the whole lumbering apparatus of the “global war on terrorism” have not killed the terrorist beast. They have fed it, and the beast has grown very large. 3,361 people were killed by terrorism in 2000; 17,958 were killed by it last year.

At least 80 percent of these people were Muslims, and the vast majority of those who killed them were also Muslims: the terrorists of Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and al-Qaeda and its offspring in other parts of the world (like al-Shebab in north-east Africa).

That is not to say that terrorism is a particularly Muslim technique. Its historical roots lie in European struggles against oppressive regimes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it gained huge currency in liberation struggles against the European colonial empires after the Second World War. Even the Stern Gang in Israel and the Irish Republican Army can be seen as part of this wave.

Later waves of fashion in terrorism included the European, Latin American and Japanese “urban terrorist” movements of the 1970s and 80s – Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, Red Brigades in Italy, Montoneros in Argentina, Japanese Red Army and so on – none of which has any political success at all. Specifically “Islamic” terrorism really begins only in the 1990s, with the rise of radical, anachronistic forms of Sunni Islam.

Only about 5 percent of the victims of this latest wave of terrorism lived in developed countries, but it was their deaths, and their governments’ ignorant responses to them, that provided the fuel for the spectacular growth of jihadi extremism. So what can be done about it?

The Global Terrorism Index has some useful observations to offer about that, too. It points out that a great many terrorist organisations have actually gone out of business in the past 45 years. Only 10 percent of them actually won, took power, and disbanded their terrorist wings. And only 7 percent were eliminated by the direct application of military force.

EIGHTY percent of them were ended by a combination of better policing and the creation of a political process that addressed the grievances of those who supported the terrorism. You don’t fix the problem by fighting poverty or raising educational levels; that kind of thing has almost nothing to do with the rise of terrorism. You have to deal with the particular grievances that obsess specific ethnic, religious or political groups.

And above all, keep foreigners out of the process. Their interventions ALWAYS make matters worse. Which is why the terrorists love them so much.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“That is…Islam”)

Ukraine Cock-Up

This is what former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, subsequently driven from office by mass protests in Kiev, said to German Chancellor Angela Merkel just one year ago, at the start of the crisis. It was recorded by a Lithuanian television crew, eavesdropping on the conversation with a directional mike, at the European Union summit in Vilnius where Yanukovych announced that he was not going to sign an EU-Ukraine trade deal.

“The economic situation in Ukraine is very hard, and we have big difficulties with Moscow,” Yanukovych explained to Merkel in Russian (which they both speak fluently). “I would like you to hear me. I was left alone for three and a half years in very unequal conditions with Russia…one to one.”

The Ukrainian president was not overthrown by a “fascist” plot, as Russian propaganda would have us believe, nor was NATO hoping to make Ukraine a member. (Indeed, NATO had repeatedly told the previous Ukrainian government, which was very pro-Western, that under no circumstances could it ever join the Western alliance.)  Exactly one year into the crisis, it’s useful to remember what really happened.

The basic question you have to ask about any international crisis is: conspiracy or cock-up? The Ukrainian crisis definitely falls into the latter category. Nobody planned it, and nobody wanted it. Here’s how they stumbled into it.

Yanukovych inherited the negotiations for a trade deal with the EU from the previous government when he returned to the presidency in 2010. (He was overthrown by the “Orange Revolution” in 2004, after winning a rigged election, but in 2010 he won narrowly but cleanly.) And he didn’t break off the talks with the EU because that would have alienated half the country: the western, mostly Ukrainian-speaking part.

Yanukovych was a typical post-Soviet political figure, deeply corrupt and almost comically greedy – the presidential palace he lived in on the banks of the Dnieper was so lavish it could have been in the Middle East – but he was a competent politician. Almost all his votes had come from the eastern and southern, mostly Russian-speaking parts of the country, but he knew that he couldn’t simply ignore the west.

On the other hand, he couldn’t ignore Moscow either. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin saw the EU as a stalking horse for NATO, and was trying to persuade Yanukovych to join his own “Eurasian Economic Union” (EEU) instead. Moreover, Russia had huge economic leverage, since it provided most of Ukraine’s energy and bought half of Ukraine’s exports (mainly coal, steel and heavy industrial goods made in eastern Ukraine).
So for three years Yanukovych temporised, trying to get financial guarantees out of the EU that would make up for the economic punishment Putin would inflict if Ukraine signed the trade treaty. The EU wouldn’t budge: there would be no special help for Ukraine. It would just have to take its punishment, Yanukovych was told, but the trade deal would be good for the country in the long term.

Politicians have to live in the short term, however, and in 2012-13 Ukrainian exports to Russia fell by half as Putin turned the screws tighter. Those exports mostly provided income for people in industrial eastern Ukraine, i.e. Yanukovych’s own supporters. The EU had left him “alone for three and a half years in very unequal conditions with Russia…one to one” – so in late 2013 he made his choice: break off the EU talks, and sign up with Putin’s EEU instead.

Did Yanukovych foresee that there would be big demonstrations against him in Kiev, where people had pinned their hopes on association with the EU? Of course he did, but he probably didn’t foresee that the protests would be fuelled by the ham-fisted resort to violence by his own officials. He certainly didn’t foresee that he would ultimately be overthrown – nor did Putin, who had put him in that impossible position.

All the subsequent escalations of the conflict in Ukraine – the Russian annexation of Crimea, the pro-Moscow revolts in the two eastern provinces with the largest ethnic Russian minorities, the direct Russian military intervention that saved those revolts from collapse last August – have been driven by Putin’s determination to reverse his original error.

If Ukraine cannot be brought back into Moscow’s sphere of influence, then Putin’s strategy is to neutralise and paralyse it by maintaining a permanent “frozen conflict” in the east. In coldly rational terms, Ukraine’s best strategy now would be to abandon those two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, which are basically open-air industrial museums, and leave it to Russia to subsidise them instead.

But it’s not going to do that, because sovereign states never give up territory voluntarily. Realistically, therefore, Kiev’s best option is to strengthen the current ceasefire and let the front lines congeal and stabilise into de facto borders, while maintaining its legal claim to the two provinces. It remains to be seen if Moscow will even let that happen.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“If Ukraine…happen”)