Monday, June 20, 2011

Congo Copper, the Three Gorges Dam, and America's $6.6 billion Imperial Rounding Error in Iraq

My piece in Asia Times this week is China plays long game on Congo copper.

For students of the IMF vs. Chinese theories of economic development, I think the details of the Chinese struggle to keep this project going in the teeth of Western disapproval strikingly illustrates some conspicuous and interesting differences.

For people who like a good anti-imperialist horse-laugh, there's this excerpt:

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took a swipe at China in a June 11 press conference in Zambia, urging African nations to resist "new colonialism" and for foreign investors to practice "good governance".

    "We saw that during colonial times, it is easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave," Clinton said in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, before flying off to Tanzania. "And when you leave, you don't leave much behind for the people who are there. We don't want to see a new colonialism in Africa."

    Although she didn't mention China by name, officials traveling with Clinton said she wanted to stress that African countries should hold Chinese investors to the same standards that they apply to Americans and Europeans. Clinton said the United States didn't want any foreign governments or investors to fail in Africa, but wanted to make sure that they give back to local communities. "We want them to do well, but also we want them to do good," she said. [1]

This declaration appeared at the same time that America's most conspicuous post-colonial initiative in Africa - the bombing of Libya - was entering its third month with a cost approaching US$1 billion and no end in sight.

It was the same week that the world got another look at the US exercise of good governance in Iraq, courtesy of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. The George W Bush administration had airlifted $12 billion in cash into post-conquest Iraq. $6.6 billion - more than half - cannot be accounted for. It is now assumed that it was stolen, perhaps "the largest theft of funds in [US] national history".

The LA Times reported:

    U.S. officials often didn't have time or staff to keep strict financial controls. Millions of dollars were stuffed in gunnysacks and hauled on pickups to Iraqi agencies or contractors, officials have testified.

    House Government Reform Committee investigators charged in 2005 that U.S. officials "used virtually no financial controls to account for these enormous cash withdrawals once they arrived in Iraq, and there is evidence of substantial waste, fraud and abuse in the actual spending and disbursement of the Iraqi funds."

    Pentagon officials have contended for the last six years that they could account for the money if given enough time to track down the records. But repeated attempts to find the documentation, or better yet the cash, were fruitless. [2]

In the requisite ironic coda, it turns out that the billions weren't even American taxpayers' money. The US government pulled the cash from the Development Fund for Iraq administered by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The fund accumulated the proceeds from Iraq's energy exports during the Saddam Hussein oil-for-food sanctions years for eventual disbursement for the benefit of its true owners: the citizens of Iraq.

Tough luck, Iraqi citizens.

If China decides to take the US fiduciary meltdown in Iraq as precedent for its overseas activities, the bar for "doing good" and "giving back" to the local community is going to be extremely low.
For those keeping score, $6.6 billion is 66 million $100 bills. It is 72 tons of shrink-wrapped cash. It is the payload of three C-130 Hercules transports.

It is also the stated value of the Sino-Congolese infrastructure-for-copper agreement, trumpeted as the "deal of the century".

The much-touted neo-colonialist Chinese penetration of the Democratic Republic of Congo , in other words, is roughly equivalent to an American imperialist rounding error.

My article of the week before, Three gorges dam crisis in slow motion, looks at some of the TGD's highly publicized problems.

The dam is something of an overpriced fiasco.  The reservoir is starting to demonstrate a lot of the unattractive characteristics of a stopped-up toilet.  Billions of dollars will have to be spent in Sichuan dealing with the consequences of the dam: building more dams upstream to trap silt; constructing pollution-treatment facilities; stabilizing the reservoir banks to prevent landslides and dangerous, tsunami-esque wave surges; and maybe finding a new home for the port of Chongqing if China's hydrologists are outmaneuvered by the masses of silt marching upriver to the city's port.

The TGD is also a metaphor for big, bad China.  The PRC forged ahead and built the dam in the teeth of post-Tiananmen criticism of the regime, its leadership style, and its economic policies as symbolized by the TGD. 

So, international critics tend to pile on whenever some problem crops up in the vicinity, even when the link to the dam is tenuous at best.

In my piece, I take issue with accusations that the TGD was cause of the prolonged drought in the Yangtze River basin.  Long story short, holding water behind the dam was probably a factor in the dramatic but temporary drying-up of the shallow floodplain lakes Dongting and Poyang.  However, the dam did not cause the droughts.  More importantly, with an apparent trend toward longer droughts broken by brief, severe rainstorms, the big dams will play a big role in alleviating rather than exacerbating droughts.

As I complained in my piece on the misreporting of the Dalai Lama's statements on the death of Bin Laden , there seems to be a tendency toward laziness blogginess in the major news outlets.  Please, MSM, leave lazy blogginess to lazy bloggers!

...some outlets decided to use the Yangtze basin drought as a news hook for the story. As the Washington Post reported, "Amid severe drought, Chinese government admits mistakes with Three Gorges Dam." [1] CNN pitched in with "Has the Three Gorges Dam created Chinese drought zone?" [2] Associated Press: "China drought renews debate over Three Gorges Dam." [3]

In example of the bloggy "it would be irresponsible not to speculate" writing that news outlets increasingly turn to in order to fill their pages and attract readers, Elaine Kurtenbach of AP reported the allegation that "many villagers and some scientists suspect the dam ... could also be altering weather patterns, contributing to the lowest rainfall some areas have seen in a half century or more."

A modicum of research - ie recollecting that the Yangtze experienced one of the biggest floods in its history in the not-too-distant past, that is to say 10 months ago - casts doubt on this particular exercise in empirical inquiry.

The Yangtze River basin historically has a surplus of water, not a dearth, and this situation is likely to persist. Research on the effects of climate change on the Yangtze River basin predicts that global warming - not the TGD - will bring more rainfall in brief, more intense episodes from the summer monsoon. It was therefore undoubtedly a matter of considerable but not unexpected relief to the government as Xinhua reported that the drought broke under torrential rains - as much as 10 inches in some localities.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Pentagon Papers, Bradley Manning, and What Is to Be Done

Today, June 13, 2011, is the fortieth anniversary of Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.

The National Archives is commemorating the occasion by putting  the Papers (supplemented by a large amount of content that Ellberg didn’t leak) on-line.

I’m going to mark the event with some recycling of my own, reposting a piece from January about the parallels between Ellsberg and Manning (as seen by Ellsberg), with some suggestions about news and opinion outlets that deserve your support.

Back in January I stated cavalierly that Glenn Greenwald probably didn’t need any help.  As it turned out, however, he was proposed as the target of a nutso defamation campaign conceived by an ambitious security contractor, HB Gary.   You should at least bookmark Mr. Greenwald’s site at Salon and send some clicks his way to show your appreciation for his interest in the First Amendment.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


What Julian Assange Is Doing Is Not So Terrible...

...But What We're Doing to Bradley Manning Is Terrible

There seems to be an increasingly bright line in the foreign affairs realms of the blogosphere separating those who are concerned about the public relations and legal jihad against Julian Assange and the affliction of Bradley Manning, and those who mock, snort, and maintain the proper air of sniggering condescension and ostentatious outrage to please their bespoke sources at the State Department.

On the left, there's an interesting recapitulation of the split between the opponents of the Iraq war and the liberal hawk supporters of the get-Saddam crusade.

Today, in my opinion, Glenn Greenwald, Counterpunch, and are on the side of the good guys.

From his prosperous perch at Salon, I imagine Glenn Greenwald needs little more than moral support.

But I think Counterpunch and wouldn't mind some more tangible, financial indication of appreciation.

Please visit their sites to subscribe (in the case of Counterpunch) or make a donation (in the case of

Here's an excerpt from a recent interview Daniel Ellsberg gave to's radio arm:

Horton: Okay, good. So, welcome to the show. Tell me, there’s a lot of talk in the media saying that, “Yeah, well, we all give Dan Ellsberg respect for leaking the Pentagon Papers” – now at least there’s somewhat of a consensus that maybe that was the right thing to do – “but WikiLeaks is a totally different thing. This guy Assange has a terrible agenda to hurt America,” not help it like you wanted to do, and I think that’s at least part of it. What do you think about that?

Ellsberg: Well, Floyd Abrams, who defended the New York Times in front of the Supreme Court in the Pentagon Papers case, where the question was injunction, prior restraint against the New York Times, just had a Wall Street Journal article in which he quoted me, critically I could say, and he says, “Daniel Ellsberg says that there is a myth that Pentagon Papers good, WikiLeaks bad.” And that’s true, I did say that and I do say that and it is a myth.

And then he went on to say, “But the real myth is not that one, but the real myth is that they’re the same.” Well, nobody said they’re the same. Obviously there are all kinds of differences which certainly I can identify as well as anybody. But there are some fundamental similarities, both in the motive and the kind of war there and the need for the revelations that they’re presenting.

And in terms of the charges that are made against them, including by Abrams, but especially by others, again there’s a very great similarity in the situation. People are implying that everyone could see that the Pentagon Papers – which was a history of a single conflict over a period of time; it was focused on one thing and it revealed deception by a succession of administrations – everybody could see that that was a worthy thing to do, or at least, you know, conscientious, and my motives were good, etc. etc. etc. Not everybody saw that at the time. Not the administration, the White House, which called it treason, with a little [laughs] a little more basis – how to say this: I am a citizen. I do owe allegiance to the United States. To say that Julian Assange is guilty of treason has some problems since he’s an Australian citizen.

But anyway, I was called a traitor, which was no more true of me than it is to say Bradley Manning, who is accused now of leaking, sitting in a jail in Quantico – he’s no more a traitor than I am, and I’m not. Neither of them are terrorists any more than I am, and I’m not.

So I did get these comments. I didn’t get the “terrorist” at the time, because that wasn’t in vogue as a demonizing label then 40 years ago, but I would be called a terrorist now. I have no doubt at all, if I put out the same documents now, they would call me a terrorist, because that’s the bad thing now.

Now, more than that, of course, I was – they’re searching now for a law with which to indict Assange for what he did, and of course Assange’s role is that essentially of the New York Times in the case of the Pentagon Papers or of WikiLeaks. There really is no basis in law that they’re going to find that can nail or can entrap or indict Assange that doesn’t apply to the New York Times exactly as well, since they have put out these clearly classified documents to the public.

In fact, they’ve made the choice, along with the other four newspapers, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, The Guardian, and El Pais in Spain – they made the choice so far which documents in this Cablegate series to put out. Assange has put out on his own website essentially only those, with a few exceptions, but almost entirely those that have been chosen to be referred to or put out by these mainstream newspapers.

So there is no judicial basis, no legal basis, for charging Assange with anything that doesn’t apply equally well to the New York Times, and it’s clear that the administration is not anxious to get in a legal fight with the New York Times. So they’re trying to distinguish Assange not only from me and the Pentagon Papers, but from the New York Times, and that’s really pretty impossible to do.

But finally, to get back to the initial point that I was making, in fact all the charges that were made against Assange now – he’s interfering with diplomatic relationships, he’s disrupting diplomacy, he’s producing embarrassing things that make our relations with other countries harder, and he’s endangering the lives of troops – all of those were said about the Pentagon Papers, and that was the basis, after all, for the attempt at prior restraint, which they didn’t do in this occasion, presumably because they just couldn’t. You know, with the electronic means, there was no way of stopping it. But they could have tried to restrain the Times very well from putting out any more, but in the clear recognition that the information would get out anyway from other newspapers and from the Internet.

So, they said at the time, for instance, that the Pentagon Papers were disrupting our relations with Australia because it embarrassed the measures we took to encourage or coerce Australians into sending troops to Vietnam. Actually that’s something they certainly deserved to embarrassed about. They actually started the draft in order to send Australians to Vietnam, which is a scandal, really.

So, as I say, these accusations were made. They were all found to be unfounded in the end, although it was indeed embarrassing to relations. The idea that in these documents there are criticisms by American diplomats of their counterparts [laughs] – and that was not true of the Pentagon Papers? Almost any – most pages at random would find extreme criticisms of the government of Saigon, our puppets in Saigon, for example, and in complaints about our allies, whether they were doing enough in their relationship, one way or the other.

So I come to the point: Condemn this, and you do condemn the Pentagon Papers, and the question is then, was it a good thing or not for the Pentagon Papers to come out? Was it legitimate in a democracy? Did we need it or not? And there were plenty of people who said not, at the time, that it shouldn’t have happened. And those have basically the same point of view that is condemning Assange now.

An article by Jean Casella and James Ridgway from their site Solitary Watch, via Counterpunch, puts Manning's treatment in a sobering perspective:

For the past few weeks, progressive online media sources have been alive with outrage against the conditions in which accused Wikileaker Bradley Manning is being held. Manning is in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement at a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, denied sunlight, exercise, possessions, and all but the most limited contact with family and friends. He has now been in isolation for more than seven months. The cruel and inhuman conditions of his detention, first widely publicized by Glenn Greenwald on Salon and expanded upon by others, are now being discussed, lamented, and protested throughout the progressive blogosphere (ourselves included). Few of those taking part in the conversation hesitate to describe Manning's situation as torture.

Meanwhile, here at Solitary Watch, we've been receiving calls and emails from our modest band of readers, all of them saying more or less the same thing: We're glad Bradley Manning's treatment is getting some attention, but what about the tens of thousands of others who are languishing in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails? According to available data, there are some 25,000 inmates in long-term isolation in the nation's supermax prisons, and as many as 80,000 more in solitary in other prisons and jails. Where is the outrage–even among progressives–for these forgotten souls? Where, even, is some acknowledgment of their existence?


Frequently, writers and readers make the point that Manning is being subjected to these condition while he is merely accused , rather than convicted, of a crime. Perhaps they need to be introduced to the 15-year-old boy who, along with several dozen other juveniles, is being held is solitary in a jail in Harris County, Texas, while he awaits trial on a robbery charge. He is one of hundreds–if not thousands–of prisoners being held in pre-trial solitary confinement, for one reason or another, on any given day in America. Most of them lack decent legal representation, or are simply too poor to make bail.

We have also seen articles suggesting that the treatment Manning is receiving is worse than the standard for solitary confinement, since he is deprived even of a pillow or sheets for his bed. Their authors should review the case of the prisoners held in the St. Tammany Parish Jail in rural Louisiana. According to a brief by the Louisiana ACLU, "After the jail determines a prisoner is suicidal, the prisoner is stripped half-naked and placed in a 3′ x 3′ metal cage with no shoes, bed, blanket or toilet…Prisoners report they must curl up on the floor to sleep because the cages are too small to let them lie down. Guards frequently ignore repeated requests to use the bathroom, forcing some desperate people to urinate in discarded containers…People have been reportedly held in these cages for days, weeks, and months." The cells are one-fourth the size mandated by local law for caged dogs.

There is, rightly, concern over the damage being done to Manning's mental health by seven months in solitary. Seldom mentioned is the fact that an estimated one-third to one-half of the residents of America's isolation units suffer from mental illness, and solitary confinement cells have, in effect, become our new asylums. Witness the ACLU of Montana's brief on a 17-year-old mentally ill inmate who "was so traumatized by his deplorable treatment in the Montana State Prison that he twice attempted to kill himself by biting through the skin on his wrist to puncture a vein." During his ten months in solitary confinement, he was tasered, pepper sprayed, and stripped naked in view of other inmates, and "his mental health treatment consists of a prison staff member knocking on his door once a week and asking if he has any concerns."

Finally, many have argued that the nature of Manning's alleged crimes renders him a heroic political prisoner, rather than a "common" criminal. Those who take this line might want to look into the "Communications Management Units" at two federal prisons, where, according to a lawsuit filed last year by the Center for Constitutional Rights, prisoners are placed in extreme isolation "for their constitutionally protected religious beliefs, unpopular political views, or in retaliation for challenging poor treatment or other rights violations in the federal prison system." Or they might investigate the aftermath of the recent prison strike in Georgia, in which several inmates have reportedly been thrown into solitary for leading a nonviolent protest against prison conditions.

All of these cases are "exceptional," but only in that they earned the attention of some journalist or advocate. Most prisoners held solitary confinement are, by design, silent and silenced. Most of their stories–tens of thousands of them–are never told at all. And solitary confinement is now used as a disciplinary measure of first resort in prisons and jails across the country, so its use is anything but exceptional.

All across America, inmates are placed in isolation for weeks or months not only for fighting with other inmates or guards, but for being "disruptive" or disobeying orders; for being identified as a gang member (often by a prison snitch or the wrong kind of tattoo); or for having contraband, which can include not only a weapon but a joint, a cell phone, or too many postage stamps. In Virginia, a dozen Rastafarians were in solitary for more than a decade because they refused to cut their dreadlocks, in violation of the prison code. In many prisons, juveniles and rape victims are isolated "for their own protection" in conditions identical to those used for punishment. And for more serious crimes, the isolation simply becomes more extreme, and more permanent: In Louisiana, two men convicted of killing a prison guard have been in solitary confinement for 38 years.


The treatment of Bradley Manning, which has introduced many on the left to the torment of solitary confinement, may present an opportunity for them to measure their own humanity. They might begin by asking themselves whether prison torture is wrong, and worthy of their attention and outrage, only when it is committed against people whose actions they admire.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Syed Saleem Shahzad Trust Fund

NEWSWEEK visited Shahzad’s widow after his body was found. Aneeqa Saleem sat in shocked disbelief on the corner of a bed. Trauma seems a small word for the expressions on their three children. The youngest, 7-year-old Rehman Shah, was completely focused on trying to make his mother smile. “Mom, you still not happy?” he kept asking. “When will you smile?” His mother only looked at him helplessly.

She said she wants no criminal charges filed, nothing said to accuse any institution or organization, no autopsy. The case should be buried with her husband, she insisted. On a television in the room, a newscast showed pictures of his battered corpse. “My handsome husband!” she said. “Just look what they have made of him.”

Ron Moreau and Fasih Ahmed, Who Killed Saleem Shahzad?  Newsweek June 10, 2011 print edition

Asia Times is setting up a trust fund for Saleem Shahzad’s widow and three children.

Please send an e-mail to for details on how to contribute.

Amid widespread protests by Pakistani journalists and worldwide attention to the case, Pakistan’s Interior Minister announced on June 3 that a judicial commission headed by a Supreme Court justice will be set up within two days to investigate the murder of Saleem Shahzad.

Suhasini Haidar, Deputy Foreign Editor, CNN-IBN, interviewed Saleem Shahzad in May 2011.  Her June 3 column contains further details on his reportage on the existence of dangerous Al-Qaeda assets within Pakistan’s military.